14. The character of Cersei Lannister – wife to King Robert Baratheon, mother to Kings Joffrey and Tommen, and later ruling in her own name – was, at least in part, inspired by the alleged incest of Anne Boleyn during her marriage to King Henry VIII of England
The wife of King Robert Baratheon, Cersei Lannister became Queen of the Seven Kingdoms at the age of just nineteen after the last-minute alliance of her father, Tywin, with the rebels in the War of the Usurper. Outliving her husband, her three surviving children – Joffrey, Myrcella, and Tommen – were born of an incestuous and adulterous relationship with her twin brother, Ser Jaime. Living to see all three of her beloved children die, two by murder and one by suicide, Cersei herself claims the vacant Iron Throne. Although deviating from the historical narrative towards the conclusion of Cersei’s story, the “Mad Queen” is highly reminiscent of Anne Boleyn.
The second wife of King Henry VIII, the marriage between the pair marked the start of the English Reformation following Henry’s divorce from Catherine of Aragon. Wed in 1533, despite pursuing her affections for many years, the couple’s relationship quickly soured. Crowned Queen of England, the birth of the future Elizabeth I in September 1533 greatly disappointed Henry who desired a son. Growing estranged, Henry began courting other women whilst Anne allegedly entered into an incestuous relationship with her brother George. Convicted of this charge, in spite of an absence of corroborating evidence, as well as for treason, Anne was beheaded in May 1536.
13. Although carrying certain differences in backstories, the personality and character of King Robert Baratheon is unquestionably similar to that of King Henry VIII of England
Reigning as the seventeenth ruler of the Seven Kingdoms, Robert I Baratheon was the first monarch of the country to not belong to House Targaryen. Initiating a rebellion against King Aerys II Targaryen, commonly known as the “Mad King”, after his son, Rhaegar, Prince of Dragonstone, allegedly abducted Robert’s betrothed, Lyanna Stark, Robert would suffer only a single defeat in the field. Emerging ultimately victorious, personally killing Rhaegar at the Battle of the Trident, Robert was a great warrior and inspirational leader in his prime. A passionate devotee of hunting, feasting, and womanizing, the character of Robert, if not his path to kingship, heavily mirrors that of King Henry VIII of England.
Known as “one of the most charismatic rulers to sit on the English throne”, Henry VIII inherited his title after the death of his father, Henry VII, in 1509. Whilst known today predominantly for his six marriages, Henry was contemporaneously also known for his lavish expenditures. Using the proceeds from the Dissolution of the Monasteries to finance his lifestyle, although this fortune proved insufficient and the realm was almost bankrupted by debt in a manner similar to Robert. A fan of hunting and jousting in his younger days, Henry grew severely obese as he aged, with Robert’s death whilst hunting an honorable homage to the gluttonous real-life king.
12. Several of the military orders that appear throughout the world of Game of Thrones, including the Night’s Watch and the Unsullied, are based on real historical organizations
A military order, charged with guarding The Wall and holding it against attacks from the lands beyond, the Night’s Watch was founded approximately eight thousand years before the events of Game of Thrones. Swearing an oath renouncing marriage, family, lands, or titles, members of the order, having forsworn prior allegiances, are inducted for life under penalty of death for desertion. Retaining significant parallels, the Knight’s Templar, formally known as the Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ and of the Temple of Solomon, was an order of elite fighting men founded in 1119 at the behest of the Pope and existing until disbandment in 1312.
Typically joining for life, members were required to take vows of poverty and chastity so severe that any physical contact with any woman, even a relative, was strictly forbidden. Prominent throughout the Crusades, the order fought for the alleged common good of all peoples of Christendom. Reflecting Martin’s knowledge of archaic military orders, another distinguished grouping in Game of Thrones – the Unsullied – are also drawn from history. Inspired by the Ottoman Janissaries, this elite fighting corps, comprised of enslaved children taken at a young age, were spared the castration inflicted upon their fictional counterparts but were required to remain celibate during their service.
11. Encompassing several tyrannical and maladjusted royal youths, King Joffrey Baratheon is a composite character most resembling Edward of Lancaster and the Roman Emperor Caligula
Becoming the eighteenth inhabitant of the Iron Throne following the death of his supposed father, Robert, Joffrey Baratheon inherited the crown at the age of sixteen. Already displaying immense arrogance and sadistic qualities prior to becoming king, the short-lived ruler of the Seven Kingdoms delighted in displays of cruelty and torment. From physically and psychologically torturing his betrothed, Sansa Stark, to the violent murders of whores, as well as the mutilations and executions of his people for the slightest offenses, Joffrey was an ineffective ruler who was assassinated after less than four years in power.
