The War of Roses that led to the Game of Thrones
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No fantasy comes completely separated from reality, and Game of Thrones is no different.
While the magic, dragons, and White Walkers may come from various folklores – the White Walkers, for example, likely reference the Gaelic aos sí# – many of George R.R. Martin’s political and military broad sweeps in the series have been ripped straight from the headlines of medieval Europe – more specifically, The Wars of the Roses.
Named after the heraldic badges associated with the two royal houses involved, the Wars of the Roses (1455-1487) was one of the bloodiest civil wars in British history, pitting Henry VI (of the House of Lancaster) against Richard, the Duke of York (of the House of York) for control of the English throne.
After the Hundred Years’ War decimated England’s population and its gold coffers, a change was in the winds. King Henry VI’s mental incapacity and weak rule encouraged challengers with alternative claims to the throne – like Richard, Duke of York (who was heir to the throne until the birth of Henry’s son, Edward) and fellow Lancastrian-representative Henry Tudor.
War was everywhere, loyalties were constantly questioned, and the winner’s line would eventually rule the land for nearly two centuries after.
Just add dragons, an icy Ragnarok equivalent, shake well, and serve…
Heads up conspiracy theorists, some of the historical inspirations below may actually be doomed to repeat themselves in the Game of Thrones universe, so educate yourself about actual historical events at your own risk.
Season 6 is coming…
King Joffrey = Edward of Lancaster
Edward of Lancaster – also known as Edward of Westminster, Prince of Wales – was the cruel and possibly-illegitimate teen heir to the English throne during the Wars of the Roses.
By all accounts, Henry VI (Edward’s father) was going through a generally rough time near the end of his reign – some psychiatrists have even posthumously diagnosed him with schizophrenia – so when his wife, Margaret of Anjou, became pregnant during a time when Henry was so debilitated he couldn’t even rule his kingdom (much less his domain…#), rumors began to circulate that one of Margaret’s supporters was Edward’s real father.
Unlike in Game of Thrones, however, none of these suspected biological fathers were directly related to young Margaret…
Nevertheless, Edward was born with a definitively Joffrey-esque regal bloodlust. A fabled story tells of a 7-year-old Edward condemning two York-supporting knights to beheadings, even despite his father’s wishes.
In a letter to the French court, the Ambassador of Milan once wrote of Edward:
“This boy, though only 13 years of age, already talks of nothing but of cutting off heads or making war, as if he had everything in his hands or was the god of battle or the peaceful occupant of that throne.”
If the Ambassador had a bit less tact, it might’ve sounded like Tyrion’s famous summation of his nephew: “We’ve had vicious kings, and we’ve had idiot kings, but I don’t know if we’ve ever been cursed with a vicious idiot for a king!”
Like his Game of Thrones equivalent#, Edward also earned a violent end…
In an inter-Edward feud, he was stabbed to death by Edward IV of York; the IRL equivalent of Robb Stark (see below).
Robb Stark = Edward IV of York
Edward IV was the tall, handsome son of Richard, Duke of York.
At just 18 years old, Edward helped lead a successful siege and occupation of London. He even eventually defeated and captured King Henry VI at the Battle of Northampton, who was then forced to declare Edward’s father, Richard, the heir to the throne.
But the Wars of Roses were marked by constant rebellions and restorations…
Less than a decade later, Margaret of Anjou returned to London with a bolstered army on a mission to restore her husband to the throne. Like Robb Stark’s dear old dad, Edward’s father ended up getting himself beheaded, be-piked, and put on display by the victorious Lancastrian armies – wearing a paper crown to scoff at his claim to the throne.
Edward would eventually regain the throne, but much like Robb Stark with Talisa Maegyr (or Jeyne Westerling in the book), Edward IV would then frustrate his supporters by marrying for love instead of for the sake of good politics.
In the midst of an English negotiation with King Louis XI of France to secure a marriage-based alliance, it was uncovered that Edward had secretly married a woman named Elizabeth Woodville, the widow of a Lancastrian knight and as one horrified council-member put it, “no wife for a prince such as [Edward], for she was not the daughter of a duke or earl… but a simple knight.”
The marriage was seen by Edward’s supporters and countrymen as an impulsive and politically foolish move that endangered English (and York) security. But hey, at least it didn’t incite a…
Red Wedding = The Black Dinner + The Glencoe Massacre
Two different historical events – the Black Dinner and the Glencoe Massacre – inspired the series high-water mark for body count and fan tears.
The Black Dinner was held in November of 1440, when the 10-year-old King of Scotland, James II, invited the 16-year-old Earl of Douglas and his little brother David to Edinburg Castle for a feast.
However, the meal was really arranged by Sir William Crichton, Chancellor of Scotland, who believed that the powerful Douglas clan was too viable a threat to James and the throne.
As the boys ate, a drumbeat welcomed the arrival of a black boar’s head – a symbol of death – delivered right to the Earl’s seat. The brothers were then dragged outside, tried for their “crimes,” and summarily beheaded. Legend has it that the Earl pleaded for his brother to be killed first so that the younger boy wouldn’t have to witness his older brother’s beheading.
