Sansa Stark and Elizabeth of York: A Shattered Childhood (Part 2)

The rioters are raping her. Sansa awakens gasping and shaken only to discover her nightmare has been born to life. She’s “bled.” Fearing the queen will learn she is now a woman and she’ll be forced to consummate her betrothal with Joffrey, Sansa frantically tries to cut the stain out of the mattress. Sansa’s realities are harsh. Childhood is over and womanhood endangers her.


Sansa and Shae flip the mattress after Sansa flowers. Linked via Wikia. (c) HBO.

Worse than the risk of dying in childbirth, Sansa’s betrothed, Joffrey, is a cruel cowardly boy and a sexual sadist. Even Joffrey’s own mother acknowledges he is “difficult” and unlovable. Cersei advises her, “Love no one but your children.” Sansa replies, “But, shouldn’t I love Joffrey, Your Grace?” To which Cersei answers slowly, “You can try… Little Dove.”

For Sansa, womanhood is a threat.

In the middle ages, no doubt some girls feared becoming a woman. Wedding night sex was a roll of the dice—whether it would be consensual and pleasurable, or degenerate into rape. Childbirth was painful. Obstetrics primitive. Caesarean lethal. One in five women died in childbirth.

For medieval queens, their vocation was to have babies – a perilous act the kings didn’t necessarily appreciate. In Westeros, the queen risks her life bearing princes while the king goes hunting. In Cersei’s case, Robert Baratheon gets an heir: Cersei gets a pelt.


A medieval C-section. Disturbingly, the child’s ears make it look like the devil. Birth of Caesar, British Library, Royal 16 G VIII.

For Sansa, the dangers of the onset of womanhood were obvious. Elizabeth of York, however, may not have realized how turbulent her life would become as she entered into womanhood. Like Sansa, dangerous politics swirled around Elizabeth. Still Elizabeth’s future seemed safe, secure, and pretty much set — until her father died. The death of Sansa and Elizabeth’s fathers plunged both of them into a turbulent succession crisis that ultimately left them, at least temporarily, displaced, without family or position to protect them.


A Turbulent, Anxious and Exciting Childhood

While Sansa had a relatively happy childhood before she went to live with her betrothed, Elizabeth of York’s early days were far more dramatic. By the time Elizabeth turned twelve, five family members had died, war had threatened her father’s life war twice, and she had been betrothed twice.

Elizabeth’s earliest memories might have been of danger. From three to five years of age, her father lived in exile, after fleeing for his life, and she was in and out of sanctuary at Westminster. When Elizabeth was three, her father’s former closest ally, Warwick, killed her maternal grandfather and uncle. Warwick then arrested her grandmother for witchcraft. While Elizabeth might not have remembered these events, they would drive home the very real threat her family was under and likely reinforce the tense anxiety of those days. Thankfully for her, Elizabeth’s father was back on the throne in 1471, and by 1472, he was more secure on the throne.

A Childhood Punctuated By Death and Anxiety

Although Sansa’s brother Bran was crippled in a fall, her earliest days were, mercifully, not as tragic as a typical medieval child’s would have been. Elizabeth of York’s early experiences with death were not unusual for the middle ages; nevertheless, she may have had a different type of worries.


Elizabeth of York as a teenager appears on the left with her sisters Mary (center) and Cecily (R.).

When Elizabeth was six (1472), her maternal grandmother (Jacquetta Woodville) died. Later that year, in December, Elizabeth’s eight-month-old baby sister Margaret died. Still, in spite of these deaths, in the early 1470s, Elizabeth’s family’s life was getting back on track. But, then, in 1475, her father went off to war with France. Presumably, nine-year-old Elizabeth would have felt nervous and vulnerable that her father could die. Edward took the possibility of death so seriously he wrote a detailed will before he left.

It was just after this, however, that Elizabeth’s life took a very glamorous and exciting turn – one that a young Sansa would have appreciated. Around late August 1475, the war with France was over and Edward betrothed Elizabeth to the heir to the French crown, as described in part one of this post. One day Elizabeth would be a queen and she was addressed as one in her household. Elizabeth’s education now changed to prepare her for her new role. Her instructors emphasized court protocol and ritual. And, she learned French.

Another cause for celebration that year: Elizabeth got a new baby sister in November 1475. The little girl was named Anne, presumably after Edward’s elder sister, the Duchess of Exeter.

