10 ways that medieval Ireland resembles Game of Thrones

July 12, 2017

A SONG OF NAAS AND DWYER

 

Game of Thrones is back! Hurrah! Like millions around the world, I cannot wait to watch how the story unfolds, as well as to try and guess how it will all pan out.

Will the Lannisters emerge victorious? Can Daenerys return from her life-long exile to conquer as did her forefathers? Might one of the Starks smile before the tale is completed?

Like all who watch, I was fascinated to hear serious historians on television talking about Eddard Stark, Daenerys Targaryen, and Khal Drogo, and drawing comparisons to real life figures from the Wars of the Roses period such as Richard of York, King Henry VI and Warwick the Kingmaker.

For me, however, as I watched, I could identify similarities to the history of Ireland, so many, in fact, that I wondered if George R.R. Martin had lifted parts of his story straight from that country’s story!

 

So, start the theme music tune in your head now and, ahead of Game of Thrones season 7, I will tell you of ten ways I think that medieval Ireland bears a close resemblance to the world of Westeros.

 

*** Watch out for spoilers if you haven’t seen/read the series ***

 

 

1. DUBLIN IS KING’S LANDING

 

Ireland, at the beginning of the Tudor period, much like Westeros and unlike the more unified England, was a mottle of lordships controlled by a small number of powerful landowners each of whom had client families and brittle alliances with other clans. Rather than Houses Stark, Lannister and Martell, in Ireland we had the Kildare, Ormond, Clanricarde and Tyrone dynasties (amongst countless others). Each had their own sphere of influence. Each had their own armies. Each jealously defended their borders against all outside influence. Some had even been kings before the Tudor re-conquest of Ireland.

For hundreds of years these dynasties’ relationship to Dublin was much like that of the major houses in Westeros towards King’s Landing: little more than a nominal recognition of overlordship. Dublin’s power, like George R.R. Martin’s city, was not simply because it was the major port and chief market. It was not even because of its daunting walls and impregnable castle sitting on a wide river. It was because it was the seat of government. In truth, however, the administration was little more than an enclave of English power and they could not actually enforce any of their laws beyond a few miles from the city walls. In Westeros the king really only had control over the Crownlands, and in Ireland the government could really only enforce its rule over the Pale.

 

Find out more about the Pale HERE

 

 

2. THE EXECUTION OF EDDARD STARK

 

The medieval government of Ireland was made up of an executive not unlike the Small Council on Game of Thrones with a number of Pycelle-like churchmen and lowly English court officials attempting to make their fortune on this administration. The Duke of Wellington’s paternal ancestors, Walter and Robert Colley, were two such officials from the Tudor period who could easily have been the basis for Littlefinger!

In the absence of the king the government of Ireland was run by a Justiciar, later called Lord Deputy. This role was very much like that of the Hand of the King played by Eddard Stark at the beginning of the first season. The officeholders were often great landowners in their own right, and frequently ignored or even outright disobeyed orders coming from England in order to govern Ireland as they saw fit.

In 1463, the Earl of Desmond, Thomas FitzGerald, was created Lord Deputy by the new Yorkist King Edward IV, a usurper very much in the nature of Robert Baratheon. Desmond had proven himself by defeating the Lancastrians at the Battle of Piltown, but despite his good governance he fell out of favour with Edward IV because of his opposition to his suspect marriage to Elizabeth Woodville. If that sounds familiar to Eddard Stark’s position with Cersei Lannister you won't be shocked to hear that some sources suggest that it was Elizabeth Woodville who brought about Desmond’s downfall. Replaced as Lord Deputy by an Englishman, John Tiptoft, Desmond was accused of treason seized, despite having sought sanctuary in a priory, by the government. He was then summarily beheaded at Drogheda.

Like Robb Stark did in Game of Thrones, Desmond’s son Maurice raised his war banners and marched against the capital, only stopping short when Edward IV offered pardon in return for the laying down of arms.

