Initially, I resisted the idea of there being any similarity between Robert Baratheon and Henry VIII. (In Robert Baratheon May Be Edward IV’s Older Half, I compared Robert Baratheon to Edward IV but I did say I thought Robert Baratheon had a tinge of Tudor.) While getting my Tudor on this week – these days I’m more of a Plantagenet gal – I reread some of my old Tudor books and saw striking similarities between Henry VIII’s finer points and Robert Baratheon. To show that Robert Baratheon isn’t exclusively inspired by Edward IV, this article also contrasts Henry VIII with his grandfather, Edward IV.
Here are some of the ways that Robert Baratheon parallels Henry VIII and some of the fascinating real-life history that may have inspired George RR Martin to create such a deadly political atmosphere at King’s Landing:
Henry Loved Tournaments
Early in Game of Thrones, at the tournament to celebrate Ned becoming hand, Robert Baratheon snarls: “I’ve been sitting here for days. Start the damn joust before I piss myself!” Ned rejected this joust saying he wanted nothing to do with it. Really, for Robert, it’s any excuse for a joust, regardless of the cost. Robert ordered the joust because he likes them and he is impatient for it to start.
In fact, in “The Wolf and the Lion” episode, shortly before he dies, Robert is adamant about fighting in the joust. It is only because Ned tells him that he is too big for his armor and that it wouldn’t be a fair contest – the other knights would just let him win – that Robert gives up.
While Edward IV probably liked jousting just as much as the next medieval guy, Henry was noted for his obsession with jousting and combat. It seems possible that George RR Martin found inspiration in one of Henry’s underexplored sides. One ambassador even wrote the young Henry never missed an opportunity to see combat. Henry training frequently for the tilt (a type of jousting where you unhorse your opponent or split their lance) and never missed an opportunity to see any form of combat. Contemporaries described Henry as one of the best, if not the best, jouster at his court.
This is not to say there wasn’t any benefit to Henry participating in tournaments – quite the opposite. It was an excellent PR move. In an age that only respected powerful war-like kings, participating in tournaments and other public displays of martial prowess helped convince the public Henry was fierce enough to be their protector and leader.
Still jousting was extremely dangerous, and Henry barely escaped death in a 1524 joust. Not to mention the leg injury he sustained while jousting in 1536, which became septic and never properly healed. During this joust, Henry fell “heavily” from his horse at full gallop and was out cold for two hours. Anne Boleyn attributed her miscarriage, which arguably contributed to her downfall, to her fear Henry might die. Some historians argue this fall fundamentally changed Henry’s personality, making him more tyrannical and paranoid, and damaged his health. See this article for further details.
Henry Loved War
Robert Baratheon loved to reminisce about on war. There are scenes in Game of Thrones in which he reminisces about his first kill. Although Robert claimed the throne through his grandfather’s marriage to a Targaryen, he liked to tell people he got the throne through right of conquest (his warhammer was his claim). Robert was never happier than on the battlefield or jousting.
Amidst all the discussion of Henry VIII and his wives, one thing that often gets lost is that Henry truly loved the martial arts. Young Henry sought military glory above all else. Henry wanted to be like King Henry V, the Agincourt hero. Ever the ambitious king, Henry VIII sought greatness above all else. Henry wanted to recapture lost French territories and once again restore England’s place in France.
Henry loved any pastime that let him explore or further his dream of military glory. Hunting, jousting, dueling, and combat were all great substitutes for the real thing (war). But, it seems likely he loved all things military. Henry had enormous collections of handguns, knives, rapiers, crossbows, and other weapons. He was eager for ways to improve the accuracy and distance of guns and cannons. (Weir p. 189)) Henry loved armor so much he established an armory staffed with German and Flemish craftsman so he could have armor made locally that rivaled that of the best continental armorers.
Henry Left Ruling His Kingdom to Others
At his first small council meeting as Hand, Ned is shocked the councilors want to begin without the king. Ned then learns that King Robert never takes part in the small council meetings. “Winter may be coming, but I’m afraid the same cannot be said for my brother,” Renly dryly responds. Diplomatically Varys adds, “His grace has many cares. He entrusts some small matters to us that we might lighten the load.” And, Petyr Baelish notes, “We are the lords of small matters here.”
