Assassins and Assassinations in Game of Thrones and Their Historical Influences

Assassins, the worlds of Game of Thrones and A Song of Ice and Fire are full of them. It is these assassins that are constantly taking things into their own hands in an attempt to level or change the political playing field. Of all of the assassinations that are carried out in both Game of Thrones and A Song of Ice and Fire only a few are executed by trained assassins. The assassins in GOT and ASOIAF that did undergo training belong to the guild of the Faceless Men. The Faceless Men spend their lives training in the arts of disguise and poison in order to be able to kill in secret.[1] A greater number of assassinations were carried out by “ordinary” people such as Olenna Tyrell and Lord Walder Frey. These two were unhappy with certain individuals and decide that the easiest way to deal with them is to eliminate them completely.

olenna and sansa(1)

Pictured here are Sansa Stark and Olenna Tyrell at the wedding of Margery Tyrell and Joffrey Baratheon. Sansa is unknowingly wearing a necklace containing poison that will later be used to kill Joffrey.

A question that fills the minds of many as they experience either George R.R. Martin’s writing or the HBO television show is where the inspirations for these assassins or assassinations has been taken from. The most important thing to first discuss is the definition of assassin. According to the Oxford English Dictionary an assassin is, “a person who murders another (esp. a prominent public figure) in a planned attack, typically with political or ideological motive.”[2] By this definition many deaths such as those of Joffrey Baratheon and of Robb Stark were assassinations although not carried out by a trained assassin such as a Faceless Man.

Some of George R.R. Martin’s ideas for the Faceless Men likely came from the many legends that surround the Nizari Ismailis. The Nizari Ismailis were Shiite muslims that lived in Persia and Syria during the middle ages.[3] They were strongly disliked by the Sunnis in the area and there was a large dispersion of propaganda about them.[4] During the Crusades this propaganda developed into legends which were subsequently brought home by the crusaders. In these legends the Nizari Ismailis were referred to degradingly as hash eaters (hashshashins).[5] This word is where the word assassin is believed to have been derived from and in time was given a completely different meaning. The legends said that the Nizari answered to a man known as “The Old Man in the Mountain.” This man is who gave them their targets and who they looked to for guidance.[6] Similarly the creator of the Faceless Men is simply referred to as the “First Faceless Man.”[7] He gave the gift of death and led the slaves in the mines out to a better life.[8] The legends about the Nizari spread and they were made out to be heretical assassins.[9] Many of these claims have since been refuted by modern scholars. It is in these legends of the Nizari that glimpses of the Faceless Men can be seen. The Nizari were said to be “chameleon like,” they would disguise themselves and spend weeks or even months getting into position for a kill.[10] In ASOIAF and GOT the Faceless Men have garnered their name by being able to change their face as it suits them in order to get close to those that they have been dispatched to kill.[11]

The Nizari and the Faceless Men are also both depicted as belonging to a religious sect. The Nizari are often depicted as fanatical extremists whereas the Faceless Men kill to please their Many Faced God, but do so in a controlled way. The Nizari killed for themselves, however the Faceless Men can be hired by anybody to kill anyone for a price. The Faceless Men are focused on the balance of the universe and this also applies to the price that they charge for their actions. Robert Baratheon’s small council is even seen contemplating hiring the Faceless Men to kill Daenerys however it is decided that it will cost far too much.[12] A big difference between the Nizari and the Faceless Men is their behaviour once they have committed an assassination. In many of the stories the Nizari are said to remain behind and face their own deaths in a form of suicide assassination. The Faceless Men are much different; they go to such great lengths in order to disguise themselves so that they can fade away after an assassination. Their main goal is to make a death appear as natural as possible so as to not raise questions about who did the killing and who they were sent by. This anonymity is a large part of the draw of the Faceless Men, as a target can be taken out without anyone realising it was in fact an assassination. The Nizari and the Faceless Men clearly hold some similarities and were likely an inspiration for Martin. The differences between the two groups are beneficial in Martin’s writing and in the television show as they add more mystery and intrigue to the story line. They also make botched assassinations appear that much more amateur.