 

 

3. THE FALL OF HOUSE STARK

 

In the show, one of the principal families is Stark. From their seat at Winterfell they have ruled the North for thousands of years, and are remembered for their great sense of honour and duty. Their power is broken, and their family scattered or killed, during the course of the television show after they come into conflict with the well-connected House Lannister following the execution of Eddard Stark.

The fall of House Stark reminded me immediately of the aftermath of the Kildare Rebellion of 1534. For the century before their revolt, the Earls of Kildare had ruled Ireland as Lord Deputy (the office that had subsumed that of Justiciar), but they were, in all but name, sovereign and king. As did the Starks in the North, the Kildares made peace and war without any direction from the newly-imposed ‘usurper’ in the capital; in Westeros this was, of course, Robert Baratheon, while in the sixteenth century Ireland, the Kildares faced King Henry of House Tudor, the seventh of his name. So powerful did the Kildares become that the eighth earl, Gerald, was called the ‘Uncrowned King of Ireland’ and Henry VII even commented: “If all Ireland cannot rule him, he shall rule all Ireland”.

In 1487, Kildare even tried to replace Henry VII – a man he believed to have no right to the throne – with a new king just like Eddard Stark tried to do with Joffrey Baratheon. In Kildare’s case he tried to impose a pretender of his own making, Lambert Simnal, on the throne, claiming that he was the nephew of King Richard III. Such was Kildare’s power, however, that even defeat on the field of battle could not lead him to suffer the same fate as poor old Eddard Stark.

His son, the ninth Earl of Kildare, did come a cropper at the hands of the crown. He had assumed the role as Lord Deputy upon his father’s death in 1513, but soon argued with his fellow dynast, the Earl of Ormond. His rival was, at the time, making a play for the position of power within Ireland and had the favour of King Henry VIII and his chief minister, Cardinal Wolsey, much like the Lannisters had forced their way into a position of power in King’s Landing. The unease and distrust between the two families resulted in one of Kildare’s clients assassinating Ormond’s son in 1532. Called to face charges in England, Kildare was committed to prison and died there, not by beheading, but, reputedly, of grief. His son, the dramatically named Silken Thomas, heard false reports that his father had been executed and immediately did a Robb Stark, calling his bannermen together and renouncing his allegiance to the King of England. While Robb aimed to march on King’s Landing, Silken Thomas attacked the capital of the Irish Lordship at Dublin. Both aimed to secure vengeance for their father’s death.

 

Learn more about the Kildare Rebellion HERE

 

 

4. THE KING IN THE NORTH AND THE BATTLE OF THE BLACKWATER

 

Staying with the eldest son of House Stark, Robb’s successful military campaign and subsequent elevation to kingship during the first three seasons is reminiscent of the career of Edward Bruce. You’ll remember how, despite winning battle after battle against the Lannisters’ superior forces, Robb’s strategic errors, as well as political blunders, led him into all out retreat culminating in his shocking death at the Red Wedding.

Edward Bruce was the younger brother of the famous Robert Bruce, King of Scots, and invaded Ireland in 1315 with the aim of creating a second front in his family’s war against Plantagenet England. With aid from the native Gaels in Ulster, Edward inflicted numerous defeats on some of the most powerful Anglo-Norman lords of the day, Roger Mortimer, Richard de Burgh, Edmund Butler, Milo de Verdon and John FitzGerald, as well as burning their cities and storming their castles. At Dundalk in 1315 Edward even declared himself King of Ireland, nicely paralleling Robb’s assumption of the old title of King in the North in Game of Thrones.

Robb Stark was of course able to push southwards through Westeros on the back of his victories without ever threatening King’s Landing. If anything, Edward Bruce was even more successful. He was able to lead his army all the way to the capital in 1317. In an encounter reminiscent of the Battle of the Blackwater, the citizens of the city found themselves without the Anglo-Norman army, the Justiciar, Edmund Butler, just like Tywin Lannister, being then elsewhere, attempting to gather a new army. In his stead, the Mayor of Dublin, Robert de Nottingham, in a guise similar to Tyrion Lannister, took command of the city’s defence. Like Tyrion, fire would be the mayor’s main method to fight the aggressors.

