Real-life British History and Locations Behind ‘Game of Thrones’

“Game of Thrones” swoops back onto screens March 31 like a marauding dragon. HBO’s hit series based on George R.R. Martin’s best-selling fantasy novels draws inspiration from British history and has filmed in locations across the UK, many of which are easy to visit.

Ice zombies and telepathic mega-wolves aside, the Song of Ice and Fire saga has roots in England’s 15th-century Wars of the Roses, fought between the Yorks and Lancasters. Martin re-imagined these dueling clans as the rugged Starks and wealthy, blinged-out Lannisters (most of them now played on TV by British actors, in keeping with the way American producers usually imagine fantasy realms).

In a column for British newspaper The Guardian, Damien G. Walter observed the similarities. “One throne unifies the land but great houses fight over who will sit upon it,” he wrote. “With no true king the land is beset with corrupt, money-grubbing lords whose only interest is their own prestige. Two loose alliances of power pit a poor but honourable North against a rich and cunning South.”

Among other connections, fans point to echoes of King Edward IV in the lusty, brawling warrior-king Robert Baratheon, who grows overindulgent with middle age. Cersei, the character’s conniving Lannister wife, may be modeled on the firebrand Margaret of Anjou. She fueled the Wars of the Roses while trying to maintain her family’s hold on the crown as her husband, Henry VI, battled frequent bouts of insanity.

Named for the badges of each house (with a red flower for Lancaster and a white one for York), these conflicts continued for almost a century. The situation went critical at Ludlow Castle in Shropshire, where the Lancastrian army routed the Yorkists, whose leaders fled abroad. The war raged from The Tower of London to Wales’ Raglan Castle and Tewkesbury Abbey in Gloucestershire, which still holds a communion service for the fallen each May 4. BBC History Magazine provides an excellent guide for enthusiasts, while Travel Editions runs a two-night tour on Richard III and the Wars of the Roses ($455, next available dates: August 9 and September 27, 2013).

Martin’s version of Hadrian’s Wall, which the Romans built across the country from Cumbria to Tyne and Wear, is a 700-foot, 300-mile barricade of ice. Now one of northern England’s most popular tourist destinations and a World Heritage site, Hadrian’s Wall attracts hikers and bicyclists as well as history buffs.

Sets and a touring showcase

The atmosphere of medieval Britain saturates the “Game of Thrones” novels, so it’s no surprise that HBO turned to the UK for backdrops when it came to filming. Scotland’s Doune Castle doubled as Winterfell — the stronghold of the noble, foolhardy Starks — in the first season. But before it starred in this sex- and violence-drenched saga, the castle was known for its role in a whimsical spoof: Visitors may find the 14th-century fortress familiar from “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” ($7.60 adult, $4.60 child). In fact, comedian and Monty Python regular Terry Jones narrates a free audio tour that highlights Spamalot, African sparrows and other in-jokes from the 1975 classic.

Doune Castle’s actual history is just as colorful. Built around 1400 by Robert Stewart, “Scotland’s uncrowned king,” it soon faded into a royal summer retreat. But opponents of Mary, Queen of Scots, tested its defenses in 1567, besieging her supporters for three days (they finally surrendered, on the condition that the castle be preserved). It last saw action in 1745, when six soldiers escaped imprisonment by knotting bedsheets and lowering themselves down the walls. A ruin by 1800, the restored courtyard castle now attracts visitors for its filmography as well as a 100-foot gatehouse that includes a majestic Lord’s Hall with a musicians' gallery, double fireplace and carved oak screen.

Northern Ireland has taken over as Winterfell and many other locations. But aficionados of the books and Emmy- and Golden Globe-winning TV series need not travel that far. Westeros, like winter, is coming… HBO is mounting a traveling exhibition with five stops, including New York City (March 28 — April 3). The showcase, the first of its kind, reveals a trove of 70-odd artifacts, like the longsword “Ice” and a replica of the spiky, hotly contested Iron Throne.

Try this at home

Even fans unable to travel have plenty to look forward to as Season 3 kicks off. “We’re excited because it’s based on the third book, easily one of the most amazing things many of us have ever read,” explains Jason Ocampo of Seattle. He's a “second-screener” who turns to the HBOGo site to scrutinize most episodes. “It generates an incredible amount of emotion. Everything has been building up to this.”

Fantasy Author Mae Empson also numbers among “G of T” connoisseurs, sometimes hosting up to 30 friends at home viewing parties. And for the last seven years, she’s taken part in a table-top role-playing game that unfolds amid the Song of Ice and Fire universe.

“It's an amazing setting, where you can expect to strive and fail in all kinds of horrible ways,” she notes. “Cersei says 'when you play a game of thrones, you win or you die', but the truth is, from the perspective of telling great stories, you still win when you lose."

Getting there: The national carrier British Airways flies into London and dozens of other UK destinations, including Edinburgh, Scotland.

By Amanda Castleman

Photos: The Lannister clan’s battle with the Starks is reminiscent of the Lancasters’ with the Yorks during the War of the Roses. Here, Peter Dinklage plays Tyrion Lannister. (Photo by Helen Sloan/HBO)

Hadrian's Wall, the real-life version of a similar dividing wall in ‘Game of Thrones,’ stretches from Cumbria to Tyne and Wear in northern England. (Photo by Rod Edwards/VisitBritain)

Cersei (Lena Headey) is reminiscent of the powerful real-life Margaret of Anjou, whose forces battled in the War of the Roses. (Photo by Helen Sloan/HBO)

Doune Castle in Scotland has starred in both ‘Game of Thrones’ and ‘Monty Python and the Holy Grail.’ (Photo by Steve Collis from Melbourne, Australia via Wikimedia Commons)

One of last ‘true’ castles built, Wales’ Raglan played a role in the Wars of the Roses, which helped inspire the best-selling Song of Ice and Fire saga. (Photo by Britain on View/VisitBritain)

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