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War of the Roses - the Houses of Lancaster and York (AGZYM)

The Real Life Game of Thrones Part Two: War of the Roses


During the Late Medieval Period, a series of conflicts took place in England which were more destructive than the Hundred Years War had been in the previous century.  One of the bloodiest civil wars in British history, it marked the end of of medieval England and ushered in the beginning of the Renaissance. Known as the “War of the Roses” it was ultimately a struggle to claim the throne between the families descended from Edward III and those descended from Henry IV.  This real life, historical conflict serves as the basis for the book and television series, Game of Thrones.

The House of Lancaster/Lannister VS the House of York/Stark

The two houses in conflict with one another in the War of the Roses were the House of York and the House of Lancaster. In Game of Thrones, the House of Lancaster is thought to be the Lannisters while the House of York, the Starks.  The war between the Starks and the Lannisters is similar to the Wars of the Roses between the English houses of Lancaster and York that took place between 1455 and 1487.  Like the Starks the York were northerners, while the Lancasters, like the Lannisters, were from the south.  Not only do the Lancasters and Lannisters share almost the same name, they also share an almost identical symbol: a Lion(s) on a red background. The names of the wars comes from the symbols associated with the two families; the white rose belonging to the Yorks and the red rose to the Lancasters. To this day, the historic counties of Yorkshire and Lancashire in northern England are associated with these colors.

The Death of a King and the Beginning of a War

The cause of the War or the Roses dates back to the reign of Edward III.  Edward III died in 1377 A.D. and his eldest son, Edward, the Black Prince, died of the plague in 1376.  Thus, his 10 year old grandson, Richard, became king, succeeding to the throne ahead of Edward’s three other surviving son’s. 

Because Richard II was only ten years old, his uncle, John of Gaunt, ruled the country.  In 1399 Richard’s uncle died and John of Gaunt's son, Henry, raised an army and took the throne as Henry IV.   Richard was imprisoned and died in February 1400.  This is when the Lancasters gained the throne.  Henry managed to keep his place on the throne and when he died in 1413, his son, Henry V, succeeded without problem.  Henry V died in 1422 and Henry VI became the only king to be crowned king of England and France.  He was named king at nine months old and is believed to be the inspiration for Robert Baratheon in Game of Thrones. 

Henry VI (Wikimedia Commons) compares with Robert Baratheon (EyesOnFire89/Flickr)

Henry VI (Wikimedia Commons) compares with Robert Baratheon (EyesOnFire89/Flickr)

Marriage to a Strong Queen

Henry VI ended up marrying Margaret of Anjou of France where he frequently relinquished governance to her.  It is also said he had frequent bouts of insanity and would not acknowledge the birth of his own son.  Margaret of Anjou is believed to be the Cersei Lannister, queen to Robert Baratheon in Game of Thrones and distrusted Richard of York most all.  Richard of York had disagreements with Margaret of Anjou just like Ned Stark does with Cersi Lannister in Game of Thrones.  Historians view her as a prime driver in the the Wars of the Roses, just as Cersei is seen as largely responsible for the War of the Five Kings.

Margaret of Anjou (Wikimedia Commons) compares with Cersei Lannister (EyesOnFire89/Flickr)

Margaret of Anjou (Wikimedia Commons) compares with Cersei Lannister (EyesOnFire89/Flickr)

From a Distrustful Advisor to Protector of the Realm

Richard of York (Wikimedia Commons) compares with Ned Stark (EyesOnFire89/Flickr)

Richard of York (Wikimedia Commons) compares with Ned Stark (EyesOnFire89/Flickr)

Richard, Duke of York, fought in the Hundred Year's War in France and became protector of the Kingdom during Henry VI’s bouts of madness. He was King Henry’s close advisor, and loyal general.   Richard and his followers blamed Edmund Beaufort, Earl of Somerset, for losing the Hundred Years War to the French and was eventually excluded from the court and transferred to Ireland. Later he would return with an army to reform the court but was unsuccessful in his grab for power. 

