Game of Thrones season six: the real-life medieval history

The sixth season of HBO’s ever-popular medieval fantasy television show Game of Thrones airs on Sunday (Monday morning in Britain). Here, Carolyne Larrington reveals some of the real-life history that underlies the extraordinary cultures and characters that make Game of Thrones such compelling viewing...

Maisie Williams as Arya Stark. © 2016 Home Box Office, Inc.

George RR Martin, author of the books upon which the Game of Thrones television show is based, notes that the battle for the Iron Throne is loosely based on the 15th-century Wars of the Roses; the chime of Stark and York and Lannister and Lancaster suggests as much. But Martin draws much more eclectically on medieval cultures, as the following examples demonstrate.

 

Queen Cersei

Cersei has been compared to a good number of medieval queens, such as Margaret of Anjou (d1482), wife of Henry VI. To my mind, though, Cersei, the “green-eyed lioness” of the Lannisters, is much more like Edward II’s queen Isabella, the ‘She-Wolf of France’. Daughter of King Philip IV (the Fair) of France, Isabella was sister of his three successors. She was married, probably aged 12, to Edward II of England in 1308. Edward gave her four children, but, notoriously, he neglected her for his good-looking male favourites.

His barons forced Edward to give up one of these favourites, Piers Gaveston, 1st Earl of Cornwall, who was executed in 1312, but by 1320 Edward was deeply involved with Hugh Despenser the Younger. As a consequence of Isabella’s hostility to the Despenser faction, her lands in England were taken from her, as were her children, and her household was broken up.


Cersei Lannister played by Lena Headey and Jaime Lannister played by Nikolaj Coster-Waldau. ©2015 Home Box Office, Inc.

Isabella and Edward had effectively separated. When, in 1325, her eldest son, the future Edward III, went to France to do homage for the province of Gascony, which the English crown held from the French king, the queen seized her chance. In Paris Isabella took the exiled English lord Roger Mortimer as her lover, and they plotted against her husband.

Young Edward was promised in marriage to Philippa, daughter of William, Count of Hainault, in the Low Countries. In return William provided men and an advance on Philippa’s dowry. Borrowing heavily from Italian banking houses, Isabella, her son and Mortimer invaded England in 1326 and Edward II was overthrown. How far Isabella was complicit in her husband’s horrible death in 1327 isn’t clear, but she and Mortimer ruled England for the next four years.

In 1330 her son, Edward III, took charge of the kingdom, imprisoning his mother and executing her lover. Perhaps King Tommen will similarly assert himself against his mother in this sixth season?


Isabella of France, aka the 'She-Wolf of France', queen consort of Edward II of England. From the book ‘Our Queen Mothers’ by Elizabeth Villiers, c1800. (Photo by Universal History Archive/Getty Images)

 

The Iron Bank of Braavos and the Sparrows

The parallels between Isabella and Cersei are striking: adultery, complicity in their husbands’ deaths and attempts to rule through their sons. Isabella and Mortimer were able to raise funds for their expedition from the Italian bankers because Edward II had defaulted on his debts to them; Isabella and Edward III promised to resume repayments.

Just so, the Iron Bank of Braavos was ready to support Stannis against Tommen, once Cersei had defaulted on the huge sums owed to the Bank. The Crown’s financial crisis also drove Cersei to strike a deal with the Sparrows, the fanatical grassroots movement that has taken over the Faith, and to allow them to arm themselves in return for forgetting the money the Crown had borrowed.

The Sparrows resemble the Franciscan movement, founded by St Francis in around 1209. The Franciscans sought to return to a simpler, less money-obsessed form of Christianity. Franciscan brothers (friars) were sworn to poverty and wandered from place to place preaching the Gospel to ordinary folk in language they could understand. The Sparrows of the Faith, however, combine their contempt for riches with a strict sexual morality and with the power, like that of the Inquisition, to compel sinners into religious courts and to punish them for their offences – as Cersei and Margaery have discovered.


c1220, a portrait of Saint Francis of Assisi kneeling at an rock altar to pray with a skull in his hand. (Photo by Archive Photos/Getty Images)
 

The Ironborn

We haven’t seen much of the Ironborn, the Westerosi sea-borne warriors, since season four. Fierce piratical fighters, depending on their swift, stable and beautifully designed longships for speed and manoeuvrability, the Ironborn live by raiding their neighbours and by selling their captives into slavery in Volantis. So too the Vikings (9th-11th centuries) depended on their longships to raid along the coasts of Europe, journeying down the rivers of Russia to the Black Sea, around the Mediterranean, and of course across the North Sea to the British Isles.

We tend to think of the Vikings as mostly interested in easily portable plunder, but in fact they were active in the European slave trade. One Icelandic saga relates how a beautiful slave-woman was acquired by an Icelander at the market on an island off southern Sweden. Melkorka turned out to be the daughter of an Irish king and her son became one of the richest men in Iceland.

Vikings exploited the market for blond-haired, well-educated slaves in the Greek empire. They raided in the Baltic territories and sold their Slav captives in Constantinople: the origin of our word ‘slave’. Vikings were also farmers and traders as well as raiders; the Word of House Greyjoy, ‘We Do Not Sow’, would not have resonated with those Vikings who lived long enough to settle with a wife and family wherever they could find land, in Scandinavia, northern Britain, Ireland or Iceland.


Viking ships arriving in Britain, c1130. Found in the collection of Pierpont Morgan Library. Artist: Abbo of Fleury. (Photo by Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images)
 

The Dothraki

After a long absence from Game of Thrones the Dothraki are set to return. Loosely based on the central Asian Mongol peoples, these copper-skinned nomadic warriors are also involved in slaving and raiding around the grasslands of the Dothraki Sea.

The Mongols ruled over the largest land empire the world has ever seen, from the Pacific Ocean to Hungary. Western churchmen often visited them during the 13th century, bringing letters from western kings and from the pope. The friars wrote detailed accounts of their journeys, relating how difficult the weather was and how strange the food and drink. Fermented mare’s milk, or kumiss, was a poor substitute for wine, though they liked the spicy horsemeat sausages.


Genghis Khan, Mongol ruler, originally named Temujin, 1683 Woodcut. (Photo by Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images)

The Mongols held all other peoples in contempt, reports one writer. Hearing about the kingdom of France, they asked “whether there were many sheep and cattle and horses there, and whether they had not better go there at once and take it all”. Will the Dothraki who have captured Daenerys be quite so ambitious? Khal Drogo swore to take his men in the “wooden horses” (ships) to attack Westeros and capture the Iron Throne for his beloved wife, but traditionally the Dothraki have never sailed across the Narrow Sea.

Overall, then, Game of Thrones’ extraordinary hold on people’s imaginations has much to do with the way it harnesses mythology and legend: archetypes such as the dragons and the Three-Eyed Raven; the tales of lost children and reanimated corpses. Yet it’s the realness of the re-imagined medieval pasts it brings so vividly to life that makes viewers believe in Essos, the Seven Kingdoms and the battle for the Iron Throne.

Carolyne Larrington teaches medieval English literature at St John’s College, Oxford. She is the author of Winter is Coming: The Medieval World of Game of Thrones (IB Tauris, November 2015).

The first episode of the sixth season of Game of Thrones airs in Britain on Sky Atlantic at 2am on Monday 25 April (and in America on HBO at 9pm EST on Sunday 24 April).

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