The Real Game of Thrones – The History Behind the Hit Series

Game-Of-Thrones-Clash-of-Kings.pngThe runaway success of HBO’s Game of Thrones may have surprised the critics, but George R.R Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire has been gathering loyal fans for almost seventeen years.

While Westeros is based on many different aspects of medieval England, George has always said the the Wars of the Roses are closest to his story. The dynastic war lasted for 30 years with kings, queens and princes struggling for power, but it took a princess and an exile to end the bloodshed and unite the Houses of Plantagenet and York.

Jamie Adair’s History Behind Game of Thrones website explores the Monarchs and key players of the Wars of The Roses, and how they may have influenced the characters we love and loathe from Game of Thrones.



Choosing_the_Red_and_White_RosesHow did you become interested in the Wars of the Roses?

JA: I was actually fascinated by the Tudors before I became interested in the Wars of the Roses. I kept reading earlier (chronologically) because I was trying to answer the question, “Was Henry VIII a sociopath?” I used to live across the street from a bookstore. I stumbled upon some popular history books on the Princes in the Tower, and the mystery lured me in. I had to know, Did Richard III murder the Princes in the Tower?

I love the mystery, betrayal, backstabbing drama, and larger-than-life characters of the Wars of the Roses. The events are more exciting than any soap opera and they’re real.



Battle_of_Barnet_retouchedWas there a particular event in the Song of Ice and Fire books that inspired you to start researching events that may have inspired George R.R Martin?

JA: The similarities between the War of the Five Kings, in which Robb Stark rebels, really intrigued me. I kept thinking it couldn’t be a coincidence that Robb Stark and Edward IV were both teenagers leading armies against unjust rulers.

Is there any particular historical figures that stood out to you when reading A Song of Ice and Fire?

JA: Hmmm… that’s a tough one. There are quite a few. GRRM often mixes and matches his historical “borrowings” (to use his word). Most characters are hybrids and composites – not one-to-one replicas.

However, here are some influences I noticed right away: Theon Greyjoy and George, Duke of Clarence; Ned Stark and Richard of York and in some ways, Tywin Lannister and John Clifford (“the Butcher”). However, Tywin and Clifford gets into a big spoiler for people who haven’t read the books so I don’t want to say too much about that one.


margaret_anjouGeorge is often lauded for writing strong female characters. What particular women in history do you think may have inspired him?

JA: I think GRRM draws from these women:

Edward IV’s sister Margaret of Burgundy was a relentless thorn in the Tudor side. You can almost hear her swearing vengeance after the Tudors killed her brother Richard III and, possibly, her nephews (the Princes in the Tower). Margaret participated in a man’s world of diplomacy, espionage, war, and trade. I think GRRM asked himself, “What would Margaret, the adult Tudor troublemaker who dabbled in a man’s world, be like as a child?” and then out came the tomboy Arya, who lives to cause the Lannisters trouble and dreams of revenge.

Margaret of Anjou, the wife of Edward’s vanquished predecessor. Margaret was an imperious, scheming queen who raised an allegedly illegitimate sociopathic son (Edward of Lancaster). I think GRRM may have based Cersei’s relationship with Joffrey and her illegitimate children on the dark rumors about Margaret of Anjou. (BTW, I was blind to this initially and it was only after readers noted the similarity that I could see it.) However, Cersei also has a lot in common with Elizabeth Woodville.

Edward’s mother, Cecily Neville was a strong matriarch who might have urged Edward to fight on in the early days after his father died. You can almost hear her warning Edward all of his siblings would be in danger if he did not defeat the Lancastrians. I think she may have inspired Catelyn Stark who was a key advisor to Robb Stark but also willing to betray him for the sake of her other children.


Sansa-Stark-HBGOT.pngNot all of George’s women take control of their destiny. Sansa Stark, who infuriates readers and television viewers alike, is a perfect example of women being in the complete power of their fathers, husbands, or guardians. How close is a character like Sansa in truth to a daughter of the middle ages?

JA: Sansa drives me crazy, but I keep trying to remind myself it’s not fair to expect her to be exceptional (like Elizabeth Woodville, Margaret of Anjou, and Cecily Neville).

In my opinion, Sansa has a lot in common with a typical noble’s daughter in the middle ages. I believe she may be partially based on Elizabeth of York, Henry VIII’s mother.  In the middle ages, “princesses” (the term didn’t really exist) were used as diplomatic bargaining chips to cement alliances.

