12 Historical Influences on ‘Game of Thrones’

The seventh season of Game of Thrones is fast approaching and the dynastic struggle for the Iron Throne of Westeros is coming to a close. When George R. R. Martin came up with the ideas for his A Song of Ice and Fire series he was reading about the War of the Roses, a medieval war between two factions for the English throne. The history and geography of the British Isles (as well elements from European history) has been a major influence on the book series and obviously the TV adaptation and being an Englishman with a history degree let us look at some of the events that influenced the popular fantasy franchise.

The Ice Age

During the Ice Age, Britain was attached to mainland Europe and early humans crossed into the land via this land bridge. Fossilized footprints in Norfolk provide evidence that early humans were in Britain 800,000 years ago and modern humans have been in Britain for 30,000 years and settled to become the Celts. The land bridge flooded at the end of the Ice Age – making Britain into an island.

This is similar to how the First Men settled into Westeros. The First Men crossed a land bridge known as The Arm of Dorne and they soon fought the residents: the Children of the Forest. The Children of the Forest resort to using magic to break the Arm of Dorne to stop the flow of men and creating the Stepstone Islands.

The History of the Kings of Britain – Geoffrey of Monmouth

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Geoffrey of Monmouth was a 12th-century cleric from Wales who was famous for writing Historia Regum Britanniae (The History of the Kings of Britain) – a chronicle of the history of Britain – from the settlement of Brutus of Troy to Julius Caesar’s invasion of Britain – to the Legendary King Arthur. Whilst dismissed now as historical writing it was an important work during the Middle Ages.

Before men arrived in Britain in The History of the Kings of Britain, the land was dominated by giants who Brutus defeated to claim domination over the land. This is similar to the history of Westeros, because before the First Men arrived Giants and the Children of the Forest and the First Men immediately went to war with this mystical creatures before a peace was brokered.

The Punic Wars

During the early rise of the Roman Republic, it became a rival to another empire across the Mediterranean Sea: Carthage. The nations entered into a series of wars known as the Punic Wars that lasted 112 years and ended with the defeat of Carthage. This was a war famous for the rise and fall general and statesman Hannibal Barca who crossed the Alps and nearly defeated the young Roman Republic.

The Punic Wars mirror series of conflicts between the glowing Valyrian Freehold and the established Ghiscari Empire. Over the course of five wars known as the Ghiscari Wars, the Valyrians were able to defeat and conquer the old Empire. The wars started when the Ghiscaris feared the rise of the Valyrians who discovered dragons and by the time war ended up spanning to the Summer Sea, the Basilisk Isles, and Sothoryos as well as Essos.

Caligula

The Roman Empire was famous for having some batshit insane rulers and the 3rd Emperor of the Roman Empire – Caligula was arguably the most insane and cruel of them all. Caligula was a young man of 24 when he became Emperor and ruled for less than four years, being murdered by his bodyguards.

Caligula was the product of incest, his parents were cousins and were famous for being a cruel and sadistic rule. Caligula was noted for having a violent streak and his alleged crimes included ordering a section of the audience at games he was presiding at to be eaten by wild beasts – sleeping with other men’s wives and bragging about it and having a statue of himself erected in the Temple of Jerusalem. He was also accused of committing incest with his sisters and prostituting them – turning the palace into a brothel and made his horse into a consul.

Joffrey Baratheon has often been compared to Caligula and his style of rule: Joffrey was really the product of an incestuous relationship between twin brother and sister Jaime and Cersei Lannister, he enjoyed violence and humiliating people – including his betrothed Sansa Stark – and ordered massacres for the slightest infraction. In the books it was revealed that Joffrey killed a pregnant cat when he was a young child and when he presented the kittens to his parents King Robert punched him so hard that he knocked out some of Joffrey’s teeth: whilst in the TV show Joffrey sexually humiliated two prostitutes when presented to him as a gift from his uncle Tyrion and murdered another with his crossbow.

Hadrian’s Wall

Spanning 74 miles from coast-to-coast in Northern England Hadrian’s Wall was constructed in 122 AD and is seen as the boundary between the Roman Empire and the Pict tribes that dominated Northern England and Scotland. The misconception is that the wall was built to prevent the barbarians from invading Roman territory but most modern theories are that the wall was built as a piece of power projection to people on both sides of the border.

