Princes in the Tower, Evil Princelings & Joffrey

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A Victorian portrayal of Edward V on left and Joffrey (Jack Gleeson) on right. Image of Joffrey: © HBO

It’s possible that the beginning of Joffrey Baratheon’s reign is not unlike a counter-factual version of what would happen if the son of Edward IV survived to become a dark and evil king. [This article is continued from here. ] 

Shortly after Bran, the first “prince in the tower” falls and Catelyn falsely accuses Tyrion of attempted murder, Robert Baratheon draws up a deathbed will. He asks Ned to serve as “Lord Regent and Protector of the Realm” and rule in Robert’s “stead” until Joffrey comes of age. This is not unlike Edward IV’s will in which he appointed his brother Richard to serve as Lord Protector until his son was old enough to rule1 .

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Ned Stark  (Sean Bean) writes down the last requests of Robert Baratheon (Mark Addy). Edward IV added codicils to his will on his deathbed. Image: © HBO.

Robert Baratheon and Cersei bear some resemblance to an aging Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville, as described in this article and this article. Bear in mind, they also resemble Henry VIII, Margaret of Anjou, Anne Boleyn, and others. (As George RR Martin himself has stated he likes to draw a little bit from multiple historical figures.)

After Edward IV died, the Woodvilles unsuccessfully attempted to have Edward V crowned and Richard’s Lord Protector status ignored. Likewise, Cersei dispenses with Ned’s appointment by simply ripping up the will Robert Baratheon wrote.

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Cersei Lannister (Lena Headey) rips up Robert Baratheon’s will. © HBO

In contrast with the real Edward IV’s son, Joffrey ascends to throne for a while. He is not murdered (or “vanished”). Likewise, his uncle is not accused of killing him – yet. If anything, the young king murders the man in the Richard III role, Ned – who like Richard was appointed Lord Protector. Unlike the Woodvilles, Joffrey’s mother’s family — the Lannisters — is victorious in seizing power.

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Edward IV (seated in blue robe) with Queen Elizabeth Woodville and the young Edward V.

In this story line, Joffrey is in the Edward V role. He is the son of the Edward IV-esque Robert Baratheon. In fact, I would argue that Joffrey enacts a counterfactual version of what might have arisen had Edward V survived — or very darkly imagined version. Now, before people start throwing virtual rotten eggs at me for comparing the evil Joffrey to the innocent and doomed prince in the tower, consider the nature of the medieval hereditary princeling (aka “young prince”).

The typical medieval heir to the throne grew up never hearing criticism, never being reprimanded or fearing consequences, having whipping boys, and being surrounded by sycophants. Also consider what children are like – their cruelty – before they learn compassion and self-control. Princes who inherit the throne – especially before adulthood – are quite often a recipe for sociopaths or, at the very least, malignant narcissists.

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From 1066 to 1558, there is only one prince who inherited the throne – without fighting for it — who was successful and not walking on the cruel side of narcissism: Henry V. (Incidentally, few princes who inherited the throne were successful as medieval kings.)

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Like the Victorian portrayal of Edward V, Edward VI has a narrow face similar to Jack Gleeson, the actor cast to play Joffrey.

Some choice examples of cruel princes who became king: the petty, spiteful, cruel, King John (Robin Hood);  the treacherous and despotic Richard II (who betrayed the peasants); Henry VIII who frequently employed judicial homicide to get his wishes, which ranged from popularity (executing his father’s loyal servants, Empson and Dudley) to divorce (executing his wives and Thomas More); his daughter, Bloody Mary; and his son Edward VI, who one day in a fit of rage plucked all the feathers out of a live falcon and ripped it into four pieces with his hands.2  Henry VI was not a sociopath, but he was completely ineffective and the job basically gave him a nervous breakdown.

You could argue that, by nature, many medieval kings were what today we might consider to be sociopaths, but I don’t think this is fair. Certainly, there are two ways to look at many of these “bad” hereditary princes, but the story of Edward VI does make an impression.

Some historians3 have argued that Richard III might have feared for his life under a Woodville/Edward V. This is primarily because of Richard’s poor relationship with the Woodvilles. It certainly would not help, however, that Richard seized and executed Edward’s uncle with whom the boy was presumably close4. It would not be surprising if Richard feared the young king would seek vengeance if he had ever come to power.

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Medieval boys had to be considered reasonably mature: reporting crimes could result in punishment.

While the princes in the tower are often depicted as innocent children – and they certainly were – there is no reason to assume that Edward V would have been a sweet and beneficent child king. Children can be cruel, and, medieval princelings, crueler still. Likewise, contemporaries may have seen the twelve-year old Edward as more adult than we do.