In 1470, Elizabeth was supposed to marry Warwick’s nephew (George Neville, Duke of Bedford). After Warwick died, Edward threw out this betrothal. Then, as part of the 1475 French peace agreement, Elizabeth was betrothed to the Dauphin Charles. It was to the point where she was dressed in the French style and had her own household partially funded by France. She was treated like a queen-in-waiting and addressed as “Madame la Dauphine.” But, Louis XI backed out of the match in 1483. For a while, Richard III might have wanted to marry Elizabeth–even though she was his niece. Then, finally, Elizabeth Woodville and Margaret Beaufort arranged for Elizabeth to marry Henry Tudor (the future Henry VII).

As a result of all of this, Elizabeth, not unlike Sansa, probably grew up being obsessed with becoming queen. Queenship would be the ultimate, and perhaps only, prize for an ambitious noble lady or princess. However, like Sansa, this is a case of “watch what you wish for” since Elizabeth became queen but, according to chroniclers, had little power and was very much under her mother-in-law’s control.


dany_HBGOTRather than compare Daenerys Targaryen to a fighting Queen like Margaret of Anjou, you draw an interesting parallel between Daenerys and Henry VII. What do you think makes Daeny more like the first Tudor King than any of the famous “She-Wolves” of the middle ages?

JA: Ha. Well, I don’t think my post on Daenerys is one of my best. I know there are other influences in Daenerys, but I’m not sure who yet.

I almost compared Daenerys to Margaret Beaufort – I really liked the idea of GRRM giving Margaret “her due” so to speak. After all, Margaret’s claim was just as strong as that of Henry VII and Margaret orchestrated Henry’s overthrow of Richard III.

What stopped me from drawing this comparison was that I realized that Daenerys was (1) across the narrow sea living in exile like Henry and (2) she was raising a mercenary army. (Henry hired mercenaries, with French help, when he invaded in 1483.)

I do think it is possible that Daenerys shares traits with Boudica, but I haven’t revisited Daenerys yet. Also, Dany certainly has the Arthurian dragonlord legend in her, which seems appropriate given the Tudor attempts to bolster their lineage by claiming descent from Arthur.


jon-snow-HBGOTJon Snow is probably of most loved characters of A Song of Ice and Fire. Most of the Kings of England had at least some illegitimate issue and some were put in positions of political power, like Henry VIII’s first son, Henry Fitzroy. Are there any illegitimate sons of kings that you think may have inspired his character?

Hmmm… I haven’t looked at Jon Snow yet. But, William the Conqueror was the illegitimate son of Robert I (Duke of Normandy) and his family wasn’t very happy that he was a bastard. After William’s invasion, he had to quash Northern rebellions (the Harrying of the North). Jon Snow’s interaction with the North wasn’t quite as extreme. My nutty theory is that Jon and Daenerys will get married and re-unite Westeros.

Nerdalicious note: We’re somewhere between that theory and the theory that they are related and that Jon’s real parents are Rhaegar Targaryen and Lyanna Stark.



joffrey-baratheon-HGBOTAnd one of A Song of Ice and Fire’s most hated characters is the boy-King Joffrey Baratheon. You have compared his mother Cersei to Margaret of Anjou, do you think Joffrey has some similarities to Margaret’s son Edward of Westminster?

Absolutely! Margaret of Anjou indulged Edward of Westminster and encouraged his bloodthirsty nature from an early age. At thirteen, a Milanese ambassador reported, Edward “already talks of nothing but of cutting off heads or making war, as if he had everything in his hands or was the god of battle.”


What would you recommend as a good introductory book to The Wars of the Roses?

JA: That’s a tough one. I have a page I started with some ideas, Books on Wars of the Roses,  but people could maybe start with Michael Hicks’ Wars of the Roses (2010) which I think is excellent. Other books that read like a novel might include Alison Weir’s The Princes in the Tower, which lots of Ricardians hate, Paul Murray Kendall’s Warwick the Kingmaker, and one book close to GRRM’s heart, The Last Plantagenets by Thomas Costain. Apparently, GRRM has a hardcover version of this and Costain’s other Plantagenet books on his shelf.


Is there anything else you’d like to add?

JA: Thanks to everyone who has left comments on my blog with ideas about the historical basis for characters or events. I love reading them! Often people see parallels I miss and many readers know areas of history I know nothing about so I learn a lot from these comments. Keep them coming!


Jamie_AdairJamie Adair is a Boston-based technical writer who loves the Wars of the Roses and medieval history. She has a degree in History and a degree in Rhetoric and Professional Writing.

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