Ned Stark and Richard III

Episodes: Season 1, Episode 1 “Winter is Coming,” Season 1, Episode 7 “You Win or You Die,” Season 2, Episode 6 “The Old Gods and the New”

Richard III

Richard III may be one inspiration for Ned Stark.

If Robert Baratheon is an older Edward IV, does that make the man Robert likened to a brother, Ned Stark, an incarnation of Edward IV’s brother Richard? In some ways, it does. However, there are major differences and Richard III was not the only historic person George RR Martin looked to when creating Ned.

Richard III, the notorious King of England, immortalized in Shakespeare’s play as the hunchbacked villain who murdered his nephews, remains deeply polarizing even today. For some, Richard is innocent of the crimes like murdering his nephews. These people note Richard’s good points like loyalty, skillful governance, and his popularity in the North – all traits Ned Stark shares.

Ned Stark’s singular defining, yet destructive, characteristic is loyalty. Despite his better judgment, Ned fatefully accepts the position of Hand out of duty to Robert. The same devotion leads Ned to decide to tell Robert his children are illegitimate. Ned’s compassion gets the better of him, and he warns Cersei of his decision with disastrous consequences. Later, when Tywin Lannister asks Arya, unaware of her identity, what killed her father, her reply? “Loyalty.” (Season 2, Episode 6 at 35:50).

Cersei threatens Ned Stark

Cersei promises Ned she will protect her children when he warns her he will reveal the truth about their father.

Richard III chose the motto “Loyaulte me lie” (Loyalty binds me). When Richard’s brother Clarence rebelled against Edward IV, Richard sided with his brother Edward and fled with him to Burgundy. Richard’s decision to side with Edward may not have been easy; his cousin Warwick led the plot to overthrow Edward. Warwick may have been like a father to Richard, who lived in Warwick’s household at Middleham only a couple of years before.

Like Ned, Richard was also known for his good governance of the north. Edward delegated nearly the entire administration of the North and defence of the Scottish border to Richard. In 1483, Edward made him a palatinate king of the Westmoreland and Cumberland counties. Despite his brother’s favor, Richard stayed primarily in the North and avoided court. In the first Game of Thrones episode, when Robert greets Ned after a nine-year absence and asks why he hasn’t seen him, the ever-dutiful Ned’s reply is “Guarding the North for you, Your Grace. Winterfell is yours.” (Season 1, Episode 1 at 27:29).

However, unlike Ned, Richard was likely charismatic, charming, a powerful networker, and a skillful speaker. Richard likely started building the great northern network that supported him when he seized the throne in his time in Middleham. In the North, Richard was renowned for his loyalty and generosity towards his great northern affinity of followers. He practised “good lordship” where he shared his wealth, power, and successes with those below him: patronage had a positive connotation and a noble’s followers expected it. Chroniclers noted contemporaries saw Richard as a brilliant and charismatic speaker like his brothers.

George RR Martin also places Ned in the illegitimacy/succession crisis that occurred in 1483. After Edward IV died, Richard III was in a dangerous position. He felt threatened by the Woodvilles, whom he blamed for his brother’s death. He likely believed that they would kill him as well given the opportunity.

On Edward’s deathbed, Edward added a codicil to his will making Richard the regent until Edward’s son, Edward V, was old enough to rule as an adult. In Edward’s will, he appointed Richard regent and guardian of the royal children. The codicils have never been found, which may mean they were destroyed immediately after Edward’s death. Richard wasn’t present when Edward died – and wasn’t told until days later when Edward’s best friend, Hastings, wrote Richard with the news. It is quite possible that somebody in the Woodville faction, who was against Richard being regent, destroyed the codicils. This may have been the inspiration for Cersei Lannister (an incarnation of Elizabeth Woodville) ripping up Robert Baratheon’s will.

During the crisis following Edward’s death, Richard may have discovered Edward may have secretly entered into a marriage contract before he covertly married Elizabeth Woodville. Such a contract would have rendered his marriage to Elizabeth null and void and Edward’s children bastards. Richard based his claim to the throne on there being no legitimate heirs to the throne. The 1483 struggle for the throne is, at a very high level, not unlike the dynastic struggle that occurs after Ned writes to Stannis Baratheon that Robert didn’t father his own children.

