Although the drama is based on George R.R. Martin’s novels and set in the fantasy realm of Westeros, the books’ epic power struggles are inspired by English history’s true battle for the crown… The War of the Roses.
We’ve picked the places where you can feel closest to the action. Luckily, these days they’re more beautiful than bloody…
Tewkesbury Abbey, Gloucestershire
The Battle of Tewkesbury, fought on 4th May 1471 was one of the bloodiest battles in the 32 years of The War of the Roses. The Yorkist king Edward IV imposed a devastating defeat over his rivals, the Lancastrians, who lost their leader and heir to the throne, Edward, Prince of Wales. Martin himself said, “I have the Lannisters and the Starks, and in real life it was the Lancasters and the Yorks.” Series aficionados have pointed out the similarities between warrior-king Robert Baratheon and Edward IV and between conniving Cersei Lannister and Margaret of Anjou, who was a key Lancastrian player in the long battle for England’s crown.
In typical Game of Thrones fashion, after the Battle of Tewkesbury, the victorious Yorkists forced their way into the sanctuary of the abbey. The resulting bloodshed was so horrifying it was reputedly closed for a month in order to be purified and re-consecrated.
Today this former Benedictine monastery is one of Britain’s finest examples of Norman architecture and still holds a communion service for the fallen on the 4th May every year. Every second weekend in July, the battle is re-enacted at the Tewkesbury Medieval Festival.
At the head of the old town in perhaps Scotland’s finest city, sits the impressive fortress of Edinburgh Castle. There has been a royal castle on the brooding slab of Castle Rock since the 12th century, and it has found itself under siege more times than anywhere else in Britain. Now a major tourist attraction, you might have thought twice before visiting a few hundred years ago.
Nobody watching Game of Thrones’ stand-out third season episode will be likely to forget the mouth-droppingly gory scenes of the ‘Red Wedding’. A particularly brutal episode where *spoiler alert*, pretty much all of the north-ruling Stark family are shockingly slaughtered, Martin’s apparent inspiration was not a cheese-fuelled nightmare but a historical event. Ominously named the ‘Black Dinner’, this party took place in 1440, where guests from a rival clan of the child king James II were invited to dine at the castle and there were horribly murdered by their hosts.
Edinburgh Castle still retains much of its drama. Visit its prison vaults if you dare or gaze upon the ancient ‘Stone of Destiny’, used since the thirteenth century in the coronation ceremonies of English , then British kings and queens. The stone will only leave Scottish soil again when a new monarch is crowned in Westminster Abbey.
Hadrian’s Wall, Northumberland
“My wall is bigger and considerably longer and more magical” said Martin of this historic boundary, “And, of course, what lies beyond it has to be more than just Scots!”
Emperor Hadrian ordered the construction of his wall in 122 AD, to separate the Romans from the ‘barbarians’. It stretched from the Solway Firth to Tynemouth. In the world of Westeros, the Wall was built 8000 years ago by Brandon the Builder and towers along the northern border of the Seven Kingdoms, holding the Wildlings at bay.
Even though Hadrian’s Wall was a mere 20 feet high and is no longer complete, it is a dramatic tribute to Roman engineering. It would have looked considerably more imposing when faced by its contemporary Scots. Part of it takes advantage of the Whin Sill, a slab of igneous rock forming an escarpment with soaring, sheer cliff faces.
You can still walk the 82 miles from coast to coast along the Hadrian’s Wall Path, a National trail which follows the route of this World Heritage Site. Visit Housesteads – a well-preserved fort with stunning views of the Northumberland National Park or Vindolanda to view fascinating roman writing tablets -the oldest surviving handwritten documents in Britain.
Doune Castle, Stirling
A gatehouse towering a formidable 100ft makes Doune Castle a striking feature in central Scotland’s landscape. The 14th century home of Robert Stewart, 1st Duke of Albany and ruler of Scotland in all but name, Doune is pleasantly sited on a steep bank where the Ardoch Burn flows into the River Teith.
This well-preserved fortification has featured on screen several times; as Camelot in Monty Python and the Holy Grail and, of course, as Winterfell – the drab yet dramatic ancient seat of House Stark.
Doune Castle affords the contemporary visitor stunning views of Ben Lomond from the battlements while inside is one of Scotland’s best preserved examples of a great hall and a lofty musicians’ gallery. You can take a tour narrated by the unmistakeable voice of the Python Terry Jones or follow the nature trail in the grounds.
Bosworth Field, Leicestershire
On 22nd August 1485 the course of English history changed forever. We lost our last Plantagenet king and the era of the Tudors was ushered in. The Battle of Bosworth Field is one of British history’s most infamous battles, concluding the lengthy and bloody War of the Roses with the death of the controversial King Richard III – the last British monarch to die in action.
The area is rather unassumingly rural and beautiful today. Interestingly some believe the battle to have been fought in the marshland here because the site is crossed by Roman roads and the thousands of troops could travel there quickly. Learn about medieval warfare and fascinating archaeological discoveries at the Heritage Centre, or view the battle re-enactment. For a more sedate day out, stroll in the surrounding area on the panoramic ‘Battlefield Trail’.
Leicester famously won its contest with York to be chosen as King Richard III’s final resting place after a skeleton found in a city centre car park turned out to be the body of the man himself. Richard had been buried by the Grey Friars, a Franciscan Holy order, in their friary church. He was reinterred in great pomp and circumstance in 2015 and now lies in state in a peaceful area of Leicester Cathedral. It’s an altogether a more respectable end for the king whom Shakespeare painted as a scheming hunchback and who, in real life, was stripped naked and trussed dead and bleeding over a horse, after fighting bravely to the end in battle.
A few steps from the cathedral is the ‘Richard III Centre’ where you can learn about this amazing discovery and enjoy interactive displays re-telling the compelling story of one of our most fascinating monarchs. Extend your visit to Leicester’s historic Guildhall, 600 years old and one of Britain’s best preserved timber-framed halls.