I’ve been a bit obsessed by the The Wars of the Roses lately. I look at it like a really, really old season of Scandal, just with much worse hygiene. But apparently I’m not alone in my fascination, because author George RR Martin has made no secret that his A Song of Ice and Fire series (aka Game of Thrones) is based loosely on The Wars of the Roses. Cool. GRRM gets it.
Now, while the books/TV show that you and I know by heart is no allegory for the multi-decade conflict, there are a whole lot of parallels we can draw. So here is where I tear into the major characters like I am Henry VIII clawing apart a whole roasted chicken (I know, I know, the Tudors come later, but seriously, that man could really eat!).
The Lancasters Always Pay Their Debts
First, you need to understand that the (over-simplistic and somewhat misleading) gist of real-life The Wars of the Roses is that it’s a tale of two families battling for the English throne.
First, the Lancasters ruled. Then the Yorks. And back and forth, and a bit wiggly all around for a while. Complicated. Now, notice the similarities in the names. Familiar, eh?
Lancaster = Lannister, York = Stark
Lancaster’s (alleged) red rose sigil = Lannister’s red lion sigil
York’s (alleged) white rose sigil = Stark’s white dire wolf sigil
You see? Even linguistically and symbolically, it’s pretty obvious where GRRM started. Even the map of Westeros loosely resembles the UK.
In fact, the only place where the allegory really falls apart is how kindly the Starks are portrayed by GRRM. The real-life Yorks were mostly some really greedy assholes. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Let’s jump in and look at how I see the characters lining up:
Richard II = Mad King Aerys (Aerys II)
King Richard II is largely considered the first major victim of The Wars of the Roses (TWOTR). See, Richard II had ruled the kingdom since he was only ten years old and by most accounts he had grown up to be a right little shit. His egocentric hobbies included building monuments to himself and surrounding himself with sycophants. After his wife, Anne of Bohemia, died, Richard started to become outwardly paranoid and began executing and banishing most of his rivals. This didn’t go over so well with his (recently banished) cousin, Henry Bolingbroke, who raised an army against him, and threw him in prison, where he shortly thereafter died–possibly murdered, possibly starved to death, accounts differ.
Mad King Aerys II
Aerys II also ascended to the throne via largely non-disputed lineage. Good for him. But that didn’t help him much after his paranoia and general insanity caused him to start offing rivals, oh yeah, and playing with fire. As with Richard II, those who had once been close to him started throwing shade his way, distrusting the king’s actions and motives. Eventually Aerys II was overthrown in Robert’s Rebellion. Of course, Aerys’s death was much swifter…and pointier. No prison for him.
There are, of course, many differences between the characters. Aerys’s affinity for kidnapping and pyrotechnics sets him apart from his historical doppelgänger. But ultimately, both lost the throne that rightfully belonged to them because they lost their grip on reality. And when that happens, there is always someone waiting in the wings to pluck the crown of the king’s head.
King Henry IV = Robert Baratheon
As we already noted above, Henry IV (Henry Bolingbroke, as-was) raised an army to overthrow his king and take the crown for himself. Had he been unsuccessful, this would have been foul treason. Luckily for him, his successful campaign put him and his family in a position of power. Not so luckily, this also set a dangerous precedent that family members could overthrow each other in order to take the crown. His reign was marked by ongoing war with France (started by his grandpappy, Edward III), but was otherwise largely unremarkable. Henry IV lived to the age of 45, and died in his bed of still-undiagnosed mystery disease(s). The throne passed to his son, Henry V without incident.
Robert Baratheon, First of His Name
Yeah, tying these two together almost exclusively hinges on their common rebellions, and the fact that they both died in bed-–in Robert’s case, suffering from a boar mauling while hunting. In both cases, the case for the rebellion seemed, to most historical perspectives, at least partially righteous given the foulness of their predecessors. But in both cases the bloodshed to take the throne may have been the first bit of dye spilled in what would become horrible and magnificent wars to follow. Thanks, Robert. Thanks, Henry. Your kingdoms owe you.
