The bloody British history that inspired Game of Thrones
Game of Thrones is a saga full of memorable events and characters. Cersei Lannister. Ned Stark. The Red Wedding.
Its fantasy world is riven with ruthless power struggles and bloody battles. Not to mention dragons, magic and hordes of undead.
And yet many of its most noteworthy aspects owe a great deal to real history.
The dynasties and conflicts that shaped Britain provided notable inspiration for the world of Westeros.
The real Robert, Joffrey and Daenerys
“The most obvious parallel is with the War of the Roses,” says Ed West, a journalist and author who has written a book on the historical connections of Game of Thrones.
“That war was also triggered by the insanity of the ruler, Henry VI, although in real life this left him sunk in a catatonic depression rather than an aggressive maniac.”
The War of the Roses holds other similarities too. King Robert Baratheon, the obese, whoring monarch at the start of the saga, is analogous to Edward IV: “A powerful, vigorous young ruler who became bloated after years of over-eating and compulsive womanising.
“Of his two siblings, one was affable but rather shallow, the other [Richard III] serious and ruthless… willing even to kill children to take power.”
That’s Renly and Stannis for you, then.
Perhaps most intriguingly, West says that the “passionate, proud and strong-willed” Margaret of Anjou is the obvious inspiration for Cersei Lannister, while her detestable son Joffrey holds echoes of Margaret’s son, Edward Of Westminster.
“From an early age he is described as being bloodthirsty and even unhinged. When he was only eight years old he was seen ordering the beheading of two Yorkist knights.”
Daenerys, meanwhile, resembles Henry Tudor, “who was exiled on the continent for many years until he managed to raise an army to seize the throne and establish a new dynasty”.
Henry even used a dragon as one of his emblems.
More parallels in the Game of Thrones saga
The Wall = Hadrian’s Wall The Romans built a vast wall across the North of England to keep out the ‘barbarians’ (or wildlings) beyond.
Starks and Lannisters = York and Lancaster Not a specific parallel, but the names are similar and reflect the influence of the War Of The Roses.
Braavos = Venetian empire Much like the saga’s Free City, Venice was a wealthy settlement built on water, and defined by trade, charismatic swordsmen and a strong fleet.
Dothraki = the Huns, or the Mongol horde A formidable force of fierce horse warriors from the East.
Aegon The Conqueror = William The Conqueror Like the first Targaryan king, William was a foreign invader who gradually assumed control of the entire kingdom, and handed lands to friends and allies.
Olenna Tyrell = Eleanor of Aquitaine The Queen Of Thorns’ counterpart was also politically active well into her seventies.
The Ironborn = The Vikings A seafaring people who “do not sow” – but instead make their living pillaging the coasts of other kingdoms.
A history of violence
The show’s most shocking moment was undoubtedly The Red Wedding: an infamous, gut-wrenching twist from which some fans have never quite recovered.
This was likely inspired by two actual Scottish events: the murder of the Earl Of Douglas in 1440, known as ‘The Black Dinner’, and the Glencoe Massacre in 1692.
Game of Thrones’ politically motivated violence is grounded in the gritty realities of our own nation’s history.
“Cersei’s line that ‘you win or you die’ is quite unique to [the late 15th century],” says West, “because people really were trying to eliminate their opponents.
“Power lay with whoever could build and hold a castle and pay men to fight. There were ongoing feuds.
“The medieval period was, by our standards, insanely violent.”
A staggering quarter of aristocratic English men in the 15th century died violently. It was largely thanks to the Catholic Church that this number was reduced.
“They instituted a rule where you couldn’t have private war between Wednesday until Sunday,” notes West, “which was a great breakthrough.”
George RR Martin, the author of the Song Of Ice And Fire novels on which Game of Thrones is based, is a keen student of history.
He is also somebody dedicated to exploring real-world injustices, inequalities and atrocities through the saga.
As such, the use of historical parallels grounds the drama; giving it a sense of believable weight which belies its more fantastical trappings.
Despite being a fantasy, Game of Thrones has much more in common with actual history than most supposed ‘historical’ TV shows and movies.
As West notes: “Most historical fiction basically transposes at least one or two characters with essentially modern ideas, such as individual freedom. But no one would have thought like that at the time.
“In medieval poems or plays the heroes often did things we would consider horrific.”
In the end, it is the thematic weight of real-world occurrences that gives Game of Thrones such resonant power.
Its almost absurdly high body count has been criticised – even parodied – but it brings the fragile experience of everyday humanity to bear.
“The show is all about the tragic sense of history and the wheel of fortune,” says West.
“You can be happy with the world one day, and the next everything you hold dear is swept away.
“Medieval people, who were especially at the mercy of political systems they had no control over, understood this better than we do.”
Ed West’s book, Iron, Fire and Ice: The real history behind Game of Thrones, is published next year by Skyhorse