It is no secret that George R. R. Martin has used historical influences in his A Song of Ice and Fire series and the subsequent HBO television series Game of Thrones. Indeed, throughout both the series and lore behind it, there are cataclysmic moments in the history of Westeros that revolve around the appearance of a pretender to the throne. In the book series; as well as the television series, the events portrayed take their influence from the Wars of the Roses; likewise there are a number of references to the Dance of the Dragons, which likewise takes its influence from “the Anarchy”. While one-to-one comparisons are obviously not possible, there are clear similarities between historical figures and characters mentioned in the series’. Next to this, there are also similarities between historical events and those portrayed in the novels. Not to mention, the portrayal of pretenders and claimants to the throne are likewise clear duplicates of their historical counterparts.
Although there are many characters with historical parallels, but for the moment this essay shall focus on the big names of the events taking place between Robert’s Rebellion and the beginning of the War of the Five Kings. Aerys II Targaryen is a combination of Charles VII and Henry VI, Robert Baratheon is a parallel to Edward IV but also contains aspects of Henry VIII, Daenerys Targaryen has influences from Henry Tudor, Eddard Stark is a close resemblance to Richard of York, Cersei Lannister is Margaret of Anjou, Joffrey is Edward of Westminster, and Tywin Lannister is Richard Neville the Earl of Warwick. Aerys was aptly named the Mad King for his reign began promising but then devolved into paranoia and harsh execution of those he saw as his enemies1, in much the same manner Charles VII was known as “Charles the Mad”, who was prone to energetic fits of madness in conjunction with a fear that his self-perceived glass body would shatter, whilst Henry VI was catatonic and therefore unresponsive to others. Robert’s Rebellion and the famous Battle of the Trident that won Robert his throne can be found in the battle of Tewkesbury where Edward York smashed the forces of Lancaster and making himself the undisputed King after centuries of rule from the previous dynasty. Also, like both Edward IV and Henry VIII, Robert falls into a habit of heavy drinking and lewd behaviour, not to mention he must contend with the fact he still has rival claimants to the throne. Similarly, much like Richard Neville, Tywin Lannister chose to follow the usurpers banner and turn on the king to become the most powerful, and influential men in the kingdom, both knew what they wanted and how to govern2. Stannis meanwhile; much like Richard III, was a staunch supporter of his elder brother until his death, upon which he immediately attempted to usurp the crown from his nephews, declaring them illegitimate.
The characters of Cersei and Joffrey are interesting characters in that they are so closely related to their historical counterparts. Cersei is a protective mother and a prolific schemer, dominating her husband’s small council for years; she cares only for the protection of her children and Joffrey’s succession to the Iron Throne. Likewise, Margaret of Anjou held a position of power in her husband’s regency council during his bouts of insanity, often coming into conflict with Richard of York and ultimately scheming against him and his son in the hope of making her son become king. The prince in question, Edward of Westminster, is a cruel boy of susceptible lineage3, a clear inspiration for Joffrey. It is because of this disputable lineage that ultimately opens the way for the claiming of the throne by their uncle and the usurpation of the crown holds a legal justification. As Stannis often observes in the show, “The Iron Throne is mine by right”, which is very much the argument Richard III used to claim his right of succession to the throne, likewise Richard sat on his elder brothers council until his death, much like Stannis4; but unlike Stannis, he did receive a coronation and imprisoned his nephews. This all becomes possible in both historical and fictional narratives due to the intervention of Richard of York and Eddard Stark, both men entered the council’s of their respective kings, and both briefly entered into the title of Lord Protector of the Realm, before ultimately meeting their demise.
However, despite these similarities, there are differences in the events that surround them. Robert’s Rebellion was an event sparked after years of degradation of royal authority and the abuse of powerful vassals under Aerys II. Meanwhile, the Wars of the Roses were a series of conflicts that pitted one dynasty under Richard of York, against another, Henry VI of Lancaster, a weak king whose council was ruled by the Queen, Margaret of Anjou. What is interesting in both the novels and in these historical events is the prevalence of what Michael Hicks calls ‘the overmighty subject’5, for indeed there are a number of such figures in both. In Westeros, the continent is divided into Seven “Kingdoms”, each ruled by a Lord-Paramount with resources equal to if not greater than the Iron Throne. Meanwhile, in 15th Century England, the power of men like Richard Neville came from indentured retinues, contracted soldiers that; as David Baldwin observed, any lord could rely upon them because they were “potentially far stronger than the old land-based because…there was theoretically no limit to the number of men he could retain on a short-term basis when danger threatened.”6 The only way to keep these men from revolting against the rule of the king, as Robert puts it in Game of Thrones that peace is only made possible by “Fear, fear and blood!”
Men of power such as Richard Neville and Tywin Lannister are thus perhaps some of the most important men in the kingdom to anyone who wishes to sit upon the throne7. Because of this, certain events likewise take similar influences, for example, the Battle of Tewkesbury was the final battle that broke the Lancastrian cause, this coinciding with the death of Henry VI destroyed the figurehead of their cause, and any remaining resistance was crushed by Edward with little effort8.This bears a great resemblance to the Battle of the Trident9 and the subsequent collapse of the Targaryen cause; the death of Aerys at the hand of Jamie Lannister during the Sack of King’s Landing shortly afterwards, likewise ends any hopes of the royal cause continuing to resist the rebels. Clearly, a pretender would do well to have such powerful figures back their claim, but only if their loyalty can be assured. Thus, there are indeed many parallels that can be made between the Wars of the Roses and the events of ASOIAF.
