“He took off the shoes from his feet, put down the staff from his hands, and, satisfied with one tunic, exchanged his leather belt for a cord.”[1]

“[His] beard was grey and brown and closely trimmed, his hair tied in a hard knot behind his head. Though his robes were clean, they were frayed and patched as well… [his feet were] thick with callus.”[2]


A description of the High Sparrow, leader of the religious order the “Faith of the Seven”, from Game of Thrones? Or of thirteenth-century mendicant St Francis of Assisi (1181/82-1226)? At first glance, these passages seem remarkably similar. The visual (or imagined) similarities between the two increases when you consider the costume Jonathan Pryce dons in the High Sparrow’s debut to the HBO series of Game of Thrones (episode three, season five): an undyed and stained tunic with a gaping neck, revealing his chest and, crucially, no shoes. Although there are differences (beyond the more obvious historical/fictional) between the two men, this similarity in dress, I would argue, deserves more attention. Since the television show’s release, there has been a lot of popular attention focused on the way both Game of Thrones and A Song of Ice and Fire draw from medieval history as much as they do from previous epic adventure narratives,[3] but the marked similarities between the High Septon and St Francis of Assisi appear to have slipped under the radar.

George R. R. Martin’s creation of the world of Westeros draws heavily not only from European medieval history but includes broad chronological and geographical influences stretching back into the Ancient world. For example, the Great Pyramids of Meereen and the fighting pits that Daenerys Targaryen’s reopens there evoke Ancient Egypt and the Roman Empire. One clear influence in the written series A Song of Ice and Fire that has been identified is the English Wars of the Roses dating from the period 1450-1485.[4] Where this bloody battle for the English throne was fought between the royal factions of the Yorkists and Lancastrians, the main rivalry in Westeros is fought between the Houses of Lannister and Stark. Both struggles involve family loyalties and constant reversals in fortunes. There are, however, other past influences, events, and characters that are included within this narrative.

Although both St Francis and the High Sparrow immerse themselves in the urban poverty of the world, leading an asocial life, rejecting both power and wealth there are some apparent differences, especially when comparing St Francis to the novel A Feast for Crows (2005). These differences mainly centre on approach. Whereas St Francis practiced self-mortification, such as submersion in an icy ditch or wearing a rough tunic to “crucify the flesh”, Martin writes the High Sparrow as enacting harsh physical punishment on others.[5] Aside from the famous Walk of Shame by Cersei Lannister, the High Sparrow questions Osney Kettleback regarding his involvement with the immoralities at court, for example, by hanging him naked from the ceiling and whipping him.[6] This violence is perpetuated in the descriptions of the Sparrows, followers and supporters of the High Sparrow, as wearing boiled leather, mail with white surcoats sewn with red stars, armed with spears and longswords.[7] Moreover the Poor Fellows, a movement the Sparrows aimed to revive, were described as itinerant travellers escorting travellers, but carrying axes rather than bowls.[8]

Additionally, St Francis and the Franciscans took on a deliberately apolitical stance, working hard to distance themselves from the heretical movements that were burgeoning throughout the thirteenth century. Around 1210 St Francis and his followers travelled to Rome, submitting to Pope Innocent III to ask for papal approval. In the Rule of the Friars Minor, or Franciscans, (c.1221) brothers are directed to “not go to law or dispute or pass judgement on others; they shall be gentle, peaceful, modest, kindly and humble.”[9] This is in stark contrast to actions of the High Sparrow, as the new High Septon, who is very involved in the secular politics in King’s Landing. At his direction, both the new Queen Margaery Tyrell, and King Tommen’s mother, Cersei, are imprisoned, the latter being assigned trial by combat.

When describing inspiration for the characters found in A Song of Ice and Fire, Martin describes the High Sparrow and his followers as “a militant and aggressive Protestant Reformation”, a movement that in the sixteenth century rejected the corruption and wealth found in the Catholic Church.[10] So far, not so very good in the assigning of inspiration for this Westerosi reformer to St Francis. However, there are certainly some similarities when drawing on the character present both in A Feast for Crows and the HBO TV series.

Both St Francis and the High Sparrow undergo dramatic conversions in their journey to a life of poverty, rejecting their previous family wealth. The cumulation of St Francis’ journey to a mendicant life was the moment when his father, a wealthy cloth merchant, demanded Francis’ renunciation of inheritance and goods from his father. Thomas of Celano, educated noble-turned-Franciscan biographer of the saint, writes that Francis “neither delayed nor hesitated, but immediately took off and threw down all his clothes and returned them to his father.”[11] Although the High Sparrow’s situation before his appointment to High Septon is not detailed in the books, in the TV series includes him reminiscing to Margaery about how he became a cobbler to the wealthy: “I used their money to buy a taste of their lives for myself”.[12] He goes on to tell how, after a night of heavy partying, he woke up before his guests. “Everyone else was asleep on the couches or the floor lying in heaps next to their fine clothes. The truth of their bodies lay bare”.[13] Realising the immorality of his life at this sight, he left, out of the door without even his shoes. In both conversions, clothing – or lack of clothing – serves as the crucial turning point.

