Tower of the Hand

Politics of the Seven Kingdoms Part II: The North

In Part I of Politics of the Seven Kingdoms, I gave a general overview of the purpose of the series, and some of the underlying thinking about the various forces shaping the different regions of Westeros.

In this, the first proper essay in the series, I will be exploring the North; it is, after all, the first of the Seven Kingdoms that we visit in A Game of Thrones. It's also one of the locations that we spend the most time in throughout the series, rivalled only by King's Landing. And finally, it's one of the most crucial regions of Planetos when it comes to the mystical metaplot of the entire series and its likely conclusion.

It's also a fascinating region to study for this particular series, because the North is such a distinctive political entity. Not only did it spend most of the last eight thousand years as an independent political entity - and indeed, given its location and geographical barriers, more independent than most - it has been governed by the same dynasty for that entire period, an unbroken chain of succession without equals in Westeros. As a result of these political changes, we are constantly reminded in ASOIAF that the North is different:

The vast and frigid realm of the Kings of Winter, the Starks of Winterfell, is generally considered the first and oldest of the Seven Kingdoms, in that it has endured, unconquered, for the longest. The vagaries of geography and history set the North apart from their southron neighbors.

It is often said that the North is as large as the other six kingdoms put together, but the truth is somewhat less grand: the North, as ruled today by House Stark of Winterfell, comprises little more than a third of the realm. Beginning at the southern edge of the Neck, the domains of the Starks extend as far north as the New Gift (itself part of their realm until King Jaehaerys I convinced Winterfell to cede those lands to the Night's Watch). Within the North are great forests, windswept plains, hills and valleys, rocky shores, and snow-crowned mountains. The North is a cold land-much of it rising moorlands and high plains giving way to mountains in its northern reaches-and this makes it far less fertile than the reaches of the south. Snow has been known to fall there even in summer, and it is deadly in winter.

The World of Ice & Fire: The North

The North as Geography, the North as an Idea

It is true that the North has a distinctive geography - whether we're talking about sheer landmass, the forbidding climate, or the sheer variety of terrain from snowy mountains to treacherous swamps to ancient barrow-mounds to primeval forests.

And geography has played a significant role in shaping the politics of the North. To begin with, the North covers approximately 415,000 square miles of land, and with around 3.5-4 million inhabitants, means that we have a population density of less than 10 people per square mile. This suggests two things. First, more of a tendency to localism - given the distances involved, few people are going to make the trek from, say, Bear Island to White Harbor to engage in cultural homogenization, and so local customs and traditions are more likely to endure. On the other hand, it also suggests less conflict over land and other resources - with only ten people per square mile, it's far easier (in most cases) to pick up and find untended land somewhere else than to fight over already-claimed territory.


Moving on, the next geographical feature that has shaped Northern culture is climate - namely the Northern winters, which have profoundly shaped Northern culture, social mores, and demographics:

The men of the North are descendants of the First Men, their blood only slowly mingling with that of the Andals who overwhelmed the kingdoms to the south. The original language of the First Men-known as the Old Tongue-has come to be spoken only by the wildlings beyond the Wall, and many other aspects of their culture have faded away (such as the grislier aspects of their worship, when criminals and traitors were killed and their bodies and entrails hung from the branches of weirwoods.) ... Even their house names mark them out, for the First Men bore names that were short and blunt and to the point; names like Stark, Wull, Umber, and Stout all stem from the days when the Andals had no influence on the North ... But the Northmen still retain something of the old ways in their customs and their manner. Their life is harder, and so they are hardened by it ... One notable custom that the Northmen hold dearer than any other is guest right, the tradition of hospitality by which a man may offer no harm to a guest beneath his roof, nor a guest to his host. The Andals held to something like it as well, but it looms less large in southron minds.

The World of Ice & Fire: The North

As I have written about elsewhere, Northern nationalism has its roots in the solidarity of the shared struggle for survival - to turn away a guest in a Northern winter is to commit a form of murder, and the shared bread and salt of guest right are tokens of a right to subsistence in times of hardship and starvation. It is with customs such as these that we begin to see the origins of a common Northern identity, as the in-group extends beyond the family and the clan to include all those taking shelter under a common roof. (More on this shortly...)

