“Enemies to the east, enemies to the west, enemies to the south, enemies to the north. Whatever stands in our way, we will defeat it.” So says Cersei Lannister to her brother Jamie, as she considers the various threats to her reign.
The trailers for season seven of Game of Thrones promise further epic battles to decide the fate of the Seven Kingdoms. One of the key struggles will almost certainly be between Cersei Lannister, recently crowned queen of Westeros, and Daenerys Targaryen, whose ownership of several dragons would appear to give her a distinct advantage on the battlefield. Her mantra: “I was born to rule the seven kingdoms and I will.”
One of the many sources of inspiration for Game of Thrones is the Wars of the Roses, which involved several ambitious women – principally Margaret of Anjou, wife of Henry VI, Elizabeth Woodville (who married Edward IV), and Margaret Beaufort, whose son Henry Tudor would eventually take the crown – who brought the civil war to an end. The Hollow Crown, the BBC’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s plays about the Wars of the Roses, portrayed Margaret of Anjou wearing mail on the battlefield, but what role did women really play in warfare of the later medieval period?
This partially depends upon how we define warfare. Then, as now, it was unusual to find women on the battlefield – but not impossible, think of Joan of Arc or Joanna of Flanders who donned armour to attack her enemy on horseback. But, if we think of warfare more broadly – as being waged by one society against another – then women played a significant role in the war effort.
On the home front, wives would be responsible for looking after the estates or the family business while their husbands were away. In 1448, Margaret Paston wrote to her husband John, a lawyer and MP, that she was having trouble with a neighbour. She asked him to send her weapons so that she could defend the property. She did not ask him to return and help but described the steps she was taking to defend the estate. To further prove that this was nothing out of the ordinary, she also sent him a shopping list, asking him to send sugar, almonds and fabric to make clothing for the children.
When under attack, women contributed to the defence of their settlement, whether by bringing children or animals to a place of safety (something a young Joan of Arc may have done when her village was attacked by Burgundians), preparing supplies or supporting military activity. This could involve repairing or building defences, gathering stones or projectiles, or boiling water or oil to use against the enemy.
In the Siege of Senlis, during the Hundred Years War, the citizens prepared wagons at the top of a steep hill to push down on enemy soldiers and men concealed themselves in houses so they could surprise the invaders. Women stationed themselves at windows to pour boiling water on the attackers. The Chronicle of Jean de Venette revealed that the citizens of Senlis managed to defend themselves successfully – and that the women played their part.
Queens in particular had a role to play in times of war. If their husbands were away fighting, it was not uncommon for queens, such as Philippa of Hainault (wife of Edward III) or Katherine of Aragon (first wife of Henry VIII) to be in charge of defending of the realm. Both queens of England won important battles against the Scottish while their husbands were waging wars in France.
It was more controversial, however, if a queen seemed to make war in order to further her own interests. Queens are meant to be patrons, mediators, and peacemakers – so while Katherine and Philippa are revered for defending the realm, history has been less kind to those queens who are perceived as aggressors. Like Cersei Lannister, Margaret of Anjou is often portrayed as a villainous adulteress, determined to protect her own power and the rights of her child at any cost. In Shakespeare she is called the “she-wolf of France”, and the opposition propaganda of her own time depicts her as willing to destroy the realm in pursuit of her own desires.
Yet what choice did Margaret have? Married to an ineffective king, whose ability to rule and even his sanity were often in doubt, she could not stand by while her son was disinherited. Soon after her husband agreed to name Richard Duke of York his heir, a Lancastrian army led by Margaret’s chief commander attacked Richard at Sandal Castle in Wakefield.
Richard was killed and his eldest son Edward took up the Yorkist cause as bloody civil war continued. When Henry VI was imprisoned after the battle of Towton and Edward took the throne, Margaret fled to France with her son and lived there in exile. Like Daenerys Targaryen, however, she was only biding her time. She would eventually return with an invading army.
Margaret was eventually doomed to failure and an obscure death in France after the deaths of her son and husband. The Wars of the Roses raged off and on until, thanks to the politicking of Margaret Beaufort and Elizabeth Woodville, Henry Tudor was able to raise an army against Richard III whom he defeated at the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485.
What sets both Cersei and Daenerys apart, however, is that they are both fighting to defend a personal claim to the throne, rather than the claim of a husband or son. Either one could be seen as a defender or an aggressor – it depends upon where your loyalties lie.
If history teaches us anything, however, it is that the queen who is ultimately successful will ensure that she is recorded in history as the defender, not the usurper, of Westeros.
Marta Cobb, Teaching Fellow in Medieval Studies, University of Leeds.