We may not have dragons or wights in the real world, but we do have people – and as history shows, people are the strangest creatures of all. With that in mind, we really can’t be surprised that a main ingredient in George R.R. Martin's fantastical concoction is the medley of historical figures who inspired Game of Thrones. Throw in Martin’s intricate settings and unpredictable storylines, and voila! We’re given the delicious gift of a world that seems more deeply rooted in fact than in imagination - because sometimes it really is.
When Martin first started writing the A Song of Ice and Fire book series, he drew a lot of his inspiration from the people and events surrounding the War of the Roses. To make a long story short – or maybe just a little less long – England was divided in a civil war involving five prominent houses that all wanted to claim the throne. The two main houses were the Northern House of York (GoT's Starks) and the Southern House of Lancaster (GoT's Lannisters), and a whole lot of people died trying to determine the rightful ruler. In Game of Thrones-ese, everyone was ready to win the game or die trying – especially the real people who inspired Game of Thrones characters.
Of course, Martin’s influences weren’t confined to that era, nor were his characters necessarily linked in the same ways as their historical counterparts – such things would be way too straightforward for any creative genius. Instead, Martin blended bits of history all around the Westeros map, picking and choosing the traits he would use and discard from the historical figures who inspired Game of Thrones. He kept some of his comparisons general, like Brienne of Tarth and Joan of Arc both fighting like men or Tywin Lannister and Richard Neville both being known as “King Makers.” Then Martin created other GoT characters based on real people who have too much in common to shrug off as coincidence.
Think of this list as a road map you can use to navigate your way between fact, fiction, and general pondering about the wild worlds of Westeros and Essos. Welcome to the realm where history and Martin’s imagination merge.
Putting aside the physical resemblance - which really may be too uncanny to ignore - Henry VIII and Robert Baratheon shared many traits. Both kings loved women, especially the ones who were not their wives. Henry’s second wife, Anne Boleyn, was rumored to have an incestuous relationship with her brother; Cersei’s relationship with Jaime moved far beyond speculation. When Henry and Robert weren’t womanizing, they enjoyed lavish celebrations and dangerous games of sport. Henry especially loved hunting, which makes his Game of Thrones counterpart’s death by boar a fitting end.
Age: Died at 56 (1491-1547)
Birthplace: Palace of Placentia, London, United Kingdomsee more on Henry VIII of England
Emperor Claudius was to the Roman Empire what Tyrion Lannister is to Westeros. Growing up, Claudius was ruled out as a potential emperor because he had a speech impediment and a limp. His family looked down on him for his imperfections almost as much as Tyrion’s family literally looked down on him because of his size. Once given a chance, both men proved themselves to be brilliant politicians and administrators, showing their people that brains could be even better than brawn.
Age: Died at 63 (9 BC-54)
Birthplace: Lyon, Francesee more on Claudius
As the son of Pope Alexander VI, Cesare Borgia was expected to be a noble and religious warrior whose life essentially belonged to the Vatican. As the story goes – and Showtime’s The Borgias showed – Cesare followed his skewed moral compass rather than catering to what others wanted him to be.
Like Ser Jaime Lannister, Cesare was known for his many betrayals including the alleged murder of his brother, which seemed akin to the way Jaime earned the title Kingslayer. Cesare was also rumored to seduce his younger brother’s wife and to have an ongoing sexual relationship with his sister, making him the possible father of the mysterious “Infantus Romanus.” Within the world of Game of Thrones, Jaime’s relationship with Cersei and her children is widely based on speculation, but viewers know - and sometimes root for - the truth of Jaime’s affections.
Age: Died at 32 (1475-1507)
Birthplace: Papal Statessee more on Cesare Borgia
Much like Cersei Lannister, Catherine de' Medici was born to an obscenely rich family and came into even more fortune when she was crowned queen. After King Francis II died, Catherine alternated between advising her sons, who would all be crowned in her lifetime, and serving as France’s regent in a similar fashion to Cersei’s role in King’s Landing.
Both women were also paranoid and ruthless when it came to protecting their families. Catherine was reportedly forewarned of her son’s death by Nostradamus and Cersei bullied a witch into revealing that her children would all be shrouded in gold. The main difference between the two women is that most people didn’t root for Catherine’s oldest child to meet his prophesied fate.
Age: Died at 70 (1519-1589)
Birthplace: Florence, Italysee more on Catherine de' Medici