House of the Dragon: The Real History Behind the Game of Thrones Prequel

Like Game of Thrones before it, House of the Dragon borrows from real British royal history.

Paddy Considine, Sian Brooke, Michael Carter, Steve Toussaint, Eve Best during a Great Council on House of the Dragon
Photo: HBO

It is known that George R.R. Martin often takes inspiration from medieval and early modern history for his stories about Westeros. Part of the inspiration behind A Song of Ice and Fire (televised as Game of Thrones) was the Wars of the Roses, a series of civil wars in late medieval England which saw the houses of York and Lancaster battling over the English throne. It’s no surprise, then, that the prequel series House of the Dragon (based on Martin’s book Fire & Blood) also takes some inspiration from English medieval history – specifically, from an earlier set of civil wars fought over the English crown known to historians as the Anarchy.

George R.R. Martin himself spoke about this at the recent SDCC panel on House of the Dragon, explaining that “I pilfered from real history,” and briefly outlining the series of events that led to the Anarchy. Showrunner Ryan Condal told Den of Geek’s David Crow that the writers “read a lot of material about the Anarchy all the way up, because I knew that just as the War of the Roses was the influence in the first series, I knew that was George’s influence here.”

Having said that, Martin’s books are not retellings of British history with dragons – if that’s your bag, check out Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series of novels. Martin does not directly parallel any of his characters with specific characters from British or European history, but rather he takes a character here, an incident there, and a battle over here, and combines them in new and hopefully unexpected ways.

As Condal puts it, “we kind of take the approach of trying to immerse ourselves in the general history of the time period so that you can pull interesting details out of it and use them and exploit them in a way that makes this world feel more kind of textural and realized.” Or, as Martin himself said during SDCC, “I get inspiration from history, and then I take elements from history and I turn it up to eleven… or to 111.”

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Game of Thrones’ infamous Red Wedding, for example, was inspired by two different Scottish events. One was the Glencoe Massacre of 1692, in which members of the McDonald clan slaughtered their guests the Campbells. The other was the Black Dinner of 1440, in which the young Earl of Douglas and his brother were invited to dinner at Edinburgh Castle by the 10-year-old King James II and murdered. Neither of these events bears any relation to the Wars of the Roses, and neither the Stark children nor their Lannister counterparts directly map onto any historical figures.

Martin’s fiction, then, is woven from all sorts of different threads of history, pulled together in new ways, stirred up with new characters, and some dragons thrown in on top of that. None of us can predict the twists and turns his story will take. But his method remains much the same in writing Fire & Blood, the book of Targaryen history that forms the basis for HBO’s new Game of Thrones prequel series, House of the Dragon. Bits and pieces of real history have been taken as inspiration and sometimes as a framework for new stories.

With that in mind, here are some events from history that it will be helpful to know.

The Reigns of Stephen and Matilda, a.k.a. the Anarchy

The Anarchy was fought between the heirs of Henry I of England, Stephen and Matilda, between 1135 and 1154.

King Henry I (reigned 1100 – 1135) had about 27 children, give or take a few, but only two legitimate heirs; one son died in infancy and the rest were all born out of wedlock by various different mothers. Only his daughter Matilda, sometimes known as Maude, or her younger brother William could inherit the throne from him. The English monarchy has until very recently followed the rule of male primogeniture (the Queen changed the rule in 2013), that is, boys inherit before girls. So William was Henry’s heir, while Matilda married the Holy Roman Emperor and became Empress.

But in 1120, William drowned trying to save one of his half-sisters in the White Ship disaster, when their ship was wrecked off the coast. Five years later Matilda’s husband died and she returned to Normandy (held by the Norman English kings at the time) and in 1127 Henry I forced his lords and barons to swear an oath of loyalty to Matilda as his heir. While you might think this would be unnecessary given that she was his only surviving legitimate child, at that time England had not had a ruling Queen since tribal queens like Boudicca were around over a millennium earlier. Henry was obviously worried that his barons would not accept a woman inheriting the throne, hence the oath – and he was right to worry.

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By the time Henry died in 1135, Matilda had been married to her second husband, Geoffrey of Anjou, since 1128 and they had two sons together. Matilda and Geoffrey were in Anjou in northern France, and before Matilda could get to London to claim the throne, her cousin, Henry’s nephew Stephen of Blois, got there first, and claimed the throne for himself as the next male heir. Although he had sworn the oath to Matilda in 1127, he argued that he was a better choice for the country, and that Henry probably changed his mind on his deathbed anyway.

What followed was years of civil war when, according to The Peterborough Chronicle, “Christ and His saints slept”, leaving England to misery. Matilda (who continued to use the title “Empress”) invaded England in 1139 and managed to rule as “Lady of England and Normandy” for a few months in 1141. She kept fighting until she eventually retreated back to Normandy in 1148, at which point her eldest son Henry took over.

The ongoing conflict seems to have been exacerbated by the fact Matilda was unpopular and apparently unlikeable, and Stephen was incapable of controlling those around him, his own younger brother deserting him for Matilda for a few months before coming back. The whole situation was such a mess that the British Royal Family’s own official website lists the whole period simply as the reign of “Stephen and Matilda”, which is ironic, since they were enemies in a bitter civil war rather than co-rulers.

Matilda’s son Henry eventually gained the upper hand in the war and got Stephen to name him as his heir. Stephen died the following year and Stephen’s surviving son died five years later, leaving Henry to rule England and Normandy as Henry II. Henry II later went to war with his own wife and sons and accidentally got the Archbishop of Canterbury murdered in the cathedral, but that’s another story…

What’s Wrong with Queens Anyway?

