The Real History of Game of Thrones: The Sparrows

We examine the real world historical context for Jonathan Pryce's High Sparrow and his flock from HBO's Game of Thrones.

This article contains Game of Thrones spoilers.

There is a scene midway through the sixth season of Game of Thrones that is still astonishing in its depiction of hypocrisy and gender dynamics in a medieval society several years later. A major power player’s strength appeared to be heightened in terrifying ways as the most religiously devout character on the series, Jonathan Pryce’s deliciously pious-evil High Sparrow, urged Queen Margaery to sleep with Tommen, further entrenching him for the time being in the political establishment. It remains a shock upon rewatch to see just how high this self-described birdlike septon can fly after Cersei allowed his flock to arm themselves in a militaristic fashion. Simply intended by the Queen Mother to be aimed at her younger counterpart, this cult-like group would use its power to peck at King’s Landing’s corruption. These undesirables included vice like alcohol and prostitution, as well as powerfully corrupt secular leaders, such as the men beaten or slaughtered (depending on sexual orientation) in Littlefinger’s brothel,  and… Loras Tyrell.

For fans who were unsullied by book spoilers in 2015 and 2016, the extent of their wrath might have been a surprise, especially since they had the ability to turn the king away when he came to free his brother-in-law from the Sept of Baelor. Was it pure fantasy that a religious order would be that swift in its rise to power and strength over a crown? Well yes and no. The carving of the Seven’s symbol into their foreheads seems a little bit extreme, however in many respects Game of Thrones was at last wading into the most epic struggle of the actual Middles Ages and beyond. For it was in seasons 5 and 6 that we got a real taste of the Westerosi version of the medieval monarchy’s war on the Church.

Ancient history is littered with instances where an uneasy alliance between institutions for the earthly and eternal, the materialistic and the supposedly divine, clashed for power in subtle or profound ways. From Germanic Otto III (essentially) naming himself Holy Roman Emperor after marching on Rome all the way to Henry II of England bringing the Archbishop of Canterbury much closer to God in the 12th century, this clash has been sometimes bloodily explicit.

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My personal favorite instance is when Pope Boniface VIII dared to finally stand up to France’s King Philip IV at the turn of the 14th century…which ended with Philip being “excommunicated,” and the Pope arrested, probably tortured, and humiliated in death. The papacy subsequently moved to Avignon and under French supervision for the better part of the next century.

Still, the focus right now is on the piety of the High Sparrow and his flock of fanatics that are running rampant in King’s Landing on Game of Thrones. And there is plenty of historical context for that, which likely influenced George R.R. Martin’s writing.

The Sparrows’ Piety / Francis of Assisi

Given the humble brown cloth with robe belts that the Sparrows have tied around their wastes, not to mention the achingly self-aware humility of the bare feet, the iconography that George R.R. Martin and now HBO are borrowing from is fairly obvious; this is a Westerosi appropriation of St. Francis and his Order of Friars Minor.

Francis of Assisi, sainted in the Catholic Church because (among other things) he is believed to be the first man to receive the stigmata—lucky him—was born Giovanni di Pietro di Bernardone in either 1181 or 1182. While this revered saint’s near millennium of hagiography makes his actual biography somewhat hard to discern, the popular notion is that he lived a willful young life of excitement and with a taste for the finer things in life. Indeed, his father Pietro de Bourlemont was a businessman who dealt in fine cloth goods, such as probably silk. The popular notion is that Pietro was even in France when Giovanni was born, hence the father calling his son Francesco instead of Giovanni.

And as recorded in The Catholic Encyclopedia (in an entry penned by Paschal Robinson and written in 1913), Francis did leave a potentially violent and vainglorious young life where twice he joined military campaigns, making his background not dissimilar to Lancel Lannister on Game of Thrones who also came from wealth (though certainly more than Francis) and after being injured in battle, found himself foregoing worldly pleasures.

The story goes that Francis was on horseback and crossing an Umbrian plain to join the army of Count Walter of Brienne (also the King of Sicily through marriage) when he happened upon a peasant suffering from leprosy. Despite this not being Francis’ first warring glory (he also was taken prisoner for a year when he joined a campaign that placed him in Collestrada), he felt the urge to dismount and give this poor soul all the money that he had. Francis finally accepted the call he had resisted after apparently hearing the voice of God twice in his dreams. Initially, he rebuked the Lord, saying, “I know I shall be a great prince.” But after seeing this leper, he accepted his destiny by pilgrimaging to Rome and being disgusted by the misery and squalor of the poor beggars filling St. Peter’s Square and denied admittance to the basilica. He resigned himself to live in poverty afterwards.

