Game of Thrones, the television drama adapted from George RR Martin's book series "A Song of Ice and Fire" has been called the biggest televisual global phenomenon of all time. A sweeping, majestic and awe inspiring tale that rewrote the rules of what could be achieved on the small screen. Beloved across the world, it's eighth and very divisive final series ended in 2019, but what were the inspirations behind the story, who were the real life counterparts behind many of it's most iconic characters? As much as this post is not a discussion of the plot of the show itself, please be prepared for spoilers throughout, so if you haven't seen the whole thing yet (have you been living under a rock?) then look away now! :)
With dragons, zombies and witchcraft, Game of Thrones undoubtedly falls into the category of fantasy, but that isn't what drew such enormous audiences in. Game of Thrones ripped up the rule book. This was a show which took knee jerk twists and turns at such pace that there were times when you were left simply dumbfounded by the bravery of the storytelling. From Ned Stark's beheading at the end of season 1 to Daenerys Targaryen's descent into madness in the Season 8 finale, this show kept us on our toes in a way no other show has ever done. What isn't so well known or perhaps obvious is that Game of Thrones is an amalgamation of many facets of the past, in particular English medieval history. George RR Martin himself has gone on record in saying that "The Wars of the Roses" is the foundation for much of the early plot, and many of his characters are also elaborate versions of some of histories most iconic figures. At this point I think it's prudent to provide a bit of information about the overall plot itself. It is possible that some reading this post will not have seen any of Game of Thrones, or read the books, so I will briefly (an almost impossible task) summarise the central elements of the story.
A still from the very final episode can be seen below.
Game of Thrones is set in an entirely made up world, although much of it's "look" greatly resembles medieval Europe. The majority of the story takes place in the continent of Westeros. Westeros is broken into seven "Kingdoms", with a King or Queen of the whole of Westeros, then noble houses who are loyal to the King or Queen governing the different Kingdoms in their name. These houses have their own alliances, and vary in wealth and power. Their religious beliefs also differ from region to region. The far south of the continent is warm and desert like, the far north is cold and eventually leads to "The Wall" - a 700ft high wall of ice which protects the seven Kingdoms from an evil force that lives north of it. This evil force are known as "White Walkers" - zombie like creatures intent on destroying the human race. Unfortunately, the vast majority of the inhabitants of Westeros believe them to be pure myth. The wall as depicted in the series can be seen below.
At the start of the story, the royal house is the Baratheon's. The Baratheon's took the throne by waging war against the previous ruling dynasty, the Targaryen's, who now live in exile across the narrow sea in the continent of Essos. The Targaryen family have an unusual affinity for taming dragons but carry a streak of madness in their veins owing to a frequent habit of inbreeding. What follows is an eight series long struggle between the many houses of Westeros, all fighting for position and status, achieved through marriage, murder and betrayal - sometimes all in one episode! The Stark's, ruling family of the North, easily the largest region of Westeros, are from the outset the "goodies" of the show. Broadly speaking they want to be left alone to live in peace, and it is to them that most people think of most fondly.
So what are the inspirations for the series? Who are the historical figures who've been moulded into some of of the most iconic characters ever depicted on screen? As I've already explained, the Wars of the Rose's is undoubtedly a key inspiration behind the story. The central narrative of the first season is a battle between the Stark's and the Lannister's. The Lannister's are the most wealthy house in Westeros, and are also the "power behind the throne". At the start of the series, King Robert Baratheon is married to Cersei Lannister, daughter of the realms most powerful noble, Lord Tywin Lannister. Unbeknown to Robert however, Cersei has a long-standing incestuous relationship with her twin Jaime, and the three children being raised as Robert's are in fact her brothers. When Ned Stark, head of House Stark and Robert's oldest friend discovers this fact he attempts to lead a coup d'état against Cersei, which fails spectacularly, resulting in Ned's shocking execution at the end of the first season.
