Note: I’ve written this from the viewpoint of someone who has halfheartedly watched the television show, skimmed a few chapters of the first book, and chatted a little with a professor of medieval history.
Game of Thrones is cruising towards its final episode, and at the same time, fan theories are spiraling into oblivion like the swirling symbols of the white walkers in the north. I’ve enjoyed many of them (my favorite was that Bran was the Night King), but I’ve long argued that the show is simply a fantastical retelling of the real Wars of the Roses, with a lot of smoke and mirrors thrown up along the way.
If A Song of Fire and Ice is George R.R. Martin’s long-winded love letter to England, celebrating the history of the country’s monarchy limits the way the story can end. Could I be wrong? Could the show’s creators be headed towards an ending that actually breaks the wheel and destroys the Iron Throne? Perhaps. But it’s hard to imagine Westeros tossing out its feudal system with just two episodes left.
Martin has not been shy about the inspiration for his novels, the years-long conflict known in contemporary times as the Wars of the Roses, a battle for the crown between cousins of the Houses York and Lancaster. Ted Ed put together a pretty great video illustrating some similarities between historical figures and GOT characters, which you can watch here.
As we approach the last war in GOT, concerns are building that the show will end with a “conventional” or “predictable” conclusion, most likely with an alliance between House Targaryen and House Stark. But it’s worth comparing this impending conflict with the deciding battle in the Wars of the Roses, the Battle of Bosworth, and a few of the real-life players who appear to have fictional counterparts in the show. The conclusion of the Wars of the Roses, and in the same sense GOT, established order from chaos. To call the outcome “expected” or “typical” disregards all of the corruption and turmoil that preceded these wars and all that was yet to come.
Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville
Who they were: Edward was the oldest son of Richard of York, who had battled the corrupt Lancastrian King Henry VI and his wife Margaret of Anjou. While Richard lost his head, Edward defeated Henry VI and succeeded him not once but twice, after a brief restoration. Despite his military victories, Edward made one of the most disastrous marriages in the history of the English monarchy when he fell in love with Elizabeth Woodville, a beautiful but older widow from a middle-class family. Well aware that the marriage would be scandalous, as it effectively ended any alliance talks with factions in France, their union took place in secret.
Who they could be in GOT: Initially, we’re led to believe that the Edward and Elizabeth W. references belong to Robb Stark and Talisa Maegyr, who marry after Robb breaks his contract with the Freys. In a similar story widely circulated after Edward’s death, it was claimed that before marrying Elizabeth W., Edward had a pre-contract with another woman, which, at the time, was comparable to an actual marriage. Because of this, Richard, Edward’s brother, was able to declare Elizabeth’s children illegitimate and remove them from the line of succession. Of course, Robb and Talisa had a far more gruesome fate.
Who they probably are in GOT: With the season seven reveal that Rhaegar Targaryen and Lyanna Stark had married, the ruse was up. Rhaegar acts as our Edward and Lyanna as Elizabeth W. The discovery of their union may have been more of a surprise to viewers if it weren’t for the very clear parallel between their son, Jon (aka Aegon), and the first-born child of Edward and Elizabeth W.
Elizabeth of York
Who she was: Elizabeth of York was the oldest daughter of Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville. After her father’s death, she had a strong claim to the throne, although primogeniture was not then tested in England (that would come later with her granddaughters Mary and Elizabeth). Even though he had deemed her illegitimate, her uncle Richard recognized Elizabeth’s birthright and considered marrying her to strengthen his own claim. The next king, Henry VII, also recognized the validity of her claim and realized marrying her would unite the two Houses of York and Lancaster into the new House of Tudor. Intent on maintaining his power, however, Henry made a point to have his coronation before his wedding. Despite this, Elizabeth seems to have been content to let her husband do the ruling, and their marriage appears to have been a happy one. Through this union the current monarchy can be traced, not by the famous Henry VIII, Henry and Elizabeth’s son, but through their daughter, Margaret, who was grandmother to another famous queen, Mary Stuart.
