The Real Game of Thrones: Daenerys Targaryen and Empress Matilda

The unexpected heir usurped, bereaved, and whose three children are the key to success…

… perhaps the Empress Matilda has some lessons for our Dany.

A early, successful, childless first marriage… and a coolly political second one

Matilda, image from Wikimedia Commons.
Matilda, image from Wikimedia Commons.

At the grand old age of eight, Matilda, the daughter of Henry I of England, granddaughter of William the Conqueror, was sent away to Germany to marry Heinrich V of Germany, who became Henry V of the Holy Roman Empire in 1111. Despite their sixteen-year age gap, he seems to have regarded her highly, having her crowned Empress in Rome and trusting her with the regency of his Italian territories. By the time he died in 1125, leaving no children, Matilda had spent 15 years as his wife — her later childhood, teenage years and young adulthood, and nearly twice as long as she had ever lived in her father’s domains of England and Normandy.

Daenerys was married off to Khal Drogo as a teenager in return for his assistance conquering the Seven Kingdoms: the marriage began badly (nothing like rape to make your wedding night special), but Dany and Drogo eventually developed a close and trusting relationship. When Drogo dies, Dany is heartbroken (losing her pregnancy and having to put an end to Drogo’s suffering herself probably didn’t help).

Matilda made an arguably less successful second marriage with Geoffrey, Count of Anjou. Historian Helen Castor (in her awesome book, She Wolves) describes the situation thus:

“…nicknamed ‘the Fair’, [Geoffrey was] was lithe and athletic, his face ‘glowing like the flower of a lily, with rosy flush’… Matilda, however, was hardly likely to be dazzled by a beautiful boy. Eleven years his senior, and with fifteen years’ experience of imperial politics under the belt of her silken gown, she angrily disdained the idea that she should marry an untested teenager whose status was so vastly inferior to her own. If… her grief for the dead emperor was heartfelt, the contrast between this arrogant adolescent and the father-figure Heinrich had been can only have deepened her revulsion”

After the marriage, she lived separately from Geoffrey for two years before being forced to return to him by her father, who needed Geoffrey’s support for Normandy’s borders, not to mention legitimate heirs to England. Matilda, however, always avoided being referred to by her husband’s title, preferring “Empress, and daughter of the King of the English.” Well, wouldn’t you?

I like you. Honest.  Screencap from HBO's Game of Thrones, Season 5.
I like you. Honest.
Screencap from HBO’s Game of Thrones, Season 5.

Dany likewise arranges to marry someone she really isn’t keen on, Hizdahr zo Loraq, for political advantage and peace in Meereen. In the books, this actually takes place; in the show, Dany avoids it, thanks to the Sons of the Harpy and Drogon Ex Machina.

The unexpected heir

Matilda might have been her father’s eldest legitimate child (he had at least 22 illegitimate ones), but was never expected to inherit the kingdom of England: that honour was reserved for her younger brother, William Adelin.

Dany and Viserys in Season One (image screencap from HBO's Game of Thrones).
Dany and Viserys in Season One (image screencap from HBO’s Game of Thrones).

Likewise, Daenarys was the third surviving (but eighth born) child of King Aerys; her oldest brother, Rhaegar, was a grown man with children of his own, and she had yet another older brother, Viserys. But Rhaegar was killed during Robert’s Rebellion and she and Viserys fled to the Free Cities. When Viserys committed suicide by Dothraki (okay fine, Drogo killed him) Dany becomes Aerys’ only surviving legitimate descendant, and the rightful* queen of the Seven Kingdoms.

*for a given value of rightful

Artist's impression of the White Ship Disaster, from 'Pictures of English History' by JM Kronheim.
Artist’s impression of the White Ship Disaster, from ‘Pictures of English History’ by JM Kronheim. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

Matilda suddenly found herself in the same unexpected position when William died in 1120 in what’s called the White Ship disaster – take a ship full of nobles, add alcohol, nighttime, and a rock in the harbour, and you have lots of drowned nobles and only two survivors (her cousin, Stephen, should have been on the ship also, but disembarked before it sailed). Her father Henry, his second marriage failing to produce an heir, made his nobles swear fealty to Matilda in 1127, but as she had been absent from England for so long, and was also only a woman, the stage was set for some serious political instability.

Usurped by a cousin

Later (13th century) illustration of King Stephen, from a manuscript held in the British Library. Image from Wikimedia Commons.
Later (13th century) illustration of King Stephen, from a manuscript held in the British Library. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

And that’s exactly what happened when Henry I died eight years later in Normandy. Matilda was in Anjou, angry with her father over his refusal to support her and her husband’s territorial claims in Normandy and Anjou. Lucky Stephen, seizing his chance, immediately left Normandy for England and quickly raced to Winchester to take over the treasury and gather the support of the English clergy. Despite both having taken the oath of allegiance to Matilda, and his vastly inferior claim to Henry’s inheritance (as the second son of Henry’s sister), Stephen had himself crowned king. Thus the stage was set for civil war, called The Anarchy, which is a cool name for a decades-long period of intermittent civil war, changing allegiances, daring escapes from castles in the dead of winter, and the like.

