As part of the degree course at UON, history students have the opportunity to be assessed by all kinds of interesting methods, from podcasts to posters. Over the next few weeks we’ll showcase some student work (now it’s been marked and de-anonymised!) here. This is a blog post completed for the module Wars of the Roses, by recent graduate Thomas Walker. As part of that module, students are invited to consider the historical legacy of the Wars of the Roses in contemporary culture. We hope you’ll agree Tom does a great job here of connecting Edward IV’s reign to the popular TV show Game of Thrones!
It is well known that George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire and later HBO series was heavily inspired by the War of the Roses. Much of the setting, events, and characters all draw inspiration from the conflict in one way or the other, chiefly in the parallels between the two leading houses: Stark and Lannister and their real-world counterparts York and Lancaster (a useful comparison can be found in this TED-Ed video). One major influence in particular was Edward IV, a Yorkist whose persona and background are largely embodied by the series’ protagonist Robb Stark. Like Robb, Edward was the eldest son of a powerful lord, whose death at the hands of his enemies flung him admits the chaos of civil war.
In Game of Thrones, Robb’s father Ned Stark is executed by the young and cruel King Jeoffrey for false charges of treason and conspiracy to take the throne. Robb, therefore, sets out on a campaign for revenge and to recover his sisters Sansa and Arya from Lannister custody. He must also fight to uphold his new title: the ‘King in the North’. Like Ned Stark’s role as ‘Hand of the King’, Edward’s father, Richard, Duke of York, served as Lord Protector, which granted him exceptional powers akin to the monarch. Richard secured this position after capturing the king, Henry VI, following the Battle of Northampton in July 1460. Later that year he negotiated the Act of Accord, making him and his sons the new heirs to the throne, supplanting Henry VI’s line. Despite this, Richard was later killed by Lancastrian forces at the Battle of Wakefield in December, leaving Edward, who would crown himself the new king, in a similar position to Robb (Hicks, 2010, p. 4). Edward would likewise need to raise an army and meet his foes to defend his claim to the throne.
Aside from their shared circumstances, much of Edward’s likeness is also echoed by Robb Stark’s character, markedly in his keen fighting prowess. Throughout the HBO series, Robb is shown to be at the forefront; his tactical abilities and combat skill impress even his adversary Tywin Lannister. Edward IV was equally noteworthy for his ability in battle. Although overshadowed by the feats of Edward III and Henry V – who experienced great victories during the Hundred Years War – Edward IV can nonetheless be accounted amongst England’s great warrior kings. During his initial campaigns, Edward supposedly showed great enthusiasm and leadership, regularly throwing himself into the fray, and remained undefeated in battle (Santiuste, 2010, p. 55). Moreover, upon grasping his immense undertaking, Edward’s abilities are more impressive when considering his age – only nineteen after his victory at the Battle of Towton (March 1461), the bloodiest battle to take place on English soil. Once more, this is reflected in Robb Stark, aged twenty in the series, who is repeatedly referred to as the ‘Young Wolf’.
Towards the end of the HBO series’ first season, Robb begins planning his attack against Jamie Lannister, whose army lay across the River Trident. Robb concludes that the ‘Twins’, held by the petulant Walder Frey, to be the only viable crossing for his forces. In return for passage, Robb reluctantly agrees to marry one of Walder’s daughters. However, he later goes back on this arrangement, choosing instead to marry his love interest Talisa Maegyr, triggering resentment amongst the Freys as well as his own council. When contrasted with Edward IV, this event is perhaps the clearest comparison, displaying a striking semblance to Edward’s own secretive marriage (Pavlac, 2017, p. 9).
Edward’s closest ally Richard Neville, the Earl of Warwick, otherwise known as the ‘Kingmaker’, had been seeking closer ties with the French king Louis XI. Although they were considered the ‘ancient enemy’, France was powerful, and Warwick was attracted to the prospects of an alliance. His treaty proposed a potential marriage between Edward and Louis’ daughter Anne de Beaujeu, but much to Warwick’s surprise, Edward had already wedded Elizabeth Woodville in May 1464. While his motives were unclear, Edward’s marriage was just as shocking as it was unexpected. Not only was Elizabeth’s family of middling rank, but she had been married once before to a Lancastrian and had already bore two sons – an unfitting match for a king (Carpenter, 1997, p.170). The controversy surrounding Edward’s decision to marry Elizabeth further underscores Robb’s choosing of Talisa, a healer whose family name is practically unknown in Westeros.
In these settings, where marriages were typically secured for military and diplomatic purposes, it is not surprising that both Robb’s and Edward’s backfired. We see this play out both in Roose Bolton’s betrayal of Robb during season three, and the earl of Warwick’s defection to the Lancastrians in 1470. The Boltons were one of the Starks most ardent followers but begin to feel increasingly side-lined during Robb’s campaign. The recent animosity generated with the Frey’s thus presents Roose with an opportunity to usurp Robb and seize control of the North at the Lannister’s behest. Much in the same way, the rift between Warwick and Edward occurs due to Warwick’s sense of alienation, his embarrassment in front of the French king following Edward’s secret marriage serving as the catalyst.
Considering how much the Yorkist cause relied on Warwick, he expected to be able to control what he assumed would be a young, impressionable king (Carpenter, 1997, p.157). Edward recognised this and aimed to bolster the Woodville’s position to offset Warwick’s influence. Consequently, Warwick, allied with Edward’s disgruntled younger brother George, Duke of Clarence, united with the Lancastrians, overthrew Edward, and restored the imprisoned Henry VI. However, this is where the similarities end. Whereas Edward would later return triumphantly, securing his reign until his death in 1483, Robb’s story ends in tragedy, after he, his wife, and his followers are brutally murdered during the events of the ‘Red Wedding’.
Although Robb’s and Edward’s narratives ultimately differ in the end, when comprehending the complexities of fifteenth century England, its influences on the plot and world building of Game of Thrones are abundantly clear. From Shakespeare to the modern era, Robb Stark’s story is but one example of how the War of the Roses has continued to have a wider creative impact on pop-culture.
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