Richard, Duke of York = Ned Stark
Richard Plantagenet, Duke of York (3rd Duke of York)
We now speed forward in Roses history to approximately 60 years after Henry IV took the throne. His grandson, Henry VI, is the truly insane King of Great Britain.
At the royal court, Richard, Duke of York, by all accounts, was a loyal servant to his Lancaster king, Henry VI, and worked tirelessly to protect the realm especially once King Nuttypants went into a a catatonic stupor at the age of 32. Once that happened, Richard was named Protector of the Realm. Score. Unfortunately this did not sit well with Mrs. Queen Nuttypants, Margaret of Anjou, who was fiercely protective of the 7 year-old shithead son, the prince, and had every interest in keeping her drooling husband on the throne and preserving the power for her spawn. Protector Richard was a threat to all of that. She was especially rattled that Richard had openly accused her of illegitimately conceiving the little prince, since…you know…King Nuttypants had been staring at his toes and drooling for many moons before the child’s conception. Funny notion, eh? It didn’t help his case when Henry eventually “awoke” and declared that the child was fathered by the Holy Ghost.
Displeased by Protector Richard’s accusations and powerful role in the kingdom, Margaret of Anjou had Richard dismissed from office (picture Ned slamming his Hand of the King pin down on the table). Former Protector Richard was riled by the thought of this Queen dismissing loyal servants in order to put her bastard on the throne, and raised an army against her. Richard and the Yorks (cool band name, right?) ultimately routed Margaret’s forces, capturing the throne for themselves.
Sadly, though, Richard did not survive to see it. He died in battle, and his head was placed on a spike atop the castle walls. His eldest surviving son would go on to become king in his place.
When you think of Ned Stark, you think loyalty. And maybe that sexy voice. No, stop it. We have to focus on history. Ned served his king, King Robert Baratheon, loyally and worked tirelessly as Hand of the King to protect the realm from the unscrupulous servants who borrowed money for king’s tourneys and poisoned the last Hand of the King. While Robert Baratheon didn’t check out due to mental health issues, his analogous undoing was a combination of the distracting whores who kept his attention away from the realm, and the boar that laid him low. Ned and Protector Richard both had bigger problems than distracted and disabled kings. They both had a queen problem. And when Ned ran afoul of Cersei and her children, he ended up with his head on a spike atop the castle walls, just like Headless Richard. Both started a battle with the noblest of intentions, more or less, and both didn’t live to see the fruits of their efforts. Did I say “fruits”? I meant shitstorm. Neither lived to see the shitstorms they started.
Margaret of Anjou = Cersei Lannister
Margaret of Anjou
As we just learned above, Margaret of Anjou’s tale almost perfectly parallels Cersei’s beginnings. She had a king husband who had checked out–in her case, mentally. And she had a son, Edward of Westminster, who was said to be illegitimate (granted, by opposition forces), a real cruel shithead by most accounts, and had a very weak claim to the throne if pressed. Margaret ousted the king’s favorite and most loyal advisor, Richard, Duke of York, in favor of putting…(maybe her baby daddy?)…Edmund Beaufort in the Protector seat of power. No incest involved. Probably. This blond queen was a cunning upstart who surprised a lot of men in her grab for power. Her tale ends in defeat and exile.
Cersei is such a strong and central figure that it’s hardly fair to compare her only to a single historical figure, especially as she evolves in later books/seasons. But her beginnings, at least, are very closely framed around the Margaret of Anjou story. Instead of Edmund Beaufort being her champion and baby daddy, she had her twin brother, Jaimie Lannister. Poor Baratheons and Lancasters. They never saw either of these ladies coming and lost it all to their fierceness, cunning, and love of their children. One wonders how Cersei’s story will end in the books (we ignore that ludicrous television ending).
Edward of Westminster =
Edward of Westminster
Edward of Westminster (aka Edward of Lancaster) was rumored to be a horrible little shit who loved violence and power. He was raised as the next in line to the throne after his (alleged) father, King “Nuttypants” Henry VI. He was well-indulged by his mother and took great delight in calling for executions, even for members of his advisors’ counsel. His mother, Margaret of Anjou, was not successful in putting him on the throne, despite her mighty and ferocious efforts. The little turd died on the battlefield at the age of 17, either in the course of battle, or captured and beheaded before the battle commenced. Or stabbed in front of the King. Th point is, he died.
