They put the evil in Medieval

Think the royals in "Game of Thrones" are wicked? Check out the real-life bad guys of the Middle Ages

Published April 5, 2013 10:25PM (EDT)


It's no secret that George R.R. Martin based many of the characters and events in "A Song of Ice and Fire," -- the series of epic fantasy novels that has become HBO's "Game of Thrones" -- on history and on the historical fiction he loves. But viewers and readers might be excused for assuming that Martin exaggerated the vicious skullduggery in the historical record for the sake of drama. Incest, child murder, impromptu executions of allies, regicide, rampant fornication, recreational torture and countless other vices abound in Martin's Westeros, after all. Could the real-life counterparts of his characters have been quite so very, very bad?

They were. If anything, Martin downplays the ruthless bloodthirstiness of the Middle Ages and the people who ruled them. When Ving Rhames says "I'ma get medieval on your ass" in "Pulp Fiction," he's offering a truly terrifying threat. Make no mistake: Beneath the fairy-tale trappings -- velvet robes and golden crowns, stately castles and the lofty rhetoric of chivalry -- most rulers in the Middle Ages were essentially warlords. Herewith, a few of the worst, and some of their dastardly deeds.

The Vipers of Milan
Bernabò Visconti (1323–1385) and his brother, Galeazzo (1320–1378), jointly ruled Lombardy (in what is now Italy). They succeeded when their uncle, Lucchino, was murdered by his wife, a plan that came to her in the midst of a riverboat orgy in which one of her multiple male partners was Galeazzo himself. That gives a pretty good sense of the family milieu. Bernabò, the more ferocious of the two, was in a state of perpetual war with the Pope, and when the supreme pontiff issued a Bull of Excommunication against the lord, Bernabò forced the legate who delivered the document to eat it, including the silk cord and seals of lead that bound it. Bernabò's lusts, by contrast, were unbounded. His illegitimate offspring by his various mistresses outnumbered even the 17 children he fathered by his long-suffering wife. One observer said Bernabò's palace was "more the seraglio of a sultan than the habitation of a Christian prince." Galeazzo was less extravagant, but the two did collaborate in designing the Quaresima, an elaborate 40-day program of gruesome tortures to be used in the execution of traitors and enemies.

Pedro the Cruel of Castile (1334–1369)
In Pedro's defense, he was obliged to defend his throne against his father's 10 illegitimate sons, the two oldest of which were his most implacable challengers. On the other hand, they wouldn't have enjoyed so much support if Pedro hadn't outraged his people with arbitrary murders and his shameful treatment of his wife, Blanche, a sister of the King of France. Pedro married Blanche despite having already secretly wed one of his mistresses, and he abandoned and imprisoned her shortly thereafter. He was said to have killed a man for looking at him the wrong way, burned a woman alive for rejecting his advances and given his son-in-law, Edward the Black of England, a large gem (found to this day in the English crown) that he had obtained by robbing and murdering a guest in his own home. He also had Blanche assassinated via a crossbow bolt to the eye. Needless to say, Pedro killed as many of his own half-brothers as he could get his hands on, primarily through various forms of deceit.

Edward III of England (1312–1377)
Edward pulled a King David by having the Earl of Salisbury, a close friend, sent off to fight a foreign war so he could visit the earl's wife on the sly. The Countess of Salisbury refused him (as she had at least once before), so Edward violently raped her. A contemporary account reports that the poor lady was left "lying in a swoon, bleeding from the nose and mouth and other parts." The Countess was so traumatized by this attack she fell into a depression ("had no more joy or happiness") and could not bring herself to sleep with her husband when he returned from abroad. The weeping lady confessed her troubles to her spouse, who then confronted the king at court, saying, "You have villainously dishonored me and thrown me in the dung." With that, the earl announced that he could no long live in the same country with the sovereign and left England forever. As for the unhappy Countess, all we know of her fate is that the earl made sure she had an independent income before he went.

