Episode: Season 3, Episode 9 “Rains of Castamere”
While we’re all still reeling from the Red Wedding last weekend, I thought I’d follow up with the second half of the blog post I promised when I first wrote about the Red Wedding.
Admittedly, I’ve been umming and ahhing about writing this post because I’m not 100% sure if I’m right. But, this blog isn’t meant to provide a “secret-decoder ring” for the history George RR Martin borrows. Admittedly, I’m only making educated guesses. Unless Martin discusses the historical basis, all I can do is compare Game of Thrones with the historical events and go “Hmmm… this doesn’t look like a coincidence.”
So having made all those nervous disclaimers, I’m going to discuss one event that may have inspired Martin to set his massacre at a wedding: the attempted assassination of the Neville wedding party at Heworth Moor, Yorkshire. (Often referred to as the skirmish at Heworth Moor.)
So, picture this… It’s a blazingly hot August 1454. The king (Henry VI) is in a catatonic stupor and hasn’t spoken in over a year. And, despite the replacement ruler’s best efforts, there’s a near complete breakdown of law and order. Nobody who is anyone (that is, a noble) goes anywhere without a huge gang of weapon-wielding men protecting them. What Cersei says to Joffrey in Game of Thrones applies here: “The North is wild and can’t be held.”
The two dominant families in the North, the Percys and the Nevilles, guard England from Scottish invasion through areas known as “marches” (basically a blurry boundary area that formed the border). Both families’ territories interlock with each other, which automatically leads to property disputes. The Nevilles have been rising in power ever since Ralph Neville married Joan Beaufort, Henry IV’s half-sister. The Percys, previously dominant, are down on their luck—Henry V stripped them of many lands after their heir rebelled. The Percy sons are disenfranchised hellions who terrorize and vandalize the countryside to pass the time.
Both houses are led by men in their fifties who have hot-headed sons. Two of these fiery sons, John Neville and Thomas Percy*, get into a feud—possibly due to long-simmering tensions from vying for the king’s favor. They begin attacking each other’s property—smashing windows, breaking and entering, and throwing each others’ tenants out of their homes.
Thomas Neville, the second Neville son, becomes engaged to a poor choice of bride: a beautiful co-heiress named Maud Stanhope. Maud’s father holds two estates the king stripped from the Percies, which they want them back.
When Thomas Percy (Lord Egremont) hears about the engagement, he flies into a rage. He finds the engagement obnoxious—another sign that the self-promoting Nevilles are profiting at his expense. Days before the wedding, Thomas Percy begins secretly recruiting hundreds, if not thousands, of tradesmen and thugs to fight for him.
The wedding takes place. But, as the wedding party works its way back to Sheriff Hutton castle, the Percys and their recruited army lie in wait to assassinate the newlyweds and celebrants.
But, the Nevilles, possibly tipped off, are accompanied by sizable escorts of over 200 men. While there was name-calling, harsh words, and some “rough play,” a true battle did not occur. The size of the Neville guard probably surprised the Percys and made them unsure if they could win. Likewise, both parties likely feared the king’s wrath if a true battle broke out.
Contemporary chroniclers believed this conflict triggered the Wars of the Roses. One described this near slaughter as the “beginning of the greatest sorrow in England.”
Why do I think this event inspired the Red Wedding?
1. A wedding massacre is a really bold concept. Wedding massacres, at least as far as I know, are pretty rare events in history or fiction for that matter. To me, given how deeply read Martin is about this period’s history, it seems like an odd coincidence if Heworth Moor wasn’t a partial basis for the Red Wedding.
2. A poor choice of bride triggers murderous rage in both Thomas Percy and Lord Frey.
3. Traditionally, historians believed this attempted wedding-party assassination occurred at a bridge. If Heworth Moor wasn’t an inspiration, it’s kind of an interesting coincidence that George RR Martin set an actual wedding massacre at a bridge (The Twins castle). Incidentally, the other event that’s often spoken of in the same breath as Heworth Moor was a skirmish at a bridge – the Battle of Stamford bridge.
4. Martin has a tendency to use modified versions of historically-significant inciting events from the Wars of the Roses. Motifs related to central conflicts in the Wars of the Roses (the Princes in the Tower and the three brothers) appear over and over again in Game of Thrones. Considering the weight some historians and contemporaries gave Heworth Moor, it is possible Martin is giving it a slight acknowledgment.
In some ways, the Percys’ historical significance can’t be overstated. Just flipping through Alexander Rose’s Kings in the North, a book I’d bet $100 George RR Martin has read, the Percys are the Forest Gump of England: they pop up everywhere. They arrived in 1067. A Percy baron presents his demands to King John in 1215. A Percy helps Edward I siege Berwick in 1296. A Percy earl is John of Gaunt’s close confident. The Percys fight in the Hundred Years War. The Percys protect England from Scottish invasion. The fight the Welsh at Henry V’s behest. Their blood feud with the Nevilles embroils England in civil war (the Wars of the Roses). They’re betrothed to Anne Boleyn.
* Thomas Percy is roughly the fourth great-grandfather or maybe fifth great-grandfather of Henry Percy, who was once betrothed to Anne Boleyn. I didn’t diagram the relationship, so Thomas Percy might actually be Henry Percy’s fifth great-uncle or something.
Read More, Learn More
Warwick the Kingmaker by Michael Hicks p. 86.
Kings in the North by Alexander Rose on p. 483-484. This is a dauntingly fat book. For those interested in the North, I recommend jumping to the chapter, “A Good and Faithful Servant” and exploring the book after reading that chapter first.
“Percies, Nevilles and the Wars of the Roses” on History Today. This article focuses on the Percy-Neville feud and doesn’t refer to Heworth Moor specifically.
By Jamie Adair