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Sunday, February 5, 2023

How House of the Dragon Mirrors The Anarchy in England

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Now that the hugely successful first season of HBO’s House of the Dragon has aired, it is safe for us to do an analysis of how much and how closely the events and characters mirrored those of actual history. It is no secret that George R.R. Martin drew inspiration for some of his storylines for the smash hit Game of Thrones from historic events, but what about the spin off, House of the Dragon ? Well, at a Comic-Con panel in 2022, Martin explained how G.O.T. had been loosely based around the War of the Roses and that for House of the Dragon he’d opted to go with The Anarchy, an English Civil War, as his inspiration. Obviously, the series is fiction, but how close to reality did he get? Let’s have a look – and for those who have yet to see it, spoilers ahead!

What Was The Anarchy?

The Anarchy was a civil war in England and Normandy, then controlled by English kings, which lasted for 15 years between 1138 and 1153 AD. The fight was a war of succession whose origins lay 20 years prior.

King Henry I of England lost his only legitimate son and heir in 1120. His son, William Adelin , had been traveling across the English Channel to England from Normandy when, on November 25, 1120, his ship hit a rock. He and his men had been drinking until dark, and his drunken helmsman never saw the rock coming.

In their inebriated state, the crew and passengers were unable to leverage the ship off of the rock. They launched a dinghy, but when the crew climbed into it, it wasn’t big enough and sank. William and his party all drowned.

The medieval booze cruise that changed history: The Sinking of the White Ship in the English Channel near the Normandy coast, which killed the heir of Henry I. 1321 drawing (Public Domain)

The medieval booze cruise that changed history: The Sinking of the White Ship in the English Channel near the Normandy coast, which killed the heir of Henry I. 1321 drawing ( Public Domain )

The king’s wife had died a few years prior to this tragedy, and so King Henry I was left in a bit of a quandary as to who his successor might be. He decided to hedge his bets. First, he declared his teenage daughter, Empress Matilda his successor (the first woman to be named so). Then he married a much younger woman, Adeliza of Louvain, in the hopes that she would give him another male heir. To anyone who has watched the series, this story will already sound familiar.

Adeliza never produced a son, so Henry doubled down on Matilda. He prepared her for the throne and made his various nobles and barons swear their undying loyalty to her. Matilda then made a political marriage to a noble from an area bordering Normandy and had a son, Henry FitzEmpress.

Of course, things didn’t go to plan. When Henry died in 1135, his plans went up in smoke. Matilda was visiting London at the time, and in her absence, the noblemen betrayed her. Rather than risk having to answer to a woman, they allowed Stephen of Blois , Henry’s nephew, to seize the throne. From there, it was all-out civil war .

The best laid plans of Henry I still led to civil war. The House of the Dragon parallels the events of The Anarchy (Public Domain)

The best laid plans of Henry I still led to civil war. The House of the Dragon parallels the events of The Anarchy ( Public Domain )

Similarities between The Anarchy and House of the Dragon

Viserys and Henry I Both Lacked Male Heirs

While none of the characters in the HBO show are explicitly based on historical figures, definite parallels can be drawn. One example is the positions Viserys and Henry I find themselves in.

In the opening scene of House of the Dragon , it is made abundantly clear that chauvinism is alive and well in Westeros (the show’s fictional setting), and that a male ruler is the preference.

The show begins with an aging king, Jaehaerys, whose sons are all dead, empowering his council of nobles to choose his successor. There are two options, both of whom are his grandchildren. The council can choose either the king’s granddaughter, who is older and more experienced, or they can choose Viserys, who has a penis. Unsurprisingly, they choose Viserys.

Much like Henry I, the newly crowned Viserys’s life hits a speed bump when his wife, Aemma, fails to provide him with a male heir. Various stillbirths and miscarriages leave the couple with only one daughter, Rhaenyra. Their final hopes of having a boy are dashed when Aemma dies as the result of a particularly brutal Caesarian section.  The boy child is born alive but dies soon after, while Aemma bleeds out and perishes.

