According to George RR Martin, the Purple Wedding was partially based on events at the tail-end of the Anarchy: the death of King Stephen’s heir Prince Eustace. Here’s the dramatic, turbulent story and its background… [Jump over the background]
The King’s Heir is a Girl
Before Henry I died, he named his daughter Matilda heir and made his barons swear allegiance to her. The barons must have been play acting: nobody believed a woman could rule. The oath would not stick.
When Henry passed away in 1135, a speedy rival beat Empress Matilda to the throne and got crowned first. The new king, Stephen of Blois, had a weaker claim. Like Matilda, he was also William the Conqueror’s grandchild; however, the Empress had more right to the throne since she was the king’s sole legitimate child. Still, because Stephen had been anointed when he was crowned – which meant God ordained his rule – it was enough to legitimize his kingship.
|Henry I||Empress Matilda||King Stephen|
Nonetheless, Empress Matilda maintained she was the rightful heir and waged war for her rights. This pitched England into a bloody civil conflict that lasted 19 years. During this period, in some parts of the realm, chaos reigned and “the saints slept” as witnesses put it.
Neither side had enough support or military force to completely defeat the other. King Stephen was friendly, charming, and had the backing of the barons, who mistrusted the Empress as woman. Matilda kept pressing her claim through war. She had the stronger claim: too bad people hated her.
Despite our common perception, the English throne rarely passed from father-to-son after 1066. It could be legally claimed by “right of conquest,” although typically such claims were typically dressed up with some type of claim through blood. From 1066 to 1483, the majority of successful rulers claimed the throne by might couched in hereditary right. In practice, obtaining the throne was a function of whether you could gain get nobles and their warriors to follow you. Were they were willing to die for your claim? It was a sort of democracy with swords and spears.
Although Stephen was good at getting the crown, he was not good at keeping it. He distributed his patronage unevenly – a huge no-no for medieval kings – giving too much to his friends. The result? Stephen quickly alienated the barons who supported him and burned through his money. And, a poor king, is often a weak king.
At the beginning of his reign, Stephen was pretty successful. In the first three years, Matilda’s husband, Geoffrey Plantagenet, mounted a few attacks against Stephen. In 1138, Matilda’s brother Robert of Gloucester, switched over to her side and rebelled against Stephen. But, then in 1141 came the disastrous battle of Lincoln.
After Matilda captured Stephen after Lincoln, many of his followers abandoned him. Worse, he lost control of Normandy – the duchy that original belonged to his grandfather. Friendly and easygoing, Stephen lacked the vicious ruthlessness and political shrewdness required to truly succeed as a medieval king. Plus, he could be sneaky and untrustworthy, so he never won the barons over completely. As a result, he could never fully extinguish the tenacious Empress’s opposition.
While some barons supported Empress Matilda because she was the rightful ruler, most did not – in no small part because she was imperious and high-handed. For 19 years, Matilda and Stephen fought over who would rule. For the first decade, power flip-flopped between the Empress and the King. Some barons used the civil war as an excuse to engage in private wars with each other, settle scores, and seize land. The result was some regions were dangerous, violent, and lacked law and order.
At one point, Matilda’s army actually captured Stephen and held him prisoner while she prepared to be crowned. The Empress’s fortunes changed, though, when Stephen’s allies beat her at the Rout of Winchester and the next year, at Oxford, when they swam across the river to surround her!
By the late 1140s, with their various supporters (barons) going on crusade, dying, aging, and just realizing the war was not in their best financial interest, the tired Empress and King reached an intractable stalemate and the war began to die down.
This would not last.
The Sons Take Up the Cause
Both King Stephen and Empress Matilda had sons – respectively Eustace and Henry Fitz Empress (“son of empress”) — who hoped to claim the throne when Stephen died. By the end of the 1140s, the war started to ramp up again as the sons grew older and fought for to become the next king of England.
By fourteen, Matilda’s son Henry Fitz Empress led a small band of mercenaries across the Channel to invade England. Not only did the expedition fail, he couldn’t pay his men and got stuck in England. His mother refused to foot the bill. Surprisingly, the desperate Henry asked King Stephen to bail him out. Strangely enough, Stephen agreed. Nobody knows why. It could have been to prevent unpaid mercenaries from pillaging neighboring villages or to build a bridge towards peace with Henry. But, Henry re-embarked on war again in 1149.
This is where our story picks up.
Henry’s opponent — King Stephen’s eldest son Prince Eustace (born c. 1129) – was a golden child, and everyone had high hopes for him.
At first, Eustace was a stunning success. He embodied all the values of the age: Eustace was extremely generous with his patronage (“liberality”), courteous. Naturally good with people, friendly, and easy going like his father, Eustace could vary his responses according to the situation and his company.
When Prince Eustace came of age, at roughly sixteen or seventeen, his father held a great ceremony – in front of the other magnates of the realm – where he made Eustace a knight, endowed him with lands, gave him a great retinue of knights, and then made him an earl.1 By the time Eustace was twenty in 1149, he was a successful knight and leading men for his father.
