In yesterday’s season finale of Game of Thrones, we found Lord Walder Frey sitting in his great hall matter-of-factly eating and talking to Lord Bolton while old women scrubbed the Stark’s blood off the wood floors. Lord Frey is beginning to rival Joffrey as the most reviled character in the show. He’s abrasive, hostile, lecherous, egotistical, and completely indifferent to anyone’s needs but his own. During the Red Wedding, Lord Frey coolly tells Catelyn Stark to go ahead and kill his wife. He doesn’t care; he can get another. Was there a real-life person who resembled this ornery old goat? Perhaps.
George RR Martin may have used Ralph Neville (c.1364 -1425), a fourteenth-century lord immortalized in Shakespeare’s Henry V, as an initial starting point when he created Lord Frey. However, as usual Martin doesn’t stick to strictly the history and ends up creating a fascinating hybrid. Still, Ralph Neville’s story is pretty juicy and it gives us more insight into the Wars of the Roses, which is one of Martin’s favorite periods in history.
Let’s start with our first introduction to Lord Frey in Game of Thrones way back in Episode 9 of Season 1. Robb Stark, Catelyn, Theon Greyjoy, and a few others are standing in front of the Twins. Robb desperately needs to get across the bridge or his father is going to die.
While discussing who should ask Lord Frey to open the bridge’s gates, Catelyn argues she has “known Lord Walder since I was a girl. He would never harm me.” When Catelyn utters these words, it’s almost like George RR Martin is winking at the history buff: Lord Frey bears more than a passing resemblance to Ralph Neville, the father of Cecily Neville (who may have been a possible inspiration for Catelyn Stark).
Similar to Walder Frey, Ralph Neville had tons of children—twenty-three kids (vs. Walder Frey’s twenty-nine). Like Walder Frey, Ralph Neville is known for tricks and betrayal.
Ralph was born the heir to the Baron of Raby (barons being the English peerage’s lowest rank) to what was the second most powerful family in the North. Like Lord Frey, Ralph Neville probably chaffed at being lower than another noble family. In Neville’s case, he played second fiddle to the Percys, the number one Northern powerhouse family.
Ralph supported Richard II, the despotic grandson of Edward III, and this earned Ralph an earldom. Later, however, when Henry Bolingbroke revolted against Richard II, Ralph betrayed his maker and sided with Bolingbroke. In fairness, Bolingbroke was Ralph’s second wife Joan’s half-brother.
Another major similarity between Lord Frey and Ralph Neville is that both were not above violating codes of honor to further their interests or careers. While Lord Frey violated the hospitality laws, Ralph Neville violated the code of honor associated with a parley, a meeting of two enemies to discuss a truce.
In May 1405, the Percys teamed with Thomas Mowbray and Archbishop Scrope to revolt against the king. Ralph Neville led the king’s army against them. However, when Ralph encountered them at Shipton Moor, the rebel army outnumbered him, so he waited three days and then defeated them through guile.
Ralph suggested a parley between himself, the archbishop, and Mowbray. When they met, Ralph pretended to agree with the archbishop’s position and persuaded him to dismiss his armed supporters. Left without protection, Ralph’s men then seized the archbishop and Mowbray. Ralph later handed them over to the king, who beheaded them.
Ralph’s dirty trick seriously violated the period’s codes of chivalry. A parley implied a promise of safe passage for both combatants. Taking the archbishop and Mowbray prisoner violated this promise. While contemporaries found some types of deceit during war acceptable, breaking your word was not since it went against God. As a result, contemporaries considered violating parleys a morally “condemnable deception.” (Whetham)
At the end of his life, Ralph even betrayed his own children – disinheriting his rightful heir from his first wife in favor of his second wife’s son. Like Walder Frey, Ralph Neville’s life is characterized by his marriages and his numerous children. Ralph had two wives: Margaret Stafford and Joan Beaufort.
Ralph’s love life and marital history were a bit of a soap opera. Margaret Stafford his first wife gave him eight children, including an heir and a spare, and then she died. Like Walder Frey, Ralph Neville was not one to wallow in grief for his wives and five months later, he made an ‘illustrious marriage’ to Joan Beaufort. Joan was the daughter of none other than John of Gaunt, a powerful and extremely wealthy duke. The Guardian recently ranked John of Gaunt as the sixteenth richest man in history.
To give you a sense of John of Gaunt’s power, consider this quotation from Kings in the North:
“territorial power stretched over a third of England, who in a sense may be said to have created the Duchy of Lancaster, and founded the Portuguese Alliance [the United Kingdom’s oldest partner], who was for fifteen years the King of Castile and Leon, and for a dozen years the uncrowned King of England.”
Unlike Walder Frey’s last wife, Joan Beaufort married at 12, bore three children, and was widowed by fifteen. At 17 or 18, she married Ralph Neville and then had nine sons and five daughters. In the end, Ralph had a whopping twenty-two children. Sound familiar?
Like Walder Frey and many medieval nobles, Ralph Neville’s major concern was ensuring great marriages for his children. Joan, powerfully connected and a sharp advisor, helped ensure great matches. Three of Joan’s daughters married dukes and at one point, the Nevilles had five boys in the House of Lords.
Because of her resplendent roots, Joan persuaded Ralph to disinherit his heir from his marriage with Margaret Stafford in favor of his eldest son with her, which Ralph accomplished through an elaborate series of legal maneuvers.
This was not a good thing.
The Stafford branch was now disinherited and malcontent.
In fact, the resentment between the branches caused many conflicts. The disinherited branch hated Warwick, who was from the Beaufort branch, so much that they fought on the opposite side of him. Eventually, the disinherited branch laid a fatal trap for Warwick’s ally, Richard of York, at the Battle of Wakefield where York and his son lost their lives.
To try to appease the disinherited branch, Ralph Neville left money to build a bridge across a river with that forks like a trident due to all its tributaries, the River Tees. However, it seems like the junior branch of the family never honored the bequest and gave the money to the disinherited branch.
Explore More, Learn More
“Ralph Neville” on Luminarium
For information about breaking parleys, see Just Wars and Moral Victories: Surprise, Deception and the Normative Framework of European War in the Later Middle Ages by David Whetham.
Kings in the North: The House of Percy in British History by Alexander Rose. I believe that this book was a key influence on George RR Martin. You can see fingerprints from this book, in everything from the phrase “King in the North” to the complex events in the North of England that led to the first phase of the Wars of the Roses, in Game of Thrones.
North-East England In The Later Middle Ages ed. by Christian Drummond Liddy, Richard Hugh Britne. Contains information about Ralph Neville’s bequest for the bridge across the Tees.
Season 1, Episode 9; Season 3, Episodes 9 and 10
By Jamie Adair