Game of Roses, or How George R.R. Martin Gave New Names to Historical Persons

I see my friends getting all excited for the new season of Game of Thrones. It almost makes me wish for HBO. But as I’ve said before, I’ve read the books, and as I’ve said before, Martin has drawn heavily on the actual history of 15th-century England in creating his saga. Sure, most people with a basic knowledge of the Wars of the Roses will see York and Lancaster in Stark and Lannister, but it goes deeper than that. Some of the key characters are practically reincarnated versions of real people who played the game of thrones in an England drenched in war.

To wit: (Spoiler-Free for anyone who has seen up to the end of Season 3 of the series, but hasn’t read the books) Continue reading “Game of Roses, or How George R.R. Martin Gave New Names to Historical Persons”

Medieval Dynastic Fail: The Normans

A while back, I jumped off an article about one of the world’s remaining functional monarchies, that of Morocco, to an argument that survival was the key to success for a monarch. I used the Capetians as an example.

Today I’m going to unsay a little of that, and use as an example a dynasty contemporary to the Capetians, who, though they made about as big a mark on history as can be imagined, they survived less than 100 years: The Normans.

William the Conqueror is one of history’s more interesting characters: the illegitimate son of the Duke of Normandy and a tanner’s daughter, William overcame his bastardy (a serious mark against him in those days) to not only succeed to his father’s dukedom, but maintain it’s independence against all the other lords of France. Whereupon he took an almost pitiable claim to the English throne and, in a turn of events that would be laughable in fiction, conquered England almost at one blow. And unlike other fearsome warrior kings, he did not maintain a bevy of courtesans, but remained almost touchingly devoted to his wife. Having worn the title “Bastard” for much of his life, he seems to have made a conscious decision not to bring any into the world. He died a magnificent success, in his saddle (according to one source, by his saddle) as he had lived.

Greater than the romantic color of this life is the significance of it. The Norman Conquest of England changed forever the culture of the conquered land. The English language, hitherto but one of many Germanic tongues of the North Sea, took on a French/Latin tinge that gave it the size and flexibility it enjoys today as the world’s first diplomatic language. England ceased to be a peripheral power and became one of the chief realms of Medieval Europe. Politically, the personal union of Normandy and other French territories to the English throne led to 500 years of conflict with French kings, culminating in the bloodshed of the Hundred Years War. Few men of the Middle Ages made as great a mark on the times as did this illegitimate orphan, who lost his father at the age of seven.

Yet his dynasty was gone almost within a century of his birth. Why?

Continue reading “Medieval Dynastic Fail: The Normans”

With Monarchy, the Name of the Game is Longevity.

At present time, Queen Elizabeth II has been on the English throne for 61 years. If she lasts another three, she’ll tie the record for the longest reign by a British monarch (my money’s on her doing it. She’s only in her 80’s, and her mother lived to be 100). There’s a reason that The King’s Speech was such a big hit: very few people are old enough to remember anyone else being on the throne. There’s a level of legitimacy in that all its own.

The nature of the monarch is sacral, traditional. Aristotle wrote of the earliest kind of Greek monarchy, that “was exercised over voluntary subjects, but limited to certain functions; the king was a general and judge, and had control of religion.” (Politics, III.xiv) They “embody the law.” This is more or less the role that Elizabeth, as a constitutional monarch, has; she decides not a single political question, but all political action occurs under her crown. Her authority is non-existent, her legitimacy, absolute. She is a sacral figure, quasi-mystical. And thus, the longer a monarch hangs around, the greater that legitimacy grows.

There are places where monarchs do more than that. Michael Totten just posted a dispatch from one such place, Morocco, where the King, Mohammad VI, is a real king, a giver of laws and settler of causes. One would have to be an American to be surprised that Morocco is one of the more liberal and tolerant places in the Arab world. Mohammad VI has been the beaux ideal of an enlightened monarch: liberalising institutions, permitting a modicum of free press, setting free the political prisoners of his father Hassan II. He does this without fear, because, like Elizabeth, his legitimacy is without question: his family has ruled Morocco since the 17th century, and his people believe him a stabilizing force: Continue reading “With Monarchy, the Name of the Game is Longevity.”