Saturday, June 25, 2016

Is There Historical Basis for the Forbidden Love on 'Game of Thrones'?

By Nancy Bilyeau

“The man looked over at the woman. ‘The things I do for love,’ he said with loathing. He gave Bran a shove. Screaming, Bran went backward out the window into open air.”

It was one of the most shocking moments of the first season of the HBO series Game of Thrones. The child was Bran Stark, caught peeping through a castle window when he heard voices during one of his climbs up the outer walls. The “man” was Jaime Lannister, and the "woman" his twin sister, Cersei Lannister, married to the king of the Seven Kingdoms, Robert Baratheon. What Bran saw was brother and sister making love, and for that, Jamie tried to silence the boy through murder, for Cersei’s children were not fathered by the king and that was a secret the twins would kill to conceal.

Jaimie and Cersei Lannister

In the current season of Game of Thrones, the forbidden love between Cersei and Jaimie rages stronger than ever. When threatening Lord Edmure Tully, Jaimie, heading up the Lannister army, says:

I love Cersei. You can laugh at that if you want; you can sneer, it doesn't matter. She needs me. And to get back to her, I have to take Riverrun. I'll send for your baby boy, and I'll launch him into Riverrun with a catapult. Because you don't matter to me, Lord Edmure. Your son doesn't matter to me. The people in the castle don't matter to me. Only Cersei. And if I have to slaughter every Tully who ever lived to get back to her, that's what I'll do.”

There is no denying that Game of Thrones is submerged in incest. Whether it’s a dynastic predilection, a forbidden love affair or a source of horrific abuse, incestuous couplings serve as both world-building foundation and crucial plot devices in the books and the series. While Game of Thrones is a fantasy, filled with dragons and “White Walkers” and “the Long Winter,” it draws some of its overarching plots from the medieval period—and the ancient one. Where do the precedents for rampant incest come from? Let’s examine the clues.

George R.R. Martin created a complex and ornately imagined world of seven kingdoms in his series. At the start of the first book, Cersei Lannister is married to Robert Baratheon, but his rule was established through a coup. Robert overthrew the “mad king,” Aerys II Targaryen, the last of three centuries’ worth of rulers of that family. Martin clearly establishes that House Targaryen is built on brother-sister royal unions. He wrote, “For centuries the Targaryens had married brother to sister, since Aegon the Conqueror had taken his sister to bride. The line must be kept pure, Viserys had told her a thousand times; theirs was the kingsblood, the golden blood of Old Valyria, the blood of the dragon.” 

In the television series, this is rarely referred to, although there is no indication that the show runners have changed the family history. Daenerys Targaryen, the product of generations of incest, is a major character of the show, and a sympathetic point of view for the audience, and it’s possible the script writers do not want to weaken the fans’ liking for Daenerys.

Martin most likely modeled the brother-sister Targaryen unions on the Ancient Egyptian royal families that practiced incestuous marriages. The famous Queen Cleopatra was the daughter of a Ptolemy XII and his sister or half-sister. At Ptolemy’s death in 51 BC, 18-year-old Cleopatra ascended, married to her 10-year-old brother (whom she of course had killed). Such marriages were not a peculiarity of the House of Ptolemy. King Tutankhamen, who took the throne in 1332 BC, was the son of a brother-sister marriage. Egypt was then a world power, and the young Tutankhamen worshipped as a god during his short life.

Coffin of King Tut

Scientific analyses recently confirmed that “King Tut” was the offspring of siblings. Moreover, he suffered a bone disease connected to inbreeding and was physically frail, walking with a cane. 

Martin does depict the psychological damage caused by incest in his books and the force often used, particularly in the horrific storyline of the character Craster. The undeniable genetic problems in incestuous families are not addressed, but, interestingly, mental instability often shows up in children of incest in the books. And no character was more unstable than the “Mad King.”

Martin has never said in interviews whether he based the brother-sister love affair of Jaime and Cersei Lannister on either real characters from history or literary characters. He has confirmed that, overall, in Game of Thrones, the depiction of the civil war that breaks out at the death of King Robert Baratheon, leading to so many battles and betrayals, clings “closest” to England’s Wars of the Roses in the 15th century, the struggle for the throne between the houses of York and Lancaster. 