Rather than follow in Henry’s real-world footsteps, Viserys initially opts to name his younger brother, Daemon, as heir. This backfires, however; Daemon proves he cannot be trusted and Viserys is forced to disinherit and banish him. In the end, Viserys is forced to name Rhaenyra as queen. She is more than happy to take a swing at changing the sexist order of things.

Consolidating a Young Queen’s Power

In the real world of The Anarchy, Henry I spent a lot of time making his daughter’s ascension more palatable. In 1127, he forced his barons to swear allegiance to Matilda and arranged a political marriage for her after her first husband, Holy Roman Emperor Henry V, died.

Matilda married Geoffrey, Count of Anjou, and in 1131 the barons were once again assembled to re-swear their oath of loyalty.  When Matilda had a son in 1131, the barons were assembled yet again for a third oath because politicians never break their promises, right?

In House of the Dragon , Viserys’s tactic is largely the same. The high and mighty of Westeros are assembled and made to vow their loyalty to Rhaenyra as the king’s successor. Soon after this, Viserys gets to work finding his daughter a politically viable suitor. While initially reluctant, Rhaenyra eventually agrees to marry one of her father’s candidates.

This is where the show and The Anarchy differ slightly. While in the real world, Matilda managed to have a son with her husband, in the show Rhaenyra does not. She does, however, have three sons by her lover.

Rhaenyra’s situation is further complicated when Viserys remarries and receives two sons for his trouble. At this point, Rhaenyra’s path to the throne looks shaky. Both Westeros and England expect princesses to be pure and monogamous. Rhaenyra’s bastard sons do not go over well with Westeros’s nobility.

While Empress Matilda’s reign was contested and short, her maneuverings ensured the succession of her son. Will The House of the Dragon copy this aspect of her life? (Public Domain)

While Empress Matilda’s reign was contested and short, her maneuverings ensured the succession of her son. Will The House of the Dragon copy this aspect of her life? ( Public Domain )

War Breaks Out

Historically, Matilda’s path to power hit a stumbling block when Stephen of Blois, her aunt Adela’s half-French son, declared himself the rightful heir to the crown. The barons who had sworn their fealty to Matilda three times chose to back his claim.

This didn’t mean Matilda was without allies. Her half-brother Robert, Earl of Gloucester; her husband, the count of Anjou; nobles who plain disliked Stephen; and various opportunists and war profiteers came to her aid. Rather than bend a knee to Stephen, Matilda chose to fight back, igniting The Anarchy.

Matilda’s forces invaded England in 1139, and things quickly reached a stalemate. Matilda took much of the southwest of England and the Thames Valley , and Stephen held on to the southeast. The rest of the country, controlled by barons who chose not to risk taking a side, waited in the wings for a victor to emerge.

In 1148, Matilda left England and let her son, Henry FitzEmpress, take the lead in the war. In 1152, Stephen attempted to have his son, Eustace, declared the next king of England by the Catholic Church, but the Church refused. Both the barons and church were tired of all the fighting and were terrified of doing anything that might cause the fighting to drag on any further.

1857 stained glass artwork titled Espérance (hope) depicting the voyage of Matilda in 1145 from England to Normandy where, according to the legend of Chantereyne, Matilda, in the midst of a tempest that threatened the ship, promised to the Virgin Mary to build a chapel on the spot where she sets foot again on land. (Public Domain)

1857 stained glass artwork titled Espérance (hope) depicting the voyage of Matilda in 1145 from England to Normandy where, according to the legend of Chantereyne, Matilda, in the midst of a tempest that threatened the ship, promised to the Virgin Mary to build a chapel on the spot where she sets foot again on land. ( Public Domain )

In 1153, Henry reinvaded England, but both sides’ armies were tired of fighting. Instead of a pitched battle, the church managed to arrange a peace deal. Henry and Stephen were mid-negotiation when Eustace died, leaving Stephen heirless. 

It was finally decided that Stephen could save face and remain king but that Henry would be the next king of England. When Stephen finally died, Henry took his place. Matilda never got to be queen of England, and there wouldn’t be another one until the ascension of Queen Mary in 1553, four centuries later.

