Game of Thrones is headed toward its season finale, and like a Frey at a wedding party, we feel like dancing in celebration of these tidings. Hence, we thought it’d be a fun time to take one last look at the series' origins and consider the real history of Game of Thrones. Woah, don’t think we’ve all gone crazy! Some around here may be brushing up on their High Valyrian, but we all realize this is just a little slice of high fantasy and nihilistic realpolitik. The kind of fairy tale only Kissinger could find happy.
Still, there is a lot of fun Middle Age history wrapped around this story of dragons and White Walkers, and for every element author George R.R. Martin may have borrowed from Tolkien, there were countless moments derived from a true medieval world that was decidedly less chivalrous than other fantasy writers would have you believe. It could be a place where things like the Red Wedding would merely indicate that it’s Tuesday.
So, shake off those post-battling bastards celebration blues and join us for a fun, brief look at some of the influences at play in this whacky game.
The best place to start is the most obvious (and murky) of Martin’s probable historical allusions: the oft-cited War of the Roses. Long before it was a Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner movie, the War of the Roses was the affectionate name for one of the bloodiest ongoing civil wars in British history between the Houses York and Lancaster (huh). Named after a misconception fanned by William Shakespeare that the Lancasters wore red roses against the Yorks’ white ones, the decade-long conflict has long bloomed in imaginations. Coming at the end of the Middle Ages for the British Isles, the war marked a major time of transition for a realm ready to leave the dark eras behind.
Unlike our fair Starks and Lannisters, the Yorks and Lancasters stemmed (tenuously) to the same royal family line: the House Plantagenet. This house and their Angevin Empire were Frankish transplants that had the most successful direct lineage in British history. With a clean passage of power from 1189 to 1377—during which Henry II likely murdered Beckett, Richard I went on his Crusade, and King John reluctantly signed the Magna Carta—a whole lot of history happened. So much that it is best not to upset any historians by trying to summarize it in a sentence (whoops).
That straight line ended with the succession of Richard II. Reviled as a tyrant by some in history, including Shakespeare, Richard II was the grandson of Edward III and son of the first Prince of Wales who did not ascend to the throne. He also was the loser in history. Henry Bolingbroke, Richard’s cousin and one of the many sons of Uncle John of Gaunt, repeatedly insulted and disparaged the British monarch until he got himself banished in 1398.
The following year, John of Gaunt died, and Richard II added insult to injury by requiring the banished Henry to beg for his inheritance. Thus, when Richard was touring Ireland, Henry came back to England with an army and after some old fashioned scouring, declared himself Henry IV. His successful imprisonment of Richard cemented that power grab.
This is all a long-winded way of saying that Henry IV broke 200 years of clean Plantagenet succession. And while he still claimed that as his family’s name, he also lived under the name of another house: Lancaster. A family whose rise was built on the logic of “might makes right” and that any lord with Plantagenet blood and an army could be king. How could this go wrong?
Quite easily, it turns out. Following the death of Henry IV’s son, Henry V, came (wait for it) Henry VI. Named king at nine months old, Henry VI may ironically be an influence for both Joffrey and Tommen Baratheon. While neither a sadist or an inbred baby like that duo, the “pious” Henry cut the image of a weak monarch throughout his life and frequently relinquished governance to his wife, Queen Consort Margaret of Anjou. The once boy king’s French wife and advisor often behaved like Cersei by taking the reigns due to Henry VI’s bouts of insanity where he was said to not even acknowledge the birth of his own son.
The sometimes-mad king’s reign came under a dense fog when Richard Plantagenet, Third Duke of York (or just Richard of York) was convinced to return from Ireland to lobby for justice. As it turned out, Richard of York had as much of a blood relation to Edward III (the last clear Plantagenet King) as Henry VI did. When Henry IV overthrew Richard II, he named himself king because he was the son of John of Gaunt, Edward III’s fourth son. Well, turns out that Richard of York was descended from Edward’s second son. How do you like them apples, Lancasters?
Not very well. Richard of York and his followers blamed Henry VI’s man, Edmund Beaufort, Earl of Somerset, for losing the Hundred Years War to the French. Gains made by Henry V and other British monarchs were lost, and England was pissed.
While not as noble a reason to hate someone as the slaughtering of peasants, this stark man of York clearly had a reason to hate Somerset like Ned Stark did Gregor Clegane when he escalated himself into the War of the Five Kings. Indeed, after Henry VI succumbed to another bout of madness, Richard of York was named Protector of the Realm (Hand of the King) in Henry’s stead in 1453. And one of the first things he did was send Somerset to the Tower of London.
