‘We watch. We listen. And we remember. The past is already written. The ink is dry.’ So speaks the Three-eyed Raven to Bran Stark in a trailer for HBO’s eagerly awaited sixth season of Game of Thrones. In many respects the Raven’s words, resonantly intoned by Max von Sydow, capture the essence of the series’ enduring appeal. For all of its fantastical elements – dragons, White Walkers, magic – viewers watch and listen in their millions largely because of George R. R. Martin’s flair for taking inspiration from the past and conjuring a world that bears an uncanny resemblance to our own.
Pick practically any period in world history, and precedents for the characters and action can be found in abundance. The Dothraki, for instance, are reminiscent of early nomadic horse-riding peoples, like the Mongols, Huns, and various Native American tribes, while the fierce, seafaring nation of the Iron Islands, the Ironborn, align with the Vikings. Pick any location in Westeros or Essos and the fictional geography maps onto terrains our ancestors inhabited. Thus, the Great Pyramid of Meereen evokes ancient Egypt, and the labyrinthine canals of Braavos nod to the watery geography of Renaissance Venice.
The City of Meereen (copyright HBO)
But as any fan will know, the series owes its greatest debt to the history of medieval Britain, especially the protracted civil conflict known as The Wars of the Roses. In the rival Houses of Stark, Lannister, Baratheon, and Targaryen, there are clear reverberations of the Houses of York and Lancaster, the rival dynasties that vied for control of the English throne between 1455 and 1487. Dogged by a torrent of regicide and appalling battles, such as the bloody devastation at Towton, where 28,000 men died amidst a snow-storm befitting Winterfell, this epoch supplies the heart-stoppingly brutal, but realistic violence that has made the show so controversial and absorbing for viewers.
Game of Thrones takes inspiration from the late fifteenth-century dynastic wars
To temper the raw physicality of the fictitious hostilities, the Wars of the Roses also furnishes Game of Thrones with a tangled web of political intrigues and betrayals. Aspects of Tyrion Lannister’s story parallel Richard III’s as he stands accused of attempting to murder young Bran Stark in a tower at Winterfell. Later, he is condemned (unjustly) for murdering his nephew, Joffrey, and in a brilliant twist of the tower-murder motif, flees Westeros after putting a crossbolt through his father, Tywin, in The Tower of the Hand. Like Richard III, Tyrion also exhibits Machiavellian behaviour. His love of books and instinctive ability to read people makes him adept at manipulating events and influencing others. While Tyrion uses this skill to help others or save his own skin, other characters, like Petyr Baelish, rise to power through fiendishly brilliant manouverings.
Cersei Lannister is equally adept at exploiting others to advance her cause. In this, and her irrepressible devotion to her children, she bears a striking resemblance to Margaret of Anjou, the consort of ‘mad king’ Henry VI. Like Cersei, Margaret engaged in the male-dominated politicking at court and was vexed by rumours of her son’s illegitimacy. In an attempt to strengthen her family’s position, she was forced to negotiate a number of strategic alliances, the most incredible being the marriage of her son, Prince Edward, to Anne Neville, daughter of the earl of Warwick, Richard Neville, the man who had helped to depose Henry VI several years earlier in 1461.
Cersei Lannister (copyright HBO)
Margaret of Anjou in British Library Royal 15 E VI, f. 2v
Perhaps it’s Game of Thrones’s capacity for capturing the essence of real life dramas, but not slavishly following them through to their historic conclusions that leaves viewers thirsty for more. We might hazard a guess that Daenerys Targaryan will return across the ‘narrow sea’ to claim the Iron Throne, just as her dragon-bearing counterpart Henry VII did when he crossed the Channel to claim the English throne from Richard III, but with myriad of historical machinations, murders, and power plays to draw on, it’s more likely that George Martin, David Benioff and Daniel Brett Weiss, have plenty of twists in store for us inspired by the incredible dramas of the past.
A shorter version of this article was published as A History Buff’s Guide to Game of Thrones in The Big Issue (issue 1201, 18 April 2016). Online Feature here.
On 26 October 2013 I had the honour of presenting a paper at BBC Radio 3’s Free Thinking Festival. The theme of the festival was ‘Who’s in Control?’. Below is a transcript of the paper that I gave. It can be listened to, or downloaded as podcast, here.
The TV series Game of Thrones, based on George R. R. Martin’s Song of Fire and Ice novels has taken the world by storm. Following the political intrigues and battles of several noble families wrestling for control of the kingdom of Westeros, the series’ heady mix of sex, violence, betrayal, and chivalry, has captured the hearts of all who love a good old yarn about politically astute dwarves, bearded men brandishing swords, and women in floaty dresses riding dragons.