At the same time, we cannot discuss the Northern winters without discussing the magic that prologues the winters, and thus the threat of the White Walkers. It is with the crisis of the Long Night that we see both the origins of House Stark, in the person of Bran the Builder, the Wall he built, and the Night's Watch he created to man it, creating a major marker of Northern differentness. As is so often the case with national identity, it is the creation of borders that help to create invented communities of "us" against the (in this case literal) "Other." To be a Northman, therefore, is to be both the first victim of and Westeros' last line of defense against everything that lies beyond the Wall, and for most of eight thousand years that has meant the wildling raiders who periodically reave across Northern lands, vying for scarce resources. In this fashion, a distinction was created between two groups of people who share the same ethnic origins, the same religion, and originally the same language.

And finally, we come to the Neck, the North's main land border. While Moat Cailin's defenses could be seen as the North's military border, it's important to note that most of the Neck (and indeed, large portions of Flint's Finger) actually lie south of the Moat, providing a buffer zone for the North. Regardless of where you precisely draw the line, the fens and swamps of the Neck are one of the most significant geographical features of the North, in that they allowed for the survival of an independent kingdom of First Men following the Old Gods to survive (whereas the First Men kingdoms of the Riverlands and the Vale collapsed completely) without resorting to the cultural assimilation of the Westerlands, the Reach, the Stormlands, and Dorne. As we will see in the Historical Development section, the North's successful fight against Andal invasion played a significant constitutive role in forging the disparate Houses of the North into a single polity with a single policy, and thus the growth of Northern nationalism.

However, as I will be arguing throughout this essay, geography did not create the North as we know it, because there was a time when there was no one "North" but many:

It is best to remember that when we speak of these legendary founders of realms, we speak merely of some early domains-generally centered on a high seat, such as Casterly Rock or Winterfell-that in time incorporated more and more land and power into their grasp. If Garth Greenhand ever ruled what he claimed was the Kingdom of the Reach, it is doubtful its writ was anything more than notional beyond a fortnight's ride from his halls. But from such petty domains arose the mightier kingdoms that came to dominate Westeros in the millennia to come.

The World of Ice & Fire: The Age of Heroes

From their initial stronghold at Winterfell, the Starks not only engaged in a military campaign of expansion, but also in a political project of nation-building. (As we will see throughout the series, the successful creation of a "sovereign center" is key to the foundation of a successful polity.) In this fashion, we can think of Bran Stark as equivalent to Aegon the Conqueror, another dynasty-founder who looked out over a vast land of many kingdoms and saw "hills and mountains, castles and cities and market towns, lakes and swamps and forests... but no borders. It is all one. One realm, for one king to rule alone." (ASOS 37: Davos IV)

This vision of Northern unity was grounded first and foremost in Winterfell as a symbol of solidarity and security that could provide protection from the Long Night. Even after the Long Night had passed, Winterfell still provided safety and subsistence during the harsh winters, and the closest thing around to a common home for all Northmen - their own version of the Dothraki's Vaes Dothrak. Following the dictates of enlightened self-interest, the Starks put themselves at the center of their own vision through the precept that "there must always be a Stark in Winterfell." It was not enough therefore, for the structure to be there; a member of House Stark had to be there to make it work - and so in this fashion, the Starks began to develop an ideological hegemony within the minds of their subjects, an inability to understand the North and their place within it without the Starks.

(Artist: Felix Sotomayor)(Artist: Felix Sotomayor)

However, the political vision of House Stark went beyond just Winterfell itself. Before long, the original promise that, in exchange for loyalty, House Stark would provide protection in one place expanded to a larger promise that House Stark would defend the entire North from common threats - hence the Starks playing a leading role in defending the North from wildling invasions, the Night's King, Ironborn invasion, and eastern pirates.

Likewise, after providing guest right at Winterfell, the Kings in the North set themselves up as the arbiters of justice throughout the North. It is likely that this began as the Starks punishing those who violated the custom of guest right:

In his text Justice and Injustice in the North: Judgments of Three Stark Lords, Maester Egbert notes that crimes in the North in which guest right was violated were rare but were invariably treated as harshly as the direst of treasons. Only kinslaying is deemed as sinful as the violations of these laws of hospitality.