The similarities are also found in work ethic. Initially after his renunciation of his previous life, St Francis served as a scullery boy in a monastic cloister, helped care for lepers, as well as helped to rebuild several churches including the church of San Damiano and the chapel of Saint Mary of the Portiuncula. In the Rule of the Friars Minor, all able-bodied Franciscan brothers are directed to “work faithfully and devotedly; in such a manner that idleness, the soul’s enemy, is kept at bay.”[14] When in A Feast for Crows the High Sparrow meets Cersei he tells her “work is a form of prayer,” and he is often depicted in the TV series as serving food or cleaning floors.[15]

Most of the similarities between St Francis and descriptions of the High Sparrow seem to be found in the HBO production. This is particularly true of their chosen aesthetic, possibly their biggest similarity. As described before, the garb worn by the High Sparrow from Season Five to Season Six is remarkably similar to the textual descriptions of the Franciscans and St Francis himself. St Francis, after hearing an explanation of the Gospels, in particular the clothing of the Disciples, wore only one tunic, took off his shoes and replaced a leather belt with a cord. The Rule of the Friars Minor stipulated that after a brother was sworn into the order, they were to be given one tunic with a hood. Only if they needed were they to be given shoes or an additional hoodless tunic. Indeed, it is encouraged that “all the brothers shall wear wretched clothes and can patch them with bits of sackcloth.”[16]

During the twelfth and thirteenth centuries Europe experienced a growth not only in religious fervour outside monastic cloisters but also urbanisation. At the same time there was an increase in the theological association between the spirit and the body which led to a closer perceived relationship between interiority and exteriority, appearance and spiritual state. Therefore, clothing formed a reciprocal relationship with the fresh, becoming almost inseparable conceptually.[17] Within this context, clothing became an important form of expression and identification for the new mendicant religious orders such as the Franciscans. This was significant in their role as preachers to enable their audience to identify them as legitimate. By dressing as the poor, St Francis created visual cues about his religious ideas including humility, rejection of the rising mercantile economy and voluntary poverty.

Clothing as signalling identity is equally important now in visual media, arguably even more so than in written text. Costume designer for HBO’s Game of Thrones, Michele Clapton states: “I love the narrative. I like the fact that you use costumes to tell a story and to create a character”.[18] On the screen clothing allows a deeper insight into a particular character’s back-story, current situation, and changing political alliances. For example, with the rise of the Tyrells’ power in season three fashion trends at court shifts from imitating Cersei to Margaery. For the production of Game of Thrones this involves a costume team of around one hundred people, including hair design, principal costume embroiderer, weapons master, and armour supervisor. Ten people are even responsible solely for wearing and aging the costumes before they make their way on set. Who knows how long they had to wear the High Sparrows tunic!

When discussing inspiration for the costumes Clapton describes how her research included trips to museums and executive producer and writer David Benioff explains that the Game of Thrones’ aesthetics was a combination of cultural influences in order to create something new. In this way Clapton talks about the Persian elements in King’s Landing and Grecian style of Daenerys before she becomes Dothraki.[19] However I would argue that in terms of the High Sparrow, the visual story they are creating, is one that harks back to, and fits well with, thirteenth-century mendicancy. Seeing Pryce on the screen, you know, even before he speaks that he stands for humility and with the poor. The reason, I would again argue, that his political influence and capacity becomes such a thrill in the plot is that it does not fit with his visual cues, his visual proclamation of identity. This point can be illustrated with the description of the High Sparrow on the Game of Thrones Wiki Fan-page: “although the High Sparrow seems a harmless old man, he has a will of steel”.[20]

Yet this perhaps fits into another thirteenth-century mould. With the increasing importance of clothing as a visual authentication, there also grew considerable anxiety around “fakes”. At the same time as reflecting the inner state of the wearer clothing also had the ability to hide and conceal. In a 1209 letter to Durand of Huesca, leader of mendicant group the Poor Catholics, Pope Innocent III details complaints from, amongst others, the Archbishop of Narbonne that the Poor Catholics are associating with heretics such as the Waldensians and are indistinguishable from them in terms of their clothing. He warns: “take care to still the scandal which grows more serious because of the former garb which you still keep. Alter this habit as you promised us to do, changing it in such a way that you show yourselves also set apart from heretics in outer raiment as you are within”.[21] Specifically mentioned is their open-toped sandals which should no longer be worn. It was feared that the heretical movements, indistinguishably dressed from their papally approved counterparts, could beguile the laity into heresy. It could be argued that the more sinister, violent side of the High Sparrow, taps into these fears.

