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  1. Culture
6 June 2019

Game of Thrones ended with an elective monarchy for Westeros. So has this ever worked?

By Stephen Arnell

HBO’s Game of Thrones concluded in an unlikely scenario: the remaining representatives of the Seven Kingdoms’ noble families decided, after a brief five minute discussion, to follow Tyrion Lannister’s advice to opt for an elected monarchy for six of the lands – abandoning the hereditary version that had stood for millennia.

Back in the real world, has this ever worked? The short answer is no. The general rule of thumb in Europe at least, is that elective monarchies – where groups of worthies nominate one of their number for the role – tend to fail, despite their best intentions.

Without the apparent stability of a ruling dynasty, elective monarchies can break down for a variety of reasons. These include the jockeying for position by electors, keen to place a weak candidate who will follow their dictates on the throne; outside influence in the selection process; or one powerful noble house gradually transforming the institution into a hereditary monarchy.

The two most notorious examples of the latter phenomenon are the Kingdom of Poland (1573-1795) and the Holy Roman Empire (962-1806), which morphed into the Austrian Empire (1806-67), and into the Austro-Hungarian Empire (1867-1918).

Poland’s electorate of nobles included their sons, so the Kingdom at one point had many thousands of electors, making it by far the most democratic state in Europe at the time. But the kingdom’s internal rivalries, the ability for foreign princes to be elected, and the influence of powerful neighbours meant that Poland was gradually worn down, dismembered and, in 1795, wiped off the map altogether. This, incidentally, is a similar fate to that which befell the Reach in Westeros: the Tyrell line was extinguished, leaving their ancestral seat Highgarden vacant for the cheerfully amoral mercenary Bronn (Jerome Flynn) to occupy.

The decline of the elective element of the Holy Roman Empire – which according to Voltaire was “Neither Holy, nor Roman, nor an Empire” – took centuries. But by 1452, with just one brief exception, the wily and relatively un-martial Hapsburgs managed through scheming and their propensity to make advantageous marriages to become hereditary monarchs of the Empire in all but name.

The Hapsburgs, with their penchant for keeping lands in the family, also had a propensity for near-incestuous/incestuous unions, which unfortunately resulted in the inbred deformity of the “Hapsburg Jaw”. This contrasts mightily with the attractive silver hair and violet eyes of the Targaryens – although the 50/50 chance of homicidal insanity in the family is a significant demerit.

Amazingly, the largely unremarkable Hapsburgs managed to cling on to power until 1918 with the fall of the last Emperor Charles I, who was beatified by Pope John Paul II in 2004 for his role in attempting to broker peace in WW1. He didn’t succeed, but the church recognised the effort by granting him a rung on the ladder to eventual sainthood.

Perhaps surprisingly, England also had long experience of a kind of elective monarchy with the Anglo-Saxon monarchs. These were in theory chose by a council of notables called the Witan – although most of the kings selected were from the House of Wessex.

The exception to this in terms of home-grown monarchs was in 1066, when the candidate with the best blood claim to the throne – Edgar the Ætheling, whose grandfather had been a half-brother to Edward the Confessor – was, as a teenager, deemed too young for the responsibilities of the position. Harold Godwinson, the Earl of Wessex, was elevated to the throne in his stead.

The Ætheling “Prince” was briefly raised to the Kingship by the Witan after the Battle of Hastings – but he was never crowned and wisely, as his allies deserted him, he formerly submitted to William the Conqueror soon after. Edgar went on to live a long and rather buccaneering life after the Norman Conquest, on occasion stirring up as much trouble as he could for the Conqueror and his offspring.

And lest we forget, when James II was ejected from the throne in the glorious revolution of 1688, it was an elected parliament who set his nephew William and daughter Mary upon it.

In the present day, the Vatican, where the head of state is the Pope, is an elective monarchy by most standards. Meanwhile, the tiny Pyrenean state of Andorra has since 1278 boasted two “co-Princes”: the elected president of France, and the Bishop of Urgell in Catalonia.

Returning to Westeros, what could we expect to happen to Tyrion’s elective monarchy by the rules of our world? After a long, relatively peaceful reign, Bran the Broken’s death could spark a prolonged civil war with one particularly ambitious noble house coming out on top to establish a hereditary line of monarchs of the Six Kingdoms.

Or alternatively, after Bran’s demise, a wily counsellor and his descendants could install a pliable noble claimant in the role, while they retain control of the levers of power – similar to the later Merovingian Kings and the Carolingian “Mayors of the Palace”, the real power behind the Frankish throne.

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