The World of Ice & Fire: The North

The clans of the Northern mountains are especially famed for their adherence to the laws of hospitality ... These clans ... owe their allegiance to the Starks, but their disputes have oft created difficulties for the Lords of Winterfell and the Kings of Winter before them, forcing them to send men into the mountains to quell the bloodshed (commemorated in such songs as "Black Pines" and "Wolves in the Hills"), or to summon the chiefs to Winterfell to argue their cases.

The World of Ice & Fire: The Mountain Clans

In taking up this mantle, the Starks began the North's custom that "the man who passes the sentence must swing the sword." In the wake of the Long Night, when survival-driven violations of guest right must have been endemic, the only way to really deal with this Bronze Age social crisis is to have the local strong man enforce judgement - and only the man who had led the fight in the Battle for the Dawn would be accepted by the community as legitimate. While we tend to see Ned's belief in the Old Way as a matter of outmoded honor, there is a political purpose behind it. Having the man who passes the sentence swing the sword means that the relatives of both the victim and the perpetrator sees that the Stark-in-Winterfell personally endorses the outcome of trial, and (on a more pragmatic level) ensures that the sentence is being passed with someone with the personal and military strength to enforce their judgement and forestall vendetta, a major issue when many lords consider the sword as an effective appeal from the gavel.

As I discuss in my Hollow Crowns series, and the follow-up to it in "Hands, Kings, and City-States," the Northern emphasis on royal justice stands in stark contrast to the Targaryen kings, who neglected judicial authority in favor of dragons. In this way, the Starks more resemble real-world medieval monarchs who used the justice system to expand both their power and legitimacy at the expense of the nobility. By creating a direct link between king and subject, monarchs could begin to reverse the intermediation of feudalism, allowing subjects to appeal against their lords to the king; by giving the king responsibility for peace and order, there is a rationale for the king to extend a police presence throughout the land and intervene in private wars between lords in the name of keeping that peace. The best example of this in ASOIAF is the case of Jorah Mormont's death sentence at the hands of Ned Stark. While much of the fandom sees this as again an example of Ned's honor complex, I think they miss the political symbolism of it: where else in Westeros would a lord face the death penalty for mis-treating a peasant, or their liege lord enforce the law to the (literal hilt)? No wonder the people of the North are loyal to the Starks past death, because the Starks are justice made manifest.

Finally, the Stark kings moved beyond merely punishing crimes to a policy of ensuring and protecting the general peace throughout the realm. We can see this most clearly in its absence, when following the destruction of Winterfell Bran and co encounter a Liddle. For reasons I'll explain in the next section, it's not an accident that they encounter a hill clansman who is a descendant of one of the Starks' original bannermen, who laments that:

"When there was a Stark in Winterfell, a maiden girl could walk the kingsroad in her name-day gown and still go unmolested, and travelers could find fire, bread, and salt at many an inn and holdfast."

ASOS 25: Bran II

Here we see the two sides of the Stark vision - peace and safety on the one hand, and the custom of hospitality on the other - as one, all part of the North's conception of the good society. And the fact that the Starks' vision has become so hegemonic speaks to how suited that vision was to its land and its people.

But as we have seen so often in political history, it is not enough to have the better argument if you don't have the better battalions. And it would take the Starks thousands of years to acquire that level of power. But what makes House Stark so remarkable is that, as a corporate entity, it maintained a laser focus on the acquisition of that power across unimaginable periods of time.

