Image credit – Deviant Art
The Assassin’s Creed series has been rightfully praised for its intricate gameplay and rich worlds populated with historical figures. But just how accurate has Ubisoft been when taking ideas and people from history to use in these games? Read on for some answers that just may surprise you.
We’re going to take a look at a real assassins guild, the humble beginnings and violent end of the Knights Templar, and more as we see how the past influenced the present from the first Assassin’s Creed game to the yet-unreleased Assasin’s Creed Origins.
Real history of Assasin’s Creed
So let’s start with the first game in the Assassin’s Creed series, which sees the player assume the role of Altair, a twelfth century assassin who resides in the city of Masyaf in the Holy Land during the time of the Third Crusade. But is this fact or fiction? Well, it’s fact that during the Third Crusade (1189-1192), history records indicate there was a guild of assassins based at the castle of Masyaf, where they had been active for many years.
This actual assassins guild was founded by Persian missionary and philosopher Hassan-i Sabbah. To protect the interests of his order, he used the assassins to target leaders and politicians whose death, it was felt, would cause people to think twice before acting against Hassan. These assassins were well-read, as well as trained in the martial arts as, just like Altair, they needed to blend in to be able to gather information on their targets before they struck. Sometimes, they didn’t kill, but instead left a threat such as a dagger on a pillow. This gesture was often enough to bring folks around to Sabbah’s way of thinking.
So, there you go–there was an assassins guild just like in the original Assassin’s Creed, but what of their sworn enemies, the Knights Templar? Well, history tells us the Knights, like the assassins, came to prominence during the Crusades, but their origin starts some time before that.
The Knights were originally a charity set up to escort pilgrims to the Holy Land. Like all charities, word spread of their good deeds and they gained a tax break from the Pope of the time. This was the turning point which allowed a disorganised charity to rapidly grow into an elite military order and it was only natural that, at the time of the Third Crusade, they should throw themselves wholeheartedly into the fighting.
Altair’s journeys across the Holy Land in Assassin’s Creed, where he sees the distinct white coat and red-crossed surcoat of the Knights Templar nearly everywhere, would have been quite historically accurate. Templars had roles such as guards, bureaucrats, and doctors, and gave threats to the local populace to keep them in line.
However, while Assassin’s Creed sees the Templars expand after the Crusades, the real Templars fell from grace and, due to a mixture of politics, money, and greed, many were captured, tortured to confess to numerous false crimes, and then burned at the stake. The order disbanded, and while conspiracy theorists would have it that the Templars are still active today in a fashion similar to their devious workings in the Assassin’s Creed games, history can neither confirm nor deny this part of the Templar story.
Real history of Assasin’s Creed II
Moving on to Assassin’s Creed II, which is set in Italy at the time of the Renaissance in the fourteenth century. Here we find the assassin Ezio facing off against the Templars, who are led by the corrupt Pope Rodrigo Borgia. Rodrigo is not only Pope, but also the head of the Templars, and his papacy is one based on the tenants of corruption and violence.
Yet again, when we look at the history of the time, there was a Pope called Rodrigo Borgia whose papacy began in 1492. History tells us that the real-life Rodrigo was just as bad as his in-game counterpart.
The real Rodrigo was said to have bought the papacy with bribery and vote corruption, and as soon as he took office, he began elevating his family to positions of power (or, if no such position existed, creating it for them). Rodrigo’s time as Pope was spent (according to his enemies) murdering rivals, promoting war across Europe, and siding with anyone who could help him consolidate his power. At one time, the King of France invaded Rome determined to bring the papal authority down, but Rodrigo gave a cardinalship to a man who had the King’s ear and brought the matter to a peaceful conclusion.
So, Rodrigo’s reign as one of history’s worst Popes continued until, in 1503, at the age of 72, he dropped dead. Poison was suspected but never proved, though if it was used, it was a fitting end to a man who history would have us believe was more violent and corrupt than even his video game counterpart.
Real history of Assasin’s Creed III
Now let’s look at Assassin’s Creed III, which sees the action move to colonial America where the assassin Connor sets out to free his land from the tyranny of the Templars who have settled there. Connor is half Mohawk, and shares his heritage with a tribe of Native Americans who are resisting the British colonial forces and supporting George Washington, the American force’s leader.
To include such a strong historical figure in George Washington was a bold but logical choice for Ubisoft. He who charted the fate of the United States has a real history just as exciting as the in-game character.
Washington is famous for being the first president of the United States of America and for being commander-in-chief of the American forces during the American Revolution. He is rightly named as one of the country’s founding fathers. His real life is filled with so many interesting facts that, for the purposes of this article, I am going concentrate on just a few of the major landmarks in his life and how these are reflected in Assassin’s Creed III.
Notably, history doesn’t record that Washington suffered numerous assassination attempts, but his many victories against the British in battle, the betrayal of Benedict Arnold, and the arrest of Charles Lee after the Battle of Monmouth are all real events that play out in Assassin’s Creed III, much as they did historically.
Of course, things didn’t always go Washington’s way. He was responsible for giving the order to carry out a scorched earth war policy that saw 40 Native American villages destroyed (and which would see him come into conflict with Connor over the order). Still, Ubisoft chose wisely in giving focus to a historical figure that represents the Revolutionary War and the forging of the United States. Having a fully realized George Washingon in Assassin’s Creed III allows the player to feel like they are taking part in, and making, history.
Real history of Assassin’s Creed IV
Finally, the much-anticipated Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag promises us action on the eighteenth century Caribbean Sea, set in a period known as the golden age of piracy.