Eventually, Henry recovered his sanity, reversed Richard of York’s powerplays, and Richard was forced to gather his army and declare his right rule, leading to the first open battle of the War of the Roses: the First Battle of St. Albans (1455).
To go through all the give and takes of who defeated who under which faction (Yorks, Lancasters, Warwicks, and the French, oh my!) would likely cause a headache for the uninitiated, so suffice it to say that the conflict was actually a series of shorter wars that drowned Britain for 30 years. Both the Lancasters and Yorks had men dubbed kings over these three decades. However, it should be noted that the earliest repeated battles were between forces loyal to Richard of York (who died fighting in 1460) and Queen Margaret. Ned and Cersei? Mayhaps…
But Martin most strikingly pulled from the end of the war; the period where he found his Tyrion and Daenerys.
Whenever one discusses Richard III, one must take into account that there are many, many versions of the famed king. He is both a villain and a hero. A monster and a reformer on the side of the commoners. The myth has dwarfed his slight stature so greatly that the best way to describe him is to say, Tyrion Lannister.
Born to Richard of York (yes, the same one) as his eighth son, Richard III was always the runt of the litter. While not a Lancaster, this Yorkist king and last visage of the Plantagenet Dynasty, shared many of the attributes Tyrion has been given by Martin’s text.
Even prior to being crowned, the most cynical critics will concede Richard did good work as the first Lord President of the Council of the North in Yorkshire, where he helped the North economically operate autonomously from London. As king, Richard III founded what would become known as the Court of Requests decades later. The expedient and low cost court allowed the impoverished, who could not afford legal council, to apply for hearings of grievance.
Richard III also introduced the concept of bail to Britain in 1484 to keep the accused out of prison or having their property stolen, banned restrictions on the printing press during his tenure and also chartered the College of Arms, which is still in use today.
Like when Tyrion was appointed to Hand of the King, Richard III promoted a number of programs for the betterment of the “small folk.” Not bad. And what did he get for his troubles?
If legend and critics are to be believed, this king of short rule (two years) and even slighter stature should be remembered a hideous monster by all measurements. Despite contemporary historian John Rous initially praising Richard during his reign as a “good lord,” he quickly changed his tune in the following years. In History of the Kings of England, published during the successive reign of Richard’s enemy and destroyer, the Yorkist king is described to have a hunchback, stunted body and distorted features due to spending two years in his mother’s womb before exiting with fully grown teeth and long hair in tow.
Renowned 16th century historian Thomas More, a man for all seasons, likewise described Richard as being “little of stature” and appearing outwardly grotesque in accordance with a twisted inner-nature. Perhaps most infamously damning is how Shakespeare projected the king in Richard III. While being gifted with great wit and cunning by a bemused Bard, he is written as an unambiguous evil devil who has been left “deformed, unfinish’d” by his maker.
Like Richard III, Tyrion Lannister can do only good for the people of King’s Landing and only be despised for it: he saves them from Stannis Baratheon’s fleet and King Joffrey gets the credit; he tries to save them from starvation and he is declared a “twisted little demon monkey” by mobs; even in Martin’s own writings, Tyrion is far less dashing than Peter Dinklage. With mismatched eyes, curved legs and a misshapen face, all before he loses his nose in a battle that left him only ruggedly scarred on the TV show, Tyrion is the visage of repulsion.
And despite his cunning mind and great wit, his reputation precedes him as the “Imp,” a bawdy hedonist. This is wonderfully displayed in the show when Dianna Rigg expresses severe disappointment by finding only a bureaucrat upon their meeting. A drastic reason for Richard’s supposed villainy stems largely from Tudor propaganda after they supplanted the last Plantagenet monarch. But the crime it is all built upon is one of true infamy that found its mirror in season 4….
Richard III was the second Yorkist king to have a coronation. He had succeeded his brother, Edward IV, in that department. However, he could only do this by stepping over the angelically remembered Boy King Edward V.
After being named Lord Protector (Hand) to his young royal nephews, Edward V and an even younger brother, Richard happened to discover within two months a clergyman that conveniently knew the boys' dead father was supposedly married to another woman when he conceived the children. Thus, these kids were illegitimate! Richard III kept them in “safe keeping” within the Tower of London while he was crowned two weeks later. Shortly thereafter, the kids vanished without a trace from history. Tudor historians claim that Richard murdered his boy nephews, though there is no evidence other than their damning disappearance.
