Catelyn Stark: The Heart of Game of Thrones

At the emotional center of Game of Thrones, you’ll find Catelyn Stark. Trying desperately to hold her family together after her husband died, Catelyn represents toughness, ferocity, and love. House Tully’s words are “Family, Duty, Honor.” Quite possibly, George RR Martin loosely based Catelyn on Edward IV’s proud and passionate mother who repeatedly struggled to save her children during the turbulent Wars of the Roses.

Like Catelyn, Cecily was once a great beauty. Contemporaries called Cecily “the Rose of Raby” after the castle where she was born. Both women were proud — Cecily was also known as “Proud Cis” for her pride and fiery temper. At age nine, Cecily’s father, Ralph Neville, betrothed her to Richard of York, whom she married five years later. She had eight children with York and lived to be eighty. However, Cecily
wasn’t exactly scandal free.


From some angles, the actress playing Catelyn Stark (Michelle Fairley) resembles the sketch of Cecily Neville, who reputedly had red hair.

Not only was Cecily known for her good looks, according to the financial analysis of some historians, she had exceptionally extravagant taste. But, perhaps, she liked to keep herself looking good for a reason.

In contrast with Catelyn who was upset by Ned’s claimed adultery and resulting bastard (Jon Snow), Cecily may have had an affair with an archer named Blaybourne while her husband was a day’s march away in Rouen. Historians furiously debate the truth to this tale. However, one historian, Michael Jones, claims to have found proof, as discussed in the BBC series Britain’s Real Monarch.

Over the years, I developed the impression that before Edward became king, Cecily spurred him to carry on after his father’s death – and lead his father’s men to ultimately overthrow Henry VI. I’ve always thought Edward was probably partly motivated to save his family’s lives and Cecily likely drove home that his siblings’ lives would be in jeopardy if he didn’t succeed.

Joanna Laynesmith writes that after her husband’s death, when her family was in the greatest jeopardy, Cecily stayed in London. She was aware of the danger – she sent her two youngest sons to safety in Burgundy – but she stayed to “defend the interests” of her son Edward and help him achieve the family’s ambitions. Similar fictionalized interpretations appear in Catelyn’s relationship with Robb Stark.

Cecily was a powerful woman, was directly involved in politics, became the family matriarch, and exerted much influence over her extremely powerful sons. In 1461, one contemporary wrote that she “can rule the king as she pleases.” In fact, based on her correspondence with her sons, she often told them what to do and they frequently acquiesced.

Like Catelyn Stark, Cecily attempted to arrange a marriage for her son, albeit for different reasons. Finding a suitable bride, ideally foreign and royal, was Cecily’s main goal for three years. Unlike Catelyn Stark who merely warned against Robb Stark’s secret marriage to Talisa Maegyr, Cecily Neville vehemently objected to Edward IV’s secret marriage to Elizabeth Woodville. Allegedly, Cecily was so incensed that Edward married such an inappropriate, obscure, and lowly commoner she threatened to denounce him as illegitimate, refused to give precedence, and styled herself “queen by right.”

Nonetheless their relationship appears to have had ups and downs, especially after Edward married Elizabeth Woodville, when Clarence revolted, and no doubt again after Edward executed Clarence. According to the National Archives,

“There is evidence that by 1469 Cecily had declared Edward to be illegitimate and, with Warwick, was pushing for the crown to pass to her second son, George, Duke of Clarence. This development permanently damaged her relationship with Edward, so from 1471 until after his death in April 1483 she avoided the royal court and concentrated on her private interests.”

The conflict that occurs after Catelyn releases Jamie Lannister to Brienne of Tarth echoes the mood of Edward and Cecily’s relationship.

While Cecily Neville may have inspired Catelyn’s character, not all of the storyline comes from Cecily – or from any historical character for that matter. But, the tale of Catelyn and Lysa Tully may have stemmed from the real-life story of Warwick’s daughters: Isabel and Anne Neville. Two boys, Richard III and Francis Lovell, stayed in Warwick’s Middleham Castle while Isabel and Anne were growing up. The idea of the lower-ranked Lovell, possibly resenting being in Richard’s shadow, and subsequently the two brothers who fought over Warwick’s daughters may have led Martin to create Petyr Baelish’s obsession with Catelyn.

Like Petyr Baelish (Littlefinger) was fostered in the  higher ranked Tully household after his father died, so too were Richard III and Francis Lovell fostered in Warwick’s household at Middleham Castle. Lower-ranked Lovell, like Littlefinger, may have had a chip on his shoulder, but, if he did, he hid it. In sharp contrast to Littlefinger, however, Lovell was known for his loyalty as Richard’s ever-loyal right-hand man and likely best friend (“Lovell the dog”) and is not known to have loved either daughter.

Instead, Brandon Stark and Littlefinger’s fight over Catelyn may have taken a slightly twisted page from Clarence and Richard III, who did fight bitterly over Anne Neville, albeit for money and power not love, as described in Hidden as a Scullion Maid. Maybe, Littlefinger is a darker manifestation or interpretation of Richard III? Perhaps, Martin fancifully re-imagined Anne Neville, the daughter Clarence secreted away as a maid, as the sister the brothers both wanted.

While the storyline with Littlefinger may have come from Anne Neville’s life, Cecily seems to be the bigger influence.

Cecily’s life was dramatic but possibly not happy. She had the misfortune of watching her children torn apart by the age in which they lived. Edmund her second eldest son was shamefully executed after a battle when he was only seventeen. Her daughter the adulterous Anne died in childbirth. Repeatedly, Cecily had to interfere to stop one son from killing another. Ultimately, she could not stop her son Edward from executing his brother Clarence – an act that no doubt caused her much anguish. Edward died young of mysterious causes at forty. Richard possibly murdered her grandson’s, the Princes in the Tower, and then was killed at only thirty-two.

Already Catelyn’s children are scattered across Westeros. Time will tell if she escapes her real-life inspiration’s fate.

Explore More, Learn More

“His Mother – Cecily,  Duchess of  York” by Dr. Joanna Laynesmith on the Richard III Society website.

“Cecily Neville – “queen by right”” on the National Archives website

“Francis Lovell”



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."


  • […] While discussing who should go ask Lord Frey to open the bridge’s gates, Catelyn argues she has “known Lord Walder since I was a girl. He would never harm me.” To me at least, when Catelyn utters these words, it is almost like George RR Martin is winking at the history buff. This is because Lord Frey bears more than a passing resemblance to Ralph Neville, the father of Cecily Neville (who may have been a possible inspiration for Catelyn Stark). […]

  • Reply June 25, 2016

    J hunt

    I think Catelyn is a composite of a few female power brokers during the war of the Roses. You can’t get tripped up by little details like hair color because the Targareyen dynasty – which is sometimes the Plantagenets and sometimes the Lancasters didn’t have white hair. Also don’t forget Danerys is basically a female Henry VII. I think Catelyn is more Elizabeth Woodville because she’s a “Rivers girl” which is a reference to Elizabeth Woodvilles Father Earl of Rivers and Elizabeth Woodville was the mother of the Princeses in the Tower, not Cecily – and in fact Cecily is more like Cersei in that people claimed (and she admitted) Edward the IV wasn’t legitimate . I know you also mentioned she had traits from both historical characters but I don’t think she is more one than the other. And I also don’t think that Cersei is more EWoodville because A) Edward and eW were very much in love and the legitimacy prob arose because of a very different technicality.

    I agree she may be some Neville because of the Middleham thing.

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