Game of Thrones's Season 6's penultimate episode, deliciously named "Battle of the Bastards," certainly lived up to its title. For several seasons now, all fans of Game of Thrones have wanted to see was one massive, cathartic conflagration between Jon Snow and the erstwhile occupier of Winterfell, Ramsey Bolton — and that's exactly what we got.
In an Entertainment Weekly interview, the episode's director Miguel Sapochnik name-dropped several battles and commanders as sources of inspiration for the gritty contest. In this article we'll take a look at how each of these historical battles influenced the "Battle of the Bastards," as well as look at how realistic the fight really was. But first, here's a behind the scenes video showing the massive amount of effort that went into creating the show's biggest battle to date:
Battle of Cannae — 216 BC
Although the setting of Game of Thrones is loosely set on 15th century Europe (G.R.R. Martin drew much inspiration from the War of the Roses, which occurred in England during this time), for "Battle of the Bastards," the creators went a little further back in time.
According to Sapochnik, the classical Battle of Cannae between Hannibal Barca of Carthage and the Roman Republic stood as one of the main sources of strategic inspiration. The battle, fought in modern day Italy, was a major defeat for Rome, and saw the destruction of an entire army by a numerically inferior — but better led — enemy. Much like Davos in Game of Thrones, Hannibal knew he must let the Romans aggressively attack them and be patient. At in the previous Battle of Trebia, the Romans (despite being heavily defeated) had managed to break the Carthaginian center. Hannibal knew their impatient and hubristic commanders (Gaius Terentius Varro and Lucius Aemilius Paullus) were likely to attempt the same move again. He was right.
Varro grouped all his infantry in the center and planned to break through the thinner Carthaginian lines, forcing one side back into a river to be slaughtered. Hannibal, however, deliberately weakened his center and placed his best troops on the wings. Meanwhile, he used his veteran cavalry to protect his flanks to avoid a double envelopment (Jon uses off-camera trenches to similar effect in the episode).
Having won the cavalry skirmishes on the flanks, he let the Romans advance and drew his center back in an orderly fashion, allowing his line to buckle. His veterans on the wings held their ground, with the Romans now pouring into a semi-circle line, leading to their encirclement and destruction. Davos's plan is clearly reminiscent of Hannibal's, as the numerical inferiority of the Stark forces necessitated a cleverer strategy than simply charging at the enemy (which, after Ramsey's goading, is exactly what happened).
Given this, Ramsey was able to induce his own nod to Cannae with his Bolton men surrounding the Stark forces in much the same way as Hannibal did the Romans. Unfortunately, unlike the Starks, the Romans didn't have a Machiavellian douche arrive in the nick of time with hundreds of cavalry to save the day while looking on smugly.
Alexander the Great — 356–323 BC
The famed Macedonian king, Alexander, also etched his influence into the episode, with Sapochnik claiming he researched his tactics and strategies closely. Most clearly, this is represented by the Bolton encirclement mentioned above. Alexander was able to take over most of the classical world utilizing a formation developed by Phillip II (his father), known as the Macedonian phalanx.
This formation, which became almost unbeatable during its hey-day, featured troops fighting shield to shield with long pikes called sarissa. The use of disciplined movements, drills and a wall of pikes were devastating to large groups of infantry who simply couldn't get past the pointy bits. Meanwhile, any brave soldier who did get past them had to then try and barge their way through a wall of interlocked shields, with even more pikes behind them.
In reality, the phalanx used smaller, circular shields rather than those used by the Boltons, who use pavise-like shields more commonly used by medieval crossbowmen for cover. Their inclusion in Game of Thrones was actually a practical one, as it allowed the director to obscure the view and economize on extras making the battle look larger than it actually is.
The arrival of the Vale horses is also slightly reminiscent of another tactic frequently used by Alexander. Called the "hammer and anvil" it relied on engaging and occupying an enemy's infantry line with your own, and then wheeling around their rear for a devastating charge. By the medieval period it was used less often, as a savvy commander would introduce securities against it happening.