Retaining notable parallels to Martin’s fictional creation, Edward of Lancaster, the son of Henry VI and Margaret of Anjou – although Edward, like Joffrey, suffered rumors of illegitimate birth – the young prince was possessed of a tyrannical streak. Obsessed with beheading and torturing people, the would-be king was stabbed to death by Edward IV before he could claim his father’s crown. Warranting comparison also, the Roman Emperor Caligula likewise inherited his throne at a young age, was reputedly an avowed sadist and vicious ruler who grew to be hated by his own people, and whom, after only three years in power, was murdered in an attempt to restore order to the realm.
10. Among the most shocking moments in television history, the Red Wedding was inspired by, among other events, two real-life massacres from Scotland as well as an ancient Japanese semi-historical legend
A critical turning point of the War of the Five Kings, the Red Wedding was a massacre organized by Lord Walder Frey in retribution against King Robb Stark for breaking a marriage pact with his house. Under the guise of a wedding between Lord Edmure Tully and Roslin Frey, the hospitable Freys butchered their approximately 15,000 guests, including the entire leadership of the Northern rebellion, and declared their allegiance for the Lannisters and King Joffrey. Whilst exaggerated in scale, the shocking twist is based upon multiple true events, most prominently the Massacre of Glencoe from 1691.
Failing to deliver their oaths to William of Orange on time, the freshly crowned king dispatched one-hundred-and-twenty men to the MacDonalds. Offered accommodations and respite from the cold, the king’s men murdered thirty-eight of their hosts in their sleep and forced a further forty to die from exposure in a blizzard. Equally brutal, the Black Dinner of 1440 saw the sixteen-year-old Earl of Douglas and his younger brother invited to dine with the ten-year-old James II. Fearing the Black Douglas clan were becoming too powerful, James had the pair dragged outside mid-meal and beheaded. More obscurely, parallels between the Red Wedding and the Japanese semi-historical Kojiki warrant consideration, with Emperor Jimmu ordering the massacre of all his rivals during a feast.
8. Among the most iconic characters in Game of Thrones, the struggle of Tyrion Lannister is inspired by the lives of the Roman Emperor Claudius and King Richard III of England
The youngest child of Tywin Lannister, and younger brother of Cersei and Jaime, Tyrion Lannister, commonly known as “The Imp” due to his dwarfism, suffers the barbs and humiliations Medieval society had to offer those different. Enduring his mistreatment, Tyrion rises to serve as acting Hand of the King under Joffrey Baratheon, defending King’s Landing against Stannis Baratheon, before being framed for his king’s murder. Fleeing to Essos and becoming Hand to the Queen under Daenerys Targaryen, Tyrion’s story is clearly inspired by that of the Roman Emperor Claudius.
Overlooked as a potential emperor due to his speech impediment and limp, Claudius, like Tyrion, was looked down upon by the society he inhabited. Resolving to prove his detractors wrong, after decades of struggle Claudius clawed his way to power by using his immense intellect to surpass his physical shortcomings. Less obvious, parallels have been drawn between the character of Tyrion and the historical Richard III. Offering a sympathetic reinterpretation of the maligned King of England, both men suffered physical deformities and both were accused of murdering their nephew. However, whereas history condemned Richard without concrete proof, Martin elects to absolve Tyrion, perhaps suggesting his opinion on the ongoing debate surrounding Richard’s culpability.
7. Introducing core features of the ancient Persian religion, the Red Faith in Game of Thrones strongly mirrors Zoroastrianism whilst its primary acolyte in the show, Melisandre, is a patent imitation of Rasputin
Introduced in Game of Thrones season two, the Red Faith is a foreign religion which advocates worship of the “lord of light”, also known as R’hllor, who appears to his followers in the form of fire. Proselytized by Melisandre, a priestess from Asshai, the Red Faith proclaims an eternal war against the darkness and the abolition of the traditional deities of Westeros. Whilst some have ascribed early Christian motifs to the Red Faith, a far more consistent parallel is the older Persian religion of Zoroastrianism. Not only introducing the spiritual concept of a struggle between light and darkness, the existence of demons, as well as many other features later appropriated by Christianity, but Zoroastrianism is also intimately concerned with fire.
