HBO’s Game of Thrones is without a doubt, the most popular show on television. In fact, it’s one of the most popular shows in television history. It’s full of layered characters with complex backstories, intricate narratives and speculator action that is willing to kill off anyone it sees fit. Oh – and there’s also massive dragons. It’s a land full of magic and wonder; despite the grounded approach to politics and character interactions, but it’s those latter points that draw from the real world. Game of Thrones, and the book series A Song of Ice and Fire may be fictional, but they draw heavy inspiration from some real-world events. So as we await the first trailer for season 8, tune into this in-depth look at the history behind the franchise!
Most of the real world inspiration for the series comes from The War of the Roses. If you didn’t know, the War of the Roses was a civil war that took place between 1455 and 1485 between the House of York, symbolized by a white rose sigil, and House of Lancaster, represented by a red rose. The name of the war, and the use of the roses to symbolize the clashing families were coined by none other than William Shakespeare in his play Henry VI. While the Starks and the Lannisters are obvious stand-ins for the two royal factions, they’re not actually related, unlike the two Roses in real life. Both houses were branches of the House of Plantagenet, which was the nobility ranked down from lands in France in 1154. They held the throne for many centuries until the end of the war. York and Lancaster at the highest levels of nobility were essentially cousins.
See, when King Richard died, it was his grandson King Richard II that took claim of the throne. This was because King Richard’s own son, Edward, had passed away first. But Edward had three sons and you bet that two of those three sons would go on to sire the Lancaster and York lines.
The first obvious comparison comes from the name of Lancaster, which is an obvious inspiration for the Lannisters. In the real world, the House of Lancaster had been ruling England for sometime but their world was suddenly changed when King Henry VI was crowned King of England as an infant. Years later, he ended up marrying Margaret of Anjou for the promise of French loyalty, at the cost of English lands in France. This was the catalyst for the entire war and was the ammunition the Lancaster enemies would use to strike against a King who was not only losing land the British considered theirs, but was succumbing to mental illness. It’s from there that a series of backstabbing, betrayals and bloody battles would change who was sitting on the throne of England for decades. Oh – and Margaret of Anjou would go on to become a ruthless queen herself, beheading Richard of York, a man she grew to hate for she feared he would remove her and her husband from the throne and usurp her power. Margaret is the spitting image of Cersei’s political scheming and Richard’s execution mirrors that of Ned Stark’s.
Richard of York, on the other hand, was Protector of the Realm (read Hand of the King) while Henry VI was taken ill. Richard was a fine ruler and many people liked him. He had no interest in ruling. He saw what he was doing as a civic duty, but he never desired the throne. That is until he thought the Lancaster rule was putting the country in danger both politically and economically. War erupted between the two families. But while Richard died by beheading, he was able to legislate prior that his sons would become the legitimate heirs to the throne. Cue further bloodshed.
Richard’s son, King Edward IV (Robb Stark) then went onto fight a vicious and bloody campaign against the Lancasters. Robb was actually set to marry a French Princess but ended up marrying Elizabeth Woodville, a minor noble in the Lancaster side of things. This entire premise is straight out of the establishing scenes of the Red Wedding, where Robb was set to marry one of the daughters of Lord Frey. Instead, the young Stark ended up marrying Jeyne Westerling/Talisa Stark (depending if you’re a book reader or a TV show watcher). Thankfully for Edward IV, he and his family were not killed at a wedding. However, he was usurped by his own house and lost the throne, with House York actually restoring Henry VI to the throne…until Edward reclaimed it. Jeez, this really is a game of thrones, isn’t it?
After Edward reclaimed the throne, Henry VI died in prison and Margaret of Anjou’s troublesome son Edward (Joffrey) died in battle. A period of relative peace ensured until King Edward died, which sparked a continuation to the bloodshed. Edward’s son was set to inherit the throne, but his brother Richard III put an end to that, citing Edward’s apparently illegitimate marriage. He claimed the throne to himself and Edward’s sons all but vanished. Richard III can then be perceived as Stannis, while his downfall can be compared to Daenerys Targaryen’s arrival at Westeros as Henry Tudor came to reclaim the throne. Henry was part of the Lancaster line and thus, had some sort of claim to the throne (seriously – the line of succession is completely garbled at this point). Henry raised an army in France and crossed the English channel to take the throne from Richard, mirroring Daenerys raising an army in Essos before crossing to Westeros. With Henry’s victory and marriage to Elizabeth of York, daughter of King Edward, the war came to an end.
The comparisons and inspirations are only limited to the dense history that is the War of the Roses though. George R.R. Martin pulled from other historical events to further flesh out his unfinished epic. The Red Wedding, for instance, has its roots in historical fact. The main source for the wedding came from The Black Dinner, which was a conflict between the King James II of Scotland and Clan Douglas. King James decided that open conflict wasn’t going to ensure his victory, so he invited the Douglas Clan to his castle in Edinburgh for a feast in 1440. And feast they did until a black boar was brought out – a symbol of death. The invited guests were then executed. Elements from the Glencoe Massacre of 1692 were also applied, which saw Clan Campbell massacre the MacDonald Clan overnight. The MacDonalds were invited guests, so they believed themselves to be safe but the invite was nothing more than a ruse to bring their guard down.
There are some minor yet obvious parallels between Martin’s world and our own too. The lands to the east in Game of Thrones are culturally different than those of Westeroes and have roots in our own history. The seaport of Braavos has some similarities between the Venetian Empire, while The Wall that separates the North from the Seven Kingdoms is a remodelling of Hadrian’s Wall, which was a blockage that Emperor Hadrian used to keep the wild Picts and Scots out of England in the north. The open plains of the Dothraki horse lords are simply the Mongols/Huns, while the Targaryen Aegon the Conqueror can be attributed to William the Conqueror, who was the first Norman king on the English throne and a direct decedent of Rollo the Viking.
It’s clear that Martin is an avid fan of history and found a way to blend and embellish historical fact with some real-world events and people. While the average person may not be a historian, and thus these connections go unnoticed for many, it’s still amazing to see that Westeros, a land of magic and dragons, has its roots in events that happened just over 500 years ago.
The War of the Roses-Conn Iggulden