Charles of Navarre (1332–1387)
The double-crosser's double-crosser, Charles was a scion of a branch of the French royal family that had renounced any claim on the throne. What the silver-tongued Charles himself wanted remains, in the words of the great popular historian Barbara Tuchman, a "riddle," but he was "volatile, intelligent, charming, violent, cunning as a fox, ambitious as Lucifer and more truly than Byron 'mad, bad and dangerous to know.'... His only constancy was hate." One of Charles' first targets was King Jean II's favorite minister, whom he had assassinated by thugs. Over the next three decades of the Hundred Years' War, as France contested with England for control over territory on the continent, Charles changed sides so quickly and so often it made everyone's head spin. (Tuchman calls him "eel-like" in her wonderful history of the period, "A Distant Mirror") Solemn public ceremonies of reconciliation were one of Charles' fortes, as was making contradictory deals with each side of a conflict at the same time. He attempted one coup d'état and twice tried to poison the king. He was known as Charles the Bad.

Cardinal Robert of Geneva (1342–1394)
As the pope's legate in Italy, Robert was charged with suppressing rebellious papal states. He decided to make an indelible example of the town of Cesena because its citizens had protested when his army confiscated supplies without payment. First, Robert vowed on his own sacred office to pardon the men of the town if they laid down their arms. Then -- crying out "Blood and more blood!" -- he ordered mercenaries to close the city gates and massacre the inhabitants, thereby earning himself the epithet "the Butcher of Cesena." Somewhere between 2,500 and 5,000 civilians were slaughtered and much of the town was wantonly and pointlessly destroyed. Robert never expressed the slightest remorse.

John Hawkwood (?–1394) and the White Company
Not every medieval dastard was of noble birth. Hawkwood, the son of an English tanner, led the White Company, one of the dreaded bands of mercenaries that bedeviled France, Italy and Spain in the 14th century. (Similar sell-swords, calling themselves the Brave Companions, terrorize Martin's Westeros.) To save money, medieval aristocrats liked to disband their armies the moment they no longer needed their services. As a result, hardened soldiers often found themselves at loose ends and many miles from their homelands. Since medieval armies fed and supplied themselves by pillaging farms and towns as they went, the mercenaries continued in this practice. They roamed the countryside, robbing the commonfolk, raping women and kidnapping hostages for ransom. Of course, they were available for hire, but local landowners were just as likely to pay them simply to go away. Wars were started for the primary purpose of giving the mercenaries work elsewhere. Although Hawkwood -- who, in retirement, would set himself up as a respectable citizen of Florence -- was known more for his insatiable greed than his brutality, he did command the mercenaries who carried out the slaughter ordered by Robert of Geneva in Cesena. It was also said that Hawkwood once happened upon two of his soldiers fighting over who would get to rape a nun, and he cut the woman in half with his sword to resolve the quarrel.

Edward II (1284–1327) and Isabel of France (1295–1358)
Isabel was known as the "She-wolf of France" because she and her lover, Roger Mortimer, conspired to overthrow her husband, Edward II of England. To be fair, her husband had disgusted his subjects by lavishing favors on venal male courtiers, widely assumed to be his lovers. The worst of these, Hugh Despenser the Younger, was permitted by the besotted king to confiscate the lands of other nobles, and in one case he was said to have had a lady's arms and legs broken when she resisted. Despenser was a bitter enemy of both Isabel and Mortimer, attempting to have the former assassinated and the latter executed. His family, also placed in positions of power, reaped the riches of corruption. Edward was as unpopular with his people as he was with his wife; even his own son sided with Isabel against him. Although the invading army was small, many of his subjects refused to defend Edward and the hated Despensers, and he was defeated and forced to abdicate to his young son, with Isabel serving as regent. But Isabel and Mortimer's hold on power was shaky, so Edward could not be left alive. They had him murdered, probably by strangulation and not, as it has been rumored, by sticking a red-hot poker up his backside.