English medieval kings used a small council, known as the Privy Council, to advise them before they made decisions. This wasn’t an early form of democracy: the kings weren’t obliged to listen to the councils’ advice and the council could only discuss topics the king presented to it. Until Henry VIII’s time, most medieval kings were closely involved in not only ruling their kingdoms but also administering them – that is, overseeing all the dreary everyday tasks (tax collection, policies, etc.) that made sure they continued running. Ledgers still exist that show how Henry VII personally reviewed and initialed most of the Crown’s financial transactions.
When the exuberant teenaged Henry VIII came to the throne, he eschewed spending his days on administrivia the way his predecessors had done. Instead, he chose to spend most of his time on athletic pursuits like hunting, jousting, and combat training with his favorites.
Henry was a “big picture person”; he appears to have disliked administrative details and routine tasks. Henry had his secretaries and attendants do his reading – they’d write summaries – and writing for him. Henry rarely read more than short letters. In a typical day, at the beginning of his reign, he only worked on kingly administration in mid-morning while he heard mass and late at night after dinner. In stark contrast to Edward IV and Henry VII, Henry barely reviewed accounts forget checking them.
Not surprisingly, Henry usually avoided attending the privy council meetings. He let his councilors execute the finer points of policy and finance. As a result, the Privy Council was left somewhat to their own devices – provided they followed the instructions Henry gave them.
Henry was not an easy man with whom to work. Henry’s councilors had trouble extracting his signature from him. In fact, Henry disliked it so much he had a metal stamp made of his signature. (The stamp indented the parchment and then a skilled scribe would color in the impression with ink.)
Learning and relaying Henry’s wishes was also tricky. Since Henry was often away from Westminster, where the Privy
Council meetings were held, somebody had to be rowed up and down the Thames to learn his wishes. The great lords and magnates who sat on the council had no desire to go to this much effort. As a result, a relatively messenger type function arose in which a junior person had to schlep to whichever palace the king was currently at, learn his instructions, and return to the council.
Wolsey, initially a junior councilor (the Almoner), performed this task. Through these duties, Henry came to trust Wolsey. In Henry VIII’s reign, access was everything – and Wolsey’s power grew. Over time, the council came to be deadlocked without the king present. They needed a leader who could represent Henry’s wishes and a power vacuum resulted. Eventually, Wolsey, whose power had grown over time, stepped into his leadership role as a principal minister in charge of day-to-day administration.1
On a side note, George RR Martin’s decision to use the name “small council” is probably a smart translation of the function of the medieval English privy council. In Henry VIII’s day, there were two councils: the Privy Council and the Great Council. The Great Council was a large assembly of councilors – all the nobles in the realm (that is, the lay people and church nobles (aka bishops)). Kings rarely called Great Councils – although Henry did call them for first his wedding to Catherine of Aragon and then the coronation2 .
Henry Wasn’t Exactly Thrifty
At Ned Stark’s first council meeting, Renly passes Ned a scroll of instructions and announces Robert’s directive to hold a tournament (“tournay”) in honor of Ned becoming Hand. Robert wants huge prizes – presumably to make the occasion even more splendid and aggrandize his friend’s appointment. Robert wants a total of 100,000 Gold dragons for prizes, a sum which the kingdom will have to borrow.3 Master of Coin Petyr Baelish shocks Ned by revealing that the Iron Throne is a staggering 6 million Gold Dragons in debt. The king’s brother, Renly, notes that Robert has limited interest in financial matters, which the king dismisses as “counting coppers.”
In contrast with Robert’s other likely inspiration (Edward IV), Henry VIII was a big spender. Like Robert, Henry wanted what he wanted and the cost didn’t matter. Initially, Henry inherited a lot of wealth from his father and grandmother. Henry quickly blew through this money by spending on wars, clothing, palaces, disguisings, tournaments, and other entertainments. Henry spent a staggering £8,000/year in medieval money on clothes –as much as £113,600,000 ($182,641,143 USD) when a typical noble’s income was £750 per year.4 He also loved building new palaces; by the end of his reign, he had 55 palaces. In 1513, he spent roughly £2.5 million (about £5.6 billion today) trying to seize Tournai, at the time a little French town.
