Okay, first things first – spoilers! I have not deliberately included any spoilers in this article but, in this golden age of television and technology, where the box set binge is quickly becoming the most popular way to watch, it’s hard to know what is spoiling what for whom, and when…and what…did I say what?
Basically, there might be spoilers, it’s difficult to talk about a show that’s seven seasons in without giving away something that will spoil something for…you get the picture.
It’s like a bloody minefield.
And besides, if you aren’t up to date with Game of Thrones yet, what the Hell are you doing with yourself?
The smash hit HBO show has won more Emmys than other programme in history – 38 in all. It’s won over 250 awards in total and even holds six world records, including the most pirated TV show in history. This gives some idea of what a worldwide phenomenon Game of Thrones has become.
The drama, the glamour, the brutality, the sex, the scandal, the cynicism, the gore, the swashbuckling, the incredible battles…there’s a lot to love. And love it millions do.
But all those elements that make GoT so popular can be found in spades throughout the annals of history.
Below is a list of Seven Times History was More Game of Thrones than Game of Thrones and fact is often more incredible than fiction…
- Heinous Hunting Happenstance
Way back in Series One, Robert Baratheon (remember him?) died in a hunting “accident”. We later discovered that the Lannisters’ machinations were responsible for his mishap.
Thanks to Cersei, Robert was more drunk than usual, and wasn’t quick enough to avoid the tusks of the wild boar he was planning on having for supper.
Henry I of England had all Cersei’s guile but none of her subtlety.
Henry was the fourth born son of William the Conqueror. When the Conqueror died, his eldest sons William and Robert inherited England and Normandy respectively. There was no land left for Henry, so he had to be content (get it?) with money to buy some. He purchased the County of Cotentin (get it now?) from his eldest brother, but William and Robert soon conspired to take it back from him by force.
Henry bided his time until, one day, he went hunting in the New Forest with his brother, the King of England, William ‘Rufus’ (Red-Faced), and a nobleman named Walter Tyrell.
It seems Tyrell, renowned as an excellent archer, wildly misplaced an arrow and, instead of hitting the stag he and King William were chasing, he buried it deep into the King’s chest.
Tyrell fled to France. Henry rode as hard as he could for Westminster and, seizing the royal treasury, had himself crowned King of England,
Not content (what a beautiful circle of meaning) with disinheriting his older brother of the Kingdom of England, six years later Henry defeated and imprisoned Robert and took Normandy from him too.
Hunting accidents were not uncommon at the time. In fact, ironically enough, Henry’s third brother, Richard, died in a hunting accident when Henry was a boy. What’s more, Tyrell always proclaimed his innocence.
But then he would, wouldn’t he?
As it turned out, Henry was a far more capable ruler than either Robert or William, so his contemporaries were prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt and history has largely decided to leave the wool over its eyes.
I doubt Cersei will be so lucky.
- Feverish Fanatics and High and Mighty Sparrows
The religious fervour of the High Sparrow and his flock brought a new dimension of power to King’s Landing during Season Six of Game of Thrones. The High Sparrow himself is based largely on St Francis of Assisi, but his fate mirrors that of more unlucky religious figures from history.
Cersei is not alone in having conspired to remove herself of a ‘turbulent priest’, as the famous story of the Becket controversy attests. Having been unable to appoint any new bishops for years, and having just heard that the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Becket, whom he had only just allowed back into the country, had excommunicated three of his allies, an exasperated Henry threw up his hands and exclaimed: “Will no one rid me of the turbulent priest?”.
Four knights set off from the King’s court in Normandy to do precisely that and, on December 29th, 1170, they murdered Becket.
If murdering the Archbishop of Canterbury was bad, then what Philip IV of France did was on a whole other level of sinful.
At the turn of the fourteenth century, the King of France, Philip IV, ruled over the only superpower in Christendom, and he was not adverse to throwing his weight around.
Pope Boniface VIII not only decided to stand up to Philip, but he even went so far as to excommunicate him. In response Philip had the Pope arrested, most probably tortured and, finally, he even humiliated him in death.
Soon afterward the Papacy moved to Avignon, where it operated under strict French control for the majority of the subsequent century.
Few examples from history match the scale and drama of Cersei’s attack on the church, but there are some. Once again, an example is provided for us by Philip IV of France.
On Friday the 13th of October, 1307, soldiers across France and other areas of Europe simultaneously opened sealed envelopes containing orders from the King.