The early stages of the Wars of the Roses were driven by Richard, Duke of York and his attempts to unseat King Henry VI and his French Queen, Margaret of Anjou. Like the King, Richard did have some claim to the English throne in his own right, and given Henry's feckless ineptitude, Richard attempted to steal the crown by force. Whilst the King was weak and feeble, his wife certainly wasn't. Margaret successfully routed out the rebellion and before long Richard was dead. His head was stuck on a pike, wearing a paper crown to mock his "pretender" claims and displayed at Micklegate Bar in York.
A depiction of the waring houses of Lancaster and York, the "red and white roses" is seen below alongside a still of Ned Stark's execution in episode 9 of Season 1, "Baelor".
A few years later, Richard's eldest son Edward would successfully displace Lancastrian rule, becoming King Edward IV. Back in Game of Thrones, King Robert is dead, Cersei has successfully squashed Ned Stark's attempted rebellion and her deranged teenage son Joffrey is on the throne. Ned Stark's eldest son Robb Stark names himself "King in the North" and starts a war against Joffrey in the name of his deceased father. The parallels to the Wars of the Rose's are obvious. But on to characters, so let's start with the absolute monster that was Joffrey Baratheon, who could he possibly be based on?
Many believe that Joffrey Baratheon is based on the bloodthirsty Prince Edward of Lancaster. Although never proven, some believe that Edward was not the true born son of King Henry VI, but was in fact the product of an affair between Margaret of Anjou and Edward Beauford, Duke of Somerset. The parallels with Joffrey are therefore immediate in this point alone. The young Prince was known for being distinctly unpleasant, one chronicler stated "This boy, only thirteen years of age, already talks of nothing but cutting off heads or making war" - anyone who has seen Game of Thrones can confidently say that Joffrey is in much the same mould. That Prince Edward may not have been King Henry VI's true born son was never doubted by the King, just as Robert Baratheon never questioned Joffrey's legitimacy. In marriage alliances the correlations between Edward and Joffrey become clearer still. At 17, Prince Edward was married to Anne Neville, younger daughter of "the Kingmaker" Richard, Earl of Warwick, who had become disillusioned with the York King, Edward IV, and conspired with Margaret to put her son on the throne. In the world of Game of Thrones, Joffrey is first engaged to Sansa Stark, eldest daughter of Ned Stark. With her father a convicted traitor and her brother in open rebellion against the King, this intended marriage is broken up and it is decided that Joffrey will instead marry Margaery, daughter of one of Westeros's most powerful and rich families, the Tyrells. Unlike Sansa, Margaery possesses the skills to tame Joffrey par excellence. Prince Edward would later die at the age of just 17 on the battlefield in his mother's last-ditch attempts to overthrow King Edward IV. Similarly, Joffrey was killed in a moment which should have been a time of rejoicing, his marriage to Margaery, poisoned discreetly by Margaery's own acerbic and spectacular grandmother, Lady Olenna Tyrell.
No portrait from life of Prince Edward survives to this day. Joffrey can be seen below on the left, alongside a still from the tv adaptation of Philippa Gregory's The White Queen in which Prince Edward played a supporting role.
It feels only prudent to move from the inspiration for Joffrey into the inspiration for his mother, Cersei Lannister, who satisfyingly is said to be based on Margaret of Anjou, mother of Prince Edward. I've already covered the rumours of infidelity, but the connections between these two women runs further still. Both are commanding, demanding, indomitable and fiercely devoted to their children, despite their very obvious flaws. Like Cersei Lannister, Margaret of Anjou's marriage to King Henry VI was arranged, with the intention of aligning the English court more closely with the duchy of Anjou in France. Eight years into her marriage, Margaret finally conceived her only child, the aforementioned Prince Edward. Her husbands piety and mental incapacities have fuelled the rumours that she cuckolded him in order to secure an heir, although no proof exists to back up this claim. As the daughter of one of the most powerful men in Europe, Margaret had a spectacular sense of her own importance, and was described as being arrogant, entitled, haughty and temperamental. She also appeared to care little for those beneath her, hiring Scottish mercenaries as her soldiers and paying them by providing free rain to plunder and steal whatever they wanted. In Game of Thrones Cersei Lannister is much the same. She has no care for the poor and brutally executes a plan which kills hundreds in an explosion towards the end of season 6. Like Margaret of Anjou and her daughter-in-law Anne Neville whom she tolerated solely because of the power Anne's father provided to her, Cersei doesn't trust Margaery Tyrell, and makes it clear that her actions of helping the poor are nothing more than attempts to gain popularity with the common people. She fails to recognise that you rule with the approval of the people, and that even feigned kindness is better than outright ignorance. In the end, both women lost all their power. Margaret was banished back to France, dying in poverty as an extended member of the French King's family. Cersei, powerless, friendless and childless cradles her brother/lover Jaime in the depths of the Red Keep (the GOT equivalent of Buckingham Palace), dying by being crushed to death as Daenerys Targaryen destroys much of the city atop her last remaining dragon, Drogon.
