"Game of Thrones" in real life: Actual history, just as epic as George R.R. Martin's tales

There are many parallels to real history and places in George R.R. Martin's novels

By Ed West

Published April 6, 2019 11:00AM (EDT)

Alnwick Castle in Alnwick, Northumberland, England. (Getty/tenback)
Alnwick Castle in Alnwick, Northumberland, England. (Getty/tenback)

Excerpted with permission from Iron, Fire, and Ice: The Real History that Inspired Game of Thrones by Ed West. Copyright 2019 by Skyhorse Publishing, Inc.

Medieval history has fascinated me since I was old enough to pick up a book, exerting I suppose a sort of lurid fascination with the conflict and misery. However bad you think things are, they were once a lot worse, and much of what happened in the period was far more squalid than anything George R.R. Martin’s imagination has ever produced. And yet grimily fascinating as the violence and titillation is, the real strength of "Game of Thrones" lies in its characters, and this is also what makes it so historically accurate, at least in tone and feel.

Much historical fiction basically has people with twenty-first century moral values dressed up in appealing period costume, yet few people in the middle ages, and no one in antiquity, would have thought like we do today. Some think history is important because we get to find out how people in the past were similar to us—the drive to make it more relevant—but it’s often more interesting how different they were. The two "Game of Thrones" characters with whom we sympathize—and who sympathize with others—are both outcasts of sorts, a bastard and a dwarf, but more common in history would be a figure like Tywin Lannister, a man who does terrible things and yet not out of cartoonish malice but because they further the interests of his family. That essential clannishness is true to life of most history, and indeed much of the globe today, while our individualistic worldview would have been quite alien to the real men and women fighting England’s game of thrones.

I called it “the real history that inspired 'Game of Thrones'” but it is of course only my interpretation, drawing on events that most mirror George R. R. Martin’s creation—although some figures are quite obviously based on real people. Tywin is clearly King Edward I, a tall, ruthless warlord whose pursuit of dynastic dominance brought misery to the small folk across Britain. He also despised his son, a medieval outcast of a different sort to Tyrion.

Most of the action in my book takes place in a period known as the Crisis of the Late Middle Ages, which began soon after Edward’s death when the climate in Europe dramatically changed, a sharp drop in temperature that heralded the start of the “Little Ice Age.” Millions would starve, but worse was to come—a devastating plague, growing religious extremism with groups resembling the Sparrows, war between England and France, and eventually the bitter dynastic conflict between the Houses of York and Lancaster…

* * *

Alnwick Castle was the first line of defense if ever the wild men from beyond the wall poured over the border. A forbidding fortress built on a slope and controlling the only passable road on the English side of the Cheviot Hills, it was built to hold the North. The only way in to the citadel was via the barbican, an intimidating gateway overlooked by a tower, and through this narrow passage, with thick wooden doors at either end, the daily traffic of horses and men would bring supplies to the castle. When the invaders came to rape and pillage the villages of the North, as they had done for centuries, men and women would swarm into the castle seeking the protection of their lord.

Built in the eleventh century, Alnwick is deep inside Northumberland, England’s most northerly county, and just twenty miles from the border with Scotland, inside a frontier country that had become increasingly lined with fortresses. The castle had been enhanced over the years with a solid portcullis gate protecting the entrance, with heavily-defended battlements, a twenty-one-foot drop below the drawbridge and walls seven feet thick, as well as a moat. Looking down at the surrounding area was an octagonal tower decorated with thirteen stone shields representing the families who had married into the House of Percy down the generations.

If the outer door of the barbican was ever penetrated by invaders, it still presented a daunting prospect, overlooked by four high towers from which loyal northern men could fire at the enemy below—using arrows or missiles, boiling water or oil. If the barbican fell, the castle still had two courtyards, or baileys, from which last gasp fighting could be carried out. The fortress of House Percy had been built to keep them in the North.

