HBO's Game of Thrones, based on a series of novels by author George R. R. Martin, has been the surprise smash hit of the last four years. Viewers flock to the show's gritty, brutal, complex take on the fantasy genre. In fact, a lot of the grit, brutality and complexity comes from Martin's love of history. Many of the show's incidents and characters are adaptations or mixtures of historical originals. Be warned: this article contains spoilers up to Season 4 of the television programme.
The Wars of the Roses
The basic setting of the novels is derived from the Wars of the Roses, a battle over the English throne that lasted from 1455 to 1487. The two different factions of the English royal house, the houses of Lancaster and York, are echoed in Game of Thrones's rival houses Lannister and Stark. Of course, the War of the Five Kings diverges from the historical plot, with new contenders, alliances forming and reforming and, of course, an army of zombies.
The King Over the Water
The exile of the Catholic Stuart kings in the 17th century didn't end their role in Britain's history. The Stuart pretenders remained a threat, launching several attempted coups from their base in France, just as Daenerys Targaryen builds up her forces to reclaim the throne for the Targaryen family. In the novel series, a similar role was historically played by the Blackfyre pretenders, heirs to a failed claimant to the Iron Throne.
The core of Daenerys's army are the Unsullied, a legion of slave soldiers trained to be perfectly loyal. Although slave soldiers sounds like a strange idea, it's not unheard of in history -- the Mamluk soldiers of medieval Egypt were originally bought as slaves before developing into an aristocratic military caste. Similarly, Turkish Janissaries were taken from the children of non-Muslim subjects of the Ottoman Empire and trained from a very young age to serve the Sultan. Like the Mamluks, the Janissaries also became politically influential. Apparently, training an army of elite troops with reason to resent you is a poor idea, as the masters of the Unsullied also learned.
Faced with an invasion by the numerically superior fleet of Stannis Baratheon, Tyrion Lannister turns to wildfire, an alchemical substance that burns even on water, to even the odds. Although wildfire's magical connection to dragons is an invention, the substance itself is based on Greek fire, an incendiary weapon used by the Byzantine Empire during the middle ages. Made from an unknown recipe, this substance was launched onto enemy ships from pressurised tubes. With hulls ablaze and sails consumed by fire, the enemy vessels became floating deathtraps.
The comparison between Robert Baratheon and Henry VIII is obvious, particularly with Mark Addy's portrayal of the king as an embittered, ageing drunk. Athletic and aggressive in his youth, Henry spent the money his father had saved on wars that let him indulge his thirst for adventure but did little for the kingdom. But Robert isn't all Henry -- there's a little Edward IV in him as well. Like Robert, Edward owed his position to the support of another noble: Tywin Lannister for Robert, and the Earl of Warwick for Edward. Neither of them let the king forget it. Edward also shared Robert's notorious weakness for women. Robert's death in a suspicious hunting accident also parallels the death of William II, who was accidentally (or "accidentally" ) shot with an arrow while hunting.
The worst wedding
The Red Wedding is the bloody massacre that turns the tide against the House of Stark. The butchery of Stark leaders protected by the code of hospitality is shocking, but not unheard of in history. The most famous such incident is probably the Black Dinner. Regents for King James II of Scotland, worried that the young sons of the late Earl Douglas might threaten their hold on the king, invited them to dinner at Edinburgh Castle in November 1440 and then placed them under arrest. One hasty trial later, both boys were beheaded.
Avoid the pie
The death of King Joffrey at his wedding derails the apparent triumph of the Lannisters. Joffrey's death, apparently caused by choking on pigeon pie, resembles the death of Eustace of Boulogne, King Stephen's nephew and heir. Blogger Jamie Adair also suggests that Joffrey's death draws on the death of Attila the Hun, who may have died of natural causes during a feast or may have been murdered.
Beyond the Wall
Across the north of Westeros stretches the Wall, a massive fortification of ice and stone that separates the Seven Kingdoms from the Wildling tribes beyond the wall. The obvious inspiration is Hadrian's Wall, a Roman fortification in northern England with a similar purpose (or the later and more northerly Antonine Wall). The Wall is also based on the Great Wall of China, which similarly served to protect the country from northern barbarians.
Raiders from the sea
From the end of the eighth century to the middle of the eleventh, Europe was plagued by Viking attacks. British, Irish and Frankish chroniclers described the northmen as brutal pillagers intent only on plunder. The Ironborn of Westeros are based not so much on the historical Vikings as on the legend that they inspired.
Behind the scenes in King's Landing lurks the shadowy Varys, the realm's spymaster. Varys is a eunuch, something that seems to be rare in Westeros but common elsewhere. In many cultures, eunuchs were prized as courtiers. Because they could not have children, they had no motive to seek the throne. Many eunuchs even became military leaders, including the Byzantine general Narses and the Ming Dynasty admiral Zheng He.