The (Hi)Story Behind Game of Thrones

If you clicked on this article (lucky you) that must mean that you like history.

Or at the very least, it means that it wasn’t your least favorite subject in high school.

Heck, who can blame you? History is fun! You want romance, action and adventure, backstabbing, and just any account of people behaving very badly, then a history book is your best friend.

I’m really not kidding.

I’m also not the only one. See, fantasy and sci-fi writers have always based their worlds on real history. Some more than others. And by those “Others” (that’s a Song of Ice and Fire pun, folks) I do mean one of the most popular and widely recognized modern fantasy writers.

George R. R. Martin.

Game of Thrones

HBO’s Game of Thrones was wildly popular. So popular that it created new fantasy fans out of people who would never have been caught dead reading fantasy before! It made many people’s careers and now whenever you watch a new show you can almost always go “Hey, it’s that guy/girl from Game of Thrones!”

And if you ever want to make a fan burst into tears (you know, because that’s a normal/non-villainous thing to do) just look at them with meaning and tell them “Hold the door.”

While even the biggest noob can tell you all about who has a better right to the Iron Throne, what few people know is how the writer, George R. R. Martin, originally came up with the idea.

For that, we have to look at English history!

A Game of Roses

A game of roses, a bloody and political conflict to inspire Game of Thrones.

Game of Thrones (and the book series A Song of Ice and Fire) was originally inspired by the War of the Roses, a civil war that lasted about forty years during the waning days of the Middle Ages in England. This was the time of knights in (sometimes shining) armor. It was also incredibly violent and full of just as much back-stabbing as the show.

Don’t believe me?

So our story begins when a king goes crazy. He wasn’t called the Mad King, but he might as well have been. He was Henry, the sixth of his name, king of the Normans and the Saxons, Lord of Ireland and Gascony, and king of England. And one day he just stopped talking.

Henry the sixth, otherwise known as the mad king.

Opportunists started popping up, including the Duke of York (King Henry, by the way, was descended from a Duke of Lancaster, and it is from this that we get the name of the two factions in the war: Lancaster and York). York tried to rebel until he was captured by Henry’s warlike queen and executed.

Now, what if I told you he was a serious northerner with a deep-rooted honest streak? And that his execution sparked off a series of wars and conflicts? Does he sound familiar yet?

York’s son, Edward, then took over the war and, only 18 years old, took over London and was crowned king. He never lost a battle, but almost lost it in the bedroom (sound like anyone else we know?). However, he survived a series of treasons by his top lords, was booted out and then came back and defeated all of his enemies.

Edward, prince of wales.

So, after a while, Edward died. His brother, Richard, took over, became king, and maaaaaybe murdered his nephews to do it. He was then defeated in battle by the last scion of the House of Lancaster (who, by the way, had spent the past few years over the sea, dodging assassins and raising drago—I mean, an army).

Richard's two nephews, possibly murdered by him.
Richard’s two nephews, possibly murdered by him.

If this still doesn’t sound familiar, then know that the guy who won the war, who was also named Henry (I swear to God, everyone in the War of the Roses was either named Henry, Edward, or Richard), won the war by marrying his cousin.
Now that’s the Game of Thrones we all know and love!

Battle of Bosworth Field, last battle of War of the Roses.
Battle of Bosworth Field, last battle of War of the Roses.

Who’s Who in Westeros

But who were all of these people based on?

Cersei, everyone’s favorite villain, was based off of Queen Elizabeth (different Queen Elizabeth, this one wasn’t a reigning monarch), who was the wife of the hard-drinking Edward IV (who inspired Robert Baratheon).

Just like Cersei, Elizabeth Woodville was a political force of nature and not someone to be crossed. She was also intensely devoted to her children. And, just like in the show, all of her children died. At least her sons. She had two daughters, one of whom was also named Elizabeth (because English history is fun like that), who survived.

Cersei Lannister, queen for far too long.
The real, and therefore worse Cersei, Elizabeth Woodville.

Teen heart-throb, Jon Snow, mostly came from Richard III, Elizabeth’s brother-in-law and one of the most controversial kings in English history. While he wasn’t a bastard like Jon, Richard might as well have been. He was the only dark-haired member of the family and, as shown by the fact that we just found his skeleton, he was also the only one to have cerebral palsy.

He also may have murdered his nephews to get the throne, but no one knows for certain.

There are two other things about Richard III that inspired Jon Show. He was probably a very chivalrous person (literally everyone talked about it in his time), and he was insanely popular in the North. Yes, just like in the show, there was an intense cultural divide between the North and South of England.

Beloved, incestuous, Jon Snow.
Much more hated than Jon Snow, Richard III.

Finally, there’s Tyrion Lannister, another fan favorite, who was probably based on the only non-royal on this list, William Hastings. Hastings was a court favorite and the best friend of Edward IV. They were such good friends that they even had the same mistress.