Philip IV of France (1268–1314)
The Knights Templar were a military religious order originally founded in the 12th century to protect Christian pilgrims traveling to the Holy Land. Over the next 200 years, they parlayed a papal dispensation permitting them to charge interest on loans into great wealth and a semi-autonomous political status. In 1307, Philip IV of France, coveting the wealth and fearing the political independence, arrested the order's leaders, subjecting them to imprisonment and torture. Racks, thumbscrews, dislocated joints, plucked-out fingernails and other torments resulted in confessions of Satanic ceremonies involving sex with animals, demons and other Templars, as well as the desecration of Christian symbols and cannibalism. The leader of the order, Jacques de Molay, a man in his 70s who had been a friend of Philip's and godfather to his daughter, retracted his confession before a public assembly, whereupon Philip order him burnt at the stake. In his dying moments, de Molay called down a curse on Philip and his confederate, Pope Clement V. Both were dead within seven months, and all three of Philip's sons perished young and without male heirs, confirming the widespread belief that the curse had stuck.

Gilles de Rais (1404–1440)
Medieval France also boasts one of the earliest documented examples of a serial killer. A baron and knight who fought alongside Joan of Arc, Gilles de Rais retired from public life to pursue a quixotic theatrical project that considerably diminished his wealth. Reputedly, he began killing peasant children in the early 1430s to facilitate rituals intended to restore his fortune. This, however, quickly evolved into a sadistic sexual fetish that he indulged with several accomplices. Victims were lured into his home; given luxurious clothes, food and drink; and then taken upstairs, where Gilles savored his victims' terror when they learned their imminent fate. He is thought to have killed as many as 200 people of both sexes between the ages of 6 and 18. He was caught when investigators looking into another crime (the kidnapping of a cleric with whom Gilles had quarreled) uncovered evidence of the murders. He confessed and was tried and executed in 1440.

King Jean II of France (1319–1364)
Jean II was also known as Jean the Good, but let him serve as a reminder that all Medieval aristocrats and kings were the beneficiaries of a profoundly unjust and exploitative social order. Purportedly, the subjects of feudal lords received military protection and leadership in exchange for their labor and loyalty, but the truth was another matter. The nobility of the Middle Ages squeezed as much as they could out of their vassals, frequently left them and their farms to the tender mercies of invading armies and required them to fight as disposable infantry men in wars designed to do little more than exalt and enrich the feudal lords. A lucrative custom of ransoming well-born prisoners meant that the enemy had strong motivation to preserve the lives of knights while slaughtering their foot soldiers. The money to buy back a captured lord was usually extracted from the same subjects who had lost their sons and fathers to his vainglorious military adventures.

Jean was taken captive by the English in the Battle of Portiers of 1386. An utter rout for the French, the battle left the country in a state of near-anarchy. "Infinite harm, misfortune and danger befell the French people," wrote one contemporary observer. Meanwhile, Jean enjoyed an extremely cushy "imprisonment" across the channel, spending his kingdom's scarce resources on horses and falcons, musical instruments, rich clothes for his son and favorite jester, imported delicacies, the hiring of an astrologer and orchestra and so on -- enough to provoke nausea in one modern-day historian who examined his accounts.

To add insult to injury, the nobility regarded all commoners with supercilious contempt. The word "villain" derives from the Latin "villanus," or "farmhand," and was used to denote any bumpkin or hick, people who were also assumed to be untrustworthy scoundrels. One aspect of life in the Medieval Age we haven't yet seen represented in Martin's series is an uprising by the commonfolk, but they did indeed occur. Two of the biggest were the Jacquerie in France in 1358 and England's Peasant Revolt of 1381, led by a roofer named Wat Tyler. Both were ultimately crushed, but not before giving the gentry a well-earned scare. It took time, but eventually everyone would figure out who the real villains were.

By Laura Miller

Laura Miller is the author of "The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia."

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