Ubisoft have again raided history to bring us the in-game counterpart of real-life pirate Blackbeard, but his exact Assassin’s Creed IV role at this time remains unknown. Now, Blackbeard, or Edward Teach as he was known, is an ideal character to get the Ubisoft historical makeover. You see, Blackbeard was an English pirate who, according to records, terrorized shipping endeavors across the Caribbean from 1716 to 1718. His ship, the Queen Anne’s Revenge, was armed with forty guns–a sight that put fear in any merchant unfortunate enough to cross his path.
One of Blackbeard’s favorite tricks, we are told, was to put gunpowder charges into his beard and hat, then light them as he boarded an enemy ship–but don’t be fooled into thinking he was a certifiable maniac. Merchant ships attacked by Blackbeard would be treated leniently if they put up no resistance. This was a smart move by the pirate, as it meant the authorities were less likely to hunt him down or put a reward on his head.
In fact, at one point, Blackbeard was pardoned for his piracy by the British government, but then decided to blockade and ransom an entire port, landing him back on their hit list. Blackbeard became incredibly rich, but kept plundering and pirating until the British authorities in the Caribbean could ignore him no more. It still took two ships armed with soldiers to bring just the single ship of the mighty Blackbeard down, and his head was stuck (rather ingloriously) on the prow of his vanquisher’s vessel as they sailed back to announce their triumph.
Blackbeard really was the quintessential pirate, and it’s no wonder Ubisoft picked him to appear in Assassin’s Creed IV. We can only hope the Blackbeard of Black Flag sticks dynamite in his beard at some point in the story.
Real history of Assasin’s Creed Unity
The next game in the series Assassin’s Creed Unity introduces us to another person who made their mark on history, Napoleon. Interestingly enough this isn’t Napoleon the Emperor of France that was to come later, Unity gives us Napoleon the young artillery officer – and it’s all accurate. You see Napoleon first enrolled in a military academy at the very young age of ten, unsurprisingly he excelled in this environment and after graduation he was sent to the premier military academy of its day, the Ecole Militaire in Paris, where he graduated as an artillery officer.
In Unity a lot of the game centres around the French Revolution in Paris in 1789 and Napoleon had shown his support for the Jacobin politics of its instigators not only by association with them but also by leading a revolt against their enemies on his home island of Corsica. Interestingly the game’s DLC Dead Kings sees more of Napoleon but ends with him under house arrest as the revolutionaries all fall from power. Yet again this is a true story but the wily Napoleon soon was back in favour and continuing down the path that would lead to him becoming Emperor.
Real history of Assassin’s Creed Syndicate
In Asssassin’s Creed Syndicate, the action moves to London around the time Queen Victoria was on the throne. The game crosses paths with a lot of famous characters of the period, yet it is one of the game’s more shadowy characters that we will be looking at next, Jack the Ripper.
Jack was a serial killer murdering prostitutes in the Whitechapel area of London in the year 1888, his name was given to him by the press from an alleged letter he sent them bragging of his reign of terror. Syndicate has you investigating the case and the game elevates Jack from murderer to assassin, a promotion also given to his unfortunate victims. In the game a character based on real life Ripper detective Frederick Abberline charges you to seek out the Ripper leading the game from his infamous crime scenes to Lambeth Asylum where the killings are bought to a bloody end. Interestingly the game takes the known facts of the Ripper case and adds another fascinating layer to the many conspiracy theories that exist about who actually was the murderer. The shadowy and confusing events of the Ripper case lend themselves well to a game of secret killers just as well as some of histories more well documented events.
Real history of Assassin’s Creed Origins
Coming soon is the next Assassin’s Creed instalment the Egyptian-set Origins. While little is known of the game some historical facts have emerged. The game is set in what is known as Ptolemaic Egypt, a period of time that spanned roughly 323BC to 30 BC. Our hero Bayek is a Medjay which historically can refer to two things. Firstly the Medjay were a people from an area of North Sudan but the term refers also a part of the Egyptian army particular scouts, a role certainly suited to an assassin perhaps?
It should also be noted that the game is said to include Cleopatra who reigned as Queen of Egypt around 30 BC the end of the era the game is said to encompass. Though whether Cleopatra supports the Assassin or Templar cause or how her path will cross with the game’s hero is as of yet unknown.
A game with an Egyptian setting should certainly include Pyramids and Origins is no exception. Pyramids have existed in Egypt since 2630 BC, the most famous, those at Giza, home of what is known at The Great Pyramid will certainly feature in the game as no doubt a tomb to explore and a structure begging to be scaled. It’s only fitting that the last standing of the Seven Wonders of the World is in a game series that expertly mixes history and fantasy.
Finally one last historical event of great importance could possibly feature in Origins, and that’s the end of Egyptian independence due to its conquest by Rome in 30BC, an event also linked to Cleopatra. Here one great Empire was invaded and subjugated by another which led to Egypt ingloriously being known as the Breadbasket of Rome due to its immense production of grain.
If you look back on the Assassins Creed series and its links with revolution, war and social upheaval on a massive scale from the American War of Independence to the French revolution it seems natural that Origins will end with change in Egypt. As to what side Bayek will be on that is yet to be determined though I can imagine like all the Assassin’s Creeds protagonists he will certainly be instrumental in shaping history.
If you enjoyed this walk through history, tell your local school to put away the dusty textbooks and set its pupils in front of Assassin’s Creed. I know I’d have paid more attention.
For more history lessons, check out The Real History of BioShock: Infinite, and stay glued to PSU for more original content.