Whether you watch the Game of Thrones TV show, read the Song of Ice and Fire books, or just enjoy the occasional GoT nonsense online, there's a good chance that you've heard of Cersei Lannister. She's the current ruler of Westeros in the show, and book Cersei probably isn't all that far behind. She's the one who secured the throne for her sweet baby Joffrey, got rid of all those pesky Starks, and commissioned her BFF Qyburn to make a personal Frankenstein-style monster for her. She's way into wildfire and making her enemies "disappear." She's also having a love affair with her twin brother. But perhaps the most disturbing fact is this: Cersei is based on a real person.
Of course, George R.R. Martin drew inspiration from a whole slew of different fictional and historical sources for his books. Cersei fits a lot of the Evil Queen archetypes from fairy tales, for one thing. Her name comes from the Ancient Greek witch Circe, who turned men into pigs. She has some serious Lady Macbeth vibes when it comes to her ambition. And Cersei, like the historical Queen Anne Boleyn, was accused of adultery (although, unlike Anne, Cersei was definitely guilty and got away with it).
But if we had to pick one real life figure who gave us the Cersei Lannister we know and love to hate, it would have to be Margaret of Anjou.
The main plot-line of A Song of Ice and Fire comes straight out of the historical War of the Roses, you see. The real life House of Lancaster swiped the throne of England (which was made up of seven kingdoms) from the unpopular King Richard II back in the day. But a generation later, the Lancaster King Henry V died suddenly, leaving his nine-month-old son Henry VI to rule.
Being a literal baby, King Henry VI wasn't too great at his job. By the time he reached adulthood, Lancaster control of England was in trouble—so Henry was married to the fifteen-year-old Margaret of Anjou, niece to the Queen of France. This was supposed to smooth things over between England and France and consolidate Lancaster power.
The only problem was that Henry VI was still not cut out for being a king. He hated conflict and warfare and he struggled with mental illness. He had a full-on nervous breakdown and went catatonic by the time his son was born, leaving Margaret to step up and rule the dang country. Unlike her husband, Margaret was strong-willed and loved conflict. She was famous for being passionate and proud. But unfortunately for her, she was also French and a woman. People didn't like that she ruled in her husband's place, and they suspected that her son, Edward, was not fathered by the king at all.
Much like Cersei, though, Margaret was not about to let anybody mess with her or her kid. When her husband's adviser, Richard of York, started pulling some Ned Stark nonsense and trying to create social reforms that undermined her authority, Margaret ousted him from power. She didn't behead him right away, though, which was probably a mistake on her part.
The York and Lancaster differences in personality eventually escalated into warfare: York's men captured the confused King Henry VI and appointed York as the Protector of England. So Margaret went right ahead and raised her own army to defend her sweet lil' son's claim on the throne.
She successfully chased off her enemies the first time around. But York came back again, this time offering to let Henry stay king, and just take over for him when he died instead of passing the throne to Margaret's son. Margaret presumably laughed in his face, before raising an even bigger army. This time her forces managed to kill York himself. In a second battle, she also re-captured her poor husband, who had been abandoned during the fighting.
Two knights from the York side stayed behind on the battlefield with the befuddled king to make sure he didn't get hurt. The king had promised them immunity for their kindness. But Margaret was not about kindness. She took the two knights prisoner anyway, and held a mock trial for them with her son as judge.
She asked her precious son "what death shall these knights die?" and lil' Edward ordered them both to be beheaded.
Margaret had them executed, despite the king's pleas for mercy.
So, on the one hand, Margaret of Anjou's reputation as a ferocious, evil queen is fairly sexist—she was already disliked for her political thinking and her icy attitude, long before she started loping people's heads off. She was clearly a capable military leader who would do anything for her son.
But on the other hand, Cersei's historical counterpart was pretty freaking ruthless. When she tried to return to London, she was barred due to her army's constant pillaging. She was eventually forced to flee to Scotland and then France. She launched one final attack to put her son on the throne of England, years later, but 17-year-old Edward was killed in battle, and Margaret gave up her plots for good. She died in relative poverty.
Let's hope that Cersei, too, doesn't end up on the throne forever... but let's also hope that our girl Cersei gets a more impressive exit than the real life Margaret did.