From 1455 to 1485 A.D., England was shaken by a power struggle between two noble families which spanned several generations and involved a cast of characters with complex motives and loyalties. A series of conflicts that took place during the Late Medieval Period, they were more destructive to England than the Hundred Years War had been in the previous century. Known as the “War of the Roses” it was ultimately a struggle to claim the throne between the families descended from Edward III and those descended from Henry IV. This real life, historical conflict serves as the basis for the book and television series, Game of Thrones.
The House of Lancaster/Lannister VS the House of York/StarkThe two houses in conflict with one another in the War of the Roses were the House of York and the House of Lancaster. In Game of Thrones, the House of Lancaster is thought to be the Lannisters while the House of York, appear to be the Starks.
Like the Yorks, the Starks are northerners, while the Lannisters, like the Lancasters, are from the south. Not only do the Lancasters and Lannisters share almost the same name, they also share an almost identical symbol: a Lion(s) on a red background. The names of the wars comes from the symbols associated with the two families; the white rose belonging to the Yorks and the red rose to the Lancasters. To this day, the historic counties of Yorkshire and Lancashire in northern England are associated with these colors.
The Death of a King and the Beginning of a War
In real life, the origin of the War of the Roses begins with the death of King Edward III of England in 1377 AD. Edward’s eldest son died before his father but his ten year old son, Richard the II, succeeded to the throne ahead of Edward’s three other surviving son’s.
This skipping of an entire generation left questionable claims to the throne among the offspring, particularly the Lancasters, who descended from Edward’s third son and the York’s who descended from his fourth son. The Lancasters gained the throne when Richard the II was disposed of by his cousin Henry the IV in 1399 AD. Their reign would remain secure until 1422 AD, when Henry the V died in a military campaign and left an infant Henry the VI as king. Henry VI is thought to be Robert Baratheon in Game of Thrones.
Marriage to a Strong QueenWeak-willed and dominated by advisors, Henry eventually wound up marrying Margaret of Anjou of France to gain French support. In Game of Thrones, she is believed to be the Cersei Lannister, queen to Robert Baratheon. Henry the VI's bouts of insanity frequently left him unable to rule, and Margaret fought ferociously against those who she saw as threatening her family’s hold on the crown.
Historians view her as a prime driver in the Wars of the Roses, just as Cersei is seen as being responsible for the War of the Five Kings. She distrusted Richard of York most of all who is thought to be Ned Stark in Game of Thrones.
From a Distrustful Advisor to Protector of the Realm
Richard of York was King Henry’s close advisor and loyal general but was increasingly sidelined by Margaret of Anjou who promoted her favorite supporters instead. York’s criticism of the handling of the war against France led to his eventual exclusion from the court and transfer to Ireland.
However, mounting military failures and corrupt rule by Margaret and her allies caused widespread discontent and in the midst of this chaos, Richard of York returned from Ireland with an army to reform the court.
Initially he was unsuccessful but was later appointed “Protector of the Realm” after Henry suffered a mental breakdown. However, less than a year later, Henry suddenly recovered and the queen convinced him to reverse York’s reforms. York fled and raised an army once more.
Successes for the Yorks/Starks
This time he was unable to directly seize the throne, but managed to be reinstated as the protector and have himself and his heirs appointed to succeed Henry. But instead of a crown, York’s head acquired a pike, after he was killed in battle with the queen’s loyalists. His young son took up the claim and was crowned Edward IV of York, the real life equivalent of Robb Stark in Game of Thrones.
Edward IV enjoyed great military success against the Lancasters. Henry VI was captured while Margaret fled into exile with their reportedly cruel son Edward of Westminster who is believed to be Joffrey in Game of Thrones.
A Cruel Young Ruler
Edward of Westminster (also known as Edward of Lancaster) was the son of King Henry VI and Margaret of Anjou—and, like Joffrey, was rumored to be of illegitimate birth. Edward had a quality of madness (like Joffrey) and shared Joffrey’s affinity for lopping off the heads of his enemies. The Ambassador of Milan once wrote, "This boy, though only 13 years of age, already talks of nothing but of cutting off heads or making war, as if he had everything in his hands or was the god of battle or the peaceful occupant of that throne.”