For the majority of assassinations in ASOIAF and GOT it is the deaths and not the assassins themselves that can be tied to a medieval event. The assassination of King Joffrey Baratheon is one of these events. Joffrey died at his wedding celebration after being wed to Margery Tyrell, the wedding is now largely referred to as the purple wedding. It garnered this name after the impact that the Red wedding made (which will be discussed later). It is referred to as the purple wedding for a few reasons, purple is a colour often associated with royalty. Purple is also the colour that Joffrey turned as he died, it was the colour of Sansa’s necklace in which the poison was hidden, and it was the colour of the wine once the poison was added.[13] Joffrey was assassinated by his new wife’s grandmother Olenna Tyrell and the always involved Petyr Baelish.[14] Olenna kills Joffrey because she knows that he is depraved and horrible person and does not want her granddaughter to be married to him. Petyr Baelish involves himself in the matter because he needs to weaken the throne of Kings Landing in order to put his master plan into effect. This plan also involved the assassination of Jon Arryn and his wife Lysa (which will not be discussed in this paper) which leaves Petyr on the throne in the Eyrie.

The poison used to kill Joffrey is known as the strangler, “dissolved in wine it makes the muscles of a man’s throat clench tighter than any fist. The victim’s face turns purple.[15] In GOT upon drinking his wine Joffrey is left lying on the ground gasping for breath with a purple face and a nosebleed.[16] Martin himself has admitted that Joffrey’s death was in part inspired by the story of the death of Prince Eustace IV, Count of Boulogne who was the son of King Stephen of England.[17] Eustace’s death has long been shrouded in mystery. As is found with the legends of the Nizari Ismaili the accounts of Eustace’s death vary depending on who is telling it. What are definite are the events that led up to his death. Eustace unwisely plundered land that belonged to the abbey at Bury St-Edmunds.[18] Upon completion of his plundering Eustace sat down to enjoy dinner, much of the food had been taken from Bury St-Edmunds. Depending on the account Eustace then either choked on his first bite of eel and died immediately or had a seizure and then died a few days later.[19] As was common in the Middle Ages many of the chroniclers claimed that he must have died from grief over what he had done or been killed in an act of god’s vengeance.[20]

Today there are some that believe he could have been assassinated by poisoning or suffered from food poisoning. It is this uncertainty surrounding his death that can be seen in Martin’s representation of Joffrey’s death. If Eustace was poisoned it was not apparent enough for anybody to look into or for anyone to be blamed. This is likely what Olenna and Petyr were hoping for when they decided to use the strangler in order to kill Joffrey. Fortunately for them they were not accused of the assassination however Tyrion was almost killed for their actions. After Joffrey’s death an autopsy is performed in order to ensure that he did not choke to death and was indeed killed. [21]

As previously mentioned the Red Wedding was an event similar to Joffrey’s assassination that raised alarm amongst the ASOIAF and GOT fans. The Red Wedding was an assassination but also a massacre. The characters killed differ slightly from ASOIAF to GOT but going by what was seen in GOT the massacre resulted in the deaths of Robb Stark, his pregnant wife Tulisa, his mother Catlyn Stark as well as other members of his party.[22] Robb and his companions were invited into the home of Walder Frey for a wedding in which Robb’s uncle married one of Frey’s daughters.[23] Upon completion of the nuptials Walder Frey proceeds to break all chivalric codes and kills his guests. The Red Wedding is yet another assassination that Martin has revealed his inspirations for. He took elements from two events in Scottish history, the Black Dinner of 1440 and the Massacre of Glen Coe. The Black Dinner was a medieval event however the Massacre of Glen Coe occurred in 1692 and therefore cannot be counted as a medieval inspiration. [24]

Roose_kills_Robb_S3_Ep9

Here Robb Stark is being stabbed by Roose Bolton.

