Game of Thrones has hacked our history

The fantasy drama is back – yet no matter how dark, brutal and beguiling it appears, it’s matched by Britain’s own bloody past, argues Suzannah Lipscomb in The Guardian on 23 April 2016.

There is no disguising George RR Martin’s sources when he wrote Game of Thrones. He’s quite open about it. History, he says, is “endlessly fascinating … the wars and battles and seductions and betrayals … so many things that you’d be hard pressed to make up”. So, “I don’t make it up; I take it and I file off the serial numbers and I turn it up to 11.” The TV fantasy drama series that shocks and appals in equal measure returns to UK screens on Monday, with millions of fans in eager anticipation.

Chief among the historical stories that Martin has turned up to 11 are, of course, the 15th-century Wars of the Roses. Medieval England wasn’t – according to available evidence – invaded by ice zombies or terrorised by dragons, but the country was torn in half by the rival houses of Lancaster and York between 1455 and 1487 in a civil war that is eerily close to the GoT’s Westeros battle between the houses of Lannister and Stark.

There are parallels that can be made between our favourite Game of Thrones characters and their real-life equivalents: Robert Baratheon, for example, bears more than a passing resemblance to King Edward IV – a formidable warrior who had degenerated by his death at the age of 40 into debauchery, inactivity and obesity.

Baratheon’s not the only one. The true history of England’s bloody medieval battles has provided a rich seam for Martin. Eddard (Ned) Stark, the protagonist in the first series, played by Sean Bean, looks very much like Richard, Duke of York, who staked a claim to the English throne in 1460 – arguing that he had senior descent in the female line from Edward III, which made the House of Lancaster usurpers. After his death at the battle of Wakefield, his head ended up on a spike, and his son, Edward of York (later Edward IV) – Robb Stark – took up the claim. But Ned also bears comparison to William, Lord Hastings, who, after having helped Richard III take the throne, was summarily executed as a traitor by those he trusted.

The ever-scheming matriarch Cersei Baratheon is the spit of Margaret of Anjou, the beautiful and ruthless French princess. The “She-Wolf” of France married Henry VI, and, in the 1450s, was the power behind the throne. Her son, Edward of Westminster – the sadistic Joffrey Baratheon in the GoT universe – was reportedly cruel and said to talk “of nothing but of cutting off heads or making war”. He was killed at the age of 17.

But perhaps she is also Edward IV’s queen, Elizabeth Woodville, or Margaret Beaufort – the mother of Henry VII – who manoeuvred to put their sons on the throne. Meanwhile, Joffrey bears an uncanny likeness to Richard II – a narcissistic and vindictive boy-king who reigned a century earlier. The internet was pleased to note the physical similarities between Jack Gleeson, the actor who played him, and a far more ancient historical character – the mad Roman Emperor Caligula.

There are comparisons with Richard III, too. In Thomas More and Shakespeare, the king’s scoliosis is used as a metaphor: his physical deformities revealed his monstrous character and reflected a life of acts “unnaturallye committed”. Game of Thrones’ “half-man” Tyrion, as a dwarf, is judged by many in Westeros in a similar vein.

Even the most bloody episode of GoT to date has its origins in historical fact. In 1440, two brothers of the Douglas clan were invited to dinner with King James II of Scotland and, after eating, were dragged outside and beheaded; in 1692, the Campbells were given hospitality by Clan MacDonald at Glencoe, and then rose in the night to murder their hosts.

Martin blended these two events to create the infamous Red Wedding – the massacre at the marriage feast of Edmure Tully and Roslin Frey, when a host of the programme’s leads (King Robb Stark, his wife, Queen Talisa, his mother, Lady Catelyn, and all his men-at-arms) were ruthlessly slaughtered.

Freed from the norms of televisual dramatic structure, history inspires the most shocking of the show’s developments – which viewers are both grateful for and infuriated by.

I think this is why we love Game of Thrones. It’s not just because of the sex and the violence, but because, at its heart, it rings true. It’s like a compilation album of history’s greatest hits. Want a master of whisperers like Lord Varys? Try Sir Francis Walsingham, Elizabeth I’s spymaster who had poets and pickpockets alike on his roster. Want a military brotherhood sworn to defend all that is good, like the Night’s Watch? Try the Knights Templar, Jerusalem’s very own warrior monks.

And that’s even before we reach outside British history to the parallels between the slave armies of the Mamluks and the Unsullied. It’s not just in Westeros that human beings are murky, complex, and brutal.

And now that television has outpaced the novels they are based upon, it may be that those history books offer a clue as to how the story ends. In the Wars of the Roses, the ultimate winner of the English throne was an outsider who amassed armies overseas and whose invading troops marched under the sign of a red dragon. Might the Iron Throne have a similar destiny?