The History behind Game of Thrones
In preparation for the season finale of HBO’s Game of Thrones on April 14, 2019, we wanted to take a look at how real history inspired George RR Martin’s masterpiece. Did Martin base his Game of Thrones characters on real history? Yes! Martin’s characters in Game of Thrones were influenced by a wide range of events and people in European medieval history, most notably the Wars of the Roses. This was a 30-year-long battle between the Houses of York and Lancaster for control of the kingdom of England. The names of the warring houses immediately sound familiar and Martin clearly related his Lannisters to Lancasters and Starks to Yorks. In fact, when you scroll through the list of characters on Game of Thrones, almost every single one of them can be linked to one or more famous medieval figures. Here we examine some of the main characters in depth and connect them to their medieval counterparts.
Eddard (Ned) Stark
When the first season of Game of Thrones was released, it quickly became obvious that Ned Stark was going to be the main protagonist of the show. He held a role of authority as Warden of the North and he wielded his power justly. He was a man of great integrity who was well-respected and honorable. He was the epitome of a what a chivalric knight in the middle ages would have been. And when his old friend king Robert Baratheon came to his castle at Winterfell and asked him to be the Hand of the King, he very hesitantly accepted. He knew it was a thankless job that would take him away from his duties in the north. It was also a very dangerous job (his predecessor may have been poisoned) but he did he because he thought it was the right thing to do. Further, when he discovers the queen’s children were not fathered by the king, he spoke up and it cost him his head.
Was Ned Stark based on a real life historical figure? There are certainly similar characteristics between Ned Stark and Richard, Duke of York. Richard was the cousin and heir of King Henry VI until the king and his wife Margaret of Anjou finally had a child after eight years of marriage. Richard was the most wealthy and powerful land magnate in England with his primary land holdings in the north, just like Ned Stark. Richard was a chivalric knight and the lead commander of English forces in the Hundred Years War against France. When Henry VI went mad in 1453, Parliament named Richard Protector of the Realm which was the equivalent to Hand of the King in the Game of Thrones world. Richard was an able and efficient governor, just as Ned Stark was, and did many good things to put the realm back in order. When Richard spoke up against Henry and his corrupt advisers, they turned on him and it led to the Wars of the Roses. Henry’s men murdered the Duke of York in 1461 at the Battle of Wakefield.
Certain aspects of Ned Stark’s personality also line up with Sir Thomas More, Lord Chancellor of Henry VIII. Ned Stark was the moral compass of Game of Thrones, just as Thomas More was the moral compass during Henry VIII’s reign. When Henry wanted to divorce his wife Katherine of Aragon to marry Anne Boleyn, the Pope would not grant him a divorce so Henry broke from the church and decided he would essentially be the pope for England. Sir Thomas More was a devout Catholic and refused to sign the Oath of Supremacy acknowledging Henry as the head of England’s church. Despite arresting him and putting him on public trial, Thomas would not stray from his morals so Henry VIII beheaded him, just like Ned Stark.
As the eldest child and son of Ned Stark, Robb was groomed as the heir of Winterfell. After Ned was executed by the Lannisters, Robb raised his banners calling all of the fighting men of the north to join him in avenging his father’s wrongful death at the hands of the Lannisters. He was a very successful leader in the tradition of warrior princes and his men respected him so much they declared him King in the North. He did however stir controversy when he impulsively married Talisa, a battlefield nurse and commoner, breaking his previous betrothal to one of the daughters of the house of Frey.
Robb is very much like Edward IV who was a great Yorkist warrior king. Edward was a natural leader and was well liked by his people. Edward too came to prominence when he took the head of the Yorkist party after his father’s death, Richard of York. He successfully avenged his father’s death by beating Henry VI and the Lannister faction during the middle point of the Wars of the Roses. Edward shocked his advisors when he announced that he had secretly married Elizabeth Woodville months before and would therefore not be going through with an arranged marriage to a French princess. While Robb was away fighting, his father’s ward who he had grown up with, Theon Greyjoy betrays him by attacking and defenseless Winterfell. Edward IV was also betrayed by his brother Clarence, Duke of Gloucester, who joined forces with the Earl of Warwick to have Edward deposed and himself declared king of England.
