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.

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.

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.

There is a historical conception pioneered by Ernst Kantorowitz outlined in his book The King’s Two Bodies, which argued that medieval kings had – wait for it – two bodies. Historians refer to these as “the body natural” and “the body politic”.[1] The body natural is the king’s actual physical body. It is born, grows, has sex, gets ill, an dies. You know, like bodies do. The body politic on the other hand is a symbol of the office of the king. It transcends the king himself and instead is a symbol of his divine right to rule. It is bigger than any one actual king and is bestowed onto whoever becomes the next king when a king’s body natural dies. This is where you get the phrase, “The king is dead, long live the king.” The conception of the king is larger than any one actual person and it is a stand in for the conception of a kingship within that kingdom itself.

Central to this is the idea that the reason kings are kings is that God willed them to be such. This is what we call the “divine right to rule”.[2] Kings are preordained by the Lord to wield earthly power in his stead. Obviously, God can’t be down here running the show 24/7, so, in theory he makes sure that the best possible representatives on earth rule for him. This is a nice little conceit for kings themselves because they don’t have to reflect on their massive power and lavish lifestyles in comparison to the other ninety-seven percent of the population. They rule because they are supposed to. The proof is the fact that they are ruling, right now. Witness them.

Sometimes this divine right ends up being mediated. In the case of the Holy Roman Empire, for example, (and as I have explained before) divine right is bestowed on the elected King of the Romans. There is a lot of back and forth fighting between Emperors and Popes about that this means. Emperors argue that being elected King of the Romans means that God wanted them to be emperor and that is the divine right proof. Popes say no way – when the King of the Romans is elected that is just a worldly election. The divine right comes in when the Pope crowns him and he becomes Holy Roman Emperor. The divine thing more or less flows through the Pope and is bestowed on the Emperor.

The whole king’s body/divine right thing isn’t necessarily a foregone conclusion though – even if we are not talking election and popes. Thing about divine right is it is supposed to show up in the way that people rule. The ruled start asking questions when their king is not ruling well.

A monk from Swineshead Abbey in Lincolnshire, offers King John a poisoned chalice, British Library, Cotton MS Vitellius A XIII, f. 5v. King John was such a terrible ruler that the chronicler Matthew Paris wrote of his death, ‘Foul as it is, Hell itself is made fouler by the presence of John’. So much for divine right.

For example, when the Carolingian Empire was being attacked by Vikings repeatedly, it eroded faith in the dynasty.[3] How was it possible that God was divinely favouring a dynasty that couldn’t win a fight against a bunch of pagans? Surely, the fact that the Vikings were winning so handily was a sign that God was displeased with the Carolingians and wanted to see greater power with the local nobility that were responding to attacks.

We also see this play out as a part of the Iconoclasm controversy in the Eastern Roman (AKA Byzantine Empire). When the Empire’s army begins losing territory during the Islamic conquests people began to ask questions.[4] Maybe this was a sign that God actually did impart some divine rules to the Muslims that Christians were ignoring. Specifically, God doesn’t like your icons so you are losing territory to the Muslims. I guess you best take them all down. Yeah. That’ll solve it.

Similar criticisms could be levelled during war time between Christian kingdoms. Say two kings are fighting and one comes out on top. This can be interpreted as a sign of God’s favour. He would not allow an unworthy king to topple a worthy one, after all.

Anyway, this has all been on my mind as I sit in England during a pandemic. The UK, and England more specifically has been suffering one of the highest death rates in Europe, largely as a result of the fact that we tried doing nothing and are all out of ideas. Then Boris Johnson, the Etonian mop that we elected PM so that rich people wouldn’t have to pay very slightly more in taxes, got the rona because – I am serious – he was insisting on shaking hands with people who had come down with it.

Anyway TL/DR the media lied a bunch about him being fine actually, he went to the ICU, and he is out now. During all of this certain media hacks have explicitly stated that we should all be Very Upset because Johnson’s body is the body politic. (No, I will not link you to the Tory rags that print this drivel. You are gonna have to google that one yourself.) First, we were explicitly told – in one rag’s headline – that we were meant to “Pray for Boris”. In the midst of this all we were told we were all having grave fears for our fearless leader, you know, the one who in February stated that we would do absolutely nothing in the face of an uncoming pandemic because “a desire for market segregation” would go beyond “what is medically rational to the point of doing real and unnecessary economic damage” and “at that moment humanity needs some Government somewhere that is willing at least to make the case powerfully for freedom of exchange”. In order to do that we were just gonna go with a “herd immunity” strategy, let everyone get the virus and, well, I guess if your nana has to die for a free market to flourish that is just that way it is. Anyway, when he got out of the hospital we were then told that we are all just tearing up with joy to hear this dude was back at work. Where would we be without him?

