Between The Borgias, The Pillars of the Earth and Game of Thrones, we have seen rather a lot of incestuous relationships in medieval settings on television in the last few years. We even had a recent allegation of incest in The White Queen.
The Pillars of the Earth producers made the decision to add an incestuous relationship between mother and son, William and Regan Hamleigh, which was not actually depicted in the book. Considering Pillars has a set of fictional characters in a historical backdrop, you can’t conclude that the decision spread unjustified rumours, but it seems an odd decision nonetheless. Were they trying to make the characters even more abhorrent? William Hamleigh needed little enhancing in the villain department.
The White Queen included a rather strange and random scene where Margaret of Anjou eyed her naked son appraisingly before he got into his marriage bed. But the alleged relationship between Elizabeth of York and Richard III is a centuries-old rumour. Richard III was even forced to publicly denounce the claims. It was then used as a device by his near-contemporaries to blacken his name, that he was evil enough to lustfully pursue his own niece. But various historical novelists, including Philippa Gregory, have taken delight in creating a romantic relationship between the two. Apparently this has had some appeal.
But when The Borgias creator Neil Jordan took another centuries-old rumour, he completely crossed the line. Jordan created an incestuous relationship between Lucrezia Borgia and Cesare Borgia, where brother and sister actually consummated their fictional lust for each other.
Lucrezia and Cesare Borgia
Lucrezia Borgia was the illegitimate daughter of the infamous Pope Alexander VI and his long-time mistress Vannozza dei Cattanei. While very little is known of Lucrezia, the incest and poisoning rumours that have dogged Lucrezia’s memory for five centuries have captured the imagination of television writers and novelists alike. They have even made their way into a video game, Assassin’s Creed. The preview for the third episode of Season Three, Siblings, promised it was the episode we “have all been waiting for.” Because, hooray, incest?
|Lucrezia||Giovanni Sforza||Cesare Borgia||Rodrigo Borgia,
Pope Alexander VI
Lucrezia’s first husband, Giovanni Sforza accused her of paternal and fraternal incest as revenge. Pope Alexander wanted to annul the marriage so he could forge more advantageous political alliances and forced Giovanni to sign a paper that stated he was impotent and that the marriage had not been consummated. Giovanni’s accusation was as much to damn the Pope as his daughter, he may have been aware of a rumour that Alexander and Lucrezia’s brother Cesare were plotting to murder him. It seems Giovanni did not want to lose either his wife’s dowry or his wife, it is said he begged for her to be returned to him. However the marriage was annulled, which led to even more rumours spread by those hostile to the family that Lucrezia was pregnant, perhaps to Alexander’s chamberlain Pedro Calderon.
As for Neil Jordan, he portrayed Lucrezia as the sexual predator. Denied by her own husband, she seduced her unwilling brother to satisfy her lust. It is just another example of sensationalist and misogynistic portrayals of historical female figures presented to a public that thrives on salacious scandal.
The Fall of Anne Boleyn
“You never saw a prince or husband show or wear his [cuckold's] horns more patiently and lightly than this one does. I leave you to guess the cause of it1 .”
There have been two depictions of Anne Boleyn in fiction over the last decade that allude to her guilt, and even historian G.W. Bernard blusters that Anne may have been guilty. His book Fatal Attractions drew the ire of Anne Boleyn’s biographer, the late Professor Eric Ives, who called it “an attempt to demolish the picture of Anne which I and others drew”. While fiction has created a carnival of adultery, witchcraft and deformed fetuses, what most of these lurid accounts fail to note is that few of Anne’s contemporaries truly believed the charges of adultery.
The most illuminating of the contemporary accounts comes from the dispatches of Eustace Chapuys, the Spanish ambassador to Henry VIII’s court.
“only the last-named [Mark Smeaton] confessed having slept with the concubine on three different occasions; all the others were sentenced on mere presumption or on very slight grounds, without legal proof or valid confession…”
“Neither the concubine nor her brother were taken to Westminster as the other criminals had been; they were tried within the Tower, and yet the trial was far from being kept secret, for upwards of 2,000 people were present…”
“the brother, as I say, was charged with having had connexion with her; no proof of his guilt was produced except that of his having once passed many hours in her company, and other little follies. He answered so well that many who were present at the trial, and heard what he said, had no difficulty in waging two to one that he would be acquitted, the more so that no witnesses were called to give evidence against him or against her, as is customary in such cases, when the accused denies the charge brought against him…”
“When the sentence was read to her, she received it quite calmly, and said that she was prepared to die, but was extremely sorry to hear that others, who were innocent and the King’s loyal subjects, should share her fate and die through her…”
“although the generality of people here are glad of the execution of the said concubine, still a few find fault and grumble at the manner in which the proceedings against her have been conducted, and the condemnation of her and the rest, which is generally thought strange enough. People speak variously about the King, and certainly the slander will not cease when they hear of what passed and is passing between him and his new mistress, Jane Seymour. Already it sounds badly in the ears of the public that the King, after such ignominy and discredit as the concubine has brought on his head, should manifest more joy and pleasure now, since her arrest and trial, than he has ever done on other occasions…2 ”
It was the infamous incident with one of Henry VIII’s favourite’s, Henry Norris, that would seal Anne Boleyn’s fate, where she taunted him that “You look for dead men’s shoes, for if aught should come to the King but good, you would look to have me.”