It’s hard to imagine that even Prince Edward was as vicious as Joff was. The crossbow-wielding mama’s boy liked to use whores for target practice and hide from battle. Sadly for the citizens of Westeros, his aversion to the battlefield meant that he never had a chance to meet the same end as his doppelgänger, Edward. Instead, he sat the throne ever so briefly. With both boys, it is well-implied that had they been sensible and intelligent, they may have been allowed to have and keep their crowns, and the ensuing wars may have never happened. But then we wouldn’t get to see the pigeon pie, and that would be just a shame.
King Edward IV & Elizabeth Woodville =
Robb Stark & Jeyne Westerling / Talisa
King Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville
Remember the poor ill-fated Richard, Duke of York (aka Ned Stark)? He ran afoul of the queen and ended up with his head on a spike? Well, I mentioned before that his York forces actually won the fray and claimed the throne. Since Headless Richard’s puss was dangling from a spike, his son, Edward had to take the throne in his place, and he became King Edward IV.
King Edward was (allegedly) a hunk-a eye candy who was naturally charismatic, talented in battle, and a decent monarch. But early on in his reign, he decided to marry a commoner in secret, and very much against the wishes of his advisors. His new bride, Elizabeth Woodville, had no international connections, nor a prominent family name. But she was pretty. And their match may have been genuinely romantic.
His marriage created such a division among his supporters that people started to plot against him–even his own brothers, perhaps right up until and still after the King’s death. King Edward IV died rather suddenly of (probably) pneumonia after he caught a cold on a fishing trip. He was only 41. History notes little about his illness, other than to remark how unexpected it was, so those of us with skeptical minds wonder if it was a mere illness, or something more devious that took him out, especially knowing how quickly opposing forces murdered his two boys after Eddie was laid to rest.
Elizabeth Woodville mourned her dead husband and sons, but went on to live fairly comfortably under the rule of the successive victorious kings.
Robb Stark and Talisa (Jeyne Westerling)
Robb Stark was another (arguably more) handsome young man who wasn’t groomed for the throne, but took up the mantle after his father died at the hands of a merciless blond queen and her psychotic son.
Robb may not have taken the Iron Throne proper, but declared himself king anyway. And much like his real-life counterpart, his advisors were quite tickled to wed him advantageously to secure the throne and stabilize his kingdom (as-was). But noooo, primping King Robb of the North couldn’t stand the thought of the poor Frey girls, so he got it on with…well, that depends. If you’re a book reader, he got it on with the woman who nursed him, Jeyne Westerling. If you’re a TV viewer, he got it on with war nurse Talisa. Whomever she is in your mind, Robb married Jeyne/Talisa in spite of her lack of political advantage or the ability to cross the Green Fork river at the Twins. But she was pretty, and their match was steamingly hot romantical.
This imprudent, if romantic marriage, caused some of his officers to plot against him, and ultimately allowed the long arm of Cersei’s power to reach all the way to the Twins and have him executed. This was hardly the death-by-sniffles end that King Edward IV met, but both men were cut short in (more or less) their primes.
Poor Talisa paid the ultimate, pointy price as well (and taking her son with her). But Martin’s Jeyne survives and lives a miserable, if comfortable existence in the shadow of the war victors.
George, Duke of Clarence + Richard III = Theon Greyjoy
George, Duke of Clarence & Richard, Duke of Gloucester
George, Duke of Clarence was the younger brother of King Edward IV of the House of York (aka Robb Stark). And George was an up-jumping ass. He was never satisfied that his older brother got to have the crown and made repeated attempts to overthrow his brother, all of which failed. Most notably, sometime shortly after 1469, George ran off to join forces with Margaret of Anjou (aka Cersei Lannister) in hopes that his brother would be overthrown, and he could take the throne instead. Except that George was a dolt, and when he realized that none of his cohorts were actually going to give him the throne, he ran back to the king begging for forgiveness.