This is similar to the scene in Game of Thrones when Ned Stark tries to take the throne from the boy king Joffrey.   Henry VI would succumb to another bout of madness and Richard was named Protector of the Realm in 1453.   However, the King would eventually recover his sanity, reverse Richard of York’s power grab whereby Richard was forced to gather his army and declare his right to rule. This led to the first open battle of the War of the Roses: the First Battle of St. Albans (1455).  

However, Instead of becoming king, York’ was killed in battle with the queen’s loyalists. His young son took up the claim and was crowned Edward IV of York, the historical equivalent of Robb Stark in Game of Thrones.

Edward IV (Wikimedia Commons) compares with Robb Stark (Andromeda-6/Deviant art) 

Edward IV (Wikimedia Commons) compares with Robb Stark (Andromeda-6/Deviant art)

Henry VI was captured while Margaret fled into exile with their reportedly cruel son Edward of Westminster who is believed to be Joffrey in Game of Thrones. 

A Cruel Young Ruler

Edward of Westminster (Wikimedia Commons) and  Joffrey (Bora Bora/Flickr)      

Edward of Westminster (Wikimedia Commons)                   Joffrey (Bora Bora/Flickr)

Edward of Westminster (also known as Edward of Lancaster) was the son of King Henry VI and Margaret of Anjou—and, like Joffrey, was rumored to be of illegitimate birth. Edward had a quality of madness (like Joffrey) and shared Joffrey’s affinity for lopping off the heads of his enemies. The Ambassador of Milan once wrote, " This boy, though only 13 years of age, already talks of nothing but of cutting off heads or making war, as if he had everything in his hands or was the god of battle or the peaceful occupant of that throne.”

A Political Blunder and More Betrayal

Edward IV of York impulsively married the widow of a minor noble which wound up alienating one of his key allies, the Earl of Warwick believed to be Roose Bolton in Game of Thrones.  The Earl had arranged for the king to marry the sister-in-law of the French monarch, Louis XI.  The Earl, Richard Neville, later rebelled against Edward similar to to when Walder Frey rebelled against Robb Stark in Game of Thrones, leading to his death in the Red Wedding. 

Earl of Warwick (Wikiwand) compares with Roose Bolton (

          Earl of Warwick (Wikiwand)                       Roose Bolton (

There is also Theon Greyjoy, who in Game of Thrones, is a prince of the House of Stark and a surrogate brother to Robb Stark. Following the outbreak of the War of the Five Kings, Theon was one of Robb’s most trusted advisors. When Robb sent him to meet with his father, Balon Greyjoy, Theon turned on his friend and invaded the North. 

Theon’s real life historical counterpart is George Plantagenet, brother to Edward IV of York. Like Theon, he began the War of the Roses as a staunch supporter of the Yorks and like Theon, George Plantagenet turned on his brother and defected to the Lancasters.  Both were also separated from their parents at a young age, but while George's father was killed in battle, Theon was simply sent to live with the Starks.  After Edward won the war, George was drowned in a butt of wine for his treason, which is a far cry from the punishment Theon has endured on the show.

George Plantagenet and Theon Greyjoy (Mentalfloss)

George Plantagenet and Theon Greyjoy (Mentalfloss)

The Forgotten Princes

The rest of Edward the IV reign was peaceful until his death in 1483 A.D. Though his twelve year old son was due to succeed him, Edwards’ younger brother Richard the III (thought to be Stannis Baratheon in Game of Thrones), declared them illegitimate due to their father’s secret marriage. He assumed the regency himself and threw the boys into prison. After the death of their father, twelve-year-old Edward V and nine-year-old Richard of Shrewsbury were locked away in the Tower of London never to be seen from again. 

The young princes (

This paved the way for Richard III’s ascension to the throne.  In Game of Thrones, Bran and Rickon Stark are thought to be the “Princes in the Tower.” 