One way in which Martin diverges from Richard’s life events is that, unlike Ned’s relationship with Robert, Richard never fought beside Edward in Edward’s first struggles for the throne. Richard was 13 10 years younger than Edward so he was only a boy when Edward overthrew the Lancasters. Ned also appears to lack the ruthlessness, impulsivity, decisiveness, and possibly raw energy for which Richard was known.

While Richard, like Ned was definitely, the dutiful soldier, Richard could be ironhearted when it came to doing what had to be done. Richard was likely responsible for killing, or ordering, the death of the “mad king” Henry VI after Edward regained his throne. Richard had no compunction about taking property from widows, including his mother-in-law, and he had his brother’s best friend executed within minutes of accusing him of treachery. While these actions made Richard little different from his peers, this cold calculation is not seen in Ned.

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Eleanor the Secret Queen by John Ashdown-Hill

(Note: Two corrections were added to this post in red text on April 25/13. Thanks to everyone for your great comments and for pointing out these errors.)

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Jamie Adair is the editor of History Behind Game of Thrones, a website about the history behind George RR Martin's "A Song of Ice and Fire" novels and the hit TV show, "Game of Thrones."

27 Comments

  • Reply April 5, 2013

    cat

    Actually, Richard did fight alongside Edward- he was put in command of armies at both the battles of Barnet and Tewkesbury at the tender age of eighteen! An excellent essay, though, and some great points made:)

    • Reply April 5, 2013

      jamie-adair

      Thanks!!!! My very first comment. I’m thrilled!

      You’re absolutely right – I forgot about Tewkesbury and Barnet. I was just thinking about Towton and the parallels with Robb Stark. Thank you – what a great point!

      Please let me know if you have any suggestions for topics. Thanks for reading!

      • Reply April 5, 2013

        cat

        This is an excellent idea for a blog and I’m looking forward to seeing more:D

        • Reply April 5, 2013

          jamie-adair

          Thanks! I’m still trying to figure out how to use WordPress and how to get the comments to show on the blog itself, so please don’t be offended if you don’t see them right away.

    • Reply August 18, 2013

      Anonymous

      I think Ned Stark was also based on the historical character of Richard, Duke of York, the father of Edward IV and of Richard III. York was like Ned Stark in that he lacked the ruthlessness of Edward and Richard, acted as protector of Henry VI, and was hounded to death by a vindictive queen, Margaret of Anjou. Also, Catelyn seems to be based on the character of York’s wife, Cecily Neville.

      • Reply August 19, 2013

        Jaime Adair

        Thanks for commenting! I strongly agree. I actually wrote quite a long post about Ned Stark being inspired by Richard of York, or at least that’s how I remember it. lol. But, now the only link I can find that’s like that is this one: http://history-behind-game-of-thrones.com/2013/04/inspirations-for-ned-stark/

        My theory is that Ned is based on several different people, including Richard of York, Richard III, Francis Lovell, Hastings, and others.

        In one post, I actually included the sketch of Richard of York’s head on a spike since it reminded me so much of that awful scene where Joffrey forces Sansa to look at Ned’s head.

        I agree about Catelyn Stark as well. I wrote a post here comparing her to Cecily Neville: http://history-behind-game-of-thrones.com/2013/06/catelynstark/

  • Reply April 10, 2013

    julia

    Interesting article. When I read the Game of Thrones I immediately saw the historical parallels and themes, especially with regard the reign of Edward IV. Some inaccuracies – Richard was only 10 years younger than Edward and, as been noted, fought alongside him at Barnet & Tewkesbury. If indeed Richard was responsible for the death of Henry VI, most likely he was carrying out Edwards orders, and there is certain evidence to support the marriage pre-contract of Edward. The act of parliament Titulus Regius, comfirming Richard’s kingship clearly states this.

    • Reply April 25, 2013

      jamie-adair

      Ah, wonderful. These are great comments… Thanks.

      My first thought was: “Oh! Yikes! Darn!” You are right about the ten year difference! That’s what I get for going by memory – my apologies for that 1452 minus 1442 does not equal twelve years. I’ll update the blog post with a strike through correction – thanks for pointing that out.

