Given Rhaegar Targaryen’s likely marriage to Lyanna Stark, Jon Snow might not be a bastard after all. Instead, Jon might be Westeros’ “rightful” king – whatever that means. But, not so fast: Gendry is Robert Baratheon’s only (known) surviving son on the Game of Thrones TV show – and depending on your perspective, his claim might be just as valid.
But, then what about Daenerys? She’s last surviving child of the last non-usurping king. Wouldn’t her claim be stronger? And, what about Cersei’s babe-in-the womb? Cersei is the queen in practice. She is the one currently seated on the Iron Throne and crowned. Regardless of how she came to sit on the throne or who fathered her baby, she is still the ruler in practice. Welcome to a quick tutorial in medieval succession problems – Game of Thrones’ style.
The super simple view of succession is that the crown passes from father to son. But, in practice, this rarely happened for more than a few generations. Queens fail to have sons. Children die young. Kings die before they marry.
During the late middle ages, both England and France were plagued by succession problems ranging from controversies over which lines had the better claims to allegations of illegitimacy to whether rule by right of conquest was stronger than rule by blood.
You would think that somewhere countries would have created laws about how somebody came to be king. But not all countries did.
In England, there were at least five ways a person could become the king (or queen) in practice:
- By right of primogeniture – you are the first born son of the king
- By right of inheritance – your father was the second or third last king, the last king dies without an heir, so you are the next in line
- Through marriage
- In theory, perhaps, by making the claimant a junior king (or queen) in your lifetime*
- By act of succession
- By right of conquest
- By election (at least before the Norman conquest) – typically combined with primogeniture
- Whoever gets crowned first – the holy oil matters
* Henry II made his eldest surviving son Henry a junior king.
** William the Conqueror always emphasized he made his claim to the English by right and not by conquest.
But, when a king dies without a child, it raises all kinds of issues. Does a female line become stronger than a male line when two royal blood lines merge together in one child? Who has the stronger claim – a bastard raised at court and acknowledged by the king? Or the legitimate child of a ruler who five kings ago? Or a ruler who can seize and hold the throne but has no true claim?
In England, although the custom was that the first born male child would become king, nothing states that contenders for the throne can’t inherit through a female line — that is, through one of the king’s daughters. And, Edward IV’s descent through a male and female line, gave him a stronger claim to the throne than Henry VI – or so some contemporaries believed.
So, what happens when a dead king has no direct male heir and more than one person meets the criteria to be his successor? It gets complicated. Here are a few examples from England in the Middle Ages:
During the Anarchy, as Henry I’s only surviving legitimate heir, Empress Mathilda had a stronger claim than her cousin Stephen of Blois. But, when Henry I died in 1135, Stephen of Blois managed to get himself to London faster than Mathilda and got himself crowned. Once the church had anointed him with holy oil, it became surprisingly difficult to make him “not the king.” Takeaway: Getting yourself crowned – even illegitimately – goes a long way towards keeping that crown. Or, as we say today, “possession is 9/10ths of the law.”
Richard II inherits the throne – through primogeniture – from his grandfather at age 10. His father is already dead. The throne by-passes older, more potentially competent rulers like his uncle John of Gaunt, the richest man in England. Richard II grows up to be excessively dependent on a handful of favorite courtiers, leading to discontent among the broader aristocracy. Like that of Joffrey, Richard loved royal prerogative and contemporaries saw his reign as tyrannical. Takeaway: When children inherit the throne, they aren’t strong enough to hold it on their own, so the throne often becomes unstable. These minority kings don’t have time to get the right type of grooming before they get the crown, and they often turn out to be lousy rulers.
- After Richard II disinherits Gaunt’s son (Henry of Bolingbroke), Henry invades England in 1399 and has himself crowned as Henry IV. Within a year, Richard dies a prisoner, possibly starved to death. Takeaway: The English nobility obtained some dangerous knowledge that starts a precedent: it’s possible to unseat an anointed king and seize the throne through force.
Henry VI inherits the throne at nine months from his father (Henry IV’s son Henry V). He was the youngest person ever to succeed to the throne in English history. Can a babe in arms hold a country together in an age where rule and order often requires fear? Through some miracle, his uncles manage to shelve their differences and form a working regency council – and thereby prevent England from plunging into civil war. (Picture all of the bickering at the small council meetings on Game of Thrones and you can see why this was a miracle.) Takeaway: See the first bullet about minority kings who never learn to successfully rule.
