Henry VIII, the Game of Medieval Politics, and Game of Thrones

henry-viiiAt the heart of Game of Thrones is the game of medieval politics. George RR Martin worded the title of this novel very careful: it is no coincidence the first word is game. Henry VIII’s one-time Lord Chancellor, and later victim, Sir Thomas More described the court politics as “a king’s game, and for the more part played on scaffolds.” Since Henry VIII presided over the greatest political game of all, it seems fitting that George RR Martin should base the deadly King’s Landing politics on Henry VIII’s court politics and his use and abuse of his right-hand men.

The Hand pin. © HBO linked via Wikia.

From the outset of Game of Thrones, we sense that being King Robert Baratheon’s Hand is a dangerous and precarious position. After Jon Arryn dies, King Robert rides to Winterfell to offer Ned the position of Hand, the second most powerful position in the kingdom. The Hand can act in the king’s name and leads the small council when king doesn’t attend.

After Robert makes his offer, Ned and Catelyn receive an urgent letter, a “rider in the night,” from Catelyn’s sister warning them she suspects the Lannisters murdered her husband and plot against the king. Shockingly, however, Ned is not long in the capital before he too meets his end – on the executioner’s block.

In a similar fashion, Henry’s “hands” or deputies (technically vicegerents) didn’t necessarily live very long. It was a position that could be hazardous for your health. Is George RR Martin replaying Henry VIII’s court in his portrayal of the cut-throat world of the small council and the Hand?

Tudor history buffs know that many of the famous executions in Henry VIII’s reign stemmed directly from the machinations of competing powers and factions at court. Anne Boleyn’s end came after she miscarried a son and her enemies purposefully fanned Henry’s interest in Jane Seymour. The conservative court faction successfully leveraged Thomas Cromwell’s misstep in promoting the Anne of Cleves marriage and orchestrated his execution. Even Katherine Parr, Henry’s nursemaid/wife, was almost executed for heresy when her interest in religious reform made her the enemy of the court’s conservative faction, who nearly got her arrested for heresy.

Not unlike modern-day corporate politics, the closer you were to the heart of power, the more competitors watched for the slightest misstep they could twist into a way to pull you down. Unfortunately, in Tudor England, it seems like those with the highest profile were rarely fired or divorced. Often, they were separated from their heads instead.

Stay Away From Court

Catelyn attempts to persuade Ned to stay in Winterfell. © HBO linked via Wikia.

After Robert asks Ned to be hand, Catelyn urges Ned to refuse. She seems wary of King’s Landing politics. Catelyn reminds Ned that his father and brother rode south and never came back. Plus Ned’s already spent half his life fighting wars for Robert. Basically Catelyn senses the odds are not in Ned’s favor and his number might be up if he goes back to King’s Landing. Keeping a low profile in the North, as Robert’s dutiful servant, is a smarter move.

Even during the Wars of the Roses, fifty years earlier, proximity to power often had fatal consequences. To gain or maintain the patronage of the most influential magnates, lesser nobles and higher gentry were often drawn into serving in the numerous military campaigns in this period. Rival noble houses (Yorks, Lancasters) competed for the throne by military force – and military service was the currency required to gain the victor’s favor. The nobles with the greatest influence – the ones in the inner circles – invariably had to support powerbrokers like Warwick, Edward IV, or Richard III.  It was the proverbial moth who flew too close to the flame.

In his will, the father of Sir Thomas More’s friend Lord Mountjoy warned his son that he should not “desire to be great about princes, for it is dangerous”1 By the Tudor period, the Wars of the Roses had taught men that being too closely aligned with those at the center of power cost them their lives. Most nobles fought in the first battles in the Wars of the Roses (1459-1461). By the end though (the Battle of Bosworth field), only six peers fought for Richard III and only two impoverished exiled peers fought for the future Henry VII.

The cousins’ wars had killed many of the most ambitious nobles like the Nevilles. Those who survived were scared and wanted to keep a low profile: Lord Mountjoy also warned his son never to take on the “state of baron.”

Unfortunately, many prominent men of Henry VIII’s generation ignored advice like that of Lord Mountjoy, much to their peril. The glittering world of Henry VIII’s court enticed many sons from the country’s leading families. Noble heirs, lawyers, merchants, scholars, and adventurers all flocked to Henry’s glamorous court and vied to win his favor or that of those with his ear.

During Henry VIII’s reign, the power politics of the Wars of the Roses no longer played out on the battlefield but in the corridors of Westminster, Windsor, and Greenwich. By the end of Henry’s reign, most of the nobility had been annihilated. Although this may not have been Henry’s strategy at the outset, the faction politics and Henry’s paranoia helped ensure it.


  1. Derek Wilson, In the Lion’s Court p. 76 []

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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