Like the Red Wedding the Black Dinner of 1440 completely breached the trust that a guest gives to their host as they enter their home. The Black Dinner was a dinner held at Edinburgh castle by William Crichton and Alexander Livingston. To their dinner they invited William Douglas, 6th Earl of Douglas and his younger brother.[25] The boys feasted with their hosts merrily until upon completion of the feast the pleasantries ended and the Douglas brothers were seized. The men were then put on “trial” for treason and executed in the courtyard. William Douglas was a man that held power and his death was seen as a necessary step by his hosts in order to secure their own power and position. Whatever the reason that Crichton and Livingston had in their minds they killed two guests in their house; just as Walder Frey killed his guests. Robb Stark was killed because he had insulted Walder Frey in the past by refusing to marry one of his daughters. Walder was deeply insulted by Robb and needed to assert his power and position by making a big statement to all those around him.

In continuing with the idea of a cloaked assassination previously seen in the death of Joffrey is the death of his “father” Robert Baratheon. In GOT and ASOIAF Robert Baratheon suffers from a hunting accident which in turn results in his death.[26] Robert was a big fan of hunting and of drinking while doing so. Before Robert’s last fateful hunting trip his wife Cersei instructed his squire to give Robert too much wine. It was Robert’s overdrinking that led to him being gored by a wild boar.[27] This is another example of an assassin (Cersei) acting through another person in order keep anonymity and to make the death appear to be an accident. While Cersei did not know that Robert would be injured or killed she knew that the hunt was a dangerous place and that the more intoxicated her husband was the more likely something bad would happen. During the medieval period there were many mysterious hunting accidents such as the one that surrounds the death of William II, King of England.[28] William was shot in the chest with his friend’s arrow. This friend of his apparently saw a stag and hit the king instead of it. After the king was hit all of his men fled the scene and left him to die. The fact that they left their king to die may lead one to believe that they were somehow involved in his death. There were those that benefitted from this “accident” such as his brother Henry I who ascended the throne after him.[29] Robert’s death also benefitted his heir as Joffrey ascended the throne after his “father’s” death with his mother acting as regent.

When looking at the assassins and assassinations that are carried out in ASOIAF and GOT there are clearly many medieval influences. Even if the event is not completely mirrored in a medieval chronicle or story there are elements of events and motives that can be found. Examination of the events and people that Martin has claimed to have been inspired by display this. In some cases the fact that medieval persons such as the Nizari Ismailis are shrouded in mystery allows for a much more imaginative approach. It is the legends from the middle ages that Martin appears to be drawn to. The embellishments and exaggerations play into the world that Martin has created in ASOIAF and allowed to flourish in the GOT television show.



[1] Game of Thrones, Valar Morghulis, directed by Alan Taylor, June 3, 2012, HBO, Television.

[2] “assassin, n.”. OED Online. March 2015. Oxford University Press. http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/11728?rskey=4n4SQa&result=1.

[3] Kevin M. McCarthy, The Origin of the Assassin, American Speech, Vol. 48 no. ½ (1973), 77

[4] Farhad Daftary, “The “Order of the Assassins:” J. Von Hammer and the Orientalist Misrepresentations of the Nizari Ismailis (Review Article).” Iranian Studies 39, no.1 (2006), 73

[5] Daftary, “The Order of the Assassins”, 74

[6] Ibid., 74

[7] George R.R. Martin, A Feast For Crows (New York: Bantam Books, 2005), 321

[8] Ibid., 322

[9] McCarthy, The Origin of the Assassin, 77

[10] Jefferson Gray, “Holy Terror”, MHQ: The Quarterly Journal of Military History, Vol 22, no. 3 (Spring 2010): 16

[11] Game of Thrones, Valar Morghulis. Television.

[12] George R.R. Martin, A Game of Thrones (New York: Bantam Books, 1996), Chapter 33

[13] George R.R. Martin, A Storm of Swords (New York: Bantam Books, 2000), 830

[14] “Purple Wedding,” A Game of Thrones Wiki, http://gameofthrones.wikia.com/wiki/Purple_Wedding

[15] “Game of Thrones Season 4- History and Lore of Westeros- Poisons- Oberyn Martell, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VOoxRT8ci1U.

