While dragons, ice zombies, and powerful sorceresses appeared in the pop culture phenomenon that is HBO’s Game of the Thrones, the series, adapted from the novels by George R.R. Martin, wasn’t a deviation from real-world history in its depictions of the power struggles between the ruling families of Westeros. In fact, Martin has spoken candidly about the inspirations he drew from historical events like the Wars of the Roses for his books. The Middle Ages was a lot more boring and a just a little bit less brutal than the world presented in Game of Thrones (not to mention more religious), but murder and violence were still common, especially among the ruling class. In fact, the violence in the ruling class was legally sanctioned and referred to as the “blood feud.”
11th century England was an unstable place to live. Kingdoms rose and fell as various men proclaimed their kingship or lordship, even if they weren’t from England. Frequent raids from the Vikings left towns and monasteries in flames. Political tensions ran high among the members of the elite class, and those tensions escalated until a member of an opposing party or family was dead. The elites were killing each other over matters of family honor, ownership of land, or the taking of political power.
Examples of these unstable times and frequent rise and fall of kings and nobles can be seen in Richard Fletcher’s novel, “Bloodfeud: Murder and Revenge in Anglo-Saxon England,” which, among other topics, chronicles instances of murder and revenge among the families of Earl Uhtred and King Canute. In an attempt to gain more power, Canute has Uhtred killed by Thurbrand, a northern magnate and old enemy of Uhtred. In retaliation, Uhtred’s son Ealdred kills Thurbrand, whose son Carl proceeds to kill Ealdred. Earlier, Oswulf, who was the grandfather of Uhtred, betrayed King Eric to his death and, as a result, was named Earl of Northumbria. Still following? Fletcher writes, “their royal anointing may have set them apart from other men; it did not render them immune from the assassin’s dagger (19).
But politics and power weren’t the only motivators for these murders. Fletcher states feuding parties would often place high values on family honor and social shame and that a feud was not simply a revenge scheme. To remain strong in the eyes of other elites or potential opposing parties, families had to appear as a cohesive unit, with their honor remaining intact.
Blood feuds were becoming an ordinary occurrence in daily life, so much so that kings created laws about the feud. Fletcher states that King Alfred ruled that a man must allow time before he counterattacked his enemy. He also ruled that a man could seek sanctuary in a church, and his opposes would have to respect it (115). Eventually, kings started to inject themselves into feuds to deter violence and bloodshed. However, there were still instances of these kings feuding among themselves. The feuds and the acts of vengeance “were inseparable from concepts of Right- or justice, or order, or equality, or stability” (10).
On top of the fighting elites, England was at odds with Scotland, and Northumbria was fought over by the emerging powers of both the English and the expanding monarchies of the Scottish. Fletcher states the “Scottish rulers, and their warrior aristocrats looked with covetous eyes on the much richer lands…there the Viking onslaught on Northumbria had fatally weakened her Anglican masters” (55). The Vikings, driven by England’s rich farmlands, mounted stronger and stronger attacks, weakening and dividing the elite class. Eventually, as the attacks became more successful, the Vikings grew in numbers and settled in England. They took over York and named it their capital, and established a king in Mercia.
The Scottish took advantage of what the Viking attacks had provided and continued aggression against Northumbria. Fletcher writes that Northumbria was “distant, dangerous, difficult of access, poor soil, and inclement weather (33). It was almost impossible to get to by land travel, and the Kings hardly ever traveled there, so it wasn’t hard for the Scottish to plunder.
Meanwhile, England’s elites were found themselves in precarious positions. Taxation was high, and Fletcher states that if “a landowner could not pay the tax due on his land, then someone else could step forward, pay it for him, and receive the title of the land as a reward (99). As Fletcher writes, “the rich got richer and the poor poorer” (99). Fletcher also says the continued raidings at the time and heavy taxation had an effect not only on the economy but also on the morale of England’s people.
Fletcher writes that among the elite class, there were “issues of policy, lines of tension within the royal family itself, questions of access to the king, who was in favor and who was not…such human foibles as these were always liable to be causes of friction.
11th century England was a time of fear and unrest. Heavy taxation, the constant changing of leadership, and attacks and raids from the Vikings and the Danes made life dark and full of uncertainty. The blood feud was a common occurrence and was often motivated by the lust for power or lands or to uphold the family honor. Feuds would carry on for multiple years, lay dormant, then flare up again (9).
In medieval England, “it was a fact of life that violence and conflict were as much a part of the social order as was peace” (10).