Call this a late Valentine, but I love Game of Thrones‘ villain Tywin Lannister – even when he is at his most heinous.
As the Machiavellian mastermind behind the Red Wedding, Tywin dwells down there with villains like Cersei, Joffrey, and the Boltons. Still, from a literary and historical perspective, Tywin gives us a lot to love.
Tywin exemplifies the old guard in early phases of the Wars of the Roses: the brutal veterans of the Hundred Years’ War. You can’t create a realistic three-dimensional late medieval world without a few men who always put ambition ahead of pity.
In many ways, Tywin is a poster-boy for the perfect medieval noble in the age of bastard feudalism: Tywin loved his legacy, he could be brutal and violent to achieve his ends, and he could manage his barons.
Here are the top five reasons I love Tywin Lannister:
1. Tywin is nuanced, three-dimensional
Tough, powerful, fearsome, uncompromising, and in control, he is, to put in Olenna Tyrell’s words, “One of the few men who actually live up to their reputations.” In short, even if we don’t like Tywin, we still admire him. Tywin is a grey character. We may like (TV) Tywin when he is with Arya. Afterall, he is the man who spent four hours every day teaching his son to read. He is also the man who gives a hungry girl his mutton supper. And, he is the man who will do anything for his family (legacy).
2. Tywin epitomizes the medieval noble “family man”
Tywin is a family man – but only if you look at how medieval nobles honored their families. Like the other men of his age, Tywin cares mainly about his legacy – his family name, titles, and lands.
Legacy was a matter of life and death in medieval England. By all evidence, many nobles believed the only thing worth dying for was their family, legacy, and ability to pass that on to their children. Nobles went to war to protect their families’ legacies.
Consider, for example, the pivotal event that led to the rise of the House of Lancaster.
Smelling the faintest whiff of treason, Richard II sentenced Henry Bolingbroke — the son of the most powerful noble in England – to ten years of exile. After Bolingbroke’s father and protector, John of Gaunt, died, Richard summarily banished Bolingbroke for life and seized his inheritance.
This violation of inheritance rights appalled the nobles. They decided if they didn’t stop Richard II, they might suffer the same fate. Once Richard II left England to try to conquer the Irish chieftains, the English nobles made their move and supported Bolingbroke in seizing the throne.
Likewise, the House of York’s downfall came, in part, because many nobles came to believe that the House of York couldn’t be trusted to uphold your inheritance rights. The Yorks fundamentally misunderstood why nobles chose to fight in the Wars of the Roses: to ensure they were on the winning side and avoid forfeiting their legacy through attainder1.
Legal maneuvers, like the one that stripped the widow of the great magnate Warwick the Kingmaker of her inheritance, ultimately depleted the nobility’s faith in the Yorkist regime. By the time of Bosworth field, only six noble families came to defend Richard III – 80% of nobles stayed away (in contrast, nearly all nobles fought in 1461).2
The House of York either couldn’t see or ignored the big picture their actions collectively presented: the Yorkists couldn’t be trusted to protect your family’s legal rights to your legacy.
3. Tywin is the quintessential brutal warrior from the Hundred Years’ War
Tywin Lannister brings roaring to life the values of the brutal, violent veterans of the Hundred Years’ War/early Wars of the Roses period.
Lurking in the background of Clash of Kings is Tywin’s not-so-nice treatment of peasant villages. Offstage (or offpage), Tywin is ordering his troops to burn and pillage villages in Robb Stark’s territory. On the TV show, it’s implied that Tywin promotes a man to his war council due to his skill in brutalizing peasants. (Presumably, Tywin promotes Ser Amory Lorch because he’s pleased with his work so far – and it seems like he only has one skill: terrorizing villagers.)
After Edward III launched his frankly despicable war against the French crown peasants, generations of English nobles came of age systematically brutalizing defenseless French villagers. The result? A money-hungry power-holding caste who typically trampled over anyone to better their fortunes, institutionalized war as a method of achieving this end, and all too often categorically dehumanized and discarded anyone not of their ilk (esp. peasants).
A lion doesn’t concern himself with the opinions of a sheep.
A hundred-plus years of war inured these English nobles to violence. Orders to savage peasant villages through the chevauchée-style raids let the high lords rationalize extreme cavalier slaughter, and ransom and pillage windfalls fueled their bad behavior.
A medieval military industrial complex?