Children began to assume some adult responsibilities when they attained the “age of reason” — twelve years old.  The age of reason was when children were old enough to determine the legality or illegality of their actions5 .

Dating back to the Anglo-Saxon period (at least 1035), after common boys attained the age of reason, they were bound into tithing groups of ten men responsible for monitoring and reporting each other’s crimes — a kind of medieval substitute for a police force that made the members mutually accountable for each the actions of each other’s households.6 By the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, the frankpledge system began to decline but the ideas about the age when maturity began may have lingered on.

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Edward V

Likewise, apprenticeships began by as young as eleven for orphans and, by London ordinance, no earlier than thirteen in the fourteenth century. In the fifteenth century, girls were old enough to consent to marriage at twelve and boys at fourteen. However, the age people entered apprenticeship would creep up to sixteen in the fifteenth century.7

Still, the ten-year-old Edward IV, as the young earl of March, led 10,000 men to march on London in 1452; admittedly, his leadership might have just been nominal and symbolic — and at thirteen led his father’s household troops (with his father).8  However, three centuries earlier, in 1147, the fourteen-year-old Henry II hired his own mercenaries and embarked on an unsuccessful invasion of England — a plan he hatched without his mother’s knowledge or approval — during which he ran out of money to pay his soldiers.
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All of this is to say that it wouldn’t be unreasonable for Richard to believe that Edward V – quite independently of the Woodvilles — could be a threat to him all on his own. And, George RR Martin’s possible attempts to image Edward V from Richard Duke of Gloucester’s perspective, could have eventually led to a grim counterfactual version of the prince, which may have resulted in some parts of Joffrey.

Joffrey rules for a while before he is, in all likelihood, murdered and his uncle Tyrion falsely accused.

To be continued… 

  1. In real life, Richard was not at Edward’s bedside; he was in the north when his brother died. []
  2. Cruelty to animals is a modern concept, but I don’t think Edward VI should necessarily get a full pass: people still had pets in the Middle Ages and falcons were highly prized. For more discussion, see http://queryblog.tudorhistory.org/2009/04/question-from-alex-edward-vi-and.html []
  3. See Alison Weir in her book The Princes in the Tower among others. []
  4. Anthony Woodville was the governor of Edward V’s household at Ludlow (before he became king). []
  5. See Barbara Hanawalt’s Of Good and Ill Repute: Gender and Social Control in Medieval England p. 3. []
  6. Noble boys, their servants, and clergy boys were excluded from tithing groups. See Barbara Hanawalt’s Of Good and Ill Repute: Gender and Social Control in Medieval England p. 2-3. []
  7. Barbara Hanawalt in Growing Up in Medieval London p. 112-113. []
  8. See the London Chronicle cited in Charles Ross’ Edward IV p. 14. []

Jamie Adair is the editor of History Behind Game of Thrones, a website about the history behind George RR Martin's "Songs of Ice and Fire" novels and the hit TV show, "Game of Thrones."

8 Comments

  • Reply April 27, 2014

    Susan HIgginbotham

    The story about Edward VI tearing a falcon may or may not be true; as pointed out here, it also occurs in connection with an earlier king and may be a “cultural trope.”

    http://queryblog.tudorhistory.org/2009/04/question-from-alex-edward-vi-and.html

    I would also disagree that Henry V was the only hereditary king who was both successful and not cruel, Edward I was successful, and while some of his acts might be cruel by our standards, they were surely no more so than some of those of Henry V. One could also count Edward III as a hereditary king, albeit one who came to the throne earlier than expected because of his father’s deposition.

  • Reply April 27, 2014

    Susan HIgginbotham

    Also, Edward IV had a set of ordinances drawn up dealing with his son Prince Edward’s upbringing, which contemplated him being disciplined, so it’s simply not true that he would have grown up without being punished for anything. Henry VI is known to have been physically disciplined as a child, as was Edward VI himself (the story of his having a “whipping boy” is likely a myth).

  • Reply April 28, 2014

    Jamie Adair

    Hey Susan,
    It’s nice to hear from you. Yes, I realize the falcon story is controversial or perhaps disputed – but it doesn’t mean it _didn’t_ happen. It may or may not have happened. The similarity with Charles V doesn’t prove it is a cultural trope – just that it _could_ be a cultural trope. I linked to the same post in the footnotes, but I probably should have included at least an allusion to the controversy in my post.

    The thing is that why has the story stuck around for centuries? Even if the story isn’t true, why have people found it credible enough for it to still exist. Same goes for the tale of Edward of Lancaster and chopping off the heads. You could argue where there is smoke there is fire — or perhaps just that people mistrusted boy kings in general.

