Was Sansa’s Marriage to Tyrion Inspired by a Tale of Incest?

Sansa Stark’s marriage to Tyrion curiously mirrors Elizabeth of York’s near marriage to her own uncle, Richard III.

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Joffrey escorts his former betrothed down the aisle to wed his Uncle Tyrion. (c) HBO.

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.

Richard III

Richard III

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Edward V

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.

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Elizabeth Woodville

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.

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Elizabeth of York’s effigy. This may be the closest representation to her likeness. Photo by Lisby on Flickr.

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.

Possible Incest?

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.

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A Twelfth Night feast in France from roughly 1416. The Twelfth Night was the last day of the Twelve Days of Christmas.  The duke, seated at the table, wearing blue and in a fur hat, beckons his followers forward to present him with New Year’s gifts. Source: Jean, Duc de Berry’s Book of Hours- January. Also known as Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry.

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 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."

16 Comments

  • Reply August 7, 2013

    renatus1

    In response to the claim that Richard III planned to marry his niece, Elizabeth of York, or even that the two have had a relationship, I reproduce below excerpts from an article in defense of Richard from Royal Central:

    ”Though out of chronological order, we will look first at the issue surrounding Elizabeth of York, since The Real White Queen has brought it once more to the fore. When Richard’s wife died on 16th March 1485, a rumour arose that he intended to marry his niece, Elizabeth of York, the eldest daughter of King Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville. Elizabeth also happened to be the woman Henry Tudor had vowed to marry should he take the throne, a clear play for the support of disaffected Edwardian Yorkists. Apparently on the advice of Sir Richard Ratcliffe and Sir William Catesby, Richard issued a public declaration that he did not intend to marry his niece. He spoke before the mayor and aldermen of London and wrote to others of his disgust at the malicious rumour. Public denial does little to establish guilt or innocence, yet this is odd for a man silent about the fate of his nephews.

    A guilty conscience? Perhaps. Yet it ignores the fact that Richard opened negotiations to marry Joana of Portugal, an arrangement that was to include Elizabeth’s marriage into the Portuguese royal family to the king’s cousin Manuel, Duke of Beja at the same time. This was not simply a random, convenient match. Richard was attempting to play Henry at his own game. Philippa, a daughter of John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster and sister of Henry IV, the first Lancastrian king, had married into the Portuguese royal family and the blood of Lancaster flowed strongly there. Stronger and more legitimately than it did in the veins of Henry Tudor. Richard was seeking to attract Lancastrian support just as Henry looked to draw disaffected Yorkists to his cause by unifying the feuding Houses.

    It also disregards another vital fact. Elizabeth had been declared illegitimate by Parliament along with her brothers. She would hardly have been a suitable match for a king. Henry VII was to ensure that this obstacle was officially removed before he would marry her, so how could Richard, the man who had put the obstacle in place, overlook it? It seems doubtful that a Papal dispensation would ever have been granted for such a close blood relationship. It would certainly have been required, yet was never sought.

    Why would this rumour surface from nowhere? It is possible, in a repeat of the misinterpretation of Henry II’s desire to be rid of the troublesome Thomas Beckett, that Richard exclaimed his desire to have Elizabeth of York married to rid himself of the threat of Henry Tudor marrying her. This frustrated aspiration could have been misread as the king proclaiming a desire to marry her himself, or it could have been seized upon by his enemies as a mark of the lack of support he suffered from and of the propaganda tactics employed by the Tudors throughout their time in power. To muddy the waters further, Henry Tudor was so uncertain as to Richard’s intentions that he apparently sought an alternative match with Katherine Herbert, sister of William, Earl of Huntingdon, a staunch Yorkist in whose father’s care Henry had spent some time, risking the loss of Woodville support. This may be a symptom of the lack of certain information reaching Tudor in exile, but it confirms that at least the rumour was all too real.

    In The Real White Queen, it was asserted that Richard had an affair with Elizabeth, but there is absolutely no evidence for this beyond rumour and Richard’s refuting of the rumour. Indeed, an extra-marital affair seems deeply unlikely whether the rumours of impending marriage were true or not. It was also claimed that part of the reason Henry VII delayed marrying Elizabeth was to ensure that she was not pregnant by Richard. Henry was crowned on 30th October 1485, just over two months after his victory at Bosworth. He married Elizabeth on 18th January 1486 and had her crowned on 25th November that year. Elizabeth’s Yorkist support had helped to propel Henry to the throne and his delay demonstrated his desire to rule in his own right as a descendant of Edward III, through his mother’s line to Edward’s son John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster. He could not tolerate accusations that he held power by virtue of his wife’s Yorkist blood. Beyond even this, a Papal dispensation was sought for the marriage because of the blood relationship between them and the couple had to wait or this dispensation to be granted and to arrive.