1476: a year of funerals

Within a few months, however, the baby’s namesake, the Duchess, died in childbirth. No doubt this cast a gloom over the Yorks. Anne may have been one of Edward’s favorite sisters. He had ignored her scandalous lifestyle – Anne lived adulterously with a man for years. Edward employed her lover as his esquire of the body and gave him enormous endowments. Unlike Edward’s other sisters, he probably saw Anne frequently because her (now) husband had a position in Edward’s chamber.

Despite the sadness of Anne’s death, the summer of 1476 was cathartic. Edward had her grandfather, Richard of York, and her uncle, Edmund of Rutland, reburied with an exceptionally elaborate funeral processional. In 1460, when the Lancastrians had killed Richard of York, they mocked his claim to the throne by putting his head on gates of the City of York with a mocking paper crown, an act which desecrated his body. Now that Edward finally had a stable realm and some solvency, he moved his father and brother’s bodies across country to Fotheringhay amidst tremendous pomp. Elizabeth attended the ritualistic High Mass (funeral rites), which were undoubtedly a balm to old wounds.

Perhaps, Elizabeth’s family saw the reburial as the final closure to a terrible chapter and visible symbol of the dynasty’s stability. Little did they know what lay ahead.



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."


  • Reply August 2, 2013


    Another superb blog Jamie! I found it particularly prescient, given the latest media /TV coverage of both ‘The White Queen’ TV series and the new book by Phillip Gregory on Elizabeth of York ( not giving a plug here.. just noting the current ‘buzz’ around EoY. ) Ironically, I find GoT has more of a real feeling of what that time was truly like, A fascinating parallel from you, as always. xx

    • Reply August 4, 2013

      Jaime Adair

      Thanks,Martine!! Very kind of you to say. Being a Wars of the Roses junkie, I actually want to do some posts on the White Queen.

  • Reply February 11, 2014

    Chas D.

    I hate to keep popping back randomly and simply drop a line and vanish, but this thought literally popped into my head today, and I felt compelled to share it.

    I’ve been trying to figure out what Lysa Tully Arryn and Petyr Baelish reminded me of, so I thought back to the books and what happens later on when Sansa joins those two. Suddenly when Sansa came into the picture I was reminded of a story about Elizabeth of York’s granddaughter and namesake–and suddenly things in Sansa’s Vale storyline clicked like they hadn’t before.

    In that storyline, Sansa stands in for the young Elizabeth (later the Virgin Queen), as she gets caught in a tangled web between older adults who are supposed to be taking care of her, but instead are misusing her or plotting. Petyr Baelish gets to play the part of Thomas Seymour (the realization I had this afternoon about him was that Petyr was somewhat an amalgamation of Thomas Seymour, Edward Seymour, and Henry VIII’s Oliver Cromwell all rolled into one), who in Elizabeth I’s youth had an inappropriate relationship with his step-daughter by marriage (slapping her on her buttox, entering her chambers while she was in her nightclothes, etc.). Elizabeth was staying with her stepmother Catherine Parr–who at first saw nothing wrong with the relationship, but as time passed became rather suspicious and vitriolic. In both cases the Catherine Par/Lysa Tully figure died (Lysa by Petyr’s own hand, Catherine giving birth to Thomas’ child).

    Likewise when I thought of Catherine Parr, her story sounded oh so eerily similar to Catherine Parr’s. A woman constantly married much older men (the last of which was Henry VIII), while kindling a love for a man about her age with whom she spent some time growing up with (her family moved to London when she was a teen–and that’s when Thomas and Catherine met IIRC).

    What sealed the deal was the whole triangle dynamic between Elizabeth I – Thomas Seymour – Catherine Parr was just about the same as the one between Sansa – Petyr – Lysa.

    And of course in this scenario, young little Lord Sweetrobin is Edward VI–and actually the portrayal is not that far off at all.

    So Sansa doesn’t always get to play the part of just one Elizabeth, but she’s also gotten to play the role of another Elizabeth as well. In fact I’m starting to think that that might be Sansa’s endgame–as her virginity always seems to just narrowly be preserved (the only other character whose virginity seems to miraculously be preserved is Margery’s and I’m not sure that that isn’t from a lack of trying on her part), and with the lessons Sansa’s learning from Petyr–she’s learning the ins and outs of politics like none other. The Virgin Wolf, anybody? 😉

    • Reply February 11, 2014

      Jaime Adair

      Isn’t this an interesting idea? Especially since Elizabeth of York and Elizabeth I were both red-heads – and you’re right. Once you explained the Thomas Seymour/Elizabeth idea, it does have a a lot of parallels. I once read a disgusting description of Edward VI abusing an animal, which made me think that he was the quintessential sociopathic princeling – not unlike Lysa’s son. Thanks for the great comment, Chas.

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