A Political Blunder and More Betrayal
The newly crowned king, Edward IV, made a tragic political mistake by backing out of his arranged marriage with a French princess to secretly marry the widow of a minor noble. This alienated his most powerful ally, the Earl of Warwick, thought to be Roose Bolton in Game of Thrones. Warwick then joined forces with the Lancasters, turned Edward’s jealous younger brother George against him and briefly managed to restore Henry as king. However, Edward recaptured the throne, the Lancaster prince was killed in battle and King Henry died in captivity shortly thereafter.
There is also Theon Greyjoy, who in Game of Thrones, is a prince of the House of Stark and a surrogate brother to Robb Stark. Following the outbreak of the War of the Five Kings, Theon was one of Robb’s most trusted advisors. After Robb sent him to meet with his father, Balon Greyjoy, Theon turned on his friend and invaded the North.
Theon’s real life historical counterpart is George Plantagenet, brother to Edward IV of York. Like Theon, he began the War of the Roses as a staunch supporter of the Yorks and like Theon, George Plantagenet turned on his brother and defected to the Lancasters. After Edward won the war, George was drowned in a butt of wine for his treason, which is a far cry from the punishment Theon has endured.
George Plantagenet and Theon Greyjoy (Mentalfloss)
The Forgotten PrincesThe rest of Edward the IV reign was peaceful until his death in 1483 AD. Though his twelve year old son was due to succeed him, Edwards’ younger brother Richard the III (thought to be Stannis Baratheon in Game of Thrones), declared them illegitimate due to their father’s secret marriage. He assumed the regency himself and threw the boys into prison. After the death of their father, twelve-year-old Edward V and nine-year-old Richard of Shrewsbury were locked away in the Tower of London never to be seen from again.
The young princes (Shannawrites.com)
This paved the way for Richard III’s ascension to the throne. In Game of Thrones, Bran and Rickon Stark are thought to be the “Princes in the Tower.”
Joining the RosesRichard III’s fall from power would come just two years later from across the English channel. Henry Tudor was a direct descendant of the First Duke of Lancaster raised in exile after his father’s death in an earlier rebellion. Richard the III’s power grab caused a split in the York faction and Henry Tudor won support for his royal claim. He raised an army in France, crossing the channel in l485, and quickly defeated Richard’s forces. By marrying Elizabeth of York, the elder sister of the disappeared princes, the newly crowned Henry VII joined the two roses, ending nearly a century of warfare.
Map of the War of the Roses (Sillysoft.net)
Game of Thrones "Borrows" From History
Wars in history are often thought of as decisive conflicts, however, the War of the Roses, like Games of Thrones, shows that their outcome is often uncertain, politically layered, and full of characters with complex personalities and shifting loyalties.
The author of the books Game of Thrones, George R.R. Martin, was clearly inspired by the War of the Roses and the parallels between the fictional characters of “Westeros” and real life history are numerous.
Martin once remarked that while he “borrows” from history extensively, quote:
“there's really no one-for-one character-for-character correspondence [in the series]. I like to use history to flavor my fantasy, to add texture and verisimilitude, but simply rewriting history with the names changed has no appeal for me. I prefer to re-imagine it all, and take it in new and unexpected directions.”
Yet there seem to be many other characters from the show not listed here who have direct historical counterparts, even if they’re not specifically mentioned by name or of the same gender.
For further reading on the topic, see also the website History Behind Game of Thrones.
Featured Image: War of the Roses - the Houses of Lancaster and York (AGZYM)
By Bryan Hill
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- Tharoor, Ishaan. "Watch: The Real History behind ‘Game of Thrones’." Washington Post. May 12, 2015. http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/worldviews/wp/2015/05/12/watch-the-real-history-behind-game-of-thrones/.
- Miller, Laura. "The Real-life Inspirations for “Game of Thrones”." Saloncom RSS. April 3, 2012. http://www.salon.com/2012/04/04/the_real_life_inspirations_for_game_of_thrones/.
- Flint, Hanna. "This Video Shows You Every War of the Roses Reference in Game Of Thrones." METRO. May 14, 2015. http://metro.co.uk/2015/05/14/this-video-shows-you-every-war-of-the-roses-reference-in-game-of-thrones-5196452/.
- "The Wars of the Roses." The Wars of the Roses. https://web.cn.edu/kwheeler/War_of_Roses.html.
- The wars that inspired Game of Thrones - Alex Gendler , 2015 (video file); Available From: <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VjO55pKuBo4>