Supersonic Man

January 9, 2020

Just how Game-of-Thronesy was Olde England?

Filed under: Hobbyism and Nerdry — Supersonic Man @ 10:59 am

All the scheming and backstabbing and murder in Game of Thrones was famously inspired by a power struggle in fifteenth century England known as the Wars of the Roses, in which the rival houses of Lancaster and York repeatedly waged civil wars to overthrow each other. The timeline went like this:

1399: Henry of Bolingbroke overthrows Richard II, ending the Plantagenet dynasty and founding the Lancaster one. (But Henry was himself a Plantagenet, making this house a “cadet branch” — the Lancaster name is from his mother’s side.) His army confiscates land and spreads ruin on all who oppose him. From now on, the court speaks English instead of French. Richard II dies imprisoned in the Tower of London, supposedly by starvation, which may have been self-inflicted.

1400-1410: Henry IV fends off numerous rebellions, plots, and assassination attempts, greatly aided by the ever increasing military prowess of his son and heir, Henry of Monmouth.

1410: Young Henry pressures his ailing father into handing over the majority of his power.

1413: Henry V succeeds his father. In the next few years he more or less conquers France. This, combined with concessions to anti-Lancaster factions and a general attitude of forgive-and-forget, cements his legitimacy and diminishes rebellions.

1422: Henry V dies young and is succeeded by the infant Henry VI. His father’s conquests start to unravel. The child is crowned King of France but never gets to rule it.

1453: The Hundred Years War ends with England almost entirely expelled from France. Henry VI suffers a mental breakdown and becomes unfit to rule (if he wasn’t already). For the next eight years he goes in and out of lucidity. His mother consolidates power behind the throne.

1455: Richard of York (another cadet Plantagenet) launches the first War of the Roses in an attempt to take the throne. Much of England decays into warlordism. He is executed in 1460.

1461: Richard’s son wins the war and takes the throne as Edward IV, establishing the York dynasty. Crucial backing came from the wealthy and powerful Earl of Warwick, known as the Kingmaker.

1470: Warwick, having not quite mustered enough clout to depose Edward himself, changes sides and joins the Lancastrians. With his resources, supporters of Henry VI march on London and retake power. Warwick apparently intends Henry to be his puppet.

1471: Edward IV deposes Henry VI for the second time, killing Warwick at the battle of Barnet. This time Henry dies in the Tower of London… whether accidentally or deliberately is not known.

1483: Edward V succeeds his father at age twelve, but a political scheme promptly leads to him and his brother being declared illegitimate. His regent the Duke of Gloucester seizes power as Richard III, and Edward and his brother go into the Tower for “protection”, and never come out. Edward’s loyalists attack, but Richard defeats them. Both sides of this battle are Yorkist.

1485: Henry Tudor (a distant cousin of the Lancasters) defeats Richard III in battle, and marries Edward V’s sister Elizabeth of York to unite the claims, ending the Wars of the Roses.

Yep, that is pretty darn game-of-thronesy (minus the HBO pornification factor, of course). Now, is this exceptional or is it typical?

Turns out, there’s quite a lot of this crap spread over the centuries. In Anglo-Saxon times, for instance, there were about five kings who gained power by conquest (some of them Danish), and two who found their paths to the throne cleared by their rivals suffering suspiciously convenient “accidents”. Several more won the throne through covert political struggles where we’ll probably never know what really happened.

The story is not too different in the time of the Normans and Plantagenets. Three kings took power by conquest, King John barely retained power in the first Barons’ War (which nearly resulted in Louis VIII of France seizing the country), Empress Matilda semi-deposed Stephen of Blois for a while before both factions were booted out by Henry II (the first Plantagenet), and in the second Barons’ War, Simon de Montfort seized power from Henry III for a couple of years but did not claim the kingship. Henry I was helped to power by another convenient death, and Edward III had to stage a coup against his own regent. And just as in Saxon times, the plots or rebellions or invasions that succeeded were just a fraction of the ones that were attempted. Henry II once put down a rebellion led by his own wife and sons.

In Tudor and Stuart times, things calmed down somewhat, but this time included the English civil war, which saw Oliver Cromwell and then Charles II win power on the battlefield. It was also during this period that “Bloody” Mary I seized power at the head of an army without needing to fight, and Elizabeth I had to fend off Mary Queen of Scots. A century and a half after Bloody Mary, William of Orange also arrived with an army. It may have been more or less ceremonial, but its presence is what persuaded the unpopular (and Catholic) James II to skedaddle. The important difference is that this time, William and Mary took power only on terms set for them by Parliament, which had essentially just used them as a lever to dislodge James. Traditional games of thrones were now generally a thing of the past.

The period was brought to a close by Anne, the successor of William and Mary, and last of the Stuart dynasty. It was under her that the component British countries were turned into the Kingdom of Great Britain (at a time when Scotland was in economic crisis and in no position to decline). Since that time, the succession has remained orderly and lawful, though George II did have to fend off one last failed usurpation in 1745, backed by Scots who’d been promised independence by the Stuart descendant they called “Bonnie Prince Charlie”. Under the Hanovers and Windsors the power of the throne has been steadily reduced, making it more ceremonial with every generation, and no longer worth fighting and killing for.

I hope I live to see the day when the process is completed, and Britain becomes a Republic in which there is no longer any such thing as a royal house.

1 Comment »

  1. Fun fact: if you ask which name has been reused the most by English or British kings you’ll probably think of Henry VIII, but there have actually been eleven King Edwards. Three were anglo-saxon (Edward the Elder, the Martyr, and the Confessor), and then in Norman times “Longshanks” got numbered as Edward I, apparently under a belief that those three didn’t count.

    Comment by Supersonic Man — January 13, 2020 @ 11:45 am | Reply


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