Tonight’s episode of Game of Thrones (Season 3, Episode 8 “Second Sons”) had three major events: Gendry’s disgusting leeching, Daenerys’ near assassination by the dashing sellsword Dario Naharis, and Sansa’s marriage to Tyrion. For the purpose of peering into the history behind this Game of Thrones episode, this post focuses on the Tyrion’s marriage.
Tyrion’s noble behavior at the wedding feast reveals how he towers over the peers who laughed at him hours earlier as he struggled to put the marriage cloak on Sansa. A thoughtful, literate man with integrity, Tyrion first risks his life by refusing Joffrey’s order to publicly bed Sansa and then privately rejecting his father’s command to consummate the marriage.
But who inspired Tyrion’s character in Game of Thrones? And, did rituals as barbaric as the public deflowering of a princess really exist?
George RR Martin’s Tyrion Lannister may be partially inspired by Anthony Woodville, the brother of Elizabeth Woodville (aka the real-life Cersei). Twin-natured Anthony Woodville was one part fighting man (like Jaime Lannister) and one part erudite scholar (embodied in Tyrion Lannister).
Contemporaries describe Anthony Woodville as scholarly, exceptionally well read, religious, courtly, and an unparalleled jouster. While not typically described as being handsome (or ugly), if he resembled his sister or father, reputedly once England’s handsomest man, he likely made the ladies at the jousting tourneys swoon.
Although Tyrion is not known for his looks, it seems that George RR Martin may have given Tyrion Anthony Woodville’s brain, nobility, and erudition. Anthony was the first English patron of William Caxton, the man who brought the printing press to England. In fact, Anthony’s Dictes and Sayings of the Philosophers was the first book printed in England.
Unlike Tyrion and even Anthony’s own brothers who were notorious for their love of whores, the record does not indicate that Anthony went wenching. But it does note that Anthony wore hair shirts and went on pilgrimages. Little information has emerged about his relationships with his wives, but it’s interesting he never had children. Perhaps, a reflection of his extreme piety? As far as I know, Anthony’s marriages to members of the lower nobility and gentry weren’t acrimonious. Anthony was not forced to marry the historical equivalent of Sansa Stark (likely Elizabeth of York – aka Henry VIII’s mother).
Edward IV thought so highly of Anthony’s morals and intellect that he entrusted Anthony with the care and upbringing of his heir and spare, the later Princes in the Tower. In 1473, Edward made Anthony the governor of their household in Wales. He lived with them away from court at Ludlow Castle and had significant authority in Wales.
Unlike Tyrion’s relationship with the uncontrollable Joffrey, Anthony’s relationship with the two boys appears to have been very happy. Unfortunately, however, he fatally failed to protect the lads when, after Edward IV’s death, he lowered his guard around Richard III, who outfoxed and beheaded him.
After Anthony was out of the way, the boys no longer had champion with military might. It was a simple matter for Richard to imprison first Edward V and then, eventually, his brother in the Tower of London where they met their fate.
In the middle ages, people sometimes witnessed the consummation of important marriages. This tradition arose to ensure the couple actually had sex–there were no grounds for annulment– and maybe to show community support. However, at least in my research, it isn’t clear what exactly “witnessing” the newlywed’s bedding meant in England.
In many accounts in Europe, after the wedding feast, the couple would retire to their chamber for the evening accompanied by a large party cheering them on – possibly with the odd ribald joke. A priest would then bless the marital bed. What happens next varies.
In some European countries, such as France, a party would remain in the chamber waiting while the couple had sex. This was the case with Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette who were accompanied by the king into the wedding chamber. Distinguished guests crowded into the chamber and only left when the couple were in their bed with the curtain drawn.
In some countries, the bedding ritual became so intense garters were thrown at guests to stall them forcing the couple to consummate too early – at least according to this post. In fact, the modern day act of throwing the garter may have originated from this practice.
In England, however, these types of bedding rituals seem less common and much less formal. In some cases, a few important people, perhaps even the father of the couple, may have listened for the appropriate noises outside the couple’s door – still shocking by today’s standards.
While this seems lurid to us, people in the middle ages had extremely different attitudes towards privacy. Bedrooms were rare in palaces – most people slept where they worked. Even English kings had their attendants sleeping in their chambers, either on the floor, on pallets, or, more rarely, trundle beds. This meant, inevitably, it wasn’t unusual for people to witness each other having sex or certainly to hear them.
The most famous example of a botched bedding ceremony is the one that provided Henry VIII with his grounds for divorce: Catherine of Aragon and Prince Arthur Tudor. As many Tudor history buffs may know, Catherine of Aragon was originally married to Henry’s elder brother, Arthur. However, Arthur, who was only 15, died within six months of the sweating sickness. Eventually Catherine married Henry.
When Henry wanted to divorce the no-longer fertile Catherine, the pivotal question for the pontiff became Did she or didn’t she? Henry argued his marriage should be annulled because Catherine was married to his brother. Catherine, in turn, argued the marriage did not legally exist since it was not consummated. Given Arthur’s poor health and the lack of children, Catherine made a convincing case that they did not have sex.
The night Catherine and Arthur married the couple was put to bed, but, presumably, no witnesses remained in their chamber. Years later, a twelve-year old boy, who allegedly spent the night in the antechamber, testified he heard Catherine’s ladies say “nothing had passed between the Prince and his wife, which surprised everyone and made them laugh at him.”*
However, Henry VIII’s party told a different tale. An English chronicler claimed Arthur boasted he needed drink as he “have this Night been in the midst of Spain.”** Wolsey alleged that the blood-stained sheets from Catherine and Arthur’s wedding night were sent to Spain.
Ironically, as far as I know, Henry VIII refused bedding ceremonies for his own marriages.