Introducing the Anne Boleyn Series: Margaery, Cersei, and Melisandre

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The different facets of Anne Boleyn: Margaery Tyrell (Natalie Dormer), Melisandre (Carice ;van Houten), and Cersei Lannister (Lena Headey). (c) HBO

Over the next few weeks, in honor of Anne Boleyn and some of the Game of Thrones characters she may have inspired –we will be running a series of articles and interviews with historians about her.

George RR Martin appears to have taken threads of factual — and counterfactual  (the opposite of historical events) — aspects of Anne’s story and woven them into various Game of Thrones characters like Cersei, Margaery, and Melisandre. Each character represents a different facet of Anne’s reputed personality or story.

Despite her blonde appearance, scheming Cersei has a couple of drops of Anne Boleyn in her. First, Cersei was married to Robert Baratheon, who resembles Henry VIII among others. Second, Cersei’s incestuous relationship with Jaime is like a counterfactual (“what if?”) version of the incest allegations against Anne and George Boleyn. (Anne did not sleep with her brother.)

The parallels between Anne Boleyn and the sexy Margaery Tyrell have ignited lots of chatter among Game of Thrones fan communities  – not to mention anxiety that Margaery will not survive the next novel. Showrunners Dan Weiss and David Benioff deliberately decided to go in a different direction for TV Margaery. When she was cast, Natalie Dormer asked them “…shall I read the books?” And they replied, “By all means, read the books for your own recreation, but in regards toward your characterization of Margaery, it’s not so necessary, because we’re going to flesh her out and do something different with her.” TV Margaery is the queen of public relations. Like one interpretation of Anne, Margaery is skilled at court politics and blindingly charismatic. The two women share a close relationship with their brothers, a daring fashion sense, and a mysterious sexual history (in which it’s unclear if they are “knowing” or virginal). Their stories have a few other similarities, some of which create spoilers.

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Natalie Dormer as, on the left, Anne Boleyn, and on the right as Margaery Tyrell. Images: (c) Showtime and (c) HBO respectively.

Given some of the obvious parallels between Margaery and Anne,  it seems highly unlikely that the HBO showrunners cast Natalie Dormer — famed for her portrayal of Anne Boleyn in The Tudors — by accident. To borrow a term from semiotics, there is an unspoken cotext (similar to intertextuality) signaled by this casting choice: the showrunners want us to notice the parallels. (Tellingly, Natalie Dormer felt the need to declare Margaery is a distinct character from her portrayal of Anne Boleyn.)

Melisandre, the fiery and fanatical Red Priestess, may be a manifestation of Anne’s burning desire for religious reformation. The mysterious and enigmatic Melisandre is having an emotional, if not occasionally literal, affair with the mirthless and heirless King Stannis Baratheon. In this case, Stannis Baratheon’s poor wife is like a phantasmagoric, even monstrous, version of the nearly-barren Catherine of Aragon.

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A phantasmagoric Catherine of Aragon? Stannis Baratheon’s wife Queen Selyse cannot give him a male heir. She keeps the stillborn baby boys in crystal jars in her chamber. Screen capture for illustration purposes from “Kissed by Fire” (c) HBO.

None of these characters are exclusively based on Anne Boleyn. All of them appear to be influenced by other historical figures.

Through out this series, we will have articles drawing the parallels between these characters and Anne and examine various aspects of  Anne’s history and cultural significance. We’re also going to have interviews with historians about Anne and find out more about the latest research.  Join us for our Anne Boleyn series as we explore this fascinating queen and the Game of Thrones characters she may have inspired.

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

9 Comments

  • Reply April 14, 2014

    Chas D.

    Melisandre was always rather obvious to me as being the English propaganda version of Jeanne D’Arc. Brienne of Tarth is the reality of Jeanne D’Arc, while Melisandre comes straight out of the Shakespearean Henry VI Part I Tudor propaganda machine where Jeanne Pucelle (as she’s called in the play) is depicted not only as a bit of a religious fanatic, but also as sleeping with the French King Charles, as well as being a sorceress on top of that (her death monologue gives that away).

    • Reply April 14, 2014

      Jamie Adair

      Ah, Chas, your comment is music to my ears! I’ve actually been working on an article about Jeanne d’Arc on-and-off for months. I’m completely fascinated by her, especially the myths/rhetoric and her military career. And, you’re absolutely right – there are threads of Jeanne d’Arc in Melisandre and Brienne. I think GRRM mixes and matches (combines) historical figures to make up his characters.
      In Melisandre, I personally see a little bit of a counterfactual Anne Boleyn in Melisandre as well as Jeanne d’Arc. I haven’t thought through the parallels, but the Anne Boleyn is pretty faint IMO. It is mainly the generally non-physical affair with Catherine of Aragon’s husband (Selyse) and the interest in religious reform. Oh, I guess the witchcraft accusation.
      I haven’t read Henry VI, and I didn’t know about Joan of Arc’s death monologue. But, I will definitely look into this – that’s very interesting. (I would assume that GRRM is somewhat influenced (responding to or reacting against) Shakespeare, or that it might have been a jumping off point for his historical research.)

      • Reply April 15, 2014

        Chas D.

        If you’ve read the recently released Arya WOW chapter, then he point blank shows his Shakespearean influence right there as he blatantly parodies the opening to Richard III within it.

      • Reply April 15, 2014

        Olga Hughes

        The witchcraft accusations against Anne were really started Nicholas Sander in his Rise and Growth of the Anglican Schism so they were really a device of religious division. I see more parallels between Anne and Melisandre in religious reform.
        Although I suppose the difference there is that Mel is actually practising sorcery and accusations of witchcraft were used to bring women down in the middle ages.
        I hadn’t really thought of Joan of Arc and Brienne, I guess I don’t see a deeply religious side in Brienne and don’t see her as a leader, but I’d be really interested to read more about that Jamie.

      • Reply August 14, 2014

        BENEZECH

        For Cersei, I always saw her like a Lucrèce Borgia,for her might-be relation with her brother. She had a strong and mighty father, but very hated, just as Tywin was. There are some similiraties like that.
        Although I know and understand that Martin had his inspiration on not only one history character.

  • Reply April 30, 2014

    WATCHER ON THE COUCH

    I thought of Jeanne d’Arc in connection with GoT though more as a real-life feisty medieval woman (as there are some female characters with an independent streak in the books). She is the only real life character who was not a noble I can think of in this category. From the nobility offhand I can think of Grace O’Malley who was mentioned in another thread, The Lady of Mercia
    http://www.historic-uk.com/HistoryUK/HistoryofEngland/Aethelflaed-Lady-of-the-Mercians/
    Black Agnes of Dunbar
    http://www.educationscotland.gov.uk/scotlandshistory/warsofindependence/blackagnes/index.asp
    and Queen Boudica or Boadicea
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Boudica
    The above does not involve witchcraft of course.

    • Reply May 1, 2014

      Jamie Adair

      Oh that’s interesting. I hadn’t thought of it in terms of noble vs non-noble. I started working on a series about Joan of Arc, but I suspect I’m going to wait until after the season is over since it is hard enough keeping up with the main storylines. (I’m trying to tie the articles into the major events in the series.)

    • Reply May 1, 2014

      Jamie Adair

      Also thanks for the links to Black Agnes and the Lady of Mercia. I know very little about them, so I will definitely check it out.

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