Unless you have been living under a rock in recent years, you will have no doubt heard of the hit television show Game of Thrones, based on the fantasy novel series by author George R.R. Martin. It is no secret that Martin borrows heavily from European history for his themes of power struggles. Even the map of the main continent, Westeros, appears to be an upside down Ireland attached to the bottom of a slightly warped England.
Much like real European history, Martin’s fantasy world is full of multi-layered, Machiavellian politics, brutal behaviour and family drama. Plus magic and dragons. But if you strip away the ice zombies, prophecies, magic and dragons what is left is a clear jumble of some pretty savage history.
This will be the first of two articles exploring the historical analogies from which Martin drew inspiration for his epic fantasy series. Initially, I had planned on doing one post but the struggle for the Iron Throne and dominion over the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros was plucked directly from the three-decade-long Wars of the Roses fought between the House of Lancaster (Lannister) and the House of York (Stark). This war really is deserving of more than a few paragraphs.
The conflict originated after the Hundred Years’ War (1337 – 1453), fought primarily between England and France. Defeat in this lengthy war at the hands of the French and their allies left England in social and financial turmoil that, combined with the eventual mental health problems suffered by King Henry VI, revived an interest in Richard, Duke of York’s claim to the throne.
King Henry VI and his House of Lancaster was represented by a red rose whilst the Yorks were symbolised by a White Rose – even today, the counties of Lancashire and Yorkshire associate with these colours and flowers.
Neither family had dragons or crippled youths with magical abilities to warp time and control animals, but the story of the Wars of the Roses does include plenty of throne rivalry, shifting loyalties, weak monarchs, murdered princes, and scheming protectors of the realm (Hand of the King/Queen). Much like its fictionalised counterpart, the Wars of the Roses were a complex and brutally violent series of events that rocked the kingdom. The Battle of Towton (1461) is considered the largest and bloodiest battle ever fought on English soil – upwards of 50,000 men fought for hours amidst a snowstorm with 28,000 losing their lives. George R.R. Martin was able to take these events and put them at the centre of his fantasy world, expanding outward with an interlaced tale of history and magic.
To truly understand and absorb the complicated history of the Wars of the Roses takes far more energy and effort than this post can adequately achieve, so we will look at the summarised version and how it pertains to Game of Thrones.
A Right Royal Muddle-Up
The death of King Edward III in 1377 sparked the drama. Edward’s eldest son, Edward the Black Prince, had already died, but his grandson, Richard II, was ten years old and he was crowned king, leapfrogging Edward’s three other surviving sons. This skip of a generation created numerous claims to the throne within the family. This entitlement became particularly strong within the Lancaster and York lines of the family. Fans of Game of Thrones will note similarities between this historic feud and the claims made by the brothers of Robert Baratheon, Stannis and Renly, upon his death.
Richard II was deposed in 1399 by his cousin, Henry of Bolingbroke (Henry IV), which installed the House of Lancaster onto the throne. The Lancastrian hold of power continued through Henry IV’s son Henry V who died in 1422, leaving the throne to his eight month old son, Henry VI. The young king proved weak-willed and was easily manipulated by his advisors, who convinced him to marry Margaret of Anjou to gain French support. She was both beautiful and ruthless… Queen Cersei, anyone?
Queen Margaret was prone to persecuting anyone who threatened her… Queen Cersei, anyone? She also harboured a deep distrust of Richard of York, a prominent figure in the Royal family who still held a legitimate claim to the throne. In the Game of Thrones narrative, Richard of York translates into Eddard “Ned” Stark. Guess who is no fan of Ned Stark… Queen Cersei, anyone?
York was Henry VI’s closest ally, advisor, general and trusted confidant so naturally, the Queen did everything possible to keep York from further climbing the political ladder and attaining higher position. Richard of York began to protest and openly argue with the Lancasters at this treatment. He was exiled to Ireland for his efforts. Meanwhile, Queen Margaret’s malicious tactics and questionable alliances caused great distrust of her husband’s rule among the people.