What’s this got to do with Dany? It’s a little-known fact – probably because the show hasn’t made anything of it – but Robert Baratheon was also descended from the Targaryens through his paternal grandmother Rhaelle Targaryen, Daenerys’s great-aunt. This made Robert Aerys’ first cousin once removed (Dany’s second cousin), and that fact was used to post-rationalise his usurpation of the throne from Aerys’ heirs.

3 children + patience = the key to success?

Artist's impression of Matilda leaving Arundel, from  A Chronicle of England: B.C. 55 – A.D. 1485 by JWE Doyle. Image from Wikimedia Commons.
Artist’s impression of Matilda leaving Arundel, from A Chronicle of England: B.C. 55 – A.D. 1485 by JWE Doyle. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

Matilda and Geoffrey did their duty to the inheritance, producing three sons between 1133 and 1136 (Henry, Geoffrey, and William, all known by the incredibly awesome surname FitzEmpress). In 1139, four years after Stephen’s usurpation, Matilda’s forces landed in England and took refuge with her stepmother Adeliza in Arundel Castle on the south coast (which is still used as a residence and open to the public. Worth a visit if you’re in the area!). Stephen first besieged the castle, then for reasons that are lost to history but probably not to students of benevolent sexism, decided to release Matilda and escort her directly to her allies. Excellent move, Stephen. For the next decade the advantage swung back and forth between Matilda and her cousin; Matilda was nearly crowned queen in 1141 before being angrily attacked by Londoners, and besieged again in Oxford in 1142.

Matilda seemed to have realised eventually that she could never muster enough support for her own claim, and retreated back to Normandy in 1148, where Geoffrey had been busy consolidating their power and thus threatening Stephen’s hold on English nobles who owned land there. Matilda then switched tactics and pushed the claim of her eldest son Henry, as the eldest legitimate grandson of Henry I; he took up this mantle with enthusiasm, going so far as to invade England as a teenager with a tiny force, despite not having enough money to pay his soldiers. Matilda, embarrassed by her son’s incompetence, refused to lend him the money – so King Stephen did. Classic Stephen.

Matilda eventually succeed in having Henry acknowledged as Stephen’s successor in 1153 (Stephen’s own son Eustace died earlier that year). He was crowned Henry II on Stephen’s death the following year; so nearly twenty years after her father’s death, Matilda finally saw her son on the throne of England. Matilda continued to administer her territories in France, and exert a powerful influence on her son, until her death over 20 years later.

Sound like a plan to you? Screencap from Season 4 of HBO's Game of Thrones.
Sound like a plan to you?
Screencap from Season 4 of HBO’s Game of Thrones.

In Westeros, it’s nearly twenty years since Robert’s Rebellion… and Dany also has three children. Granted, hers are a little more difficult to control than a headstrong teenager, but I can totally see how this one might play out. Send Drogon over to Westeros, “oops sorry how rude of him, burning all those sheep like that, and by the way you realise I’m the Targaryen heir and the only one who can control him…”? I think King Tommen could be persuaded to name Drogon as heir apparent: he likes cats, after all, dragons aren’t that much of a stretch…

Bonus: the assistance of an illegitimate relative

**do not read if you prefer to avoid ASOIAF conspiracy theories**

Though Matilda was her father’s only surviving legitimate heir, he’d had plenty of illegitimate kids: the most powerful of these was Robert, Earl of Gloucester, who was instrumental in Matilda’s successes and the eventual deal she brokered for her son Henry:

…[though] but a bastard, a man of proved talent and admirable wisdom. When he was advised, as the story went, to claim the throne on his father’s death, deterred by sounder advice he by no means assented, saying it was fairer to yield it to his sister’s son [Henry, then a toddler] – the Gesta Stephani

Dany may also have an illegitimate relative in the Seven Kingdoms: likewise a man of “proved talent,” who turned down his chance to inherit his father’s lands, but has plenty of leadership and combat experience, as well as connections and influence with key powerbrokers. Provided he survived the last book/episode, of course… come on, you know who I’m talking about. Don’t make me say it. Okay fine: paste this into rot13 to read: Vs gur Y+E=W gurbel vf gehr, Wba Fabj vf Ylnaan naq Eunrtne’f fba, naq gurersber Qnal’f arcurj.

2 replies on “The Real Game of Thrones: Daenerys Targaryen and Empress Matilda”

Leave a Reply