Tyrion: “You love your children. It’s your one redeeming quality; that and your cheekbones.”
Episodes: Season 3, Episode 6 “The Climb”; Season 2, Episode 1, “The North Remembers”
In tonight’s episode of Game of Thrones, I almost found myself warming up to Cersei a little bit. Her son is a monster she can’t control and her father was forcing her to marry another man who will never be interested in her. However, I suspect my compassion for the evil queen won’t last long. (Elizabeth Woodville fans please see the note at the end of this post.)
Cersei was probably based on Edward IV’s (reputedly) widely despised wife Elizabeth Woodville (or Wydville). A glacial beauty renowned for her cold-blooded scheming, Elizabeth was the daughter of a gentry family who fought opposite Edward IV. Like Cersei, Elizabeth was supposedly extremely alluring with ice blue eyes and long golden hair, not unlike Lena Headey’s hair in Game of Thrones. In fact, as Tywin Lannister pointed out tonight to Lady Olenna (of House Tyrell), Cersei is the most beautiful woman in the seven kingdoms. And, so too was Elizabeth Woodville – or so the stories go.
Legend has it that Elizabeth Woodville met Edward IV by intercepting him on a hunting trip. Recently widowed with two small children, she lobbied Edward to return the lands from her widow’s jointure. Elizabeth was a commoner and her husband died fighting for the Lancastrians (rhymes with Lannister). The Lancastrians were the ruling house whom Edward overthrew, so when Elizabeth’s husband died, he forfeited his estate.
According to the stories, Elizabeth besieged the king under an oak tree, an alleged symbol of the occult. Upon seeing her great beauty, the notoriously licentious Edward was spellbound. He wanted Elizabeth so much that he tried to rape her. However, Elizabeth resisted by threatening to stab herself with a dagger rather than sacrifice her honor.
To win her, Edward agreed to marry her in secret. For a long time, he did not let anyone know that he was married. Like his grandson Henry VIII, Edward’s heart ruled his head in this matter. This secret marriage, not unlike Robb Stark’s marriage, was calamitous and paved the dynasty’s road to ruin.
Before his marriage, Edward’s right hand man, the Earl of Warwick, went to France to arrange a marriage between Edward and a French princess. When Warwick returned, Edward finally had no choice but to reveal the truth: he was already married. Warwick was painfully humiliated at having to tell France the marriage treaty was off and never forgave Edward. Rumors even circulated that Edward’s mother, Cecily Neville, threatened to denounce him as illegitimate because she hated the match so much.
In some ways, Edward IV’s England was not unlike Camelot: a kingdom ultimately torn apart by a decision made in lust. However, in this regard, Cersei’s storyline in Game of Thrones is quite different. While Cersei Lannister’s husband was uninterested in her, Edward IV married Elizabeth out of lust. Like Cersei, Elizabeth’s husband was constantly cheating on her. However, there is no record that Elizabeth ever cheated on her husband.
However, despite the different storylines, both women had many shared traits. Both were known for putting her needs and those of her family above all others. As Cersei would say, “Anyone who isn’t us is an enemy.” Likewise, the two women were power brokers and, in some ways, should have been men. Interestingly, George RR Martin acknowledges this when Tywin says to Arya in Season 2 that she reminded him of his daughter – after Arya recounts Aegon’s conquest and says “most girls are idiots.”
In addition, both women suffered from gossip – even if the stories may have been true. Cersei is plagued by (true) rumors she slept with her brother. While there were no tales of incest between Elizabeth and her brothers, several other stories have survived that are nearly as defamatory.
During Elizabeth’s life, there were rumors her family orchestrated the downfall of the former mayor of London, Sir Thomas Cook, simply because they wanted a tapestry from his home. The controversial story goes that after the mayor refused to sell a tapestry to the queen’s mother, her family spitefully arranged his downfall on a trumped-up charge of misprision of treason. While in custody, Elizabeth’s brothers ransacked the mayor’s mansion – destroying all of his goods, stealing the tapestry, and carting away his wealth.
When the mayor was condemned, Elizabeth demanded an ancient payment called Queen’s Gold of 500. When Elizabeth was told misprision of treason didn’t entitle her to Queen’s Gold, she had to drop it.
Elizabeth may also have egged her husband on to judicially murdering his brother, George, Duke of Clarence. Elizabeth probably harbored a grudge against Clarence who was aligned with Warwick when he captured and illegally executed her father and brother. Her large family had a lot of influence with the king and were heavily present in parliament when Clarence was tried.
In my opinion, none of these stories have been proven. While fans of Elizabeth Woodville may not enjoy seeing her portrayed this way, Elizabeth is a much more interesting character as a villain. If the stories are true, they aren’t necessarily unflattering. It’s refreshing to see women wield power effectively in the middle ages.
Note: Before people who are sympathetic to Elizabeth Woodville become upset, I should point out that Elizabeth is controversial among historians. This blog post is based on the traditional interpretation of Elizabeth Woodville since that is the one that George RR Martin most likely knew when he wrote Game of Thrones 17 years ago. Back then most historians see Elizabeth Woodville as, in Alison Weir’s words, “calculating, ambitious, greedy, ruthless, and arrogant.”
Two apologist biographies that might not be quite as juicy as Cersei fans would like: Arlene Okerlund’s Elizabeth: England’s Slandered Queen and David Baldwin’s Elizabeth Woodville: Mother of the Princes in the Tower.
While not devoted to her entirely, Alison Weir has some enjoyable, colorful commentary about Elizabeth Woodville in the Princes in the Tower and Lancaster and York: The Wars of the Roses.
By Jamie Adair