    I do not believe that any crime was committed in this case. I cannot accept that Richard ever intended to marry or had an affair with his own niece, an illegitimate daughter of a woman he may have considered an enemy. It might have crossed his mind in a darker moment as a way to prevent anyone else, including Henry Tudor, from marrying her, but his solution appears to have been to seek a marriage for her into a foreign royal family. This seems a far more reasonable, suitable and effective solution. A criminal court would throw this out for lack of evidence. Even at the time none seemed certain what was happening and in the end, nothing did come of it. On the balance of probability? I do not think that Richard could be convicted by this measure either. His actions bear witness to his solution to the problem that the rumours sprang up around. I suspect that the rumours and the public announcement were a measure of just how far Richard’s grip on power had slipped by this point; how desperate a widowed, childless king struggling to galvanise support had become.”

    – Source: http://www.royalcentral.co.uk/blogs/history/the-real-white-queen-a-defence-of-king-richard-iii-13421

    • Reply August 23, 2014

      WH

      While I agree with your final assessment, I do think there are some things that are necessarily evidence to the contrary about an Elizabeth Richard match. For example, her illegitimacy surely would have been an issue when marrying her off in general. Henry VIII encountered the same problem when he attempted to set up a marriage between his daughter Elizabeth and the dauphin. Her taint of illegitimacy most likely would have needed to be removed prior to making an good match, including one with the Duke. Being that Richard is the one who put it there, it would have been tricky to remove it. Also, as far as their close relation I don’t agree that the pope wouldn’t grant it. The Habsburg’s were known for inbreeding. Charles II of Spain was the product of an uncle-niece marriage and that occurred much later than Richard and Elizabeth’s alleged courtship. While I do not think there was a relationship, I do not see it as impossible. After a very tumultuous childhood, Elizabeth May have seen Richard as her only protector and been anxious to be in his affections, if not sexually. Richard may have kept his niece close, realizing her importance and the power she held, especially after Henry declared his intentions to marry her. While the rumors may have been an attempt to slander Richards character, surely the outrage of the public let him know that marriage to his niece was not a possibility, at least not in England. He may have gotten away with it in the Habsburg empire.

  • Reply December 10, 2013

    morgana62

    I imagine all the snide little cabals that surrounded the court were responsible for that whisper, that Richard wanted to marry his niece. Renatus, you are right in your assesment. I would add two things: comment on the dress (colors) that Elizabeth and Anne wore at the Christmas bash, and human nature. It was common at that time for women of the same affinity to wear similar colors in their costume, it simply shows “we are for each other”. Rich cloth being expensive, Anne could have taken Elizabeth under her wing and wanted to help her feel comfortable at court, to let all know that they were of the same family.
    Relationships with young teen girls and slight infatuations with older male relatives are common in close families, even today. I was one myself once, and know how a teen can want to test their budding femininity on someone close to them, and no real danger to themselves. I have seen this happen a few times with friends and family. Hopefully, the male relative is firm in the manner he deals with this situation. Think of poor Elizabeth, her father is gone, her brothers are gone, her mother is, I think, abstracted from her situation, she’s been betrothed, twice before, unsure of her role, a pawn in this game. Richard has the power now. I bet Elizabeth flirted, and someone noticed, and we all know how gossip grows and grows with each telling.
    The White Queen is not history, and Phillipa Gregory is not a historian.

    • Reply December 10, 2013

      Jaime Adair

      I never replied to this thread before because I thought the first comment was a fair indictment of my article, albeit one that (naturally 🙂 ) I don’t completely agree with. Also I was hoping other people would comment. Interestingly Alison Weir pulls back in her incest argument in her latest book Elizabeth of York. BTW, Olga has an interview with Alison Weir and Arlene Okerlund at Nerdalicious.com.au – definitely check it out.

      The thing to remember when you read these posts is that I’m trying to draw parallels between GoT and history, so these are my perceptions of how GRRM may have interpreted history. He is a fiction writer so he isn’t necessarily looking for the truth – and that’s fine – he may just be looking for juicy rumors and good stories. And, that’s okay.

      I think as long as people realize that Philippa Gregory writes FICTION – that’s okay. But I do wish she’d avoid defamation sometimes.

      • Reply May 1, 2014

        Olga Hughes

        I wonder why it is that in many cases I have seen Elizabeth is considered to have been flirting with or to have had a crush on her uncle. I’ve always thought it is far more likely Richard made a passing remark which was seized upon to use against him.

