It is said that “The North Remembers.” More than just words and wind, this turn of phrase speaks to the long grudges and grievances that linger like ghosts in the largest and emptiest of Westeros’ Seven Kingdoms. A land derived of the First Men, who according to legend fought back the White Walkers millennia ago, it remains the lone kingdom that did not forsake the Old Gods in favor of the precious Seven like their Southron neighbors; and it is still the kingdom that mocks its last true king who bent the knee to a Targaryen. Aye, Torrhen Stark might’ve saved thousands of his men from being immolated in dragonfire, but he is still The King Who Knelt. How fitting it is then that the descendent who took back the autonomy of his lands was The Queen Who Could Not Bend.
Sansa Stark, once the seemingly the gentlest of her family and the most southern with her auburn and Tully hair, turned out to be of tougher Northern stuff than either of her more popular brothers. Robb Stark and Jon Snow both at one time or another were crowned the King in the North, a title swollen by the memories of old, yet it was Sansa who returned their House to past glories. And she did this without (directly) taking a single life. She may not be the prince or princess who was promised, but in retrospect she had the most nuanced journey of any of the Starks and, I would argue, the most satisfying ending—one with real historic roots.
Introduced in the first season as Eddard and Catelyn Stark’s eldest daughter, Sansa’s courtesies and eagerness to conform to the patriarchal expectations of her age instantly annoyed many viewers. Unfortunately, the cultural need to contrast female characters, and sisters no less, allowed the strength of Arya Stark’s tomboyishness to immediately appear more likable; it also led many more viewers and readers to dismiss Sansa as how Arya perceived her sister: as a foolish girl. And foolish she might’ve been, but no more so than most prepubescent teenagers who often adapt to social pressures and anxieties. Expected to be a Lady and raised on nothing but the type of virtuous stories of chivalry and courtly love we all associate with fantasy and medieval literature, Sansa was sheltered from the world, even as she was being unintentionally trained in how to survive it.
Sansa lacked Arya’s independence or proficiency in violence that more generally apply to our modern understanding of “strong female characters”—understandings often still coded in gender norms by Arya acting more traditionally male and boyish in the tomboy archetype (she even disguises herself as a boy for most of season 2)—but Sansa more realistically was a product of her world and turned her courtesies into armor once she realized what kind of world she lived in. Alas, that penny only dropped after the prince she thought she was promised turned out to be a perniciously cruel king. Going to King’s Landing and expecting to become Queen Sansa, wife of young Joffrey Baratheon, she had the rude awakening of King Joffrey promising her mercy for her father and then executing him on trumped up charges of treason.
Many hated Sansa for her inability to predict Ned’s death, but this was the moment where the naïve girl began to die alongside her father and innocence. It was the beginning of the unexpected Queen in the North’s long, arduous journey. In the episode after Ned’s death, Sansa is the first Stark to attempt revenge. It is easy to forget but before Arya had even created her prayer of people she’d like to murder, Sansa subtly attempted to assassinate Joffrey when he showed her Ned Stark’s head on a pike. Dry-eyed and clear-headed, she approached Joff and planned to kill both of them by pushing him over a drawbridge and was only stopped by a merciful Sandor Clegane. Glimpsing her hidden metal, this may very well have been the moment the Hound decided to take a shine to the “little bird.”
And in his own small way, he’d be instrumental in her education from naïf to political mastermind. Receiving an advanced degree in governance and treachery, Sansa spent her troubled adolescence around kings and queens like Joffrey, Cersei, and Margaery, and political schemers like Littlefinger, Tyrion, and the Boltons. A poor choice of dialogue might’ve too emphasized the suffering Ramsay Bolton inflicted to her on their wedding night, however there is no denying growing up around all these people gave her a canny understanding of how power is wielded effectively and ineffectively.
In the end, it resulted in her having the fire that Jon Snow did not by refusing to bend the knee to Daenerys. It also gave her the political foresight to be able to undermine the Dragon Queen without technically committing treason—she just confided in Tyrion Lannister Jon Snow’s parentage—and get ever closer to the day where she became the Queen in the North, succeeding through statecraft where Robb Stark and Jon Snow failed on the battlefiled.
All of which is incredibly influenced by Elizabeth I. After years of my anticipating Daenerys Targaryen to become an Elizabethan styled queen, it is only in retrospect that this whole journey prefaced another ginger-haired queen assuming power successfully where the men in her family failed. For when one looks at the entire sweep of Sansa Stark’s early life, it becomes evident she was always the one to bring about the Golden Age of the kingdom she loved.
Much like Sansa, Elizabeth also spent her young life—in fact more of it—in constant political peril. Born the daughter of King Henry VIII and Queen Anne Bolyen (the latter of whom also has a Game of Thrones doppelganger in Margaery), Elizabeth was not even three-years-old when her mother was beheaded by her father because he wanted a son, and Anne produced only a daughter and stillborns. There were of course trumped up accusations made about adultery and incest, but they were no truer than Cersei accusing Margaery of similar sins, or the Lannisters’ accusation that Eddard Stark schemed to kill Joffrey so as to make himself king.