Who she is in GOT: From the beginning, Jon Snow has always been our Elizabeth of York. Like Elizabeth, he was a child fathered by a king, born from a loving but disastrous union, and declared a bastard. Through marriage, he could secure the stability of the country. But will Jon acquiesce to Daenerys as Elizabeth did for Henry?
Who he was: Richard, Edward IV’s younger brother, may be most famous for two events in life and one in death: 1) the disappearance of Edward’s younger sons, the Princes in the Tower, 2) the Battle of Bosworth, which he ultimately lost to Henry Tudor, and 3) his body being discovered in a grave beneath a parking lot in Leicester in 2012, strangely enough, directly below a parking space marked “R,” presumably for “reserved.”
Who he could be in GOT (Part 1): Ted Ed speculates that the Richard III character is represented by Stannis Baratheon, younger brother of Robert Baratheon, and his failed attempt to take the Iron Throne. However, this storyline feels like a ploy much in the way Robb and Talisa first appeared to be Edward and Elizabeth W.
Who he could be in GOT (Part 2): Ted Ed also suggests that Cersei is Margaret of Anjou, queen consort to Henry VI. Cersei and Margaret are similar in their beauty and ruthlessness, but there’s a major problem with associating Cersei as Margaret of Anjou: Margaret was French, and she failed in many respects because of her Frenchness, while Cersei appears entirely Westerosian. She may, instead, stand in for Richard in that she has obtained the crown through dubious maneuvers and holds fast to it despite stronger claims. Although not a sister to Rhaegar, our Edward IV, she was rejected as his potential wife.
Who he could be in GOT (Part 3): There’s another character with entirely Richard-like qualities: Daenerys Targaryen. Richard had no problem marrying his niece if it strengthened his claim, and while marriage hasn’t yet been a big factor between Dany and Jon, she seems to have no qualms about getting busy with her nephew. In addition, there’s the sibling factor: Richard was Edward’s younger brother, and Dany is Rhaegar’s little sister. However, aligning Dany with Richard means the retelling of the Wars of the Roses is missing its most famous player: Henry Tudor.
Who he was: Henry Tudor took the English crown with might over right. His claim to the throne was tenuous at best, coming from his mother, who descended from John of Gaunt’s second wife, Katherine Swynford. (Henrys IV, V and VI all descended from John and his first wife, Blanche.) Promoted as an alternative to Richard III, Henry was briefly exiled in France before gaining enough support to confront Richard at the Battle of Bosworth.
Who he is in GOT: Despite her obvious parallels to Richard III, Daenerys Targaryen is arguably the only contender to be our fictional Henry VII. While technically from Westeros (England), she’s been exiled in Essos (France), but is able to build a giant army to retake the Iron Throne. And I’d caution anyone who is over-analyzing the “mad queen” theory. The mad king also has a historical equivalent, Charles VI of France. His daughter, Catherine of Valois, was both mother to Henry VI, who experienced his own bouts of madness, and grandmother to Henry Tudor through her second husband; therefore, all descendants of the House of Tudor are also descendants of Charles VI. If Martin is creating a celebration of the English monarchy, it would be awfully cheeky to imply they were unable to overcome an inherited mental illness. As to her dragons? Henry Tudor was Welsh, which prominently features a red dragon on its flag.
Who he was: When we finally get to the Battle of Bosworth, the big showdown between Richard and Henry Tudor, there’s one family that features prominently in the outcome: the Stanleys. By the end of the Wars of the Roses, various alliances had been established with intermingled allegiances all leading up to this great battle. And perhaps one of the most famous flip floppers was Lord Stanley (not to be confused with the Kingmaker, Earl of Warwick, – yes, Kingslayer is a real reference too).