Richard of York eventually returned to England with an army and became Lord Protector of England, the real-world equivalent of Hand of the King. He was appointed as the regent in charge of the government after King Henry VI suffered a mental breakdown. Unfortunately for York, the King soon recovered from this confused state and reversed York’s position at the request of his Queen. Once again, York attacked with an army, was reinstated as the Lord Protector of England and succeeded in securing his and his heir’s succession to the throne following Henry’s death.
Richard of York was killed along with one of his sons by Margaret’s forces at the Battle of Wakefield in 1460 but his eldest son took the throne soon after in 1461 and was crowned Edward IV.
King Edward IV continued to battle the House of Lancaster, including at the violent blood-letting of the Battle of Towton, mentioned earlier. The former King Henry IV was captured in 1465 and imprisoned in the Tower of London whilst his Queen was captured in 1471 after a battle in which their only son, Edward of Westminster, was killed (the only Prince of Wales to ever fall in battle). Edward of Westminster was allegedly an exceptionally cruel and hot-tempered child who served as the template for one of the most loathsome characters in Game of Thrones: King Joffrey.
The Plot Thickens
Edward IV’s success was undermined when he backed out of an arranged marriage with a French princess, secretly marrying the widow of a minor noble instead – how dare he marry for love rather than political gain!! Edward’s marriage to someone of a lesser station than himself at the expense of a more politically gainful marriage is clearly the foundation for Robb Stark’s ignored betrothal arrangement to the daughter of Lord Walder Frey.
King Edward IV’s marriage alienated some of his allies, especially the Earl of Warwick (inspired Roose Bolton in Game of Thrones) who turned many people against the king and briefly had Henry VI reinstated. This did not last long, as Edward took the throne back and imprisoned Henry in the Tower once again, where he died in 1471 under suspicious circumstances – most likely at the orders of Edward to prevent any further contest. Edward’s reign continued, mostly peacefully, until his death in 1483.
…then the violence recommenced.
Edward had a 12 year-old son due to succeed him, but his younger brother, Richard declared that the boy did not deserve the crown, arguing that the son was the product of his father’s secret and inappropriate marriage. Richard had himself crowned King Richard III in 1483 and imprisoned his nephews in the Tower of London: the “Princes in the Tower” were never seen again. It is easy to see how William Shakespeare could portray Richard as a Machiavellian villain who ruthlessly committed numerous murders in order to claw his way to power. Richard III’s argument rings similar to that of Stannis Baratheon’s about the legitimacy of King Joffrey.
King Across the Sea
Two years after Richard III stole the crown from his nephew, a figure from across the English Channel (Narrow Sea) challenged his reign. Henry Tudor, a direct descendant of the first Duke of Lancaster, had been raised in exile after his father’s death. Any of this sound familiar? Game of Thrones also knows of a character directly descended from royalty who was raised in exile across the sea after their father’s death: Daenerys Targaryen.
Henry Tudor succeeded in winning the support of some dissatisfied York allies, raised an army in France, crossed the English Channel, and defeated King Richard’s forces and was crowned as King Henry VII. His final victory at the Battle of Bosworth Field was the final time that an English monarch won their crown on the field of battle. Henry married Elizabeth of York, the older sister of the “Princes in the Tower” and daughter of Edward IV, thus securing the legitimacy of his crown further. This linked the Houses of Lancaster and York for the first time, ending the Wars of the Roses after 32 years. The Tudor family, who combined the White and Red Roses in one, continued to rule over the Kingdom of England until 1603 when King James VI of Scotland became King James I of England in a personal union after Queen Elizabeth died without an heir.
Beyond the Wars of the Roses, George R.R. Martin draws on other histories for the different groups and factions within his story. The second part of “The Real Game of Thrones” will look into some of these other events and factions that draw on real-world history for inspiration.
The Rest is History