'House of the Dragon' was inspired by a medieval dynastic struggle for a female ruler

In three decades of teaching medieval European history, I have found that my students are especially curious about the intersection of the stories told in class and the depictions of the Middle Ages they see in movies and on television.

Judging by their historical accuracy, the film depictions are a mixed bag.

However, popular fantasy, freed from the priority of “doing things right”, can, broadly speaking, reflect the values ​​of the medieval society that inspires it.

“House of the Dragon” is one of those TV shows. A king, lacking a male heir to his throne, he elevates his teenage daughter to be his designated successor, and a complex dynastic drama ensues..

This plot reflects the real obstacles faced by women who aspired to exercise royal authority in medieval society.

George RR Martin, whose novels were the basis for the HBO series “Game of Thrones,” has made no secret of his inspiration for “House of the Dragon”: the english anarchya period of two decades, from 1135 to 1154, when a man and a woman vied with each other for the English throne.

The story went like this: Henry I fathered two dozen or more children out of wedlock. But with his queen, Matilda, he only had one daughter, the future “Empress” Matilda, and one son, William. With the birth of William, the main responsibility of medieval royalty was fulfilled: there would be a male heir.

Then the tragedy happened. In 1120, a drunken 17-year-old William tried to cross a canal at night. When his helmsmen, also drunk, crashed into a rock, the prince drowned.

The queen had died two years earlier, so Henry I remarried, Adeliza of Louvain, but they had no children together. The cradle was empty and the sands in Henry I’s hourglass ran out, so he resolved that his only legitimate daughter, Matilda, would have the throne as ruling queen.

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The movement was unprecedented in medieval England. A queen could exercise influence in the physical absence of her husband or when, after the death of a king, her son was a minor. Her role, moreover, as her intimate confidant and counselor could be momentous.

But a queen was not expected to wield a sword or lead troops into battle and forge the personal loyalties on which royalty rested, let alone the misogyny inherent in medieval English society. The queen was the conduit through which power was transferred by marriage and birth, not the exclusive bearer of it.

A similar scenario drives the plot of “House of the Dragon.” Absolute preference in the fictional kingdom of Westeros by a male ruler is expressed in the opening scene of the series.

The aged king, having outlived his sons, empowers a council of nobles to choose his successor from two of his grandsons, the cousins ​​Rhaenys and Viserys. Rhaenys, a woman, is the older of the two.

However, the man Viserys becomes king and Rhaenys, “the queen who never was”then sadly acknowledges that this represented “the order of things.”

However, once installed, the new king of Westeros would have understood the plight of Henry I of England.

Aemma, the queen of Viserys, suffers from stillbirths and miscarriages and has only one daughter, Rhaenyra. The hope of having a son fades when an interrupted labor and a brutal caesarean section, intended to save the child, end up killing Aemma. The child, the desperately longed-for heir, does not live.

Childless, Visery’s named heir is his younger brother, the sinister and rakish Daemon. When Daemon’s behavior becomes intolerable, Viserys disinherits him and banishes him. Staying with her little daughter Rhaenyra, decides to make her a ruling queena role that the girl enjoys as she seeks to change “the order of things”.

The challenge for a medieval king, be it Henry I or the fictional Viserys, was to persuade the nobles to overcome their prejudices and not only accept but actively support a woman’s rise to power.

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Henry I took steps to make his daughter agreeable to them. Matilda, who had married Holy Roman Emperor Henry V in 1114, returned a widow to England in 1125. Henry I, determined to forge a sacramental bond between his daughter and England’s magnates, forced his barons in 1127 to swear their support to him as his successor. Henry I then set about arranging Matilda’s marriage so that she could give birth to a grandson and strengthen her position.

After Matilda’s nuptials to Geoffrey, Count of Anjou, the barons were called to renew their oath to her in 1131. A son, Henry, was born two years later, and a third oath followed. Henry I died two years later of food poisoning after eating eels, her favorite dish.

The durability of his arrangements for Matilda’s rise to authority was immediately put to the test.

Viserys in “House of the Dragon” works off of a similar playbook. The worthy of Westeros swear allegiance to Rhaenyra as royal successor. Once Rhaenyra becomes marriageable, Viserys presents a plethora of suitors for her hand.

Rhaenyra, a reluctant bride, finally agrees to a union that would produce “obediently” a male heirbut then he would let his heart have what it wanted.

The unfortunate result is her inability to conceive with her husband while having three children from a lover. Her situation is further complicated by Viserys’ remarriage to the Lady Alicent, who bears him children. Dangers lie in wait for Rhaenyra’s path to power. In Westeros, as in England, a princess is expected to guard her chastity closely until marriage and, once married, be monogamous and not “dirty” herself to ensure the legitimacy of her children, a blatant double standard when nobles frequently had children out of wedlock.

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However, even rumors of female infidelity could threaten the succession. Lineage matters. The blood runs together, as is evident in the streams running from one family crest to another in the opening credits of the series.

Did these strategies work?

Not for Matilda. Stephen of Blois, son of the marriage of Henry I’s sister Adela to a French count, aggressively registered a claim to the crown after Henry I’s death. Many English magnates conveniently forgot their oaths Matilda and Esteban became king.

Matilda was not without a following: her half-brother Robert, Earl of Gloucester; her husband, the Count of Anjou; nobles dissatisfied with Esteban’s rule; and opportunists seeking personal gain from the conflict. Matilda resisted and Anarchy ensued.

Forces supporting Matilda invaded England in 1139 but, save for a moment in 1141, she never ruled. He then concentrated on elevating his son to the crown.

The prosecution of the war finally passed to young Henry. His increasing military successes refreshed the barons’ memories of their past engagements, and the contending parties came to terms. Henry would succeed Stephen. With Stephen’s death, Henry became Henry II. England would not have another ruling queen until the accession of Queen Mary I in 1553, nearly four centuries later.

Westeros is not the England of the twelfth century. For Martin, the author, Anarchy does not serve to establish a historical fact but rather is a wellspring for your creative vision. The fire-breathing dragon, that denizen of the medieval imagination, exists in Westeros. Rhaenyra’s quest for the throne may be fraught with difficulties, but she is a dragonrider, and dragons were the kingdom’s most fearsome military asset.

This makes her dangerous in a way that Matilda of England could hardly have imagined. However, “House of the Dragon”, through the lens of fantasy, reflects a portion of the English medieval experience.


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