Once again, much of the television watching world is gripped by the latest installments of Game of Thrones. Not myself sadly as I don’t have access to the channel that broadcasts it in the U.K. so face another long and perilous 7 months before the next Bluray Boxset comes out.
As incredible as it may be, it is only a few short years ago since we were all gripped by the one of the most unsavoury characters to ever grace the small screen, namely Prince Joffrey. A young pretender to the throne who was only there due to the power of his formidable older relatives and whose tyrannical nature became clear almost by the episode. Joffrey was wholly without redemption or anything approaching a good-side. The amount of people who died or suffered from his orders is endless and we all sat around for several years waiting, hoping that one day the little shi…. young man would meet get his comeuppance.
We all knew it had to happen sooner or later though the shock of it actually happening at the legendary Purple Wedding was still highly satisfying, if a little disturbing… as so many events are in Game of Thrones.
Most people realise that much of Game of Thrones is loosely based on British history. The House of Lancaster is the House of Lannister. The House of York is the House of Stark. The Wall is the Wall, the feuding is based on several wars, the Wildings are ahem the Scots or perhaps the Vikings… I don’t mind which as I am a bit of both. The next village next to me is named Kings Langley rather than the infamous Kings Landing and even the maps on the opening titles bear a resemblance to the British Isles.
Many of the smaller details of Game of Thrones also have a basis in fact, to varying degrees and one of these is the much-awaited death of Prince Joffrey. If his death is based on any royal event then it surely must be based on the little known Prince Eustace.
If we travel back to the early 12th century, the ailing King Henry I named his daughter Matilda as his heir and made his powerful barons swear allegiance to her. The barons must have had their fingers crossed behind their backs as of course, nobody believed a woman could rule. The oath would surely not last a moment longer than the life of Henry I.
When Henry passed away in 1135, a speedy rival beat Empress Matilda to the throne and got crowned first. The new king, Stephen of Blois, had a weaker claim. Like Matilda, he was also William the Conqueror’s grandchild; however, the Empress had more right to the throne since she was the king’s sole legitimate child. Still, because Stephen had been anointed when he was crowned – which meant God ordained his rule – it was enough to legitimise his kingship. What’s more King Stephen I has a splendid sound to it, don’t you think?
Nonetheless, Empress Matilda maintained she was the rightful heir and waged war to claim the throne. This pitched England into a bloody civil war that lasted 19 years. During this period, in some parts of the realm, chaos reigned and “the saints slept” as witnesses put it.
Neither side had enough support or military force to completely defeat the other. King Stephen was friendly, charming, and had the backing of the barons, who mistrusted the Empress as woman. Matilda kept pressing her claim through war. She had the stronger claim but unfortunately for her, the people hated her. If you have a picture of Hilary Clinton in your head then you’re not the only one.
Despite our common perception, the English throne rarely passed from father-to-son after the dastardly Norman conquest of 1066. It could be legally claimed by “right of conquest,” although typically such claims were typically dressed up with some type of claim through blood. From 1066 to 1483, the majority of successful rulers claimed the throne by might couched in hereditary right. In practice, obtaining the throne was a function of whether you could gain get nobles and their warriors to follow you. Were they were willing to die for your claim? It was almost like having a election except rather than voting, you backed your candidate with your life and if you lost then boy, was your long-term future bleak.
Although King Stephen was good at getting the crown, he was not good at keeping it. He distributed his patronage unevenly. As everyone else knows except for Donald Trump, medieval kings, giving too much friends might make a small number of people very loyal but it quickly alienates everyone else, particularly the barons who supported him and took his money. Sadly as Stephen was to find out, a poor king, is often a weak king.
At the beginning of his reign, Stephen was pretty successful. In the first three years, Matilda’s husband, Geoffrey Plantagenet, mounted a few attacks against Stephen. In 1138, Matilda’s brother Robert of Gloucester, switched over to her side and rebelled against Stephen. But, then in 1141 came the disastrous battle of Lincoln.
After Matilda captured Stephen after Lincoln, many of his followers abandoned him. Worse, he lost control of Normandy – the duchy that original belonged to his grandfather. Friendly and easygoing (he sounds like me), Stephen lacked the vicious ruthlessness and political shrewdness required to truly succeed as a medieval king. Plus, he could be sneaky and untrustworthy, so he never won the barons over completely. As a result, he could never fully extinguish the tenacious Empress’s opposition.
While some barons supported Empress Matilda because she was the rightful ruler, most did not, largely because she was imperious and high-handed. For 19 years, Matilda and Stephen fought over who would rule. For the first decade, power flip-flopped between the Empress and the King. Some barons used the civil war as an excuse to engage in private wars with each other, settle scores, and seize land. The result was some regions were dangerous, violent, and lacked law and order.
At one point, Matilda’s army actually captured Stephen and held him prisoner while she prepared to be crowned. The Empress’s fortunes changed, though, when Stephen’s allies beat her at the Rout of Winchester and the next year, at Oxford, when they swam across the river to surround her!
By the late 1140s, with their various barons going on crusade, dying, aging, and just realising the war was not in their best financial interest, the tired Empress and King reached an intractable stalemate and the war began to die down. Not before time as some despicable crimes had happened. After Matilda’s mercenary Robert Fitzhubert scaled the walls and seized Devizes Castle in March 1140, he proceeded to torture and execute the men he captured in the castle by smearing them with honey and exposing them to the sun to be bitten by insects.