Despite the growing success of Henry Fitz Empress – by 1153 Matilda’s twenty-year old son controlled the south-west, Midlands, and much of the North — Stephen fully expected Eustace to succeed him. Stephen was acutely aware that when he died England’s barons would re-open the succession question – just as Stephen himself did when Henry I died.
To try to ease Eustace’s succession, Stephen unsuccessfully tried to get the pope to crown and anoint Eustace as an associate king (and living heir). The pope forbade the archbishop of Canterbury to go along with the scheme as did the English bishops and archbishops.2
By summer 1453, Stephen ordered his forces to intensify their long-running siege of Henry’s stronghold, Wallingford Castle. Henry arrived at the stronghold and turned the tables on Stephen’s forces by putting them under siege. Hearing this news, Stephen marched down to Wallingford, confronted Henry’s forces at the river. But, both Henry and Stephen’s barons were done with the war and refused to fight.
How Prince Eustace Dies
After fighting for years to ensure he would inherit his father Stephen’s throne, Prince Eustace was furious when he heard his father might be abandoning his cause and brokering a peace with Empress Matilda and her son Henry. Enraged, Eustace pulled his men out of his father’s army.
Although the golden-boy Prince Eustace could be easy going and friendly, he had a dark side. He could be aggressive, pugnacious, and warlike. In his quest for the crown, the twenty-year old “robbed the lands and levied heavy taxes3 .”
Prince Eustace led his men into a “frustrated personal campaign without much apparent purpose other than to demonstrate his wrath”4 . He retreated to Cambridge, which was the nearest castle to his home, to raise funds.
Around 10 August 1153, Eustace brought his army to what was one of the greatest monasteries in England: Bury St. Edmunds. The monks welcomed him with great splendor and held a fine dinner for him. Prince Eustace, however, needed money to pay his soldiers. When the monks refused to hand over the sum he demanded, Eustace ordered his men to loot the monastery and lay waste to its lands5 .
A job well done, from his point of view, Prince Eustace returned to Cambridge castle. He then sat down to dine – on food looted from the monastery. As Eustace took his first bite of food, he became crazed and fell into agonizing death torments. By some accounts, he died immediately6 and by others he lasted a week and then died. Naturally, the monks saw Eustace’s death was at the hand of a vengeful Saint Edmund, who was defending his monks and infuriated by the insulting desecration of his lands.7
The accounts of Prince Eustace’s death vary. Some suspected poison. Some said Eustace died from grief (not choking or poison), as a result of his father’s betrayal in beginning to treat with Duke Henry.8 No doubt, however, the Church saw it as divine approval when, on the day Eustace died, Duke Henry’s first legitimate heir was born.
Regardless of the cause, Prince Eustace took the war to the grave along with him. After Eustace died, his father was shattered in his grief. By many accounts, King Stephen gave up the cause and basically agreed to Henry Fitz Empress’s demands. Stephen “adopted” Henry as his heir, and the war was over. Some historians have argued that if Eustace hadn’t died, peace would never have been possible.
Parallels with Joffrey’s death
- Both Eustace and Joffrey initially appeared to choke on their food.
- Both Eustace and Joffrey actually may have been poisoned. Over the centuries people have argued Eustace was poisoned: the timing of Eustace’s death is quite suspicious since it helped Henry and Stephen reach a peace that wouldn’t have been possible if Stephen still had an heir. It is hard to know what the effect of Joffrey’s death will be, but Joffrey remaining alive does not prevent a peace with King Stannis Baratheon. (You would need to kill all of Cersei’s children, or at least Tommen, for that to happen.)
Differences between Prince Eustace’s death and the Purple Wedding
These differences are sharper when you look at how Attila the Hun died.
- Eustace did not die at a wedding or a great feast.
- When Eustace died, there were no clear suspects present. (The two primary suspects are his military opponent, Henry Fitz Empress, and the monks at Bury St. Edmunds.) Likewise, nobody suspects Eustace’s wife, uncle, or any of the other suspects in Game of Thrones.
- Eustace did not have a nosebleed. (More on this later.)
There are definitely parallels between how Joffrey and Eustace died. Yet, there are an awful lot of similarities to Attila the Hun’s death.
If Attila the Hun was a major inspiration, why not mention it? Do any of the suspects in Attila’s death create historical spoilers?
More on our thoughts about some unexpected Purple Wedding murder suspects in the upcoming Attila the Hun article.
- (By earl, this presumably, but not certainly, refers to the count of Boulogne – count being the European equivalent to earl. King Stephen by Edmund King p. 238 [↩]
- Edmund King p. 263 [↩]
- From the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, 1140, in King Stephen by Edmund King p. 239 [↩]
- The Reign of King Stephen: 1135-1154 by David Crouch p. 270 [↩]
- The Troubled Reign of King Stephen by John T. Appleby p. 190 and Crouch p. 270 [↩]
- See Gervase of Canterbury in The Troubled Reign of King Stephen by John T. Appleby p. 191 [↩]
- The Troubled Reign of King Stephen by John T. Appleby p. 191 [↩]
- King Stephen p. 278 by Edmund King [↩]