Spoiler alert! This post includes details from last Sunday's episode of the HBO fantasy series "Game of Thrones." If you're not caught up on the show or the original books, you may wish to read this post later.
Picture it: A woman accused of adultery with a royal, a church leader’s verdict, a humiliating forced march across a medieval town. George R.R. Martin knows the story, but it’s not the one he tells in “Game of Thrones.”
No, this tale is real, featuring a striking king’s mistress who’d live on in the words of Shakespeare, a painting by a British master, and a 2009 bestseller.
Martin, creator of the the hugely popular "Game of Thrones" book series and TV show, revealed to Entertainment Weekly in 2011 that the 15th-century punishment for a woman named Jane Shore inspired matriarch Cersei Lannister’s horrific walk of shame.
The scene from the novel “A Dance of Dragons” appeared in last Sunday’s season finale of the HBO series. After Lannister confesses to adultery (but not a greater crime), a cult leader sentences her to an excruciating punishment. Bruised, naked, and shorn of her long hair, she must walk through hundreds of braying citizens armed with epithets and abuse.
As soon as the episode was aired, fans immediately began to debate what seemed to many to have been an endless scene, a shocking depiction of cruelty and misery. Did it brutalize viewers and actress Lena Headey while trivializing violence? Or did it succeed in exposing the evil nature of a cult and revealing the humanity of a villainous character?
One thing is clear: England’s Jane Shore suffered during her own march of penitence, but not like this.
Shore was a mistress of King Edward IV, who ruled England in the 1400s during the era of the War of the Roses. He had a wife and 10 children but still found time for mistresses, including Shore (also known as Elizabeth Shore), wife of a merchant. According to chronicler Thomas More (yes,that Thomas More, who suffered an unfortunate fate and became a Catholic saint), Shore was one of three kingly “concubines” and the one he considered the merriest. (Another was the “wiliest,” and a third “the holiest,” a woman who resisted being lured out of church to less refined activities.)
“For many he had, but her he loved,” writes More, who turns out to be quite a fan of Shore, still alive as he wrote his words. He praises her wit and warmth and even suggests that her goodness has been forgotten: If they face “an evil turn,” he writes, men “write it in marble: and who so doth us a good turn, we write it in dust.”
Shore remained in England after Edward IV’s death and annoyed successor King Richard III, no fan of her late royal paramour. According to an 1821 account, the king put her before a bishop who sentenced her to “do penance” on a Sunday for her adultery.
So thus she had to walk. Not like Cersei in “Game of Thrones,” however. Wearing a shift and a white sheet, carrying a candle and a cross, she marched “bare-legged” and barefoot across London “with a crowd of people to behold her.”
Saint More turns snarky when he takes note of those in the crowd “who were more amorous of her body than curious of her soul.” But Shore drew sympathy too. Even amid the “noisy and ogling crowd,” writes author Catharine Arnold writes in her 2010 book “City of Sin: London and its Vices,” her grace won her respect.
The 1821 account claims her walk of penitence was designed not to punish her but instead to distract the population from the fate threatening the late Edward IV’s two sons, who’d forever become known as The Princes in the Tower.
Shore is certainly no Anne Boleyn in terms of historical memory, but she manages to live on in fiction and art. Shakespeare refers to her in “Richard III,” where the king describes her as having “a pretty foot, a cherry lip, a bonny eye, a passing pleasing tongue.” Alas, he also gets in some strumpet-shaming by calling her a harlot.
She also appears in a Romantic-era William Blake painting of her walk of penitence, clad in Roman attire. Most recently, she shows up in “The White Queen” the 2009 novel by Philippa Gregory about the wife of Edward IV, and its TV adaptation.
So what happened to Shore after her walk across London? She’d marry one more time, possibly giving her name to the “Shoreditch” district of London. And she’d live into her elder years, as Arnold puts it, “a remarkable woman, having survived the back-stairs politics of a savage age.”
In another savage age, this one fictional, we await the fate of Cersei Lannister. She seems unlikely to be so fortunate, but only George R.R. Martin knows for sure.
For another real-life connection to the fictional world of “Game of Thrones,” check our 2014 article about the medieval inspiration for “trial by combat.”
Randy Dotinga, a Monitor contributor, is president of the American Society of Journalists and Authors.