So obviously it is extremely disturbing to be told that Boris Johnson’s body is the body politic because it implies that he is the Prime Minister not because he won an election with the help of a tame lapdog media, but because he has a divine right to rule us like the plebs we are. This sort of flies in the face of the fact that we are pretending to have fair elections over here or whatever. We are not meant to be ruled by our Prime Minister, we are meant to be governed. But mask off, I guess.

Beyond the terrifying idea that Boris Johnson is favoured by God and not capitalism, there is also the fact that you can’t interpret his body as the body politic because, and I don’t know if you are aware of this, the United Kingdom already has a queen. If you are gonna have one then I am afraid that you have to get comfortable with the fact that she is the one that rules by divine right? Her literal coat of arms says “Dieu et mon droit”, or “God and my right” in answer before you even get to ask why she is the monarch. She has the body politic, by definition. To quote Janelle Monáe “we don’t need another ruler”, she is already ruling us. (The Queen, that is, not Janelle, unfortunately.)

Secondly, even if we ignore the Queen (which I have been trying to do, amiright?) the idea that Boris is the body politic and ruling by divine right doesn’t actually lead you to think that he is doing a good job here. If his body gets the disease that he thinks is no big deal and he almost dies then it is indicative of the fact that he is really terrible at this job and we are all dying. If he is the body politic then clearly God hates his ass and wants him to suffer along with all us poors who he sees as expendable to appease venture capital.

This is the trouble with the two bodies analogy. It requires people who are actually capable to be in charge. The minute that you start to fail it becomes clear that you are ruling because you were born rich, not because you are uniquely favoured, intelligent, or talented. More to the point, if your rule isn’t going well you are meant to be overthrown because it is clear that God hates your ass. If you are one of the Tory cheerleaders that passes for an independent press in this country, you might want to take that into consideration before you actively attempt to apply a term that you clearly read on Wikipedia and then thought no more about.

Lastly, the one way in which Boris Johnson as the body politic actually tracks with the medieval version tells us exactly why we should be ignoring it. The conception of the body politic isn’t something that actually meant anything to the life of the average medieval person, who was, you know, a peasant. It is a story that rich people told to other rich people and it didn’t involve them. The concept that there was a king somewhere certainly existed, but it was unlikely to influence their lives one way or another. They were busy doing all the actual useful work that kept society going rather than wanking on about the meaning of whoever the fuck was ruling them. This is a concept by the ruling class, for the ruling class, kept alive then as now by a sycophantic group of client writers. Anyone who is attempting to lionise Johnson in these circumstances is engaging in chronicling, not journalism.  

Given the inherent stupidity of attempting to foist this concept on the fine people of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, one might question why I even both pointing out how wrong-headed it is. None of these “journalists” have ever faced a consequence as a result of their stifling credulity and self-interest. Why start worrying about something like intellectual integrity now?

The answer is that you and I have to use our words correctly. We have to apply our historical terms precisely, and actually be good at making argumentative cases if we want to be allowed to participate in public debate. It is in that spirit that I offer this post to you. Concepts mean something, even if your life doesn’t to the ruling class. Don’t let them twist those in service against your interests.

[1] Ernst Kantorowitz, The King’s Two Bodies: A Study in Medieval Political Theology, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1957).
[2] For more on the divine right of kings, try John Neville Figgis, The Divine Right of Kings, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1914).
[3] If you are interested in the Carolingian/Viking contests, try Simon Coupland, “The Carolingian Army and the Struggle Against the Vikings”, Viator: Medieval and Renaissance Studies, 2004, 35, 49-70.
[4] For more on this, try G. E. von Grunebaum “Byzantine Iconoclasm and the Influence of the Islamic EnvironmentHistory of Religions 1962 2:1, 1-10.

If you enjoyed this, please consider contributing to my patreon. If not, that is chill too!

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, George Michael evangelist.

2 thoughts on “Let’s Talk About Game of Thrones part 3: Holy Roman Imperial Edition”

  1. What did you expect? GoT is full of people making bad decisions, it’s not the “and then the lived happy ever after” kind of story. Tyrion came up with a solution that might give them a peaceful generation to rebuild, and if that worked it was one of his better plans. Better a crippled, childless king that no one would see as a threat than that the nobles started fighting right away about who would be the next king. Compared to his support for Daenarys as queen it was positively brilliant.


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