The money English nobles gained from capturing and ransoming French knights during battle – not to mention seized the luxury goods, such as tapestries and jewels – fueled a lifestyle that would have otherwise been beyond them and encouraged a medieval “keeping up with the Lord Joneses.”4
When these veterans returned to England, the savage tactics continued. For example, in July 1460, when the Yorkist army besieged the Tower of London, the Tower’s garrison commander, Lord Thomas Scales—a brutal Hundred Years’ war veteran—turned the Tower’s guns on his own people, the citizens of London. And, then to clear the area surrounding the Tower, Lord Scales shot wildfire (medieval napalm) at the people in the streets below, maiming women and children in the process.5.
4. Tywin questions the values of that great destroyer also known as chivalry
Tywin eschews chivalry and convention. As discussed in this controversial chivalry post, after the Red Wedding, Tywin famously says to Tyrion, “Explain to me why it is more noble to kill 10,000 men in battle than a dozen at dinner.”
Tywin scoffs at the niceties of war. After Jaime Lannister ambushes Ned Stark, Tywin asks “Why is he still alive?” Jaime replies, “It wouldn’t have been clean.” Tywin dismisses this as merely a concern for appearances: “Clean? You spend too much time worrying what other people think of you.”
Not everyone in the Middle Ages bought into chivalry’s more honorable aspects. And, chivalry encouraged violent warfare.
5. Tywin skillfully manipulates “barons” (vassals) in Game of Thrones
Tywin Lannister deftly manipulates Walder Frey and Roose Bolton to his own ends. Walder Frey gets to be Lord of Riverrun. Roose Bolton temporarily becomes Warden of the North. And, Tywin Lannister gets a kingdom.
Martin never likens Frey’s stature to a real-world rank, but it seems likely he would be the rough equivalent of a baron. Like the fifteenth century gentry, Frey chafes at being a vassal to a higher-ranking noble family (to House Tully).
During the bastard feudalism period (14th and 15th century), barons had specific expectations about service, advancement, or conduct of the noble they followed. If a noble didn’t meet his followers’ expectation, his followers might drop him and go to another noble.6
As Robb Stark points out to his mother, his retainers wouldn’t tolerate him giving up Jaime Lannister for two girls. It is worth pointing out that GRRM correctly incarnates this relationship. The barons and other members of the gentry in an earl or duke’s retinue didn’t just do what the high lord wanted with no say.
Many nobles found it tricky to manage the barons and other members of the gentry (knights, etc) who formed their retinue of followers. Not all high lords could balance their retainers’ demands: the followers weren’t slaves and only followed a lord who could meet their expectations.
It spelled D I S A S T E R when kings and nobles couldn’t manage the gentry. The gentry dramatically outnumbered the upper-ranks of the aristocracy (dukes, earls). Between 1150 and 1350, the roughly 200 barons and other leading gentry men comprised 94% of the aristocracy. There were only a dozen earls.7
This garish diagram provides a rough idea of the structure:
When disaffected barons revolted in the thirteenth century, they forced King John to relinquish some of the crown’s powers, made him sign the “Articles of the Barons” and ultimately led to Magna Carta. And, some historians, such as Christine Carpenter, have speculated that the downfall of Edward IV’s brother, George the Duke of Clarence, came because he simply couldn’t manage the feuds in his retinue and Edward grew tired of his brother’s ineffectiveness.8
As a parting comment, while researching this article, I found these two memes on the tumblr whywelovethelannisters. While I’m not absolutely certain that I agree Jamie killed Aerys to save his father, the contrast is striking. Jamie’s meme speaks to how we see family duty today; whereas, in the Middle Ages serving as the power behind the throne would have been a much higher way to honor your family.
By Jamie Adair
- Victorious kings often stripped nobles on the losing side of their lands and titles through an act of parliament known as attainder. For a definition, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Attainder [↩]
- M. Hicks p. 30 Richard and His Rivals [↩]
- “The Old Gods and the New.” [↩]
- See M. Hicks “Counting the Cost of War” p.185 -6 in Richard III and His Rivals. [↩]
- See “London and the Wars of the Roses” by Vanora Bennett, author of Figures in Silk <http://vanorabennett.com/book/figures-in-silk-aka-queen-of-silks-london-and-the-wars-of-the-roses/> [↩]
- For a deeper discussion of gentry and noble relationships, see Michael Hicks’ Bastard Feudalism and his Richard III and his Rivals. [↩]
- M. Hicks, Bastard Feudalism, 5 [↩]
- See Christine Carpenter in “The Duke of Clarence and the Midlands: A Study in the Interplay of Local and National Politics” in Midland History 11 (1986) p.23-48. [↩]