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‘House of the Dragon’ succession drama is rooted in actual history

Questions of legitimacy, female rule and queenship are the stuff of both history and fiction

From left, Alicent (Olivia Cooke), Viserys (Paddy Considine), Helaena (Evie Allen), Corlys (Steve Toussaint), Rhaenys (Eve Best) and Baela (Shani Smethurst) in Episode 7 of “House of the Dragon.” (Ollie Upton/HBO)
6 min

The season finale of HBO’s “House of the Dragon” airs this evening. Situated in the fantasy world of Westeros, this series serves as a prequel to G.R.R. Martin’s “Game of Thrones,” taking place 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 notorious for their incestuous behavior and general madness. In the new series, the Targaryens are faced with multiple political crises, most notably from within their own family.

The crux of the entire series revolves around the issue of succession, a theme that pervades almost every episode and drives the storyline throughout the first season. From the outset, the old and good king Jaehaerys, who has no surviving children, is tasked with naming a successor from among his grandchildren. He faces a dilemma: should the throne go to his oldest living grandchild (a woman) or to her 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 in royal succession, and the problems that can arise when there are too many heirs with potential claims and legal ambiguity regarding who should inherit. And the show captures a historical reality: that the issue of succession was complex and often did lead to war and revolution.

In both European history and the fictional world of Westeros, royal succession (as well as inheritance in general) has been guided by primogeniture, a system which, at its core, favors legitimate firstborn children. In Western tradition, the practice dates back to the medieval period and feudalism. Lords held massive estates which included land, castles and other physical property, as well as contracts with tenants or vassals. It would have been extremely detrimental to feudal estates if they were divided among multiple heirs since these estates functioned best as a cohesive unit. Thus, it became tradition to will entire estates (and the noble titles that were inherently tied to them) to only one inheritor. In so doing, 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 referred to as male-preference primogeniture, which bestows the throne unto the firstborn male child. The firstborn son would be first in line to inherit, and then the second and so on. For example, when King Richard I of England (popularly known as “Richard the Lionheart”) died without any legitimate children in 1199, his younger brother Prince John became king.

However, male-preference primogeniture did not exclude women entirely 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 numerous queens were able to rule in their own right throughout British history, beginning with the first undisputed queen regnant Mary I (reigned 1553-58).

Such guidelines aimed to ensure a seamless transition of power and avoid conflict, which frequently happened when different people claimed rights to the throne (as also seen in “House of the Dragon”). For example, King Edward III of England (reigned 1327-77) had eight sons, five of whom lived to adulthood: Edward, Lionel, John, Edmund and Thomas. After the death of his oldest son and heir in 1376, the king named his grandson Richard as his heir, the only child of his recently departed son Edward. He also indicated that second in line to the throne would be his third son, John, since the elder Lionel was already dead.

However, this move broke from a precedent set years earlier by one of Edward III’s predecessors that legally acknowledged the right of royal women to inherit the throne: by this statute, Lionel’s daughter Philippa should be next in line, as the children of the second son (regardless of gender) would outrank John (the third son). The crown passed to Henry IV, John’s son, after Richard was deposed.

For nearly a century, political tension festered between the descendants of John (the Duke of Lancaster) and Philippa over this issue of succession, culminating in a series of brutal and bloody civil wars known as the Wars of the Roses (1455-1487), which pitted the House of Lancaster against the House of York (Philippa’s line).

By the 17th century, instead of gender, religion became the paramount concern as tensions between Protestants and Catholics grew to an all-time high. King James II, a Catholic, had two Protestant daughters by his first marriage, Mary and Anne. When he married an Italian princess Mary of Modena (also a Catholic) in 1673, fears exploded among the English populace that his new wife would give birth to a son, who, by 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 the hands of papists. As a result, several Protestant noblemen helped orchestrate a political coup, deposing King James and placing his oldest daughter Mary on the throne with her husband William in what has been referred to as the Glorious Revolution. In this moment, a Protestant queen was far more preferable than a Catholic king.

Time and time again, royal succession has shaped the course of European and world history, bringing about 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 of 2013 declared that the eldest child, regardless of gender, is 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 the royal succession. For example, Princess Charlotte, the second child and only daughter of William and Katherine, Prince and Princess of Wales, is now situated ahead of her younger brother Prince Louis in the line of succession.

In “House of the Dragon,” the issue of succession similarly impacts the course of world events, revealing how questions of legitimacy, female rule and queenship transcend history and fiction.