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Game of Thrones - the history behind the masterpiece. Part 2.

I wrote part one of this blog back in March and had planned for part two to follow shortly thereafter, so my apologies that I have only just got around to getting this done!

In this blog I will continue to explore some of the key figures from history who were an influence behind many of Game of Thrones most enduring characters. I will also uncover some of the true to life events which were the basis from some of the most explosive storylines in the series - YES, "The Red Wedding" seen below didn't come out of anywhere.

On characters, I will start big, and look at the man who was inspired by our most famous of Kings, Henry VIII. At the start of Game of Thrones, the King of the Seven Kingdom's is Robert Baratheon. Robert snatched the throne through conquest, and upon accession was greeted with warm enthusiasm from his people who believed that a new dawn had begun following years of uncertainty at the hands of the mad Targaryen King, Aerys II. Sadly once he actually captured the throne, Robert soon realises he cares little for actual rule. What started out as great promise, soon turns into bitterness and division. He is overweight, lazy and lecherous. He is more interested in the sport of hunting or chasing women than he is in attending council meetings. He is also very trigger happy when it comes to waging war. He is also blithely unaware of the fact that the three children being raised as his own are in fact the buy-product of an incestuous relationship between his wife and her twin brother. Putting aside the physical similarities, the comparisons between Henry VIII and Robert are abundant. Henry's own accession was greeted with great excitement by his people. He was everything the renaissance prince should be - erudite, charming, loyal and generous, but years of bitter disappointment in the marriage bed and an ever increasing paranoia turned him into the more infamous monster we associate with his name to this day. Henry's love of hunting was cut short when he suffered injury in the 1530s which makes the end to his Game of Thrones counterpart all the more fitting - Robert dies through injuries sustained when hunting Wild Boar. Robert Baratheon as portrayed by Mark Addy is seen below alongside a portrait of King Henry VIII.

From Henry VIII, I will move onto his most famous of wives, the enigmatic Anne Boleyn. In Game of Thrones, the character with whom she appears to have the most in common is Margaery Tyrell. Margaery is the daughter of the second richest lord in Westeros, Mace Tyrell, and grew up in a glittering palace called Highgarden. Her family are extraordinarily ambitious, more calculating than the somewhat naïve Stark's, but considerably nicer than the Lannister's. Already enormously important, the Tyrell's push for greater influence in aligning with the royal family through marriage. Margaery first weds King Joffrey, and shortly after his death (at their wedding feast no less, and secretly at the hands of her grandmother) she marries his younger brother, King Tommen, finally becoming Queen of the Seven Kingdoms. Anne Boleyn was the daughter of two highly ambitious parents, one of which was a Howard by birth, and thus Anne was born into a family of prominence, albeit not at the zenith of Tudor society that they would later become. The Tyrell home of Highgarden is viewed as the most beautiful in the seven kingdoms. Hever Castle, Anne's childhood home is located in Kent, known as "the garden of England". Margaery and Anne were not their husbands first wives (or intended first wives) and share much in common personality wise - both are blindingly charismatic, cunning, shrewd and excel at the game of court politics. Margaery is schooled in all of this by her formidable grandmother, Lady Olenna Tyrell. Much of Anne's courtly skills were honed under the guidance of an equally powerful matriarch, Claude of France. Anne Boleyn famously refused to become Henry VIII's mistress, and this is reflected in Margaery's own story as well. She was due to become mistress to King Robert, but holds him off, hoping for greater power at a later stage, indeed she says in conversation to Lord Petyr Baelish "I don't want to be A Queen, I want to be THE Queen". Margaery is also extremely close to her brother Loras and dies alongside him, it is well documented that Anne had a strong relationship with her brother George who was also famously executed alongside his sister. Which leads to the two women's fate. Margaery's downfall comes at the hands of her despised mother-in-law, the dowager queen Cersei Lannister, who accuses her of adultery and treason. Cersei lines up an impressive, but entirely fictitious list of lovers, the first of which is Margaery's musician, a man called the Blue Bard - sound familiar? Margaery is finally killed in a wildfire explosion orchestrated by Cersei. As so much in Margaery's life, she is two steps ahead of everyone else in the room and recognises that something bad is happening. She attempts to flee but is held back, dying alongside her brother, father and hundreds of others. This removes all Tyrells in the male line, essentially rendering the house extinct. The downfall of the Boleyn family, whilst not so complete, certainly wiped out future Boleyn's in the male line from ever being prominent figures at court. Rather satisfyingly, Margaery Tyrell is played by the very same woman who enraptured audiences as Anne Boleyn in the Tudors, the wonderful Natalie Dormer, seen below.