Lancastrian Siege of London, 1471

The kings, princes and lords who fought over the English throne were ruthless and duplicitous—but there was never a hint, in fact or rumor, of incestuous. In fact, royal marriages were arranged with an almost obsessive attention to the partners’ being too closely related by blood or in-law precedents. The medieval popes essentially held control over these monarchies because only a Holy Father could issue a papal dispensation allowing couples within forbidden degree of “affinity” to marry. Since there were centuries of dynastic intermarriage to contend with, these rulings became essential. 

It was a pope’s refusal to reverse an earlier pope’s dispensation for a marriage between Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon that famously led to King Henry’s break with Rome. Henry VIII and Catherine were distantly related, but the dispensation was needed because she was first married to his older brother, Arthur. That was considered an incestuous connection, a sin before God, and Henry VIII claimed he had no sons in his first marriage because he was punished by the Almighty. There are many other, lesser-known examples of fears of “affinity.” The king’s parents, Henry VII and Elizabeth of York, had to get a papal dispensation to marry because they were distant cousins.

If fears over the sin caused by distant cousins marrying was this prevalent, it would lead to the assumption that incest was rare in medieval Europe. The answer to this is…yes and no.

Incest was an abomination, a mortal sin, the darkest part of lechery in the Seven Deadly Sins. It was a direct path to damnation of the soul, which men and women feared above all. It wasn’t just kings and queens who were subject to scrutiny. Bishops investigated charges of incest. On the parish level, priests were expected to be on the lookout, asking probing questions and making sure that relatives did not marry. If caught, those who had sex with blood kin were punished by the church. Penance was proscribed, and sometimes the guilty were forced into monastic life. (Incest remained a matter of canon law in England until 1908!) The definition of incest was incredibly broad, too. It extended beyond immediate family and second cousins to distant relations. In-laws and godchildren were included. In the 12th century, marriages were forbidden between any couple related by blood or “affinity” to the seventh degree.

This level of medieval policing may seem extreme to us but it followed the lead of Roman law. In the year 295 AD incest was explicitly forbidden by Imperial edict. Before then, rules were most definitely broken—at the top. The Emperor Caligula is believed to have had sex with all three of his sisters. His uncle, who became Emperor Claudius, changed the laws to accommodate himself when he wanted to marry his niece, Agrippina (who, years later, is thought to have had sex with her son, Nero.) Both Caligula and Nero were mentally unstable. It’s possible that this first-century storm of debauchery inspired George R.R. Martin, who has written several characters that, once they achieve power, become mentally unhinged and sexually uncontrollable. 

Lucrezia Borgia

There are two rumored cases of royal brother-sister incest outside of the Plantagenet Wars of the Roses that may have inspired Martin. Gossips say that Cesare and Lucrezia Borgia, children of the 15th century Pope Alexander, were lovers. The charge was first heard when the Borgia family pushed through Lucrezia’s divorce from her first husband, Giovanni Sforza. It was a purely political marriage that teenage Lucrezia seems to have had no problem ending. The grounds for divorce were nonconsummation, which Sforza denied, hitting back with Borgia brother-sister incest accusations. Adding to the rumor-mill was the withdrawal of Lucrezia from public life around this time, followed by the birth of a child:
 Giovanni Borgia,"infans Romanus." Historians have long debated the parentage of this Borgia. The mother could have been Lucrezia. Was the father Cesare, brilliant and murderous? Or was the child fathered by Cesare (or his father) with another woman? No one knows for certain.

Anne Boleyn

Less than a century later, Queen Anne Boleyn, the second wife of Henry VIII, was accused of incest with her brother George, along with adultery with four men. Thomas Boleyn, the father of the queen and her brother, was an extremely ambitious man, obsessed with titles and money. Anne and George are talented, witty and attractive. In George Boleyn’s trial, evidence was produced that they acted “contrary to all human laws.” Anne had allegedly "tempted her brother with her tongue in the said George's mouth and the said George's tongue in hers." Also heard was that the siblings had mocked the king’s poetry and his sexual prowess. George is supposed to have repeated Anne’s claim that Henry VIII "was not able to satisfy a woman and he had neither capacity nor virility." Even more seriously, the Boleyns were supposed to have plotted the king’s death. The vast majority of historians do not believe that Anne and George Boleyn committed incest. It was part of Thomas Cromwell’s campaign to blacken her reputation and condemn the queen, freeing Henry VIII to marry again.

