Let’s Talk About Game of Thrones part 3: Holy Roman Imperial Edition

Ugh, Game of Thrones. Am I right? No. Collectively we are now all wrong about it.

As we draw a once great television series, that now has all the gravitas and world building of an eighties hair fantasy on fast forward to a close, there was one little thing that made me laugh and then laugh again.

Was it Sansa telling her sad-ass uncle to sit down? Yes, but also no. It was the fact that the theoretical response to preventing dynastic war in Westeros is to create an elective monarchy. That right there is just a chef’s kiss piece of poorly understood history.

As always, to understand why I think this is funny we’re going to need to unpack some stuff, and the first thing is probably what an elective monarchy is.  I regret to inform you of  the fact that it ain’t some sort of advancement away from other monarchical systems. It’s just a bog-standard type of medieval monarchy and you find them in such places as: Macedon, Byzantium, the Holy Roman Empire (shout out to a real one), Venice, and my people in Bohemia – just to name a few.

Elective monarchies function essentially like what Tyrion proposed in Westeros, i.e. a bunch of fancy people get together and elect whomst will be the fanciest person of all and -voila- an king or emperor is created.

We’ve talked, in the past about the Holy Roman Empire and how it did all this, but here’s a quick refresher for those of you who think they are too good to read my older pieces. Seven prince electors – The Archbishops of Mainz, Trier, and Cologne, the Duke of Saxony, the Count of the Palatinate and Rhine, the Margrave of Brandenburg, and my boy the King of Bohemia – all got together and voted on who would be Holy Roman Emperor. Initially what candidates were aiming for was to secure all seven of those votes and he’d become emperor. Later in the period, once the Church became more involved, a candidate needed to get all seven of these votes and then would be the King of the Romans. Then, if the pope agreed, he would have a big coronation ceremony – preferably in Rome – where he was crowned Holy Roman Emperor.

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No more asking the High Sparrow’s permission or anything!

Eventually, the electors got annoyed with the whole you need all seven votes and the pope has to rubber stamp it thing, and my boy Emperor Charles IV attempted to say that you only needed four of seven votes from the electors and fuck the pope’s opinion, actually. This was all codified in the Golden Bull of 1356, thought it didn’t work out so much.

Anyway my point is that it was an elective monarchy that had a bunch of checks and balances and even asked God’s representative on earth to co-sign on whoever ruled. Did this stop dynastic wars happening? LMAO, did it fuck.

For example, Emperor Charles IV up there came to power in a contested election when the Church got mad at Emperor Louis IV, excommunicated him, and had the archbishops plus Charles’s dad (King of Bohemia) elect Charles in his place. The three other electors got mad about it, as did Louis, and there was about to be a big ass war. This was only cancelled when Louis died on a bear hunt and everyone was like oh fuck it, and Charles was elevated.

In the early modern period, frustrated Holy Roman imperial ambitions led to war as well. We often consider the Valois King of France Francis I‘s frustration at losing the imperial election to the Habsburg Charles V to be one of the major factors in France’s decision to attack the Holy Roman Imperial lands, for example.

Turns out rich guys take it kinda badly when they don’t get what they want and that they still have armies, even if those armies aren’t imperial. Wild.

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The Holy Roman Imperial Electors.

OK so if elective monarchies aren’t good at stopping war, do they do what Tyrion thinks and prevent dynastic claims from forming? HAHAHAHA. Also no. Just off the top of my head the Holy Roman Imperial crown got passed down through the Ottonian dynasty, the Salian dynasty, the Hohenstaufen dynasty, the Luxembourg dynasty, and of course, the Habsburgs. Odds were that by and large if someone in your family was Holy Roman Emperor your chance of becoming one went way the fuck up. Kinda like, I don’t know, presidents in the US now. (This has been your obligator reminder that we still do not live in a meritocracy. Thank you.)

So yeah, maybe Bran’s not going to have kids, but whoever comes after him likely will, and it’s probable that their kids would rule after them one way or another. Elective monarchies in no way stop that from happening.

One way in which Tyrion’s stated ambition occasionally overlaps with reality in the Holy Roman Empire is that when great houses died out, or when factions got tired of a particular family being too powerful, they did attempt to have people elected that they saw as less powerful or more easily tractable. For example, Charles IV’s election took place because the pope, Clement VI, was his old teacher and thought it would be easy to push Charles, and his relatively uninfluential Luxembourg dynasty, around. Turns out that was a bad gamble, but hey.

Similarly the Habsburgs made it to the throne because initially they were a relatively poor and weak family from what is now Switzerland. Whilst they had managed to build their territory in to what is now Austria, they were considered a non-threat when they came to the imperial throne in 1440. That is why they had eager papal backing when they did. Everyone thought it would be easy to push the Habsburgs around and, um sorry for the spoiler here, but it turns out that was a bad call too.

And look, I get it, Game of Thrones is some made up shit and it doesn’t have to track with the reality of what elective monarchies are. What we are not going to do is accept the easy out that the writers are trying to give us to indicate that there has been some growth here, or a move, however small, towards democracy. Elective monarchies are monarchies and in many ways they actually invite more intrigue and war than their dynastic counterparts.

But, you know, whatever helps the writers sleep at night after what they’ve done.


For more of my Game of Thrones nonsense see:
Let’s talk about Game of Thrones part 1: Byzantine Constantinople
Let’s talk about Game of Thrones part 2: on marriage and Sansa

For more on the Holy Roman Empire see:
On the medieval separation of Church and state, or, putting the ‘holy’ in Holy Roman Empire

Author: Dr Eleanor Janega

Medieval historian, lush, Kendrick Lamar enthusiast.

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