Just like Tyrion, William Hastings was a genius when it came to administration. And, much to everyone’s surprise, both Hastings and Tyrion were also very talented generals. Although the role of the “King’s Hand” is entirely fictional, that’s exactly what Hastings did for his friend and king.

Tyrion, the mastermind behind many of the games in Game of Thrones.
Propaganda of William Hastings, the inspiration for Tyrion Lannister.

And All The Rest

You could literally fill a book with where everyone else in the show came from in history, but I’ll just mention a few more.

There really was a “richest man in the kingdom” and while he wasn’t as brilliant as Tywin Lannister, he was just as ruthless and deadly. He was Richard Neville, Duke of Warwick, and known to history as “The Kingmaker.” Just like Tywin, he was the power behind the throne. While I think that Warwick should have been shot on the toilet by his own son, he was killed in battle against Edward IV, the man he had originally helped to gain the throne in the first place.

The richest man in the kingdom, Warwick.

Joffrey, everyone’s favorite villain, was based off of Edward of Westminster, the Prince of Wales on the Lancastrian side. Just like Joffrey, Prince Edward, in a letter written by a spy at the court of the French king, “talked of nothing but chopping heads.” Yeah, that sounds like Joffrey alright.

Everyone's most hated Game of Thrones character, Joffery Lannister.

Finally, there is everyone’s former favorite, Queen Daenerys Targaryen. While not a great match, because of the whole mass-murder and death thing, she was inspired by Henry Tudor, the man who ended up winning the war. While he didn’t have any dragons and didn’t murder a bunch of non-combatants when he took the throne, he was in exile across the sea for a long time and he did boink his cousin.

Daenerys Targaryen, the mad queen.

Of course, at the time, everyone was doing that. The nobility, like the super-rich of today’s world, made up about 1% of the population; so with dynastic marriages going every which way ‘til Sunday, you couldn’t really find anyone who wasn’t related to you in some way. It was also a great idea to marry your cousin if you might want a divorce later on.

And while we might wrinkle our noses at how icky Jon and Dany—I mean Henry and Elizabeth (daughter of Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville) are, we should remember that their marriage ended almost half a century of warfare.

The Future… and the past??

Finally, I’d like to take a look at the upcoming show, House of the Dragon. Coming soon to an HBO near you.

This show is going to be all about the Targaryen royal family and is based on the book Fire and Blood by George R. R. Martin.

But who are these platinum blonde jerks and where did George come up with them?

Meet the Targaryens

If you guessed English history then you win… nothing, you just happened to be right.

The Targaryens, the platinum blonde people with violet eyes and an affinity for 30-ton lizards, were inspired by two historical sources: the Normans and the Hapsburgs (you could also argue ancient Egypt, but I’m going with the royal house of Austria).

It’s pretty simple. The Normans were a group of former Vikings who settled northern France and started riding horses. And not only that, but they got really good at riding horses. With the invention of the stirrup, these guys became expert horsemen and (essentially) the first knights.

Replace that horse with a dragon, and you’ve got yourself a Targaryen.

Bayeux tapestry Norman knights
Bayeux tapestry Norman knights.

And with those big horses, they managed to win the Battle of Hastings in 1066 against a larger army and conquer England. Beforehand, the duke of Normandy had been known as William the Bastard. Now he was known as William the Conqueror.

That’s one way to get rid of a bad nickname.

And then there’s the Habsburgs. How did they inspire the Targaryens? What a great question, you convenient rhetorical device. The answer, as always, is simple…

They really liked boinking their siblings.

I mean, they really liked it! While incestuous marriages were nothing new, these monarchs of Austria (who also ruled over most of Europe in their heyday) kept at it and made it a state practice over many generations.

Now, in the books and in the show, incest leads to homicidal madness in about half of the children of such unions. In real life, as evidenced by the Habsburg family, it did lead to insanity but also so much more. The Habsburgs also suffered from epilepsy, lack of fertility, early death due to complications in their body’s development, and mandibular prognathism. If you don’t know what that last one is, don’t worry.

The beautiful Habsburg chin, bred from incest.

It’s called the Habsburg chin and it is real gross.

Don’t ever boink your siblings, guys.

One last fun fact

So, the title of the book Fire and Blood is in reference to House Targaryen’s words, kind of their family’s motto, which makes sense because, you know, they really like both dragons and murdering people.

Makes sense to me.

Fire and Blood book cover.

Family mottos are actually real and actually do date back to the latter part of the Middle Ages and the beginning of the Renaissance in Europe. They were usually reserved for the nobility and they were always in Latin, because why not. My family’s motto is fortiter et fideliter, “boldly and faithfully.”

The Habsburgs also had one.

 It is A.E.I.O.U., or spelled out as Austriae est imperare orbi universe. “All the world is subject to Austria.”

I guess with a chin like that, it’s hard to be subtle.

But if they’d ever had dragons, then you can bet the farm it would have been Fire and Blood!

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