    As for the my statement about hereditary kings, “From 1066 to 1558, there is only one prince who inherited the throne – without fighting for it — who was successful and not walking on the cruel side of narcissism…” The key words are between the em dashes for emphasis “without fighting for it.” Edward I and Edward III both had to fight for their thrones. Edward I in his father’s wars with the barons and Edward III against Roger Mortimer.

    I agree it is a broad statement — and it is provocative — but I made it deliberately to stimulate this kind of discussion. I actually spent a few hours reviewing the entire list of kings (and queens) between that date one day. There is a definite pattern – medieval kings who had to fight for their thrones were generally better more humane rulers. I think the education and life experiences of nobility who became kings – or even kings who had to fight for their thrones — changes the personalities and effectiveness of them as rulers.

    As for the whipping boy and Edward IV/Edward V, ordinances don’t necessarily translate into practices. The debate Edward V’s household in Ludlow would have had would be risk the wrath of a future king or having a current king find out about weak discipline. But, I didn’t specifically point to Edward’s childhood. I said generally.

    But, the larger point you might be reacting to is the overall impression that Richard III should be exonerated even if he did kill the princes because they would have grown up to be evil princes anyway. That’s certainly not the point I was trying to make. Also, I’m neutral as to Richard III’s innocence or guilt. The point I was trying to make is that Joffrey *could* be a counterfactual version of a darkly imagined Edward V or any number of medieval princes.

    Again, I’d be interested to see what you or anyone else thinks if you go down the list of kings on Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_English_monarchs#House_of_Normandy

    I actually find the idea that the childhoods of kings could have changed them as rulers to be quite interesting. And, perhaps my theory is wrong-headed.

    Jamie

  • Reply April 28, 2014

    Susan HIgginbotham

    I just find it unfortunate that Edward VI is judged as “cruel” in this blog post based on a single story that may be apocryphal. Why has it stuck around for centuries? Probably because it’s a colorful tale and because it gets repeated as fact, just the way many other colorful, but unsubstantiated tales get repeated as fact.

    I see your point about Edward I and Edward III having to fight for their thrones, though one could argue that Henry V also had to fight for his by helping to suppress the rebellions against his father.

  • Reply April 28, 2014

    Olga Hughes

    I find it just as unfair that many historians pick a single sentence out of Edward VI’s diary where he noted Somerset’s death to use as proof he was cruel, yet they do. And of course it has more weight behind it, yet no-one seems to question the psychoanalysis of a single-sentence journal entry several centuries later and whether this is any real proof that he was some sort of psychopath.

    When we are looking at counter-factual views of historical figures, Joffrey Baratheon is George’s morality tale and an example of what impact a princes upbringing could have on his ideas of ruling later.
    And much of the myths that surround medieval monarchs spring from morality tales.
    If the contemporary attitudes towards boy-kings were less influenced by the fabled reign of Richard II or oft-unsuccessful reign of Henry VI, in my opinion Richard III may have had much more difficulty trying to take the throne.

  • Reply April 30, 2014

    Jo reis

    I think a very weak argument about what a king or another child, become evil or not, stories are told, and invented all the time. Could have a discussion here about what makes a “good” or “bad” king, although I prefer an effective or not effective king, but there are several factors that should not and can not be ignored: not only the creation, but as the historic period, several kings faced rebellions, executing enemies ordered to say that Edward V could have become a monster equal to Joffrey is a stretch, or too vague. Henry III also considered “weak” or Henry VI only because they were not in endless wars with other countries, while belligerents and conquerors kings are considered “strong” kings and effective regardless of the suffering they have inflicted. If Richard was so scared that Edward V was seek “revenge”, him when he was older, maybe he should not have executed his uncle and his half-brother in the first place. From what I know John was not created to be king, he was the youngest of several male brothers.

  • Reply May 8, 2014

    kesphillips

    In many ways whether Edward V would have been a good or bad King is irrelevant as he never lived long enough to rule. For me one of the biggest parallels between this episode of British History and Game of Thrones is how Edward and Joffrey’s fate is dictated by the politicing of his maternal family. There is little doubt that Richard III was ambitious, however the role of Elizabeth Woodville in the execution of his brother the Duke of Clarence certainly would have been by him a justification for seizing the princes upon Edward IV’s death. Along with this Elizabeth’s initial attempts whilst in sanctuary to marry her daughter also called Elizabeth to the exiled Henry Tudor was a plausible cause for the murder of the two prince’s. Edward V in this respect was merely pawn in a power game between Richard and the Woodvilles, much as Joffrey, for all the illusion of power, was a pawn in Tywin’s schemes.

    • Reply May 21, 2014

      Jamie Adair

      “Just as Joffrey was a pawn in Twyin’s schemes.” Do you think so? Please elaborate. I hadn’t really thought of it that way before. (Although based on Tywin’s actions with Tommen, he certainly has his own interests in mind.)

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