Side-Note: Gaps Within the Record

A big part of the difficulty in trying to reconstruct the historical development is that, while we know a lot of Stark kings (no less than twenty-three Stark kings have been named in ASOIAF and WOAIF), we don't have a firm chronology beyond the rough order where they appear in the tombs of Winterfell:

The vault was cavernous, longer than Winterfell itself, and Jon had told him once that there were other levels underneath, vaults even deeper and darker where the older kings were buried ... He looked at the passing faces and the tales came back to him. The maester had told him the stories, and Old Nan had made them come alive. "That one is Jon Stark. When the sea raiders landed in the east, he drove them out and built the castle at White Harbor. His son was Rickard Stark, not my father's father but another Rickard, he took the Neck away from the Marsh King and married his daughter. Theon Stark's the real thin one with the long hair and the skinny beard. They called him the 'Hungry Wolf,' because he was always at war. That's a Brandon, the tall one with the dreamy face, he was Brandon the Shipwright, because he loved the sea. His tomb is empty. He tried to sail west across the Sunset Sea and was never seen again. His son was Brandon the Burner, because he put the torch to all his father's ships in grief. There's Rodrik Stark, who won Bear Island in a wrestling match and gave it to the Mormonts. And that's Torrhen Stark, the King Who Knelt. He was the last King in the North and the first Lord of Winterfell, after he yielded to Aegon the Conqueror."

AGOT 67: Bran VII

Their footsteps echoed through the cavernous crypts. The shadows behind them swallowed his father as the shadows ahead retreated to unveil other statues; no mere lords, these, but the old Kings in the North. On their brows they wore stone crowns. Torrhen Stark, the King Who Knelt. Edwyn the Spring King. Theon Stark, the Hungry Wolf. Brandon the Burner and Brandon the Shipwright. Jorah and Jonos, Brandon the Bad, Walton the Moon King, Edderion the Bridegroom, Eyron, Benjen the Sweet and Benjen the Bitter, King Edrick Snowbeard. Their faces were stern and strong, and some of them had done terrible things, but they were Starks every one, and Bran knew all their tales.

ACOK 70: Bran VII

However, this order is not exactly reliable: for example, we know that Theon the Hungry Wolf's reign coincided with the Andal invasions, which took place thousands of years ago, so it's unlikely that he was a contemporary of Torrhen. The most we can say is that we know that Brandon the Builder founded the dynasty; some years later, Brandon the Breaker fought the Night's King; Brandon the Shipwright is the father of Brandon the Burner; Jon Stark who built the Wolf's Den is the father of Rickard the Laughing Wolf who took the Neck, and Rickard is the son of Rodrik Stark who took Bear Island, and all three came after Theon Stark since Rodrik reclaimed Bear Island from Loren Greyjoy who was king after Harrag Hoare's son Ravos, who Theon had slain; Edrick Snowbear must have come after Rodrik because the Wolf's Den had already been built, and his grand-son Brandon Ice-Eyes retook the Wolf's Den from the slavers; Brandon IX likely came sometime after Ice-Eyes given how many Brandons we know about; and Harlon Stark was one of the later kings who ruled hundreds but not thousands of years ago.

That being said, the following is largely supposition that tries to align the kings we know about with various points in the larger timeline, and a more comprehensive timeline will have to await further information from GRRM.

Historical Development of the North

So how do we get from those early days, where the Starks controlled but a single castle and the lands immediately around it, to the later period, where the Starks not only held military control of but exercised true political hegemony over the North? My theory is that it all started with Brandon the Builder and Winterfell:

Maester Childer's Winter's Kings, or the Legends and Lineages of the Starks of Winterfell contains a part of a ballad alleged to tell of the time Brandon the Builder sought the aid of the children while raising the Wall. He was taken to a secret place to meet with them, but could not at first understand their speech, which was described as sounding like the song of stones in a brook, or the wind through leaves, or the rain upon the water. The manner in which Brandon learned to comprehend the speech of the children is a tale in itself, and not worth repeating here.

The World of Ice & Fire: The Dawn Age
(Artist: Chase Stone)(Artist: Chase Stone via The World of Ice & Fire)

As we have explored above, like the Wall, Winterfell began as a refuge against the Long Night, and an engine of war against the Others. And their association with Winterfell and the Wall likely gave the Starks a supernatural prominence among those who had sheltered at Winterfell or taken part in the Battle for the Dawn, similar to how the Targaryens were viewed with a quasi-religious awe. However, Winterfell also had a very practical effect that helped the Starks to expand their power beyond their immediate environs:

The most prominent towns in the North are the "winter town" beneath the walls of Winterfell and Barrowton in the Barrowlands. The former is largely empty in spring and summer but filled to bursting in autumn and winter with those seeking the protection and patronage of Winterfell to help them survive the lean times. Not only do townsmen arrive from the outlying villages and crofts, but many a son and daughter of the mountain clans have been known to make their way to the winter town when the snows begin to fall in earnest.