- For the first part of the slightly mad Henry VI’s reign, the king is childless. After the senior regent John Duke of Bedford dies, Henry’s uncle Humphrey appoints himself as regent.
But, Humphrey’s wildly disliked wife, Eleanor, supposedly employs sorcerers to forecast when Henry VI will die, desperately dreaming of the day Humphrey would sit on the throne (who was assumed to be the heir apparent). Takeaway: Regents now believe they can become kings.
- After Humphrey is rendered politically impotent, partially as a result of his wife’s indictment for witchcraft, Richard Duke of York becomes the heir apparent. Henry “attains his majority” at 16 in 1337 and begins to rule on his own. In the 1440s, Henry VI becomes increasingly unpopular, due to a breakdown in law and order, corruption, the distribution of royal land to the king’s court favorites, the crown’s failing finances, and a slow drip loss of territory in France. Giving the hard-won French territories of Maine and Anjou away as (effectively) a dowry when he married a foreign queen (Margaret of Anjou) didn’t help.
By 1447, the Commons turned against one of Henry’s favorites (Suffolk) and a London mob was “baying” for his blood. This is both a dangerous and familiar pattern. When people are unhappy with a king or noble, target one of his sidekicks – a wife, a favorite, or a close associate. Not a good sign.
By 1453, Henry VI has a mental breakdown (possibly catatonic schizophrenia) that lasts a year. Richard of York takes over as regent and gets a taste for it. Like Ned Stark, Richard spends a lot of time tackling the government’s problem of overspending. During Henry VI’s mental breakdown is York, who is older than Henry VI, is supposed to be named Henry’s successor. Takeaway: Nobles now believe they can choose or influence who will be the next king.
- Heirs were essential to secure your medieval kingship. No heirs means a possible civil war. Because the people fear civil war so much, not having heirs makes your dynasty appear weak and a target for rivals. Lucky for Cersei that she got pregnant. As a result, when the Yorkists wanted to destabilize Henry VI’s rule in the 1450s, they appear to have spread rumors that Henry’s child with his wife Margaret of Anjou had to be a bastard since the pious Henry wouldn’t touch her. Takeaway: Being secure in your rule means you are establishing a strong, successful dynasty with heirs. You have nipped the possibility of civil war in the bud.
The first decade of Edward IV’s rule is less than secure, and ultimately culminates in him being overthrown for about six months and Henry VI being restored to the throne (as a puppet king).
This is partially because the king Edward IV usurped (Henry VI) is still alive. It doesn’t help that Henry VI, unlike Edward, has a living seventeen-year old son. Luckily for Edward, his wife Elizabeth Woodville finally bore him a son in November 1470 – after previously giving him three daughters. The birth of Edward’s son helped deflate the faction growing around his brother George (Duke of Clarence).
- The legitimacy of Edward IV’s heirs is thrown into question when allegations arise that he had a secret marriage – hint, hint – before Edward’s marriage to the mother of his heirs, the Cersei-esque Elizabeth Woodville. Edward’s heirs Edward V and Richard of Shrewsbury are designated illegitimate and Richard III becomes king. Takeaway: Secret marriages are always bad. The late king’s brother becomes king instead of his son. Arguably, this reflects a widespread preference for adult kings.
- Richard III only legitimate son dies at 10 years of age, in April 1484, only two months after being officially named the king’s heir. Richard has two bastards. One of these is a boy, likely conceived in Richard’s teens, who is known as “John of Gloucester” and sometimes “John of Pontefract.” Unlike Henry VIII, Richard makes no moves to legitimize this natural-born son. When Richard names John as “Captain of Calais,” Richard refers to him as “our dear bastard son” in the letter of appointment. And, it may amuse Ramsay lovers to know that the way he addressed Jon in his “bastard letter” certainly has precedent. A warrant dated March 9, 1485 to deliver clothes to natural-born son of the king refers to that son as “the Lord Bastard.” Takeaway: It’s hard to legitimize your bastard when your claim to the throne is based on excluding bastards from the succession.
- Before Henry Tudor beat Richard at Bosworth Field, Richard had no legitimate children to whom he could leave the crown, which put Richard in a vulnerable position. (Although this was far from the main factor that led to his downfall.)
