Sansa Stark’s marriage to Tyrion curiously mirrors Elizabeth of York’s near marriage to her own uncle, Richard III.
When the Tyrells provide military support to the Lannisters, Tywin Lannister agrees Joffrey will marry Margaery Tyrell. The result is Sansa’s betrothal to Joffrey is called off. Tywin, however, realizes that with Robb Stark gone, Sansa is the heir to Winterfell and makes Tyrion marry her. Although Sansa never married Joffrey, she was informally betrothed to him. In some respects, this would make Tyrion nearly Sansa’s “uncle-in-law” – and Tyrion is a character some say may be partially based on Richard III.
After Edward IV died unexpectedly at age 40, his brother Richard (then Duke of Gloucester) seized control of Edward’s heirs and secured them in the Tower of London. Some say for protection, others say for ill intent. Regardless, about four months later, the boys vanished from the Tower never to be seen again. To this day, the fate of the Princes in the Tower remains an elusive mystery. At the time, however, many believed that Richard III had done away with the princes to secure his reign.
Today many historians believe there are several alternate endings to the boys’ story. Other magnates may have murdered them, including Buckingham, John Howard, and Margaret Beaufort. Likewise, some believe the boys escaped – either with Richard’s help or otherwise. For centuries, however, Richard was the traditional suspect, made notorious in Shakespeare’s play. And, this brings us to the point where some very curious events unfold.
After Elizabeth’s mother, Elizabeth Woodville, hid in sanctuary in Westminster Abbey for nearly a year, she finally reached some type of understanding with Richard III in possibly early March 1484 and her daughters may have rejoined the royal court. Elizabeth Woodville’s sons had vanished from the Tower of London by this time, or so we believe.
The reasons Elizabeth accepted a truce with the man suspected of killing her sons are mysterious. Perhaps, Elizabeth knew Richard didn’t kill her sons or that they weren’t dead. It’s possible Elizabeth knew Richard killed them but accepted the political realities of her insecure situation. With her sons unavailable, Elizabeth likely realized there were few avenues open for her children to regain their future. Regardless, Elizabeth decided to let her daughters attend the Christmas court of 1484.
Elizabeth Woodville may have schemed to place her daughter, Elizabeth of York, in front of Richard to spark an interest in her. By late 1484, Richard’s wife, Anne Neville, was gravely ill with either cancer or tuberculosis. People began to float the idea Richard should marry Elizabeth of York. Surprisingly, some of these people may have included Elizabeth Woodville herself. Not only was Elizabeth of York her father’s presumed heir, she was a young, lovely, buxom girl who had similar coloring to Anne Neville.
At the Christmas court, King Richard and Queen Anne received Elizabeth and her sisters with great affection. Although the couple was still grieving for their recently deceased son and Anne was quite ill, the revelry was notably splendid.
During the Christmas festivities, rumors began to circulate at court that Richard intended to marry Elizabeth “whatever the cost.” Then, in March 1485, Anne Neville finally died. Rumors ran wild that Richard had poisoned her so he could marry Elizabeth of York.
By early April, two of Richard’s closest counselors, William Catesby and Richard Ratcliffe, warned him that if he did not publicly deny any plans to marry Elizabeth, his great Northern powerbase would “rise against him” due to their love for Queen Anne. Some historians argue that Richard’s base comprised many men whose loyalty stemmed from their historic ties to Anne’s father, Warwick.
From this pressure, Richard assembled London’s chief citizens in a great hall and loudly declared that an impending marriage to Elizabeth of York was nothing but malicious gossip. Some say that Richard’s denunciation humiliated Elizabeth of York so much that she swore revenge on him and actively worked against him.
Elizabeth of York and Richard may have fallen in love with each other and even had a sexual relationship – at least that’s the controversial theory Alison Weir and other historians put forward.
According to these historians, after Elizabeth of York arrived at court, Richard and Elizabeth were magnetically attracted to each other. Alison Weir writes that “it was only a matter of a days before a passionate connection was kindled between the two of them.”* Croyland, a contemporary chronicler, implied that Elizabeth may have been trying to get Richard to notice her throughout the Christmas celebrations. Croyland felt compelled to comment disapprovingly:
“…immoderate and unseemly stress was laid upon dancing and festivity, vain changes of apparel of similar colour and shape being presented to Queen Anne and the Lady Elizabeth, a thing that caused the people to murmur and the nobles and prelates to wonder thereat. It was said by many that the King was bent…on contracting a marriage with Elizabeth, whatever the cost, for it appeared that no other way could his kingly power be established, or the hopes of his rival put an end to. There are also many other matters which are not in this book because it is shameful to speak of them.”
Croyland also described Richard as having an “incestuous passion” for his niece.
A Jacobean historian, George Buck, claims to have seen a letter in which Elizabeth confessed her deep love for Richard and impatience to marry him. Buck wrote:
“when the days of February were gone, the Lady Elizabeth, being very desirous to be married and growing impatient of delays, wrote a letter to John Howard, Duke of Norfolk… she prayed him, as before, to be a mediator for her in the cause of the marriage to the King who, as she wrote, was her only joy and maker in this world, and that she was his in heart and in thought, in body and in all.”
However, the letter from which Buck based this tale no longer exists. Alison Weir argues that the last phrase, “in body and in all” is proof that Elizabeth and Richard’s relationship was sexual and they may have been effectively precontracted. Likewise, many historians dismiss this salacious story as a pure fabrication.
Even if Elizabeth was attracted to Richard, in Richard’s defense he may not have been attracted to her. Richard was under enormous pressure. As a bereaved man with a dying wife and, arguably, a crumbling reign, he may not have grasped the social implications of marrying a niece. (Theoretically, he may have had no intention to live as man and wife with Elizabeth.)
It is interesting, however, that the surviving stories speak of a desperate and passionate sexual attraction between the king and his niece. According to a theory known as Genetic Sexual Attraction (GSA), when close genetic relatives are physically drawn to each other the sexual chemistry is extremely powerful and overwhelming.
When close genetic relatives never meet until adulthood, sometimes they may develop an extremely passionate sexual attraction to each other – or so the theory goes. According to some researchers, because these relatives weren’t raised together, they didn’t have the chance to become sexually desensitized to each other. Proponents of GSA theory argue that the intense allure stems from a combination of similar appearance, interests, and personality traits.
Given Richard’s avoidance of court after Clarence’s death, it might be possible that Richard and Elizabeth rarely met.
I can’t say whether or not George RR Martin knew about the alleged sexual relationship between Elizabeth of York and Richard III. However, given the depth of his knowledge about the Middle Ages, he probably read about Richard III’s reputed desire to marry Elizabeth of York. It seems possible that George RR Martin incorporated a sanitized version of the Richard III/Elizabeth of York relationship in his platonic marriage between Sansa and Tyrion.
By Jamie Adair