‘House of the Dragon’ is a study in the royal estate

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The season finale of HBO’s “House of the Dragon” airs tonight. Set in the fantasy world of Westeros, this series serves as a prequel to GRR Martin’s “Game of Thrones.” set approximately 200 years before the events of the previous TV show. The rulers of the Seven Kingdoms are House Targaryen – the silver-haired, dragon-riding royal family, known for their incestuous behavior and general madness. In the new series, the Targaryens face multiple political crises, especially within their own family.

The heart of the entire series revolves around the question of succession, a theme that permeates almost every episode and drives the storyline throughout the first season. Right off the bat, the good old King Jaehaerys, who has no surviving children, is tasked with appointing a successor from among his grandchildren. He is faced with a dilemma: should the throne go to his eldest grandson (a woman) or to his younger, but male cousin? Would the lords of the kingdom accept a queen as their ruler? Or would choosing a man avoid political chaos and bloodshed? Such questions ultimately lead to a nasty civil war between the Targaryen family known canonically as the “Dance of the Dragons”.

“House of the Dragon” is an interesting and thoughtful study of royal succession, and the problems that can arise when there are too many heirs with potential claims and legal ambiguity as to who should inherit. And the show captures a historical reality: that the question of succession was complex and often led to war and revolution.

In European history and the fictional world of Westeros, royal succession (as well as inheritance in general) has been guided by primogeniture, a system that, at its core, favors legitimate firstborns. In the Western tradition, the practice dates back to the medieval period and feudalism. Lords held massive estates that included land, castles, and other physical assets, as well as contracts with tenants or vassals. It would have been extremely detrimental to feudal estates if they were divided among multiple heirs, as these estates functioned better as a cohesive unit. Thus, it became traditional to bequeath entire estates (and the noble titles intrinsically linked to them) to a single heir. In doing so, primogeniture maintained the wealth and power of noble families and ensured the social stability of medieval Europe.

There are several different forms of primogeniture that have been practiced throughout European history. In England (and later Britain), the monarchy traditionally followed what is known as male-preference primogeniture, which grants the throne to the first-born male. The firstborn son would be the first to inherit, then the second and so on. For example, when King Richard I of England (popularly known as “Richard the Lionheart”) died childless in 1199, his younger brother, Prince John, became king.

However, male-preference primogeniture did not entirely exclude women from succession. The throne could go to a female member of a dynasty if there were no other male claimants (including potential brothers, nephews, or sons). This explains why many queens have been able to reign on their own throughout British history, beginning with the first undisputed reigning queen Mary I (reigned 1553-1558).

These guidelines were intended to ensure a seamless transition of power and to avoid conflict, which frequently occurred when different people claimed rights to the throne (as also seen in “The House of the Dragon”). For example, King Edward III of England (reigned 1327-1377) had eight sons, five of whom lived to adulthood: Edward, Lionel, John, Edmund and Thomas. After the death of his eldest son and heir in 1376, the king named his grandson Richard as his heir, the only child of his recently deceased son Edward. He also indicated that the second in line to the throne would be his third son, John, since the eldest Lionel was already dead.

However, this decision broke with a precedent set years earlier by one of Edward III’s predecessors who legally recognized the right of royal women to inherit the throne: according to this statute, Lionel’s daughter, Philippa, should to be next, as the children of the second son (regardless of gender) would surpass John (the third son). The crown passed to Henry IV, John’s son, after Richard’s deposition.

For nearly a century, political tension grew between the descendants of John (the Duke of Lancaster) and Philippa over this question of succession, culminating in a series of brutal and bloody civil wars known as the Wars of the roses (1455-1487), which opposed the house of Lancaster to the house of York (line of Philippa).

In the 17th century, instead of sex, religion became the overriding concern as tensions between Protestants and Catholics reached an all-time high. King James II, a Catholic, had two Protestant daughters from his first marriage, Mary and Anne. When he married an Italian princess Mary of Modena (also Catholic) in 1673, the people of England feared that his new wife would give birth to a son who, under the rules of male-preference primogeniture, would inherit the throne over Mary and Anne. .

These fears were realized in 1688 when the royal couple’s son James Francis Edward Stuart was born. With the birth of this new heir, the line of succession would be firmly in Papist hands. As a result, several Protestant nobles helped orchestrate a political coup, deposing King James and placing his eldest daughter Mary on the throne with her husband William in what was called the Glorious Revolution. At this time, a Protestant queen was far preferable to a Catholic king.

Time and again, royal succession has shaped the course of European and world history, leading to the rise and fall of political dynasties as well as major social, cultural and religious developments.

Current rules regarding primogeniture and succession also reflect more recent social changes. The Succession to the Crown Act 2013 declared that the eldest, regardless of gender, is the first to inherit. This historic change provides more gender equality for the great-grandchildren of the late Queen Elizabeth II (1952-2022) in terms of royal succession. For example, Princess Charlotte, second child and only daughter of William and Katherine, Prince and Princess of Wales, now sits ahead of her younger brother, Prince Louis, in the line of succession.

In “House of the Dragon”, the question of succession has a similar impact on the course of world events, revealing how issues of legitimacy, female dominance and queenhood transcend history and fiction.

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