HBO’s adaption of George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire has been met with enormous critical acclaim, scooping up numerous awards and winning an intensely dedicated fan base. Fans of the show love the complex story lines, impressive character and world building and of course the rampant sex and violence.
Another reason to love the show is the wealth of strong and interesting roles for women. From the monstrous queen regent Cersei to wilding warrior maiden Ygritte, Game of Thrones showcases a diverse range of women navigating a feudal landscape.
Martin has made no secret about the fact that many of the plots and key figures were inspired by real historical events – particularly the Roman Empire and medieval Europe. The show has been compared to the English wars of the roses, the Hundred Years’ war and the crusades – but how do the women on the series compare to real rebel women?
Note: These comparisons are based on the characters as presented in the TV series Game of Thrones and may differ from the book series A Song of Ice and Fire.
First up – the Queens of Game of Thrones:
Cersei Lannister-Baratheon vs. Margaret of Anjou and Elizabeth Woodville
One of the simplest and most prevalent comparisons, Cersei Lannister typifies the circumstances of many medieval queens. Used as a political pawn, her marriage to Robert Baratheon before the beginning of the series formed an alliance which effectively ended a civil war. When her husband dies, she devotes herself tirelessly to ensuring that her sons maintain the monarchy – and that she remains the power behind the iron throne.
Margaret of Anjou – Passionate, proud, strong willed
Margaret of Anjou was a key player in the wars of the roses and figurehead for the Lancastrian faction. French born, she was married to King Henry VI of England and often ruled in his place due to his mental illness. Contemporaries described her as ‘passionate and proud and strong-willed’ – which was fortunate, because her husband was not.
It is also worth mentioning that Margaret of Anjou’s son, Edward of Lancaster, was described as being particularly cruel and bloodthirsty, talking of ‘nothing but cutting off heads and making war, as if he had everything in his hands or was the god of battle…’ – when he was only thirteen years old…
Elizabeth Woodville – The White Queen
Elizabeth Woodville was a famous beauty who married king Edward IV when he was fresh from his victory over the Lancastrian faction. The Woodville family became hugely influential within the royal court thanks to a number of tactical marriages and Elizabeth had a total of ten children with Edward – impressive, considering that he (like Baratheon) was not well known for his fidelity.
When Edward IV died, Elizabeth’s son was a child, but she did not have anywhere near as much power as Cersei. Her two eldest boys by Edward IV (known as the princes in the tower) were reportedly murdered by their Uncle to prevent them ever succeeding to the throne, and the wars of the Roses raged on.
Elizabeth did contribute to ending the feud – she and Margaret Beaufort conspired to have their children (Elizabeth York and Henry Tudor, respectively) marry, effectively uniting the two houses for good.
Daenerys Targaryen vs. Cleopatra, Zenobia and Mavia
Fan favourite Daenerys’ plotline is one of the most fantastical on the show. Living in exile (initially with her elder brother) she is the last in the line of previously reigning monarchs. The Targaryen family have a history of intermarriage and madness, but Dany seems to have escaped the family curse and (after her brother is executed) really comes into her own.
She makes a few politically shrewd alliances with some very influential men who only serve to increase her own power. Along the way to reclaim the iron throne Daenerys conquers various city states, gathering support.
Cleopatra – The Last Pharaoh
Cleopatra VII is one of the most obvious influences when it comes to Daenarys – particularly when comparing their family backgrounds. The Ptolemies of ancient Egypt were notorious for ‘keeping it in the family’ and intermarrying to protect the throne. This tactic was as frequently disastrous for them as it was for the Taraegryens.
Like Dany, Cleopatra also lived in exile in the desert for some time, until she was placed back on the throne by Julius Caesar (here there is some parallel with Jorah Mormont). Cleopatra had more autonomy than Daenerys earlier in her life and had not only both of her brothers killed, but her sister too. Not content to rule Egypt alone, Cleopatra attempted to expand her political reach by connecting herself with two prominent Romans – first Julius Caesar, then Marc Antony.
Fans can only hope that Daenarys does not meet the same tragic end as Cleopatra – but of course the queen of the Nile didn’t have dragons.
Zenobia – Enemy of Rome
Zenobia, like Daenarys, began her political life as a client queen, considered harmless by
the Roman Empire. When she began to exhibit more aggressive traits, expanding her borders and moving in on Egypt, Rome was distracted by its own internal problems (much like the civil war in Westeros) and did not act until it was almost too late.
Zenobia ruled Egypt for four years before Rome gathered the strength to take it back, and the warrior queen was taken back to Italy in chains – what happened to her next is unknown, so there is still some hope for Daenerys.
Mavia – The Warrior Queen
Another desert dwelling rebel queen was Mavia, a skilled warrior who ruled over a confederation of Arab tribes who were particularly skilled at combat on horseback (not unlike the Dothraki). Mavia also managed to capture Egypt from the Romans – and achieved what Zenobia and Cleopatra could not.
This queen’s forces were so powerful and defeated the Roman army so many times that in the end the emperor was forced to sign a treaty in her favour.
Margaery Tyrell-Baratheon vs. Catherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn
Margaery’s plotline also exemplifies the trajectory of many medieval queens. First betrothed to Renly Baratheon, she is shown as being politically astute when she must quickly reassess her allegiances after his death. Margery swiftly switches sides, using her family’s wealth as leverage.
Her second choice, Joffrey, also dies within hours of their wedding ceremony. Not to be deterred, Margaery simply remarries Joffrey’s younger, milder mannered brother, Tommen. Clever, cunning and a good match for mother-in-law from hell Cersei, Margaery
is regularly shown using her beauty and sexuality to get what she wants.
Catherine of Aragon – The Spanish Princess
Catherine of Aragon also had a rocky start to married life. The Spanish princess travelled to England to marry heir to the throne Arthur. After a brief honeymoon period, the teenage prince suddenly died. In an attempt to protect the alliance their marriage provided, Catherine was then married to Arthur’s younger brother, Henry VIII.
As with Margaery and Tommen, Catherine and Henry had an age difference of six years. Early in the marriage Henry was described as being infatuated with his queen and she was well liked by the English people. However, it was not to last…
Anne Boleyn – Mistress to Queen
Which brings us to Anne Boleyn; ironically Catherine of Aragon’s greatest enemy also
bears a resemblance to Margaery. A woman who famously used sex and sensuality to win the favour of the king, Anne was also a highly intelligent woman who kept her eyes on the prize.
Balancing a flirtatious and fun exterior with her world class education and cunning, Anne Boleyn is often perceived as cold-hearted in her pursuit of the throne – which of course was eventually her downfall.
Next: Game of Thrones – Warrior Women. How do Arya, Brienne and Ygritte match up to their historical counterparts?