[16] Game of Thrones, The Lion and the Rose, directed by Alex Graves, April 13, 2014, HBO, Television.

[17] Graeme J. White, “The End of Stephen’s reign”, History Vol. 75 no. 243 (Jan 1990), 10

[18] John D. Hosler, Henry II: A Medieval Soldier at War, 1147-1189 (Leiden: Brill, 2007), 46

[19] Hosler, Henry II: A Medieval Soldier at War, 46

[20] White, “The End of Stephen’s reign”, 10

[21] Martin, A Storm of Swords, 903

[22] Game of Thrones, The Rains of Castamere, directed by David Nutter, June 2, 2013, HBO, Television.

[23] Ibid.

[24] W. Ferguson, “Religion and the Massacre of Glencoe”, The Scottish Historical Review Vol. 46, no. 141, Part 1 (1967), 82

[25] Magnus Magnusson, Scotland: The Story of a Nation (Grove Press, 2003), 253

[26] Game of Thrones, You Win or You Die, directed by Daniel Minahan, May 29, 2011, HBO, Television.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Richard Cavendish, “The Death of William Rufus August 2nd, 1100”, History Today Vol. 50, no. 8 (2000), 52

[29] Cavendish, “The Death of William Rufus”, 52

Works Cited

Cavendish, Richard. “The Death of William Rufus August 2nd, 1100.” History Today 50 no. 8 (2000): 52

Daftary, Farhad. “The “Order of the Assassins:” J. Von Hammer and the Orientalist Misrepresentations of the Nizari Ismailis (Review Article).” Iranian Studies 39, no. 1 (2006): 71-82.

Ferguson, W. “Religion and the Massacre of Glencoe.” The Scottish Historical Review 46, no. 141 (1967): 82-87.

Game of Thrones, The Lion and the Rose, directed by Alex Graves, April 13, 2014, HBO, Television.

Game of Thrones. The Rains of Castamere. Directed by David Nutter. June 2, 2013. HBO. Television.

Game of Thrones. Valar Morghulis. Directed by Alan Taylor. June 3, 2012. HBO.Television.

Game of Thrones. You Win or You Die. Directed by Daniel Minahan. May 29, 2011. HBO. Television.

“Game of Thrones Season 4 – History and Lore of Westeros – Poisons – Oberyn Martell.” YouTube. Accessed April 7, 2015. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VOoxRT8ci1U.

Gray, Jefferson. “Holy Terror.” MHQ: The Quarterly Journal of Military History 22, no. 3 (2010).

Hosler, John D. Henry II a Medieval Soldier at War, 1147-1189. Leiden: Brill, 2007.

Magnusson, Magnus. Scotland: The Story of a Nation. Grove Press, 2003.

Martin, George R. R. A Storm of Swords. New York: Bantam Books, 2000.

Martin, George R. R. A Feast for Crows. New York: Bantam Books, 2005.

McCArthy, Kevin M. “The Origin of Assassin.” American Speech, (1973): 77-83.

“Purple Wedding.” Game of Thrones Wiki. http://gameofthrones.wikia.com/wiki/Purple_Wedding

White, Graeme J. “The End of Stephen’s Reign.” History 75, no. 243 (Jan. 1990): 3-22

“assassin, n.”. OED Online. March 2015. Oxford University Press. http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/11728?rskey=4n4SQa&result=1.

Image Sources

“Olenna Tyrell.” Game of Thrones Wiki. http://gameofthrones.wikia.com/wiki/Olenna_Tyrell?file=Olenna_and_Sansa_2.jpg

“The Red Wedding.” Game of Thrones Wiki. http://gameofthrones.wikia.com/wiki/Red_Wedding?file=Roose_kills_Robb_S3_Ep9.jpg

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