The Chase: Henry VIII and Robert Baratheon

George RR Martin appears to base the deadly King’s Landing politics on the cut-throat world of  Henry VIII’s court. One of the reasons faction arose in Henry VIII’s reign is because he was often away hunting, which required him to delegate power and this, in turn, gave courtiers the idea they could get more power.

Like Henry VIII, Robert Baratheon was noted for his love of hunting. Where was Robert when his children were born? Hunting of course. And, how did Robert die? He died while hunting.

In fact, hunting is Robert’s answer to the mounting feud between the Lannisters and the Starks. To recap, just before Robert dies, Catelyn Stark has captured Tyrion, whom she blames for attempting to kill Bran. In response, Jaime Lannister’s men ambush Ned, killing his men and impaling his knee. At the convalescent Ned’s bedside, Cersei demands Robert punish the Starks and viciously disparages him for not taking her side, “I should wear the armor and you the gown.”

With his wife and best friend at war, so far just metaphorically, Robert is at his wit’s end. “I can’t rule the Kingdoms if the Starks and the Lannisters are at each other’s throats, so enough.”

(c) HBO via Wikia

After Ned tries to resign, Robert tosses the badge of Hand onto Ned’s bed and announces he (Robert) is going hunting. “We’ll talk when I return from the hunt.” Robert informs Ned.

“The hunt?” – Ned asks.

“Killing things clears my head.”

This isn’t just a day trip. In the Middle Ages and presumably Westeros, nobles might linger on hunting expeditions for weeks. Robert continues, chuckling, “You’ll have to sit on the throne while I’m away. You’ll hate it even more than I do.”

Hunting was a celebrated pastime of the medieval nobility. Medieval nobles formalized, stylized, and ritualized hunting. There was a hierarchy of hunting – some forms were considered more noble than others. For a somewhat stomach churning example, see this Wikipedia article.

Hunting even had its own terminology, which originated in France, was slavishly adhered to, and codified in books. The words we use today for groups of animals (a gaggle of geese, a herd of boars) stem from such terminology.

Since only nobles were lawfully permitted to hunt in the royal forests (essentially game preserves), hunting was an enormous privilege. When Edward IV wanted to flatter the gentry merchants who supported him, he brought them hunting for a day.

Medieval hunting was not roughing it in the backwoods. Hunting could include luxury trappings such as “pleasant” hunting lodges1 , fine Gascon wines, and food as exquisite as the king might serve at his court in London.

The nobles believed that hunting kept their military fighting skills in shape during times of peace. Hunting was dangerous and required superior horsemanship, including the ability to steer a horse without your hands since they were busy holding weapons. Consequently, all nobles hunted and most professed to love it. Both Edward IV and his grandson, Henry VIII, loved hunting. The difference is that unlike Edward and quite like Robert Baratheon -Henry would neglect his duties to go.


Henry VIII hunting with Anne Boleyn.

Henry was obsessed with hunting. When the hunting was good, he would talk about it for 3-4 hours afterward.2

Henry’s love of hunting, and all combat related sports, was one of the main reasons he had a right-hand man (effectively, a vicegerent). As a teenaged king, Henry refused to spend his days on the drudgery of the tiny details of policy and finance. Instead, he spent his days hunting, jousting, and training for combat.

Every day except holy days, in 1520, Henry got up at 4 AM or 5AM to hunt and hunted until 9 PM or 10PM at night.3 So his horses wouldn’t tire out and stop his pleasure, Henry had eight or nine horses stationed along the route he intended to take for his hunting that day.

Hunting season lasted from May or June to September or October. Henry would often be gone for weeks at a time hunting. During this time, he would essentially leave his right-hand man (Wolsey, Cromwell, or even Cranmer) in charge of administering the kingdom (according to Henry’s wishes). During the summer, Henry went on progresses (tours around his kingdom)  so he could be seen by his subjects and so he could enjoy the hunting in different areas. While hunting, Henry was unreachable for weeks. In the summer of 1526, his chronicler Edward Hall wrote, “because all this summer this King took his pastime in hunting… nothing happened worthy to be written of.”4

This isn’t to say that Henry didn’t know what was going on, was unintelligent or unskilled. It was more a case of not wanting to devote the time to the details and expecting those who served him to simply make his will happen.

Robert Baratheon’s death, being impaled by a boar, is interesting. I’ve often wondered if it is meant to be a slightly allegorical note – Richard III’s symbol was a boar. Henry VIII loved hunting boar, even though they were nearly extinct in England at that point. Henry was ecstatic when the King Francis I of France sent him some wild boar as a gift. European nobles hunted boar primarily to hone their martial skill. Luckily for him, Henry was not killed since, when at bay, boars could easily kill a man or even a horse and were exceptional dangerous to hunt.

  1. See the description of Edward IV’s hunting trip with London merchants on p.354 of Edward IV by Charles Ross. []
  2. A. Weir Henry VIII: The King and His Court p.106 []
  3. As Richard Pace told Wolsey about his master. As quoted in A. Weir Henry VIII: The King and His Court p.106 []
  4. Starkey The Reign of Henry VIII: Personalities and Politics (1986) p. 13 []

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."

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