As the warring factions in Westeros return, we ask a medieval historian, the British armys head of strategy and a War of the Roses battle re-enactor how theyd capture the Iron Throne
The politics: Never killing anyone is not an option
Helen Castor, medieval historian at Sidney Sussex College Cambridge
How do we know that anyone will win the Iron Throne? We dont. We have this sense from the historical process that smaller territories come together to form bigger kingdoms so the seven kingdoms of Westeros, and the seven Anglo-Saxon kingdoms that this is an inevitable process. But it can go the other way. In Game of Thrones, it looks as if fragmentation is happening everywhere. And thats scary. Think of relations between England and Scotland after the battle of Bannockburn in 1314, and the threat in England from people who might have seemed like wildlings, raiding as far down as York, people who dont acknowledge the validity of your structures and ideas: that was very powerful in the medieval world, just as it is in the show. Of course, no one has the power to raise the dead and add them to their own army, so there is that.
In those circumstances, to win a lasting victory, what a leader really needs is credibility. And what strikes me looking at this world is how few credible leaders there are left. Credibility is complicated: you need some sort of tenuous claim on authority that the world youre operating in regards as legitimate, but if you have the personal and political qualities, it neednt be much more than tenuous. So Henry Tudor, in 1485 his claim on the throne was vanishingly small, but when everyone else had fought themselves to a standstill and Richard III had acted in a way that seemed indefensible, that gave him an in. So who is there in Game of Thrones?
You have Tommen as king of Westeros well, theres this biblical verse: Woe to thee, O land, when thy king is a child. Henry VI became king at nine months, and it wasnt the fact that he was a child that caused the Wars of the Roses, but it didnt help. A child king presents huge problems. And Cersei, who should be guiding him, cant see more than two moves ahead.
If Jon Snow comes back to life, and that black hair turns out to mean he has some Baratheon blood, he absolutely would be a contender, if hes not preoccupied with the white walkers. But right now he is dead. Daenerys has the charisma, the legitimacy and the dragons, but she has been swept off goodness knows where by one of them, so she doesnt have much of a power base. And even when she does regain her footing, she has two huge problems: one is that shes not in Westeros, and she has to dig her feet into the soil: until she can present herself as a native contender, she is up against it. And she is a woman in a militarised world that assumes that women dont rule. It isnt impossible, but its the exception.
There is a lot of discussion about exploitation and nudity and what actors have to do in the show, but if we leave that to one side, there is something very powerfully historically resonant and real about it. Daenerys and Cersei operate in a world that, like the real medieval one, makes mens bodies cheap because they can be cut down, and womens bodies cheap because they can be used for sex. You only have to look around today to see what war does in terms of sexual violence. And, in the same way, whispers about a queens chastity (let alone incest) were a guaranteed way of undermining her, because the bloodline has to be beyond reproach. And if she dares to be assertive someone like Margaret of Anjou, who became a key player because her husband was so useless the immediate response was to say she was not a natural woman. So its not easy for either of them.
How do you win from here? You need to establish authority, and you need brilliant communications. Communication is such a huge issue; finding out quickly and reliably whats happened. When Pope Innocent III excommunicated King John in 1209, it took months for the news to get from Rome to London. I love how we are seeing that play out whats happening at the wall is so huge, but Daenerys has no idea, and vice versa. And news of both reaches Kings Landing, but Kings Landing is engulfed in its own problems. Its all unreliable, too. When someone says white walkers have been spotted, do you really believe that? If you are an ordinary person and a troop of armed men turn up saying your cause is lost, do you believe them and do what they say, or do you hold on to your loyalty? Up against all that, you need the best information network and the best people running it: someone of the calibre of Lord Varys, or the network of the Iron Bank of Bravos it was always the merchants and the bankers, the likes of the Medicis, with commercial networks, who had the capacity to move information, and the states were always trying to replicate those networks.
In the absence of reliable communications, overt violence becomes inevitable. Today, we all rely on the knowledge that if there is trouble in the street, you can call the police. How do you govern thousands of square miles without any of that? Violence gets delegated, and it gets explicit.Thats not to say it always needs to be quite as brutal as it is in Game of Thrones. Its interesting watching Daenerys struggling with how to walk that line. Never killing anyone is not an option. She has to establish her authority. But its about being responsible for the right ones at the right time in the right way. Working out who the right people are to kill and who are the wrong ones that is a very powerful historical lesson.
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