It shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone familiar with both George R.R. Martin’s stories and Medieval English history that the wars of Westeros draw heavily from the battles of Britain for inspiration. These parallels are usually obvious: Aegon’s Conquest is the Norman Invasion, the Dance with Dragons is the Anarchy, Robert’s Rebellion is the Wars of the Roses, and the War of the Five Kings is… well, the Wars of the Roses.
To be fair, there is no single ‘War of the Roses’, except in the sense that the many conflicts between the houses of York and Lancaster fought between 1455 and 1487 were really one long, multi-generational struggle for the English crown.1 But which of these smaller, self-contained conflicts in the third and early fourth century AC of Westeros draws more heavily on the Wars of the Roses for inspiration? This post will be exploring prominent figures and events in Robert’s Rebellion and the War of the Five Kings to find out which of the two is the real Westerosi War of the Roses! For the sake of brevity, these three conflicts will henceforth be referred to as RR, WFK, and WR respectively.
To limit our scope somewhat, here are the ground rules:
- It should be understood that neither RR nor WFK is a perfect one-to-one analog for WR. George R.R. Martin has himself stated that his work is not allegorical.2As such, this comparative study will concern itself only with the number of similar events to WR and the degree to which each is similar, whatever the actual attendant circumstances or chronological order of these events might be.
- This comparative study will not go looking for an historical analog for every single character. Historical parallels with A Song of Ice and Fire and A Game of Thrones characters will only be discussed where they are relevant to significant, game-changing events mirroring WR. As such, not all of the main cast will be making appearances. (Sorry, Arya.)
- If and when discrepancies in the cannon arise, I will be following the events of the books of A Song of Ice and Fire and not the HBO series. This is partly because I’m much more familiar with the events of the books, and partly because with the publishing of The World of Ice and Fire, the factor of unreliable narration in the novel version of this world has been somewhat lessened (though by no means eliminated!).
Finally, here’s a quick refresher in case you need to brush up on your late Middle Ages English history:3
Mad Beginnings – Why are we Fighting?
This analysis will begin with the casus belli; the justification the aggressors have for starting the wars in question.4 In WR, both of the contesting houses (York and Lancaster) have some claim to the English throne through their historical family ties. The Lancastrian claim (the house in power when the war begins) is traced through the third son of Henry III, while the Yorkist claim is through his fourth son. When Henry VI (Lancaster) became mentally unstable and therefore unfit for government, Richard Plantagenet (York) attempted to seize control on the basis of his own claim.5
At first glance, this prologue may seem to fit more closely with the beginning of RR. Aerys II is certainly a reflection of Henry VI in that the failing of both of these kings’ mental faculties caused many to rally behind a more popular potential ruler. However, we don’t know Henry VI to have been particularly cruel, only incapable, and even if Henry VI had been Stark-burning mad, his Lord Protector seems to have had much more control over the realm during his fits than anyone at Aerys’ court had over him. If Aerys is Henry VI, he is a very twisted and exaggerated version.6
Perhaps WFK is more like WR with respect to the start of the war, despite its actual beginning being less clear-cut. What makes the beginning of WFK hard to pin down is that the four opposing kings joined the war at different points and had different casus belli between them. We’ll skip over the Starks for now and consider the parties in WFK actually calling for Joffrey’s deposition and not just independence for their part of the realm. Joffrey, and later Tommen, claim to be the legitimate sons of Robert Baratheon and thus the rightful heir(s) to the Iron Throne. Stannis and Renly Baratheon (Robert’s brothers) both claimed the throne on the grounds that Joffrey and his siblings are Jamie Lannister’s incest bastards, though Renly seems to have had less regard for the actual line of succession. 7
Martin seems to have split the elements of the start of WR between RR and WFK. The latter doesn’t quite fit because unlike Richard Plantagenet, Stannis actually had an arguably stronger claim on the throne than the current ruler. However, it is the closer parallel since the main casus belli in both cases is to claim the throne for a particular house, and not just to depose the ruler. While Robert’s claim to the Iron throne in RR was somewhat based on the Baratheon house’s origins on Dragonstone (where the Targaryens were known to have ‘mingled’ with the other local houses a bit), putting Robert on the throne had less to do with his dragon blood and more to do with the fact that the current king was murderously insane and his heir was a bit of a jerk as well.