Quite incredibly, the inspiration for Martin’s epic fantasy is a real medieval civil war known as The Wars of the Roses; even the dragons of Daenerys Targaryen, draw upon the heraldic devices of Henry VII, the first Tudor king, with whom she’s partially aligned. Just as Martin looked to the past and reshaped the events he found there to appeal to a twenty-first-century audience, so people living through the fifteenth-century war used the stories of the past to discuss power and promote peace among their contemporaries.
In November 1457, John Hardyng, a 79 year-old veteran of Agincourt, made his way from Lincolnshire to London to deliver a unique account of British history to King Henry VI. The huge book that Hardyng carried provided details of every monarch that had ruled Britain, real and mythical. Opening with a gripping account of ancient queens attempting to rule independently of their kings, and aggressive giants dominating a land racked with civil war, Hardyng composed the text in response to the weak governance, increased lawlessness, and aristocratic factionalism that triggered the Wars. Using the lens of historical narrative to focus on Henry VI’s lack of control, Hardyng hoped that the good and bad examples of kingship in his book, and the historic desolation caused by civil unrest, would inspire the king to reassert his authority and restore peace.
The unique manuscript of the Chronicle Hardyng wrote for Henry VI. British Library MS Lansdowne 204, f. 168v.
Composed in the twilight years of Henry’s reign before Yorkist propaganda rewrote history to legitimise Edward IV’s seizure of the throne, Hardyng’s text offers a unique snapshot of how men of middling rank like him, perceived kingship and the exercise of sovereign power on the cusp of wars. Though the end of this real-life Game of Thrones with the death of Richard III and the accession of Henry Tudor has traditionally dominated the popular imagination, it’s the origins of the wars that reveal the most about how late medieval people understood power and who was in control.
Hardyng, like other Englishmen, believed that kings were divinely-appointed to protect the interests of their people and kingdom. Ordinarily kings could only be judged by God, but in exceptional circumstances, when a monarch neglected the common good, the voice of the people could be viewed as the voice of God and a king could be ‘unkinged’ by his subjects, as Richard II had been in 1399. Traditionally the nobility provided wise counsel to the king and he made judgements based on that advice and his own personal will. However, the unique circumstances of Henry VI’s reign forced the Lancastrian government to redefine how royal power worked on more than one occasion.
The trouble with Henry VI’s reign started before he was born. His father, Henry V, was a strong ruler, who governed effectively and pleased his people with great military victories during the Hundred Years War. When he died prematurely at 35, the dual monarchy of England and France passed to the nine-month old son that he had never seen. A council made up of family members and other nobles, similar to the small council set up to advise Joffrey Baratheon in the Game of Thrones, governed for the baby king until he was able to rule independently.
Henry V (National Portrait Gallery)
The council took great care to uphold the notion that true power resided in the king alone, despite the fact that he couldn’t articulate his own wishes. Little Henry’s presence was required for all formal acts and public ceremonies to legitimise decisions made in his name.
Unfortunately, the length of Henry’s minority meant that some of the king’s relatives grew rather too accustomed to the power that came from managing Henry’s sovereignty and, like Tyrion and Cersei Lannister in Martin’s fantasy, found themselves vying for control of the young king. Henry too grew so dependent on others that when conciliar rule ended he frequently failed to assert his own will and was easily manipulated by those closest to him. This led to factionalism between those who had the king’s favour and those who didn’t.
By 1450, losses in France, financial difficulties at home, corruption in local courts, and unchecked violence between noblemen, culminated in a public uprising. The protestors issued bills criticising the ‘evil’ councillors that encroached on royal authority, and called for the king to empower ‘honourable knights and honest judges’ toremovethose who had acted for personal gain instead of the common good.
Similar bills would be issued throughout the decade, most strikingly by Richard, duke of York, the father of Edward IV and Richard III, who used the theme of bad counsel to increase his own political role and disempower his rivals. By aligning his own grievances with those of the common English men, York eventually found himself elected Chief Councillor and Protector of the Realm when Henry VI suffered a mental breakdown was unfit to rule.
Though York held things together while the king was incapacitated, providing the strong and arguably fair leadership that the country had lacked for so long, the new arrangements for administering royal power only served to undermine the king’s authority in the longer term. York’s protectorship alienated Henry’s queen, Margaret of Anjou, who gave birth to Henry’s heir, Prince Edward, in October 1453 and sought to act as regent while her husband was compromised.
Richard, duke of York, and his son Edward IV. St Laurence Church, Ludlow.
Even when the king recovered his wits, he continued to be an uninspiring figurehead doing little to control the problems afflicting his realm. While the duke of York quietly seethed as many of his decisions as Protector were overturned, Queen Margaret and others continued to mitigate Henry’s inadequacies by redefining sovereign power as a tripartite entity encompassing king, queen and prince. This was especially important after the battle of St Albans, when the duke of York and his supporters took control of the king from their political rivals.
