As viewers we tend to see Theon as Robb Stark’s adopted brother, therefore we see his betrayal as an unnatural thing. When we look at Edward IV’s younger brothers, George Duke of Clarence and Richard III, we see George as the betrayer and Richard as the loyal one. Is it not natural to support one’s own brother over a cousin? Or was George’s decision a little closer to that of Theon Greyjoy’s, choosing between a father and a brother?
“A dog who turns against his master is fit for naught but skinning.”
The Northerners never viewed Theon Greyjoy as a Stark. In reality, despite his bravado, Theon longed to be one of the Starks. Here is a young boy taken hostage by strangers, his own family disgraced and ruined. So it would be natural for Theon to desire some sort of normalcy, to want to forge a bond with young Robb Stark after his own brothers were killed in battle. Unfortunately Catelyn Stark was hardly going to be a mother figure. Catelyn, for all her admirable bravery, is a noble woman with a deep sense of her own status who treats Jon Snow with heartless contempt. Even if Theon’s memories are slightly coloured by his fears, I trust his description of the ‘cold and distant’ Lady Stark. As a boy he feared Ned Stark. Robb Stark was easily a comforting figure, a younger boy who Theon liked to think looked up to him.
“His father’s war was long done, and lost. This was Theon’s hour—his plan, his glory, and in time his crown.”1
We have taken a sympathetic look at Theon and the terrible choice he had to make between his father and his ‘brother’ Robb. We should take into account, however, that the decision was not made entirely without ambition, including the murder of the miller’s boys. That is Theon’s own ambition, to take what he views as his rightful place as his father’s heir and eventually the King of the Iron Islands.
Theon is a difficult character, an uncomfortable character. Firstly we have to live through his torture and the subsequent ruin of his mind and body. You’d like to think Theon deserves his fate for turning against Robb, but you might perhaps question what you would have done in Theon’s place. Is there something unnatural about wanting to side with your blood-relatives over the family that took you hostage in a place where you will never fit in? We can only see that Theon’s choice was wrong with the benefit of hindsight. But then Robb Stark and his army fell, betrayed by Walder Frey. Theon would have been slain along with the rest of the nobles attending the Red Wedding. And I suspect George R.R. Martin is keeping Theon with us for a reason.
So is the Northmen’s view of Theon as an oath-breaker fair? Yes, on the one hand he broke his oath to Robb Stark, his King if not his brother and he murdered two innocent children even if they were not Bran and Rickon Stark. Robb was a usurper who did not realise his ambitions in the end, but the North remembers. Just like Jaime Lannister, who had every good reason to kill the mad King Aerys before he razed the city to the ground, will forever be remembered as the Kingslayer. Oath-breaking was considered the most terrible of crimes and even in Robert’s reign Jaime could not shift the stain on his reputation, even after the Targaryen cause was abandoned. What we often overlook when we discuss the possible historical counterparts for Theon Greyjoy is the nature of medieval kingship and the impact of a feudal society.
False Fleeting Perjur’d Clarence
The Duke of Clarence is a puzzle we are not going to solve in the next few paragraphs. There are many difficult questions surrounding George but one of the significant questions is why we accept his death as well-deserved when the charges of treason against him were clearly fabricated. Because the Duke of Clarence is a difficult subject we are dismissive of him. We brand him as a traitor and cast him aside- he betrayed his own brother and we view this as unnatural.
It is of course unnatural in a sense. However we would have to accept that George was viewing Edward as his elder brother, and not as his King when he decided to side with his cousin and future father-in-law, the Earl of Warwick. Both Josephine Wilkinson and John Ashdown-Hill assert we’ve no evidence that George actually intended to usurp his brother. Michael Hicks thinks that George was aspiring to take the crown. It is true that Clarence may only have wanted to remove the Woodville influence from his brother’s side. While most historians agree Warwick’s intentions are less clear, Pollard points out that by winning George to his side, Warwick was showing rather more than a mere desire to rid Edward of evil council.2 Yet George was willing to abandon Warwick’s cause even after marrying his daughter Isabel Neville. Perhaps George was simply young and easily influenced, he was after all only nineteen. It was his mother who would intervene to bring George back into the fold.
So why would George been so dissatisfied with his lot if not simply for greed? The marriage between Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville was certainly a factor. It displaced him as heir, and while George could not have imagined his brother would never marry and have children, Edward IV named his first child Elizabeth of York as his heir after her birth. George may have seen this as a slight, after all a son had not been born, and he would not be alone in thinking the male heir was more important than the female. Hicks takes a relatively simple line with George, stating it is not actually difficult to understand his reasons for opposing his brother. He did not enjoy the influence he felt he was entitled to as Edward’s heir, he considered he was being kept short of money, he was excluded in a significant say in the government by the rise of Edward’s favourites and his desire to marry was repeatedly thwarted by Edward who was using George as a diplomatic pawn.3 When we consider all of those factors George’s feelings towards his brother become a little more complex.
Perhaps George viewed Warwick as a father figure. The earl of Warwick was Richard III’s guardian and Richard had lived with him for a time. Yet George had been named Edward’s heir at age eleven, and was never sent to another household where he may have enjoyed the positive influence of a male guardian rather than his subjects. Both Richard and George were deprived of their father at a tender age. Perhaps they chose their sides accordingly.