- Henry VII, who lacks strong blood claim to the throne, merely backdates his reign by a year after he defeats Richard III at Bosworth Field. Henry doesn’t bother trying to justify his claim to the throne. Takeaway: Like William the Conqueror did in 1066 and Henry Bolingbroke did in 1399, Henry Tudor proves that you can ascend to the English throne by what is effectively right of conquest.
- Henry’s claim to throne is wobbly, however, without more than conquest. The problem with claiming the throne solely by right of conquest is that anybody with a bigger army can legitimately take it away from you. To appease the nobles and shore up his claim, Henry marries Elizabeth of York – Edward’s eldest daughter and theoretically the next of Edward’s children in line to the throne after the princes in the tower (if you remove the question of legitimacy). Takeaway: You can become king – or solidify your claim – by marrying a female heir. But, the claim Edward IV’s children were illegitimate may have been irrelevant in the minds of some people who saw them grow up in the royal household. After all, as Cersei taught us with King Robert’s will, it’s just a piece of paper.
- Henry VII later tries to burnish his lineage by tales of a descent from King Arthur, even naming his first born after the legendary king. Takeaway: Being a fabulist helps.
- Disaffected factions, including Yorkists, keep popping up with pretenders – people the factions claim are the legitimate heirs to the throne. Examples include Lambert Simnel and Perkin Warbeck. These pretenders raise doubt in people’s minds. Could Edward V or his brother still be alive? They provide a rallying point for those who would like to overthrow Henry VII, including foreign powers, and a possible basis to do it. Henry has to deal with constant intrigue and even invasions. To extinguish the Warbeck threat cost Henry VII over £13,000 (roughly £9.8 million or $12.8 USD today), straining Henry’s weak finances. Takeaway: Pretenders and other legitimate claimants can cause a king big problems. Almost makes you see why Joffrey sent the City Watch to kill Robert Baratheon’s bastards.
- Henry VII loses his first born son, Arthur who dies at 15 in 1502, a few months after the boy marries Catherine of Aragon. Henry’s wife (Queen Elizabeth of York) dies within a year. Now, Henry has only has one son left (the future Henry VIII) and no wife. Henry becomes increasingly paranoid about his remaining son’s health and safety – presumably because it is inextricably tied to his own. Plus the country would almost certainly plunge into civil war upon Henry’s death without an heir apparent with a clearly superior claim. Takeaway: Kings need heirs for their own protection.
Yes, this list keeps going – bear in mind all of this has happened within barely 100 years. Ironically, over the next 50+ years, succession problems haunt the usurping Tudors. I guess you reap what you sow, eh?
- Not unlike Stannis and Selyse, Henry VIII and his first wife Catherine of Aragon fail to produce a male heir. After seven pregnancies, including two stillborn boys and a son who only lived 52 days, the only child who survives is a girl – and in early Tudor England, nobody believed a girl could rule England. Takeaway: Although girls could inherit, nobody wanted them to. Daenerys and Cersei take note.
- Catherine’s last pregnancy ended in 1518 after she bore a weak daughter who only lived a few hours.
Henry VIII sires his “worldly jewel” – his illegitimate son Henry Fitzroy in 1519. His mother was a lady in waiting at court, Elizabeth Blount, who was secreted away to a priory while pregnant to avoid a scandal. Henry named the boy “Fitzroy” – when means “son of king” – to make it clear Henry was his son. Henry also made his son a duke twice over – a duke is the highest rank of nobility and has the patina of royalty. Henry VIII was clearly telegraphing his intention for Fitzroy to succeed him if another male heir didn’t come along. None would until after Fitzroy died at 17 of tuberculosis in 1536. Takeaway: Kings can elevate bastards and possibly make them heirs.
- By 1525, Catherine is 40. She hasn’t been pregnant in 7 years and Henry develops a raging crush on Anne Boleyn. In Henry’s mind, this unconsummated infatuation becomes intertwined with his lack of a male heir. When he can’t get an annulment for his marriage to Catherine of Aragon from the pope, the impatient Henry severs the church in England from Rome and marries Anne Boleyn in secret. Never a good thing. Takeaway: Secret marriages are a disaster and instantly suspect. See Edward IV for case in point. Everyone questioned why they weren’t public and assumed the worst. (Keep this in mind when you think about Rhaegar and Lyanna.)
- Catholic rulers around Europe – especially in Spain – view Henry’s marriage to Anne as invalid and her offspring (Elizabeth I) as a bastard. Takeaway: The legitimacy of the marriage matters. See the Spanish Armada for details.
