The Seriousness of Arranged Marriages: No Jane Austen Novel

Episodes: “The Bear and the Maiden Fair,” Season 3, Episode 7

As Season 3 winds up, arranged marriages are becoming an incredibly important theme. Tywin Lannister wants to marry Tyrion to Sansa Stark and prevent the Tyrells from becoming Lord in the North. Robb Stark pleaded with his uncle to marry Lord Frey’s daughter so he can regain the lord’s military support.

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Cersei and Tyrion bemoan their unwanted marriages knowing that resistance to their father’s wishes is futile. Source: Wikia

In the HBO interactive features from this week’s Game of Thrones, George RR Martin talks about the political importance of political marriages — see “Political Alliances” at 15:53 in S.3, Ep. 7’s interactive features. (The interactive features appear when you stream the episode using HBOGO.)

Arranged marriages were integrally woven into the fabric of medieval noble society. Nobles used arranged marriages like CEOs use corporate mergers today. The unions cemented partnerships, united neighboring patches of land, which increased wealth, and provided united fronts against common enemies.  Arranged marriages were a tool of international diplomacy – the idea being kings were not as apt to declare war on the king married to their daughter.

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George RR Martin. Source: Wikia

George RR Martin explains this really nicely in the extras:

“Marriage was a form of political alliance. It was a way to cement a political alliance – one of the ways to bind to families together and hopefully make peace between them or to establish that… they would be allies against a third common enemy. You didn’t want your sons or daughters, if you were a lord, marrying for love. That was, that was insane… If you had a vassal whose loyalty you questioned, maybe you married him to one of your daughters and thereby bind him more closely to the family.  If you have a rival you’d been at war with and now you make peace, you marry a daughter to his son…”

He also notes how the offspring of royal marriages would have the blood of both houses and, as a result, help continue to ensure peace.

In real life, one cause of the Wars of the Roses – especially the second phase – was the problems with dynastic marriages.

  • First, Edward IV marries for love and fails to form a diplomatic pact with France, which humiliates his biggest ally (Warwick).
  • Then, Elizabeth Woodville’s large family, along with the Herberts, monopolize the opportunities for Warwick to form dynastic unions – the marriage way his family the Nevilles had advanced themselves.
  • Finally, Clarence, humiliated when Edward didn’t provide a suitable match for him in 1469, joins with Warwick and rebels against Edward.  Then later, the catalyst that perhaps triggered Clarence’s fatal outburst against his brother was when his brother refused to marry him to the recently widowed Mary of Burgundy.

Kings closely monitored noble marriages. In fact, the king had to approve some marriages, such as those of dukes. Dukes are princes and kings did not want a duke using a marriage to increase his military strength and become a rival for the throne.

When Henry VIII’s best friend, Charles Brandon, secretly married Mary Tudor, he took his life in his hands. Marrying the king’s sister without his consent was treason. Thanks to Wolsey, Henry eventually forgave the couple and only exacted a large fine.

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Source: Portrait of Mary Tudor and Charles Brandon by Jan Mabuse at Woburn.

Today, to us, the business of diplomatic marriages may sound silly, a feminine concern, like a tempest in a teapot or a page from a Jane Austen novel. However, in the late fifteenth century, arranged marriages were as much a concern for men as women – and in fact, men were willing to die for them.

By

Jamie Adair is the editor of History Behind Game of Thrones, a website about the history behind George RR Martin's "A Song of Ice and Fire" novels and the hit TV show, "Game of Thrones."

3 Comments

  • Reply June 12, 2016

    Jenni

    The union between heir to the throne Charles Windsor and Lady Diana Spencer is an example of a modern day arranged marriage.

    • Reply June 17, 2016

      Jamie Adair

      Do you really think so? I wouldn’t rule it out but I have never heard that before. I think Grace Kelly’s marriage was somewhat close to that.

    • Reply June 17, 2016

      WATCHER ON THE COUCH

      There was newspaper talk around the time that the two grandmas might have colluded to get them together. Mind you, one needs to take what appears in the British tabloids with a VERY, VERY large pinch of salt (Americans may say grain of salt?). I think Lady Diana may have been in love, or at least fancied herself in love, with Prince Charles. A lot of British people bought into the belief that it was a mutual love match at the time but real life brought about a twist worthy of GoT to the story.

      King George IV (of course this was after medieval times) had contracted a secret marriage with Maria Fitzherbert before he became king https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maria_Fitzherbert
      but then went on to marry Caroline of Brunswick (which second marriage would have been a dynastic marriage)

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