House of the Dragon: The Real History That Inspired the Dragon Civil War

The Dragon civil war in House of the Dragon was inspired by a real civil war in medieval times that tore England apart.
IMAGE HBO, WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

House of the Dragon is coming, and according to early reviews, it’s going to be as mind-blowing as the original series, if not more so. As epic as George R. R. Martin’s tales are, it’s important to know that he was heavily inspired by real-life events when writing his best work. As GRRM puts it, he takes history and “dials it up to 11,” so while you might have been stunned by the events of Game of Thrones, it’s good to remember that all the tragedy and horror were inspired but equally horrific events in our past.

House of the Dragon will cover the events that lead up to the Targaryen civil war that saw the beginning of the end of the family. There’s a reason why the Dance of Dragons is also called the Dying of Dragons. Just as the War of the Five Kings in GOT was inspired by England’s War of the Roses, the Dragon civil war in House of the Dragon was inspired by a real civil war in medieval England. 

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In the 1100s, England was at war with itself. In the century prior, William the Conqueror flooded Saxon England with his Norman soldiers, taking the crown of England for himself in 1066. Not unlike Aegon the Conquerer in GOT. After William I died, the crown went to his son, William II, who died without an heir. Then the throne went to another son, Henry I, who reigned over a relatively peaceful era. But like Viserys I in House of the Dragon, King Henry I’s son and heir died early, leaving his only remaining legitimate child the heir to the English throne. 

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But she was a girl. In medieval England no less. 

Like Rhaenyra in the show, Princess Matilda was groomed to succeed her father, who tried his best to rally support behind her. When Henry I died in 1035, Matilda’s claim was contested by her cousin, another grandchild of William the Conquerer. Stephen of Blois seized the throne with the help of his brothers, similar to the way Rhaenyra’s half-brother Aegon is expected to challenge her in the show. 

What ensued was chaos. English barons took their sides, foreign alliances were made, and England was invaded again and again. The country was thrown into decades of turmoil and fierce infighting drove a once peaceful nation into lawlessness and devastation. Hence the name, The Anarchy, which lasted from 1138 to 1153. 

Prior to the war, Matilda was married to the Holy Roman Emperor Henry V, giving her the title Empress Matilda. She kept the title Empress even after she was widowed and remarried Geoffrey V, Count of Anjou. Like Daemon Targaryen in the show, Geoffrey fought for Matilda’s claim, and together they had three sons, the eldest of whom, Henry, would take over their fight. 

Now, this is where history might spoil the show for you. So beware of indirect spoilers from here on out. 

When Matilda retired to Normandy, Henry launched a new campaign and re-invaded England but found that both sides of the war were weary of battle. Eventually, the church organized a truce, and their cause gained more significance when Stephen’s son Eustace suddenly died of illness, leaving him without an heir. Then in 1153, the Treaty of Wallingford was signed, which officially ended the Anarchy and allowed two very important things to happen: first, Stephen would be allowed to remain king until his death, and second, Henry would succeed him as his heir. Sadly for Stephen, he died unexpectedly in 1154 just a year after signing the treaty, effectively allowing the way for Matilda’s son to be crowned King Henry II of England, the first Angevin and Plantagenet king of England. 

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It was Henry II who history remembers as marrying the indomitable Eleanor of Aquitaine, and he’s also the same Henry who fathered multiple kings: Henry the Young King, Richard the Lionheart, and King John of the Robin Hood tales. Henry II’s reign was by all accounts prosperous, but it was rooted in one of the darkest times in English history. 

Now, keep in mind that this is a very concise summary of a 15-year war, and some nuance might be missing. There were plenty of players in The Anarchy, and countless plots were happening behind the scenes. Each side won and lose its share of battles, but it all led to one outcome. In the end, Matilda both lost and won the war. Ultimately, it’s from her line that every succeeding English king descends.  

If you’ve read GRRM’s Fire & Blood, the book the show is based on, then you know that the show will follow in the same footsteps as history. We won’t spell out for you exactly what happens, but know that in the end, House of the Dragon was written like a Shakespearean tragedy. While Matilda eventually got her happy ending, there are no happy endings awaiting the Targaryens in the show. Because as we know, Daenerys’ storyline in GOT season eight sealed the fate of her family forever. 

If you’re ready for all the fire, blood, terror, and war that House of the Dragon will offer, then save the date: August 22, 9 a.m. Philippine time, only on HBO Go. 

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Read more about House of the Dragon:

House of the Dragon Episode 1: A Traumatic Start to an Explosive Show

House of the Dragon: The Best Quotes From George R. R. Martin's Fire & Blood

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Anri Ichimura
Section Editor, Esquire Philippines
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