Women in Power: Challenges Faced by Queens in the World of Game of Thrones and Their Medieval Parallels

Introduction

As George R. R. Martin wrote in the first novel of the book series A Song of Ice and Fire, “when you play the game of thrones, you win or you die. The phenomenon that has begun as a result of this book series and the famed television show A Game of Thrones is rooted in the complexity of the show’s plot and the uncertainty that comes with each episode. What has been unexpected is the critical and scholarly reception of this show as it has been analyzed for its medievalism and thus it is slowly being accepted as an important phenomenon for both medieval and cultural studies. The show and novels have been argued as tailored for men and the plot overtly focuses on the highborn male figures.1 However, what many viewers do not take into account is the parallel to medieval society that this male-dominated world presents. There are a plethora of reasons why Game of Thrones is so popular but one of these reasons seems to be the medievalist nature of the show and series.2 Martin has carefully crafted a medievalist world in which his characters play out the game of thrones and one can argue that the male-dominated nature is essential in order to provide an authentic medievalist world.

One aspect that is often overlooked in both medieval history and studies surrounding Game of Thrones is the challenges faced by the queens. Due to their sex, queens of the middle ages are not as well-documented as their male counterparts and their importance is often omitted from firsthand accounts. This discount of their importance enhances the idea that queens suffered challenges in acquiring and maintaining power and respect. Similarly, the queens in the world of Game of Thrones seem to require more close analysis in order to understand their intentions and the challenges they face in gaining influence. The queens in Game of Thrones seem to be equal players within the “game of thrones,” yet their path to power is on the road less travelled and this path must be explored by scholars in order to understand the challenges these queens face. By analyzing this concept, this essay will explore queens in the world of Game of Thrones and how they are subject to various problems that heed their path to power and respect, especially in consideration of their role as queens and how their sex may hinder them. These issues will be paralleled to those faced by medieval queens in order to demonstrate the realistic medievalist nature of Martin’s fictional world.

The Queen as Mother and Provider of an Heir

Isabella of France

Isabella of France

Queens from the middle ages had the overt primary function as being providers of an heir for the kingdom. Primary texts thus indicate that the queen’s duties do not involve sovereignty, although this does not mean she is rendered powerless or useless to the crown. The queen’s role was viewed as more complex than the king’s given the fact that she was supposed to embody the Virgin Mary but also provide children for the king.3 It was therefore nearly impossible for the queen to uphold her duty and gain the respect of society given this paradoxical request. An example of this can be seen in the relationship between Queen Isabella of France and King Edward II from the early 14th century. Rumours circulated that Edward was having multiple affairs, including a homosexual affair and thus Isabella was forced to compete for his sexual attention.4 In this way, it was virtually out of Isabella’s control to conceive with the king yet the pressure would be on her to maintain a constructive reputation by providing an heir.

Eleanor of Aquitaine

Eleanor of Aquitaine

Furthermore, a queen’s ability to provide male heirs to the king was essential. The country would experience anxiety over a lack of children born from the king and queen but they would be even more anxious at the thought of a female ruler given the medieval outlook on the female gender. Thus, queens were challenged with the expectation of providing male children despite the sex of the child being out of their control. The inability to provide male heirs was a means for dissolving a royal marriage, such as in the case of Eleanor of Aquitaine and Louis VII of France. This marriage was annulled on account of both Eleanor’s apparent unfaithfulness to Louis as well as her inability to conceive a son after 15 years of marriage.5 In this way, it can be seen that a major challenge faced by medieval queens was their expectation to provide a male heir.

In the world of Game of Thrones, queens are similarly expected to provide heirs for their kings. Queen Cersei Lannister provides an interesting example that contrasts the typical expectation of a medieval queen as a provider of heirs. Cersei saw the challenge placed before her to provide an heir for King Robert Baratheon but she did not wish to do so by her husband. Rather, she conceived via her brother Jaime Lannister in secret and maintained that the children belonged to her husband. Cersei finds happiness in her children but her ill-advised choice to conceive through her brother is essentially what has sparked the war for the iron throne. Cersei confesses her disloyalty and incestuous relationship to her father as a means to demonstrate his false legacy. This confession demonstrates the weight her actions have on her family as they taint her reputation and thusly the reputation of her house. Cersei not only failed to provide heirs to throne but also falsely presented her bastard children as the rightful heirs and she later suffers the consequences for these actions. This thus demonstrates the pressure applied to Cersei to provide heirs that drove her to such deep lies.

