War of the Roses and Game of Thrones


No matter how much I make up, there’s stuff in history that’s just as bad or worse. –George R.R. Martin

All sorts of things influence writers: people they know, current trends, politics, folklore (consider all the supernatural fiction currently popular), famous stories (all sorts of movies are deliberately based on Shakespeare’s works), current events (Elysium‘s treatment of the healthcare debate, for example), etc.  And sometimes they draw from history, even if it isn’t historical drama.

When George R.R. Martin started writing his Song of Ice and Fire, he specifically wanted to draw from a historical period not often covered in fiction. His conclusion was to use the War of the Roses, a 15th century English civil war between the houses of Lancaster and York.

The Song of Ice and Fire is not, however, a simple retelling.  Various characters and events are inspired by historical ones, but the relations are complex.  A father and son in the show might not equate to a historical father and son, for example.

The War

As with any civil war, the War of the Roses was hugely destructive to England.  All of the battles were, of course, on home soil.  Politics were cutthroat and leadership tenuous: the crown passed between houses five times during the struggle.  It was immensely expensive, further complicated by the fact that England was still fighting the Hundred Years’ War in France.  The country stagnated from all this, making it the last major country in Europe to step out of the Middle Ages and into the Renaissance.

Lancaster and York

I can barely even say “Lannister” without thinking “Lancaster.”  Seriously, Martin isn’t being subtle here.the-north

The dynastic struggle of the War of the Roses is rooted, at least in part, in Henry IV of the house of Lancaster deposing (and killing) his cousin, Richard II.  A variety of parties saw Henry as a usurper (which he was) and periodically rebelled.

Personally, I see Henry deposing Richard as comparable to the Lannisters doing away with Robert Baratheon.  Others compare it to Robert Baratheon overthrowing the Targaryens in what has been nicknamed the War of the Usurper.

As for the house of York, well, at least “Stark” sounds a bit more original.  Moreover, the Yorkists fought for their own claims to the throne, which the Starks never do.  They support the claim of Stanis Baratheon, the legitimate heir.  However:

  • The city of York has long been official (during Roman times) and then non-official capital of northern England, commonly called “the North.”
  • Hadrian’s Wall separates the North from Scotland.
  • The English viewed the Scottish as backward and even barbaric.

The Starks are totally the Yorkists.

Richard Neville, the Earl of Warwick / Tywin Lannisterhappy-fathers-day

I was calling Tywin “the Kingmaker,” the nickname of the Earl of Warwick, long before I heard of the deliberate War of the Roses connection.  Seriously, duh.

Warwick was immensely powerful and the richest noble in England. (Sound familiar?) He worked both overtly and behind the scenes, with his favor or disfavor directly influencing who would sit on the throne. He first supported Henry VI, then Edward IV, then back to Henry. He married his daughter, Anne Neville, to Henry VI’s heir, (who ended up predeceasing his father) and his daughter Isabel Neville to Edward IV’s brother.

Tywin Lannister pretty much controlled the fate of his entire family, keeping them in power no matter how ludicrous they’re behaving on any day.  Tywin understood the value of marriage alliances, backroom negotiations, influence both official and unofficial, money and military.  His children…not so much. With Tywin dead, I imagine the Lannisters are going to be scrambling all next season to keep hold of what they have, just as the death of Warwick left a debilitating power vacuum.

Unlike Warwick, Tywin never switched sides.  However, Tywin’s motivation was to keep his family in power, and he already had a relative on the throne.   I did get the sense he was at least considering working against Joffery in favor of Joffery’s more malleable little brother, Tommen, but Joffery’s death made it a moot point.

We’ve had vicious kings, and we’ve had idiot kings, but I don’t know if we’ve ever been cursed with a vicious idiot for a king. – Tywin Lannister

Their duplicitous natures were the undoing of both.  Warwick died in battle against former ally Edward IV, while Tywin died at the hands of the son he repeatedly undermined, although not in battle.

Edward V and Richard, Duke of York / Bran and Rickon Stark

The boys’ supposed bodies hanging from what is practically a tower.

Edward V became king on the death of his father, Edward IV.  Edward and his little brother, Richard, Duke of York, aged 12 and 9, were last seen at the Tower of London with their uncle, who became Richard III.  While their bodies were never found, they were presumed dead. (Centuries later, two skeletons were found that might be Edward and Richard.) They are commonly called the “Princes in the Tower.”

Bran and Rickon are slightly younger, with Bran being the Stark heir.  As of the end of season four, they are presumed dead even though the audience knows they are alive.

An uncle deposed Edward and Richard.  An adopted brother deposed Bran and Rickon, although he faked their deaths and let them flee, a minority opinion of what Richard III might have done.

Edward IV / Rob Stark

Edward IV is the father of Edward V, while Rob Stark is Bran’s brother.

