Game of Thrones: the historian’s guide


Quick warning for those who haven’t seen the show, spoilers for this article run right the way up to and including the first episode of Season 4 – don’t say you weren’t told!

It’s hard not to recognise the historical influences on Game of Thrones, ranging from broader phases in English history like the War of the Roses to more specific events like William II’s death in a hunting accident in 1100 under dubious circumstances. But often George R R Martin lifts his events straight out of the history books with great flourish, and it’s worth going into detail about these moments to see why they make such compelling material.

There will undoubtedly be some missed (even since writing this article I think of the madness of George III and that of King Aerys Targaryen) but if you have your own  suggestion why not put them below?

1) Elia Martell’s children

One of the big introductions of Season 4 was that of Oberyn Martell, brother to the murdered Elia Martell (see the clip below for greater clarity). Elia Martell was the former wife of heir-apparent Prince Rhaegar Targaryen (killed during Robert’s Rebellion at the Battle of the Trident) and mother of Rhaenys and Aegon, who were but babes at the time of the Revolt, hidden in the seemingly impenetrable tower of Maegor’s Holdfast during the Sack of King’s Landing. Under orders from Tywin LannisterGregor Clegane and Amory Lorch scaled the fortress, stole into the chamber of the children and supposedly brutally slaying both infants alongside their mother, thus killing two descendants of the Mad King, Aerys. To bring this long exposition full circle, it was because of this act that Oberyn Martell turns up in King’s Landing with a vengeance.

The historical parallels are obvious – two claimants to the throne being hidden away in a tower before their supposed murder. The young Edward V and his brother Richard were, during the run up to Richard III’s famous reign, held in the Tower of London and later supposedly murdered. Chief among the suspects include Henry Stafford, the Duke of Buckingham, and James Tyrrell (a surprising coincidence with the similarity in name!) who was servant to the King and later confessed to the crime. Just like the events in Martin’s books, we may never know the full story of what happened in the Tower, but the resonance is clear – when power is contested, it is the innocent that are the first casualties.

2) Lyanna Stark 

It is arguable that the actions of Rhaegar Targaryen (capturing and running off with the famously beautiful Lyanna Stark (sister to dear old Ned)), started Robert’s Rebellion and in the process caused the bloody and still-ongoing events of ‘present day’ Westeros. Lyanna had, at that point, been betrothed to the famous Robert Baratheon, creating a large love quadrangle involving Lyanna, Robert, Rhaegar and Elia.

Replace Lyanna with ‘Helen of Troy’, Rhaegar Targaryen with ‘Paris’ and Robert Baratheon with ‘Menelaus’ and the comparisons are easy to find. Interestingly both Robert and Menelaus were famous for their bastard children through other women.  No doubt the series of classic poets responsible for bringing the Trojan War to life would be proud to see their work recreated in this fictional universe,  with both that war and the events in Westeros claiming thousands of lives and being suffused with mythical and magical qualities. Though Helen had the face to launch a thousand ships, Lyanna seemingly had the face to launch a series of bestselling novels and a huge fictional world.

3) Everything to do with The Wall

Big Wall in the North of an island, constructed in an ancient time to keep out an ancient race, which just became useful to keep out other races as it fell into decline over the course of a few thousand years, and those who live above it are usually seen as pagan or godless, wild things. Hadrian’s Wall or the Wall in the North? The two are almost synonymous. That said, Hadrian’s Wall may have been slightly more successful if it had been over 700 feet tall, and perhaps been a slightly more popular tourist attraction (see the video below for a bit of context).

Even so, both are examples of ‘extreme’ features, and the trope of ‘going over the wall’ into the unknown is one well used in many different forms across many different mediums. In the case of films like King Arthur or Centurion, Hadrian’s Wall was the distinguishing barrier between ‘civil’ and ‘savage’, showing the strength of the structure not only as a military barrier, but also as a cultural one, and is still seen in that light to this day.

4) The Battle of Blackwater Bay

One of the greatest visual moments of the second season of Game of Thrones comes with the destruction of Stannis Baratheon’s fleet in Blackwater Bay and the use of Wildfire supplied by a dummy ship (again, use the video for some sort of context). The naval tactic devised by Tyrion was, as it turned out, a classic technique employed by many naval forces through the centuries.

Fireships, as they were called, were particularly effective during the Spanish Armada. As the Spanish Forces rested at Calais in July 1588, the English fleet sent eight of its warships, filled with pitch, brimstone and gunpowder downstream into the closely packed Armada. What is surprisingly is that, unlike the Battle of Blackwater, no Spanish ship was destroyed, yet the real tactical damage came with the now scattered ships being unable to reconfigure before the rest of the English fleet attacked. A more appropriate comparison may instead be the Siege of Antwerp in 1585, where 800 Spaniards were killed by Dutch ships containing large gunpowder charges, perhaps just as vicious as the wildfire Tyrion employs. 

5) Cersei Lannister’s Regency

Joffrey’s minority serves as a perfect atmosphere in which Cersei Lannister can exercise her claim on the throne of Westeros; her steady alcoholism and attempts to dispute the newly festering influence of the Tyrells were captivating to watch through the last season. Maternal influence has had a huge impact on the nature of minorities throughout the last thousand years of the English throne, though perhaps never more so than in the case of Isabella of France, mother to Edward III.

It was Isabella that, conspiring with the Lord Mortimer, eventually had her husband Edward II imprisoned along with many of his more loyal followers, as she believed her son would be far easier to control. Edward II eventually died (under, yet again, suspicious circumstances, though the more famous being the insertion of a red hot poker into his anus would be an ending perfectly at home in George R R Martin’s world) leaving the throne in the hands of Edward III, a boy of only 15 at the time. Edward III then managed to undermine his mother’s authority and take control of the throne for himself at the age of 17. He went on to reign for 50 years and conquer huge swathes of French land – we can only see if the same fate awaits Joffrey in the episodes to come!



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