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Finally on February 24, 1208, the lore states he stepped into the Basilica of Santa Maria degli Angeli in Assisi and was profoundly moved by a story of how Christ and his disciples possessed neither gold nor silver, nor shoes, nor staff. Feeling this sermon was meant specifically for him, Francis left and immediately stripped himself of clothes and shoes, choosing instead to go barefoot like Christ and wear a woolen tunic of “beast color,” which was only adorned on the poorest Umbrian peasants at the time. He even got that knotted rope.

In 1209, Francis and 11 followers walked to Rome to gain the papacy’s permission to start preaching a genuine monastic order. It took the better part of a year, and more intriguingly, Pope Innocent III was apparently not impressed with the destitute-looking Francis upon their first meeting. But eventually, the Pope gave the “Lesser Brothers” the right to officially found the Franciscan Order, or Friars Minor (a reference to the Gospel of Matthew 25:40-45). Such was his piety that after receiving the ecclesiastical tonsure (they shaved his head) and later founding two more orders, Francis refused to be ordained as a priest and lived the rest of his life in humble poverty.

Nevertheless, peaceful Francis paid Pope Innocent III’s political favor back when he supported the Fifth Crusade into Egypt and even traveled to the foreign land to treat with the Sultan al-Kamil. It seems that like the High Sparrow paying his respects to Cersei Lannister, even Francis did not quite forget who legalized the Franciscan brotherhood’s legitimacy.

High Sparrow and his Flock / Savonarola, The Weepers, and the Bonfire of the Vanities

Moving past the medieval era (at least in Italy), the late 15th century was a time of rejuvenation and enlightenment where the city-state structure of the Papal States continued to be loosely ruled over by the Pope, but with each community allowed to flourish with intellectual and artistic vitality that was hardly (if at all) funneled through religious fervor. In fact, with the advent of the printing press in that very century, there was an increasing push to demystify a faith that currently only the clergy read. In short, it was the beginning of the Renaissance.

…This did not go over well in some circles. And one doesn’t have to look at ancient history to know that any time there is some type of cultural progress, there is always a zealot clothed in self-righteousness (be it religion or otherwise) trying to turn the clocks backwards with populism and doomsaying.

Enter Girolamo Savonarola, the unofficial patron saint of fire-breathing bigotry and conservative fanaticism. Under his spell, the city-state of Florence brutally ended its Golden Age of magnificence, much of it arranged by Lorenzo de’ Medici, and instead embraced the black fumes of the most legendary book burnings this side of the 20th century.

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Savonarola had pursued a career in medicine (by medieval standards) before he became a Dominican friar. However, like so many frustrated fanatics, his early life did not work out as he had planned. Hailing from Ferrara, Savonarola attended the university there to be a doctor such as his father, but even before he renounced worldly pleasures for an ascetic life, he was already bitter. He wrote poems entitled “On the Ruin of the World” and “On the Ruin of the Church” between 1472 and 1475, recoiling at not unfounded gross corruption in the Church. But in his texts, he denounced the perceived return to Greco-Roman adultery, sodomy, murder, and envy in Renaissance Italy. Finally, in 1475 he fled to Bologna and studied to become a Dominican friar.

He first came to Florence as a lecturer and teacher at the Convent of San Marco in 1482. However, his Northern Italy cadence and his apocalyptic judgments were considered a failure to Florentines that initially ignored the friar. He eventually returned to the north before coming back to Florence in 1490, increasingly disgusted by what he saw as the excessive extravagance the city embraced under the Medici family, particularly Lorenzo de’ Medici who up until his death in 1492 was a celebrated statesman in the city for (mostly) keeping peace with the other Papal States and financing many of the city’s frivolities, its annual Carnivals for Mardi Gras, and even public works, including art by Sandro Botticelli.

Lorenzo died in 1492, just as Savonarola’s judging declarations were developing an audience; indeed, that same year, Savonarola’s sermons were so popular that he relocated them to the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore. For Savonarola and his followers, the spread of syphilis in Italy was the result of transgressors and sodomites. Drawing large audiences, Savonarola primarily preached from the Book of Revelations and about End Times, and how Florentines will be judged for their excesses. He also appealed to those in poverty by decrying the vanity and corruption of the wealthy and elite both in the Church and out of it (and implicitly the respective new Borgia Pope, Alexander VI, and the Medici family). Many in Florence’s new middle class and old money dubbed Savonarola’s followers to be “Piagnoni,” or “Weepers.”