In Zoroastrianism, fire serves as a medium for spiritual awareness, with its adherents commonly praying in the presence of fire. Furthermore, important similarities can be noted between Melisandre herself and the Russian mystic Grigori Rasputin. Both rose from nothing to become important figures within a royal household, both won the trust not only of the King but also, and more strongly, the Queen, both remained unpopular and feared by the general public, both are allegedly capable of cheating death, and both ultimately contributed to the destruction and extermination of the royal house they served.
6. Carrying noticeable similarities in their narratives, the character of Theon Greyjoy is closely connected to the life of George Plantagenet during the Wars of the Roses
Taken as a hostage following his father’s failed rebellion, Theon Greyjoy was raised in Winterfell alongside the Stark children. Initially pledging his loyalty to his longtime friend Robb upon his declaration as King in the North, Theon betrays his adopted family and sides with House Grejoy in the War of the Five Kings. Attacking Winterfell, Theon captures the seat of House Stark but is in turn betrayed and captured himself. Tortured and castrated by Ramsay Snow, the core narrative of Theon’s journey is reflected in the life of George Plantagenet, 1st Duke of Clarence, during the English Wars of the Roses.
The younger brother of Kings Edward IV and Richard III, George initially supported his family, the House of York, in the civil war. Following the split between Warwick and York, George turned his back on his brothers and joined the Lancastrian cause, hoping in turn to advance his own claim to the throne. Following the declining fortunes of the Lancastrians, George then attempted to revert to the Yorkists once more. Tiring of his duplicity and cowardice, George was convicted of treason against his brother and sentenced to death. Whilst not suffering the mutilations of Theon, George was allegedly killed by being drowned in wine.
5. Although seemingly mythical, the flammable liquid “wildfire” in Game of Thrones is inspired by the real-life weapon of “Greek fire” employed by the Byzantines from the 7th century onwards
A flammable liquid created by the Alchemists’ Guild of King’s Landing, wildfire is an immensely dangerous substance capable of igniting and exploding with enormous force. Burning sufficiently hot that water is unable to extinguish the fires, burning bright green, the combustive creation of the Pyromancers has been employed on only two occasions in the show’s history: once during the Battle of Blackwater Bay and secondly to cause the Destruction of the Great Sept of Baelor. However, despite seeming mythical, wildfire is actually based on the real-life but lost incendiary weapon historically known as “Greek fire”.
First developed in or around 672 CE, Greek fire was a flame-throwing weapon employed by the Eastern Roman Empire. Igniting upon contact with water, the Byzantines deployed their combustible compound typically in naval confrontations to great effect, continuing to burn on the surface of water. Becoming feared throughout the known world, the precise formula behind the manufacture of Greek fire was a closely guarded state secret. Despite sustained efforts across the centuries since, the precise combination of ingredients remains a mystery, with all efforts to reverse-engineer the substance unsuccessful even among Arab scientists with access to a captured fireship in the 9th century.
4. Inspired by two soldiers of the late-15th century, the character of Jaime Lannister is based on the lives of Cesare Borgia, as well as the lesser-known Gottfried von Berlichingen
The eldest son of Tywin Lannister, Ser Jaime Lannister became the youngest member of the Kingsguard at the age of sixteen. Murdering Aerys II, the “Kingslayer” continued his position until he was removed as Lord Commander of the order by King Tommen, whereupon he became Lord of Casterly Rock. In the course of the War of the Five Kings, Jaime was captured and lost his right hand. Replacing it with a golden prosthetic in season four, Martin borrows from the real-life historical figure Gottfried von Berlichingen. Berlichingen, a German Imperial Knight active between 1498 and 1544, lost his hand in 1504 during the siege of Landshut, replacing his lost limb with a mechanical replica.
Equally, the character of Jaime Lannister borrows heavily from the life of Cesare Borgia, whose struggle for power was a chief inspiration behind Machiavelli’s The Prince. Born to the immensely powerful Italian family in 1475, Cesare allegedly murdered his brother to escape his duties as a Catholic cardinal, rising to the rank of commander of the papal armies. Enormously successful in battle, Cesare was rumored to have engaged in an incestuous relationship with his sister, Lucrezia, endured horrendous captivity at the hands of his enemies, and ultimately presided over the decline of his family following the death of his father.
