History Lessons or “These are not the wars you’re thinking of.”

Every time G. R. R. Martin claims he modeled “Game of Thrones” on the Wars of the Roses, I want to have a brain aneurysm.


Leaving aside the fact that the name “Wars of the Roses” is a nineteenth century invention, and that nobody went around proclaiming their allegiance by the not-very-subtle (or even terribly clever) secret code of sporting a red or white rose, there’s actually almost nothing in the series that bears even a passing resemblance to that kerfuffle.

In fact, the only thread of “history” that I’ve been able to discern is that Henry VI inherited his throne while still a minor.

He was not a preteen monster, though.

He was nine months old when Henry V died, and while the events that landed Edward, Duke of York, on the throne (twice, actually: once in 1461 and again in 1471) did involve a certain amount of death for the nobility, most of this occurred not because he was a crazy, sadistic adolescent with a mom secretly puppetting him from the background, but because he was weak and ineffective man, prone to what was probably chronic depression and bouts of catatonia, who saved his main energies for building colleges at Cambridge.

He didn’t die in his teens, violently or otherwise – he grew up and he married. (Meanwhile, his mother, Catherine of Valois, went off after Henry V’s death and married again, this time to a commoner named Owen Tudor, and had two children by him: Jasper and Edmund Tudor, whose existence was to have – er – implications, later on. You remember Catherine, of course. That was Emma Thompson in Kenneth Branagh’s version of Henry V. It made a pretty cinematic love story, but she went on to have an actual life after Henry kicked it from dysentery two years after he married her.)

It’s true that a lot of the nobility lost their lives after trying to take control of England’s affairs, because Henry VI couldn’t seem to, but for the most part, while they might have been ambitious and interested in feathering their own nests, their underlying impulse was not to supplant Henry. Their aim was mainly to shore up and consolidate the king’s position. Their sequential and collective failures in both war and diplomacy created needs for higher taxes, which in turn put an impossible burden on the classes of nobility/gentry/commoners below them, which then, in its turn, tended to foment unrest, and their heads rolled far more as a result of those failures than from any desire of Henry’s to see some gore.

Richard of York, and then his son, Edward, were the ones who broke with the idea of bolstering the king and ensuring the power of royalty was not infringed. While they certainly felt provoked (they lost a lot by Henry VI’s failures in France and Ireland), it’s not clear that Richard of York was trying to do anything much different until quite late in the game.

So there are a lot of questions about Martin’s assertion that he was/is “basing” his work on actual history.

Where is Margaret of Anjou (Henry VI’s wife), for example, in all this? She was a major player, and her likes and dislikes had a major effect on everything that occurred. In fact, her hatred of Richard of York might have been one of the key factors.

Where’s the loss of territory (Normandy and Gascony, IRL) that precipitated so much of the underlying dissatisfaction with the various nobles who in their turn, were asked to “fix” things? The wars in France, the losses of income from not having those territories, were additional factors in pushing a series of nobles into trying desperately to “fix” Henry’s reign.

Where are the half-brothers to the king? They were important, because Edmund had a son…a son named Henry Tudor, later called Henry VII, King of England.

Game of Thrones is interesting. It’s textured, and layered, and considering that the first book came out over twenty years ago, when Robert Jordan’s “Wheel of Time” was at the height of its popularity, Martin was incredibly brave. He was breaking seriously new ground.

And maybe that’s why he claims the series is based on something real — I can see wanting to say, obliquely, “Real life is messy. Real people are more complicated. Fantasy doesn’t need to be populated entirely with cardboard characters embodying simple vices and virtues. It can be more. It ought to be more.”

I can see how that might happen, and how, afterwards, a writer could get stuck with the justification, and have to keep repeating it.

But it’s inaccurate and misleading, and I wish he hadn’t done it.



***Addendum: come to think of it, the actual facts of the Wars of the Roses would make really interesting premises for fantasy novels, and frankly, given the above, the field is wide open for it.



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