This week I attempt to marry my shameless obsession with Game of Thrones with my recently drafted third chapter which deals largely with Margaret of Anjou, holder of the sobriquet ‘She-Wolf’ and leader of the Lancastrian army from the mid-1450s. George R. R. Martin has stated that the Wars of the Roses served as historical inspiration for his fantasy series, A Song of Fire and Ice. Naturally, I’ve found myself looking for traces of big players in the Wars as I watch Game of Thrones. Arguably the chief villainess of the despised Lannisters, Cersei Lannister uses her wit and cunning to manipulate the political climate of King’s Landing and beyond, all in an attempt to assure that Joffrey’s rule remains uncontested. How might Cersei Lannister have been influenced by the ‘She-Wolf,’ Margaret of Anjou? I’d like to start by going over some of the basic similarities (some spoilers may ensue):
-both queens exercise political savvy in tumultuous political environments which are the result of incapacitated husbands. Cersei becomes a dowager (more on this shortly!) while Margaret was forced into politics when Henry VI apparently went insane and stayed comatose for long sporadic periods for the rest of his life.
-both Cersei Lannister and Margaret of Anjou justify their intrusion into court politics with the need to protect their young sons.
-both women face accusations of sexual licentiousness: rumors of Cersei’s incestuous relationship with Jamie (she is called Brotherfucker, after all) hurt the family’s reputation, just as Yorkists alleged that Margaret of Anjou was involved with several important men in the Wars of the Roses, particularly the Duke of Somerset. In fact, rumors of Margaret’s infidelity had spread as far as Italy, where Pope Pius II writes of those “who defile the king’s bedchamber” and of Henry VI’s thoroughly whipped status: he was “ruled instead of ruling.”
-rumors of regicide surround both queens, and the circumstances involve poisoning. Cersei, faced with the impending fact that Robert will find out about her incestuous relationship with Jamie and the true parentage of her children, proffers her husband particularly potent wine before an ill-fated hunting expedition, during which he is fatally gored after losing his faculties because of the soporific. Margaret faced accusations that she had poisoned Henry VI in an attempt to seize power for herself. Following Margaret’s momentous Lancastrian victory in the Battle of Wakefield in December of 1460, word of the queen’s alleged regicide had reached the ears of the Milanese ambassador, Prospero di Camulio, who was staying in France: he writes, “They say here that the queen of England, after the king had abdicated in favour of his son, gave the king poison.”
-both queens are presented as somehow ‘unnatural’ with regard to their gender. In Martin’s series, Cersei is chronically dissatisfied with her lot as a woman and upset that she cannot employ her strategical and political acumen without the social limitations placed upon women in Westeros. The latest season of GoT began to delve into Cersei’s displeasure with her background role, particularly when she must remain locked away and drinks herself into oblivion in the Season Two finale and in Season Three in a brilliant conversation with her father regarding Joffrey’s manipulation at the hands of the Tyrells. Margaret of Anjou was similarly represented as ‘unnatural’ by contemporary fifteenth-century chroniclers. John Bocking, a contemporary onlooker, called Margaret in 1456 “a grete and strong labourid woman, for she spareth noo peyne to sue hire thinges to an intent and conclusion to hir power.” Margaret incited ire from onlookers following a council meeting in 1457, when she demanded in Henry’s absence to be escorted from the city like a king. The Coventry recorder writes,
The Meyre Rode next before her with a Mase yn his hande and the Shirrefs with here Whyte yardes next before the Meyre like as they before tyme did before the kyng, sauyng the kynges swerd was next to hym. And so they did neuer before the Quene tyll then, for they bere before that tyme alwey theire seuauntes mases before the Quene at her comynges at which doyng here Officers groged, seyng the Quene owed to be met yn like fourme as the kynge shold.
Clearly, both Margaret and Cersei feel the sociopolitical restrictions of being a woman, and both yearn to be free to act according to their own wills.
To conclude, many historical circumstances would suggest that Martin used Margaret of Anjou for inspiration in his creation of Cersei Lannister. Why does this matter and why do I care? Well, because hundreds of years later writers, directors, and artists still draw from the medieval pool when formulating characters, particularly villainesses. GoT fans’ responses to Cersei’s character are not unlike the medieval chroniclers who railed against the power wielded by formidable medieval queens. See e.g. “But why do you like HER? She’s a bitch!” (Or, a post about why we should take some inspiration from Cersei Lannister) (georgiebarron.wordpress.com). It is worth mentioning that many of these circumstances (queens acting in the interests of young sons, accusations of adultery and poisoning, charges of being unnatural women) were par for the course for royal medieval women exercising any sort of political power. After all, Margaret of Anjou was the second ‘She-Wolf’ (Isabella of France called dibs). One would like to think that this sort of gross vilification of politically powerful women could be cordoned off to the “Dark Ages” (I mean that facetiously), but this is obviously not the case. All one need do is examine the rhetoric of criticism against women like Hilary Clinton, Margaret Thatcher, and Nancy Pelosi to see that figuring women in power as unnatural is pretty much ingrained into Western thought. I’d like to acknowledge that I’m not the only one writing on this topic. I’ll link a few articles below for further reading:
- The War of the Roses and The Game of Thrones (carilynn27.wordpress.com)
- Lannister is to Lancaster as Stark is to York: Game of Thrones as History Retold (http://www.heroesandheartbreakers.com/blogs/2011/07/lannister-is-to-lancaster-as-stark-is-to-york-game-of-thrones-as-history-retold)
- Margaret of Anjou’s Influence on Cersei Lannister (http://history-behind-game-of-thrones.com/2013/07/margaret-of-anjous-influence-on-cersei-lannister/)