Hands, Regents, and Lord Protectors: The Other Power-Players
In all three of these conflicts, it is not only the actions of the kings that dictate the future of the realm, but also those of his chief advisers. While the positions of Regent (Lord Protector) and Hand of the King appear to be differentiated titles in the Seven Kingdoms, the three Hands of the King with which we spend any significant amount of time in the novels have so much power delegated to them that we may well consider these positions equivalent for the purposes of this comparison. Tywin Lannister, Tyrion Lannister, and Eddard Stark preside over a realm headed by rulers who are incapable for various reasons, be they too lazy, too young, too murderously mad, or too young and murderously mad to manage affairs on their own. Being the de facto capable rulers, it is hardly a wonder that all three of these men become major players in these two wars.
Tywin Lannister and the Mad King
There are two prominent regent-figures who become major players in WR. Like Tywin and Tyrion, they were also a father-son duo: Richard Plantagenet, Duke of York and his son who would become King Richard III. Just as the elder Richard of York served multiple regencies for Henry VI, who was mentally incapable, Tywin Lannister served as Hand of the King for Aerys the mad king. These jobs were equally thankless, as both Henry and Aerys feared the power and popularity of their regents. Neither Henry VI nor his wife, Margaret of Anjou, trusted Richard Plantagenet and thus had him removed from court multiple times following Henry’s recovery from fits of mental illness. This fear proved to be well founded, as indeed the first Yorkist antagonist for WR was Richard and his repeated attempts to usurp the throne.
While Tywin never attempted to usurp Aerys II’s throne and take it for himself, he was seen by the masses as the real power in King’s Landing, which provoked much animosity from Aerys. Tywin left court voluntarily after having been provoked by Aerys one too many times. Later it would seem that Aerys’ fear of Tywin was also well-founded, when King’s Landing was sacked by Tywin’s forces after having been welcomed into the city by a desperate Aerys. Like Tywin, Richard was never the king himself, but his immediate descendants were. Richard Plantagenet the father of both Edward IV and Richard III. In a pleasing parallel, Tywin was the grandfather of both King Joffrey and King Tommen.
Tyrion Lannister and the Dead Nephew
Tyrion has a clear parallel in the other famous Lord Protector of WR, Richard III. Both men were tasked with being regent for their nephews after their fathers had died and before they were old enough to inherit the throne. In both cases, the young king ended up dead or missing and the uncle was blamed for the murder after the fact. Upon the mysterious disappearance of his nephews, Richard suspiciously names himself King Richard III. Tyrion doesn’t become king, though like Richard he is immediately blamed for his nephew’s murder and depicted ever after by his relatives as an evil monster. In a physical sense, George R.R. Martin has made Tyrion into the monster works like William Shakespeare’s pseudo-biographical play made Richard III out to be. While it is generally agreed that Richard III’s physical deformities were greatly exaggerated to make him seem more of a monster, Martin gives Tyrion much more obvious deformities, reversing the situation; rather than having public hatred toward the character inspire the demonization, Tyrion’s demonization is the thing that pushes him over into patricide.8
Richard & Eddard
The third and final major regent figure whose actions figure prominently in asoiaf is of course Ned Stark. One would not think honorable Ned an easy analog for the scheming and ambitious Richard Plantagenet. Surely he is more like the villainized Richard III, who died disgraced while trying to keep the throne out of the hands of a family whose name sounds suspiciously like Lannister. This might be true if we observe Ned in a vacuum; however, if we ignore Ned’s personal character (mostly irrelevant in this discussion concerned primarily with events) and consider him together with his son Robb, we see that his contribution to the naissant WFK mirrors Richard Plantagenet much better than Richard III.
Motivations aside, Ned Stark attempted to depose the reigning monarch and his house while acting as Lord Protector. When he was killed, his son took up the torch against the enemy king and his house, going on to become a king himself. These parallels in the role each man played have much more to do with the broad strokes of WFK and WR than those traits Ned shares with Richard III. Especially since Ned’s death did not so much extinguish the conflict as throw gasoline on it.
Ned Stark’s beheading
The Woeful Warrior Kings
WR, RR, and WFK all contain a similar historical figure at the head of the resistance. These figures are Edward IV, Robb Stark, and Robert Baratheon, respectively. All three were brave warriors, fighting on the battlefield with their troops. Ironically, none of the three died on the battlefield, but were instead killed by illness, murder, and a pig.