This would not last however, both King Stephen and Empress Matilda had sons – respectively Eustace and Henry Fitz Empress (“son of empress”) — who hoped to claim the throne when Stephen died. By the end of the 1140s, the war started to ramp up again as the sons grew older and fought for to become the next king of England.
Aged just fourteen, Henry Fitz Empress led a small band of mercenaries across the Channel to invade England. Not only did the expedition fail, he couldn’t pay his men and got stuck in England. His mother refused to foot the bill. Surprisingly, the desperate Henry asked King Stephen to bail him out. Strangely enough, Stephen agreed. Nobody knows why. It could have been to prevent unpaid mercenaries from pillaging neighboring villages or to build a bridge towards peace with Henry. No good deed goes unpunished and Henry re-embarked on war again in 1149.
Henry’s opponent — King Stephen’s eldest son Prince Eustace (born c. 1129) was a golden child, and everyone had high hopes for him. At first, Eustace was a stunning success. He embodied all the values of the age:. He was extremely generous with his patronage and courteous to the extreme. Like his father King Stephen, he was also naturally good with people, friendly and was at home dealing with people from various backgrounds.
When Prince Eustace came of age, at sixteen, his father held a great ceremony in front of the great figures of the realm and he made Eustace a knight, endowed him with lands, gave him a great retinue of knights, and then made him an earl. By the time Eustace was twenty in 1149, he was a successful knight and leading men for his father.
Despite the growing success of Henry Fitz Empress – by 1153 Matilda’s twenty-year old son controlled the south-west, Midlands, and much of the North — Stephen fully expected Eustace to succeed him. Stephen was acutely aware that when he died England’s barons would re-open the succession question just as Stephen himself did when Henry I died.
To try to ease Eustace’s succession, Stephen unsuccessfully tried to get the pope to crown and anoint Eustace as an associate king and living heir. Perhaps having wisened up to the power politics that Stephen had spent his life playing, The pope forbade the Archbishop of Canterbury to go along with the scheme as did the English bishops and archbishops.
By summer 1453, Stephen ordered his forces to intensify their long-running siege of Henry’s stronghold, Wallingford Castle. Henry arrived at the stronghold and turned the tables on Stephen’s forces by putting them under siege. Hearing this news, Stephen marched down to Wallingford, confronted Henry’s forces at the river. But, both Henry and Stephen’s barons were done with the war and refused to fight.
Without the barons and their soldiers, the two exasperated men had no choice but to broker a truce. Shortly thereafter, Henry and Stephen began privately exploring peace.
After fighting for years to ensure he would inherit his father Stephen’s throne, Prince Eustace was furious when he heard his father might be abandoning his cause and brokering a peace with Empress Matilda and her son Henry. Enraged, Eustace pulled his men out of his father’s army.
Although the golden-boy Prince Eustace could be easy going and friendly, he had a dark side. He could be aggressive, pugnacious, and warlike. In his quest for the crown, the twenty-year old “robbed the lands and levied heavy taxes.”
Prince Eustace led his men into a “frustrated personal campaign without much apparent purpose other than to demonstrate his wrath”. He retreated to Cambridge, which was the nearest castle to his home, to raise funds.
Around 10th August 1153, Eustace brought his army to what was one of the greatest monasteries in England, Bury St. Edmunds. The monks welcomed him with great splendour and held a fine dinner for him. Prince Eustace, however, needed money to pay his soldiers. When the monks refused to hand over the sum he demanded, Eustace ordered his men to loot the monastery and lay waste to its lands .
A job well done, from his point of view, Prince Eustace returned to Cambridge castle. He then sat down to dine on food looted from the monastery. As Eustace took his first bite of food, he became crazed and fell into agonizing death torments. By some accounts, he died immediately and by others he lasted a week and then died. Naturally, the monks saw Eustace’s death was at the hand of a vengeful Saint Edmund, who was defending his monks and infuriated by the insulting desecration of his lands.
The accounts of Prince Eustace’s death vary. Some suspected poison. Some said Eustace died from grief (not choking or poison), as a result of his father’s betrayal in beginning to treat with Duke Henry. No doubt, however, the Church saw it as divine approval when, on the day Eustace died, Duke Henry’s first legitimate heir was born.
Regardless of the cause, Prince Eustace took the war to the grave along with him. After Eustace died, his father was shattered in his grief. By many accounts, King Stephen gave up the cause and basically agreed to Henry Fitz Empress’s demands. Stephen “adopted” Henry as his heir, and the war was over. Some historians have argued that if Eustace hadn’t died, peace would never have been possible.
According to William of Newburgh, King Stephen was “grieved beyond measure by the death of the son whom he hoped would succeed him; he pursued warlike preparations less vigorously, and listened more patiently than usual to the voices of those urging peace.”
Perhaps a more level headed record of what the spoilt and dastardly Prince Eustace was like can be found in the Peterborough Chronicle which reported “He was an evil man and did more harm than good wherever he went; he spoiled the lands and laid thereon heavy taxes.”