This leads nicely into Daenerys Targaryen and the inspirations behind her story. Unlike other people in the Game of Thrones landscape, George RR Martin appears to have borrowed from various people when building out the story of his dragon riding Queen, but what is clear is a correlation between her and not a woman, but a man, King Henry VII. Henry VII was the man who defeated King Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth, and in doing so brought an end to the 300 year old rule of the Plantagenets, and set up perhaps our most famous house - The Tudors. Henry had been in exile for over 20 years and in order to win the crown, he crossed the English Channel and brought an army of foreigners with him to the gates of his long lost homeland.
Sound familiar yet?
In Game of Thrones, Daenerys Targaryen is the youngest daughter of "the mad King", Aerys II. Preceding the story, her father is murdered by Jaime Lannister, forcing Daenerys and her elder brother Viserys to flee across the narrow sea to the other continent in the series - Essos. Daenerys start's out as a meek and kind young girl, bullied by her brother and effectively sold off in marriage to Khal Drogo, the leader of a colossal race of nomadic horse-mounted warriors called the Dothraki. The purpose of which to provide Viserys with an army to retake Westeros. Henry VII was born Henry Tudor to Edmund Tudor and Lady Margaret Beaufort. Like the orphaned Daenerys, Henry never knew his father, because he died three months before the child’s birth in the earlier part of the Wars of the Roses. Henry's claim to the throne was dubious at best. It came from his mother, who was the great-granddaughter of John of Gaunt (a son of King Edward III) and his third wife and long-time mistress Katherine Swynford.
During Daenerys and Khal Drogo's wedding, she is presented with three fossilised dragon eggs. It also becomes clear that Daenerys is immune to fire. Viserys, vile and cruel, is soon undone, and killed by Daenerys own husband Khal Drogo half way through season 1. By the end of this season, Khal Drogo himself also dies. Daenerys walks directly into the middle of his funeral pyre, but instead of burning to death comes out completely unscathed, and furthermore is joined by three baby dragons, born from the fossilised eggs she took with her into the fire. From here, Daenerys story moves to one of more considerable power, as she slowly but surely builds up an army with the intention of doing what her brother had failed to achieve - taking back the Seven Kingdoms. This doesn't happen overnight though, in fact Daenerys doesn't set sail for Westeros until the final episode of season 6! Similarly in medieval England, Henry Tudor had attempted several failed crossings from France to England, which greatly prolonged his absence. Things finally came to a head in 1485. To much outrage from both his people and those overseas, Richard III had placed himself on the throne of England, and in doing do denied the throne to his nephews and the rightful heirs to the English crown. Whether Richard did order the deaths of the "Princes in the Tower" has never been proven. He had a motive certainly, but so did Margaret Beaufort, mother of Henry Tudor who had been plotting his return and accession to the crown for over twenty years. Henry landed in England with an army made up of French and Scottish soldiers, as well as the supporters his mother had secured. He overthrew Richard and became King Henry VII.
Daenerys and King Henry VII are seen below.
