Game of Thrones has a reputation as being more grounded than other fantasy works. Yes, there are dragons and ice zombies and the occasional wizard, but for the most part, the show presents a world where pragmatism rules and fairy tale endings go to die. In part, this realism may stem from the fact that George R. R. Martin draws heavily on history for his stories.
Several of the series’ most shocking and outlandish events have their roots in reality. Rather than retell a particular historical story in a fantasy setting, Martin tends to take bits and pieces from some of the most fascinating time periods and cultures, creating a unique milieu. Even so, there are some clear sources of inspiration, particularly from the roots of British history. Truth may not be stranger than fiction here but it comes pretty close, and some of these stories seem almost too wild to be true — but they are.
Spoiler Alert! This article touches on events and details from Game of Thrones. Anything up through the end of season five may be discussed, so if you are not caught up, read on at your own peril.
At five seasons and counting, Game of Thrones’ sprawling story of treachery and warfare may seem endless and complex to modern audiences, but it’s still brief compared to its biggest historical parallel, the Wars of the Roses. A series of conflicts fought over the course of 30 years, the Wars of the Roses centered on two noble houses, the Lancasters and the Yorks, fighting for the English throne. If those names seem familiar to GoT fans, it’s because they’re pretty clear inspirations for the Lannisters and the Starks, the two biggest families at the center of the series. The name War of the Roses stems from the now iconic symbols of each house: a red rose for Lancaster, a white rose for York, thought the importance of these symbols is exaggerated by later writers such as Shakespeare.
Martin may have used the Wars of the Roses as a launching point for the War of the Five Kings, but their are some key differences. His tale establishes fairly clear moral distinctions, with the Lannisters being ruthless, pragmatic aristocrats and the Starks noble rebels. No easy distinction exists between the Lancasters and Yorks; both factions wanted the throne of England, and were willing to engage in all manner of scheming and slaughter to win it. Still, there are some common themes that run through both conflicts, chiefly the issue of whether power should pass through inheritance or conquest.
As in the show, claims to the English throne arose due to usurpation and issues of succession. At one point, England was ruled by the Plantagenets. In 1377, the Plantagenet king Edward III died, a year after the passing of his eldest son Edward, the Black Prince. Normally the crown would pass to the eldest son, but since he was dead, his own son, Richard II, inherited it. This angered Edward III’s other three sons, including John of Gaunt (the first Duke of Lancaster) and Edmund of Langley (the first Duke of York.) Eventually, Richard II’s Lancaster cousin, Henry of Bolingbroke, deposed him and crowned himself Henry IV.
Just as Robert Baratheon’s usurpation of the Iron Throne led to numerous claims for control of Westeros, Henry IV’s ascension would sow the seeds of war, as the Yorks would later claim that the Lancasters unlawfully took the throne. If this all seems confusing, rest assured, it doesn’t get any simpler; by the end of the wars, at least five men would sit on the throne of England, and many Henrys, Edwards, and Richards would take a turn.
As the Queen of Westeros and one of the leading Lannisters, Cersei is a serious force. In a world of villains, she steals the show with her catty remarks, unsubtle scheming, and, of course, her incestuous relationship with her twin, Jaime. The Lancasters had their own prominent female leader in Margaret of Anjou, a French noblewoman who married the Lancastrian king Henry VI. Well educated and possessing a fiery spirit, Margaret was a shrewd manipulator. Whereas Cersei was born a Lannister, Margaret assumed control of the Lancaster faction, stepping up to lead while her husband experienced a mental breakdown. When tensions between the ruling Lancasters and the Yorks erupted into open warfare, she led the former to early victories. Her success didn’t hold, however, and her forces were eventually defeated at the Battle of Tewkesbury, after which she was taken captive and Edward IV, a York, took the throne.
Margaret, like Cersei, is remembered as an aggressive and merciless leader, supposedly executing Yorkist prisoners over the objections of her husband. Whether or not these accounts were true, many later writers would cement her reputation. Shakespeare, in particular, casts her as a domineering wife and villain at the center of his Henry VI plays. While Cersei’s ultimate fate has yet to be revealed, Margaret of Anjou’s is well documented. Her son died at Tewkesbury and the Yorkists imprisoned her, eventually turning her over to her cousin, King Louis XI of France, in exchange for ransom. She supposedly lived her remaining years impoverished in France.
Starks v Yorks: father-son stories
Ned Stark is one of the most honorable characters to appear on Game of Thrones and his death in the first season came as a shock to unaware audiences. Ned tried to reform the kingdom, a cause which eventually put him at odds with the reigning queen in a conflict that could never end well for him. His noble crusade has a historical parallel in Richard of York, who, like Ned, was a friend and adviser of the king. When Henry VI suffered a mental breakdown, Richard was appointed Protector of the Realm, a position not unlike Ned’s role as Hand of the King. Unlike Ned, however, Richard had a claim to the throne, as he was also a descendant of Edward III. This caused tensions with Queen Margaret, who did not want her power usurped by Richard.
When Henry recovered, he stripped Richard of his authority and undid many of his policies as Protector. Irritated, Richard mounted an armed rebellion against the throne, but despite multiple victories he was eventually killed in battle. Richard’s death prompted his son Edward to take up arms against the Lancasters, just like Robb’s decision to rise up against the Lannisters after Ned’s death in Game of Thrones. Moreover, both the real life Edward and GoT’s Robb made a similar misstep in their campaigns: disastrously backing out of arranged marriages to marry commoners instead. However, the real-life Edward got a much happier ending than the one Martin cooked up for poor Robb Stark.