The point is that Elizabeth was out of favor in court before she could speak. Delegitimized in Henry’s infant Church of England, she was also considered a bastard born of adultery by the Catholic Church, who never recognized Henry’s marriage to Anne because of his previous marriage to Catherine of Aragon (hence the Great Reformation coming to England). Not until her teenage years was Elizabeth even widely accepted to be seen at court. Like Sansa Stark after Ned’s execution, a motherless Elizabeth was viewed as damaged goods due to her “treasonous” bloodline. At best, she was a political chip to be manipulated or cashed-in. Still, during her informal education by the governess Margaret Bryan, the teacher wrote that young Elizabeth was “as toward a child and as gentle of conditions as ever I knew any in my life.” Remarked upon for her gentle grace, like Sansa, few noticed she was also a keen observer and an excellent student of power.
This included when she was in court the day that the king’s men came for Katherine Howard, Henry’s fifth wife, who like Elizabeth’s mother died on the executioner’s block. When the men came for Katherine, she ran through the castle and to the chapel where Henry lay in hiding, knocking and pleading on the door for Henry to see her (likely knowing his feckless nature could be persuaded if he but talked to his wife). Henry never came out. Katherine would go on to lose her head. The “Virgin Queen” never forgot what happened to women whose power was informed by a man’s crown.
Late in Henry’s life, his final wife Catherine Parr took a shine to Elizabeth and would see to the red haired girl’s formal education, made all the easier after Henry/Joffrey’s death. Raised by Henry’s widow, Elizabeth spent her teenage years with Parr and her third husband Thomas Seymour… a Littlefinger-esque personage who took a leering interest in the teenage girl living in his house. Alleged to frequently enter 14-year-old Elizabeth’s bed chambers at night in his nightgown, the most charitable accounts of what he did to her was “tickle” Elizabeth, occasionally with Catherine Parr’s support and help, not unlike the psychologically dueling abuses of Lord Petyr Baelish and Sansa’s Aunt Lysa Arryn in the Vale. It will never be fully known how sordid Thomas Seymour’s abuse of Elizabeth became, yet the common knowledge was that, like Petyr “Littlefinger” Baelish, Thomas Seymour planned to marry the young redhead and find his way to power, as she was the half-sister of the king.
Indeed, in the years after Henry’s death, a sickly and ineffectual boy king—not unlike Tommen Baratheon or Robin Arryn—assumed the English throne. Edward VI was Henry’s only son, born to his third wife Jane Seymour. After Parr’s death, Thomas Seymour’s designs on Elizabeth became widely known, as were his “ticklings,” and Edward VI and his king’s council arrested the older man under suspicion he planned to overthrow Edward’s Lord Protector (Hand of the King). But not unlike Sansa Stark refusing to fully betray Petyr Baelish to the Lords of the Vale, Elizabeth refused to publicly confirm under interrogation any of the darkest suspicions whirling around the man who wished to steal more than a chaste kiss from the child living in his home.
Soon it became moot as Elizabeth, like Sansa, lost her brother when Edward died of ailment. Her half-sister Mary Tudor, Katherine of Aragon’s daughter who was older than Elizabeth, assumed the throne as Queen Mary. Some of the lingering Catholics in the English court hoped that the restoration of the child of Henry’s first marriage would bring a renewed peace to a land still swirling in violence between Protestants and Catholics.
Instead Mary Tudor shocked all when the young and well-educated girl of Henry’s romanticized earliest court grew into a weary and paranoid woman who burned Protestants at the stake…
… Yes, in hindsight, there are more than a few flame-hued shades of Mary Tudor in Daenerys Targaryen’s final fate. While Mary never razed a city, in an attempt to reassert Catholicism as the religion of England, Mary burned hundreds of Protestants at the stake, including men, women, and at least several children (one of whom was recorded to be an infant). While later scholarship has argued “Bloody Mary” was besmirched by Protestant historians following her death, she nevertheless proved to be a violent and at least somewhat unhinged queen, including before her death believing she was pregnant when she was not–she also had Elizabeth imprisoned under suspicion of treason, similar to Dany’s distrust of Sansa.
For the entire length of Game of Thrones, I have assumed that George R.R. Martin was combining Henry VII—Elizabeth and Mary Tudor’s mutual grandfather who ended the War of the Roses, aka the most influential historical event on “A Song of Ice and Fire”—and Elizabeth I. The unmarried queen no one expected who brought peace and prosperity to the realm. As it turns out, Dany might be more a conflation of the Tudor monarchs of Henry VII and Mary I. It’s a twist, but when you’re dealing with fantasy and fiction, a canny one.
Instead it is Sansa Stark, who was as devalued due to her parentage as Elizabeth, takes on the Elizabethan role of the unlikely and discarded “little girl” that becomes the monarch of her era. They would name an Age after her. While we do not see Sansa’s reign beyond her coronation, it follows in the wake of Mary I/Daenerys Targaryen’s mass burnings of innocents, which will be harshly reduced as her only “achievement” by the sweep of history, and Sansa has a chance to bring about a Golden Age to the North. Prior to Elizabeth, England was one of the weaker kingdoms of Christendom. After her reign, it was an empire on the rise, perhaps not unlike how the North can go from a less enriched vassal kingdom to one whose power could rival the Six Kingdoms to the south. Also like Elizabeth, Sansa even has a blood relationship with her neighbors (Mary Stuart of Scotland was Elizabeth’s cousin, as Bran is Sansa’s brother).
Sansa’s is the coronation that matters at the end, not Bran Stark’s. Her song might be one only of ice, but she is the Stark who went south and realized by choice that it is not for her. She didn’t want to rule the Seven Kingdoms in the finale; she only wanted to stay in the North. There Must Always Be a Stark in Winterfell, as the Northerners like to say. She eagerly returned to the home that as a naïve young girl she attempted to flee. She is the Starkest character on the series, and long may she reign.
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