First aired in 2011, the TV series Game of Thrones – and George RR Martin’s fantasy novels on which it’s based – follows the dynastic clashes of the powerful families of Westeros as they scheme and fight for the Iron Throne. But though the story’s setting, plot and characters are fictional, much of it seems familiar. Martin was influenced by real people and events, notably from the medieval era – aspects of the Wars of the Roses are recognisable, as are nods to Hadrian’s Wall and the Icelandic sagas. The series is sparking wider interest in the Middle Ages – but how much are the characters, their allies and enemies drawn from history?


Margareta I

The queen who used the deaths of her husband and son as a springboard to uniting Denmark, Norway and Sweden

If there’s one experience that Queens Cersei and Daenerys – two of the leading protagonists in Game of Thrones – share with their real-life medieval counterparts, it’s that they’re playing the game by men’s rules. Female queens in the Middle Ages primarily derived their power through their relationships to royal men – fathers, husbands and sons – and, as such, were severely limited in what they could achieve.

Yet there were ways to hurdle these barriers. In Game of Thrones Cersei, wife of King Robert Baratheon, uses lies and manipulation to achieve her goals. Medieval queens, meanwhile, often influenced their husbands behind the scenes, making councillors anxious about private conversations in the royal bedchamber.

One medieval woman who defied all the odds stacked against female rulers was Queen Margareta I who – in a truly remarkable life – united the kingdoms of Denmark, Norway and Sweden. After the deaths of her father, the king of Denmark, and husband, the king of Norway, Margareta was left queen mother. When her only son, Olaf, died in his teens she held both the Norwegian and Danish crowns in her own right. The Swedes then invited her to oust their hated German ruler, Albrecht of Mecklenburg, suggesting that she could act as “the ruling lady and proper lord of Sweden until such time as she might marry”.

Instead of marrying, though, Margareta adopted her young great-nephew, Eric of Pomerania, as her son and heir. He was crowned at Kalmar in 1397 as king of the three kingdoms. Despite this, Margareta had no intention of ceding her power, remaining de facto sovereign until her death in 1412. She ruled with the agreement of the ‘great men’ (magnate councillors of the three kingdoms) but ensured that no new husband would take her power from her.

Margareta was perhaps the most successful of all medieval queens, and her achievement – the Kalmar Union of Denmark, Sweden and Norway – lasted until 1523.


Teutonic Knights

The military order that slew 'savages' in the name of God, wherever they found them

In Game of Thrones, the Night’s Watch is a dedicated order sworn to defend the Seven Kingdoms against threats from beyond the northern Wall. It’s a way of life that denies the men a home, wife or family, and which demands absolute obedience.
Absolute obedience was also a mantra for a series of military orders in medieval Europe – most specifically during the crusades. We tend to think of the crusades as wars waged in the eastern Mediterranean for possession of the Holy Land but in fact they were prosecuted in many other parts of the continent.
One of the most effective orders was that of the Teutonic Knights. Originating in a hospital for German pilgrims in Acre, the knights retreated from the kingdom of Jerusalem after its fall in 1187 and found a new role in the Holy Roman Empire. In 1233, with the support of Emperor Frederick II, they undertook the conquest and conversion of the Prussians – a conquest that took 50 years. The order’s chronicles detail their opponents’ savagery, stating that they would “roast captured brethren alive in their armour, like chestnuts, before the shrine of a local god”. The order later campaigned in Poland and Lithuania, where inhabitants resisted conversion during a war that lasted 200 years.

Geoffrey Chaucer’s knight in The Canterbury Tales (composed between 1387 and 1400) had served with the Teutonic Knights, and Chaucer tells us: “Prussia, in Latvia had he reysed, and in Russia, no Christian man so often of his degree.” The verb reyse, from the German reisen (to travel), was a term used by the knights for their summer raiding expeditions into Lithuania. Its use shows how well-informed Chaucer was about the political situation in this part of Europe.

The role of crusaders, including such orders, in the battle to impose Christianity across all of Europe continued to the end of the Middle Ages.


The Mongol hordes

The nomadic horse-riding warriors who swept across the plains of Asia and Europe to raid, plunder and spread terror

The fierce, copper-skinned Dothraki horse lords of Game of Thrones are, we’re told, born to fight and die in the saddle. Theirs is a distinct culture – centred around horses, conquest and plunder – one with a great deal in common with the Mongols, the coalition of nomadic tribes from central Asia that were united under Genghis Khan. Genghis founded what would become the largest contiguous land empire ever seen – from the Pacific Ocean to eastern Europe – in the 13th and 14th centuries.

A succession of western travellers, usually churchmen, went to visit the Mongols in the mid-13th century and chronicled their experiences, interpreting what they saw for the potentates (the pope and the Holy Roman emperor) who had sent them.

One of the first to visit the Mongol orda (court, but also our modern word horde) was Johannes de Piano Carpini, who set out in 1245, sent by Pope Innocent IV to the Great Khan, Güyük. Johannes relates how extreme the climate was as he and his companions travelled eastwards from Kiev. Dust storms, hailstorms so intense that 160 men drowned when the hail melted, scorching heat and savage cold plagued the friar on his journey.

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Johannes described the horse and cattle-dung fires, and remarked upon how little the Mongols washed. He reported that they lived in gers (yurts) and were prone to drunken binges fuelled by fermented mare’s milk, called kumiss.

