Game of Thrones – The fact behind the fiction

Like many others I am an avid fan of Game of Thrones, not the novels as I simply don’t have time to read them but most definitely the television series.  However I don’t have access to the particular TV channel that broadcasts it in the UK so like probably many others are a year behind and watching the events over one or two Westeros crazed afternoons.  Game of Thrones is a success for many reasons, not least the complexity of the plot lines, the vivid reality of life in its environs and long character arcs that reward long term view whilst all the while us viewers are well aware that anyone could be killed off in an instant and by the third season probably all of us fans have seen this happen once or twice.

What separates Game of Thrones from similar shows or movies is not just its huge budget and great cast but the fact that it draws inspiration from real-life.  It is written by George R. R. Martin, an American who knows his British history and it is the fact that these grounded characters have both a well-worked plot but a firm historical reality that makes it unbeatable viewing and reading.

The mythical land of Westeros is clearly based on the British Isles and much of it is filmed here on location.  It is separated from the nearest continent by The Narrow Sea or the English Channel as we call it here.  To the north of Westeros is the 300 mile long Wall which protects civilisation from the scary White Walkers and the Wildings or as they call themselves the Free Folk.  In reality the main British island is cut across from sea to sea by Hadrians Wall, originally built to protect the Roman Empire and its civilised southern British inhabitants and gentle landscapes from the violent and untamed people of the north who themselves didn’t want Roman civilisation but unlike those further south had the wild terrain to allow them to more easily resist occupation.

Hadrians Wall

Hadrians Wall – Originally much taller and strong enough to make sure Winter doesn’t come.

Westeros itself itself is of similar dimensions of the British Isles, around 900 miles wide and 2,000 long and split into seven kingdoms as was Anglo Saxon England.   It’s capital is Kings Landing on the East Coast by the sea, similar in reality to London.  There isn’t really a Kings Landing but just 3 miles from where I live is the large village of Kings Langley which can at times make both watching the show and real life a touch confusing.

War of the roses

A war between the two most powerful houses in the world produced the Tudor dynasty. What will happen in Westeros?

The meat of Game of Thrones is of course the civil war between the Starks and the Lannisters.  It mirrors the War of The Roses between the House of York and the House of Lancaster that ran from 1455 to 1487.  The Starks are from the north just like York and they are portrayed with traditional northern English characteristics of hard-working, bluntness, tough and more honest and open not just in their personality but their political manoeuvrings.      The Lannisters by contrast are the House of Lancaster, immensely rich and powerful from the south and experts at getting their way by fair means or foul.

Even many of the characters in Game of Thrones have their equals in real life and in many ways the more gruesome aspects of life in Westeros are quite accurate.  In 1461 Edward IV brought the York House to the English throne.  He was a brave warrior that in later life fell into the habit of drunkenness and lewd behaviour before changing his successor on his deathbed.   Game of Thrones has Robert Baratheon who started as a brave rebel leader overthrowing tyranny only to become a drunkard and spark a succession crisis by changing his successor to the throne.   Both men enjoyed hunting and feasting whilst Edward died on a fishing trip and Robert from a wild boar.

Petyr Baelish brilliantly portrayed by Aiden Gillen was not born into wealth but rose to prominence by guile, sneakiness and opportunity.  He is constantly scheming to progress his way to the top of power and is a great manipulator of people and events to get things done and with his hand in more royal deaths than any knight.  His parallel in history is most likely Thomas Cromwell who cunningly shaped events in the legendary court of Henry VIII having grown from the family of a brewer, worked as a common soldier before learning accountancy.  One of his most terrible or brilliant manoeuvrings was how he betrayed his ally Queen Anne Boleyn which would lead to her execution.

Not all men of stature and importance are bad in this world or in Westeros. Sean Bean plays Eddard Stark, a plain speaking, tough talking character who stands for all that is good, just and fair. He was a fearsome warrior, a masterful ruler, and an honourable man, though it eventually betrayed him to his death.
Much like Richard, Duke of York. He fought in the Hundred Year’s War in France, and for his success was rewarded with various offices of state, proving an efficient and capable ruler through all of them.