The comparison in Game of Thrones is very obvious: The Wall stretches 300 miles across the North of Westeros and is 8,000 years old. According to legend the famous Stark lord Bran the Builder led the construction of the war – which was later fused with magic by the Children of the Forest. The purpose of the wall is to prevent another invasion of the White Walkers that attacked during The Long Night. The Wall also kept out the wildings from entering the Seven Kingdom. Tyrion Lannister did theorize that like Hadrian’s Wall, The Wall of Westeros was also an attempt at power projection and everyone south of it were the lucky ones: however, the events in the novels and TV show have proven him wrong.

The influence of The Wall in Game of Thrones has gone full circle because it lead to this parody when Donald Trump ran for president.

The Fall of the Roman Empire

The fall of the Western Roman Empire is infamous – seen as the start of the Dark Ages in Europe as many of the empire’s territories broke away and were invaded by other nations and tribes. In Game of Thrones, the equivalent of the Roman Empire was the Valyrian Freehold – conquering much of Western Essos; the freehold had a dramatic fall after a natural disaster known as the Doom of Valyria.

The Fall of the Western Roman Empire was a long process whilst the Doom of Valyria was a sudden event, but the aftermath of both events are similar. After the break-up of the Roman Empire, Italy became a collection of city states and in Western Essos there are the nine Free Cities. One of them, Braavos is canal city like Venice. Western Essos fell into a period known as the Century of Blood – where the Dothraki cross the Bone Mountains and pillage the remains of the Freehold: like the Huns raiding and invading Italy.

Figures in real figures like Justinian I – the Byzantine Emperor attempted to reunite the Western Empire with the Byzantine Empire and tried to conquer Italy. The Dragonlord Aurion tried to reconquer what was left of the Valyria Peninsula: but his expedition ended in disaster with his army never being seen again – a little like the legendary Ninth Legion of Rome who attempted to invade Scotland.

The Saxon Invasion

By the 5th century, the Western Roman Empire was on its knees and the island of Britain was being invaded by invaders from the East: The Saxons. The invasion ended up forcing the Romans to abandon the island and the Saxons ended up settling in England and mix with the population – hence why the English are known as Anglo-Saxons. Whilst England was settled the Celtic fringes (Scotland, Wales, Cornwall, and Ireland) were able to resist the invaders.

The Saxon Invasion is similar to the Andal Invasion – an event that happens 6,000 years before the events of Game of Thrones. The Andals were from Northern Essos and they fledge their homeland to avoid the advancing Valyrian Freehold. The Andals were able to conquer Westeros through a combination of an advanced military technology and tactical marriage alliances: most people in Westeros have a mix of Andal and First Men blood in them. However, the Andals were unable to invade the North and their blood is more akin to the First Men and their culture is different from the rest of the Seven Kingdoms.

The similarities are even starker because one of the Germanic people who took part in the Saxon invasion were called the Angles. A possible influence for George R. R. Martin or a happy coincidence?

The Heptarchy Age

After the Saxon Invasion England entered into the Heptarchy Age where the territory of England was split into seven kingdoms. This period lasted from the 5th century to the 9th century. The main kingdoms were Wessex, East Anglia, Mercia and Northumbria with Essex, Kent and Sussex also being important. Whilst England was split into seven kingdoms, there were more petty kingdoms and the period saw a great period of change which ended with Wessex unifying the kingdoms into England.

As fans of Game of Thrones know Westeros was seven separate kingdoms. These were The Stormlands, The Mountain and Vale, the Rivers and Isles, The Kingdom of the Rock, Dorne, The Reach and The North. Like in England, the Seven Kingdoms vied for power and entered into diplomacy and alliances through marriage.

The Norman Conquest

Tapisserie de Bayeux – Scène 57 : La mort d’Harold

Many school children in England have to learn about the Norman Conquest, 1066 and all that. England entered into a succession crisis after Edward the Confessor died and numerous contenders vied for the throne. Harold Godwinson was crowned King but ended up having to fight off two invasions, the first from Harald Hardrada of Norway, the second from William of Normandy which resulted in William becoming the King of England and many French-speaking Normans becoming lords in England.

In Westeros, Aegon of House Targaryen invaded the continent from the island of Dragonstone with a small force of a 1,600 soldiers, his sister-wives and three dragons. Within three years Aegon had conquered most of Westeros and started his dynasty.

The similarities are striking: both England and Westeros were invaded by foreign lords who spoke a different language and had a dubious claim to the throne, yet with a fairly small army these lords took over a whole nation. William I and Aegon I were also given the name The Conqueror after their invasion. Both brought new power structures into their new lands. They even founded important landmarks after the invasions: the Tower of London was founded in 1066 and after Aegon took over Westeros he founded the capital city King’s Landing with the Red Keep in the center of the city.

