The French Wars of the Roses: the Lion vs. the (Dire) Wolf


Were the Stark direwolf and the Lannister lion inspired by the badges for two parties in the French Wars of the Roses? This manuscript page seems like more than just a coincidence. Stark and Lannister sigils © HBO.

At the end of last season, the House Stark was gutted of its leadership. All the adults are gone: Ned Stark, Robb Stark, and Catelyn Stark are all dead. Since the Stark/Lannister conflict may be winding down, let’s examine one possible event that may have inspired it – Armagnac-Burgundian War, sometimes dubbed the “French Wars of the Roses.”

There are striking parallels between the start of the Armagnac-Burgundian War (that is, the events leading up to the assassination of Duke Louis of Orleans, the brother of King Charles VI of France),  and the events leading up to, what is arguably, the true beginning of war between Stark and Lannister: the unjust execution of Ned Stark. Although the conflict between the Starks and the Lannisters does not mirror the “French Wars of the Roses” exactly, it does loosely echo it.

If you tossed the beginning of the Wars of the Roses (the struggle between Margaret of Anjou and Richard of York and the future Edward IV) in a pot and stirred in the Armagnac-Burgundian war with a dash of Henry VIII and a sprinkle of Richard III, the Lannister-Stark conflict just might be what you cooked up.


© HBO promotional images.

The Armagnac-Burgundian war (1407 to 1435 AD) was a French civil war between two branches of the royal Valois family, the Armagnacs and the Burgundians. Before the conflict became all-out civil war, it began as a clash between the Duke of Burgundy and the Duke of Orleans (and his party who would later evolve into the Armagnac faction). Unfortunately for the French people, the war occurred during the papal schism and the Hundred Years War, which tragically let the English regain their foothold in France. In other words, the Burgundian and Armagnac nobles were fiddling while Rome burned.

Unlike the Wars of the Roses, which focuses on the conflict between several families (Henry VI and Margaret of Anjou, the Yorks, the Nevilles, the Woodvilles, the Herberts, and later the Beauforts and Tudors), the French Wars of the Roses centers on a conflict between two groups close to the king: the Orleans (later Armagnac) party and the Burgundian party.


Robert Baratheon on his death bed © HBO, linked via Wikia

Like in Game of Thrones, the Armagnac-Burgundian war began as two powerful families struggled for power and authority when the crown was weak. In Game of Thrones, the war began just after Robert’s death with a boy king. In France, the war began while the king was insane. In both Game of Thrones and the Armagnac-Burgundian war, what began as a political rivalry during a struggle for power devolved into a bloody civil war.

Before we discuss the conflict, however, consider the sigils Martin chose for House Stark and House Lannister: the direwolf and the lion. In Armagnac-Burgundian war (1407-1435),  a wolf and a lion represent the two warring houses, Armagnac and Burgundy.


The Armagnac Wolf Against the Burgundian Lion – in the Austrian National Library. Note how the two beasts are at each other’s throats and the lion is clawing the wolf.

The Beginnings of the Armagnac-Burgundian Civil War

Like Game of Thrones, ultimately mental instability, a mad king, philosophical differences, and murder collided to culminate in the incredibly destructive French civil war. Appropriately enough, given the animal symbols of the houses, the events leading to this French civil war began on a trip through the forest.

It was a sweltering morning on August 5, 1392. King Charles VI of France and his army were riding through the forest. This wasn’t an ordinary ride though – Charles was badly shaken after the attempted murder of his friend and constable, Olivier de Clisson. The would-be assassin and rebel, Pierre de Craon, fled to Brittany where he sought refuge with Duke Jean IV. Furious at duke’s temerity for harboring a rebel, Charles assembled an army to march on Brittany and punish the duke.


Charles VI seized by madness in the forest. Image: Froissart

About a month earlier, a fever for revenge had fallen over the king. On July 1, 1392, Charles gathered his army and raced off to Brittany, where de Craon was hiding out.

By that August 5th morning, however, the army was making slow progress to Brittany and the delay began to eat away at Charles’ nerves.


Charles VI of France, the Mad King

Just as the king and his escort were crossing through Le Mans forest, a barefoot, raggedy leper rushed the king from out of nowhere, grabbing his horse’s bridle, and crying, “”Ride no further, noble King!” and “Turn back! You are betrayed!” Many kings might have shrugged off this episode, but in Charles’ paranoid state after his friend’s near-murder, perhaps this “warning” rattled him. It probably didn’t help that the king’s party did not arrest the leper, who kept calling out these warnings out to the king for another half hour.

As the king and his party emerged from the forest at noon, a page – drowsy from the heat – dropped the king’s lance. The weapon clanged loudly against a steel helmet as it fell, startling and unnerving Charles. The king drew his sword and charged at his party, crying “Forward against the traitors! They wish to deliver me to the enemy!” and swinging his sword at his men.

As Charles lashed out, he slaughtered four of his men, including the Bastard of Polignac, and nearly killed his nephew. Finally, some of his men wrestled Charles off his horse and lay him on the ground, where he lay motionless and fell into a coma.

Madness brings instability

From that point onward, Charles suffered from many breaks from reality and bouts of insanity.1  Frequently, he suffered from a delusion that he was made of glass and would shatter if touched. When anyone approached Charles in this state, he would lash out with a sword so he had to be confined. Sometimes Charles forgot he was king. During one five month period, he refused to bathe or change his clothes. At other times, Charles would run wildly through the hallways of his Parisian palace, the Hotel Saint-Pol, howling like a wolf. To prevent him from escaping, his household had to wall up the entrances. Charles’ sanity wouldn’t have been helped by the traumatic “Burning Ball” in 1393 — see our article here.


The Burning Ball – where the raggedy costumes the Charles VI and the other noble men dancing wore caught on fire. Perhaps not uncoincidentally, “burning ball” rhymes with “burn them all.”  Image: Le Bal des Ardents. Illuminated miniature from Jean Froissart’s Chroniques, BL Harley Froissart 4380 c. 1470.

Needless to say, the French king’s insanity caused an enormous amount of political instability. When Charles first lost touch with reality, his uncle Philip of Burgundy – who ruled with Charles VI’s other uncles during the king’s minority –  seized control of the government. Philip dismissed the king’s advisers — the “Marmosets” whom Charles had used to replace his uncles after his minority. Philip, however, let the king’s brother Louis (Duke of Orleans) retain his offices and power.

baby-marmoset tyrion-sansa-demon-monkey
A baby marmoset. Marmosets are a tiny species of monkeys, which some people call “pocket monkeys”. Image: myshumi / 123RF Stock Photo Coincidence or not, Tyrion — the diminutive one-time advisor to the king — is nicknamed “The Demon Monkey” — a play on evil counselors and the French advisors, known as Marmosets? Image: © HBO.


  1. Charles madness may have been caused by the disease porphyria, according to Desmond Seward. []

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."

1 Comment

  • Reply April 6, 2014


    He appears to have been in a far worse mental state than his grandson Henry VI, do you think Jamie?

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