Philip IV, in collusion with Clement V, had ordered the arrest and imprisonment of all the Knights Templar.
This famous chivalric order had risen to prominence and power during the Crusades in the twelfth century.
The Templars were convicted of, and many were executed for, crimes of heresy and treason. When the Grand Master of the Order, Jacques de Molay, was burned at the stake for his crimes, he cursed King Philip and his bloodline.
The fact that the Capetian dynasty ended very soon afterward, with Philip’s sons generally dying as issueless cuckolds, almost makes you wonder if maybe some of the fantastical forces that inhabit Westeros were also present at times throughout our own history.
- Sex and Scandal…and more Sex…
Game of Thrones has been described as a relentless parade of deaths, dragons and genitalia. While such a description unfairly ignores the nuances, plot twists and nail biting drama of the show, it’s hard to argue with the actual substance of it.
And the real life princes and princesses of history were no strangers to the occasional sex scandal themselves.
In 1314, the daughter of the Capetian King of France, Philip IV, came to him raging about sex, scandal and silk purses, and Philip’s luck began to get a lot worse.
Isabella of France, Queen of England, wife of Edward II and daughter of Philip IV, had never trusted her sisters-in-law. Given that she would later leave her husband for his mortal enemy, perhaps Isabella saw too much of herself in them. Either way, in true Game of Thrones style, she decided to lay a trap for them.
Philip had three sons, the eldest of which, Louis, was married to Marguerite of Burgundy. His other sons were married to Marguerite’s cousins, the sisters Jeanne and Blanche d’Artois.
Following the knighting of the three French Princes of the Blood, Isabella gave each of her brothers a silk purse, knowing they would give them to their wives. Then she waited.
Sure enough, on a later visit, Isabella noticed two dashing young knights, Gautier and Philippe d’Aunay, wearing the very same silk purses. She brought the matter to her father, who had the young men followed. It was soon discovered that Marguerite and Blanche had been having adulterous affairs with the d’Aunay brothers.
Jeanne, who was never unfaithful, was eventually allowed to return to her husband, the future Philip V.
Echoing Cersei’s humiliation at the mercy of the High Sparrow, Marguerite and Blanche had their heads shaved and were imprisoned for life to help them repent their sins.
However, of all those involved in what became known as the Tour de Nesle Affair, the brothers d’Aunay suffered the worst fate.
Gautier and Philippe were beaten, tortured, castrated and, finally, broken on the wheel. This last punishment involved being strapped to a massive wooden wheel which was spun, tearing the brothers’ limbs from their sockets, whilst their bones were shattered with iron bars.
How Game of Thrones is that?
- Keeping it in the Family
The incestuous relationship between Jaime and Cersei Lannister has provided the fodder for some of the most shocking scenes and significant plot twists on the show. Bran lost the ability to walk because he happened to catch them in the act, and there are few more profound WTF moments in the history of television than when Jaime and his sister made Shakespeare’s proverbial beast of two backs up against their son’s corpse!
While twincest was rare in all times and places, it was not unheard of, and other forms of incest were more common than one might think too.
Einstein, Edgar Allen Poe, H.G. Wells, Charles Darwin and Queen Victoria all married their own cousins and Agrippina (see above) married her uncle, the Emperor Claudius. Incest was standard practice among the Hapsburgs and was encouraged by religious law and tradition in Pharaonic Egypt. Cleopatra married both her brothers, King Tut and Ankhesenamun were siblings, and Ramesses II married several of his daughters.
Though there weren’t many historical settings that would have accepted the Lannister twins’ relationship, there were some. Had they been born in a different time and place, Jaime and Cersei may not have had to hide their feelings for each other. They’d have made formidable Pharaohs.
- Musical Thrones
Since the start of Series One there have been multiple occupants and various disputed claims on The Iron Throne. We’ve had Kings in the North, Kings on the Iron Islands, rebels, dissidents, usurpers, pretenders, petty kings, and gerrymandering lords.
If you didn’t know your history, you could be forgiven for thinking this merry-go-round of political power was a little exaggerated or far fetched.
It is well known that George Martin took a lot of inspiration from the Wars of the Roses and, if you thought the Iron Throne was a fickle mistress, you ain’t heard nothing yet.
In July 1460 the weak minded Lancastrian king, Henry VI, was captured at the Battle of Northampton and his rival Richard, Duke of York, was proclaimed king. York’s reign lasted until the day before New Year’s Eve, the very same year. He lost his life at the Battle of Wakefield and his son was anointed Edward IV in March 1461.