Tyrion attacked Stannis Baratheon’s ships using wildfire but Robert de Nottingham’s tactics were even more callous. To prevent Edward Bruce from using materials and cover provided by the residential area outside the city walls, Robert de Nottingham burned the St Thomas area to the ground. And like Stannis’ force, Bruce’s was awed by the fury of the fire. Instead of launching an assault, they turned south into Munster in an effort to bring Edmund Butler to battle.

As with the King in the North, Edward Bruce was victorious again and again in battle, but failed to win the war, being constantly forced back into the north (ironically) and away from the major cities and power centres. Edward failed spectacularly to win the political game and fell in battle in 1318 just outside Dundalk when faced by Edmund Butler and John de Bermingham.

 

Learn more about the Siege of Dublin HERE

Find out more about Edward Bruce’s demise HERE

 

 

5. THE RED WEDDING

 

Amazingly, medieval Ireland had an incident that is more reminiscent of the Red Wedding in Games of Thrones than the Scottish Black Dinner. In the show, Robb Stark, his mother, and most of the Northern army are massacred by the Freys after being lured into their castle for a wedding feast. The act was done to avenge Robb’s insult when he abandoned a marriage to a Frey. Planned by Tywin Lannister, the murder all but ended the Stark family as a military threat and secured the throne of Westeros for Tywin’s grandson, King Joffrey.

The incident took place in 1305 when Peter de Bermingham, a Norman baron in Offaly and (father to John de Bermingham, the victor over Edward Bruce), invited a number of leading chiefs from the O’Connor Faly dynasty to feast with him. Having been at peace for a long time, the Gael accepted his gracious offer. It was only after they had eaten that Peter turned on his guests, murdering a dozen prominent members of the rival family and throwing the youngest among them to their deaths from the battlements. He later claimed reward for these men and sixteen others whose heads he had sent to Dublin Castle and it is this act which gives rise to a conspiracy theory that the massacre was planned by the government.

 

 

6. THE MOUNTAIN AND THE VIPER

 

My favourite scene in Game of Thrones was the duel to the death between Oberyn Martell and Gregor Clegane in the fourth season. It was of course trial by combat, with Oberyn acting a champion for Tyrion Lannister following his indictment for the murder of King Joffrey. During the fight Oberyn the Viper seems to be winning before The Mountain catches hold of him and crushes his skull with his bare hands, condemning Tyrion to execution. The Mountain also seemingly dies of his wounds, but his body is revived as a living corpse.

This duel is similar to an event which took place in County Tipperary in 1420. Two rival branches of the Butler family claimed ownership over Kiltinan Castle, an important and powerfully built fortress on the River Suir. Baron Dunboyne claimed ownership through his grandmother, while his distant kinsman, an illegitimate grandson of the Earl of Ormond, Edmund Butler, said that he had inherited the castle through kinship to the last owner, his cousin.

Their overlord, the Earl of Ormond, was presented with a dilemma and decided that the matter would be decided by trial by combat. On the green in front of the castle on a spring day, they crossed broadswords. The well-matched contestants fought for several hours until Dunboyne was suddenly killed. Edmund was hideously wounded and died the next day, but had lived long enough for his family to win the castle. The Dunboyne family did eventually get their hands on Kiltinan and were masters of the fortress for two hundred years. It is now owned by Lord Lloyd Webber.

 

 

7. THE BATTLE OF THE BASTARDS

 

Bastardy is an important plot point in Game of Thrones with some of the most important characters affected and driven by being born in such circumstances. No bastards are more memorable than Jon and Ramsay Snow, and their battle at the end of season six was probably one of the best and bloodiest pieces of television ever put to film.

