The Royal Incest That Inspired the Writing of ‘Game of Thrones’

In the last season of Game of Thrones, Jaime Lannister broke free from the sexual and psychological grip of his twin sister, Queen Cersei, only to return to her side when she faced the most serious military threat to her rule.

“Cersei is hateful, and so am I,” he told Brienne of Tarth, his distraught lover, as he rode away — to his death, it turned out.

From the first episode of the the first season of HBO’s Game of Thrones, this brother-sister love affair shocked audiences. A child, Bran Stark, heard a couple’s voices during one of his climbs up the outer walls of Winterfell. The “man” was Jaime Lannister, and the “woman” his 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. This was a secret the twins felt they must kill to conceal.

In the following seasons of Game of Thrones, the forbidden love between Cersei and Jaimie raged stronger than ever. When threatening his enemy, Lord Edmure Tully, Jaimie said:

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 was submerged in incest, and not just the Lannisters. Whether it was a dynastic predilection, a forbidden love affair, or a source of horrific abuse, incestuous couplings served 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 world. 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 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 established that House Targaryen was built on brother-sister royal unions. He wrote in his first series novel, “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 changed the family history. Daenerys Targaryen, the product of generations of incest, was a major POV character of the show, and a sympathetic character for the audience (until the last season), and it’s possible the script writers did 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 seductress 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 was worshiped as a god during his short life.

Scientific analyses have confirmed that “King Tut” was the offspring of siblings. 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 in Game of Thrones, but, interestingly, mental instability often shows up in children of incest in Martin’s 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 people 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.

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 incest. In fact, royal marriages were arranged with an almost obsessive attention to preventing the partners’ being 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. 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 1st 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.

There are two rumored cases of royal brother-sister incest outside of the Plantagenet Wars of the Roses that may have inspired Martin. Gossips said 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 for teenage Lucrezia. The grounds for divorce were non-consummation, which Sforza denied, hitting back at his in-laws 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.

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 as part of the trial proceedings against her.

Thomas Boleyn, the father of the queen and her brother, was an extremely ambitious courtier, obsessed with titles and money. Anne and George were 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, however. 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, just as with the Borgia and Boleyn families. 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 that includes incest. 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 later 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.

Another interesting, though disturbing, 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.

But perhaps the most famous medieval story of brother-sister incest can be found in the Arthurian story, 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 somehow been 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.

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. The prince 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, once betrothed to Joffrey. The blond actor who plays Joffrey bears an eerie resemblance to the actor who portrayed Mordred in Excalibur.

It all comes to a head in Game of Thrones when 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, possibly the only person who loved him, who kneels by his side, screaming and sobbing as he dies.

Passionate about history, pop culture, the perfect bagel. Author of 5 historical novels. Latest book: ‘Dreamland’ www.nancybilyeau.com

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