I next want to look at Sansa Stark, the elder daughter of Ned Stark who begins the series as a vapid and foolish teenager but ends it as a queen. Some believe that Sansa is loosely based on Henry VIII's mother, Elizabeth of York. Elizabeth of York grew up as a princess, and must have dreamt about one day becoming a queen. Elizabeth was taught the skills and behaviours befitting someone of her rank at that time - obedience, grace, femininity, essentially anything that was deemed "goodly" in the eyes of her contemporaries. As a child she was promised in marriage to Charles, Dauphin of France, but this union was then broken off by the French king when Elizabeth was a teenager. Despite her royal rank, Elizabeth's childhood was turbulent to say the least, with happy times of staggering grandeur to periods of awful uncertainty and danger. When her father unexpectedly died, Elizabeth's life grew more dangerous still. Her Uncle Richard becomes King, and soon her two brothers are placed in the Tower of London. She would never see them again. In Game of Thrones, Sansa is brought up to be very much the "ideal" noble young woman. She excels in needlework, making home and has her eyes set firmly on becoming queen to her knight in shining armour, Prince Joffrey. She soon realises however that Joffrey is a psychotic monster and her rose tinted view on royal life begins to disappear. Like Elizabeth, Sansa's two younger brothers vanish following a war between her own house and that of the royal court, and in greater parallels still she is then offered up in marriage to Tyrion Lannister, the man who many believe is drawn directly from Richard III. Elizabeth, despite being Richard's niece was once a serious contender for his own marriage. Even Elizabeth and Sansa's physicality's are similar - tall, willowy and with long flowing red hair. The key connection however between Elizabeth and Sansa is how much their stories start out from an also fairy tale like point of view, but once politics enters the equation both women toughen up, and become key players in their own right. Sansa Stark, as portrayed by Sophie Turner is seen below alongside a portrait of Elizabeth of York.

Next I wanted to look at a woman who would become a great source of comfort and safety to Sansa Stark in Game of Thrones, Brienne of Tarth. Brienne is an enormous fan favourite and is played to perfection by Gwendoline Christie. Brienne is an object of scorn throughout most of her life, because despite being the daughter of a mid-ranking noble, and is thus technically Lady Brienne, to quote her directly "I'm no lady", nor is she. Brienne is first and foremost a warrior. She is 6ft3 in height, broad and plain. When attempting to dress as a woman she simply looks ungainly, and when dressed for battle she is laughed at for attempting to exist in a male dominated space, despite the fact that she has spectacular skill in combat. She has no time for frivolity or anything remotely feminine. She is blunt, forthright and pragmatic. She is also extremely loyal to anyone who treats her with kindness or to those with whom she has deep rooted respect. Brienne is driven by duty, and would happily die in battle if it was in support of someone she was sworn to protect. There is a very clear inspiration behind Brienne of Tarth - Joan of Arc. Joan was a peasant girl from France who lived in the early 15th century. Joan believed she heard voices from God, who instructed her to lead a war against the English occupied regions of her homeland. Joan became every bit the warrior. She dressed in men's clothing, cut her hair short and became notorious for her abilities in battle and absolute dedication to the man who she fought for, Charles VIII. Joan stood out extravagantly from all other women around her. No woman had done what she did at that time in France, but her conviction and abilities outweighed the unconventionality of her position as a female warrior. Thankfully Brienne's own story doesn't end as Joan's did, with burning at the stake! Brienne in a rarity for Game of Thrones get's something of a happy conclusion to her story, surviving to the very end and becoming the Lady Commander of the Kingsguard. Brienne is seen below as portrayed by Gwendoline Christie, alongside an uncontemporary image of Joan of Arc.