With both the Borgia’s and the Boleyn’s, this is key: blackening their names. No one questions that Cesare and Lucrezia Borgia and Anne and George Boleyn were fond of each other. But incest? These were two families that vaulted to power, with members who were ambitious and attractive. They had many enemies. Even a ruler who was feared and revered could face defamation. Charlemagne’s reputation is dogged by the rumors that he had sex with one of his sisters and had feelings other than fatherly for his daughters. When the powerful family in question is more of a parvenu, the sexual-misconduct rumors ran wild indeed.

Let’s take a closer look at the Lannister pair. There are echoes of Borgia and Boleyn in Martin’s creations. The Lannisters are a powerful family, envied and disliked by many others. There is a cold, strong father—Tywin Lannister—controlling a ruthless family. Cersei and Jaime are gorgeous specimens: the queen is famously beautiful and Jaime Lannister has “hair as bright as beaten gold.” Cersei Lannister is ordered to marry young for political reasons. The marriage is very unhappy. Jaime is his sister’s companion and defender, and in secret, her lover. The queen’s three children are fathered by Jaime, although they go to great efforts to create the impression they are Robert Baratheon’s, including trying to murder innocent Bran.

Another source of inspiration for George R.R. Martin could be medieval poetry and storytelling. There is a lot to choose from. “Medieval incest stories are so numerous that it is impossible even to mention them all, let alone to discuss them all in detail,” writes Elizabeth Archibald, author of Incest and the Medieval Imagination. Many functioned as cautionary tales, to warn the faithful of sin. But it’s possible the tales also served as prurient entertainment.

Two classical myths clearly influenced medieval stories: Oedipus, who unknowingly married his mother and killed his father, and Apollonius of Tyre, who uncovered King Antiochus’s rape of his daughter (this story became material for Chaucer, Gower and Shakespeare). Less well known is the Greek myth of the twins Caunus and Bibylis. In Ovid, Bibylis falls in love with her brother but when he learns of it, Caunus runs away. She follows him, heartbroken and still obsessed. She eventually goes mad and dies. Because of her constant weeping, the gods turn her into a spring.

Bibylis and Caunus

A very interesting story can be found in Richard Wagner’s opera Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Ring of the Nibelung), based, in part, on late 13th century Icelandic prose. In one cycle, the hero Siegmund seeks shelter at the house of the warrior Hunding. He meets Sieglinde, Hunding's unhappy wife, and they are drawn to each other. In the course of their conversation, Siegmund tells her that long ago, while he was hunting with his father, his mother was killed and his twin sister abducted. She is, of course, that sister. They flee together, committing adultery and incest, cursed by some and protected by others. Siegmund is killed, despite wielding his magic sword, drawn from a tree. Sieglinde dies giving birth to their son, Siegfried, the hero of further adventures filled with battles, quests, a ring and a sword, and even dragons.

Siegmund and Sieglinde

Perhaps the most famous medieval story of incest can be found in Le Morte d’Arthur. In Sir Thomas Malory’s version, published in 1485, the same year as the Battle of Bosworth that ended the Wars of the Roses, King Arthur has a child with his half-sister, Morgana. Arthur may not have realized when they had sex that she was his sister, or been somehow tricked. The son is Mordred, a traitor whose destiny is to kill Arthur.

In John Boorman’s enthralling 1981 film of the Arthur legend, Excalibur, the character of Mordred is turned from traitor into full-out murderous sociopath. “Come father, let us embrace at last,” sneers Mordred on the final battlefield, as he prepares to spear Arthur. Throughout the film, German music can be heard, most of it composed by Wagner. When young Arthur pulls the sword Excalibur from the stone, we hear Siegfried’s funeral music from Götterdämmerung, the final segment from Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen. Intriguing choices by Boorman.