The World of Ice & Fire: The North

By providing a common refuge from the weather, House Stark was able to draw in clients from the mountains to the northwest. I believe that these hill clans were House Stark's first bannermen apart from the Cerwyns, Cassels and other lesser houses of Winterfell itself. For one thing, we know that the Starks' hospitality in dangerous times would have meant a great deal to the hill clans, as "the clans of the Northern mountains are especially famed for their adherence to the laws of hospitality, and the petty lords who rule these clans often vie with one another to be the most open-handed of hosts." (ibid) For another, the relatively weak terms of the feudal contract between House Stark and the hill clans suggests that it was negotiated at a weak point in the Stark's power, as we know that "These clans ... owe their allegiance to the Starks, but their disputes have oft created difficulties for the Lords of Winterfell and the Kings of Winter before them, forcing them to send men into the mountains to quell the bloodshed ... or to summon the chiefs to Winterfell to argue their cases." (ibid) Likewise, the fact that in order to raise significant numbers of hill clan soldiers, their lords have to "go to them yourself. Eat their bread and salt, drink their ale, listen to their pipers, praise the beauty of their daughters and the courage of their sons, and you'll have their swords" (ADWD 18: Jon IV) also points to this power dynamic.

The Wars for the North

However weak House Stark's hold may have been over the hill clans, their allegiance meant 3,000 swords (which, together with House Stark's own forces would have made them one of the largest forces in the land) and a presence in the northwest, both of which they used in a series of expansionary wars that would dominate the early period:

Song and story tell us that the Starks of Winterfell have ruled large portions of the lands beyond the Neck for eight thousand years, styling themselves the Kings of Winter (the more ancient usage) and (in more recent centuries) the Kings in the North. Their rule was not an uncontested one. Many were the wars in which the Starks expanded their rule or were forced to win back lands that rebels had carved away. The Kings of Winter were hard men in hard times.

Ancient ballads, amongst the oldest to be found in the archives of the Citadel of Oldtown, tell of how one King of Winter drove the giants from the North, whilst another felled the skinchanger Gaven Greywolf and his kin in "the savage War of the Wolves," but we have only the word of singers that such kings and such battles ever existed.

The World of Ice & Fire: The Kings of Winter

Not long after the Starks won the allegiance of the hill clans, I believe they turned next against their rivals to the west, the Blackwoods (who they now surrounded on two sides). We learn from WOIAF that "the Blackwoods of Raventree, whose own family traditions insist they once ruled most of the wolfswood before being driven from their lands by the Kings of Winter (certain runic records support this claim, if Maester Barneby's translations can be trusted)." (WOIAF) The fact that the Blackwoods had relocated to the Riverlands and risen high enough to become Kings of the Trident, all during the Age of Heroes, and the fact that no one in the North remembers the wolfswood as ever being named anything else, and the fact that this area has been kept close to the Starks by giving land only to the masterly houses of Glover and Tallhart, all suggests to me that the conquest of the wolfswood was early indeed.

It would also provide a geopolitical cassus belli for the second expansionary phase of the early Starks, the so-called "Thousand Years War" with the Barrow Kings. After all, the Starks would have just transformed themselves from one northern neighbor to the only Northern neighbor, and a potential rival to the claims of the Barrow Kings to be the First Kings of the North:

The rusted crown upon the arms of House Dustin derives from their claim that they are themselves descended from the First King and the Barrow Kings who ruled after him. The old tales recorded in Kennet's Passages of the Dead claim that a curse was placed on the Great Barrow that would allow no living man to rival the First King. This curse made these pretenders to the title grow corpselike in their appearance as it sucked away their vitality and life. This is no more than legend, to be sure, but that the Dustins share blood and descent from the Barrow Kings of old seems sure enough.