Just as in Westeros the King’s Road heads from King’s Landing to Winterfell and to beyond the wall, so in real life the Great North Road led all the way from London to Edinburgh—Castle Rock, as its fortress was called—passing by the stronghold of Alnwick. Whoever controlled Alnwick therefore controlled the main route from Scotland to the South, and by the catastrophic year of 1315, when the long winter began, this was the House of Percy. And from Alnwick, the Percys dominated the frontier with the Scots who lived beyond the great wall once built by the Romans (although in reality Alnwick, like a tiny portion of England, lies north of the wall).

The Percys were the leading house in the North, and if the Scots came it was their burden to raise men to repel them. They had rivals, of course, so while Henry de Percy, the First Baron Percy, was recognized as the strongest northern lord, there was also Neville, Lord of Raby, Clifford, Lord of Westmorland, Lucy, Lord of Cockermouth, Dacre, Lord of Gilsland and Umfraville, Lord of Redesdale. They were all proud families with their own pedigrees, but the Percys were kings in the North. In the words of historian Alexander Rose, “In that tumultuous place, the Westminster-based, Southern king’s writ hardly ran. In Percy country, there was Percy law backed by a Percy army paid for by Percy money.”

Like most of the country’s leading clans, they had not always been from the island. The Percy histories claimed as their oldest ancestor Mainfred, or Manni, who in the year AD 896 arrived in France after pillaging in England. He was a Dane, or as we would call him now, a Viking, and like many of his kind, settled in a region of Francia that came to be called Normandy. From the Percy lordship in Pays de Caux, north-west of Rouen, one of their number had arrived in England alongside William the Conqueror in 1066 when England’s ruling class was ruthlessly eliminated and replaced by a French-speaking elite.

From minor lords in the wilder, rougher north of the country, which the Normans had treated with special brutality, the Percys had risen to become the most powerful family in the region. Just eleven generations after arriving on the island, a Percy was made Earl of Northumberland, by which time they had made themselves true men of the North. They were not just powerful and rich, but well-loved too. Northern men followed them with their arms and their hearts, and at their command thousands would appear in the field, men for whom the king in London was a distant figure who spoke a strange dialect. And the Percys had always looked after their men. The records down in London show Henry de Percy writing to the chancellor on behalf of a valet: “Aleyn, son of Sir Thomas de Heton, who might have lost his land” had his lord not defended his corner. Percy’s son would speak on behalf of attainders who had fought loyally for the crown so that they might be spared punishment for the violent crimes they had committed at home. The Percy soldiers were paid out of his own pocket, knowing that silver promised from the crown might take an age to reach men with hungry families.

The Percys came to dominate the local honors, among them Warden of the East March, whose role it was to secure the eastern portion of the border with Scotland. They were in charge of justice, too. In Westeros, “the man who passes the sentence should swing the sword,” and executions are carried out in the king's name without any sort of trial. It was not quite the case in real life, although local lords were tasked with the grim task with punishing lawbreakers after their guilt was determined, for “he who prosecutes shall carry out the judgement,” as the twelfth century code of Preston in Lancashire goes.

The most recent Henry de Percy had, in 1294, adopted the lion as the symbol of his house, in tribute to a founder of the dynasty, Joscelin de Louvain—leeuwen being Flemish for lion. Their new heraldic symbol—called sigils in Westeros—reflected the Percys’ rising status. The art of heraldry was in its infancy, showing the importance of lineage and the most important thing to a man in the medieval world: who your father was. And just as the ruling houses of Westeros traced their lineage back to obscure and semi-mythical kings, in medieval England those of royal blood descended from the rulers of Wessex, Mercia, and Northumbria, the ancient kingdoms of the island, which were eventually united before being conquered in 1066 by Normandy’s Duke William. Families placed great importance on their pedigree, and heraldry gave courage in battle, so that “a knight of good lineage would be emboldened in the field by recollection of his ancestors’ brave deeds and spurred on in bravery himself by a desire to add to the family roll of honour.”

Henry de Percy’s maternal grandfather had been John de Warenne, the powerful Earl of Surrey who, back in 1278, had been served with a royal writ of quo warranto (“by what right”). The terrifying King Edward I, on whom Tywin Lannister is based, determined to learn which subjects had usurped royal privileges in order to claim them back, demanded of each man proof of how he came by his property. De Warenne, approached by the king’s men, drew his rusty sword and declared that this was his warrant, for “My ancestors came with William the Bastard, and conquered their lands with the sword, and I will defend them with the sword against anyone wishing to seize them.” His grandson Henry Percy had been knighted by that same King Edward in March 1296 while besieging Berwick, Scotland’s largest city; three years later he became the first Lord Percy as his reward.