Another traveller, William of Ruysbroeck, travelled to the Mongol capital of Karakorum in 1253, with letters from King Louis IX of France. William hoped to bring Catholicism to the court of Möngke Khan, and was dismayed to find that he had been forestalled by Nestorians, who disseminated this variety of Christianity, originating in Syria, as far east as China.

William’s troubles were compounded by his interpreter, whose grasp of Mongol wasn’t as comprehensive as he claimed. “When I had learned something of the language, I saw that when I said one thing, he said a totally different one,” William complains. The men at Möngke’s court were curious about his homeland: “And they began to question us greatly about the kingdom of France, whether there were many sheep and cattle and horses there, and whether they had not better go there at once and take it all,” William tells us. Eventually in-fighting between various hordes fractured the Mongol empire, but its extent has never been equalled.

Game of Thrones
Game of Thrones follows the dynastic clashes of the powerful families of Westeros as they scheme and fight for the Iron Throne, including the Lannisters. (Alamy)

A secret society of assassins

The guild of shadowy hitmen who eliminated opponents with poison-tipped daggers

If you thought that the Faceless Men of Game of Thrones – a group of contract killers with the ability to change appearance at will and whose raison d’etre was to serve their Many Faced God – were simply too far-fetched to be based on the medieval world, then think again.

The very word ‘assassin’ has its origins in a secret society of the medieval period: the Nizari Ismailis, an Islamic sect formed in the late 11th century in Persia and Syria. The Shia Nizaris opposed the Sunni Seljuq dynasty that held sway in Persia – and they seized several mountain forts including the eyrie at Alamut, in what’s now north-western Iran, which became their headquarters.

These young, vigorous men were obviously expendable yet, remarkably, they tried to avoid collateral casualties when carrying out their assignments.

Infiltrating a victim’s retinue called for particular skills and intelligence. The selective elimination of opponents through killings that were often carried out in public places struck fear into the Nizaris’ enemies and increased the sect’s political leverage. The usual weapon was a dagger, often dipped in poison. A threatening note pinned to a cake left by the bed could also be effective in bringing enemies to heel.

The main sect of assassins was finally put out of business when the Mongols destroyed its Alamut headquarters in 1256, but the Syrian branch survived into the 14th century. The great Moroccan traveller Ibn Battuta tells how the “Sultan’s Arrows”, as he called them, carried poisoned knives, and that “when he desires to send one of them to assassinate some foe of his, he pays him his blood money. If he escapes after carrying out the deed, the money is his, but if he is caught it goes to his children.”

Even more exciting than the historical facts about these assassins were the legends that spread about them in the medieval world. The 14th-century author writing as Sir John Mandeville relates how a Nizari leader known as the Old Man of the Mountain trained men in his lofty fortress. Here he had built a walled garden, a paradise with beautiful virgins and handsome young men. When a knight arrived, the Old Man would give him an intoxicating drink, then spring his offer: the knight must kill an identified target. If he died in the attempt, he would be admitted to a paradise a hundred times lovelier than the hallucinatory mountaintop garden.

In Marco Polo’s equally unreliable account, the intoxicant is a drug: “He caused opium to be administered to 10 or a dozen of the youths; and when half-dead with sleep, he had them conveyed to […] the garden.”

The sect’s foes claimed that the killers used hashish – which eventually became assassin. This term describing secretive, hired killers migrated quickly into European languages, appearing in English as early as 1340.


Narses, warrior eunuch

The brilliant Byzantine general who drove the Goths from Italy

To many medieval people, the idea of a formidable eunuch fighting force sweeping all before it – as does Queen Daenerys’ eunuch army of the Unsullied in Game of Thrones – would have seemed absurd. In real life, such an army would have been of little use: boys castrated young developed very little muscle and tended to run to fat.

Nevertheless, eunuchs comprised an important component of many medieval societies, from Constantinople to China, fetching good prices in slave marts. And though eunuchs were rarely good fighters, they often made successful military leaders. Narses (c478–573 AD), a Byzantine eunuch general sent by the Emperor Justinian to campaign against the OstroGoths, was regarded by contemporary chroniclers as effective and strategic (“for a eunuch”, they often added), conquering Rome and driving the Ostrogoths from Italy. Narses’ success was not down to personal courage but, rather, to the logistical and administrative skills that he demonstrated in organising armies, just as he had organised the civil service back in Constantinople. He enforced discipline among his men, but just as important was his capacity to ensure that they got paid on time and that their rations were delivered.

Another eunuch, Peter Phokas, was a leading Byzantine general during the reign of Nikephoros II Phokas (AD 963–69), who helped repel a Russian invasion of south-east Europe. He even, according to the chroniclers, defeated the “enormous” enemy leader in single combat. “Brandishing his lance in both hands… [he] threw it at the Scythian [Russian]. So powerful was the blow that he split his body from front to back… and the enemy fell to the ground without a word”.

Yet, in reality, it seems that intelligence and speed of reaction, not muscle, won the day for this outstanding eunuch general – and for his fellow castrates holding high rank.

Carolyne Larrington teaches medieval literature at St John’s College, Oxford and has written on mythology, Arthurian legend, Old Norse literature and the writings of medieval women


This article was first published in the Christmas 2015 issue of BBC History Magazine