King Edward IV had so much sympathy and love for brother George that he continually let him off the hook. But finally, in 1478, Volatile George crossed the line for the last time by having a servant executed, and King Edward was finally resigned to putting George to death, though he granted his beloved brother his choice of how he would die. George, always the fool, chose to be drowned in a butt of Malmsey wine. And so he went to his grapey death in the Tower of London.
Richard, Duke of Gloucester, was the youngest brother of Edward IV and Wine-Soaked George, and he also had a taste for power. He kept quiet after the whole wine-drowning fiasco, and kindly waited until his King brother died (allegedly) from many diseases before making a move for the throne.
Even though King Eddie IV’s sons were next in line for the throne, and his eldest was even named King Edward V, Ricky was not having any of it. So he locked 12 year-old Edward V and his little brother, 9 year-old Richard, in a tower. Tragically, Eddie V and Little Richard were probably murdered during their imprisonment. Probably. But to this day, a great mystery surrounds their disappearance from the tower. Most believe that Uncle Ricky was responsible for having them offed. Oh, and you probably know Uncle Ricky as King Richard III. Yeah, he snatched the crown with the boys out of the way.
Theon was every bit a brother to Robb Stark, so it came as a horrible shock to King Robb (though no one else in the Stark family), when Theon decided to turn coat and join up with his father’s forces in the hopes of securing the Iron Islands for himself as prince…or king…or something. Theon never thought very far ahead. There were certainly points when King Robb would’ve have spared Theon out of brotherly affection, had he come back on his knees, just as George Duke of Clarence had a habit of doing. But we all know he ran out of chances after convincing the world that he had executed the two small Stark boys (in reality, two farm boys).
In the world of Westeros, the official record is that Theon executed the two boys next in line for the northern throne. But, the realm has started to suspect what viewers and readers already know about the charred boys. So what is G.R.R. Martin trying to imply? Does he favor the historical side that believes Richard III could have never really killed his boy nephews? That he let them escape, but kept it secret?
Well, our [book] Theon is still alive, if quite mutilated, and one cannot help but wonder how he might meet his end. Could a butt of wine be in his future? Or at least the infamous Sir Dontos wine bong? Or will he meet an end more like Richard III and be killed and dragged naked through the countryside by horses? Tough call. Tough call.
Henry Tudor = Daenerys Targaryen
Henry Tudor (King Henry VII)
Henry Tudor was the descendant of a long-ago monarch, King Edward III. Sort of. Kind of. A wee bit. Okay, his legitimacy was spotty. But at the time that Henry Tudor, a strong battle-tested warrior and wise ruler (by most accounts) started to reach for power, he was the Lancaster with the strongest claim to the throne. So it was around him that a number of Lancaster supporters flocked when they decided it was time to chuck King Edward IV…and then King Richard III, off the throne. He fought nobly and won the day. Okay, and maybe executed two little princes in a tower along the way and let Ricky III take the blame. Hey, war means death. And when you play a game of thrones you win or…
Daenerys “Stormborn” is the daughter of a sort-of-long-ago monarch, King Aerys II. Straight-up. No question, silver hair, love of fire, and all. And given that she is the only (known) remaining Targaryen heir left in the world, it is up to her to raise an army and chuck the Lannisters off the throne.
As for her fate? It seems to diverge quite a bit from Henry’s. Daenarys had too much fire in her blood to start a new dynasty. Had they played according to TWOTR script, Dany’s fate would have mirrored that of Hank VII, who married the daughter of a dead foe–and also the sister of the boys in the tower (read: Bran & Rickon) in order to unite the kingdom and solidify power. So if we reverse the genders, subtract the one, and multiply the whole thing by aaah-ooo-gaa!, that means she should have married Jon Snow and made a bunch of babies.