        • Reply May 2, 2014

          Jamie Adair

          I think it is because the version where there is a crush is far more shocking and salacious.

  • Reply April 24, 2014

    Kristina

    I think that Sansa is actually based on the queen Elizabeth I. and Petyr Baelish is Thomas Seymour, although a part of me hopes he is (also) Robin Dudley, if you know what i mean. 🙂

    • Reply April 24, 2014

      Kristina

      Moreover, considering their physical appearance, Petyr resembles Robin much more than Thomas. Plus I haven’t read the books yet, because i am new to GoT, but I have read on some forum, that Sansa is actually developing some feelings for him. Or is it just my wishfull thinking? 🙂

      • It’s your wishful thinking. When you read the books, you will learn that Sansa (who is BTW 13-year old in the books) feels zero romantic or sexual attraction for Petyr Baelish, despite his best attempts to groom her as a classic sexual predator. I won’t say more.

        Physical appearance? Was Dudley supposed to be a ‘small man with a pointy beard’ (Baelish’s book description)?

  • Reply April 25, 2014

    Jamie Adair

    ROFL. Seriously??? Lol. Oh my gosh. I would *never* want Sansa to feelings for Petyr. The guy gives me the hebby-geebies (sp?). lol. But, I don’t remember that part of the books that well. What happens after that is very clear in my mind… Although come to think of it, we are on the edge of spoiler and historical spoiler territory. 🙂 But, great comment and lol wishful thinking. (Hey, I think Tywin is hot, so who am I to complain? 🙂 )

    • Reply April 25, 2014

      Kristina

      Haha, I think people could say we have some daddy issues. 😀

      I think Sansa is going to use him and kill him in the end. Whatever happens in between will be intriguing! He is clever, powerful, dangerous and charming. He is also Snape of GoT in his twisted way.But who knows what would happen if Harry Potter was a girl. 😀

  • Reply April 25, 2014

    Olga Hughes

    First Sansa and the Hound and then Sansa and Baelish? I think we need to find her a nice young man.

    • Those are very different things. There was no relationship between Sansa and Sandor Clegane, but she is attracted to him and feels a connection to him long after he’s gone – not that anyone who hasn’t read the books would know that, the TV show tends to completely ignore subtext and internal thoughts of characters.

      Baelish pretty much kidnaps Sansa and puts her in a helpless position after he’s made sure she is framed for regicide and then acts as a mentor/father figure to her while hoping to groom her into being his lover, since she looks like her mother. On her part, their ‘relationship’ – if you can call it that – is based on the fact that she has nowhere else to go an no one to turn to.

  • I’m really confused here. What similarities are there between Richard II and Elizabeth, and Tyrion and Sansa?

    They certainly didn’t fall in love, and there is no sexual attraction on her part. It’s not incest – they’re not related. He didn’t have a wife whose death he was waiting for so she could marry Sansa. The whole idea was his father’s. Sansa was a captive and had no choice in the matter, it was a forced marriage. Her family certainly didn’t agree to marry her to the Lannisters – her mother wanted to get her out of King’s Landing. The Lannisters forced her into the marriage as an act of war against her family.

    What parallels are there that I’m missing?

    • Reply May 1, 2014

      Jamie Adair

      Hey TravellingTimeBunny,

      Welcome and thanks for your comments! The parallels I was trying to draw were really big picture – at a very surface level – and that’s all. Sansa married her (near) uncle-in-law, and Elizabeth of York *allegedly* wanted to marry her uncle Richard III – or at least it was discussed for political reasons. By Sansa marrying her near uncle-in-law, I mean Tyrion – who would have been her uncle by marriage if she’d married Joffrey.

      In the Middle Ages, betrothal a were nearly equivalent to marriage in many cases. The Church also had stricter definitions of incest. Eg marrying a widowed sister-in-law was technically considered incest. (Catherine of Aragon/Henry VIII.)

      Btw, I don’t mean that Sansa wanted to marry Tyrion – she didn’t. Also, it isn’t clear that Elizabeth of York necessarily wanted to marry Richard – that’s very controversial among historians. I just wrote the article to point out the similarity.

      • Reply August 23, 2014

        WH

        Couldn’t the parallels also be considered with Sansa and Baelish? After all, he is her uncle as well since her married her aunt. He kills her aunt, just as Richard was accused of killing Anne Neville. He also harbors sexual feelings for his much younger, beautiful niece who was once engaged to a prince. Just a thought. Love the site.

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