The Hundred Years' War — 1337–1453
Sapochnik also stated that the Battle of Agincourt was also a major source of inspiration for "Battle of the Bastards," although its influence was eventually diluted for budgetary reasons. Despite this, elements of the battle (and other battles in The Hundred Years' War) can be seen.
Firstly, the long conflict between France and England probably featured much of the same equipment as seen in "Battle of the Bastards" — namely armored men-at-arms, archers and cavalry. Secondly, Jon's pre-battle plan of digging trenches to neutralize the threat of the Bolton cavalry is similar to that of the English at Agincourt. Thirdly, it seems that Ramsey's army in particular arranged itself similarly to the vogue of the time — three lines (or "battles") of archers, cavalry and infantry.
This was a typical arrangement of a French army during this period, although generally cavalry would have been positioned at the flanks. The French, in particular, were very fond and proud of their heavy cavalry, which would dramatically charge the enemy. The English on the other hand, which lacked the same number of horses, preferred to use archers to break up the charge of the cavalry. The cavalry's job was to disrupt the frontline and rout any missile troops, allowing the infantry to advance in safety behind and take advantage of the disorganized and shocked enemy.
At the Battle of Agincourt and Crécy, however, the English use of archers and stakes in the ground halted the French charge. Meanwhile, the horses and bad weather turned the central battlefield into a muddy quagmire, which bogged down the heavily-armed French troops, and isn't too dissimilar to the chaos seen in the "Battle of the Bastards." Meanwhile, Crécy and Agincourt also featured a large crush (much like the episode) with stories of the French men-at-arms drowning in mud and being crushed underfoot. Such events were relatively quite common, especially once panic set in and troops began to flee.
The kind of cavalry collision seen in "Battle of the Bastards" was rare in reality, as both sides would ideally want to save their heavy horse as shock troops against infantry and not other cavalry — much like how we see the Vale cavalry used at the battle's finale. However, skirmishes between mounted units were common in the ancient period and were often held as a precursor to the main melee. These cavalry skirmishes allowed one side to win control of important areas of the battlefield, such as the front, flanks, or high ground. Meanwhile, victory in the cavalry skirmish could reduce the moral of the enemy, and even cause them to call off the battle altogether.
Generally speaking, the lengthy fight scenes of soldiers running around everywhere and fighting left, right and center would be quite unrealistic. Troops actually much more commonly fought shoulder to shoulder with their comrades and approached in an organized fashion. That's not to say these kind of chaotic scenes didn't occur, but they were very rare. Although, I suppose Jon's one-man charge threw any plan out of the window. It basically all his fault.
The American Civil War
One of the most striking images of the "Battle of the Bastards" is the wide shot of bloodied, dirty men exhaustedly struggling on piles of dead bodies. In the video above, Benioff claims these images were inspired by recollections of the American Civil War which claimed piles of corpses sometimes obscured view on the battlefield.
The Battle of Gettysburg in particular is singled out as an incredibly bloody affair, with around 50,000 casualties across the 3-day battle. This carnage was, of course, facilitated by the introduction of industrial methods of war, which would reach an even greater magnitude in World War I. The use of well-drilled volley fire, grapeshot, artillery and early "machine guns" meant large numbers of men could be killed or wounded in a small space of time, while modern transportation, communications and food production meant more men could be mustered into armies, resulting in bigger battles.
In reality, most pitched medieval battles probably wouldn't have reached this level of destruction, except in situations where one army was surrounded. The vast majority of battle casualties usually occurred after the main fight, with fleeing troops being hunted down by cavalry and light troops over a large area, often until darkness set in. Generally, battles were won not by killing all the enemy, but by killing just enough the rest will give up and flee. For the most part, soldiers would much rather down arms and run for it than go headfirst into certain death.
Oh, and one more thing: There weren't any giants in real medieval battles.
What has been your favorite Game of Thrones battle?