Of course, Henry lived within the realms of men. Long-ago England didn’t have to worry about White Walkers and The Children. And no dragons. And no Benioff and Weiss to utterly fuck it up because they are fascinated with superhero movies at the moment. Damn, the ending of the TV series was unbelievable bullshit. Maybe if the writers had cracked a few more history books, we all could’ve had a very interesting farewell to the show, and I could start writing about Dany’s son marrying six wives and getting fat at banquets.
I never get my way. Someone get me my butt of Malmsey wine!
I think Cersei Lannister is based more upon Shakespeare’s Margaret of Anjou rather than the real one – which has a larger than life and highly dramatised portrayal that bigged up the Queen as an arch villain. The real Margaret was different from Cersei in a number of ways:
1) Age & looks – the actress who plays Cersei is a lot older than Margaret was during the 1450s and early 1460s. In looks and age the real Margaret of Anjou would have been very much more like the actress who plays Daenerys. Margaret was only 25 when the first battle of the war of the roses was fought at St Albans in 1455.
2) Scheming – the real Margaret was not much of a schemer; she was very much straight down the line (which may have been her problem). Margaret had a strong sense of what was right and what was not and tended to be inflexible and upfront about it. She found it very hard to forge a political alliance with Warwick (because she blamed him for the war of the roses starting in the first place). Her cousin King Louis of France (by contrast) was the ultimate schemer; he could not understand her problem & argued with her for weeks that surely the ends justified the means (something Margaret found very hard to agree with).
3) Cersei is a big of a cold fish, Margaret (when in a good mood) was probably quite bubbly and even humorous at times. Her court had a reputation for being fairly lively & unlike her husband (who limited his reading to religious subjects), Margaret preferred Boccaccio (an Italian humanist poet quite famous at the time), a generally more lively read, who often wrote about romance and the naturalness of sex. Her letters show she was quite chatty and even when she was chastising people, she was usually passive aggressive rather than overtly threatening. She wouldn’t threaten people with a sinister fate (as Cersei would) but was more likely to say she was “displeased” but not to worry because you could easily regain her favour if you did what she said.
4) Margaret had very little blood on her hands compared to virtually all her male contemporaries. At most she was responsible for ordering the deaths of two people without a proper trial (far fewer than Edward IV).
5) Margaret cared about common folk, at least to some extent – strange though it may seem given what we might think of her because of Shakespeare. In her last will and testament she asks her cousin to look after her servants and make sure they are paid (can’t imagine Cersei doing that). In one of her letters she wrote to powerful elites of London in defence of her common tenants – asking them not to steal horses from them. In 1458 Warwick was involved in what was probably a drunken brawl with some of Margaret’s servants (in particular a cook) – Warwick accused the cook of trying to kill him & to placate him Margaret ordered the cook imprisoned and agreed that the cook should be executed for attempted murder. After Warwick departed however, Margaret freed the cook, gave him some gold and told him to flee for his life lest Warwick or his men decided to take the law into their own hands.
6) Unlike Cersei, Margaret very much shared Robert Baratheon’s passion for hunting – she spent a lot more time hunting than her own husband! She was also very passionate about her dogs and horses. (quite a few of her surviving letters talk about hunting, horses and dogs.)
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I absolutely love this analysis! Thank you for adding some texture to my vision of Margaret of Anjou. You are quite right that Cersei is no direct reflection of Margaret in temperament or deeds, and the more we explore Cersei’s arc, the farther she deviates from Margaret.
However, I can easily imagine that when GRRM sat down to outline the world and characters, Margaret of Anjou was his jumping off point, if you will. While Cersei is more likely to scheme, both are calculating and confident women trying to hold their courts together with metaphorical pins and glue.
I find the “book Cersei” also has more nuance than the television character. Lena Headey was always a bit of an odd casting choice as well, especially since she opted to take the character down a more diabolical and angry road right from the start without a lot of room for change or growth (or regression). You had me looking up ages, though! Headey was 38 at the beginning of the show, where as the character would have been about 32. Margaret was 41 when her son died at Tewkesbury. Cersei was 34 when her son died at the “purple wedding”, and Lena Headey was 40 at the time of filming the “purple wedding”. So I guess the ages weren’t too far off.
