More on Aerys and the Mad Kings

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Aerys, the Mad King. Illustration courtesy of (and copyright) Amok. See his website at http://en.amokanet.ru/gallery/martin/targaryens_1218.html.

Aerys II Targaryen, the mad king who commanded his pyromancer to set King’s Landing ablaze (before Game of Thrones began), may be inspired by a couple of kings: Charles VI of France and his grandson, Henry VI of England. This article explores some nuances to their madness, possible hereditary sources, and how Charles VI’s madness worked its way into the CW drama Reign, which is about Mary Queen of Scots.

Like King Aerys, Charles VI of France’s reign began benevolently enough. In fact, the French king’s nickname was “Charles the Beloved.” Before the onset of Charles’ insanity, his subjects loved this handsome and athletic ruler. During his frequent breaks from reality, Charles came to believe he was made of glass and often ran howling like a wolf up and down the halls of the palace. His servants had to pad the doorways and walls to prevent him from hurting himself.

Charles sometimes became violent with his servants, so it was probably a relief to his wife Isabeau of Bavaria that he appointed an alternate “stand-in” queen for himself – a common girl – who was known as the Little Queen. The series Reign reenacts the Little Queen as an event in the life of Henry II – an ahistorical but admittedly tasty storyline.

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Alan van Sprang as Henry II and Kathryn Prescott as the Little Queen whom “Henry” picked in his time of madness. (c) CW.

As Charles VI’s bouts of madness increased, he became known like Aerys as “the mad king.” Charles VI’s madness hindered his ability to rule and, as was often the case in the Middle Ages, a weak king meant opportunity for the nobles. Civil war broke out as Louis of Orléans, the king’s brother, and John the Fearless, Duke of Burgundy, the son of Philip the Bold struggled for power. As we have discussed in these articles, these events have loose parallels in Game of Thrones.

Interestingly, although you can argue that Cersei has a little of Isabeau of Bavaria in her, she is more often seen as being similar to Margaret of Anjou and Elizabeth Woodville. Likewise, because of the similarities between A Song of Ice and Fire and the Wars of the Roses, people tend to compare Aerys II to Henry VI of England, the grandson of Charles VI.

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Edward of Westminster’s father, Henry VI (1421-71). Although a ‘Mad King,’ he was more like Baelor the Blessed than Aerys II.

Henry VI also had issues with sanity, although they had a significantly different flavor than those of his grandfather. Whereas Charles became violent and delusional, the peaceful Henry primary symptom was withdrawal into a non-responsive state. Henry became what may have been catatonic for the first time after England finally lost Bordeaux in August 1453 – a huge blow to be sure when your father is the great Agincourt hero Henry V, whose French victories led to you being designated heir to the French throne.

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Catherine of Valois, shown above, may not have passed her father’s madness down to her son.

Many historians have argued that Henry undoubtedly inherited his insanity, which some characterize as schizophrenia, from his grandfather via Catherine of Valois. Queen Catherine was both Henry VI’s mother and Charles VI’s daughter. Historian Nicholas Vincent argues against this theory: if Catherine had passed on her father’s insanity that Jasper and Edmund Tudor — her other sons with the low-born Owen Tudor – would also have been insane.1 This is is a good point, but it isn’t necessarily the case that Catherine’s Tudor sons would have inherited their grandfather’s mental health issues; many families have one child who suffers from schizophrenia while the others do not.

Instead, Vincent suggests that a more likely source of Henry VI’s possible schizophrenia was his paternal great grandfather, Henry IV. Henry IV, also known as Henry Bolingbroke, overthrew Richard II in 1399.

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Henry IV, also known as “Bolingbroke” — especially in Shakespeare.

Towards the end of Henry’s reign, starting in roughly 1405, he suffered from a skin disease, possibly psoriasis or leprosy. However, he had flare ups of his disease during his performance as a ruler declined significantly in June 1405, April 1406, June 1408, the winter of 1408–09, and December 1412. Henry’ IV’s final illness came in March 1413 during which time he died.

According to Vincent, historians have long debated whether Henry IV was insane during those periods; however, no historian has ever proved it. If Henry had leprosy, it is curious that it could have affected his ability to rule for such relatively short periods. In its worst stages, leprosy certainly could have been debilitating. It causes severe pain, secondary infections, respiratory issues. However, I would think this would be a progressive decline and not a flare up.

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A face ravaged by leprosy. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

**

To return to Henry VI, it seems possible that his madness may have been more akin to a severe “nervous breakdown” brought on by extreme stress (e.g., losing most of the country you inherited due to your own ineptitude).

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An early sixteenth-century portrait of Henry VI, housed at Warwickshire Hall. (Anonymous artist.)

Before “nervous breakdown” became a common catchphrase used to describe a stressful day at work, it implied a more severe condition – even though it was never a true clinical diagnosis. Wikipedia defines nervous breakdowns as a “severe stress-induced depression, anxiety or dissociation in a previously functional individual, to the extent that [the individual] is no longer able to function on a day-to-day basis until the disorder is resolved.” The key word, for our purposes, is dissociation.

At least according to this paper, catatonia is not necessarily a subtype of schizophrenia but rather a “non-specific syndrome”2. The paper proceeds to discuss three cases of dissociative disorders with catatonic symptoms. Bottom line: Henry may have suffered a nervous breakdown and not a bout of madness — and that’s actually kind of important.

Admittedly, I’m not a medical professional or a medical historian, but it seems possible that extreme stress and not necessarily inherited “madness” could have triggered Henry’s non-responsive state. (I might have a nervous breakdown too if I couldn’t stabilize a country that was being ripped apart by lawless feuding nobles and I squandered my dazzling father’s legacy.) The stress and pressure must have been unimaginable. Frankly, I’m misspeaking a little about Henry’s failures to make a point. It’s a tad unfair to lay all of the chaos and losses at Henry’s doorstep. There were larger multi-generational systemic problems that led to Henry’s failures. His reign’s disasters weren’t all his fault.