Ned Stark

Ned Stark an indisputably good man and ruler.

Like Eddard after Robert’s death, Richard also became protector of the Kingdom during Henry VI’s madness. However, he had bitter disagreements with Henry’s wife, Mary of Anjou, as Ned did with Cersi Lannister. Richard eventually tried to seize the throne but was unsuccessful, mirroring the moment Ned attempts to seize the throne from Joffrey. Sadly both Richard and Ned were killed by beheading, and ended up with their heads mounted on spikes.

Henry VI’s wife, Margaret of Anjou, was known for being a controlling a scheming woman who often put her own desires above the greater good. She also had disagreements with Richard, Duke of York, and ultimately saw his head put on a spike.
Much like Cersei, who spent most of her time before Robert died disagreeing with Ned Stark – before his head was put on a spike – and most of her time after his death plotting and scheming to get her illegitimate son Joffrey on the Iron Throne and secure her place there.

At the Purple Wedding, she shows she is not averse to putting her own desires ahead of the common good, ordering the spare food from the feast to be thrown to the dogs, rather than being given to the city’s poor, as rival Margery Tyrell ordered.

The brother of Robert Baratheon is Stannis and he was unfaltering in his loyalty to the King while he was alive, but after Robert’s death, declared his own nephews illegitimate and tried to seize the throne for himself using some fairly controversial tactics.
Richard III, brother of King Edward IV, was also loyal up until the point of the King’s death, upon which he declared his own nephews illegitimate, and succeeded to the throne after their ‘disappearance’.

While Edward’s descent into drinking lasciviousness may have inspired Robert Baratheon’s drinking and infidelity, Edward’s marriage was undoubtedly what inspired Robert own incredible private-life.

Edward rushed into an impulsive marriage which alienated one of his key allies, the Earl of Warwick, who had arranged for the king to marry the sister-in-law of the French monarch, Louis XI.
The Earl, Richard Neville, later rebelled against Edward as Walder Frey rebelled against Robb, leading to his gruesome death at the Red Wedding.

Frey of course betrayed Robb because the Young Wolf went back on his vow to marry one of Frey’s daughters.

George Plantagenet, Duke of Clarence, who betrayed his brother, King Edward IV, to align with his father-in-law, Richard Neville mirrors Theon Greyjoy’s character in Game of Thrones who betrays Robb, whom he was raised to think off as a brother, to gain the admiration of his natural father Baylon.
Both were also separated from their natural parents at a young age, although George’s father was killed at the Battle of Wakefield, while Theon was simply sent to live with the Starks.


His Grandparents were cousins, his parents were siblings. He’s more inbred that a ham sandwich. He’s horrible and we want him to suffer terribly.

There are no characters in Game of Thrones that quite match Joffrey for cruelty. He embodies the very worse characteristics of a monarch and thinks only of himself. Us viewers spend half our lives waiting for something horrible to happen to him and unlike some characters who are cruel but bizarrely likeable perhaps due to charisma or humour, Joffrey is without redemption.

His inspiration has to be the horrible Edward Lancaster who history records as a twisted and bloodthirsty boy who was as cruel to Anne Neville, his wife, as Joffrey is to Sansa Stark. Edwards mother was also a prominent character just as Cersi is in Game of Thrones. Thankfully Edward Lancaster was killed in battle at the age of just 17, it is to be hoped that Joffrey is not sat in the Iron Throne by the end of Game of Thrones.

That leaves one major character not including one of my favourites, Tyrion Lannister played by Peter Dinklage.  Tyrion is a real guilty pleasure of mine, a hard-drinking, sex obsessed dwarf playboy whose saving grace are his witticisms and intelligence.  Characters such as Tyrion are littered through history though historically sufferers of dwarfism were simple people of mockery and derision.  He sneakiness matches the character of Ashur in Sparticus but whereas we spent years waiting for Ashur to get his just desserts, Tyrion is altogether more endearing.