Joffrey in Game of Thrones

Mordred in Excalibur

It’s impossible not to wonder if George R.R. Martin was influenced by this mixture of sources when you consider Prince Joffrey, the oldest child of Cersei and Jaime Lannister who everyone is fooled into believing is the son and heir to Robert Baratheon. Joffrey is cruel and violent, “a monster,” in the words of Sansa Stark, the sister of Bran Stark, once betrothed to Joffrey. The blond actor who plays Joffrey bears an eerie resemblance to the one who portrayed Mordred in Excalibur.

In Game of Thrones, Joffrey, the child of incest, is poisoned at his own wedding feast, surrounded by those who fear and loathe him. And it is his mother, Cersei, who kneels by his side, screaming and sobbing as he dies.


This post is adapted from the original article running in the April 2016 issue of Medieval magazine.

'The Tapestry' a Finalist for Daphne du Maurier Award

I'm extremely proud to share the news that The Tapestry is a finalist for the 2016 award for Best Historical Romantic Suspense from the Romance Writers of America.

Daphne du Maurier was an influence on my writing from the very beginning, and I look on this as a tremendous honor.

The news on who won the award will be released in July!

Friday, June 3, 2016

Was the Duke of Buckingham Guilty?

By Nancy Bilyeau

Edward Stafford

On May 17, 1521, Edward Stafford, 43, third duke of Buckingham, was beheaded on Tower Hill outside the Tower of London, found guilty of high treason against Henry VIII.

In Shakespeare’s Henry VIII, the king said of Buckingham, “He hath into monstrous habits put the graces that were once his, and is become as black as if besmear’d in hell.”  In the miniseries The Tudors Buckingham actively plots against the king, seeking to replace him, and goes to his execution wailing in terror.

What was the actual evidence against him at trial? Separating fact from fiction, did Buckingham plot against the king? The answer: there was no proof of any plot, no actions taken against Henry VIII. But Edward Stafford was guilty nonetheless — of being too noble, too rich and too arrogant to survive in the increasingly paranoid court of Henry VIII, his cousin once removed.

Buckingham’s entire life was marked with loss and suspicion.

When he was five years old, his father, the second duke, was executed by Richard III. His father allied with Richard to seize Richard's nephew on the road to London, and the duke of Buckingham is considered a key suspect in the murders of the princes in the Tower. For whatever reason, he suddenly turned against the king, and was actively trying to overthrow him when arrested. His heir, young Edward Stafford, was hidden from Richard III in relatives’ homes, not to emerge until  Henry VII defeated the last Yorkist king at Bosworth.

Edward became a royal ward of the Tudor family, knighted at the age of seven. His closest blood tie came through the Woodville family. His mother, Catherine, was the sister of Elizabeth, wife of Edward IV and mother of Elizabeth of York. Edward Stafford was from a strong Lancaster family that recently married into the York dynasty. It should have made him a special favorite.

But as Edward grew into a proud, preening adolescent, Henry VII cooled toward him, fearing that he outshone the heir to the throne, the future Henry VIII. 

The Tudors saw the Staffords as a threat. 

The family's history was turbulent from the start. In 1347, Ralph de Stafford, a supporter of Edward III and a founding member of the Order of the Garter, built Stafford Castle. Ralph was a tough, ambitious and ruthless soldier. After his first wife died, he abducted a wealthy young heiress and married her, ignoring the outrage of her parents. When the girl's family turned to Edward III for justice, he refused to order Stafford to give up his bride. Instead, he gave the parents more titles to shut them up. 

One of the descendants of this union married a descendant of Edward III's youngest son, Thomas of Woodstock. The Staffords now had a royal stake. Humphrey Stafford, the first Duke of Buckingham, was a passionate loyalist to Henry VI and a leading Lancastrian aristocrat and commander of armies. He was known for saying such things as, "The earl of Warwick shall not come to the king's presence, and if he comes, he shall die." He died at the Battle of Northampton in 1460, defending the king's honor.

It was a fiery family legacy for Edward Stafford.