I think it’s safe to say that every character on Game of Thrones has suffered through some type of trauma in their lives. Sansa has seen more than her fair share of pain. As the eldest daughter of Ned and Catelyn Stark, she fully embraced the role as princess of Winterfell and couldn’t wait to marry her betrothed prince, the future king Joffrey. He abused her and held her hostage, then she was forcibly married to Joffrey’s uncle Tyrion to keep her under Lannister control. Next, Littlefinger tricked her into marrying her family’s enemy, Ramsay Bolton, who proceeded to beat and torture her. On top of her personal traumas, she also suffered through the loss of most of her immediate family, including her parents and brother Robb who were all murdered by Lannister allies. She had no idea where her other siblings were or if they were even alive.
Was Sansa based on any real historical figures? Sansa’s storyline has a lot of similarities to Elizabeth of York who was the daughter of Edward IV (house of York) and wife to Henry VII (house of Lancaster & first Tudor king). Elizabeth was a very valuable princess on the marriage market, just like Sansa. She was betrothed several times and each failed, just like Sansa. Then in late 1483 she became a pawn in the Wars of the Roses. Henry Tudor from the house of Lancaster pledged to marry Elizabeth, thus uniting the two houses, and this gained him huge support from the disenfranchised Yorkists who opposed Richard III’s rule. Sansa was twice betrothed to the Lannisters because they wanted to gain northern support then her betrothal to Ramsay was supposed to be a union of two of the strongest houses in the north which would be helpful in battling the Lannisters.
In terms of Sansa’s time with the Lannisters in captivity, that could be related to Elizabeth’s multiple times in sanctuary hiding from various enemies. I’m sure sanctuary did indeed feel like a prison to Elizabeth. But Sansa’s time as a political prisoner is much more like the story of young Katherine of Aragon, first wife of Henry VIII. Before Henry VIII became king, his eldest brother Arthur was being groomed for the role of heir and future king. Arthur made an impressive Spanish marriage to Katherine of Aragon, daughter of Ferdinand and Isabelle. Arthur died only a few months into their marriage which left Katherine in a sort of limbo. Her father had paid a dowry for her to marry Arthur and become Queen of England. Now that was all over. Arthur’s father Henry VII spent years negotiating with Katherine’s father for the second half of the dowry and Henry basically refused to return her to Spain without full payment so the stand-off between the two kings went on for years. During that time Henry cut Katherine’s household expenses to such an extreme that she had to sell her own plate and other personal property just to buy food and pay her attendants’ salary.
One of the most popular characters to emerge from Game of Thrones is Daenerys Targaryen. She and her brother Viserys were the only surviving children of King Aerys Targaryen (the “Mad King”) and his wife Rhaella. King Aerys ruled the Seven Kingdoms until he was overthrown and killed by Robert Baratheon during Robert’s Rebellion. Shortly after the rebellion, Dany’s mother died giving birth to her, leaving Dany and her brother orphans. They spent their entire childhood in exile, hiding from King Robert I who would rather have them killed than risk a rebellion against his reign from the children of the king he deposed.
Daenerys is perhaps the easiest G.O.T. character to link back to medieval history. Her storyline clearly parallels the real story of Henry Tudor (aka Henry VII). Henry Tudor was not born to a king like Daenerys but he was born to Edmund Tudor, a half-brother of the king. Henry Tudor’s mother was Margaret Beaufort, the richest lady in the kingdom, cousin to Henry VI, and the leading Lancastrian heir at the time. Unfortunately for her, she could not ascend the throne or be involved with running the government solely because she was female.
