Three months when Oxford Castle became home to the real-life Rhaenyra Targaryen

11th Jun, 2024

princess Rhaenyra from House of Dragon standing in front of her dragon. What are the similarites between Queen Matilda & Princess Rhaenyra

An historian says she’s certain that Empress Matilda, an English princess of the Middle Ages, was the inspiration behind George R. R. Martin’s Rhaenyra Targaryen – and she lived in the modern day Oxford Castle & Prison.

Rhaenyra’s dramatic struggle for power following the death of her father Viserys will continue to play out in the second season of HBO’s House of the Dragon, which airs later this month, and her titanic struggle for the throne is just one of a long list of similarities connecting her with Matilda who took refuge at the castle in 1142.

According to Katherine Newman, an expert in the Middle Ages and reservations and relationship executive at Oxford Castle & Prison, the evidence for Martin’s inspiration – therefore the connection to the site – is overwhelming.

You can watch the video here:

Similarities in Rhaenyra and Matilda’s stories are compelling. They both:

  • Were made heirs by their royal fathers in a society that disapproved of female rulers. Each also had large groups of the nobility declare loyalty to them while their father was still alive.
  • Started a devastating civil war over their claim to the throne.
  • Married twice and always married for politics.
  • Came from the ruling elite of their countries; the Normans for Matilda, and the Targaryens for Rhaenyra.
  • (SPOILER ALERT!) Declared themselves Queen but had their triumph snatched away, ultimately losing and failing to become the monarch. However, the future royal line did come from their children and grandchildren.

Katherine said: “Both Matilda and Rhaenyra proved themselves to be resourceful and brilliant leaders. George R.R. Martin’s tale is widely known to be inspired by Matilda’s story but it’s not widely acknowledged that Oxford Castle & Prison was her home.

“The site still bares features today Matilda’s 12th century residency, including a window in St George’s Tower from which she infamously escaped using knotted bedsheets and the support of loyal knights to slip past enemy forces close to capturing her.

“Like Game of Thrones was inspired by the Wars of the Roses, its prequel takes elements from an earlier time – the Anarchy. It was a bloody civil war sparked by the death of King Henry I and the contentious issue of his rightful heir. The similarities are uncanny.”

During this chaotic period, multiple noble families fought over the crown of England. This led to a breakdown in law and order, and a lot of violence, hence its name.

Matilda’s rival for the throne, Stephen, was pursuing her when she found herself besieged at Oxford Castle during the winter of 1142. In a bid to retain her crown, Matilda defended the castle from his forces before finally making her escape as the enemy encircled. According to legend, she was wearing white to camouflage in the December snow and escaped by skating along the frozen River Thames after making her way down the tower.

Eventually, Matilda brought an end to the war by conceding the throne to Stephen – on the condition that it would be left to her son, Henry, on Stephen’s death.

Stephen died just a year after the signing of the treaty meaning King Henry II came to the throne in 1154. Matilda enjoyed over 10 years of her son’s reign before she died. Her son would become Henry Plantagenet, ruler of the vast Angevin empire stretching from the Scottish borders to southern France.

The 950-year-old medieval castle in Oxford city centre still bares the scars of the time period which is inspiring one of the world’s most famous authors in the 21st century.

Oxford Castle & Prison is open daily for guided tours, which can be booked here.

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