Henry VIII succeeded to the throne in 1509, unchallenged by his older cousin. In fact, the duke was lord high steward for the coronation and carried the crown. But Stafford was noticed. A foreign ambassador wrote admiringly of “my lord of Buckingham, a noble man and would be a royal ruler."

Over the next ten years he was pushed out of the center of power more and more--if he had ever occupied it, which is doubtful. As friends, Henry VIII much preferred lower-born, jovial men of the joust yard like Charles Brandon and William Compton. And the man who ran the entire kingdom was Cardinal Thomas Wolsey. There was no place for Buckingham.

In response, Edward Stafford married a noblewoman of the Percy family, fathered four children (and several illegitimate children), and withdrew to his estates, where he was the unquestioned man in charge. The family seat was Stafford Castle, but he wanted something more modern and spectacular. He began construction of Thornbury Castle. Did its beauty draw the hostility of Henry VIII, himself a fanatical builder?

Thornbury Castle

What more likely changed the cousins’ relationship was Henry VIII's lack of a male heir. 

Catherine of Aragon's last pregnancy was in 1518. They had a daughter, Mary. But the Tudor dynasty was a new one , and Henry VIII and Cardinal Wolsey weren’t sure that the nobility would accept a female ruler when Henry died. Might they not look to the duke of Buckingham or one of his sons, instead? (Henry VIII's decision to annul his marriage and try to father a son with a new wife was years in the future. Anne Boleyn was still in France.)

On April 8, 1521, the duke was ordered to London from Thornbury. He set out for the court, seemingly unaware of any danger, and was greatly shocked when arrested along the way and taken to the Tower.

 At his trial, he was charged with “imagining and compassing the death of the king,” through seeking out prophecy from a monk named Nicholas Hopkins about the chances of the king having a male heir. Evidence was supposedly obtained from disgruntled former members of the duke’s household.

This was a controversial charge. In 1397 a statute was introduced making it treason to imagine or "encompass the death of the king" and conviction could be based on it. But the law was repealed just a few years later because of the need for some action along with the imagining to make it treason. At Buckingham's trial, certain lords asked the chief justice if a person could be convicted "on the basis of words alone." They were told that it was not a felony without an action taken, but nonetheless,  "if one intends the death of the King, it is treason." The message was clear.

Buckingham denied all charges, including seeking prophecy. His friends said those who testified against the duke were bribed or threatened. But a jury of 17 peers found him guilty, led by the duke of Norfolk, who condemned him — while weeping.

Edward Stafford died with dignity on Tower Hill, and was buried in the Church of the Austin Friars. One chronicler said Buckingham’s death was “universally lamented by all London.”

Parliament passed a bill of attainder, and the duke’s enormous wealth — his castles and holdings and titles — passed to the crown. Henry VIII took Thornbury for himself; he stayed there for more than a week  in 1535 with Anne Boleyn. Buckingham's London residence was given to Henry Courtenay, marchioness of Exeter. 

The illustrious Stafford clan never rose to prominence again. They were the first noble family to be crushed by Henry VIII … but definitely not the last. Those who say that Henry VIII changed from a good man into a tyrant in the 1530s, particularly 1536, should take a long look at the death of Buckingham.


Joanna Stafford, a Dominican novice, is the protagonist of The Crown, The Chalice and The Tapestry, set in Tudor England and published in nine countries. The Crown was an Oprah pick for 2012 and was shortlisted for the Crime Writers' Association's Ellis Peters Historical Dagger Award.

For the month of June, The Crown is discounted 70 perecent on amazon and Barnes & Noble. Go here.

The third book in the trilogy, The Tapestry, is a finalist for the RWA Daphne du Maurier award for Best Historical Romantic Suspense.

E-Book Price Slashed 70 Percent on THE CROWN

My publisher is discounting the price of the first novel in my series, THE CROWN. The ebook is available at Amazon and Barnes & Noble for $3.99.

THE CROWN was shortlisted for the Ellis Peters Historical Dagger award from the Crime Writers' Association. It was an Oprah pick in 2012.

The review said: "Bilyeau deftly weaves extensive historical detail throughout, but the real draw of this suspenseful novel is its juicy blend of lust, murder, conspiracy and betrayal."

To order, go here.