The final two characters I wanted to touch on often come as a pair, although in truth their respective stories part ways at the end of the fourth season of Game of Thrones - Lord Varys and Lord Petyr Baelish. Perhaps this combining of the two men stems from the fact that it has been suggested that they are inspired by two of the most important members of Queen Elizabeth I's inner circle - Francis Walsingham and William Cecil, Lord Burghley. Lord Varys is known as the "Master of Whispers", e.g. the court spymaster. He employs something of an underground army of (mostly) children, strewn across Westeros who report back gossip and information which may be useful to those he serves. Despite this somewhat unsavoury career, Varys is mostly driven by a desire to do good by the people, and not those in power. He feigns allegiance to the Baratheon/Lannister cause, but secretly remains a committed Targaryen and is crucial to the early success of Daenerys Targaryen in building out a network of influential supporters including houses Tyrell, Greyjoy and Martell. When he recognises that Daenerys herself is not what he had hoped, he switches sides again to the man who he believes will actually do right by the people, Jon Snow. Francis Walsingham was the spymaster extraordinaire to Elizabeth I. He had undercover intelligence in literally every corner of England and beyond. An ardent protestant, Walsingham undoubtedly utilised his spies to be advantageous to his own politic beliefs, but he was first and foremost committed to his queen. If action was needed, even if it was grossly embellished to keep her safe then Walsingham was willing to stretch the truth. He became crucial to the success of Elizabeth, but also facilitated many of the things which caused her great distress, most notably the destruction of her cousin, Mary, Queen of Scots. Varys as portrayed by Conleth Hill is seen below alongside a portrait of Sir Francis Walsingham.

So onto Lord Petyr Baelish. Unlike his compadre Varys who is broadly seen with affection by the Game of Thrones fans, Petyr Baelish is a one of the least popular characters in the series canon. He is manipulative in the extreme, at times creepy and is ultimately out for no one but himself himself. He starts the series as "Master of Coin", essentially the man who runs the royal treasury. This role is there to advise the monarch on financial matters and raise the money necessary to meet the Crowns needs. Lord Baelish is viewed as being something of a fiscal magician by his companions on the small council, until he vacates the position and it becomes clear that he has been borrowing vast sums of money, which leaves the Iron Throne heavily in debt. Lord Baelish is born into a fairly lowly position with little to no wealth or ancestors of note. His luck changes as a child when he is taken in as a ward of House Tully, one of the most prominent noble houses in the seven kingdoms. As the years pass, Lord Baelish manoeuvres around those with power, which eventually lead to his appointment within the small council. William Cecil, Lord Burghley was of equally base born stock. His ascendancy to the height of Elizabeth I's inner circle came through an innate ability to think ahead and give sound advice. He was the consummate social climber. Cecil was also known for his diminutive stature, in Game of Thrones Petyr Baelish is known as Littlefinger, a somewhat condescending nickname given to him for two reasons - firstly his own small stature and secondly the lowly part of Westeros in which he grew up - The Fingers. Unlike Cecil who remained in favour to the very end of his days, Lord Baelish's many conniving's are finally undone in the seventh season of the show, when he is publicly executed by Arya Stark on the orders of her sister, Sansa. Lord Petyr Baelish as portrayed by Aiden Gillen in the series is seen below alongside William Cecil, Lord Burghley.

