This article contains spoilers for Game of Thrones Season 6, Episode 2. Growing up abused and unsure of his place in his father’s household, is it any wonder Ramsay doesn’t want any rivals?
The scene will chill your blood. Not only does Ramsay kill the father whom he appeared to love so deeply, he feeds his stepmother and baby brother to his dogs. As he cooly explains to Walda moments before her death, “I prefer being an only child.”
But, once his father was dead and could create no more children, was it really necessary for Ramsay to kill his half-brother? Couldn’t he have just left the child on the steps of a Sept or hidden him away in a village somewhere? Not by the standards of his world, or the Middle Ages.
First, a king could always reverse Ramsay’s legitimacy. If this happened, it wouldn’t matter that Ramsay was decades older than his little brother. But, assuming that a king couldn’t undo Ramsay’s legitimacy, there is real-world historical precedent for a father picking the first-born heir of his second wife over that of his first.
As far as treacherous medieval scum goes, Ralph Neville (c.1364 -1425) might be at the top of the list. Immortalized in Shakespeare’s Henry V, this fourteenth-century lord disinherited his first family after marrying up with his second wife.
Born as a part of the second most powerful Northern family, Neville was only expected to inherit a barony (the Baron of Raby). The Percys were the number one Northern powerhouse family. Yet by betraying his king and brokering a fake parley, he became an earl. By disinheriting his rightful heirs, Ralph left his mark on England.
Ralph Neville married Margaret Beaufort in roughly 1386 or 1387. Over the next nine or ten years, she bore seven children, with roughly 3-6 months between each one – and then died in 1396.
Five months later, Ralph Neville remarried the king’s cousin, Joan Beaufort.Married at 12, Joan Beaufort had already born two children and buried a husband by the time she married Neville at 17 or 18.
Joan was the daughter of none other than John of Gaunt, a powerful and extremely wealthy duke. The Guardian recently ranked John of Gaunt as the sixteenth richest man in history.
To give you a sense of John of Gaunt’s power, consider this quotation from Kings in the North:
“territorial power stretched over a third of England, who in a sense may be said to have created the Duchy of Lancaster, and founded the Portuguese Alliance [the United Kingdom’s oldest partner], who was for fifteen years the King of Castile and Leon, and for a dozen years the uncrowned King of England.”
Yet when Ralph married Joan, she was still illegitimate. Joan was the daughter of Gaunt’s mistress Katherine Swynford. (Joan was the sister of Henry VII’s great-grandfather, John Beaufort.) Although Joan’s parents did eventually marry, Joan was born well before they wed. Nonetheless, a few months after Ralph and Joan married, a papal bull that legitimized Joan arrived.Three years later, Ralph’s match proved to be even more fortuitous. After being disinherited, Henry IV overthrew Richard II and made himself king. As luck would have it, Joan was Henry IV’s half-sister. (Henry IV was John of Gaunt’s son.) Although Ralph already had seven children with his first wife, he had another 14 children with Joan.
Clever and ambitious, Joan ensured her children had fabulous matches. Three of Joan’s daughters married dukes. At one point, the Nevilles had five male relations in the House of Lords. The Beaufort Neville line was prestigious and even on the edge of illustrious.
Primogeniture, however, dictated that medieval nobles leave their titles, and the bulk of their own estates, to their eldest son. Other children might inherit titles and property from their mother. But, the bulk of the estate and titles went to eldest son. This was done to ensure the house stayed strong.
Based on this, you might expect that if Westeros took a queue from the Middle Ages, Ramsay would inherit everything once the king had legitimized him. After all, Ramsay is the eldest.
As the story of the Ralph Neville illustrates, however, it was possible to break the inheritance and effectively disinherit your eldest son.
Ralph Neville left most of his estate to his second wife, Joan Beaufort, and her children. Admittedly, he may have done so to satisfy the high requirements of Joan’s jointure. (John of Gaunt, being illustrious and supremely wealthy, may have negotiated an exceptionally high jointure for his daughter. A jointure is money allocated to a widow for the rest of her life from an estate. )
Regardless of the cause, Ralph’s children through Joan inherited a disproportionate amount of the Neville lands.
Ralph’s Stafford heir – his eponymous grandson through his first boy — inherited the Westmoreland title. But, Ralph the grandson only inherited estates in the county palatine of Durham1, which meant in practice that he inherited fewer lands as an earl than his grandfather had as a baron.2.
This effective disinheritance created much strife between the two branches of Neville family. The two branches fought legal battles over the inheritance for many years. Joan and her son Richard – Warwick’s father — ultimately triumphed in no small part because of their ecclesiastical connections.
Joan’s brother, Cardinal Henry Beaufort, helped her son Robert gain important appointments in the Church. Eventually, Robert became the Bishop of Salisbury and the Bishop of Durham. Having these influential churchmen in her corner helped Joan keep the Neville inheritance.
The resentment between the branches festered until it turned into a conflict that almost rivaled the Percy-Neville feud. The disinherited Stafford branch hated Warwick, who was from the Beaufort branch, so much that they fought on the opposite side.
In 1459, the senior Stafford branch of the Nevilles sided with the Beauforts and the Percys against their half-brothers (the Beaufort Nevilles) and Richard of York.
Stafford heir, Ralph Neville’s grandson Ralph was incapacitated by the time the 1450s Wars of the Roses began. However, his brother John (Lord Neville) fought at Wakefield and helped bring about the death of Warwick’s father, Richard Neville (Earl of Salisbury). The disinherited branch laid a fatal trap for Warwick’s ally, Richard of York, at the Battle of Wakefield where York and his son lost their lives. Although John died at the Battle of Towton, his nephew – Sir Humphrey Neville of Brancepeth – kept the feud alive.
Humphrey Neville would repeatedly attack and attempt to undermine the other Neville branch and their allied Edward IV. Humphrey refused to accept the Edward IV’s victory at Towton.
At one point, Parliament imprisoned Humphrey for life in the Tower of London, after he participated in a disastrous raid on Durham. He escaped and eventually Edward pardoned him.
But, then Humphrey attacked Warwick’s brother John Neville (Lord Montagu). Ultimately, the feud died when Humphrey was executed for siding with the Lancastrians in 1469.3 .
In medieval England, inheritance disputes could lead to warring factions — and there’s no reason Westeros wouldn’t be the same way. Even if Roose had guaranteed in his will that Ramsay would be the next warden of the North, an unfriendly king could easily reverse his legitimacy if he thought that Ramsay’s brother would be a better ally.
From this perspective, perhaps Ramsay wasn’t wrong to kill his baby brother. Well, except it was disgusting. And cruel. Not to mention murder.
As for the Nevilles, well, as JR Lander observed: “If this great family worked together, it would have been the overwhelming, irresistible force in English politics.”4 English history probably would have been very different if Ralph Neville hadn’t left his second family so many of his lands and so much of his wealth.
- The Wars of the Roses by AJ Pollard p. 46 [↩]
- The Transformation of Medieval England 1370-1529 by J A F Thomson p. 108 [↩]
- For an excellent article about Humphrey, see J. Rickard Sir Humphrey Neville of Brancepeth (c.1439-1469). [↩]
- “Cement or Solvent? Kingship and the Politics in Late Medieval England: The Case of the Nevilles.” by Michael Hicks p. 2. [↩]