      You’re also absolutely right that if Richard killed Henry VI he was almost certainly acting on Edward IV’s orders. In all likelihood, nobody but a king would dare order a hit on another annointed king who was being held in custody. I didn’t mention this because I’m still getting a feel for the audience/readers of this blog. I worry about going into much too much depth and making it too complicated. (However, since I’m eating crow, I don’t think there is any danger of that.)

      The posts about Richard are the hardest – by far – to write. Richard is an extremely controversial king and I know people have strong feelings for and against him. I’m a member of the Richard III Society and certainly willing to give him the benefit of the doubt in many ways. I believe in the post I comment about his ruthlessness. However, I think this puts him in good company with all of his warrior peers, including Edward IV and Henry VII, and should not necessarily be counted against him.

      Very good point about Titulus Regius. I tend to suspect that John Ashdowne-Hill is correct in Eleanor: The Secret Queen and Edward IV was almost certainly precontracted. This would (does) completely change the traditional interpretation of Richard’s motivation for accession.

      Thank you for your excellent an enthusiastic comments!

      • Reply August 24, 2014

        Anonymous

        Jamie-
        I have always thought that Richard III’s problem was that he was not ruthless enough. I would have had Margaret Beaufort, henry Tudor’s mother in the Tower instead of in the custody of her husband, the treacherous lord Stanley. Her life would have been forfeit if Tudor invaded. And then she could not plot, either. I always thought he killed Hastings (Edward’s best friend, not his) out of a reaction to his disloyalty. Remember that Hastings was plotting with the Woodvilles because he felt slighted.
        He did not kill Stanley’s eldest son, either. And almost nothing detrimental is written about him until Vergil, the Tudor lickspittle, started writing. A man does not remain loyal for years and suddenly turn into a monster.

        • Reply August 24, 2014

          Jamie Adair

          What an interesting analysis! “Not ruthless enough.”I love it. You make a great point about Margaret Beaufort – that was a huge tactical error on Richard’s part.

        • Olga Hughes
          Reply August 24, 2014

          Olga Hughes

          The Richard was not “ruthless enough” theory is very popular yet I don’t really think that imprisoning Stanley’s wife or killing her would have been an intelligent move on Richard’s part. It wouldn’t have actually stopped Henry Tudor. Do you think that Stanley would have done nothing if Richard killed his wife? Do you think that killing Stanley’s son would have really just hastened Stanley to Richard’s side with no other consequences? Keeping him hostage didn’t work, what exactly would killing him have accomplished?

          • March 21, 2015

            timetravellingbunny

            But wouldn’t it have been a good idea to imprison her somewhere where she could not actively plot? What exactly was Henry Tudor going to do that he otherwise wouldn’t… invade?

      • Reply March 21, 2015

        timetravellingbunny

        Isn’t it true that the only source of the claim that Richard killed Henry is Thomas More’s extremely biased account, which basically portrays Richard as a demon and pins every possible murder during Edward’s reign on him (since Edward’s daughter was the source of the Tudor dynasty legitimacy) and that one other account gives 23rd May as the day of Henry’s death, when Richard is known to have been away from London?

  • […] a meme tonight that summed up exactly what I was trying to say about Cersei and Ned Stark in this post. Cersei derides Ned for one of his strongest suits – his loyalty and ability to follow […]

  • Reply February 25, 2014

    lilibettitley

    There’s no evidence of Richard’s complicity in the death of Henry VI, whom Edward IV then had buried in relative obscurity in Chertsey. It was Richard, after Edward’s death, who arranged Henry’s reburial in a manner more befitting a king in the splendour of Edward’s new chapel of St George at Windsor. I don’t hold with the guilt theory: if you want your misdeeds forgetting, you don’t go digging them up yourself!

    • Reply March 3, 2014

      Jaime Adair

      It’s true there is no evidence that Richard was involved in Henry VI’s death; however, many historians think it is likely. I think it is possible given that Edward trusted him so implicitly at this stage. (Who better to handle such a sensitive job than your most trusted brother?) I know many people don’t want to see additional crimes laid on Richard’s doorstep, but I don’t think it makes him a bad king or person if Richard did kill Henry. Even though Henry was an anointed king, this was just business as usual in the Middle Ages. Maybe Richard built the chapel out of guilt? Maybe he didn’t do it after all?