TV presenter and historian, Dan Jones notes how the proximity that Game of Thrones has to the past can never quite hold, but always seems to slip through your fingers, describing it as “cut loose from history”.[22] But this does not make speculation any less enjoyable or valid. Whether or not it was done consciously, the presentation of the High Sparrow, especially in the HBO production, is clearly influenced by the thirteenth-century mendicant movement, more specifically St Francis, using the same visual cues that would have held resonance in the past. It’s important to recognise and examine these influences, as the mainstream popularity that Martin’s stories have acquired, especially since HBO started broadcasting Game of Thrones, gives a real chance for widespread engagement with aspects of medieval culture that are often derided as fusty and irrelevant in contemporary society.

I would argue a realisation of the many influences from, and similarities with, the past is what makes the Game of Thrones story so vivid and rich, so believably real. Not only are the detailed features – such as the use of clothing – better understood, but the multi-layered nature of the narrative, which is not always immediately apparent, is contextualised and so given fuller meaning. Currently rated Number One in IMDb’s Most Popular TV Show, HBO’s Game of Thrones has also won numerous awards, including nine Creative Arts awards, as well as Outstanding Drama Series, Outstanding Directing, and Outstanding Writing at the 2016 Emmy’s alone. This huge success has undeniably cultivated valuable links between the study of the past and modern, popular culture and its ever increasing use of visual media. It has the potential as a tool for widening public engagement with the past and, I hope, can serve to inspire more interest in disciplines like History.

With the onset of Winter, it will be interesting to see what other historical influences are revealed: presumably those that involve more layers than simply bear feet and a patched tunic.


[1] “The Life of Saint Francis by Thomas of Celano (1228-1229)”, in Francis of Assisi: Early Documents, ed. Regis J. Armstrong, J. A. Wayne Hellmann and William J. Short (London: New City Press, 1999): 202

[2] George R. R. Martin, A Feast for Crows (London: Harper Voyager, 2011/1998)

[3] http://history-behind-game-of-thrones.com/

“Game of Thrones: medieval inspiration”, History Extra 24th March 2016.


Stephanie Pappas , “How Real Is the ‘Game of Thrones’ Medieval World?”, LiveScience 3rd April 2014. https://www.livescience.com/44599-medieval-reality-game-of-thrones.html

[4] Dan Jones and George R. R. Martin in “Game of Thrones: The Real History Behind Game of Thrones.” 2016

[5] “The Life of Saint Francis by Thomas of Celano (1228-1229)”: 202, 221

[6] Martin, A Feast for Crows, 740

[7]Ibid, 466

[8]Ibid, 476

[9] “The Rule of the Friars Minor,” in The Coming of the Friars, ed. Rosalind B. Brooke (London: G. Allen and Unwin, 1975): 122

[10] ‘ James Hibberd , ‘Game of Thrones’: George R. R. Martin Reveals Which Religion Inspired the Faith Militant,” Entertainment Weekly 24th May 2015. http://www.ew.com/article/2015/05/24/game-of-thrones-george-rr-martin-religion/.

[11] “The Life of Saint Francis by Thomas of Celano (1228-1229)”, 193

[12] Game of Thrones Season 6, Episode 4: “Book of the Stranger”

[13] Ibid.

[14] “The Rule of the Friars Minor,” in The Coming of the Friars, ed. Rosalind B. Brooke (London: G. Allen and Unwin, 1975): 122

[15] George R. R. Martin, A Feast for Crows: 470

[16] The Rule of the Friars Minor,” in The Coming of the Friars, ed. Rosalind B. Brooke (London: G. Allen and Unwin, 1975): 121

[17] Cordelia Warr, Dressing for Heaven: Religious Clothing in Italy, 1215-1545 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2010): 219

[18] Michele Clapton in “Inside Game of Thrones: A Story in Cloth (HBO).’” YouTube 6th June 2017. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=THH_UB-WRCU

[19] Michele Clapton in ‘Game of Thrones: Costumes (HBO).’ YouTube 29th March 2011. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F_iFAjvYFo4

[20] “High Sparrow” Game of Thrones Wiki Fandom. http://www.gameofthrones.wikia.org/wiki/High_Sparrow

[21] Walter L. Wakefield and Austin P. Evans, “Heresy in Southern France, 1155-1216”, Heresies of the High Middle Ages (New York: Columbia University Press, 1969): 227

[22] Dan Jones in “Game of Thrones: The Real History Behind Game of Thrones”. http://www.documentarytube.com/videos/game-of-thrones-the-real-history-behind-game-of-thrones-both-parts-1-2-combined-documentary