One of Savonarola’s most famed prophecies was about how the end was nigh and that the Florentines would need to join him in a new proverbial Noah’s Ark if they wished not to be swept away in the coming flood. He apparently preached this every Sunday of Lent in 1494, culminating in his Easter Day sermon, where he is purported to have said, “Let everyone hasten into the ark of the Lord; Noah invites all, the door is open; but the time will come when the ark will be closed, and many will repent that they had not entered therein.”

By the time that French King Charles VIII marched on Florence that same year, Savonarola was in a prime position. Charles VIII was cutting a bloody path through the Papal States with an aim toward Rome and (really) Naples. And with the advent of the French invader’s army at the gates, Lorenzo’s son Piero de’ Medici (also “Piero the Unfortunate”) was expelled by the Florentine people, and Savonarola boosted his image by treating with the French King, who ultimately spared Florence.

Emboldened by his new legitimacy and its sway over the “popular” government formed in the wake of Medici’s exile, Savonarola began preaching that Florence would usher in a renewed era of religious purity in the Papal States, freeing it from the corruption of the Church and bringing Italy back closer to God, “navel” first.

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Thus in February of 1495, instead of celebrating Mardi Gras with the carnivals popularized under Lorenzo de’ Medici, Savonarola hosted his first Bonfire of the Vanities. Bonfires had been held before, but they became commonplace in Florence where anything considered sinful or tempting would be destroyed—paintings, books, manuscripts, tapestries, jewelry, sculptures, wigs, even in some cases fake teeth. Works of Dante and Botticelli, Ovid and Lorenzo di Credi, were cast to the flames. Botticelli was even forced to personally hand over his own art to the enveloping smoke. And since the only culture in Game of Thrones’ King’s Landing would appear to be booze and whoring, that’s also right where the Sparrows go first.

Savonarola eventually conscripted young and enfranchised male followers to go door to door, and peek into neighbors’ homes to confiscate items that needed to be burned. These most fanatical Gestapo (or Sparrow) like followers proudly carried the “Weeper” title, once a sign of derision, to their task. This led to the most famed Bonfire on February 7, 1497 when mirrors, carnival masks, musical instruments, ornaments, nude statues, and countless other works were lost for all time.

What finally brought Savonarola down, of all things, was the infamous Borgia Pope who did at least several good deeds, not least of which was the removal of this fanaticism. While Rodrigo Borgia was himself disgusted by Savonarola as an art patron, he tended to turn a blind eye to Florence until the city-state refused to join his “Holy League” against French King Charles VIII in 1495. In a political move, the Borgia Pope summoned Savonarola to Rome in 1496—which probably would not have ended well for the good friar—but the Florentine zealot declined, suggesting he was in too poor of health to make the journey. Falling in to the other end of the papacy’s trap, Pope Alexander VI banned Savonarola from preaching in public henceforth. The friar complied for some months before returning to his book burning ways.

In May of 1497, Pope Alexander VI excommunicated Savonarola from the Church and threatened Florence with an interdict (a denial of communion and Mass for all Florentines). Instantly, Savonarola became a more divisive figure, which culminated in his humiliation in 1498 when Savonarola was challenged to prove his prophecies and implied miracle capabilities by walking through fire. After refusing the crowd, one of Savonarola’s staunchest followers, Fra Domenico, volunteered to walk through fire—before delaying and finally cancelling the miracle due to rain. An enraged Florentine mob stormed the friars’ convent, and Savonarola and his two closest supporters were arrested.

Under torture, Savonarola “confessed” that he fabricated his visions and prophecies. He, along with Fra Domenico, and Fra Silvestro, were publicly hanged and simultaneously burned alive in the Piazza della Signoria. He was 45-years-old.

Niccolo Machiavelli, a fellow Florentine contemporary succinctly (and contemptuously) wrote of Savonarola’s rise and fall in The Prince, “If Moses, Cyrus, Theseus, and Romulus had been unarmed they could not have enforced their constitutions for long—as happened in our time to Fra Girolamo Savonarola, who was ruined with his new order of things immediately [when] the multitude believed in him no longer, and he had no means of keeping steadfast those who believed or of making the unbelievers to believe.”

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While the High Sparrow’s fall wound up being more fiery than Savanrola’s, but he shares the real priest’s disdain for anything worldly or pleasurable, and denounces clearly the adultery and sodomy of the privileged class, including poor Loras Tyrell, whose victimization alongside his sister Margaery has some basis in real-life history as well. And it’s safe to assume that after this latest episode of Game of Thrones, the bonfire has only just begun in King’s Landing.

David Crow is the Film Section Editor at Den of Geek. He’s also a member of the Online Film Critics Society. Read more of his work here. You can follow him on Twitter @DCrowsNest.