Marriage laws in Ireland in the medieval period were rather complicated and without any real regulation by the church. The only real reasons that would be considered enough to invalidate a marriage was consanguinity, or if one partner was of a class too low to be considered equal. In hundreds of cases, great lords lost out on their inheritance because the government declared their parents’ marriage to be void.

Piers Butler was born into dubious legal circumstances, but he was still able to press his case to be heir to the Earldom of Ormond thanks to his military power. His cousin, Lord Ormond, who spent his whole life in England, did not trust Red Piers, as he was nicknamed, and sent his own bastard nephew, James the Black Bastard of Ormond, to Ireland to dislodge Red Piers from his castles in Ireland. In 1492, Black James led an army into County Kilkenny and forced Piers and his wife into life as outlaws in the wilderness. With his rival seemingly in the wind, Black James began acting as independently as had Red Piers and even declared that he was Earl of Ormond.

It was only five years later, in 1497, that Red Piers could bring about his version of the Battle of the Bastards when he discovered Black James and his men returning from his lover’s house at Ballyragget. An impromptu battle broke out between their followers with Piers personally killing his rival in hand-to-hand combat. It would take another forty-one years, but in 1538 Red Piers would finally be recognised as Earl of Ormond – hopefully that is a good sign for Jon Snow’s career in Westeros!

 

 

8. THE RAINS OF CASTAMERE

 

For those who know their Westeros mythology, the song, The Rains of Castamere, will not contain anything new. It immortalises the obliteration of House Reyne by Tywin Lannister in order to restore Lannister domination over a rebel lord. Tywin ignored all the Reyne family’s offers to surrender and instead killed them, raising Castamere to the ground. This incident takes place many years before the show begins, but the song is played a number of times during Game of Thrones, most memorably just before the murders of Robb, Talisa and Catelyn Stark.

In medieval Irish terms, there is one instance in particular which saw an entire noble family put to the sword: the Braganstown Massacre. Following his victory over Edward Bruce in 1318, John de Bermingham, the son of the aforementioned Peter, was granted lands in County Louth. He treated the land thereabouts as his own private fief, extorting wealth and intimidating the local populace for ten years. Finally, in 1329 the murder of a popular man during a dispute over a lime-kiln led the townsfolk of Ardee, led by John Clinton and Roger Gernon, to demand that Bermingham hand over the guilty parties. When he refused they besieged his manor house at Braganstown. As he sent his wife to safety, the besiegers broke into the castle and killed everyone inside. Estimates range between 60 and 150 people massacred including John de Bermingham, his brothers, his retainers, his minstrels, and other guests.

 

 

9. THE BOLTON USURPATION OF THE NORTH

 

One of the most galling moments in Game of Thrones was the betrayal and murder of Robb Stark, his wife, unborn child, and brothers* by House Bolton of The Dreadfort in return for control of the North. It was made all the worse because it had been Robb who had originally tasked Ramsay, the bastard son of Roose Bolton, with ridding Winterfell of the invading Iron Islanders. Boy was season three a cheer-fest!

These events mirror King John’s authorisation of Hugh de Lacy, a younger son of the Lord of Meath, to wage war by any means on John de Courcy in 1199. John had invaded and conquered eastern Ulster without permission twenty years before, and had soon begun acting like an independent monarch, making war at will and minting his own coinage. It was only in 1204 that Hugh was able to accomplish his task and like Ramsay, it was through treachery. While the Iron Islanders in Game of Thrones were slaughtered (and worse if you remember Theon’s fate), John was forced to flee to the Isle of Man from where he launched an attempt to re-conquer Ulster in 1205. Unfortunately, John was captured and spent the rest of his life in imprisonment.

