I see my friends getting all excited for the new season of Game of Thrones. It almost makes me wish for HBO. But as I’ve said before, I’ve read the books, and as I’ve said before, Martin has drawn heavily on the actual history of 15th-century England in creating his saga. Sure, most people with a basic knowledge of the Wars of the Roses will see York and Lancaster in Stark and Lannister, but it goes deeper than that. Some of the key characters are practically reincarnated versions of real people who played the game of thrones in an England drenched in war.
To wit: (Spoiler-Free for anyone who has seen up to the end of Season 3 of the series, but hasn’t read the books)
Robert Baratheon *IS* King Edward IV (1461-1483)
How they’re alike: Both were fearsome warriors who seized the throne from incompetent kings. Both loved wine, women, and song more than was good for them. Both died younger than they should have as a result, with minor heirs who were declared bastards by their uncles.
How they’re different: Despite his philandering, Edward’s marriage to Elizabeth Woodville was a reasonably happy one, and she remained loyal to their memory. And the charge of bastardy against Edward’s children was on technical grounds: no one claimed that Edward wasn’t the actual father.
Joffrey Baratheon *IS* King Richard II (1377-1399)
How They’re Alike: Both inherited the throne young from famous warriors. Both grew up in an atmosphere of distrust. Both had a grandiose conception of their skills. Both became ruthless and vindictive when dealing with perceived enemies.
How They’re Different: Despite his failings, Richard managed to preside over a period of relative peace, as compared to his predecessors and successors, and Richard’s personal courage has never been called into question.
Eddard Stark *IS* Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester
How They’re Alike: Both strove to fill the shoes of elder brothers who died too young (Brandon Stark in Ned’s case, King Henry V in Humphrey’s). Both reluctantly but dutifully took over the governance of the state (Ned as Hand, Humphrey as Regent and Protector to King Henry VI). Both were fundamentally decent men who were out of their depths at court. Both were betrayed and murdered in the name of a boy king.
How They’re Different: Humphrey was never a warrior, and unlike Ned, no one ever attempted to avenge him.
Robb Stark *IS* Lord Harry Percy, AKA “Hotspur”
How They’re Alike: Both were the eldest sons of preeminent northern lords. Both led rebellions against questionable Kings and won impressive victories, winning reputations for courage and chivalry. Both died violent deaths as a result of their rebellion, and passed into legend.
How They’re Different: Hotspur died at the front of his troops, facing the enemy, rather than stabbed by his own vassal.
Tywin Lannister *IS* Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick
AKA “The Kingmaker”
How They’re Alike: Both were consummate politicians – rich, crafty, proud, and dangerous. Both switched loyalties when it suited them (Warwick from York to Lancaster, Tywin from Targaryen to Baratheon). Both sought to be the true power behind the throne, chiefly for their own benefit.
How They’re Different: Warwick’s hold on power was far frailer than Tywin’s, and he ended up dead when he squared off in battle against Edward IV.
Cersei Lannister *IS* Margaret of Anjou
How They’re Alike: Both women were queens to inadequate kings (Robert Baratheon and Henry VI of England, respectively). Both played the game of thrones with ruthless determination (Margaret ordered the death of Edward IV’s younger brother, Edmund, aged 17, after he surrendered on the field of battle). Both fought ferociously on behalf of their children. Both were accused of passing off the fruits of adultery as royal heirs.
How They’re Different: Unlike Cersei, Margaret was a foreign queen in England, without a powerful family backing and protecting her. And whatever the truth of the adultery charge, it involved English lords and not her relatives. So there’s that.
The Red Wedding *IS* The Black Dinner
George R.R. Martin has revealed that the Red Wedding was inspired by The Black Dinner, in which King James II of Scotland invited several members of the powerful Douglass clan to dinner, served them a black bull, arrested them after dinner, and then beheaded them. This sort of thing was not entirely uncommon in medieval Europe. At least one historian claims that the Holy Roman Emperor Otto II got his nickname “the Red” after a similar banquet in Rome in 981 AD.