The Yorkists managed to hang onto the throne until 1470. Following a failed rebellion, the powerful magnate Warwick, known to history as the Kingmaker, and Edward’s younger brother Clarence, fled to France. Whilst there they forged an allegiance with Henry VI’s deposed Queen, Margaret of Anjou. With the support of the French and the aid of Warwick’s brother, John Neville, this unlikely trio invaded England, forced Edward IV to flee the country, and reinstated Henry VI as King in October 1470.
In March 1471, Edward landed in England with an army at his back and killed Warwick at the Battle of Barnet. Edward then imprisoned Henry VI in the Tower of London and proceeded to utterly destroy the remainder of the Lancastrian forces, as well as the majority of the Lancastrian bloodline, at the Battle of Tewkesbury.
King Henry turned up dead in the tower a month later and, so it must have seemed to folks at the time, that was the end of that bloody chapter in English history.
However, in true Game of Thrones style, the most shocking episode of the Wars of the Roses was yet to come, and would involve two young Princes in a Tower, and one of the greatest villains in all of history and literature.
- Unhappy Families
Cersei hates Tyrion, Tyrion hated Tywine, the Mountain and the Hound never miss an opportunity to try and kill each other, and the Martell family make the Mansons look functional. Viserys and Daenerys, the Baratheon boys, even Arya and Sansa are went straight back at each other’s throats almost immediately after being reunited.
But when it comes to family feuds, once again, the Westerosi have nothing on their corporeal historical counterparts.
The sons of both William the Conqueror and Henry II would have made King Lear wince with their thanklessness, George IV probably developed arthritis from spending so long crossing his fingers while he waited for his father to die, and the grandsons and great-grandson of Edward III weren’t the best of friends, to say the least.
George R. R. Martin has intimated that the struggle for the Iron Throne is partly inspired by the Wars of the Roses, and one does not need to look further than that famous dynastic struggle for historical characters who applied Game of Thrones type ruthlessness to their family affairs.
Richard III, the last of the Plantagenets, is perhaps the most infamous of all the actors in the Wars of the Roses. Enshrined in a perpetual winter of discontent by Shakespeare, the misshapen villain was the most steadfast and loyal supporter of his brother, Edward IV.
However, following his brother’s death, Richard probably had his nephews murdered and usurped the throne for himself.
But even the tempestuous family strifes of the Plantagenets were nothing in comparison to the Turkish House of Osman.
In response to years of rebellions and civil wars that had threatened to tear the Ottoman Empire apart, Mehmed the Conqueror introduced the Law of Fratricide. Mehmed, who earned his moniker by conquering Constantinople in 1453 and effectively ending the Byzantine Empire, introduced a law which stated that:
“Any of my sons who ascend the throne, it acceptable for him to kill his brothers for the common benefit of the people”.
The practice continued until Ahmed I ascended the throne in 1603. In the more than a century and a half during which the law was extant, at least five dozen Ottoman princes were strangled to death on the orders of their own brother or, sometimes, even their own father.
- Daddy Dearest
There aren’t many candidates for Father of the Year among the men of Westeros. Robert Baratheon, the uncouth, womanising drunkard who has sons he’s never seen and who doesn’t bother seeing the sons he has, isn’t even close to being the worst father in the Seven Kingdoms. He isn’t even the worst father in his own family!
His brother Stannis sacrificed his own daughter in his attempts to mount the Iron Throne. Tywin Lannister reaped what he sowed with Tyrion, maybe Roose Bolton did the same with Ramsay. Lord Frey was as despicable to his children as he was to everyone else, Balon Greyjoy and Randyll Tarly both made Darth Vader look like a loving, hands-on dad, and Craster was probably the worst father in TV history.
But some of the ‘great’ men of history make the dads of Westeros look like Father Knows Best!
Peter the Great may have been the father of the Russian nation, but as an actual father, he was pretty sucky. He drove his son, Alexei, to drink and, then, into rebellion. Eventually, he had him tortured to death.
As well as ordering the Massacre of the Innocents, Herod the Great allowed the Romans to execute his first born son and ordered two more of his sons strangled to death.
At least Ivan the Terrible’s sobriquet is a bit more appropriate to his parenting style. Ivan once lost his temper and shook his daughter-in-law so hard that she miscarried his grandchild and, on another occasion, he got into an argument with his eldest son and heir, and beat him to death with a stick!