None of any of this really changes the possible historical basis for King Aerys II. Given that there were potentially three “mad kings” in less than a century, however, it isn’t surprising that George RR Martin created a mad-king character.

  1. See Nicholas Vincent’s A Brief History of Britain 1066-1485. []
  2. See Ahuja 2000 as cited in “Dissociative Disorder Presenting as Catatonia” in Indian Journal of Psychiatry, 2004, 46(2)176-179 []

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."

9 Comments

  • Reply January 22, 2015

    Watcher on the Couch

    You have given the reader quite a bit to ponder in the above article, Jamie. I know he is mythical rather than historical but bearing in mind Jun’s articles about possible links between GRRM’s inspirations and Shakespeare’s, I though of the play “King Lear”, where the eponymous king goes mad for a time. I remember reading an interview given by Diana Rigg back in her heyday and she mentioned that when she had played Cordelia (one of Lear’s daughters) the portrayal of King Lear going mad (by I think the late Paul Scofield) had brought tears to her eyes.

    A few years ago the BBC broadcast a made for TV film “The Lost Prince” about Prince John, (British) King George V’s (5th’s) and his wife Queen Mary’s youngest child. He did not live to a great age and tends to be passed over by the history books. He possibly suffered from epilepsy and what we would nowadays call an autistic condition.

    Going off slightly at a tangent, as the melees of the Middle Ages were so violent, I wonder if any of the people considered “mad” in those times had suffered traumatic brain injury either in a melee or in one of the numerous skirmishes of those turbulent times.

    • Reply January 28, 2015

      Jamie Adair

      It is funny you mention the brain trauma and tournaments/melees. I was just thinking about this. There is a theory that Henry VIII’s last murderous paranoid years were caused by trauma resulting from his fall in a joust in 1536 (I think it was). I too wonder if any medieval knights or kings suffered from frontal lob syndrome or something as the result of jousting or war wounds. It was such a violent and impulsive period it is hard to know what contributed to it.

  • Reply February 22, 2015

    Danielle Alesi

    David Starkey recently held a talk in Lincolnshire where he stated that he did not believe Suzannah Lipscombe popular theory that Henry VIII’s tyrant-like and volatile behavior resulted from his jousting wounds. He argued that it was from deep-seeded feelings of inadequacy based in childhood that manifested throughout his career. This would then give more support to your Henry VI “nervous breakdown” theory. I think oftentimes historians try to put a modern spin on their analysis of these personalities and try to explain with a myriad of medical illnesses, forgetting that to be a monarch in these times was an enormous amount of stress and pressure, which can have astounding effects on the psyche.

    • Reply February 25, 2015

      Jamie Adair

      Hey Danielle,
      Thanks for this fascinating comment. How funny that David Starkey took a swipe at Suzannah Lipscombe. I’ve read some of their comments about each other in the British newspapers before. (Or, maybe it was Suzannah’s comments about David Starkey?)

      Your comment is really interesting because it kind of goes along with George RR Martin’s “Ruling is Hard” statement. It was, IMO, a lot of stress and pressure! I agree! I also believe that people frequently overlook the impact of Henry VIII’s childhood, his father’s overprotective behavior after Arthur’s death, and the psychological impact of the Wars of the Roses.

      I’ve read some historians note they are reluctant to indulge in psychoanalysis at a 500-year distance – and across a dramatically different culture. But, I think things like stress and pressure aren’t thing at all, and I think they are easy to overlook when thinking about the past. Thanks for the great comment! I felt like I went out on a limb a little with that article. It is nice to hear somebody of Dr. Starkey’s caliber might *maybe* (lol) agree with me – or have similar thoughts in a different context.

      • Reply February 26, 2015

        Watcher on the Couch

        Although I’m retired I do a little typing from home and at the time of speculating about brain injury I had been typing some tapes pertaining to accidents where brain injury had occurred and changes in personality had been occasioned, so traumatic brain injury was a subject that was fresh in my mind at the time of posting. But of course Danielle makes a good point. I quite like snarky Starkey, a funny kind of a way but I have time for Suzannah Liscombe’s opinions too (even if she is blonde and good-looking and brainy). Of course the case of Richard III illustrates that not all historians sing from the same hymn sheet.

        By the way, glad to see you are (sort of back – even if on a partial hiatus) Jamie; I had wondered if the sub-zero temperatures we keep hearing about in the part of the North American continent where you are situated had caused problems. (Is North America a continent or a sub-continent, the whole continent being North and South America?)

        • Reply March 2, 2015

          Jamie Adair

          Thanks, Watcher. I have no idea if N. America is a subcontinent or not. In school they could never agree on how many countries were even in North America! 🙂 The insane snow we’ve received in Boston certainly doesn’t leave me much time to write. I’ve been doing a lot of shoveling. The snow is 3.5 feet deep in my backyard and the banks along the street are closer to four feet.

  • Reply March 1, 2015

    Watcher on the Couch

    Correction should have said “quite like snarky Starkey IN a funny kind of a way”; of course I suppose it’s possible that a traumatic brain injury PLUS the stresses and strains of ruling PLUS an overly doting fond papa may have affected how Henry VIII (8th) turned out.

  • Reply May 23, 2015

    timetravellingbunny

    Is there any storyline in “Reign” that isn’t ahistorical?

  • Reply January 24, 2017

    Scott DeLong

    I also see some of Catherine de’Medici in Cersei Lannister. The both of them were extremely ruthless women.

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