Cersei and Jaime

Cersei and Jaime Lannister

Not depicted in the show but still a part of the world of Game of Thrones are the brides of Maegor the Cruel. He was famed not only by his cruel nature but also due to the six women he took as brides throughout his reign. He went through so many brides on account of their inability to provide male heirs and many gave birth to stillborn “monsters.”6 Four out of six of Maegor’s brides did not survive, mostly dying by mysterious circumstances or advertent murder by Maegor himself. This therefore demonstrates the weight placed on these brides to conceive an heir for the king. The fault is probably at the hands of the king given his cruel nature and the common denominator of his seed within each failed attempt to conceive. This is a direct parallel to the expectation of the medieval queen to conceive even when her husband may be at fault. In this way, queens within the world of Game of Thrones were challenged by the expectation of conceiving an heir for the king and this could potentially hinder their chance at power.

The Queen as a Faithful Wife

In order to uphold their appearance as a parallel to the Virgin Mary, the queens of the Middle Ages were expected to remain faithful to their husbands. This could also be interpreted as a means to prevent the queen from conceiving a bastard who might challenge the crown. This was an obvious double standard as many kings of the middle ages committed adultery but did not face the same ridicule as the queen. As previously suggested, King Edward II was suspected of having multiple affairs and a recurring homosexual relationship. Isabella of France’s response to this was eventually to take up a lover of her own named Roger Mortimer. Isabella was scorned for this and was said to have forever tainted the reputation of the queen as a figurehead by committing adultery.7 Anxieties surrounding a queen’s adulterous actions were therefore much more prevalent than that of a king and the consequences of said actions were a heavy burden to the queen’s reputation.

Margaret_of_Burgundy

Marguerite of Burgundy


Rumours surrounding an affair committed by the queen even held enough weight to burden the queen. For example, slurs surrounding Queen Marguerite of Burgundy’s faithfulness to King Louis X supposedly cost her daughter Jeanne the French crown.8 The fact that rumours could hold such weight meant even a faithful queen faced the possibility of an impaired reputation by the blemish of adultery. In this way, adultery was a challenge faced by medieval queens that kings did not witness to the same extent as even rumours had the ability to end a queen’s royal bloodline.

In the world of Game of Thrones, adultery is a prevalent problem amongst royalty and is similarly placed as a heavier burden for queens as opposed to kings. Queen Cersei from Game of Thrones is another example that can be used here to parallel the medieval queens. As previously discussed, Cersei failed to conceive a legitimate son with her husband King Robert and instead provided bastard children via her brother Jaime. King Robert was known to be adulterous and have multiple bastards throughout Westeros. However, Cersei was the one ridiculed for her actions and the show overall emphasizes the negative response of her actions by creating a war for the throne, with Cersei’s unfaithfulness arguably at the center of the cause. Cersei’s regret is emphasized by her reaction to Joffrey’s mention of her actions. Her behaviour cannot be condoned, especially given their incestuous nature, but her gender has provided her with the challenge of overcoming adultery that the king does not have to face and this adheres to the show’s medievalist nature.

Mad_King

King Aerys II

An important example that further demonstrates the burden of adultery is from the prehistory of the show which discusses King Aerys II and his wife Queen Rhaella and their struggle to conceive a child. The Queen was aware of Aerys’s adulterous behaviour but turned a blind eye to it. Meanwhile, she struggled to conceive a child and thus Aerys claimed that this was a result of the queen being unfaithful to him. She was forced to sleep next to two septas every night in order to make sure that she remained true to her vows.9 The only proof Aerys used for Rhaella’s infidelity was her inability to provide children for him and Rhaella suffered on account of Aerys’s false preconceptions. Therefore, this strongly relates to the medieval notion that rumours were a viable source to condemn a woman for adultery. Queens within the world of Game of Thrones, just like the queens of the middle ages, were thus faced with the challenges associated with infidelity despite a possible lack of involvement in adulterous activities.

