‘Sad Stories of the Deaths of Kings’: Revisiting England’s real Game of Thrones

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George R. R. Martin’s fantasy fiction series A Song of Ice and Fire – and the spin-off HBO show Game of Thrones – has generated much popular interest in medieval history. There is a website entitled History Behind Game of Thrones: Striving to Make Game of Thrones more complicated. University of Oxford professor Carolyne Larrington, a medievalist, has published a best-selling book entitled Winter is Coming: the Medieval World of Game of Thrones.

For the most part, discussion of Martin’s historical influences has concentrated on the Wars of the Roses, the bitter conflict that divided England for 30 years (1455-1485). The very names ‘Stark’ and ‘Lannister’ echo ‘York’ and ‘Lancaster,’ and England had its own ‘Mad King’ (Henry VI) and ‘twisted Imp’ (Richard III).

Thousands of Englishmen slaughtered each other in the bloody battles of Wakefield, Towton, Barnet, Tewkesbury and Bosworth, making and unmaking kings. Towton (March 29, 1461) was the largest battle ever fought on English soil. Some 50,000 Yorkist and Lancastrian soldiers fought all day in a snowstorm. When the sun set, 28,000 lay dead in the snow.

George R. R. Martin is notorious for gore, but even his fiction has yet to match the real life brutality of Towton.

The epic conflict between York and Lancaster is not the only historical influence on Martin’s fiction. A Song of Ice and Fire also shows traces of earlier medieval history.

I shall briefly look at two examples.

The assassination of Robert Baratheon in a contrived hunting accident has a real-life precedent in the death of King William II of England. William ‘Rufus’ (son of William the Conqueror) was struck down by an arrow while hunting deer in the New Forest on Aug. 2, 1100. Ironically, his elder brother, Richard, had died in the same manner, and in the same place, 30 years before.

The official story was the arrow glanced off a tree and struck William in the chest, killing him instantly. His death was explained as an accident, but foul play has always been suspected, especially since William’s younger brother, Henry, threw the dead king’s body in a cart, then galloped off to seize the royal treasury and have himself declared King Henry I.

Henry would, himself, die in suspicious circumstances 35 years later, also on a hunting trip, supposedly as a result of eating a “surfeit of lampreys” against his physician’s advice.

King Robert in A Game of Thrones dies from a festering wound inflicted by a boar. Cersei’s original plan did not involve a boar. That was a desperate, last-ditch measure designed to prevent Robert from speaking with Eddard Stark, after Eddard learned the secret of Cersei’s incest. Cersei’s original plan was to dispatch Robert while he was hunting deer – just like William Rufus.

As Varys tells Eddard: “If the boar had not done for Robert, it would have been a fall from a horse, the bite of a wood adder, an arrow gone astray … the forest is the abbatoir of the gods.”

Three sons of William the Conqueror would ruefully concur with Varys. Even the name of the hunter who shot William Rufus has a resonance with Martin’s fiction: Sir Walter Tyrell.

One of the most memorable deaths in a series notorious for gory deaths is that of Tywin Lannister, who was shot with a crossbow while relieving himself on the privy. This too has a parallel in English history.

King Edmund Ironside, son of Æthelred the Unready, was one of the last Anglo-Saxon kings of England. He reigned for just seven months in the year 1016. England had for years been under pressure from Danish invaders. The Danish king Sweyn Forkbeard (a wonderful name) conquered England in 1013 and was declared king on Christmas Day. Following Sweyn’s death in 1014, the Danish claim to England was taken up by Cnut the Great (remembered by British schoolchildren as King Canute who commanded the incoming tide not to wet his feet).

Another formidable Viking, Thorkell the Tall (an 11th-century Mountain that Rode), fought first for the English, then switched sides to fight for the Danes. An English ealdorman, Eadric Streona, also joined the Danes. Despite these setbacks, Edmund won several victories before being defeated by Cnut at the battle of Assandun on Oct. 18, 1016. He died a few weeks later in mysterious circumstances. It is possible he died of natural causes or of wounds he had received at Assandun, but some medieval historians relate he was assassinated while sitting on the privy.

There are two versions of this story.

According to Henry of Huntingdon (writing in the 1120s), Edmund was killed by a son of Eadric Streona, who hid in the dungpit under the privy and stabbed Edmund from below with a dagger.

There are several problems with this story, not least being the fact cesspits were deep and daggers are short. It is hard to see how Eadric’s son could have reached the royal posterior from his abject position. Some depictions of Edmund’s assassination therefore depict the weapon as a spear. One such depiction, from a 13th-century illustrated Anglo-Norman Life of St. Edward the Confessor, now in the Cambridge University Library (MS Ee.3.59). The two kings depicted as kissing are Edmund and Cnut. The point of the kiss is not they were lovers (men kissed each other more readily in past centuries), but they are agreeing under sacred oath to split England between them. Then Edmund is murdered, possibly on Cnut’s orders, certainly to Cnut’s advantage.

An alternative version of Edmund’s murder is given by the Anglo-Norman verse chronicler Geoffrey Gaimar, whose L’Estoire des Engleis or History of the English People was written in octosyllabic rhymed couplets about the years 1136-1140. As Gaimar tells the story, the murder weapon was neither dagger nor spear, but a crossbow. It was not a crossbow wielded by human hands, but a diabolical contraption known as a ‘spring bow’ or li ars qui ne fault (the bow that does not fail). According to Gaimar, Eadric Streona invented the spring bow for the specific purpose of assassinating Edmund Ironside.

The privy was rigged to trigger the bow as soon as Edmund sat down to relieve himself. As the great seventeenth-poet John Milton (author of Paradise Lost) relates in his History of Britain, Cnut despaired of winning a fair fight against “a man of Iron sides,” so he took the treacherous route to his less than iron bottom and arranged “to assassinate him at the stool” (privy).

Few admirers of Martin’s fiction feel pity for Tywin Lannister, but Edmund Ironside, brave warrior and inspiring leader of his people, deserved a better end. I cannot prove Martin was thinking of Edmund when he contrived Tywin’s grisly death, but when my class discussed this moment on Nov. 29, the date seemed fitting. Edmund’s death is dated either Nov. 29 or 30, 1016. We were remembering him 1,000 years to the day after his undignified demise.

John Leonard is an award-winning, distinguished university professor and world-renowned scholar of John Milton. He teaches in the Department of English and Writing Studies.