A real dynastic struggle for the sovereign woman
In three decades of teaching medieval European history, I have noticed that my students are particularly curious about the intersection of the stories told in the classroom and the portrayals of the Middle Ages they see in film and television.
Judged by their historical accuracy, cinematic depictions are a mixed bag.
However, popular fantasy, freed from the competing priority of ‘doing it right’, can, in broad strokes, reflect the values of the medieval society that inspires it.
“House of the Dragon” is one such TV show. A king, bereft of a male heir to his throne, elevates his teenage daughter to the rank of named successor, and a complex dynastic drama ensues.
This story reflects the real obstacles faced by women who aspired to exercise royal authority in medieval society.
Dragon House Inspiration
The queen as conduit to power
George RR Martin, whose novels served as the basis for the HBO series “Game of Thrones”, did not hide his inspiration for “The House of the Dragon”: Anarchy, a period of two decades, from 1135 to 1154 , when a man and a woman disputed the throne of England.
The story went like this: Henry I fathered two dozen or more children out of wedlock. But with his queen, Mathilde, he had only one daughter, the future “empress” Mathilde, and one son, Guillaume. With the birth of William, the main responsibility of the medieval queen was fulfilled: there would be a male heir.
Then tragedy struck. In 1120, a drunken 17-year-old William attempted a night crossing of the English Channel. When his also inebriated helmsmen struck 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 sand in Henry I’s hourglass was low, so he decided that his only legitimate child, Mathilde, would have the throne as ruling queen.
The movement was unprecedented in medieval England. A queen could exert influence in the physical absence of her husband or when, after the death of a king, their son was a minor. In addition, her role as an intimate confidante and adviser could be substantial.
But a queen was not expected to wield a sword or lead troops into battle and forge the personal loyalties upon which kingship rested, let alone the inherent misogyny of medieval English society. The queen was the channel through which power was transferred through marriage and childbirth, not its exclusive holder.
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Viserys and Henry I share the same fate
A similar scenario animates the plot of “House of the Dragon”. The absolute preference in the fictional kingdom of Westeros for a male ruler is expressed in the series’ opening scene.
The old king, having outlived his sons, empowers a council of nobles to choose his successor between two of his grandchildren, cousins Rhaenys and Viserys. Rhaenys, a female, is the older of the two.
Yet the male Viserys becomes king and Rhaenys, “the queen that never was”, later regretfully admits that this represented “the order of things”.
Once installed, however, the new king of Westeros would have understood the fate of Henry I of England.
Aemma, Queen of Viserys, suffers from stillbirths and miscarriages and has only one daughter, Rhaenyra. A fading hope for a son is dashed when a failed birth and a brutal C-section, meant to save the child, end up killing Aemma. The boy – the desperately desired heir – never saw the light of day.
Sonless, Visery’s named heir is his younger brother, the debauched and sinister demon. When Daemon’s conduct becomes intolerable, Viserys disinherits and banishes him. Left with his young daughter Rhaenyra, he decides to make her a ruling queen, a role the girl relishes as she seeks to change “the order of things”.
Building support for a ruling queen
The challenge for a medieval king, whether Henry I or the fictional Viserys, was to persuade the nobles to overcome their prejudices and not just accept but actively support a woman’s rise to power. .
Henry I pursued measures to make his daughter acceptable to them. Matilda, who had married Holy Roman Emperor Henry V in 1114, returned to England a widow in 1125. Henry I, determined to forge a sacramental bond between his daughter and the English magnates, compelled his barons in 1127 to swear their support for her as his successor. Henry I then turned to arranging a marriage for Mathilde so that she could give birth to a grandson and strengthen her position.
After Mathilde’s marriage to Geoffrey, Count of Anjou, the barons were summoned to renew their oath to her in 1131. A son, Henry, was born two years later, and a third engagement followed. Henry I died two years later of food poisoning after eating eels, one of his favorite dishes.
The durability of his arrangements for the rise of Matilda was immediately tested.
Viserys in “House of the Dragon” works from a similar playbook. The worthy of Westeros swear loyalty to Rhaenyra as royal successor. Once Rhaenyra becomes marriageable, Viserys presents a plethora of suitors for her hand. A reluctant wife, Rhaenyra eventually accedes to a union in which she would “dutifully” produce a male heir but then let her heart have what it wanted.
The unfortunate result is her inability to conceive with her husband while having three sons by a lover. His situation is further complicated by the remarriage of Viserys with the lady Alicent, who bears him sons. Dangers await Rhaenyra’s path to power. In Westeros, as in England, a princess is expected to closely guard her chastity until marriage and, once married, to be monogamous and not “defile” herself to ensure the legitimacy of her children – a blatant double standard when nobles frequently had children out of wedlock.
Yet even rumors of female infidelity could threaten the estate. Lineage matters. Blood bonds, as evidenced by its flows from family crest to family crest in the series’ opening credits.
Did these strategies work?
Not for Mathilde. Etienne de Blois, son from Adela’s marriage, Henry I’s sister, to a French count, aggressively filed a claim against the crown after Henry I’s death. Many English magnates conveniently forgot their oaths to Matilda and Stephen became king.
Matilda was not without supporters – her half-brother Robert, Earl of Gloucester; her husband, the Count of Anjou; nobles discontented with Stephen’s reign; and opportunists seeking personal gain from conflict. Matilda resisted and anarchy ensued.
Forces supporting Matilda invaded England in 1139 but, except for a moment in 1141, she never ruled. She then focused on raising her son to the crown.
The pursuit of the war eventually passed to young Henry. His growing military successes revived the barons’ memory of their past engagements, and the opposing sides reached a settlement. Henry would succeed Stephen. With Stephen’s death, Henry became Henry II. England would not have had another queen in power until the ascension of Queen Mary I in 1553, nearly four centuries later.
But what about Rhaenyra?
Westeros is not 12th century England. For Martin, the author, Anarchy does not serve to establish a historical fact but is a source for his creative vision. The fire-breathing dragon – this inhabitant of the medieval imagination – exists in Westeros. Rhaenyra’s pursuit of the throne may be fraught with difficulty, but she is a rider of dragons, and dragons were the kingdom’s most formidable military asset.
This makes her dangerous in a way Matilda of England could hardly have imagined. Nevertheless, “House of the Dragon”, through the prism of fantasy, reflects a slice of the English medieval experience.
David Routt, assistant professor of history at the University of Richmond, first published this article on The Conversation.