 

 

Femininity vs. Masculinity: Anxieties Surrounding the Female Leader

EmpressMatilda

Empress Matilda

As has been previously emphasized, medieval queens were expected to withhold a standard set by the Virgin Mary and the standard is further emphasized by an expectation of overt femininity. The problem associated with femininity in the Middle Ages was that women were not often taken seriously as wielders of power on account of their softer, ‘feminine’ qualities. In order to gain any sort of recognition as a power to be reckoned with, a queen would have to display masculine prowess whilst somehow maintaining a feminine outward appearance. This proved to be an improbable challenge for many medieval queens as society was still rendered anxious by a queen’s inconstancy to the female expectations. One medieval queen who displays a good example of this predicament was the Empress Matilda, who experienced a short reign after the capture of her cousin Stephen during the Anarchy. During Matilda’s short reign, she attempted to parallel her father, King Henry I’s reign by being ruthless and forceful like her father. However, society seemed to reject Matilda on account of this unfeminine behaviour, thus making society anxious.10 In this way, Matilda attempted to show her capabilities as a queen by following in the footsteps of her father but this proved to work against her as society mistrusted a woman who acted in a masculine manner. This demonstrates the challenge that medieval queens thus faced in attempted progression of power as they saw the opportunity to display their zeal through masculine traits but failed to keep social anxieties at bay by skewing from female social norms.

Daenerys

Daenerys and her dragon, Drogon

In the world of Game of Thrones, queens often struggle to maintain their power despite their royal role given their sex, such as in the case of Cersei and the chastising she receives from her father, Tywin. However, other queens have more successfully been able to overcome their sex and demonstrate their redeeming qualities that might typically be associated as ‘masculine.’ The best example of a queen who manages both her feminine and masculine qualities well is Daenerys Targaryen. Daenerys maintains her feminine qualities with her soft and beautiful exterior but is able to display her more forceful, ‘masculine’ side on account of the possession of her dragons. An example of this can be seen in the pivotal moment where Daenerys acquires the Unsullied. She skillfully plays the ignorant female until her dragon is released and she is able to display her domineering abilities in the presence of her dragon. The difference between Daenerys and her medieval queen counterparts is thus her ability to win over the support of her subjects despite her gender due to her successes in combining her more masculine traits with her femininity. This is still, however, an overt challenge faced by queens in Game of Thrones as Daenerys required this balance of traits in order to gain respect and power. Without her dragons, Daenerys would arguably be less accepted and therefore ridiculed for her choices.

The Queen as Regent

A common conception is that medieval queens were able to acquire power through their children as Queen Regent. Medieval queens often did acquire the throne via regency but they did not often acquire the powers expected. Queens as regents for their sons were often seen as more of a figurehead standing in for their son but council members selected by the king were often the ones making kingly decisions and ultimately ruling the country.11 The Empress Matilda is again a good example to demonstrate this. Despite her solid claim to the throne, Matilda never truly maintained any form of political power until she ruled as queen regent for her son, and even then her powers were limited by the council.12 Matilda was thus stripped of her deserved power and forced to work behind the guise of her child’s demands in order to gain any influence, which still was supposedly not significant. This therefore demonstrates that medieval queens had access to power by standing in as queen regent for their children but this did not gain them the power that would be expected.

Cersei on the Iron Throne

Cersei on the Iron Throne with her son, Tommen

Queen Cersei as regent for both Joffrey and Tommen proposes a strong parallel to the medieval queens. Cersei as queen regent seems to possess more power than the queens of the middle ages as she is depicted as having a place on the council and her opinion is often heard and taken into consideration. However, more recent episodes have demonstrated that Cersei’s powers are not impervious as she is imprisoned for her crimes of incest. Despite her power as regent, Cersei is still rendered equivalent to all men in the eyes of the gods and thus is subject to the same consequences. Cersei has always hungered for power and her children are the medium through which she can gain this but her power as regent clearly has its limits and for this reason Cersei can never maintain the same power that a king would possess. In this way, Cersei parallels the limits faced by medieval queens as regents as a means to access power.

Feuding Queens: Ruling Queen vs. Dowager Queen

philippa-portrait1

Philippa of Hainault

            As queen regent, medieval queens experienced further challenges when their sons wed and the former regent was reduced to a simple dowager queen. Once a new queen was in place through marriage, it was hard for the former queen regent to maintain the power they once possessed. A dowager queen could thus be a double-edged sword for an incoming queen as she could be a potential mentor to the new queen but more often than not, a rivalry would ensue. An example of this is when Philippa of Hainault married King Edward III, thus rendering Edward’s mother Isabella as a former regent and dowager queen. There was obvious tension between Philippa and Isabella as Isabella did not want to relinquish her title and even forced Philippa’s coronation to wait two years after their marriage.13 This demonstrates that queens were not only subject to ridicule by their masculine counterparts but also by their fellow sex. This unnecessary feuding is yet another challenge medieval queens would face as significant power was so minimal amongst females that queens held a tight grasp on the power they did possess. This presents obvious problems for future queens and caused feuding amongst queens where support would have been contrastingly beneficial.