If history be our guide, what does all of this mean for our potential Iron Throne claimants?
Pros: Recognized war leader. Medieval (or medieval-esque) people want strong rulers. Strong claim. Stronger than Daenerys. Plus Jon will make a good ruler because he grew up with adversity – his bastard status – and not messed up, entitled ideas about royal prerogative: see Joffrey/Richard II.
Cons: Jon’s claim is from the son of a hated “mad” king – from an ancient bloodline that you could flip a coin as to their sanity — who has not been on the throne in over 20 years. Twenty years is a very long time. Who looks more legitimate – the ruler in possession of a throne or the ghost of a ghost?
Also, are the small folk and houses willing to accept bloodshed or spill blood to restore a Targaryen when all the small folk want is a summer that never ends?
Pros: Jon’s paternal aunt can possibly claim the throne by right of conquest. She has fire power and massive armies and a few ships. Male preference (primogeniture) is customary but not binding in Westeros. If you take primogeniture out of the equation, is her claim stronger than Jons? Probably not.
Cons: Daenerys was born in roughly 282 AL (immediately after Robert’s Rebellion). This makes her a year younger than Jon, which means that the line of succession would have gone from Aerys to his eldest son Rhaegar (the heir apparent) to Jon, who appears to have been born after Aerys died during the Sack of King’s Landing. Now, in the books, Daenerys is born in 284. [Author’s Note: But, the dates are getting complicated and I’m going to have to update this article to tweak them based on the books.]
Pros: The last known surviving son of the last king who “felt” legitimate: Robert Baratheon, who ruled for 17 years. Viable war leader. Did you see him work that war hammer? Plus the fact Gendry looks like a young Robert helps. Joffrey (if he ever found him), Ned, Jon Arryn and others may have considered him a viable enough contender to the throne though.
Cons: Has no army, no following, no official recognition as the heir and no public acknowledgment that he is even Robert’s bastard. It would be hard to convince the masses he should be king. Would they take his rule seriously? This feels more like a Mark Twain story than a viable candidate for the throne. But, Gendry could certainly fill the role of pretender quite nicely and mess things up for Jon or Dany.
But, here’s a question. Who is Gendry’s mysterious mother? Could it be Cersei? Cersei tells Catelyn that she bore one son with Robert Baratheon – a little dark-haired thing – who supposedly died. Did he really?
Pros: As they say today, “possession is 9/10th of the law.” That may not have been true in the Middle ages or Westeros. But, her butt is on the iron chair. Plus, with a bun in the oven, her dynasty is looking stronger all the time. Also, compared to Daenerys, Cersei is looking positively humane these days. (Also, Cersei loves whereas it’s not clear that Daenerys has ever truly loved anyone other than Drogo.)
Cons: People hate Cersei. People think she is screwing her brother. People would doubt the legitimacy of her heir (but maybe not care because of the Targaryens). The walk of atonement really hacked away at her credibility for bringing legitimate heirs into the world. Great ploy on the High Sparrow’s part to de-legitimize a dynasty.
Pros: Very clever. Has been highly successful so far. Hasn’t lost yet.
Cons: No blood claim. Not that that has ever stopped anyone in the real world. Also, if he somehow persuades Sansa to marry him, her patina as the heir to House Stark could bolster his claim almost like Elizabeth of York did for Henry VII – even though Sansa isn’t royalty.
Pros: Tyrion is a clever competent administrator modeled on Richard III. GRRM has admitted that he “loves Richard III.” Will he give the last Yorkist king the happy ending he deserves?
Other points in Tyrion’s favor: Nobody is really clear who Tyrion’s father is. Tyrion might be not just a dwarf but also a bastard (of Aerys Targaryen). Also, as I noted a few years ago, Tyrion is awfully similar to the name of the Roman color for their royal purple silks – the color I used to have in the header for this website until my theme stopped cooperating <sob>. Is Tyrion the only one who is truly royal like the pun in his name implies?
If Tyrion’s marriage to Sansa is maintained, and I think it might be, Tyrion would have a claim to the North, whose support was crucial in the Wars of the Roses.
Cons: Tyrion’s blood claim would not be legitimate – and is not as strong as Dany and Jon. But Tyrion doesn’t have Daenerys’ drive for conquest and seems happy being the power behind the throne.