Thank you for reading, and for sharing this fantastic insight!
Some of this is a lil’ bit inaccurate, although I really did enjoy reading it and appreciate the effort you took in synthesising the events so well:
You say Edward IV died in battle at the hands of Margaret of Anjou’s forces and then go on to write his correct death later i.e. of unknown natural causes in bed.
You also say that Edward Earl of March was Richard Duke of York’s eldest, when actually his eldest, Edmund Earl of Rutland, died alongside him at Wakefield during their walk after the truce.
You also say that Edward of Westminster was 7 during his father’s illness, which actually began in August 1453. Edward was born in October of that year and therefore could believably be Henry’s son. His bloodthirstiness is also disputed.
Oh – and I forgot to mention. I loved your assessment of the Yorks’ true characters – they really were just as bad as the Lancasters!!!
Thank you for bringing true history to light! We certainly want to get it right.
– “You say Edward IV died in battle at the hands of Margaret of Anjou’s forces and then go on to write his correct death later i.e. of unknown natural causes in bed.”
CORRECT! Egads, this was a horrid error on my part. I have corrected it. Yes, he did die young and
unexpectedly, but it was from a cold, probably. Maybe. I will always wonder…poison?
– “You also say that Edward Earl of March was Richard Duke of York’s eldest, when actually his eldest, Edmund Earl of Rutland, died alongside him at Wakefield during their walk after the truce.”
FALSE! Ahhh, here I must disagree with you! Edward IV was actually older than Edmund Earl of
Rutland, by about 13 mos. However since the moniker of “eldest” technically ignores a son Henry
(b.1441) who died in his youth, I have updated my text to read, “eldest surviving son”. Oh, and my
source pegs the death of Richard and Edmund as taking place during the Battle of Wakefield. Allegedly,
Edmund was fleeing, begging for his life. It didn’t work.
– “You also say that Edward of Westminster was 7 during his father’s illness, which actually began in August 1453. Edward was born in October of that year and therefore could believably be Henry’s son. His bloodthirstiness is also disputed.”
THE RUMOR IS WHAT MATTERS! Oh of course he could believably be Henry’s son. But the rumors,
be they ill-founded or not, were so pervasive that history has recorded them. These rumors were also
very handy historical propaganda for the Yorks. And lest we forget, it was Papa Henry VI who fueled
the rumors by proclaiming that his son was fathered by the Holy Ghost. Was he confessing that he
hadn’t bumped uglies with his wife in quite some time prior to the child’s birth? And sure, Edward’s
bloodthirstiness is in dispute. There are very few reliable narrators that came out of TWOTR. Either
way, the important bit is the legend and how it likely affected GRRM’s inspiration, right?
Thank you so much for reading and for sharing your feedback. I absolutely love history, and serving it with a dose of humor pleases me to no end. Glad to be able to chat with you about it.
In terms of Margaret’s age during the war of the roses, I guess my issue is the general tendency to portray her as an experienced mature woman in her late thirties or early forties when in fact she was fairly young and inexperienced during the main part of the wars (they did span a long time however, so she was indeed 41 when she was finally defeated).
She would have been 23 when she first made a bid for the regency (following her husband’s mental breakdown) & she was 25 when the conflict first broke out. The main period of fighting took place between 1459 and 1461 (she would have been aged 29-31 at that time). But by the end of 1461 the Lancastrian cause was all but lost. She left England after that to drum up support in Scotland/France & after 1462 she was pretty much in exile & the main fighting was over. Edward IV had won & was just mopping up after that. She would have been 32 then. So by 32 the main period of her political and military activity was over.
She had her last bite at the cherry in 1471 when she was indeed 41, when her alliance with Warwick enabled her to invade England in an attempt to overthrow Edward.
That said Shakespeare’s Margaret is usually played by a more mature actress – so in that sense I think George borrows more from the Shakespearean character than the real woman. Shakespeare may have portrayed Margaret as the evil villain (which she never was) but he clearly loved that character as he writes her into more of his plays than any other character. Still, I guess George could pick worse writers to be influenced by than Shakespeare!