Similarly on the show, Tyrion underwent a crisis of propaganda slander when he was wrongfully accused for the murder of his nephew, King Joffrey. While Martin’s Joffrey is one of the most evil sociopaths in literature, he is beloved as a golden haired angel by the masses and his uncle is a deformed freak. After Joffrey is spectacularly (and deservedly) poisoned at his own wedding feast, Tyrion is blamed by all around him, including his family. Henceforth, his name is mud in Westerosi history books.
Beyond that unfortunate comparison, Tyrion should be proud of his kinship with the last Medieval British King. Richard III earned that distinction because he was the final English ruler to fight (and die) in battle. During the Battle of Bosworth Field, Richard fought valiantly (or cravenly, according to Shakespeare) and died. And like Tyrion after Blackwater, his whereabouts were quickly forgotten. A harbinger of things to come for the Imp Lannister? Perhaps. Especially considering he was facing off against Henry Tudor.
The man who defeated Richard III and put the final nail in the coffin of the Lancaster/York flower party was also one who returned from a 20-year exile. To win the crown, he crossed the narrow English Channel and brought an army of foreigners with him to the gates of his long lost homeland. Sound familiar yet?
Henry VII was born Henry Tudor to Edmund Tudor and Lady Margaret Beaufort. Like the orphaned Dany, Henry never knew his father, because he died three months before the child’s birth when his Lancastrian red rose wilted in the captivity of the Yorkist’s white. But more important to Henry than his Tudor name was his mother’s heritage. The great-granddaughter of John of Gaunt and his third wife (i.e. longtime mistress), Henry’s claim to Plantagenet blood was dubious at best. But like a Targaryen slave girl whose family was long overthrown, the claim was good enough to get the job done with the right support.
Henry found it in his Uncle Jasper Tudor, who joined the boy in terrified exile of Yorkist rulers in 1471. Following the second rise to power of Edward IV (Richard III’s brother), Jasper and Henry Tudor lived in self-imposed exile in Northwest France. Henry was 14. It is there that he made inroads with French powers and created allies while turmoil spread in England.
When Richard III called himself king in 1483, and his sweet nephews were never heard from again, outrage grew against the impish monarch. And with support coalescing around Henry, he had to move into the French court for support. After an initially failed crossing that, like Dany, continually prolonged his absence, Henry’s French and Scottish army landed in Wales With his loyal uncle, Henry amassed an army of 5,000 that also included Welsh, English and the maternal grandparents of missing Edward V. In 1485, he quickly and decisively defeated Richard III in the Battle of Bosworth Field, bringing the War of the Roses to a definitive end. The Tudor Dynasty was born.
For fans of Game of Thrones, this seems inevitably the course charted for Daenerys Targaryen. She never knew her father, who was slaughtered by Jaime Lannister after Robert’s Rebellion had destroyed the Targaryen Dynasty. And like Henry, she knew little of her homeland in early life as her nickname “Stormborn” comes from being spirited away during a nightmarish sea voyage across the Narrow Sea to Essos… where she has remained some 15 years (or 19 on the show) ever since. But like Henry, she is building an army of foreign followers from the Dothraki, the Unsullied of Astapor, and the freed slaves of Yunkai. In some ways a father figure (or a creepy uncle), Ser Jorah Mormont mentors her along the way. It thusly causes the mind to wonder.
Could Daenerys winning the Iron Throne be the endgame? It seems probable considering this is “A Song of Ice and Fire,” and her dragons feel destined to melt icy White Walkers coming south. And though it is impossible to imagine how the circumstances would dictate the battle, a final war between Tyrion and Daenerys would surely play well in the ratings. Also, Henry’s final diplomatic solution for tying off the civil wars was marrying Elizabeth of York, Edward IV’s daughter and niece to Richard III. A Lancastrian’s son marrying a Yorkist’s daughter who was also his third cousin.
If the internet rumors about Jon Snow being Dany’s nephew are to be believed, the war ending by a Stark marrying a Targaryen of the same blood connects the dots all the more. Then again, incest on this show, especially in the Targaryen House, goes further than British history…
When Alexander the Great conquered Egypt, his Macedonian bodyguard and general, Ptolemy, liked the place. A lot. Hence, when Alexander surprisingly died (or was poisoned) in 323 B.C., Ptolemy made sure he got Egypt when the commanders carved up the massive territories. Like the Targaryens, the Ptolemy family ruled a foreign land as transient monarchs for nearly 300 years between Alexander’s death and future Roman Emperor Augustus’ gutting of the family tree in 30 B.C. They achieved this by keeping it in the family. Deep in the family.