All of this wasn’t cheap. To pay for it, Henry debased the currency by reducing the gold and silver content in the coins. He also profited when by seizing church lands during the reformation; the church owned about 25% of lands. When Henry died, he was about £ 3,000,000 in debt, which is very close to the amount Robert Baratheon owed the Lannisters – assuming a Golden Dragon to English pound equivalency of course ;>) .
Henry VIII “Got Fat”
When Robert Baratheon, arrives at King’s Landing, the Starks and their household line up to receive him. As Robert dismounts from his horse, all of Winterfell is kneeling. He gestures for Ned to rise and when he does, Robert takes the words out of Ned’s mouth: “You got fat.” In response, Ned arches an eye brow. There’s little he can say: his friend is now king. In the nine years since he last saw Robert, Ned’s king has become notably fat and there are several references to this throughout Game of Thrones. (Remember when he commands Lancel to find the “breastplate stretcher” when his armor doesn’t fit?)
Although Edward IV was overweight in old age, he wasn’t as famous for his girth as his grandson. At the end of his life, Henry’s waist measured 54” (138 cm) – based on his last suit of armor.
Henry VIII’s Wife Allegedly Slept with Her Brother
Robert Baratheon prefers the company of prostitutes over the bed of his wife, Cersei. When he is with Cersei, he often is so drunk he can barely perform or remember. Cersei chooses her brother to father her children, and, in this regard, she resembles a counterfactual Anne Boleyn. (That is, an Anne Boleyn where all the dark rumors and charges are true.)
If Robert Baratheon is a hybrid of Henry VIII and Edward IV and even Henry VI, it seems possible that Cersei is a hybrid of their wives. In other posts, I’ve discussed how she parallels Margaret of Anjou and Elizabeth Woodville.
For some characters, it seems like George RR Martin took the darkest rumors about a historical figure and brought them to life. And, why not? It’s fun. For example, Joffrey Baratheon may be the rumored version of Edward of Lancaster, who was only recorded in history as wanting nothing more than to chop off men’s heads. This story, although not implausible, may be contaminated by Yorkist propaganda: although Edward may have suffered from the “princeling problem,” it’s fishy he was recorded so unidimensionally.
For Cersei, George RR Martin seems inspired by the charge Anne slept with her brother when he breathed life into Cersei Lannister. Perhaps, he asked himself the counterfactual or alternative history question, “What if the rumors about Anne Boleyn’s incest with her brother George were actually true?” The story goes that Anne, desperate to conceive a son, got the only man she could trust to keep her secret safe, her beloved brother George, to sleep with her.
In the last four years, the National Archives placed once secret copies of Anne Boleyn’s May 1536 trial transcripts – the King’s Bench – online. These Latin transcripts describe the charges against Anne, including the allegation that she allegedly “tempted her brother with her tongue in the said George’s mouth and the said George’s tongue in hers.” The charge continues to state that Anne lured her brother with jewels and presents before they slept together “contrary to all human laws.”5
Some sources allege that Anne Boleyn told her ladies-in-waiting that Henry was impotent.6 This vaguely parallels Cersei’s comment that Robert Baratheon only comes to her bed when he is so drunk that he can barely perform.
To be very clear, most historians believe the incest charges against Anne Boleyn were poppycock– a trumped-up fabrication to rid Henry of a now tiresome queen who hadn’t produced a son. George RR Martin is creating fiction, so for him the veracity of the charges doesn’t matter – it’s just a juicy story he can leverage.
- David Starkey. The Reign of Henry VIII: Personalities and Politics 1986 p. 27 [↩]
- Starkey p. 41 [↩]
- From Season 3, Ep. 3 “Walk of Punishment” ~6:49 [↩]
- See MeasuringWorth.com: http://www.measuringworth.com/ukcompare/relativevalue.php)) Henry had the largest tapestry collection on record.((“Top 10 Things You Didn’t Know About Henry VIII” by Megan Meaghan Haire in Time magazine [↩]
- “Salacious claims of Anne Boleyn’s incest in Henry VIII documents placed online” in April 7, 2009 The Telegraph [↩]
- See Julia Fox’s biography about Jane Boleyn amongst others. [↩]