Historical Fiction — Five Things ‘Game of Thrones’ Teaches Us About Medieval Warfare

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Game of Thrones may be fantasy, but the characters, settings and  plot are drawn from Medieval history. (Image source: WikiCommons)

Game of Thrones is just fantasy, but the characters, settings and even the plot are drawn from the wars and political of Medieval history. (Image source: WikiCommons)

Screen Shot 2015-05-19 at 5.11.04 PMGAME OF THRONES may be pure make-believe, but both the books and the smash hit TV series have stoked some serious interest in Medieval history, particularly warfare from the period. But what can those interested in the great battles of the Middle Ages learn from George R. R. Martin’s sprawling saga about the fight for Westeros and Essos? Perhaps more than you think. With the fifth season of Game of Thrones galloping towards its bloody climax, the makers of the interactive digital app West Point History of Warfare: Medieval bring us five ways GoT measures up (and also falls short) when it comes to historical accuracy. Consider the following:

Jon Snow: Not The Only Bastard King

William of Normandy, as seen in the Bayeux Tapestry.

What a bastard! — William of Normandy, as seen here delicately embroidered in the famous Bayeux Tapestry, was a ruthless ruler and shrewd tactician.

Sure William the Bastard wasn’t a part of the Night’s Watch on the Wall, but he certainly was one of the most brilliant military leaders of the Medieval period. The illegitimate son of Robert I, William inherited the title of Duke of Normandy following his father’s death, after which he launched an impressive series of successful military campaigns that eventually landed him a new name—William the Conqueror. Before earning his new moniker, however, he was famous for cutting off the hands and feet of any who mocked him.

Henry V, like other Medieval commanders, led from the front. (Image source: WikiCommons)

Henry V, like other Medieval commanders, led from the front. (Image source: WikiCommons)

The Medieval Era: A Dangerous Time for Rulers

Did your favourite GoT character get killed? Well, that was par for the course in the Middle Ages. In fact, many Medieval battles were downright deadly for the ruling elite of the time. At the Battle of Hastings in 1066, the majority of England’s military and political leaders were cut down in a single afternoon, including King Harold Godwinson and both of his brothers. At the landmark Battle of Agincourt in 1415, the French lost a larger percentage of nobles in one day than the percentage of citizens France lost in the entire First World War. Then there was the Battle of Shrewsbury in 1403, when a 16-year-old prince Henry V was shot in the face with an arrow. The arrowhead lodged so deep into the back of his skull that his surgeon had to invent a new type of forceps to extract it without killing the royal heir.

The Real-World Castle Black and Winterfell?

Orford Castle. The West Point History of Warfare: Medieval features an interactive graphic of the famous fortress. (Image source: Gernot Keller www.gernot-keller.com)

Orford Castle. The West Point History of Warfare: Medieval features an interactive graphic of this famous fortress. Click here for details. (Image source: Gernot Keller at www.gernot-keller.com)

The Crac des Chevaliersin Syria.

The Krac des Chevalier in Syria.

A good castle meant a good defence in the Medieval period… at least for a while. The fact that many castles from the era are standing today is a testament to their architectural strength and strategic importance. Just as the future of Winterfell was decided in Game of Thrones, the fates of entire Medieval kingdoms lay in the very bricks and mortar of their castles. An excellent real-life example is the Krak des Chevalier, located in present-day Syria. The castle was built in the 12th Century by an order known as the Knights Hospitaller. To this day, it’s considered one of the greatest crusader strongholds ever built. Some of the most prolific castle builders of the Medieval era were the Normans. Throughout many of their conquests, they targeted areas where the defenders had not already built such imposing structures and instead erected their own — in many cases right on top of the ruins of Roman and even Greek fortifications. Orford Castle in Suffolk, England is a classic example of a typical Norman fortress. Its high flanking towers are three meters thick in some areas.

Brienne of Tarth Knows Chivalry

Click on the image for an interactive infographic on the arms and equipment of   Medieval knights from the app West Point History of Warfare.

Click on the image above for an exclusive interactive infographic on the arms and equipment of Medieval knights straight from the digital app West Point History of Warfare.

While the termchivalry” has complicated social and moral implications today, the concept originally referred solely to warriors on horseback. The word itself translates literally as “horse soldiery”. Chivalry initially emerged in 12th Century northern France and was based on the principles of bravery, self-sacrifice and unwavering loyalty to a lord and master. While in subsequent centuries, chivalric knights would be romanticized by artists, writers and poets, in the Medieval period they were largely mercenaries who fought for their landowners with the expectation that they would receive wealth and status along with their victories.

When The Longbow Ruled

The bow, not the sword, dominated many Medieval battlefields. (Image source: WikiCommons)

The bow, not the sword, dominated many Medieval battlefields. (Image source: WikiCommons)

Jaime Lannister may not have an arm, but he can still wield a sword. And while swordsmanship has long been represented in popular culture as the quintessential method of combat of the Medieval period, it wasn’t always the case. At the Battle of Crėcy in 1346, the appearance of the longbow shattered the status quo in infantry warfare. English longbowmen destroyed the dismounted yet heavily armored French knights in a shocking reversal that ushered in a new era of Medieval weaponry. Superior even to crossbows, the longbow could inflict grievous damage on enemy formations at ranges of more than 300 yards. What’s more, with a rate of fire of up to six arrows per minute, a section of bowmen could decimate an army in no time. In fact, a strong archer armed with an English longbow could propel an arrow with over 130 joules of kinetic energy— that’s six times the power of a typical Apache bow of the American West could deliver.


Screen-Shot-2015-05-07-at-8.37.36-PMTo learn more about the historical basis for Game of Thrones, check out the new West Point History of Warfare: Medieval, part of the West Point History of Warfare series. The 71-chapter collection covers wars from Ancient Greece to Afghanistan and Iraq and includes more than 500 interactive battle maps, video and audio content, along with commentary from nearly 50 military historians. Over the coming weeks, MHN will preview samples from this impressive and immersive library, all of which was compiled by historians at the United States Military Academy. For more on the West Point History of Warfare, CLICK HERE. 

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