If you would like to explore further character adaptations, there are some I have not covered, including Robb Stark who is said to be loosely based on Edward IV and Catelyn Stark who some believe is derived from Cecily, Duchess of York. I am sure some reading this blog will also ask why two of the most prominent characters in Game of Thrones have been excluded, namely Jon Snow and Arya Stark. Whilst I am sure they have inspirations of note, I have not been able to find any that satisfactorily seem plausible to me.

Beyond its characters, both the settings within the story and some of the storylines themselves also take inspiration from our past. In part 1 of this blog I already touched on the Wars of the Roses as the basis from much of the early plot, but it's also not difficult to see the inspiration behind "The Wall", a 700ft high wall of ice which spans the full width of Westeros in it's far north. The wall was erected to keep a mythical species of the undead known as White Walkers out of the Seven Kingdoms, and later serves the purpose of keeping the "wildlings" out as well. The wildlings deeply resentful of this moniker, and instead call themselves the "Free Folk". George RR Martin has confirmed that he came up with the idea for the Wall when visiting Hadrian's Wall, a wall built by the Romans which divides England and Scotland. It is considerably more modest than George RR Martin's wall, at a maximum of 20 feet at it's highest point.

Perhaps the most infamous episode in the early series of Game of Thrones is "The Red Wedding", which is episode nine of season three. The Red Wedding is infamous in Game of Thrones legend, and often singled out as it's greatest episode, although I would personally disagree with this. For me the best episode of all time is season six's finale, "The Winds of Winter". In the Red Wedding, Robb Stark, his wife Talisa and mother Lady Catelyn are celebrating a wedding between Catelyn's brother Edmure Tully and a daughter of Lord Walder Frey. Lady Catelyn is uneasy because the marriage was actually meant to be between Robb Stark and Lord Walder's daughter. Robb marries Talisa in secret, negating on his promise to Lord Walder with devastating consequences. Whilst on the face of it Lord Walder accepts Edmure Tully as something of a commiseration prize, he secretly plots with both the Lannister's and House Bolton, a barbaric northern house who go against their previous allegiance to House Stark in the hope that it'll elevate them to the most important house in the north. As the wedding ends, all those inside Lord Walder's great hall are locked inside, and an utter bloodbath ensues. Robb, his wife, their unborn child and Lady Catelyn are all slaughtered. The inspiration behind this storyline is "The Black Dinner", a notorious coup d'état that occurred in Scotland in 1440. The then king of Scotland, ten year old James II and his advisors were unnerved by the growing prominence and power of the Douglas family. William Douglas, 6th Earl of Douglas who was only sixteen and his younger brother David were invited to dine with the young king. As the meal started, a black bulls head was brought into the room - a symbol of death in the Scottish court. Following a mock trial, both William and his brother who may have been as young as 11 were beheaded on trumped up charges of treason.

Another great inspiration behind much of Game of Thrones is The Roman Empire. This is most keenly felt in the continent in which much of the story doesn't take place - Essos. Essos as a whole is solely the focus Daenerys Targaryen's story, as she spends all of the first six seasons of the series travelling around it learning the art of rule, and building herself a considerable army. The most overt parallel to the roman times is in the gladiatorial fighting pits which come into the story in season five. In look, the The Great Pit of Daznak which features prominently in the ninth episode of seven five closely resembles the Colosseum in Rome. A huge circular amphitheatre, the Great Pit of Daznak is a place where slaves fight to the death for the amusement of their masters.

Game of Thrones is without question my favourite television series of all time. It is a spectacular and majestic story which literally has it all - great drama, superb acting, suspense, horror, humour and heart. It's final season was divisive in the extreme, although I myself was not too disappointed by it, in fact on the whole I felt it ended well and tied up most loose ends. What ultimately set Game of Thrones apart was it's characters and the bravery of it's storytelling. No television series ripped up the rule book quite like GOT, and that's why so many millions tuned in each week to watch the drama unfold. That so much of the story is influenced by our past is another source of joy for me, particularly with how much the Tudor's are clearly evident in so many of Game of Thrones most enduring characters.

Written by Adam Pennington

4th September 2021.


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