Game of Thrones, the Norman Conquest and Political Violence

The violence and gore in the hit TV series simply reflect the bloodiness of the Middle Ages, right? Not necessarily, says Marc Morris.

Marc Morris | Published in 02 Jun 2014

So I finally got round to watching Game of Thrones. This was partly because my partner wanted to watch it and I wanted to sit on the same couch, and partly because almost all the other medievalists I know have been talking about it a lot over the past couple of years, leaving me feeling very much out of the loop. I quite enjoyed it. The dwarf is very good, isn't he? And the princess with the dragons: she definitely gets a huzzah.

Game of Thrones, in case you've just arrived by spaceship, is a fantasy-adventure type saga with a very medieval flavour. As lots of other commentators have pointed out, it contains, in its plots and characters, historical parallels with the real Middle Ages. People have pointed out similarities, for example, with England in the fifteenth century during the Wars of the Roses. York and Lancaster/Stark and Lannister - you don't have to concentrate too hard to spot that one.

Game of Thrones is also incredibly violent. People are forever being stabbed, mutilated, tortured, beheaded, shot, or otherwise maimed or killed. Very often people get their throats slit. In the dramatic climax of Season Three, the so-called 'Red Wedding', several main characters are dispatched in the most grisly way imaginable.

Well, you might say, that again is simply a reflection of the reality behind the fantasy: the Middle Ages were a bloody and violent era. That's why 'medieval' is frequently employed as a pejorative term. That's why if someone threatens to get medieval on your ass, you run.

Well, not entirely. Such levels of violence did exist during parts of the period we now call medieval. In England, they existed during the late Middle Ages (particularly the fifteenth century, during the Wars of the Roses), and in the centuries before 1066. But in the period I've studied for the past twenty years - the two and half centuries after 1066 - they did not.

The clue here, of course, is the famous date: 1066 was the year the Normans arrived, and the Normans, in spite of their generally negative reputation, did not go in for the kind of extreme political violence that was routinely used in England before the Conquest, and that re-emerged around the year 1300. The Normans were extremely bloody in their warfare - witness the Battle of Hastings and the Harrying of the North - but not in their politics.

A few examples from pre-Conquest England. The reign of Æthelred the Unready (978-1016) saw several bloody purges. Æthelred succeeded to the throne as a child in 978 after the murder of his older half-brother, Edward the Martyr; in 1006 there was a bloody purge at his court orchestrated by his henchman, Eadric Streona, which saw several nobles slaughtered. ('Wulfgeat was deprived of all his property, and Wulfheah and Ufegeat were blinded, and Ealdorman Ælfhelm killed,' says that year's Anglo-Saxon Chronicle). And in 1015 Eadric was at it again: ‘he betrayed Sigeferth and Morcar, the chief thegns belonging to the Seven Boroughs: he enticed them into his chamber, and they were basely killed inside it’.

As you might expect, things failed to improve once England had been conquered by the Vikings in 1016. King Cnut began his reign with a similar round of executions (dispatching, among others, the treacherous Eadric). And the killing continued under his sons: during the reign of Harold Harefoot, Earl Godwine orchestrated the arrest, mutilation and murder of Alfred, brother of Edward the Confessor, and his companions, in 1036. It also continued unabated during the reign of the supposedly saintly Confessor himself. Tostig, son of Earl Godwine, killed his political enemies in Northumbria in 1063 having invited them to a conference. When the survivors came to complain to the king the following Christmas, they too were murdered, this time at the instigation of Tostig's sister, Edith, the Confessor's queen.

All this changed after 1066. 'No man dared slay another', said the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle in its obituary of William the Conqueror in 1087, ‘no matter what evil the other might have done him.’ During William's reign, only one nobleman was executed - Waltheof, earl of Northumbria. Waltheof was implicated in a rebellion against the new king in 1075, and though he speedily confessed and turned himself in, he paid the price the following year, when he was beheaded on a hill just outside the walls of Winchester. Quite why William felt he had to make an example of Waltheof is unclear, but the fact remains he is the exception that proves the new rule. After his execution in 1076, no earl was executed in England until 1306, when Edward I commanded the death of the earl of Atholl. If you want to sum up this development in a sentence, you can say that the Normans, and William in particular, had introduced chivalry, in the sense of sparing and ransoming your enemies rather than lobbing their heads off.

Of course, sometimes the taboo was broken. King John (subject of the next book, btw) notoriously broke it by doing away with his nephew, Arthur of Brittany, and later the wife and son of William de Briouze. But look what happened to King John. After 1066, chivalry was a taboo you broke at your peril.

Waltheof, by the way, was executed on this day in 1076 - the anniversary of his killing, as much my recent Game of Thrones marathon, was the inspiration for this post. Inevitably a couple of people have already said (as they did at the time) 'poor Waltheof'. Waltheof certainly felt very sorry for himself, reportedly weeping and praying before he was led to the block, behaviour which later saw him raised to be a saint. During his lifetime, however, he was not particularly saintly. In the winter of 1073-74, a few months before the rebellion that ultimately cost him his life, Waltheof had settled an ancient blood feud with his rivals, the Karlssons, by sending his men to butcher them in the Yorkshire village of Settrington as they sat down to dinner - a scene which must have been very much like Game of Thrones' Red Wedding. Such behaviour had been par for the course in pre-Conquest England, an accepted part of the political process. But was no longer acceptable in the chivalrous era ushered in by William the Conqueror.

1066 words, so I'll stop.

Marc Morris is a historian who specialises in the Middle Ages. His latest book is The Norman Conquest. This article first appeared on Marc's website.