Another area that clearly takes its influences from history that was referred to previously, is the long past Targaryen civil war for the right of succession between Aegon II and Princess Rhaenyra, after the death of Viserys I, has clear parallels to the civil war between King Stephen and Empress Matilda following the death of Henry I. Both Aegon and Stephen argued that their succession as king was what was best for the stability of the realm10 whilst both the Empress and Rhaenyra both declared the lords of the realm hold to the oaths of fealty sworn to her succession as heir under the previous king. Much like the end of the Anarchy, the son of the Princess is the one who succeeds the usurper king. The difference between these conflicts is that whilst the Anarchy was a conflict filled with inconclusive battles and sieges, the Dance of the Dragons is a conflict that is marred by the mutual usage of Dragons, rendering any army or castle obsolete, and only the loss of a dragon; a dragonrider; or both, shows any true progress. A notable mention in A World of Ice and Fire, is the injuries that Rhaenyra and Aegon III sustained during the battle of Rooke’s Nest along with their dragons11. However, there are also interesting parallels between the two. The ascension of Stephen, a favourite pretender of his uncle, Henry I; made possible due to the connection of stability with that of his gender amongst the nobility12Likewise, numerous battles occurred throughout the conflict that regardless of their outcomes never determine the clear superiority of one belligerent. In fact, the only clear indicator of whoever is winning the conflict comes from whoever controls the greater number of dragons. As is often noted in the lore, Aegon Targaryen and his sisters used their dragons to conquer Westeros but also gave them a unified stability, as Daenerys observed: “Aegon the Conqueror brought fire and blood to Westeros, but afterward he gave them peace, prosperity, and justice.”13 Conversely, when the Targaryens go to war against each other, the same super weapons that give them their power to control Westeros, makes it impossible for one side to defeat the other.
The existence and power of dragons as unbelievable chaos, and stalemate in a conflict shows just how much a claimant to the throne might need them to further their cause. The fact that the lack of dragons during Robert’s Rebellion; with the success falling to the greater military leader, shows on the one hand that the power of dragons in the hands of pretenders to the throne is a moot point. And yet, Aegon III and Rhaenyra both had dragons, with both showing great difficulty in concluding the conflict despite the mustering of armies on both sides. The fact that Daenerys; the Henry Tudor of the series, possesses the only resurgent dragons is an interesting assertion of her ability to claim the Iron Throne despite her lack of open support there. Like his Targaryen counterpart, Henry Tudor was the last hope of the Lancastrian cause, a man seen with little hope of taking the throne, and a practically unknown person in England that Richard III rightly claimed to have never set eyes on14. It will be interesting to see whether or not she follows in her historical counterparts footsteps and reclaims the Iron Throne and what role her dragons will play in this; and whom the other two dragonriders will be to aid her in this task.
Thus, there are indeed many similarities between the characters in the television and books series, and the historical figures from which they take their influences, there are many differences. The usage of illegitimacy against an heir-apparent to legitimize a usurper is only useful if the usurper holds them. The power of Lords-Paramount, or ‘overmighty subjects’ are useful in the hands of pretenders, but only if their loyalty can be swayed into a pretenders grasp. Likewise, as the power of dragons in the hands of pretenders, an excellent weapon of conquest, but are very poor against fighting an opponent with dragons, and are more likely to lead to a stalemate than a pretenders success. Perhaps the biggest one that hasn’t been mentioned is the fact that neither series has been finished, and therefore the ultimate fates of each character are yet to reach their fate.
1 Martin, The World of Ice and Fire: The Untold History of Westeros and The Game of Thrones, New York: Bantam Books, 2014, 113, 117
2 Hicks, Michael. The Wars of the Roses. London: Yale University Press, 2010, 169
3 Kendall, Paul. Richard the Third, New York: W. W. Norton., 1956, 32
4 Martin, George. A Clash of Kings, New York: Bantam Books, 1999, 17
5 Hicks, Michael. Bastard feudalism, overmighty subjects and idols of the multitude during the Wars of the Roses. London: Longman, 1995, 388
6 Baldwin, David. The Kingmaker’s Sisters: Six Powerful Women in the Wars of the Roses , Stroud, Gloucestershire: The History Press, 39-40
7 Martin, A Game of Thrones , New York: Bantam Boooks, 1996, 114
8 Webster, Bruce.The Wars of the Roses, London: UCL, 1998, 28
9 Martin, A Game of Thrones , 44
10 Norgate, Kate. England under the Angevin Kings, New York: Burt Franklin, 1969, 278
11 Martin, The World of Ice and Fire: The Untold History of Westeros and The Game of Thrones, 75
12 Norgate, 278
13 Martin, A Storm of Swords, New York: Bantam Books, 2000, 994
14 Seward, Desmond. The Last White Rose: The Secret Wars of the Tudors, London: Constable and Robinson Ltd., 2010, 6