Although Robb had agreed to marry one of the ladies of House Frey to cement an alliance, he later fell in love with a commoner and married her in secret, which naturally outraged his new allies. Robb’s decision pushed the Freys to form a secret alliance with the Lannisters, and they eventually lured Robb into a trap, brutally murdering him along with his young wife, his unborn child, and his mother at the Red Wedding.
Edward’s case is a bit trickier. One of his most important supporters was the Earl of Warwick, a powerful noble nicknamed “Kingmaker.” Warwick had hoped to foster an alliance between Edward’s government and France by marrying the young king to Louis XI’s sister-in-law. Unfortunately, Edward secretly married Elizabeth Woodville, a commoner. When the marriage became public, it ruined Warwick’s negotiations and embarrassed him, creating the first crack in their relationship. Warwick eventually rebelled, attempting to put Henry VI back on the throne. However, Edward quashed Warwick’s rebellion, and lived out a fairly peaceful reign as king.
The (real) Wall
One of the most impressive sights in Game of Thrones is The Wall, a massive structure separating the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros from the untamed lands to the north. The Wall keeps all manner of threats at bay, including the Wildlings and, for now, the White Walkers. Hundreds of feet tall and spanning for miles, The Wall is one of the more fanciful settings in the show, but even it has some basis in reality. While civilizations throughout history have built extensive barriers to keep out invaders, the most obvious inspiration for The Wall comes, once again, from British history.
Hadrian’s Wall, which once stretched from the Irish Sea to the North Sea, was built by the Romans after they conquered Britannia, effectively marking the boundary of their territory in the isles. Measuring about 20 feet tall at its highest points, Hadrian’s Wall isn’t nearly as impressive as its GoT counterpart, but it’s still a marvel of classical engineering. Completed in less than six years by an army of legionnaires, it still stands today. And just like the Game of Thrones version, Hadrian’s Wall kept back invaders — in this case the Scots of the north — for years.
Just off the west coast of Westeros lie the Iron Islands, home of the brutish Ironborn. A kingdom of sailors, the Ironborn sustain themselves through coastal raids. They prize strength and disdain Westorosi ideals of honor and learning. In fact, most Ironborn are illiterate, as they consider reading an effeminate activity. Many viewers probably draw a link between the Ironborn and Vikings, the Scandinavian cultures famous in Medieval times for warfare and pillaging. The Ironborn, with their culture of violence and strength, certainly evoke the typical stereotypes of Vikings. In actuality, though, Vikings were far more than brutish pirates.
The motto of House Greyjoy, rulers of the Iron Islands, is “We do not sow,” in keeping with their philosophy that, rather than grow their own food, they prefer to simply to steal it from the mainland. Vikings earned a violent reputation for their raids, particularly along the coasts of England, but we now know there was much more to their culture than warfare. As one might expect of a seafaring people, the Vikings were accomplished traders and explorers, traveling at least as far as Baghdad as part of their extensive trade network. And while the Ironborn are mostly illiterate, the Vikings composed extensive sagas chronicling their histories and legends.
For the people of Westeros, it’s probably a good thing that Martin’s Ironborn are a far cry from real Vikings. While the Ironborn languish on their rocky isles, routinely being defeated by the larger kingdoms, the Danes managed to conquer a large swath of Britain, ruling over it for about 200 years. Given that the Seven Kingdoms are beset by civil war, barbarians, and an undead army, the last thing they need is a fully fledged Viking kingdom.
Wildfire v Greek fire
The climax of season two, Blackwater, was a landmark episode for Game of Thrones. The show had, until then, mostly kept large scale warfare off screen, instead showing the audience how characters react to battles. With the Battle of Blackwater Bay, however, the siege was shown in all its glory, as Lannister forces led by Tyrion held King’s Landing against invaders loyal to Stannis Baratheon. The most spectacular part of the battle involves the Lannister defenders pouring an explosive substance called “wildfire” into the bay, then igniting it when Stannis’ fleet approaches. The bay erupts in green flame, destroying most of the attacking ships and leveling the vastly uneven playing field.
However, history is often as wild as fantasy. The Battle of Blackwater Bay is remarkably similar to the siege of Constantinople in 717 AD. The Umayyad Caliphate, frequent foes of the Byzantine Empire, decided to lay siege to the Byzantine capital of Constantinople. In addition to moving forces by land, the Caliphate also sent a massive fleet to assault the city from the sea. The Byzantines faced overwhelming odds, much like the defenders of King’s Landing, and employed a similar defense. Using a substance called “Greek fire,” which burned even in the water the Byzantines set the Arab ships ablaze, striking a pivotal blow against the attackers. The recipe for Greek fire was lost long ago, today remaining the stuff of legend.
Alas, poor Jaime. One of the most respectable Lannisters (aside from his frequent incest), the skilled swordsman got his hand lopped off by an irritated captor in season three. His family later commissions a golden hand for him, but engineering in the Seven Kingdoms being what it is, the hand is merely decorative. It’s unfortunate for Jaime that he did not live in 16th century Germany, in which case he might have been able to get a functional iron hand, just as famed German knight Götz von Berlichingen did.
Born into a noble family, Götz, like Jaime, started a military career when he was young. In 1504, at the tender age of 24, Berlichingen lost his hand to a cannon ball. Not content to retire, he commissioned a craftsman to build a prosthetic arm capable of holding a sword. Berlichingen’s second hand was particularly famous; using a system of springs and gears not unlike those of a flintlock, the fingers of the hand could be adjusted and locked in place, allowing Berlichingen to grip weapons or even a quill. The iron hand seems to have functioned quite well, as Berlichingen lived a long life, fighting in numerous campaigns and feuds.
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