Henry would rule for over 23 years, and whilst the country certainly moved into an era of peace, Henry himself became a somewhat unpleasant character. He was notorious for his thriftiness, amassing a huge fortune but providing very little back to his people, many of whom were starving. It wouldn't be fair to say that he became a full blown tyrant, but he was certainly a man with little to no pleasing characteristics. Similarly, the story of Daenerys Targaryen in Game of Thrones is perhaps the series most spectacular change in character. Unlike Henry VII, by the finale of season 8 Daenerys has absolutely turned into a full blown monster. She is cruel and unhinged. She finally overthrows Cersei Lannister but at a terrible cost. Atop her last remaining dragon, she practically decimates the whole of Kings Landing, the fictional capital city of Westeros, killing thousands of innocent people. True, she suffers considerable blows throughout her short life, most notably the death of two of her dragons and the realisation that her lover is not only her nephew, but that he has a better claim to the throne of Westeros than she does - her whole existence has in effect been a lie. Daenerys' end is perhaps the biggest problem that a lot of people had with the final season of Game of Thrones. The complaints were that it was rushed and greatly undercut years of character development. Daenerys is assassinated by her nephew Jon Snow in the very final episode of the whole series, and I must admit, as I watched her body being carried off into the distance by her dragon Drogon, all I could think was "what a waste".
The next character I want to look into is perhaps the series most well loved - Tyrion Lannister, the as yet unmentioned third Lannister sibling as younger brother to Cersei and Jaime. Tyrion is a dwarf, with stubby legs and mismatched eyes of green and black. In the books he is disfigured further when the majority of his nose is sliced off in The Battle of Blackwater. What he lacks in the way of height, he more than makes up for in intellect and wit. Unlike his sister, Tyrion is an incredibly kind and caring man. He receives little to no respect from practically everyone in the series, and is regularly mocked for his short stature, often called "the imp" or "half man". The exception is his brother Jaime, with whom he has a very strong bond - it is one of the few most natural and loving relationships in the series. Tyrion's birth causes the death of his mother, and his father makes no secret of the fact that he loathes Tyrion for this reason. Many of his troubles come from the unfair persecution he receives by being a dwarf, although this is somewhat mitigated by his rank as brother to the Queen and son of Westeros' most wealthy noble. But who is this universally adored character based on? Well, unsurprisingly one doesn't have to look far to spot the correlations between Tyrion and.......
Richard was born into the wealthy and influential house of York, who as I have already outlined would, through waging war, overthrow the house of Lancaster and become England's royal family. Born with severe scoliosis of the spine (a point dismissed but actually proven when his remains were discovered in 2012) which gave him an almighty hunchback, and possibly a lame left arm, he cut a distinctly unappealing figure when compared to his hunky older brother, Edward IV. Like Tyrion, his senior rank in England did provide some relief from the drawbacks that he was born with, and it soon became clear that he benefitted from superior intellect, which made him a useful military strategist. Once King Edward IV started to take ill, Richard manoeuvred himself into a politically advantageous marriage with Anne Neville (the same woman who had at one time been married to Prince Edward of Lancaster) and was soon named chief advisor to England's new King, Edward V. Not long afterwards, Edward V and his younger brother the Duke of York disappeared in the Tower of London, and before you know it, Richard is proclaimed King.
Both Richard and Tyrion are born at the absolute height of social standing, but carry significant physical abnormalities that impact their relationships and create an aura of distrust and outward dislike amongst most people. Both make up for their lack of physical ability by being able to strategise. Tyrion marries Sansa Stark, meaning they both marry women who are high born but are descendants of rebel houses. Like Richard, Tyrion's young nephew is named King, with Tyrion acting as one of his premier (albeit despised) advisors. Joffrey and Edward V are both murdered, and both Tyrion and Richard and blamed for these respective murders. Of course in Game of Thrones we know Tyrion is wholly innocent, whereas as I have already mentioned Richard certainly had a motive for bumping off his young nephews. For me the correlations between these two men are crystal clear.
Tyrion and Richard can be seen below.
In an effort to not challenge George RR Martin himself in the length of my writing, I have decided to break this blog into two parts. Part 2 will be released in a few days time and will explore yet more connections between characters and their real life counterparts, but also places and storylines within the Game of Thrones canon.
As a teaser, I'll be looking into Game of Thrones own Edward IV, Elizabeth of York, Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn. I'll also uncover the real life inspiration behind the Red Wedding - YES, something like this did actually happen, and the places that inspired many of Game of Thrones most iconic locations.
Written by Adam Pennington
25th March 2021