The real historical event behind HBO’s House of the Dragon

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Matt Smith as Prince Daemon Targaryen in House of the Dragon (Photo by Ollie Upton/HBO)

Set some two centuries before the fantastical events of Game of Thrones, House of the Dragon takes us back to Westeros for more courtly intrigues and gory deaths, with one significant addition: here be dragons.

The series is based on George RR Martin’s 2018 novel Fire and Blood, a history of the Targaryen dynasty that recounts the ‘Dance of Dragons’ – a civil war fought tooth and nail (quite literally, on the part of the dragons) between two factions of the silver-haired and seemingly fireproof family of dragonriders that once ruled Westeros and birthed Daenerys Stormborn.

Emma D’Arcy as Princess Rhaeneyra Targaryen and Matt Smith as Prince Daemon Targaryen in House of the Dragon (Photo by Ollie Upton/HBO)

Though the plot is entirely fictional, the human story beneath the veneer of high fantasy is based on a real event from early medieval history – a period known as the Anarchy.

 

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House of the Dragon plot: what happens in the drama?

House of the Dragon begins with Viserys Targaryen (played by Paddy Considine) on the Iron Throne, and he is plagued with questions about who will inherit his crown.

With no surviving sons, he settles the succession on his sole living child, his unflinchingly capable daughter Rhaenyra (played by both Emma D’Arcy and Milly Alcock), and calls a meeting of his nobles to swear loyalty to her, despite their open misgivings about the thought of placing a woman on the throne.

Rhaenerya Targaryen (Milly Alcock) is presented as King Viserys’s chosen heir in House of the Dragon (Photo by Ollie Upton/HBO)

Simmering none-too-quietly in the background is the king’s brother Daemon (Matt Smith – reprising his persona of chafing royal after a turn as the young Prince Philip in The Crown), who believes himself to be de facto heir.

But Viserys lives for another 24 years. In that time his queen dies, and he remarries. His new bride bears him a son, Aegon (Tom Glynn-Carney).

Paddy Considine as King Viserys Targaryen in House of the Dragon (Photo by Ollie Upton/HBO)

When Viserys finally dies, his Small Council (akin to the real-life Privy Council of medieval England) no longer feels compelled to honour the dead king’s wishes for Rhaenyra to succeed him.

After all, there is male heir to consider – and so allegiances begin to shift as the Targaryens pick sides…

The real historical event that inspired House of the Dragon

House of the Dragon is loosely based on a real historical event – a bleak interlude in English history between 1135 and 1153 known as the Anarchy.

It begins with King Henry I, whose succession is thrown into disarray with the White Ship disaster of 1120, which claimed the life of his sole legitimate son, William Adelin.

Though Henry rapidly remarried – to a woman 35 years his junior – he would have no other sons, and so he named his daughter Empress Matilda as his heir, and forced his begrudging court to swear their allegiance to her.

In the case of the Anarchy, it was a cousin rather than a step-sibling who would prove to be the undoing of Henry’s best-laid plans.

Stephen and Matilda, rivals for the crown of England. (Photo by Print Collector/Getty Images)

When Henry I died on 1 December 1135, some nobles declared that the king had released them from their oaths. They looked to continental Europe for an alternative, and they found one in the form of Stephen of Blois, second son of Henry’s sister Adela. Twenty-two days after the king’s death, Stephen was in London wearing the crown. But Matilda had not renounced her claim to the throne – and so their civil war began.

It wasn’t called the Anarchy due to the ferocity of the conflict, but because of the supposed lack of control Stephen had over the country when he was king.

But was it really anarchic? Historian Matthew Lewis questions whether this badge of dishonour is deserved, or the product of revisionism.

“If King Stephen would have recognised anarchy, it was only in the sense of so many diverse threats emerging at once: Empress Matilda in England, her husband Geoffrey conquering Normandy, King David [of Scotland] in the north, and rebel barons,” he writes.

Instead, he suggests, could the name be the result of Plantagenet spin? “Stephen’s reign was not glorious, but that does not make it anarchic. Few wholly unsuccessful rulers lasted 19 years and died in their bed still wearing the crown.”

Here is a point of divergence from real history: House of the Dragon promises to be anarchic indeed.

Who was the real Half Year Queen?

Known as the ‘Half Year Queen’, Rhaenyra Targaryen is an analogue of Empress Matilda, daughter and heir to Henry I.

Born in 1102, Matilda was married to Heinrich V of the Holy Roman Empire in 1110. She was widowed in 1125, and returned to England two years later where – like Rhaenyra Targaryen – she was named her father’s heir in lieu of a legitimate son, only to be faced with civil war when the time came inherit his crown.

Rhaenerya Targaryen (Milly Alcock) is presented as King Viserys’s chosen heir in House of the Dragon (Photo by Ollie Upton/HBO)

Her problem was not that she was not up to the task, writes historian Catherine Hanley. Her regime wasn’t “crippled by the sudden revelation of previously undetected personal flaws” – the greater problem was that Matilda found herself “stumbling over the implicit contradictions between being a woman and being a king”. It is a challenge we are likely to see in House of the Dragon, too.

The real history of Game of Thrones

House of the Dragon is not the first time that George RR Martin has drawn inspiration from real history. Game of Thrones draws parallels with the Wars of the Roses, with the names Lannister and Stark thinly veiled analogues of Lancaster and York. The quiet murder of Stark child-heirs Bran and Rickon holds echoes of the Princes in Tower (though in this case, the ‘princes’ turn out to be very much alive).

The Red Wedding, perhaps the most shocking event in a show known for its shocking events – in which King in the North Robb Stark and his mother Catelyn were butchered at a marriage feast – is Martin’s take on the 13th-century Black Dinner. The list goes on, with real-history echoes found all the way from Dorne to the Wall (which, incidentally, is an especially frosty take on Hadrian’s Wall in the north of England).

Read more about the history that inspired Game of Thrones

  • A tale of two walls: how Hadrian’s Wall inspired Game of Thrones
  • Game of Thrones: the real-life medieval history
  • Game of Thrones: medieval inspiration
  • Power plays and scheming queens: the ancient history behind Game of Thrones

House of the Dragon arrives on HBO in the US on 21 August and Sky Atlantic via Now in the UK on 22 August. Looking for something else to watch? Explore our full round-up of the best historical TV and film available to stream right now, or the new history TV and radio airing in the UK this month


Journal of Human Hypertension

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