The border wars came at great cost; in March 1307 Percy and three hundred of his men were at Turnberry Castle in Carrick when they were attacked by the Scottish leader Robert the Bruce. The fighting was so horrific it was rumored afterwards that Percy was afraid to go into Scotland again. In the autumn of 1314, as the harsh Northumbrian winter approached, Percy was forced to defend nearby Newcastle and lead a raiding party north. He died in early October, most likely fatally wounded while fighting Scottish raiders.

He died, but his house survived. As Tywin Lannister puts it, “Before long I'll be dead, and you and your brother and your sister and all of her children, all of us dead, all of us rotting underground. It’s the family name that lives on. It’s all that lives on. Not your personal glory, not your honor... but family.” Of 136 barons summoned to Westminster between 1295 and 1300, only sixteen of their houses were left in 1500, and the Percys were among the survivors. In fact, they still survive today, and still live in Alnwick six months of the year, the other half of which it is used as a film set to fund its maintenance. Fans of the Harry Potter films will recognize it as Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.

The Percys almost didn’t survive the following century, with four heirs in succession killed in conflict with the crown, and a dynastic conflict between Edward I’s descendants, the Houses of York and Lancaster. By the time that war had burned itself out the bones of three or four generations of some families would be scattered across the battlefields of England. During this period, 25 percent of male aristocrats in the kingdom died violently, and some houses were entirely wiped out in a cycle of vengeance that came to break all the laws of warfare.

The story would fascinate future generations, retold in the plays of William Shakespeare and later by the nineteenth-century novelist Walter Scott, who popularized the name “the War of the Roses” in reference to the emblems of the two families. It was this dynastic conflict that would provide much of the historical inspiration for George R. R. Martin when he wrote his fantasy series, about the struggle to win the Iron Throne by competing families, in particular the Lannisters and Starks – the latter of which in many ways resemble the Percys. Martin, a keen fan of popular history, has spoken on occasions about the people and periods that he drew on. A Song of Ice and Fire is set in “the Realm,” or Seven Kingdoms, a country comprising the southern half of the island of Westeros.

As well as being an epic fantasy in its own right, "Game of Thrones" is also a fantastic (in both senses of the word) retelling of the story of the real Realm—England. It was inspired, in the author’s own words, not just by “The Wars of the Roses... but also the Hundred Years War, the Crusades, the Norman Conquest”, and along the way the story takes in a sweep of European and Near Eastern history, from the ancient worlds of Egypt, Rome, and Greece, through to the flowering of medieval civilization and beyond to the Renaissance and the birth of the early modern world. As John Lanchester wrote of the series: “The Wars of the Roses, in this reimagining, are—as they surely were in real life—a blood-soaked, treacherous, unstable world, saturated in political rivalries, in which nobody is safe… It’s not a world any sane person would want to live in, not for a moment.”

The real Realm of England had grown out of seven kingdoms carved out by three Germanic tribes, the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes, arriving in Britain as Rome’s control of western Europe collapsed. The kingdom, united four centuries before Henry de Percy’s time, shared the island of Britain with various peoples beyond a wall on its northern frontier, speaking a mixture of tongues, as well as surviving British speakers on two peninsulas in the west and south-west.

The island’s thriving economic hub had for many years been London, settled on the north bank of the River Thames by the Romans, and with access to the continent, especially the rich markets of Flanders, northern France and the German “free imperial cities” across the North Sea. Here the king of England sat in Westminster Hall, once part of a tiny island a mile upstream from Lundenberg (as the Saxons called it) but now a western suburb of the city. Like the Great Hall of the Red Keep, this is where the monarch kept court.