The Anarchy

Between 1135 to 1153 England entered into a dynastic civil war known as the Anarchy. This succession crisis started after Henry I died without a male heir, leaving the throne to his daughter Matilda. However, Henry I’s nephew, Stephen of Blois seized the throne and was crowned King Stephen I. During this period the throne swapped between the two and England’s neighbors used the chaos as an opportunity to seize territory. The conflict ended with Stephen being declared king but had to name Henry Plantagenet as his heir.

The civil war the Dance of the Dragons was clearly influenced by The Anarchy. The Dance of the Dragons was a succession crisis after King Viserys I named his daughter Rhaenyra as his heir but she was overthrown by half-brother Aegon, being crowned Aegon II, and his mother Alicent Hightower was the power behind the throne. The civil war was a devastating conflict as dragons battled over the skies of Westeros and many Targaryens and their dragons died as Rhaenyra and Alicent’s children both sitting on the Iron Throne. Rhaenyra won the war but it pyrrhic victory for the Targaryen dynasty – the war killed most of the dragons leading to their extinction and the eventual overthrow of the Targaryens.

The Black Dinner

One of the most infamous events in Game of Thrones was the Red Wedding where the Freys and Boltons betrayed Robb Stark during the wedding of his uncle Edmure Tully to Rosin Tully. The action led to the death of Robb, his wife, and mother, with Edmure becoming a hostage and the Boltons and the Freys becoming the Wardens of The North and The Riverlands respectively – ending the secession of these lands, at least for a time.

This event was influenced by the Black Dinner in 1440. During this period Scotland was ruled by James II, who was 10 at the time and many factions were vying for power within his court. Sir William Crichton, the Lord Chancellor and Alexander Livingston feared Clan Douglas was going to be a threat to their power. They lured the 16-year-old William Douglas, 6th Earl of Douglas and his younger brother to a dinner of reconciliation with the king at Edinburgh Castle. After presenting the Douglases a Black Bulls head – a symbol of death – they were taken out and after a mock trial executed.

The War of the Roses

George R. R. Martin was famously influenced by War of the Roses when writing A Song of Ice and Fire series having studied the subject and there are many direct parallels between the real and fictional conflicts.

The War of the Roses was a dynastic conflict in England that lasted for 30 years been the Houses of York and Lancaster – seeing the throne of England swap between the two factions. The main contenders for the thrones were Henry VI and Edward IV and later Richard III and Henry Tutor.

One of the most important figures in the conflict Margaret of Anjou – a French noblewoman Henry VI married to ensure peace with France after the Hundred Years Wars acting as a de facto ruler of England because of Henry VI’s lapses into mental breakdowns. Margaret earned a reputation for being fierce, aggressive and powerful, and most important of all defensive of her son, Edward of Westminster, the Prince of Wales. Margaret was one of the major influences on the character Cersei Lannister. Henry VI’s mental instability mirrors King Aerys II, AKA the Mad King, a ruler known for his incompetence.

When Edward IV seized the throne he foolishly married for love – marrying Elizabeth Woodville, a widow, and a mid-ranking aristocrat. Due to Elizabeth Woodville’s elevation to Queen Consort her family were given titles and became incredibly influential within Edward IV’s court; just like The Lannisters who held many important and vital positions, from Robert Baratheon’s squire to Hand of the King, the second highest position of power in Westeros.

The TV show is entering its final two seasons with Cersei becoming Queen of the Seven Kingdom and the exiled Daenerys Targaryen returning from to Westeros to claim the crown. There are similarities with real history: Richard III seized the throne of England after his brother died and allegedly killed his nephews and rightful heirs (many historians believed he did give the order). Richard III claimed his nephews were illegitimate to justify his claim – an issue that dogged Cersei’s children and the justification for Stannis Baratheon’s claim.

Richard III’s reign lasted two years because Henry Tutor – exiled to France was able to raise an army to invade England and defeated Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth. Daenerys was the exiled daughter of King Aerys II and the trailers hint that she is going to have a major battle with the Lannisters.

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Kieran Freemantle
I am a film critic/writer based in the UK, writing for Entertainment Fuse, Rock n Reel Reviews, UK Film Review and Meniscus Sunrise. I have worked on film shoots. I support West Ham and Bath Rugby. Follow me on Twitter @FreemantleUK.
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