The Stanleys had pledged themselves to Richard; however, there was one minor detail that apparently caused some tension: Thomas was the second husband of Margaret Beaufort, Henry Tudor’s mother. Talk about conflicting loyalties. At the Battle of Bosworth, Lord Stanley held his troops back and instead decided to wait and support the team that looked most likely to be victorious. (He had also secretly made arrangements with Henry.) Although Henry was outnumbered by Richard’s larger army, he was able to defeat Richard when the Stanleys intervened for the win.
Who he could be in GOT (Part 1): It’s hard to see many options for this one, but we may have two. The first being the cocky, callous Euron Greyjoy. Could it be that he’s the one who turns the tide on Cersei’s giant army? It certainly wouldn’t be a stretch after this week’s episode, or, wow, he must really believe pregnancy news travels fast.
Who he could be in GOT (Part 2): I believe we’ve been watching Lord Stanley throughout all eight seasons. She (yes, she) is certainly not inclined to help the Richard character, but her stakes in the game rest on a family member being crowned. Also, there’s a clue in the name. We’ve known this for years:
L: Lancaster = Lannister
T: Tudor = Targaryen
But oddly, the Yorks have always been considered Starks, even though it is the last two letters, rather than the first, that provide the identification.
-rk: York = Stark
Or do they? Could it be that S: Stanley = Stark? Or a combination of the two, with Stanley and York giving us none other than Sansa Stark? She’s saved Jon’s ass once before in battle, and with similar, parallel stories throughout GOT, it would be no surprise if she or a sibling did it again.
The Catholic Church and the Church of England
And last, but not least, I want to touch on the Night King, whose plotline seems a bit superfluous at this point. At first glance it appears that the Night King has no historical equivalent. Some theories suggest that he’s a representation of climate change, which seems more like a contemporary reading of a book written almost 25 years ago, or that he represents Death itself, to which I wonder, if he dies, do we revert to the hospital scene in Meet Joe Black? Others have proposed that the white walkers’ counterparts are the French, but it appears the Dothraki fulfill this need. (That, and I would expect a pro-English writer to describe the French as heathens, wouldn’t you?) However, I would argue that the Night King represents a very real person and/or institution that existed in the 15th century: the Catholic Church.
In medieval times, the feudal hierarchy had the pope, not the king, at the top of the pecking order. He was the one the monarchy submitted to, and he was the one you would appeal to for a papal dispensation if you, say, wanted to marry your niece but it might be frowned upon.
This all changed when Henry VIII, second son of Henry Tudor and Elizabeth of York, got designs on marrying Anne Boleyn, and the Church refused to grant him a divorce from Catherine of Aragon. So the end of the Wars of the Roses meant the birth of Henry VIII, which meant the end of the pope’s power in England. It’s a little off the timeline, and the ongoing battle between Protestants and Catholics certainly didn’t end with Henry VIII’s marriage to Anne, but their union was a defining moment for the Church of England. Could Bran represent the burgeoning Church of England with a symbolic defeat of the pope/Night King?
Of course these aren’t the only religious references in the GOT world, for there are the old gods and the new. Melisandre, the Children of the Forest, and the dragons are steeped in paganism and ancient mysticism deep within the history of England. But will these old religions survive? Or will they be usurped by modern thinking, leaving the dragons as nothing but fossils in the rocks at Lyme Regis?
So how does it end? Do we conclude with a unification of the country and a slightly uncomfortable marriage between Dany and Jon in the vein of Henry VII and Elizabeth of York? That’s where I lean, incest or not. Are there other paths to a unified Westeros? If Dany is really our Richard III, it could result in the demise of two queens, and for a show that’s struggled with misogyny, I think they would want to steer clear of a total win for the bros. And while Dany could well burn them all, what type of government would feudal Westeros be capable of establishing in a monarchical apocalypse?
As we head into the final two episodes of GOT, take some time to go down the rabbit hole of the real Wars of the Roses. With all the marriages, family in-fighting, and years-long conflicts, what appears to be a conventional ending may only come to light because of the chaos before it.