      • Reply April 27, 2014

        Anas

        I doubt GRR Martin actually has one historical person to correspond with a character. I think Eddard is more like Richard Duke of Gloucester, while Stannis Baratheon is more like King Richard III.
        I doubt he killed Henry VI if anyone did it would’ve been Edward IV.
        He only took the property of one widow- Lady Beauchamp, to prevent George of Clarence from taking it, so Anne and Isabel Neville could inherit it.
        I think your point would have been better and more accurately shown with the examples of Hastings, Rivers and Grey. Richard was (rightly or wrongly) severe with them. I think that would have served your point rather than implying that he was some widowed estate predator.
        I hope thay helped.

        • Reply April 27, 2014

          Jamie Adair

          Hey Anas, Thanks for reading and posting! I definitely agree. When I first started writing this blog (e.g., a year ago when I wrote that post) – I assumed he based characters 1:1 on historical figures, but he definitely doesn’t. (I’ve tried to make this clear in more recent posts, but at some point I’d like to do some type of synopsis.Richard III is a very controversial figure and there are many ways to interpret his actions. The reference to “his brother’s best friend…” is a reference to Hastings, btw. Anyway, very compelling and interesting comment. Thanks for reading!

    • Reply August 24, 2014

      Anonymous

      Lilibettitley.
      I strongly agree, Edward IV was certainly capable of ordering Henry Vi’s death all by himself. In fact, if I recall correctly, Richard was against it. I also would note that I think Richard III is innocent of the Prince’s deaths for many reasons, but also because if he had them killed (and the Sainted Thomas more and story be damned), they would have died of a fever and they would have had state funerals, court in mourning, etc.
      Henry VII (Henry Tudor) on the other had, could well have had his followers in England, probably the Duke of Buckingham, kill them. and he had the best reason of all for needing them dead. He married their sister Elizabeth after cancelling the document that made her illegitimate. If she were legitimate, so were her brothers. . ,

  • Reply April 27, 2014

    Olga Hughes

    Actually Richard rather famously took the lands of Elizabeth de Vere, Countess of Oxford, who was widowed, in her sixties, possibly infirm and living in a nunnery – which he and his men barged into. She was coerced to release her estates in return for an annuity of 500 marks.

  • Reply August 17, 2014

    Yoel Arnon

    I totally agree with the equation of Ned Stark = Richard III, but I take it from a little different angle.
    Throughout the Song of ice and fire, George R.R. Martin attempts to demonstrate some basic principles. One of them is that no person is completely just or completely evil. Another is that we all always have a choice, and our choices eventually define us.
    To prove that point, Martin took the most positive character he could think of – Ned Stark – and had put him on the same situation as the worst villains in British history (assuming you believe W. Shakespeare and a certain class of historians). After Edward IV died, Richard III executed the dominant figures in the Woodville family, captured and later (allegedly) executed the princes, executed other opponents like lord Hastings, and paved his way to the Thrown. Ned Stark, on the same situation, mercies the children and warns their mother, refuses to align with Renly Baratheon in a coup, leaves all the Lanisters alive, and ends with his head on a pike.
    Ironically, one of the first actions of king Joffrey is the exact same action that Richard iii allegedly did and Ned Stark couldn’t – executing all the known offsprings of Robert Baratheon, including a little baby.
    Who was right? I really don’t know. That is the beauty of a good story. Thanks for the enlightening post!

    • Reply August 18, 2014

      Jun

      Yoel — Thank you for putting it so eloquently. That’s what is most powerful about the Ned Stark story line for me. All the qualities and ideals frequently praised and promoted in history books can often make monarchs and leaders incredibly vulnerable in reality. I had thought about this before but never seen it explained so compellingly as Ned Stark.

    • Reply August 19, 2014

      Jamie Adair

      You’re welcome, Yoel. Also, thank you for your great comment. I never noticed the parallels between Joffrey’s actions and Richard III’s alleged murder of the princes. Joffrey’s actions always remind me of the Bible story of where the king ordered the baby boys to be killed, so I couldn’t really see past that. Thanks!

      I do think Martin plays with characters and moral perspectives to make people think. He has said he wants people to debate these issues in interviews.

      I’ve been following this thread and I’m actually working on a post right now that attempts to portray Ned Stark as a villain. Okay, well, villain is an overstatement. I’m being a bit flippant here, but Ned Stark and his so called honor — what other novels might even denounce as pride — are the “root of all evil” in Westeros.

