Game of Thrones is dominating everything on television at the moment, and like a Frey at a wedding party, we feel like dancing in celebration to these tidings. Hence we thought it’d be a fun time to take a 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 War of the Roses
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 our 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) from 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, while Richard was gone from his throne and 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. Kind of like how a Baratheon King or two on Game of Thrones could really just be considered Lannisters. 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, as 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 nor 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.
Again think of it as if Cersei were married to Tommen. Which probably could’ve happened in some alternate version of Game of Thrones, come to think of it…
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 Ser 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. Just as Ned Stark was supposed to be Joffrey’s Hand. And like Ned attempted to do to the Mountain, one of the first things Richard 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 to 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.
Indeed, the amount of detail Martin pulled specifically from the final three monarchs of the War of the Roses could be articles unto themselves (and here’s one of them!), but suffice it to say that Richard III is considered the final Medieval King in English history. And he bore more than a passing resemblance to Tyrion Lannister.
We now know due to Richard III’s remains finally being recovered in 2012 that he was born with a curved spine, but the propaganda that followed his death indicated something far more gruesome. He was accused of having red eyes and claws at birth, and being a monstrous hunchback. This visage is something William Shakespeare ran with in his masterpiece Richard III, which depicts Richard as misshapen and unfinished by the hand of God. He also depicts Richard as a brilliant mind and wit that made up for his deformities… as well as his evil.
Traditionally, Richard has a bad rap, which we unpack the veracity of in this article, however suffice it to say that he is likely guilty of his worst accusation: the murder of his boyish nephews, one of whom was Edward V. Indeed, Richard was a York who was charged with watching over his brother’s young monarch son as Lord Protector of the Realm, i.e. their Hand, just as Tyrion Lannister was Joffrey’s Hand. However, and unlike Tyrion, Richard really did make a power play on his nephew and “hid” him and his younger brother away in the Tower of London where they were never seen again. Their disappearance, and Richard shortly thereafter declaring them dead and himself King Richard III, is pretty damning stuff.
Richard ruled, however, fairly benevolently from 1483 until his death in 1485, supporting public works for impoverished serfs, much like Tyrion. However, his rule came to a dramatic close when, like Tyrion, he fought on the field of battle at Bosworth. Unlike Tyrion, he lost more than the tip of his nose; Richard was killed in battle by the Army of Henry Tudor… who thereafter became Henry VII.
Indeed, if Tyrion finds his roots in the final York king, then Daenerys Targaryen owes more than a bit to Henry Tudor. While I doubt Game of Thrones ends with Tyrion and Dany at war–although that would be unexpected–it will likely end with Dany warring with someone other than just the Undead. And like the Dragon Queen herself, Henry Tudor spent much of his childhood abroad, hiding in France, across the narrow English Channel without a country. His father had been imprisoned by Richard III’s brother, King Edward IV, and died three months before this Henry’s birth.
Henry Tudor (whose tenuous claim and story we’ll explore in-depth at a later date) fled England as a teenager and spent 14 years slowly building unlikely support on the continent, including in the French court. Also just as Daenerys had Ser Jorah Mormont, Henry VII had his Uncle Jasper Tudor to help tutor him. Eventually, seeing an opportunity given the unpopularity of Richard III, Henry joined forces with boy king Edward V’s maternal grandparents and unexpectedly landed in Wales. He also teamed up with armies from the north, including Wales and Scotland, just as Daenerys has made allies with Yara Greyjoy of the Iron Islands… and now Jon Snow of Winterfell.
In fact, after Henry won his crown on the field of battle in 1485, he ended the War of the Roses once and for all with wedding bells. Electing to marry the daughter of Edward IV, and thus Richard III’s niece, Henry VII combined his flimsy connection to the Lancaster House with Elizabeth of York’s firm connection to the York House. The War of the Roses ended with their wedding, just as how Dany may yet sow up support by marrying herself to, say, Jon Snow. Also like Dany and Jon, Henry was related to Elizabeth of York, who was his third cousin…
So there you have it. The War of the Roses and just some of its influences on Game of Thrones. We’ll explore these and other interesting facets of history being placed on the show very soon too!