The charges of treasonable conspiracy to procure the King’s death were enough to convict anyone, even a Queen. So why would Henry dream up the incest charges? To create the vision that Anne was deeply entrenched in sin, a lustful and monstrous she-devil capable of anything to sate her sexual appetite. A thoughtless remark could perhaps be explained away, but the charges of adultery and incest displayed Anne as a deplorable sinner. It was the same tactic Henry employed during the Dissolution of the Monasteries, where he charged priests with sodomy and self-abuse (masturbation). By producing evidence of a terrible sin, you could blacken a name beyond repair.
|Anne Boleyn||Henry VIII||Cersei||Robert Baratheon||Jaime © HBO.|
We have seen that charges of incest had been used to some effect with Lucrezia Borgia and even Richard III. Despite the many myths perpetuated by certain writers, that incest was not unusual, that because siblings often did not grow up together they might naturally be attracted to each other, or Hilary Mantel’s assertion that “the 16th century did not invest incest with especial loathing. It was one of a range of sinful sexual choices”3 we can clearly see this is not the case. Chapuys account of a disbelieving public is plain, but then Henry VIII did not require anyone to believe his story. It is ironic that historians need work harder now, almost 500 years later, to disprove Henry’s charges against his wife while her memory is drowned in the licentious fantasies of historical fiction authors.
In a society that is far removed from religion, we also forget that adultery, let alone incest, was a terrible sin. It is telling that Anne Boleyn “before and after her receiving the Holy Sacrament…affirmed, on peril of her soul’s damnation, that she had not misconducted herself so far as her husband the King was concerned4 .”
Cersei Lannister: Incest and the Narcissist
Some aspects of Cersei Lannister may be influenced by historical figures such as Elizabeth Woodville and Margaret of Anjou. Yet her incestuous relationship with her brother is a counter-factual parallel that can only be drawn with the myth of Anne Boleyn.
In another of the false allegations against Anne “She was likewise charged, as was her brother, with having ridiculed the King, and laughed at his manner of dressing, showing in many ways that she did not love him, and was tired of married life with him5 .”
Cersei makes it quite clear to Ned that she no longer loved Robert, who, like Henry VIII, was ageing, losing his looks and going to fat.
“Your Robert got me with child once,” she said, her voice thick with contempt. “My brother found a woman to cleanse me. He never knew. If truth be told, I can scarcely bear for him to touch me, and I have not let him inside me for years 6 .”
She also does not flinch from the truth of her relationship with her brother when Ned confronts her.
“Since we were children together. And why not? The Targaryens wed brother to sister for three hundred years, to keep the bloodlines pure. And Jaime and I are more than brother and sister. We are one person in two bodies. We shared a womb together. He came into this world holding my foot, our old maester said. When he is in me, I feel … whole.” The ghost of a smile flitted over her lips 7 .
The Targaryens certainly did wed brother to sister, and it is assumed that 300 years of inbreeding caused a taint in the bloodline which made House Targaryen prone to madness. Daenerys had “always assumed that she would wed Viserys when she came of age”8 .
The Faith of the Seven may have turned a blind eye to it with the royal family, but when Ned learns the true paternity of Cersei’s children he warns her to flee lest they all be murdered. The septons and the people of Westeros, it seems, would not extend the same tolerance to a Lannister, no matter how rich they are.
Cersei is arrogant in thinking that her noble bloodline will protect her. While the Lannisters are still in power, the charges of incest against her have yet to be proven. Were they proven Cersei would be in almost as much danger as Anne Boleyn. She does have one advantage though. She managed to murder her husband before he found out.
The relationship between Cersei and Jaime is also one-sided, something that is becoming more apparent to Jaime as time goes on.
“Not only was he bald, but he looked as though he had aged five years in that dungeon; his face was thinner, with hollows under his eyes and lines he did not remember. I don’t look as much like Cersei this way. She’ll hate that.”9
Once Cersei is rid of Robert and able to rule through her son, she no longer needs Jaime. Once Jaime returns to King’s Landing minus a hand, and no longer the perfect blonde mirror image of Cersei, her attraction to him begins to wane. Was Cersei really making love to her brother, or was Cersei the narcissist making love to herself?
Anne Boleyn’s pride and reckless remarks got the better of her in the end. It was one ill-advised taunt that allowed Henry VIII to engineer her downfall. That she turned Thomas Cromwell against her with her behaviour is debatable and we cannot be sure that her father was unwilling, rather than unable, to help his children. But it does not take a lot of enemies to bring one down. In the end it was Henry VIII that wanted rid of her, and what the king wanted, the king would have. Cersei Lannister has more than a little pride, she is utterly conceited, thoughtless and, most dangerous of all, careless. Will the Queen Regent be able to survive her many enemies?
By Olga Hughes. Olga runs the online magazine Nerdalicious with her partner C.S. Hughes. Nerdalicious is the best source of Game of Thrones and other pop culture news, including books, film, sci-fi and medieval history.
- Eustace Chapuys to Monseigneur de Granvelle, 18th May 1536, Calendar of State Papers, Spain, Volume 5 Part 2: 1536-1538 [↩]
- Extracts from Eustace Chapuys to Charles V, 19th May 1536, Ibid. [↩]
- Anne Boleyn: witch, bitch, temptress, feminist, The Guardian, 12 May 2012 [↩]
- Eustace Chapuys to Charles V, 19th May 1536, Calendar of State Papers, Spain, Volume 5 Part 2: 1536-1538 [↩]
- Eustace Chapuys to Charles V, 19th May 1536, Ibid. [↩]
- Eddard, A Game of Thrones, p620 [↩]
- Ibid. [↩]
- Martin, George R.R., A Game of Thrones, “Daenerys” p.54 [↩]
- 8.Jaime A Storm of Swords p45 [↩]