For fantasy writer George R. R. Martin, medieval Europe functions as a free treasure trove of inspiration. Available at his storytelling fingertips is a rich array of war and intrigues, romances and legends, betrayals and scandals, and politically maneuvered arranged marriages with world-changing stakes written in the contracts.
It’s common knowledge that Martin’s widely acclaimed A Song of Ice and Fire series—popularly recognized as the base material for the HBO television series Game of Thrones—was based on the events surrounding the War of the Roses in fifteenth-century England, a saga in which the two families of York and Lancaster vied violently for the English throne. For Martin’s Fire & Blood (2018), the basis of the in-progress HBO series House of the Dragon, the author traveled even further back in time, all the way to the twelfth century, to select a main character from among the many contenders for a crown. Enter, though not on the back of a dragon, Empress Matilda.
As Professor of Medieval Literature Elizabeth M. Tyler explains, Empress Matilda (1102–1167), daughter of Henry I of England, became her father’s heir following the death of her legitimate brother in the 1120 White Ship disaster. Despite Henry I’s demand of oaths of fidelity from his subjects in support of Matilda, England wasn’t ready to accept a female monarch ruling on her own. And so, following Henry I’s death, England became locked in a civil war, a long bloody battle for the throne between Matilda and her usurping cousin, Stephen of Blois, whose only claims to power were having some royal blood and—this would serve him even better in his campaign against Matilda—being male.
Matilda and Stephen’s fictional counterparts appear as half-siblings Rhaenyra Targaryen and Aegon Targaryen in House of the Dragon. King Viserys names Rhaenyra, his eldest living child, as his heir instead of Aegon, his firstborn son; however, half the population of the continent of Westeros refuses to accept this decree. In the real world, the civil war between cousins Matilda and Stephen has been called the English Anarchy (1138–1153) by historians. Martin’s name for Rhaenyra and Aegon’s world-shattering sibling rivalry is slightly more elegant: the Dance of the Dragons. Much from Matilda and Stephen’s real-life war makes the transition to Martin’s realm: the family feud, the kingdom split in two, bloodshed in the high thousands, and, of course, the grand prize of a throne. All Martin has added is the dragons.
History teacher Hannah McDougall thought the “gripping historical tale” of the Anarchy would intrigue her Year 7 students. “The personalities of the main protagonists of this period are…deeply intriguing and contradictory,” she writes.
On the one hand, King Stephen, who was that paradox of an excellent soldier and popular figure who yet failed to keep control of the realm he had seized, and, on the other hand, Empress Matilda, she of the haughty reputation, but of whom we have very little reliable testimony because she was a woman attempting to overturn all established notions of who was suitable to rule in this period.
But in reality, without a novelist behind the act to make sure threads connect and tensions resolve, real history is messy. A strong cast of characters isn’t always enough in the classroom. “History is an inherently problematic and complicated discipline,” writes McDougall, “meaning that if as teachers we are faithful to historical rigour it can be difficult to fit every period neatly around just one concept.”
Unlike history instructors, George R. R. Martin is less interested in being historically accurate and more invested in telling a wildly exaggerated story designed to shock and enthrall his audience. Without giving away spoilers, Rhaenyra’s own worthiness as the first-ever Queen of Westeros is going to be put up for mass debate in season two of House of the Dragon, just as Empress Matilda’s was when she managed to wrestle back her throne from Stephen.