The throne sat at the south end of the hall by a twelve-foot-long marble slab, the King’s Table, which long symbolized the monarch’s power. The current King’s Table dated to the reign of Edward I’s father Henry III, replacing a far older wooden slab that once would have travelled around the country with the monarch. The throne itself, the King’s Seat, was modelled on the Biblical throne of Solomon and carved with lions, emblems of the kingdom and Edward’s house. Marble thrones had become symbols of great imperial prestige, used by the still surviving eastern Roman emperors in far-off Constantinople—the “Queen of Cities” that, with its water-chain and its use of a mysterious flaming liquid, would also provide much inspiration to Martin’s world.

London, from where the king ruled his realm, was perhaps home to sixty thousand people, far smaller than Granada, Seville, Milan or Venice (the inspiration for Braavos). A teeming, bustling, and squalid city, London had long sprawled out of its ancient Roman wall and extended from the Tower in the east to the River Fleet to the west.

The Tower of London, built by the Normans in order to control the city and intimidate it, was a royal fortress, apartment block, and even zoo, home to an elephant and leopard. It was also a prison, from which only one man had ever escaped, Ranulf Flambard in 1101, a bishop notorious for scamming both rich and poor out of their wealth. The Tower also had a library of 160 volumes, one of the biggest in England—although in real life people’s reading tastes were rather lowbrow, fifty-nine of these books being trashy romances, with the Queen of England among the keenest borrowers. In Westeros, The Citadel, headquarters of the Order of Maesters in Oldtown, has the “largest library in the Known World” but in England at the time even the greatest book collections scaled into insignificance compared to their ancient equivalents or those of the Islamic Golden Age, and would do so until the seventeenth century.

London was grotesquely unhygienic, a city drowning in its own filth. One Londoner complained that blood from animals filled nearby streets “making a foul corruption and abominable sight to all dwelling near,” and it was not unknown for men to drown in shit, or for the smell and squalor to drive people to murder. Across the river Thames, Southwark was famed for its very strong beer made from brownish Thames water, but also for its large numbers of brothels—“stews”—most of them, strangely, owned by the Bishop of Winchester.

London, and the far larger Paris, were the inspiration for King’s Landing. In contrast while the North of Westeros “is like its Warden: stark, unforgiving, masculine and wild”, the north of England was described by a Tudor traveller as a “rough and barren” land. According to the twelfth century chronicle, the Gesta Stephani, “the root and origin of all evil arose in that part of England called Northumbria to produce plunder and arson, strife and war.” Or as a fifteenth century writer put it: “The north, whence all evil spreads.”

Long ago it had been a kingdom in its own right, Northumbria, one of seven in early medieval England, a chaotic and violent time commonly called the Dark Ages. Its two warring kings brutally killed by Viking invaders in 865, Northumbria had been heavily settled by Norsemen, a Scandinavian legacy still reflected in Yorkshire dialect today. A century later it had been the last region to come under the sway of the southern kings of Wessex who had united the country, and retained a distinctive, semi-Scandinavian identity for far longer. Reluctant to help the southern lords fight off the Norman invaders in 1066, the northern men had afterwards most ferociously opposed the conquerors, and been crushed as a result. Hundreds of thousands died, whole villages were destroyed, and the region never recovered.

Border life was still tough, centuries later, as it always had been. The Flemish chronicler Froissart wrote that here saddles were “all rotten and broken, and most part of their horses hurt on their backs… nor they had nothing to make fire but green boughs, the which would not burn because of the rain.”

In the North some traditions held on longer, stories of shapeshifters that dated back at least to Saxon times before the conquest. Beyond lay the terror of Scotland, a barren, cold land with its folk tales of sith, or aes sídhe, supernatural undead beings who lived in the Land of the Dead, having been driven into remote areas by invaders. In Scottish folklore, these creatures formed the slaughe sidhe, the “fairy horde,” an army of the undead. Few on the English side of the wall believed that anymore; the living Scots were terrifying enough, as was to be proved when soon after Baron’s Percy’s death the army of the realm headed deep beyond the wall—only to meet with disaster, a catastrophe that would plunge the kingdom into civil war.

But worse still, people across the Realm and beyond had noticed that the weather was turning. On the colder fringes of the known world those on the margins felt it first as the temperatures plunged, and soon the cold rains would begin, and the crops would fail. Winter was coming.

By Ed West


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