Joining the Roses

The man who wound up defeating Richard III and putting an end to the feuding between the Lancasters and the Yorks, was Henry VII or Henry Tudor.   Tudor was a descendant of the First Duke of Lancaster raised in exile after his father’s death in an earlier rebellion.  Richard the III’s earlier power grab had caused a split in the York faction and Tudor won support for his claim to throne.  Returning from a 20-year exile from across the English channel, he amassed an army of 5,000 that included Welsh and English soldiers and even the maternal grandparents of the missing Edward V.  In 1485, he crossed the channel and defeated Richard III in the Battle of Bosworth Field.  When Henry VII married Elizabeth of York, older sister of the disappeared princes, the Tudor Dynasty was born ending nearly a century of warfare.  This is similar to the character Daenerys Targarian in Game of Thrones, who raised an army abroad while attempting to invade her homeland.

Map of the War of the Roses (

Map of the War of the Roses (

Game of Thrones "Borrows" From History

Wars in history are often looked at as decisive conflicts, however, the War of the Roses, like Games of Thrones, shows us that their outcome is often uncertain, and full of characters with complex personalities , shifting loyalties.

The author of the books Game of Thrones, George R.R. Martin, was clearly inspired by the War of the Roses and the parallels between the fictional characters of “Westeros” and real life history are numerous.

Martin once remarked that while he “borrows” from history extensively, quote: “ there's really no one-for-one character-for-character correspondence [in the series].  I like to use history to flavor my fantasy, to add texture and verisimilitude, but simply rewriting history with the names changed has no appeal for me. I prefer to re-imagine it all, and take it in new and unexpected directions.”

Yet there seem to be many other characters from the show not listed here who have direct historical counterparts, even if they’re not specifically mentioned by name or of the same gender. 

For further reading on the topic, see also the website History Behind Game of Thrones.

Featured Image: War of the Roses - the Houses of Lancaster and York (AGZYM)

By Bryan Hill


Trendacosta, Katharine. "10 Sources That Inspired Game of Thrones' Dark Storytelling." Io9. June 6, 2013.

Tharoor, Ishaan. "Watch: The Real History behind ‘Game of Thrones’." Washington Post. May 12, 2015.

Miller, Laura. "The Real-life Inspirations for “Game of Thrones”." Saloncom RSS. April 3, 2012.

Flint, Hanna. "This Video Shows You Every War of the Roses Reference in Game Of Thrones." METRO. May 14, 2015.

"The Wars of the Roses." The Wars of the Roses.

The wars that inspired Game of Thrones - Alex Gendler , 2015 (video file); Available From: <>



Some interesting ideas and comparisons brought up in this article. However, from many things said -and- =how= -they- -were- -said-, it seems rather obvious that the author is a Lancastrian partisan. Yes, I'm a staunch Yorkist and have nothing but contempt for "Weasel Henry" -- who couldn't, =wouldn't= even defend himself in battle.

Anyway .. .. may I 'suggest' those reading the above article take the statements, et al, regarding the 'legitimacy' of Weasel Henry's claim to the Throne of England with a =large= 'grain of salt' .. say, the size of the Washington Monument! Also, be aware that most of the "common knowledge" about the 'Evil Hunchback, Richard' is the result of a deliberate and lengthy smear campaign, along the lines of "Tell a lie loud enough and long enough and you can convince people of damn near anything."

This article is almost word-for-word exactly the same as the voiceover from the TED video cited as a source above (

Happily, Bryan Hill Did actually cite his source, but neglected to mention that this article is basically a transcript of the video. that, my friends, is cheating. And plagiarism.

Do better next time, Bryan. Being a member of an honors society means being honorable, yes? Make the internet a better place for our progeny, and write your own text. Someone else took the time to (Alex Gendler, the person behind the video) and so should you. All the best...

Bryan Hill's picture


Bryan graduated with a Bachelor of Art in History from Suffolk University and has a background in museum volunteering and as well as working with children’s groups at the Museum of Science and the National Park Service.  He has traveled... Read More

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