John Hardyng’s unusual dedication of his book to, as he puts it, the ‘thre rials in unite’, demonstrates that he understood and absorbed this new association of Henry’s royal authority with the young prince and queen, but, like the duke of York, and other contemporaries, Hardyng saw imminent danger in the king’s inability to assert his will and take control of the kingdom’s governance. For all the emphasis on the sovereign trinity of Henry, Margaret and Edward, nothing could alter the simple fact that true power lay solely in the person of the king and it was the king that needed to end the aristocratic feuds that were damaging the stability of the realm.
Hardyng’s repeated use of historical exempla in his book to encourage the king to chastise lawbreakers and imitate strong leaders like Henry V makes for an interesting comparison with the less tactful observations of his contemporary Robert Burnet. As Hardyng arrived in London with his history, Burnet was being indicted for treason for saying he wished the king had died at the Battle of St Albans. Burnet complained that the king slept too much, while the queen was organising men to fight overseas, a manly activity that was Henry’s task, not hers. While Hardyng gave similar advice in his chronicle, suggesting that lawbreakers in England could be sent to fight for the king’s rights in France, he differed from Burnet in believing that Henry could still exercise royal power effectively and restore order.
As Hardyng arrived in London and prepared to submit his book, things had reached a critical juncture. The king’s Great Council convened at Westminster ‘to tackle the pressing political problems of the kingdom,’ particularly, it seems, to tackle the threat of foreign invasion, and the on-going hostilities between the Yorkist lords and the heirs of those killed at the Battle of St Albans in 1455. When discussions could not be “fully concluded,” Henry VI arranged for the meeting to reconvene in January because the ‘wele’, or good, of the land and people remained ‘in great jeopardy.’
We cannot know for certain how Henry VI reacted to Hardyng’s Chronicle; the fact that Hardyng was rewarded with an annuity several days after meeting with the king’s treasurer, Sir John Talbot, does not, unfortunately, prove that the king was delighted with the work, or that he even read it. Nevertheless, the timing of Hardyng’s presentation is crucial to our understanding of how topical the text was and how it might have represented popular opinion. According to the Abbot of St Albans, John Whethamstede, the king was inspired to seek peace between his magnates after reading several books of advice and Scripture. The theme of his address to the lords when the council assembled once again was based on the gospels’ warning that “Every kingdom divided amongst itself shall be made desolate.” In his speech Henry aligned his own desire for order with that of God, citing examples of historic and recent kingdoms ruined through civil division, and emphasising the susceptibility of war-torn realms to invasion. It wasn’t easy, but Henry obtained a settlement between the lords in March 1458, and on the Feast of the Annunciation (traditionally marking the start of the medieval new year), the citizens of London witnessed one of the most incredible spectacles of the fifteenth-century. York’s supporters and the heirs of the Lancastrians slain at St Albans processed hand in hand around London in a public display of unity. Led by the king, who walked in front wearing his crown and ceremonial robes, the queen and the duke of York walked together, symbolically showing their subservience to sovereign power.
Henry VI (National Portrait Gallery)
Though Whethamstede may have been indulging his poetic licence by claiming that the king was inspired to take control by books of advice, the events in November 1457 and the following four months highlight the social and political currency of Hardyng’s Chronicle andthehope, however remote, entertained by men like him that the king could restore stability.
Embodying all of the topics touched upon in Henry’s speech to his council, Hardyng’s perception of royal power and the difficulties associated with others acting in the king’s name could only have been borne out of the crises that troubled Henry’s reign. Hardyng’s history is precisely the sort of book that Whetehamstede had in mind when he imagined Henry contemplating the troubles of the kingdom, and it’s precisely the sort of book that Henry might have drawn examples from in his speech to reiterate the perils of civil war and assert his own will.
Sadly, Henry’s action was too little too late. York made a move for the throne the next year and this time, he didn’t attempt to define or locate the root of the king’s impotence: he simply put forward his own superior claim to sovereignty as a descendent of Edward III through the Mortimer and Clarence line. As Prince Edward was disinherited and the succession was settled on York and his heirs, Hardyng began rewriting his history again for the king-to-be, redefining what it meant to have control of the kingdom. Though he was now writing for a strong leader, his narrative was essentially the same: there were lessons to be learnt from the past and knowledge of how previous kings had protected or failed their kingdoms was power.
In this too, the real-life Game of Thrones parallels Martin’s series. Just before civil war breaks out in Westeros, Tyrion Lannister, is asked why he reads so much. He replies: ‘I have a realistic grasp of my own strengths and weaknesses. My mind is my weapon. My brother has his sword… and I have my mind…and a mind needs books as a sword needs a whetstone,if it is to keep its edge. That is why I read so much!’ Tyrion, like Hardyng, understands that true power comes from a sharp mind using shrewd politics to control the men with swords. Henry VI lost his throne because his mind was weak and his will was too easily controlled by others.
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