      • Reply August 19, 2014

        Jun

        Look forward to the Ned-Stark-as-a-villain argument, Jamie! I have seen similar argument elsewhere (Ned is to blame for the current state of Westeros) from a more machiavellian perspective, but not a historical perspective.

        One thought that ASOIAF has “tormented” me is how we tend to judge the value of personal choices and how things seem inevitable from hindsight. Imagine for a moment, what if Ned Stark or Robb did not fail? What if their plans worked out? Would we still feel so bothered by their choices? What if Ned banished Cersei and her children to Casterly Rock successfully, and Stannis came to King’s Landing to be king? What if Greywind was not confined at the Red Wedding and tore up the wedding hall, and Robb and Catelyn retreated safely, and re-organized their army to eliminate the Freys? What if they made the same choices (since people are themselves) but the outcomes were different? Should our judgment of these persons change?

        We often see the paths of history as a series of choices made by leaders or powerful individuals. So we care about what kind of people they are and how the make choices. But what if it is not so? What if individual choices don’t matter? How much of our judgment of historical figures is determined by the outcomes (win or lose) and how much is based on a person’s personal choices?

        Going a step further, it makes me wonder about my unconscious assumption of cause and effect. Did a king’s choice cause his demise or succession? Or did his fate merely a confluence of outside forces of the time? It’s not a question of whether we have free will, but it does question whether free will of individuals matters in the big picture.

  • Reply August 20, 2014

    Yoel Arnon

    Thanks Jamie and Jun! I just re-watched the conversation between Renly and Ned at the night of King Robert’s death. I think it is amazing to see the parallel between Renly’s suggestions and Richard III’s actions in real life. Ned’s reaction, of course, is quite different – “I will not dishonor Robert’s last hours by shedding blood in his halls, and dragging frightened children from their beds” – see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qWuCKnr7zZw .

    Actually this scene puts Renly as a possible Richard III – the youngest brother offering to overthrow the middle brother, plus his reference to himself as “a good king”. I still like to think that Ned has more Richard III in it – the good ruler of the North and the brave warier.

  • Reply August 20, 2015

    Michael Freeman

    Edward was responsible for ordering the convenient death of Henry VI. The responsibility is entirely his. As Constable of England, Richard may have been empowered to hold a drumhead trial in the case of Hastings, who endorsed Edward’s decision to make Richard Protector of the Realm during Edward V’s minority but would not endorse Richard’s legitimate claim after Stillington came forward. (Stillington had been Edward’s Chancellor, similar in rank to Prime Minister. He was not a nobody.) Hastings conspired with the Woodvilles to place an bastard child on the throne and may well have known of the marriage to Eleanor Butler all along. A tiny fragment has recently been found in the Royal College of Arms referring to the plot and saying, ‘hit was asspied”. (I’m paraphrasing as I don’t have the material readily to hand.) Richard’s behaviour had been impeccable prior to Stillington’s revelations and during the course of them and it must be remembered that he was offered the Crown. He did not usurp it. (See Dr. John Ashdown-Hill, all books.) Clarence had been forgiven his many plots and treacheries by Edward but he and Stillington were both imprisoned in the Tower at one stage and it was after this that Clarence became increasingly vocal concerning his right to the throne. Richard came from the North to plead with Edward for Clarence, visited him often and following the execution he returned to the North for a period of several years, staying well away from the court and the Woodvilles. Richard argued for his mother-in-law’s inheritance because Anne and Isabel, (married to Clarence), were Warwick’s joint heirs. After Tewkesbury Clarence tried to claim the lot, leaving Ann destitute and faced with a nunnery. Richard married Ann when she had nothing but argued very cogently and effectively for her rights. Of course it benefited him as well but that was not unusual. He later had said mother-in-law, Anne Beauchamp, Duchess of Warwick, released into his custody whereupon she lived at her erstwhile home at Middleham until after Bosworth. Clarence would have left her to rot in sanctuary. For all that his reputation has been so severely impugned, Richard gave us the concept of equality before the law and the presumption of innocence. He also gave us bail and protection against false seizure of goods. His one and only Parliament is a revelation. If ever the wrong man lost, it was he.

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