Edward IV rose up against Henry VI, insisting the Lancasters were usurpers.  He lost a great deal of support, however, when he married the politically complicated Elizabeth Woodville out of love, supposedly ignoring a betrothal (although the only evidence of such comes from  his brother, Richard III, who benefited from the claim) as well as a potential future betrothal. That loss of support temporarily lost him his crown.

Rob Stark died at the Red Wedding after alienating his supporters by setting aside a political betrothal for one motivated by love.

Richard III / Tyrion Lannister

The plays of William Shakespeare have crafted a number of images about historical people, and none more-so than Richard III. His patron was Elizabeth I,  granddaughter of Henry VII, who ended the War by killing Richard, so it was in Shakespeare’s best interest to portray Richard as a monster in both action and body.

Shakespeare emphasized Richard’s physical deformity of being a hunchback.  Some theatrical portrayals have so emphasized the disability as to make it difficult for the actor to move.  Since identifying Richard’s body two years ago, it was confirmed he did have a hunchback, but not nearly to the extent Shakespeare depicted.

To most, Tyrion is defined by his deformity.   Regardless what he does, he’s always “the imp.”

Your head was a bit large, your arms and legs were a bit small, but no claw, no red eye, no tail in between your legs. Just a tiny pink cock. We tried to hide our disappointment: “That’s not a monster,” I told Cersei. “That’s just a baby.” -Prince Oberyn

Tyrion’s also the assumed villain.  Both his father and sister blame him for the childbirth death of his mother.  He’s clumsily set up as the would-be assassin of Bran, and he’s a convenient scapegoat for Joffery’s murder.

Shakespeare was absolute in the idea that Richard killed the Princes in the Tower.  Historians are more divided about the issue. The princes had been declared illegitimate and Richard the rightful heir, although their continued existence would still have complicated things.

Richard was a capable king, praised for his lawmaking and concerns for the poor.  Tyrion is capable of many things, even if our first impressions of him were as a lazy drunk.  He also repeatedly supports the underdog such as the vulnerable Sansa Stark.

Richard III and Tyrion Lannister
And then there’s this, as pointed out by History Behind the Game of Thrones

Elizabeth of York / Sansa Stark

This is a weaker comparison.  Elizabeth of York was the older sister of the Princes in the Tower and the Yorkist heir after their deaths, just as Sansa is the older sister of Bran and Rickon and the presumed Stark heir.

Elizabeth of York was married to Henry Tudor of the Lancasters, who eventually becomes Henry VII.  The purpose of that marriage was to unite the two houses, provide an heir to both families, and end the war, which it did.

Sansa was married to Tyrion to unite the Stark and Lannister houses.  Elizabeth and Henry, however, grew to love each other and produced seven children.  So far, while Tyrion has been sympathetic toward Sansa, the feeling is in no way mutual and the marriage has not even been consummated.

To further complicate things, it has long been rumored that Richard III (who I have already compared with Tyrion) considered marrying Elizabeth of York.  (The gigantic problem with such an arrangement was that they were uncle and niece.)

Margaret of Anjou / Cersei Lannister

The internet pretty much unanimously compares Cersei Lannister with Margaret of Anjou, wife of Henry VI.  Her husband was incompetent (and insane) and her son rumored to be illegitimate.  She was drivenby the need to defend her son’s claim to the throne.  The article Hear Me Roar: Cersei Lannister and Margaret of Anjou does a great job of summarizing the complexity of Margaret (of whom I know very little) and her similarities with Cersei.

Henry VII / Daenerys Targaryen

Some argue that Daenerys Targaryen is based on Henry VII, although I find many of the comparisons weak.  It is true that both of them spent much of their time across the Narrow Sea/English Channel because it was too dangerous to be at home.  It is also true that they were both alternatives to those currently in charge.  However, specifics are seriously lacking.

Henry VII's Coat of Arms
Henry VII’s Coat of Arms with Dragon and Greyhound

Daenerys is the sole surviving child of the last Targaryen king, whom was overthrown.  As such, she has an incredibly strong claim to the throne.  Henry VII, however, only had a claim because almost everyone ahead of him was dead.  Even then his claim was weak, traced through both a female line and an illegitimately born ancestor to his great-great-great grandfather, his closet royal ancestor.

Henry VII did have Welsh connections, and that brought the emblem of a red dragon into the royal coat of arms, but, again, that’s really vague.

As an Aside:  Kings of both York and Lancaster included lions (paired with other animals) in their coats of arms, although Richard II, who I vaguely equate to Robert Baratheon, used stags.  Wolves never show up.  Today, the coat includes a dragon and a unicorn, symbols of England and Scotland.

And the really important place Henry VII has in history is ending the war through his marriage to Elizabeth of York, which united Lancastrians and Yorkists.  So unless Daenerys marries Jaime Lannister (who killed her father, good luck with that), Tyrion Lannister (who is technically married, although they could get around that) or Tommen Baratheon, the comparison is rather missing the point.

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