Sansa Stark is lovely: everything you’d imagine a medieval princess to be. Beautiful, poised, graceful, soft-spoken, and mannerly, Sansa studies the feminine arts and tries to stay composed. She isn’t the sort of girl who would upstage her prince. Instead, she would remain quietly waiting in the background, smiling sweetly, as she ties a favor to his lance or kisses his sword before battle.
Yet, Sansa is quite possibly the most annoying character on Game of Thrones. Why is that?
Through our twenty-first century eyes, the contrast with her sister Arya is unflattering. Sansa seems stupid, selfish, and spineless next to Arya. Whereas Arya defends Mycah the butcher’s boy when Joffrey slices his face, Sansa lies and claims she doesn’t know what happened. And, worst of all, the Lannisters trick the naïve Sansa into leading her father to his death.
Contrasted with Arya, our image of the idealized medieval princess begins to fray. Sansa conforms to a now-decaying feminine ideal of the constrained and the ladylike. Should our fairy-tale princesses be so passive?
Perhaps, symbolically, George RR Martin is telling us they should not.
Fortune’s Wheel quickly turns on Sansa. The haughty girl, proud to be becoming queen one day, soon realizes she struck a woeful bargain. Her prince is a sadistic tyrant who lives to humiliate, torment, and torture.
Joffrey forces Sansa to see her father’s head on a spike, publicly whips her, and makes her watch as he orders his guards to force-feed a man a barrel of wine. We want Sansa to stand up to Joffrey, secretly plot against Queen Cersei, or at least run away. Instead, we watch her gratefully accept being downgraded from queen-in-waiting.
But, really, am I being unfair? The Starks and the Lannisters have swapped her about more readily than a designer handbag on eBay. First she was to marry Joffrey. Then, Tywin forced her to marry Tyrion, whose diminutive stature (and, in the books, missing nose) clearly repulsed her. For the Lannisters, Sansa was nothing more than a pawn on a diplomatic chessboard, and, after the Red Wedding, a ticket to a Northern inheritance.
While Sansa is annoying, she may be like the prototypical medieval princess. At first blush, Sansa has a lot in common with a typical noble’s daughter in the Middle Ages, and, quite possibly Elizabeth of York. Whereas Sansa is the daughter of the metaphorical Cecily (aka Catelyn Stark), Elizabeth of York was Cecily Neville’s granddaughter. (GRRM likes to switch things around, but Game of Thrones often loosely mirrors the House of York family structure.)
Sansa and Elizabeth resembled each other and their lives took somewhat parallel courses. Both bounced around various diplomatic marriage proposals. Both wanted to be queens. And, both married or almost married their uncles (or near uncles).
Who was Elizabeth of York?
Elizabeth of York, known to Tudor history fans as Henry VIII’s mother, was also Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville’s eldest daughter and lived from 1466 to 1503. Legend had it that Elizabeth of York was the inspiration for the image on the Queen of Hearts playing card.
“Her purpose from birth had been to supply the needed alliance through marriage. She may have been a princess, may have carried royal blood in her veins, but she was to be bought and sold to the most important bidder.” — Nancy Lenz Harvey one of Elizabeth of York’s biographers, describing her subject
After Richard III overthrew her family and became king, her prospects for queenship or an elevated position were limited. Eventually, as the heir to the House of York, Henry VII married her to bolster his claim to the throne. Although arguably queen-by-right, Elizabeth did not rule as queen regnant. However, all English monarch to this day descended from her and she co-founded the Tudor Dynasty.
While Elizabeth appears to have been ambitious and perhaps haughty as a child and teenaged princess, her extreme reversal of fortune may have taken a toll. By the time she married Henry VII, Elizabeth’s mother-in-law had her under her thumb: Elizabeth adopted the motto “Humble and Reverent.”
Henry VII tightly controlled her finances and left his queen constantly stretched. She wore tin buckles on her shoes and had her gowns mended and re-mended. Elizabeth may have scrimped to give her sisters money for meager dowries since it was her duty was to arrange good marriages for her siblings. However, Henry and Elizabeth’s marriage was supposedly happy and, by contemporary accounts, Henry loved her.
Elizabeth died on her 38th birthday, shortly after childbirth. After her eldest son had died in his teens, heart-broken, she had suggested to her husband they try for another child to secure the succession.
Sansa Cast to Look Like Elizabeth of York?
Comparing Elizabeth of York and Sansa side-by-side it seems quite possible that Sophie Turner was deliberately cast for the resemblance.
|Sophie Turner (R.) may have been cast as Sansa for her resemblance to Elizabeth of York. Image of Sophie Turner via Wikia © HBO|
Both Elizabeth and Sansa were tall women with long red hair or red-gold hair. Sure, there were other red-haired women in the Middle Ages. Elizabeth I, Anne Mowbray, possibly Cecily and Anne Neville, and even, arguably, Catherine of Aragon all were “gingers.” However, when you look at a portrait of Elizabeth of York beside Sophie Turner, the resemblance is striking.
Desire to Be Queen, Marriage
At the beginning of Game of Thrones, Sansa pleads her mother persuade Ned to accept Robert Baratheon’s proposal: “I’d be queen someday. Please make father say yes! Please please! It’s the only thing I’ve ever wanted.” She desperately wants Ned to agree to be Hand so she can marry Joffrey.
Like Sansa, Elizabeth likely harbored a deep desire to be queen. In an age when few women had any power, even personal, becoming a queen would give both Sansa and Elizabeth much more autonomy and authority than most women. Queens had their own households, lands, and income. Sometimes they even ruled when their husbands were absent.
Becoming a queen like her mother would be as natural a goal for Elizabeth of York as it would be for us to want to follow in our parent’s footsteps. (The historian Alison Weir characterizes Elizabeth of York, after she missed her first chance to marry Henry Tudor in 1484, as “ambitious like her mother, and she had recently had been thwarted of her chance of a crown as the wife of Henry Tudor.” )
Plus Elizabeth’s father arranged, no exaggeration, the wedding of the century between his sister Margaret and the insanely wealthy Charles, Duke of Burgundy. Margaret of Burgundy’s wedding was so lavish that nothing topped it for at least a hundred years.
Because Bruges was the cloth-trading capital of Western Europe and the wedding a vehicle for Charles to display his massive wealth, seemingly every gathering place, feast hall, horse, was decorated in insanely expensive cloth ranging from velvet damask to cloth-of-gold. The only wedding today that would rival it would be that of Vanisha Mittal and Amit Bhatia, a $70 million six-day extravaganza held at Versailles in 2004.
The unheard of expense stunned the English party who accompanied Margaret. Undoubtedly, Edward and his court boasted of the wedding for years. Given that Elizabeth’s father arranged this union, she likely expected to marry a king or duke just as grand—even as a little girl.
Elizabeth’s marriage prospects, however, flip-flopped as Edward’s strategies changed.
In 1470, while Edward was attempting to regain his throne (after Warwick revolted), he proposed Elizabeth marry Warwick’s nephew (George Neville, Duke of Bedford). Edward did this to provide an outlet for Warwick’s ambitions by letting him hope his heir would be king someday. After Warwick died, Edward threw out this betrothal.
As part of the 1475 French peace agreement, Elizabeth was betrothed to the Dauphin Charles, the heir of King Louis XI. Elizabeth learned French and had her own household partially funded by France. Elizabeth was dressed in the French style, was treated her like a queen-in-waiting, and greeted as “Madame la Dauphine.” However, Louis XI backed out of this agreement in 1483 much to Edward’s fury and possibly his daughter’s humiliation.
By Jamie Adair