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‘House of the Dragon’ is based on this real medieval civil war

LEFT: Emma D'Arcy as Princess Rhaenyra Targaryen and Matt Smith as Prince Daemon Targaryen from "House of the Dragon," the prequel to "Game of Thrones." RIGHT: a vintage illustration of the Empress Matilda's escape from Oxford Castle during a snowstorm in 1142. Empress Matilda was one of the claimants to the English throne during the civil war known as the Anarchy. (Ollie Upton/HBO/AP/iStock)

(Note: This article may contain spoilers for HBO’s “House of the Dragon” — depending on how closely future episodes of the show track with the real history of England.)

During a Comic-Con panel this summer, author George R.R. Martin, whose books inspired the Game of Thrones TV series, spoke about his latest creation to get the HBO treatment. It’s called “House of the Dragon,” and it began airing on Aug. 21.

Like Game of Thrones, which was loosely based on the War of the Roses, Martin said the new series — a prequel to “Game of Thrones” — also derived from real medieval history.

“I get inspiration from history, and then I take elements from history, and I turn it up to 11,” he said. “['House of the Dragon'] is based on an earlier period in history called the Anarchy.”

In fact, the Anarchy was more than a loose inspiration for the series: Several of the main characters are based directly on the key figures from that conflict-ridden period. So let’s dive into the Anarchy — and what it might tell us about where the show is headed.

What was the Anarchy?

The Anarchy was an English civil war of succession. It lasted from 1138 to 1153, but it is rooted in a tragedy that took place nearly two decades earlier.

In 1120, King Henry I lost his only (legitimate) son and heir, William Adelin, to a shipwreck in the English Channel while William traveled from Normandy to England, both under Henry’s control at the time. Henry’s wife had died a few years earlier, so his response was twofold: 1) He named his teenage daughter, the Empress Matilda, his successor — the first woman to be so named — and 2) He married a much younger woman, perhaps hoping to produce another male heir.

An infant son never showed up, so Henry prepared Matilda to take over and repeatedly made nobles and barons swear allegiance to her. Matilda married strategically to a noble from a territory bordering Normandy and had a son of her own, Henry FitzEmpress.

King Henry died in 1135. Matilda, now in her thirties, was away from the seat of power in London, and – surprise! — not all of the nobles were as committed to her coronation as they had claimed. Her cousin, Stephen of Blois, seized the throne with the help of his brother.

Cue civil war.

How does this map onto ‘House of the Dragon’?

Fans who have watched the first two episodes will note the similarities. King Henry I is King Viserys I, and his daughter Matilda is Princess Rhaenyra. The deaths of Henry’s wife and son have been combined into one event — a doomed and bloody labor that neither mother nor son survives. By the end of the first episode, Viserys has named Rhaenyra his successor and compelled his council to swear allegiance.

Matilda’s challenger, Stephen of Blois, is presumed to have become Prince Daemon in the TV show, though the relationship is a little different; Prince Daemon is Rhaenyra’s uncle.

It also appears the character Alicent Hightower is based on Henry’s second wife, Adeliza of Louvain. It’s unknown whether Matilda and Adeliza were friends in their youth the way Rhaenyra and Alicent are in the show, but in real life they were about the same age.

How did the Anarchy end? Who won?

(Final warning: Possible spoilers ahead!)

In 1139, Matilda mounted an impressive invasion of England with the help of Robert of Gloucester — her half-brother and one of her dad’s many illegitimate children — while her husband stayed in Normandy. They came to control much of southwest England but still couldn’t seize the throne. Stephen of Blois had the support of many barons, but others just wanted to stay out of the whole thing.

At one point, Stephen of Blois was captured, and it seemed Matilda might be victorious. But the people of London rejected her, and she fled to Oxford, where she was surrounded and narrowly escaped in a snowstorm. When her half-brother was captured, a prisoner exchange was arranged, freeing Stephen and firing up the conflict once again.

At another point, Matilda was captured when she visited her former stepmother, Adeliza, who had married one of Stephen’s allies. Whether or not Adeliza intentionally betrayed Matilda’s location, she eventually convinced Stephen to let her go.

The Anarchy was characterized by long and brutal sieges, which had horrible consequences for the peasants caught in the middle, who mostly didn’t care who won. Fields and villages were abandoned, arbitrary taxes were imposed, and people starved. According to historian Jim Bradbury, one chronicler at the time, a monk, wrote, “There had never been greater misery in the country. ... Men said openly that Christ and his saints were asleep.”

In the end, Stephen of Blois’s son and heir died unexpectedly, Matilda wasn’t getting any younger, and everyone else was sick of fighting. Peace terms were reached: Stephen would remain king, but Matilda’s now-adult son would succeed him. That happened sooner rather than later; Stephen died within a year and King Henry II was crowned. He would rule for 35 years.

So will “House of the Dragon,” however many seasons it lasts, conclude similarly, with a son of Rhaenyra ascendant? Only time will tell. “House of the Dragon” is a work of fiction — there are DRAGONS, after all — so it need not follow the “plot” of real history. Plus, at least some of that history is based on modern cliches and misperceptions about what medieval times were actually like, as Slate’s Rebecca Onion pointed out in her piece about that gruesome and nonconsensual C-section in the first episode. Contrary to what we may presume, historians told her, it’s unlikely medieval midwives or doctors would have sacrificed a mother over her infant.

A dying woman’s forced C-section launched a fight over fetal rights

Presumption is par for course when it comes to medieval history. The people who lived through the Anarchy didn’t call it “the Anarchy” — that’s a modern term created by Victorian scholars confused by the changing alliances and belligerents during the war. Historians today argue the label is inaccurate — just another misunderstanding about the so-called Dark Ages.

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