3. A more romantic adaptation of the story of the Roman noblewoman Lucretia, whose abduction and rape by the son of an Etruscan king resulted in the nation’s transition from a kingdom to a republic, the character of Lyanna Stark is a clear reimagination of this historical figure
The daughter of Lord Rickard Stark, the supposed abduction of Lyanna Stark by her secret lover and husband Prince Rhaegar Targaryen triggered her betrothed, Robert Baratheon, to rebel against the throne. Resulting in the downfall of House Targaryen, Lyanna’s death at the war’s conclusion, unbeknownst to almost everyone, was caused by complications during childbirth. Offering into the care of her brother, Ned, the royal heir, the secret relationship remained lost until Brandon Stark learns the truth of his half-brother via a vision after becoming the Three-Eyed Raven. Initially a mere retelling of the ancient story of Lucretia, Martin offered a unique twist to grant the story an ultimately happier ending.
In the Roman tradition, Lucretia, a noblewoman of the Roman Kingdom, was abducted by Sextus Tarquinius, the son of King Lucius Tarquinius Superbus. Raped and later committing suicide after her ordeal, Lucretia’s treatment by the Roman royal family triggered a rebellion which overthrew the monarchy and instituted the Roman Republic. Mirroring the ancient story, the first consuls of the Roman Republic was the widowed husband of Lucretia, Lucius Tarquinius Collatinus. Offering a final wink to classicists, the final words of Lyanna – “Promise me, Ned” – copy those of Lucretia according to Roman historian Livy: “Pledge me your solemn word”.
2. The Battle of Blackwater Bay, an iconic moment in the War of the Five Kings, is a thinly disguised and compressed fantasy regurgitation of the Second Arab Siege of Constantinople
The largest battle in the War of the Five Kings, the Battle of Blackwater Bay was an attempt by the forces of Stannis Baratheon to capture the capital city of King’s Landing. Combining a large naval assault, followed by an amphibious landing, the attack was rebuffed by soldiers under the command of Tyrion Lannister. Although reinforcements led by Twin Lannister earned the glory, the victory was due, in no small part, to the use of wildfire by the king’s forces to decimate the Baratheon fleet. Although compressing the events into a single night, the famed battle depicted in Game of Thrones is actually a retelling of the Second Arab Siege of Constantinople.
Lasting for more than a year, from 717 to 718, the forces of the Umayyad Caliphate sought to breach the capital city of the Byzantine Empire. Protected by the massive Theodosian Walls, the attacking forces were unable to penetrate the city and instead opted to encircle and blockade the city into submission. However, their naval blockade was breached by Byzantine ships wielding the aforementioned “Greek fire” and permitted the capital to be resupplied by sea. Attacked by Christian reinforcements from the rear, the Arabs were forced to retreat, suffering the near-total destruction of their fleet and loss of approximately 100,000 men.
1. In addition to Anne Boleyn, the character of Cersei Lannister is equally inspired by the lives and personalities of two French female leaders of the Middle Ages: Catherine de’ Medici and Margaret of Anjou
Bearing noticeable correlations with the character of Cersei Lannister, Margaret of Anjou was similarly forced to marry a king at a young age. Wedding Henry VI of England as part of an ultimately unsuccessful truce between England and France in 1445, her marriage to the feeble monarch was an unhappy one. Bearing only one child, Edward of Lancaster, her son, like the children of Cersei, became the victim of repeated, and plausibly true, rumors concerning his legitimacy. Equally, like Cersei, Margaret outlived her progeny, with Edward of Lancaster killed at the hands of his Yorkist rival Edward VI.
Offering further additions to Martin’s fictional composite character, Catherine de’ Medici was born in 1519 into the prestigious Italian family. Augmenting her wealth and power further, in 1533 the fourteen-year-old Catherine married Henry Valois, the heir apparent, being elevated to the position of Queen of France in 1547. Later serving as the mother of Kings Francis II, Charles IX, and Henry III, ruling as regent from 1560 until 1563 during the infancy of her second son, the reigns of her children should historically be regarded at least equally her own. Wielding enormous executive power, Catherine’s ruthlessness strongly mirrors the desperation of Cersei to hold onto her family’s crown.
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