Loyaulte me lie
There is almost no middle ground when it comes to opinion on Richard III, and both the overly positive and negative views of Richard do him a disservice. We need not take a hard line with Richard either way, Richard was not a particularly unconventional man of his time. While his motto is espoused as embracing his deeply loyal nature we should probably remember that Henry VIII also called himself ‘Sir Loyal Heart’ before he abandoned his wife of twenty years, Katherine of Aragon. Loyalty is used as a chivalric notion in a time when the legends of King Arthur captured the imagination. His piety was also not especially unusual, arguably when he took the throne it was his responsibility to set an example for his subjects – and Richard did take his responsibilities as King seriously. No more should we consider that any ruthless actions Richard took in his lifetime were anything outside of the norm when it came to societal structure, the acquisition of wealth and eventually, medieval kingship.
When we compare Richard with Clarence, it is of course easy to surmise Richard was the loyal brother. A sixteen year-old Richard of Gloucester would side with his brother Edward against his brother Clarence and the earl of Warwick, and indeed why not? There’s no reason to think that this was a case of Richard’s hero-worship of Edward, or equally that this was a calculated move on Richard’s part for his own benefit. Richard was young, and despite their blood relationship, he was Edward’s subject. Perhaps the thought of siding with Clarence didn’t even cross his mind.
Richard would flee with Edward IV into exile. Again with the benefit of hindsight we can say Richard made the right decision, just as we surmise Theon made the wrong one. Edward would defeat Warwick and go on to reign relatively peacefully until his death. Richard would reap the benefits from his generous older brother, but both Richard and Edward would have known how close a call it was. A.J. Pollard points out that Warwick’s rebellion only failed on a military level. Popular opinion had leaned towards Warwick during the Readeption.4. Had Edward not defeated Warwick all three brothers – as George had come back to the fold – may have been slain on the field.
The despotic nature of the eldest York brother, Edward IV, is often glossed over, as is the case with many medieval monarchs. Edward fulfils an ideal of a successful military king, in a time when kings who lost battles gained the reputation of cowardice rather than being unsuccessful. The Anglo-Saxon King Æthelred II, who is best known for his terrible losses in the second coming of the Vikings is dubbed Æthelred ‘The Unready’, yet this is a mistranslation of the original Old English unræd, which actually means ‘ill-advised’. King John, forever in the shadow of his brother Richard I “The Lionheart’, is easily more maligned than Richard III himself, and much of his cowardly reputation again comes from military losses. Even now the great military kings are championed, the innocent casualties of those wars disregarded.
So perhaps we overlook the impact that Richard’s environment have had on him, as Charles Ross puts it “the mental climate that dominated his upbringing… his father had unsuccessfully claimed the throne of England against an accepted and consecrated king, backed by the threat of force…his brother had used force more effectively to seize the throne…his guardian the earl of Warwick had been even more ruthless in eliminating his political rivals – especially the Woodvilles, without due process of law and incidentally demonstrated the power of a great northern connection in national politics”5 . With Edward IV’s successful claim for the throne came the eventual murder of the deposed King Henry VI. Henry VI’s own grandfather Henry IV had also deposed and murdered an anointed King, Richard II. Richard’s deposition of his nephews is still seen as shocking, but perhaps it is really not that unnatural at all. After all his predecessor had taken the throne by force, his successor would do the same. And, of course, George Duke of Clarence shared these experiences with Richard.
“Seen with hindsight, Richard’s coup was a series of decisive, brilliantly executed manoeuvres which completely wrong-footed his sometimes bewildered opponents”, writes David Baldwin “Perhaps they ought to have been more astute, more politically alive to the danger; but they knew him as a colleague – even as a friend in some cases – and assumed that he would do his duty by his juvenile nephew. They either forgot that his old mentor Warwick had deposed a king and executed several royal favourites in 1469–70, or did not think him capable of the same ruthlessness6 .”
It is clear Richard’s opponents underestimated him, but what about his peers? Were they truly expecting Richard to assume the role of the loyal uncle only to see his influence wane after Edward V reached his majority? Perhaps they were thinking of the oath Richard had sworn to protect his brother’s son. Oaths were after all considered sacred. As for Richard’s peers, they had probably sworn their own oaths to three Kings by that time. Of course no one can accuse the nobility of being free of hypocrisy, the Woodvilles were notoriously unpopular even after almost two decades of a happy marriage and Elizabeth Woodville providing twelve princes and princesses for the realm. There seems to have been little complaint over Edward V being snatched from his Woodville relatives. Many of the nobility had abandoned Edward’s cause easily enough during the Readeption, only to welcome him back after his decisive return and overlook the murder of King Henry VI. But then a feudal society had little choice when it came to obeying the supreme authority in the land.
Richard may have believed the pre-contract story he used against his nephews, he may have used it as a convenient excuse. In either case and in all likelihood Richard would have thought that he was acting for the good of the realm. George Duke of Clarence may have thought that even as a younger brother he was better suited to the crown after Edward betrayed his peers by marrying a commoner. It is not the first time a royal family was torn asunder from within, nor would it be the last. The fact is that Edward IV was guilty of usurpation, he was guilty of regicide and of fratricide, judicial or no, and he was guilty of war crimes. What makes the Duke of Clarence and King Richard III any more guilty than their brother the King?
- Theon A Clash of Kings pg 213 [↩]
- Pollard, A.J. Warwick the Kingmaker, Hambledon Continuum 2007, p66 [↩]
- Hicks, Michael, False, Fleeting Perjur’d Clarence, Headstart 1992 p176 [↩]
- Pollard, A.J. Warwick the Kingmaker, Hambledon Continuum 2007, p73 [↩]
- Ross, Charles, Richard III, Yale University Press 1999 p23 [↩]
- Baldwin, David, Richard III, Amberley Publishing 2013, p104 [↩]