The Ptolemaic rulers were the last line of pharaohs in Egyptian history and their warped family tree is one propagated by more sibling incest than all of premium cable combined. Every Ptolemaic King took the title King Ptolemy, and most married a sister of the name Berenice, Arsinoe, or Cleopatra. The most famous and well-known Cleopatra of history is in full-title, Queen Cleopatra VII. She too was forced to marry her kid brother, Ptolemy XIII, who was at least seven years her junior.
The marriage between the boy king and teenage bride was not a happy one, particularly because Cleopatra proved to be more popular. Ptolemy’s attempts to supplant and eventually kill his sister/wife ended with the arrival of Gaius Julius Caesar. Already outraged by Ptolemy’s barbaric treatment of Roman Consul Pompey Magnus, it did not take much for Caesar to side with Cleopatra. Her welcoming him into her royal bed likely did not hurt. Ptolemaic incest ended when Caesar defeated Ptolemy’s army and the boy drowned in the Nile while retreating. Meanwhile, Cleopatra gave birth to Caesar’s son, Caesarion.
Daenerys Targaryen is also the product of three hundred years of incest. There is also an old saying in Westeros that every time a Targaryen is born, the gods flip a coin to decide if the child will be sane or mad. Incest does that. However, like Cleopatra, Dany never seemed to appreciate how touchy-feely her brother was. So much so, she did not shed a single tear when her lover and father to her unborn child, Dothraki leader Khal Drogo, drowned the putz in fiery melted gold. Ouch.
Yet, the scene that made viewers most recently wince in pain—or curl up in the fetal position as they rocked themselves to sleep, weeping—is obviously the Red Wedding. Robb Stark, Catelyn Stark, Talisa Stark, a thousand other people, and a sweet little five-foot tall man-eating wolf were all mercilessly slaughtered at a wedding feast with supposed allies. Walder Frey went to the top of TV villains with an arrow, and some HBO viewers were in therapy for years.
However, it is not as if George R.R. Martin made up this event just to feed off our soul-dying tears (though he undoubtedly puts those in his morning coffee). No, the Red Wedding comes from two grisly events in medieval Scottish history.
The first ghastly influence occurred during 1440 in Edinburgh Castle. Throughout the Late Middle Ages, the Douglas Clan had grown to be the most powerful and affluent family in the Scottish lowlands. They were even viewed as the powerful arm behind the royal Stewart family. That was challenged when young family leader William Douglas, 6th Earl of Douglas, his young brother David and an advisor were invited to the Royal Palace by Sir William Crichton and Sir Alexander Livingston for a dinner of reconciliation with the young Stewart King, James II.
Legend has it that the feast went well, and the 10-year-old monarch took fondly to the Douglas brothers, all the way up until Crichton and Livingston had William presented with the head of a black bull, an ancient Scottish symbol for death. The Douglases were dragged kicking into the Edinburgh courtyard where they were both found guilty of treason and immediately beheaded. Their advisor followed four days later. Some argue that heroic, headless William’s uncle, James the Gross, was in on the slaughter as he was made 7th Earl of Douglas, even after his clan laid a failed siege on Edinburgh Castle.
The second and more infamous slaughter came in 1692 following the Glorious Revolution of William and Mary. This glorious rise of a Protestant prince did not please Catholic Scots loyal to an ousted Catholic, hence a failed Jacobite uprising. Among those rebelling were the Mclains of Glencoe (aka Clan MacDonald), as well as the Glengarry family. During the warring, they stole the livestock and property of one Captain Robert Campbell, who swore out appeals for compensation against the Glengarry men while excusing the Mclains of Glencoe for the injustice. Or so it seemed…
At the end of 1691, King William allowed a pardon to all Scottish clans for their failed uprising if they swore allegiance to his crown by New Year. Alastair Maclain dithered until the last minute when it became clear that Catholics would not return to power. In late December, he traveled to English Governor Colonel Hill to swear allegiance, but the governor sent him to Sir Colin Campbell who intentionally waited until after January to meet with the MacDonald man and take his oath.
The failure to meet the deadline was enough of a pretense for John Campbell, senior leader of the Campbell Clan, to pursue his revenge against perceived slights. Conspiring with his brother Archibald Campbell and the crown’s anti-clan Secretary of State over Scotland, the three sent the aforementioned and aggrieved Captain Robert Campbell to Glencoe to quarter his troops. For two weeks, the Campbell leader dined with MacDonalds and Maclains until Robert could institute his revenge, sanctioned by Colonel Hill.