The Glencoe Massacre was a few hundred years later, and it involved the Scottish clans Campbell and MacDonald…
On August 27, 1691, King William III (of Willam and Mary fame) offered all the Highland clans a pardon for their part in the recent Jacobite uprising as long as they took an oath of allegiance before January 1st in front of an official magistrate.
Unfortunately, the MacDonald clan, intending to swear fealty to the new king, accidentally went to the wrong fort (magistrate problems) and were delayed further by bad weather. Although they eventually bent the knee and took the oath, King William nonetheless decided to make an example of the clan’s tardiness, enlisting the MacDonald’s longtime enemies, the Campbells, for the job – all unbeknownst to the MacDonalds.
Later that month, approximately 120 men under the command of Captain Robert Campbell were billeted on the MacDonalds, who received them in the hospitable tradition of the Highlands (remember, they had no idea the King was mad at them). The soldiers were housed and fed for over a week until the order finally came: put everyone under 70 “to the sword.”
On the morning of February 13, 1692, the soldiers began slaying MacDonalds in their beds. Those few who escaped the sword faced the elements as their homes were burned to the ground.
Daenerys Targaryen = Henry Tudor
Henry Tudor was supposed to be the odd-man-out in the battle for the English throne.
His claim to the crown was based on the fact that his mother was descended (in a possibly dubious way) from Edward III. However, after his father died while fighting for King Henry VI and the Yorks rose to power, Henry Tudor was forced to flee across the English Channel to France, where he lived in exile for 14 years.
With no access to his family’s funds and no army, he was considered an afterthought by then-king Edward#, who belittled Henry by referring to him (ironically) as “the imp.”
Nevertheless, like another famous example of exiled royalty, Harry Tudor, from across his own Narrow Sea, was able to assemble a hodgepodge but militaristically formidable team consisting of those noblemen and foreign powers who also opposed the vicious and heavy-handed King Edward.
Unlike Daenerys though, historians are fairly sure that none of these men were secretly in love with him…
Henry Tudor’s first attempt to invade England didn’t go so well, but after gaining military and financial support from the French and the Welsh – some of whom even believed him to be Y Mab Darogan, “The Son of Prophecy” – Henry Tudor was able to successfully cross the sea, claim the crown, and rule for over 20 years before being peacefully succeeded by his son, Henry VIII.
Oh, yes, that is a dragon on the Tudor family crest…
However, in a move that might prove to be prophetic in the Game of Thrones universe, part of what ensured Henry Tudor’s victory was his orchestration of a political marriage to Elizabeth of York, thus joining the two powerful warring houses together.
Even though the Dogs of War can be heard barking ever louder as Season 6 approaches, there’s a chance this story of Fire and Ice just might end in wedding bells…
Theon Greyjoy = George Plantagenet
Although technically Winterfell’s captive, Theon Greyjoy was raised by Eddard Stark as a brother to Robb. George Plantagenet was an actual brother of Edward IV of York, making his subsequent betrayal in support of the Lancastrians all the more surprising#.
While Plantagenet did eventually return to the House of York with his tail between his legs, King Edward almost immediately convicted him of treason and had him subsequently executed – allegedly by being drowned in a butt of Malmsey wine.
Still better than what Reek got in the end…
Wildfire = Greek Fire
Created by the Byzantines to bring their mastery over incendiary weapons to naval warfare, Greek Fire wreaked havoc on Arabic ships during its heyday.
Used to similar effect as the fire Tyrion uses to roast Stannis Baratheon’s navy during the Battle of Blackwater (sans the magic), Greek Fire repelled two sieges of Constantinople – thus guaranteeing the survival of the empire through those wars.
Unfortunately its recipe has been lost to time, though it continues to be a matter of debate among historians, with everything from combinations of pine resin, naphtha, quicklime, calcium phosphide, sulfur, or niter having been considered.
That’s basically agreeing that it was magic, right?
”Valar Morghulis” = “Memento Mori”
The Middle Ages were a pretty rough place. It was better if you became well-adjusted to your stunted lifespan early and often, even reminded of your plagued mortality by the popular art of the time. Look at paintings, carvings, or drawings from the time, and you’ll get a quick idea of death’s thematic ubiquity.
Hans Memling’s 13th century triptych Earthly Vanity and Divine Salvation, for example, evokes death, hell, and the dangers of earthly vanity in shocking juxtaposition:
Skulls and spear-wielding skeleton – harbingers of the bubonic plague – were never far from public consciousness, and the Latin phrase memento mori, or “remember that you have to die” became popular to sum up this existential trend.
This is no optimistic carpe-ing of any diem; like the Essosi’s practical, fatalist cry of “all men must die,” memento mori takes a hard Puritanical stance against worldly diversions that would impede salvation.
When death’s always knocking on the door, so is Judgement Day.
Cersei = Circe
While not an historical source in the actual ‘nonfiction’ sense, Cersei Lannister recalls the mythical Circe – the Greek sorceress in Homer’s Odyssey who famously bade men to get wine-drunk only to turn them into pigs, either castrating them or merely keeping them as docile pets.
She was treachery, potion-laced alcohol, and emasculation combined into one badass, formidable witch.
If only Cersei could get in good with a god for a change…
See you all April 24th for the Season 6 premiere. And remember, we’ve known Jon Snow is coming back the entire time.
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