When Henry Tudor was four years old, King Henry VI was overthrown by the Yorkists and Edward IV was proclaimed king. The Yorkists had already killed his father Edmund Tudor and they were anxious to get control of Henry since he was a Lancastrian heir. Henry was placed under the wardship of Edward IV’s close adherent, William Herbert. Then when Henry was a teenager, Edward IV was forced into exile and Henry VI retook the throne but only for about one year. Edward IV won back the throne and this time Henry Tudor, along with his uncle Jasper Tudor, fled the country for their own safety. For the next ten years Henry lived in exile in France, away from his home country and his mother. When the reign of Richard III started faltering, Henry saw his opportunity to stake his claim to the throne. He gathered ships, men, and weapons in France then invaded England. He faced Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth and won which made him Henry VII.
The life of Daenerys closely follows Henry Tudor. Both spent their youths in exile, away from their home country. They both had very strong claims to the throne. They both had very powerful fathers who lost their lives battling the enemy. Both used their time in exile to raise support and plan invasions to take back what should have been theirs by birthright. Both are even linked by dragons. Daenerys was able to hatch dragons for the first time in hundreds of years. This alone was enough reason for people to believe that she was divinely chosen to rule them. Similarly, in medieval Wales there was a poem that prophesied the coming of a Welsh prince that would rule the entire kingdom of Britain. Henry’s grandfather Owen Tudor was Welsh, making Henry one-quarter Welsh. That was enough bloodline for the Welsh people to rally around Henry and support his bid for the throne. Henry touted his Welsh origins and the prophecy of the promised prince by prominently displaying the red dragon of Wales on his banner and in his Coat of Arms.
Cersei Lannister is the Game of Thrones character everyone loves to hate. She is cold, heartless, ambitious, and fiercely protective of her children. When her husband, King Robert Baratheon, died in a freak hunting accident (just like William II of England), she stepped in as Regent/Protector for her eldest son Joffrey. She thrived on the power and once she had it in her hands, she refused to let go, even after both of her sons died without an heir. So she took over the role of queen and began planning the downfall of her enemies in Westeros. She always thinks one step ahead and that’s what often gives her a leg up over her enemies.
We can draw upon many famous women in history as inspiration for Cersei Lannister. She most closely resembles Margaret of Anjou, queen of Henry VI. When Henry VI went mad and could no longer rule, Margaret of Anjou transformed from a peace-making obedient queen to a she-wolf. She fought off the Yorkists who were trying to wrestle away the throne from the House of Lannister. She raised armies, planned war battles, and continuously travelled to other European countries to ask for support against the Yorkists. Not only was Margaret protecting her husband, she was also protecting the rights of her newborn son who was the real heir to the throne. Like Margaret, Cersei would do anything to get her sons on the throne and protect them from the inevitable threats that would come. Incidentally, there were rumors that Margaret’s son really wasn’t fathered by Henry VI, just like Joffrey wasn’t the real son of King Robert.
Lastly in one of Cersei’s most shocking scenes, the walk of shame, was based on a real event. Henry VI’s uncle Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, was married to a woman named Eleanor Cobham who was arrested in 1441 and tried for prophesying the king’s death. She too had to do a walk of shame as one of her punishments, although she wasn’t naked. She was allowed to wear her shift but people did pelt her with food and scraps along the way.
Poor King Tommen was the youngest child of Cersei and her brother Jaime. When Cersei’s eldest son King Joffrey died of poisoning at his own wedding, young Tommen stepped in to take his place, becoming the next king of the Seven Kingdoms and marrying Joffrey’s widow, Lady Margaery. Everyone expected to Tommen to be a much better king than Joffrey because he was a kind and thoughtful young man. Unfortunately, he was also a very weak king. He was easily influenced by everyone around him, including his mother, his wife, his uncle/father Jaime, and the High Septon who was the leader of the religious sect known as the Sparrows. This is exactly like Henry VI during his reign in the mid-fifteenth century. Henry came to the throne of England as a minor and was a very kind man but a very weak king. He allowed his wife Margaret of Anjou and her favorites the Duke of Suffolk and Duke of Somerset to make decisions for him, including the exclusion of York princes which caused the Wars of the Roses. Tommen was also highly influenced by the High Sparrow/High Septon, the leader of the Sparrows religious order.