Tyrion Lannister

Tyrion Lannister

No look at Game of Thrones is complete without of course Henry Tudor aka Henry VII.  Or should I say Daenerys Targaryen.

Henry Tudor, later Henry VII, took the throne from Richard III after crossing the English Channel with a foreign army in tow, marching through his birthplace and recruiting more troops along the way.

For many years before that, however, he lived a life of exile in France while chaos slowly spread in England, waiting for the perfect moment to seize his opportunity.


Daenerys in wedding dress

The similarities with Daenerys, who has been slowly amassing a huge army across the Narrow Sea (read: the English Channel) while plotting to invade her birthplace, rallying the loyal to her cause as she goes.  Daenerys is perhaps my favourite character of all.  Starting off humble and scared going on to become a strong, fair and increasingly clever leader.  She has had one or two tests along the way, not least the death of her husband and the way that many of the men she encounters both insult and under-estimate her to their peril.  Khaleesi of course is blessed with three new-born dragons which sadly are not present in British history unless of course you look at Saint George and the dragon and also the Welsh flag which has a dragon on it.

I hope that at the end of the saga it will be Daenerys who re-unites the kingdoms of Westeros though what I’ll do on those boring April Sunday afternoons when it is all over I just do not know.

Flag of Wales

About Stephen Liddell

I am a writer and traveller with a penchant for history and getting off the beaten track. With several books to my name including several #1 sellers. I also write environmental, travel and history articles for magazines as well as freelance work. I run my private tours company with one tour stated by the leading travel website as being with the #1 authentic London Experience. Recently I've appeared on BBC Radio and Bloomberg TV and am waiting on the filming of a ghost story on British TV. I run my own private UK tours company (Ye Olde England Tours) with small, private and totally customisable guided tours run by myself!
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11 Responses to Game of Thrones – The fact behind the fiction

  1. Thank you – I too love the Game of Thrones and this was superb background for the show and makes absolute sense.


    • I’m so glad you liked my post. I am 3 episodes before the end of season 3. I want to finish them this weekend but then I know I have to avoid the spoilers for 9 months until the next box-set comes out. I think the fact that Game of Thrones has characters acting out of real reasons and history makes it more believable and enjoyable. Thanks for commenting!


  2. Malla Duncan says:

    Reblogged this on MALLA DUNCAN and commented:
    Stephen Liddell shows how close the plot of Game of Thrones runs to the fascinating and complex plots of medieval English history.


  3. Kim says:

    surprised you aren’t noting the Richard the III parallels with Tyrion.


  4. I never know what I will learn from you sir! Thank you! And I shared this with my Facebook group who are full of G O T fans!


  5. sarij says:

    Tyrion is one of my favorite characters in all of literature! I loved him in the first book (was all I could get through) and adore him in the series. It does not hurt that he is played by the wonderful Peter Dinklage. It is Tyrion who I want to see on the Iron Throne, if only to see the look on his sister’s face.


    • Yes, I adore Tyrion too. Peter Dinklage does a superb job with his character which in many ways to me is the most realistic and complex of all. He even has a conscience amongst all that duplicity.

      I would like that too, she would be horrified!


  6. paul says:

    i read in other blogs about game of thrones being based on war of the rosies, but heres the thing Lancaster witch is supposed to be wealthy southern Lannasters,,is actually in the north and house Lancaster was a mostly northern and scottish soldiers in the Lancaster army.. House york was mostly southern soldiers cant understand why no one as picked up on this,maybe its easier to portray Lancaster as a wealthy southern part of England when actually its a poverty strickened northern town and allways as been,and Lancashire is more northern than Yorkshire,
    so same war only the true facts is york aided by the south ,Lancaster all north,


  7. Pingback: Every Game of Thrones InfographicYou Could Ever Need | Stephen Liddell

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