Radio Times

AN AGE OF CHAOS

Historian Matt Lewis on the history behind the drama

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As House of the Dragon erupts onto our screens for a second series, it will continue to tell the story of the Targaryen monarchs and their dragons — a complex tale of contested succession, uncertaint­y around female power, fraught family relationsh­ips and brutal opportunis­m — all drawing on the reign of England’s King Stephen from 1135 to 1154, a time known as the Anarchy.

A monk in Peterborou­gh hunched over his manuscript, seeking a way to describe the period, would immortalis­e England’s first civil war when he lamented that “they said openly that Christ and his saints were asleep. Such and more than we can say we endured nineteen winters for our sins.”

This often forgotten episode in English history was the inspiratio­n for George RR Martin’s Fire and Blood, from which House of the Dragon adapts its storyline. Viserys Targaryen is a parallel for King Henry I, youngest son of William the Conqueror, who ruled from 1100—35. Henry still holds the record for the most illegitima­te children of any king of England (at least 24); he had only two legitimate children, a son and a daughter. When his heir William Adelin was drowned in the White Ship Disaster in 1120, Henry, like Viserys, remarried quickly in the hope of fathering another male heir but, unlike Viserys, had no more sons. So he demanded his barons take an oath to support the succession of his daughter, Empress Matilda, marrying her off to build a political alliance — just as Viserys does with his daughter Rhaenyra.

But upon Henry I’s death in 1135, Matilda was pregnant with her third son and living on the southern border of Normandy. Henry’s nephew, Stephen of Blois, darted across from Boulogne and was quickly crowned in London, bypassing concerns about what female rule would mean. Stephen then claimed that he was fulfilling his uncle Henry’s dying wish.

When Viserys dies at the end of the first series of House of the Dragon, his son from his second marriage is swiftly crowned amid claims of a deathbed change of heart by the old king, leaving us with King Aegon and Queen Rhaenyra preparing for conflict. Back in England in 1139, Matilda finally returned, bringing with her conflict and crisis. In 1141 Stephen was captured at the Battle of Lincoln and Matilda marched on London to have herself crowned. Painted as monstrousl­y unfeminine by misogynist­ic commentato­rs, Matilda was driven from London on the eve of her coronation, snatching defeat from the jaws of success. As Stephen’s supporters took the military initiative, Matilda’s half-brother (Robert, Earl of Gloucester, Henry I’s oldest illegitima­te son) was captured, and his freedom traded for Stephen’s. By the end of 1141, the political chessboard had been reset. As the dispute over the succession dragged on, Matilda’s son, the future Henry II, would launch his first invasion of England at the age of 14 — without dragons. He failed dismally, but would become king after a surprising compromise made him Stephen’s adopted son and heir.

Dragons offer a fearsome illustrati­on of the mystique of medieval kingship. Without them, we are told, the Targaryens are just like anyone else. At moments when the intangible qualities of royalty are on display, dragons become central to the action. In the medieval world, being anointed king set a man apart, and moved him closer to God. The Anarchy would test the limits of the protection this provided and ask whether the same could apply to a woman. The answer would be resounding. George RR Martin has said that he takes history and dials it up to 11. A world faced with binary choices as the middle ground crumbles will resonate with plenty of people today. The Anarchy saw the unleashing of men like Robert FitzHubert, a mercenary who tortured captives by tying them to stakes in the sun, smearing them in honey and stirring up stinging insects to attack them. It might sound like a trial from I’m a Celebrity..., but House of the Dragon may have to hit 12 to beat the real history this time around.

Matt Lewis is the author of Stephen and Matilda’s Civil War: Cousins of Anarchy. Search “History Extra podcast anarchy” online to hear more from him.

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