On the morning of Feb. 13, 1692, Capt. Campbell and his men massacred the families whose hospitality had sheltered them for two weeks. Under orchestrated slaughter, 38 men were executed in their beds or as they attempted to flee the glen, and an additional 40 women and children died of exposure in the snow after their homes were torched.
Despite being sanctioned by the government, history tends to remember the event as the Campbellian mass slaughter of MacDonalds over a petty slight. To this day, Glencoe inns and pubs (if for only the tourists) bear signs that read: NO CAMPBELLS ALLOWED. I am sure the North will remember the Frey and Lannister hospitality for 300 years as well.
Anne Boleyn, like nearly every important woman in history, can be seen as either a heroine or a harpy, depending on who’s your source. As the second wife of Henry VIII, the second Tudor monarch, she is the woman who famously caused an English King to renounce his faith. Henry broke off ties with the Pope and Roman Catholic Church to have a taste of her alleged green sleeves. Some viewed her as a Protestant reformer who ushered in the Reformation to England and paved the way for her daughter, Elizabeth, to be the greatest English ruler in history. Others see her as a sleazy opportunist who slept her way to the top by displacing the saintly Catherine of Aragon, Henry’s first wife.
And while she cunningly maneuvered her way into Henry’s marital bed by leaving Catherine and Henry’s daughter, Mary Tudor, out in the cold, she did it by not sleeping with Henry. For years. Pretty damn brilliant.
In any case, like Margaery Tyrell’s swift manipulation of Joffrey Baratheon and later Tommen Baratheon, Anne rose to the top and made a lot of enemies along the way. While there was no wicked Queen Regent Cersei who was furious that a younger pretty thing replaced her in peoples’ affection, many wanted to see the British “usurper queen” vanish, including Henry after she gave him only another daughter and a stillborn son.
Whether Thomas Cromwell found trumped up charges against the queen because she was a threat to his political sway over Henry or because Henry wanted any excuse to rid himself of the wife he fought to have for so long remains disputed. Either way, after only three years of marriage, Anne Boleyn was arrested under the egregiously false charges of adultery and treason against the king with several men, including Flemish musician Mark Smeaton and Anne’s own brother, George Boleyn.
Accusations of adultery, and particularly incest, are widely considered a legal travesty to all historians, but were quickly accepted as fact by Henry and his court. After much torture, Smeaton and George Boleyn were executed by beheading. Anne Boleyn soon followed suit with her head sliced under a French sword. Henry considered it merciful to commute Anne’s sentence from being burned at the stake.
In Martin’s fourth book, A Feast For Crows, an envious Queen Regent Cersei attempts the political (and physical) destruction of Queen Margaery by seducing one of Margaery’s bodyguards and enlisting him to help gather false evidence of almost a dozen men whom Margaery supposedly took to bed. Among these men are musicians Hamish the Harper and a handsome singer known as the Blue Bard. After days of torture, the Blue Bard cracks like Mark Smeaton and admits to having carnal knowledge of the queen. Margaery is arrested and, drunk on power, Cersei does it one better by accusing Margaery of having an incestuous relationship with her beloved brother, Loras Tyrell.
The last one is most stunningly abhorrent, considering Loras’ homosexuality is the worst kept secret in Westeros. This also plays into legend, as some 20th century historians have hypothesized that George Boleyn was either gay or at least bisexual. While unsubstantiated, this theory has played into modern retellings of the Anne Boleyn story and is clearly on display when the close kinship between Margaery and her “different” brother is accused to be insidiously unwholesome.
As of Martin’s fifth book, A Dance With Dragons, Margaery is still under suspicion and awaiting trial, though the Sept’s adultery radar has satisfyingly turned on Cersei herself.
So, there are a few of the comparisons between your history books and fantasy books. It is the opinion of this writer that one of the defining aspects for Game of Thrones’ awesomeness stems from Martin’s liberal use of historical allegory. Instead of drawing from Campbellian story arcs or Christian imagery, Martin infuses his writings with the moral ambiguity, and the ugliness of human events and historic legend.
Reading about a parable to real factions can be so much more rewarding than another riff on good vs. evil. And these are only a few examples! Look up the Black Prince and Siege of Limoges to get a taste of Tywin’s handling of King’s Landing and the Targaryen children. Or brush up on your Caligula to find Joffrey’s true soul mate. There be more to this show than zombies and dragons.
Agree? Disagree? Just want to chew on some nerdy history discussion? Leave a comment in the section below!
This article was first published in June 2013.