Game of Thrones vs. Wars of the Roses

by Harry McKenna

L2 undergraduate

HBO’s Game of Thrones has captivated the imagination of millions worldwide with its gripping storylines and compelling characters. However, few realise the historical inspiration behind Game of Thrones, with much of the show, whether it be the setting, the characters or the storyline, mirroring the Wars of the Roses.

As Nick Hodges notes, the inspiration for the continent of Westeros, the predominant setting for the story, is rooted in the British Isles, albeit having been ‘reshaped as a single great continent’. For example, Hodges points out that the influence for the renowned Seven Kingdoms of Westeros ‘can be traced back to the seven Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms of mainland Britain in the early middle ages’. Furthermore, the inspiration for the ‘most identifiable landmark’ in Westeros, the wall, can be ascribed to Hadrian’s Wall, built by the Romans in Northern England in the 2ndn style=”font- Century AD to repel the Picts. As George RR Martin has stated, Hadrian’s Wall was constructed as a ‘defensive measure’ to draw the ‘boundaries of the empire’ and prevent the perceived ‘wilderness, madness, savagery’ of Scotland from encroaching upon Roman civilisation. This was the initial reason for the construction of the Wall in Westeros, with it being built to repel the ‘unimaginable evils’ and savagery beyond so that the relative peace and civilisation to the South could be preserved.

Game of Thrones, as Dan Jones has said, pays ‘homage to…the Wars of the Roses’, being inspired by the years 1450-1485. This resemblance to the Wars of the Roses is clear from the way Game of Thrones portrays the Stark and Lannister families feuding viciously over the throne of Westeros, which is predicated on the blood feud that lasted several generations between the Yorks and the Lancasters over the English crown until the ascendency of the Tudor dynasty. Jones also notes that with the Wars of the Roses there was factionalism and personal feuding as part of the Lancaster-Yorkist rivalry, which is mirrored in Game of Thrones with the rivalry present between the Lannisters and Dorne, for example. As Jones discusses, the Wars of the Roses were marked by chaos, colourful personalities, constant reversals in fortune for each family,  betrayal, pragmatism, love and sex, and considerable violence – all of which Game of Thrones has in abundance.

Jones states that the characters in Game of Thrones are based upon real life individuals from the Wars of the Roses, but that George RR Martin has cut them ‘loose from history’, meaning the characters are forming their own paths whilst retaining many of the qualities that make them recognisable reincarnations of historical figures. For instance, Tywin Lannister, the uncompromising leader of House Lannister, has been compared to Edward I. Jamie Adair is convinced this is the most suitable historical comparison because, like Tywin Lannister, Edward was not afraid of ‘doing devious, the ends justify the means’ actions, and hence was not ashamed of having ordered immoral and evil things. One such act from Tywin Lannister is the way in which he ordered the rape of Princess Elia Martell and the murder of her young children in order to end the tyrannical Targaryen dynasty and to ensure he was not on the losing side of Robert Baratheon’s rebellion. Edward I on the other hand was willing to brutally subdue rebellions in Scotland and Wales to uphold his royal authority and to ensure that his position was secured. Furthermore, as Jones has identified, both can be characterised as ‘relentless in their pursuit of power [and] authority’, whilst also being incensed that their children’s political and military failings meant that they were not of the same calibre as them.

There are also similarities between Cersei Lannister and Margaret of Anjou (wife of Henry VI) who, like Cersei, was a formidable individual, as she wanted to assert authority over the Kingdom and her subjects as though she were a male ruler. As Jamie Adair asserts, Margaret was ‘willing to go to any lengths…to rule the country and protect her children’s rights’ and wellbeing. An example of this is the way Cersei starts a civil war in Westeros when she has Ned Stark incarcerated after he dared to question the legitimacy of her son Joffrey, and by implication his right to rule as King. Another similarity Cersei shares with Margaret is that her husband was incompetent at governing, meaning that Cersei, like Margaret, can be seen to assume an advisory role for her son and had an integral role in the governing of the nation. This is because Robert Baratheon was very adept at seizing the throne but instead of governing indulged in lecherous behaviour and drinking. However, there were other strong women in the Wars of the Roses, such as Margaret Beaufort, who were also similar to Cersei in that their ‘root to power’ was ‘either gaining or preserving power for their sons’.

Finally, due to the striking parallels between Game of Thrones and the Wars of the Roses it is possible Game of Thrones will culminate in a similar fashion to the Wars of the Roses. It is possible to suggest that the finale of Game of Thrones will witness the Targaryen’s reclaiming the throne of Westeros after having been forced into political exile for many decades. This, would be very similar to the culmination of the Wars of the Roses, when the Lancastrians reclaimed the throne of England through Henry Tudor, after having faced defeat and slaughter at the hands of the first Yorkist king, Edward IV.

Season 8 of Game of Thrones premiers in 2018.

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