Hugh, having ousted John, was rewarded with all his rival’s lands and titles, expanding his rule westwards into Counties Derry and Donegal. However, he too began acting treasonously and soon war broke out between Hugh and the Justiciar of Ireland, King John’s representative. Soon the whole island had descended into anarchy and in 1210 King John was forced to launch an expedition to re-establish his control. King John was able to expel Hugh from Ulster as did Jon Snow remove Ramsay from Winterfell. While Ramsay will not be returning after Sansa Stark’s unpleasant revenge, Hugh did come back to Ireland after King John’s death and was able re-establish his rule over Ulster.

* Later discovered to be two farm boys rather than the Starks

 

Find out more about Hugh de Lacy HERE

 

 

10. BRANDON AND RICKON STARK

 

Things did not look good for Brandon and Rickon Stark when the Iron Islanders stormed Winterfell and made the two youngsters hostage. Honestly, did anything good happen to anyone with the Stark surname in season two? Thankfully, despite Theon Greyjoy’s lies and murderous intents, the boys did survive and were able to escape into the wilderness, wandering around the North under the protection of Osha, Jojen, Meera and Hodor until the beginning of season six. What will become of Brandon Stark before the end of the show? Some believe that with his emerging powers the heir to Winterfell will be able restore Stark rule over his ancestors’ lordship.

It didn’t look good for the FitzGerald dynasty of Kildare after the fall of their main fortress, Maynooth Castle, in 1535. As outlined above, the eldest son of the family, Silken Thomas, the 22-year-old Earl of Kildare, had risen in rebellion against the crown much like Robb Stark following the death of his father in the dungeons of King Henry VIII. Unlike Robb, Silken Thomas’ rebellion almost succeeded in storming Dublin only to find himself falling back to his territory when he found new enemies at his back. He was not at Maynooth when it came under siege. It was only manned by a skeleton crew of some hundred retainers under Christopher Perase. All those men died when the royal army stormed the castle, some say due to the betrayal of Perase. Silken Thomas surrendered, believing that he and his five uncles would be pardoned, only for all to be executed as traitors in 1537.

The ancient line of Earls of Kildare was kept alive by two boys, Silken Thomas’ younger brothers, 12-year-old Gerald and 8-year-old Edward FitzGerald, who went on the run and lived very much hand-to-mouth as outlaws in the wilderness, like Brandon and Rickon Stark. Though only a boy, Gerald became a rallying point for Irishmen dissatisfied with the ever-expanding rule of royalist Dublin. Moving him from place to place, sometimes just hours ahead of pursuing government agents, a loose alliance grew with the hope of re-establishing the old balance of power.

It all came to naught when the Geraldine League was defeated in battle in 1539. The Lord Deputy even lost his head to Henry VIII’s executioner after being accused of complicity in allowing Gerald to escape to France. Gerald was educated in Belgium and Italy, being defended from King Henry’s murderous intents (much as Robert Baratheon wished to harm Daenerys Targaryen) by the King of France and Holy Roman Emperor. He also became a great traveller, Renaissance man and warrior, fighting against the Turks and visiting Libya. Perhaps it was during his travels that Gerald discovered his interest in alchemy and science. He returned to England after Henry VIII’s death and was soon returned to his ancestral lands and titles. In later life he was rumoured to have magical powers and to practice strange arts, much like Brandon Stark. He is remembered in Ireland as The Wizard Earl and, according to legend, his ghost returns to Kilkea Castle every seventh year, mounted on a white horse.

 

 

What do you think? Can Irish history tell us anything about where Game of Thrones is headed? Can it help spill the beans on George R.R. Martin’s great plan?

Might we see Jon Snow on some sort of Cú Chulainn-like one-man stand as the White Walkers attack the Wall? Might Cersei Lannister launch an invasion of a neighbouring kingdom because her brother-lover boasted that he had the best bull in Westeros as would Queen Maeve?

 

Hit me up @ruadhbutler on Twitter or find me on Facebook to continue the conversation or suggest other moments of Irish history that may or may not have influenced the writing of Game of Thrones.

 

Ruadh Butler is the author of Swordland and Lord of the Sea Castle, novels charting the turbulent era of the Norman invasion of Ireland.

 

 

 

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