In the fictional world of Westeros, Rhaenyra has her version of Stephen to contend with. In House of the Dragon , what happens after Viserys’s death is startlingly similar to what happened after Henry’s demise. The Small Council, Westeros’s version of England’s nobles and barons, choose to break their oaths to the dead king. They plot to crown Viserys’s son Prince Aegon as the new king, rather than Rhaenyra.

What follows is lots of standard Game of Thrones -style political double-dealing, betrayal, and murder. Much like Stephen, Aegon is eventually crowned king and Rhaenyra, like Matilda, refuses to give up. She gathers her own allies and has herself named queen, leaving Westeros with two leaders and ready for its own civil war.

At the time of writing, this is all we know. The first season of the show has concluded, and season two won’t air until 2024. Whether or not the show continues to closely mirror the real-life story of The Anarchy is up in the air. There are likely to be some fairly big departures; Matilda and Stephen didn’t have access to dragons for a start.

The real period of The Anarchy was also full of long, drawn out, and largely uneventful battles which would probably make for poor television viewing. It is more likely the show will go with something more dramatic.

Martin’s Other Inspirations

It’s not just The Anarchy that Martin has drawn inspiration from in his works. Martin has stated numerous times that Game of Thrones is very broadly based on the War of the Roses . This was a conflict between two noble English families that lasted for 30 years, from 1455 to 1485. These noble houses, York and Lancaster were the real-life inspirations for the Starks and Lannisters.

Martin hasn’t just relied on that war, however. Certain events in his books and shows are based on specific historical episodes that weren’t connected to the War of the Roses or The Anarchy.

The infamous and traumatizing Red Wedding incident is based on two different real-world massacres. The first was the Massacre of Glencoe . This took place in 1692, when members of Clan MacDonald were massacred for refusing to swear loyalty to the Scottish monarch, William III. The second was the Black Dinner of 1440, when the Earl of Douglas and his brother were invited to dinner by King James II and murdered.  

Martin has also drawn on real-world disasters. Both Game of Thrones and House of the Dragon include references to the Doom of Valyria. In-universe, this was a massive eruption that destroyed the highly advanced kingdom of Valyria, the original home of the Targaryens and dragons.

The Doom of Valyria is based on various real-world natural disasters, such as the Mount Tarawera eruption of 1886 that destroyed the Pink and White Terraces in New Zealand and the 1883 Krakatoa eruption. This is not to mention the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 AD, which completely destroyed Pompeii and Herculaneum, killing thousands.

Conclusion

One of the joys of modern entertainment is looking out for ‘Easter eggs’, sly references to pop culture and story lore. Fans can re-watch G.O.T. and House of the Dragon numerous times and catch new clever references to their favorite George R.R. Martin books.

It turns out that history buffs like us can do the same. Martin’s works are so heavily inspired by various historical events that anyone with a keen interest in history can keep an eye out for historical ‘Easter eggs’.

Authors like Martin are gifted at creating detailed atmospheres with almost unparalleled world-building. However, even these master storytellers need a little helping hand from history occasionally.

Top Image: Parallels between The House of the Dragon and The Anarchy are obvious after just one season. Source: Warner Media

Евгений Казанцев / Adobe Stock

By Robbie Mitchell

References

Amt, E. 1993. The Accession of Henry II in England: Royal Government Restored, 1149–1159 . Boyder and Brewer.

Brockwell, G. September 4, 2022. ‘House of the Dragon’ is based on this real medieval civil war . Washington Post. Available at: https://www.washingtonpost.com/history/2022/09/04/house-dragon-anarchy-england/

Chibnall, M. 1993. The Empress Matilda: Queen Consort, Queen Mother and Lady of the English . Wiley.

Harrison, J. September 4, 2022. House of the Dragon: The Real History Behind the Game of Thrones Prequel . Den of Geek. Available at: https://www.denofgeek.com/tv/house-of-the-dragon-real-history-behind-game-of-thrones-prequel/

Routt, D. October 19, 2022. The Medieval Power Struggle That Inspired HBO’s ‘House of the Dragon’ . Smithsonian Magazine. Available at: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/the-medieval-power-struggle-that-inspired-hbos-house-of-the-dragon-180980967/

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