Margaery-Tyrell-Season-4-margaery-tyrell-36940347-2100-1398

Margaery Tyrell

The best example of feuding queens in Game of Thrones is between Cersei Lannister and Margaery Tyrell . Cersei fears Margaery’s youth and cunning will be her downfall and Margaery will gain the queen’s power. The little power that Cersei possesses as queen regent to her son King Tommen is being taken by Margaery and Cersei fears the loss of power this entails. Margaery’s ultimate goal is to become queen and not necessarily to revoke Cersei’s powers. However, in order for Margaery to gain this power, Cersei would have to relinquish her power. This demonstrates the meager power that queens possess as power seems to be maintained only within the hands of one female ruler at a time. Even the small amount of power associated with being a queen in Westeros is coveted and highborn females feud in order to obtain it. This example thus demonstrates the way in which a queen’s power pins females against each other in the world of Game of Thrones and this is an obvious medievalist aspect as queens in the middle ages similarly feuded for power.

Conclusions

Medieval history has proven to be a popular inspiration for modern books, movies and television. This increase in medievalism is a cultural phenomenon that has allowed for these forms of entertainment medium to be assessed in a more critical and scholarly manner. One of the most popular examples of a television show and book series that is changing medievalism and its scholarly reception is Game of Thrones. The authenticity of medievalism in Game of Thrones can be examined by comparisons with real medieval characteristics. As this paper has demonstrated, Game of Thrones effectively portrays an authentic medievalist realm by its adherence to the medieval treatment of queens and the challenges they face. In both the world of Game of Thrones and the Middle Ages, queens that coveted power were faced with obstacles unique to their queenly status. The queen’s primary function was to provide heirs to the king and if this were not possible, her power could be jeopardized. She was also expected to remain faithful to the king in order to avoid tainting her reputation, whilst the king rarely was scorned for his adulterous actions. A queen also would have to manage a balance between her feminine exterior and more ‘masculine’ urges, in order to not break the stereotype and evoke anxiety in society. The queen had access to power through regency, but even this proved to be a challenge that could not present the queen with unrivaled power. Finally, queens would not even support those of their fellow sex as feuding often would ensue between a current queen and a past dowager queen as female power was scarce in both the world of Game of Thrones and the Middle Ages.

This essay demonstrates that Game of Thrones paralleled the duties expected of a medieval queen in an effective medievalist manner. Specific examples were used to show the influence of medievalism on a show like Game of Thrones and that, in both realms, a queen’s power is bounded by challenges. To become THE queen just as Margaery wants entails a long path of obstacles that seems to end with only very minimal power and this concept is overtly inspired by the Middle Ages.

Works Cited

1 Gina Bellafante, “A Fantasy World of Strange Feuding Kingdoms,” The New York Times, April 14, 2011, Television Review sec.

2 Alice G. Walton, “Deeper Than Swords: 10 Reasons We’re So Hooked On ‘Game Of Thrones’,” Forbes, August 7, 2014.

3 Lisa Benz St. John, Three Medieval Queens: Queenship and the Crown in Fourteenth-century England (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012): 20.

4 St. John, Three Medieval Queens, 38.

5 Lisa Hilton, Queen’s Consort: England’s Medieval Queens (London: Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 2008): 107.

6 George R. R. Martin and Elio Garcia, The World of Ice & Fire: The Untold History of Westeros and the Game of Thrones (New York: Bantam Books, 2014): 59.

7 Hilton, Queen’s Consort, 225.

8 J. L. Laynesmith, The Last Medieval Queens: English Queenship 1445-1503 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004): 136.

9 Martin, WOIAF, 115.

10 Robert Bucholz and Carole Levin, eds., Queens & Power in Medieval and Early Modern England (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2009): 11.

11 Laynesmith, The Last Medieval Queens, 157.

12 Bucholtz, Queens & Power, 13.

13 St. John, Three Medieval Queens. 41.

 

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