Edward IV and Robert Baratheon won much glory on the battlefield. They both thought they had won their wars; their rival kings had been deposed, their enemy houses (Lancaster and Targaryen) were nearly wiped out with what few claimants remained living in exile, and the throne (as it seemed) had been secured. Neither could have known that their respective dynasties would shrivel up and die along with them. The legitimacy of both of their heirs was called into question (that of Robert’s heirs being demonstrably false) and their brothers would all be dead in short order.9 Both of these war heroes died very unheroic deaths at home in times of relative peace.
Sealing the Deal – Marriage Alliances, and Consolidation
Marriages were vitally important in the middle ages for uniting families in lasting alliances and consolidating power once peace had been made. Choosing the wrong alliance or failing to honor an agreed-upon marriage tie could have had dire consequences. Both Edward IV and Robb Stark ran into serious problems after all their success by getting married to the wrong people. Edward IV made an enemy of Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick, known as “The Kingmaker” because he did not follow Warwick’s advice in choosing a marriage alliance. When Robb Stark broke his oath with Walder Fray that he would wed one of Walder’s daughters, he similarly motivated this ally to switch sides in the war. The major difference between these two situations if of course that Henry IV walked away without being killed or deposed.
Finally, we will examine a more symbolic attempt at consolidating power. Joffrey’s use of a combination of his “father’s” Baratheon stag house sigil with that of his matrilineal Lannister lion reflects Henry VII’s creation of the Tudor Rose, in an attempt to symbolically quell the conflict between the York and Lancaster houses for good. While ostensibly symbols of unity, there is in both cases a less-than-subtle attempt to express domination. The Lancaster (red) portion of the Tudor Rose appears to visually swallow the York (white) portion. Thus this apparent symbol of peace and cooperation can also be seen as a victory monument to Henry’s Lancaster heritage over that of his York foe, Richard III.
While Joffrey’s new lion/stag sigil does have the practical bennefit of distinguishing his banners from those of Renly and Stannis (also stags), it also elevates the prestige of house Lannister beyond what would traditionally be attributed to the house of the queen mother. This is clearly meant to express the degree to which the Lannisters have a hold on the crown. Thus we see that both of these new sigils proclaim the triumph of a house, though they might appear to be expressions of shared heritage.
If we must select only one of these two conflicts to be the better analog for the Wars of the Roses, the War of the Five Kings is probably the better choice. It hits most of the story beats; a Lord Protector (Ned Stark) attempting to dethrone a king unfit to rule (Joffrey [Baratheon]); the Lord Protector is killed and his son takes his place in the rebellion; this same son crowns himself king, is betrayed by one of his allies due to an undesirable marriage alliance, and dies having never lost a battle in the civil war (Robb Stark); finally, the young king whose legitimacy is in question (Joffrey [Baratheon]) acquires his uncle as regent after his father’s death (Tyrion Lannister); when the boy is mysteriously taken out of the picture, his uncle is blamed for his murder and painted as a monster by his family.
As convincing an analog as this sequence of events is, it’s missing the devastating aspect of being a very long and disparate conflict. The Wars of the Roses is referred to in the plural for a reason; England was thrown into these bloody, feuding incidents for nearly four decades. In light of this, perhaps we should regard Robert’s Rebellion and the War of the Five Kings the same way, as one struggle for the Iron Throne involving multiple generations. The two taken together make a much better parallel for the War of the Roses than either do apart.
“Battles of the Wars of the Roses”, WarsoftheRoses webpage. 2009.
Christina Radish “George R.R. Martin Interview GAME OF THRONES”, Collider, April 17, 2011.
I also highly recommend the more visually-pleasing Horrible Histories version; indeed I would have used it here instead, but was unable find an online version that wasn’t pulling some ridiculous visual editing shenanigans in order to get past the BBC copyright sharks.
John Henry Haaren “Warwick the Kingmaker”,Famous Men of the Middle Ages, 1904.
“The War of the Five Kings” A Wiki of Ice and Fire. 2015.
I have here made an exception to my rule and have followed the HBO series canon only because the fate of Stannis Baratheon seems likely to be the same when it is eventually revealed in the Winds of Winter