Why were the English barons so reluctant to accept a Queen rather than a King? There were a few reasons. For one, there simply was no tradition of ruling queens in Anglo-Saxon England. Cleopatra was Egyptian and Boudicca was British Celtic. Emma of Normandy had acted as regent for her son while he was in Denmark, and many medieval queens did the same later, but none of them ruled as the monarch until Henry VIII’s daughter Mary I, centuries later in 1553.

Medieval male rulers also had some concerns about women ruling in general. Some were practical. When Henry I died, Matilda was in the early stages of pregnancy with her third son William, having nearly died giving birth to her second son, Geoffrey, eighteen months earlier. This may be why she didn’t rush to London straight away, and Stephen was able to beat her to it and take the throne. Contraception was unreliable and pregnancy and childbirth were dangerous, so a woman of childbearing years was an unstable prospect for a throne.

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There was also, of course, a hefty dose of simple sexism involved. It was feared that women would be influenced by their husbands and that the husband, who was not entitled to be King, would actually be the ruler. That’s why Elizabeth I never married and why Queen Victoria’s husband Prince Albert was refused the title of ‘King’. Geoffrey of Anjou wasn’t especially popular; though since their marriage was rather unhappy the barons probably needn’t have worried on that score.

Added to all that is the influence of the people themselves. If Stephen hadn’t decided he quite fancied being King, would the barons have accepted Matilda? Quite possibly. One important difference between the real history and House of the Dragon is that Stephen had no real reason to expect to inherit the throne. There was no specific law against a woman ruling as Queen, it just hadn’t been done before. In House of the Dragon, on the other hand, several councils have decreed that women cannot inherit and Daemon Targaryen assumes that the throne is rightfully his.

How Does This Relate to House of the Dragon?

None of the characters in House of the Dragon map exactly onto any of these historical people, but there are clear parallels between some of them. (And by the way, just like in real medieval history, Martin re-uses a lot of familiar names for his characters. One of the reasons Matilda is often known as Maude is because there were so many other Matildas around, including her own mother and her rival Queen, Stephen’s wife).

House of the Dragon opens during the reign of Viserys I Targaryen, who has been chosen by the lords of Westeros to succeed the old king, Jaehaerys I Targaryen. As the show goes on, subsequent episodes jump forwards in time, and the question of who will succeed Viserys becomes more and more complicated.

Two characters in House of the Dragon seem to be inspired by the real Empress Matilda. Rhaenys Velaryon née Targaryen (Eve Best), the “Queen Who Never Was,” has been passed over for succession years before the series begins when her grandfather Jaehaerys named his younger son, her uncle Baelon, as his heir instead of herself, his granddaughter by his deceased eldest son. That event established a preference for male relatives over female even when a woman was closer to a direct line of succession. Then when Baelon died, his son Viserys Targaryen was chosen by a council at Harrenhal as the next king, passing over Rhaenys yet again.

An even closer parallel to Matilda is found in Rhaenyra Targaryen, daughter of Viserys. At the end of House of the Dragon‘s first episode, Viserys names her his heir and has the many lords of Westeros swear oaths to her. This has clear parallels with the oath Henry I had his barons swear to his daughter Matilda. We then see Matt Smith’s Daemon Targaryen, Viserys’ brother who is his next male heir at this point in time, looking cross, drawing a clear connection between him and Stephen, although the exact family relationship is different.

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From there, the story diverges from history as new characters are introduced and the situation unfolds in its own way – not to mention the Targaryens have dragons, something England’s Norman rulers were sorely lacking! Henry I of England was a widower when his son died, which enabled him to re-marry in the hope of conceiving another male heir. However, it didn’t happen, divorce (as King Henry VIII would find out many years later) was extremely difficult, and by the time he had the barons swear their oaths to Matilda, he knew she was his only surviving legitimate child.

In House of the Dragon, on the other hand, we see Viserys remarry after making his lords swear their oath to Rhaenyra. He then has a legitimate male son, Aegon, with his new wife, Alicent Hightower. This changes the situation completely, as by the rules of male primogeniture, his eldest legitimate son would be expected to be his heir. That’s why Henry VIII’s youngest child, Edward, became king before either of his sisters, Mary and Elizabeth. The conflict becomes a complicated clash of values – what means more, keeping an oath or sticking to tradition? – as well as a clash of personalities.

Can We Make Guesses About House of the Dragon Based On Medieval History?

The short answer to that question is, of course, “no”. The series is fantasy and is not exactly following historical events.

But we suspect the history of these early English civil wars will continue to influence the tone of the series. The results of Stephen and Matilda’s bitter conflict included suffering for the people of England caught in the middle and forced to fight on one side or the other, years of chaos, religious tensions (Stephen had support from one of the two competing Popes for his claim to the throne in 1135), and a legacy of inter-family rivalry that wouldn’t stop with Henry II and the next generation. Not for nothing was this period called “the Anarchy”. And of course, the key conflict revolves around the issue of powerful men refusing to accept a woman as their ruler.

Personality also plays a key role, as it did in medieval history. Matilda was never crowned as Queen of England because she annoyed the people of London so much her coronation didn’t go ahead, while Stephen was a good military leader but not always so good at forming policy. In the confrontations between the lords of Westeros surrounding Viserys’s succession, it’s safe to say the known personalities of Daemon, Aegon, and Rhaenyra will probably be a factor.

There are plenty of colorful incidents from this period of English history that might make their way into the show as well. Matilda, for example, once escaped from captivity in Oxford Tower and ran away across the frozen River Thames. Stephen was also captured at one point, after fighting on with a broken battle ax, and was eventually recovered in a prisoner exchange organized by his wife. Presumably, as he did with the Red Wedding, Martin will continue to plunder history for exciting bits and pieces to put into his stories, whichever characters he gives them to. We’re excited to find out how he uses the rich material of medieval history for his stories – and how he changes it. 

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