Barrowton, too, is somewhat of a curiosity-a gathering place built at the foot of the reputed barrow of the First King, who once ruled supreme over all the First Men, if the legends can be believed. Rising from the midst of a wide and empty plain, it has prospered thanks to the shrewd stewardship of the Dustins, loyal bannermen to the Starks, who have ruled the Barrowlands in their name since the fall of the last of the Barrow Kings.

The World of Ice & Fire: The North

Given the Barrow King's strong emphasis on their supremacy and the ancientness of their title, it stands to reason that they would have viewed the relatively recently prominent Starks as an existential threat to their claims of overlordship. For their part, the Starks would have known that, in order to unify the North they would need to incorporate this old, powerful kingdom on their southern border as well as a public demonstration that the Starks were vassals to no one and the true Kings of Winter:

More historical proof exists for the war between the Kings of Winter and the Barrow Kings to their south, who styled themselves the Kings of the First Men and claimed supremacy over all First Men everywhere, even the Starks themselves. Runic records suggest that their struggle, dubbed the Thousand Years War by the singers, was actually a series of wars that lasted closer to two hundred years than a thousand, ending when the last Barrow King bent his knee to the King of Winter, and gave him the hand of his daughter in marriage.

The World of Ice & Fire: The Kings of Winter

However long the war lasted, the victory over the Kings of Winter would have marked a major turning point for the dynasty. For the first time, an established monarchy had bent the knee and married into the Starks (adding to their legitimacy). Added to that, the relatively southerly position of the barrowlands and the earliness of their settlement likely means that they are some of the more fertile lands in the North, compounding the Starks' power. With Winterfell, the wolfswood, and the barrowlands under their control, the Starks could begin a campaign of defeating all the other petty kings of the North in detail:

Even this did not give Winterfell dominion over all the North. Many other petty kings remained, ruling over realms great and small, and it would require thousands of years and many more wars before the last of them was conquered. Yet one by one, the Starks subdued them all, and during these struggles, many proud houses and ancient lines were extinguished forever.

Amongst the houses reduced from royals to vassals we can count the Flints of Breakstone Hill, the Slates of Blackpool, the Umbers of Last Hearth, the Lockes of Oldcastle, the Glovers of Deepwood Motte, the Fishers of the Stony Shore, the Ryders of the Rills ...

Chronicles found in the archives of the Night's Watch at the Nightfort (before it was abandoned) speak of the war for Sea Dragon Point, wherein the Starks brought down the Warg King and his inhuman allies, the children of the forest. When the Warg King's last redoubt fell, his sons were put to the sword, along with his beasts and greenseers, whilst his daughters were taken as prizes by their conquerors.

House Greenwood, House Towers, House Amber, and House Frost met similar ends, together with a score of lesser houses and petty kings whose very names are lost to history.


There are several things that we can deduce from this passage: first, we can see that the Starks' strategy of divide-and-rule, of attacking petty kings "one by one" and incorporating their new vassals' strength into their armies before the next push was quite successful and gave the Starks far more resources and manpower than they could have ever had on their own. (While it's largely speculation based on House Ryswell's heraldry and House Ryder's name, I think that the Rills are a center for horse-breeding in the North, which would help to explain Barrowton's location as a livestock market-town, and thus a significant asset for anyone looking to raise cavalry troops.) Second, if the book's ordering is any judge, we can see a directionality of expansion out from the center: Deepwood Motte and Sea Dragon Point (and to the east, Last Hearth) lie at the edge of the wolfswood, the Rills and the Stony Shore and Oldcastle border the barrowlands. Third, we can see that the Starks pursued a foreign policy that combined carrots and sticks: House Greenwood, House Towers, House Amber, and House Frost were wiped out for their resistance, whereas the Umbers, Flints, Glovers, et al. were made protected vassals, and the Dustins and Warg Kings were married into (more on this in a minute).

One of the petty kings conquered in this third phase deserves special mention - the Marsh Kings, who ruled the Crannogmen of the Neck - who were conquered by Rickard Stark:

Long ago, the histories claim, the crannogmen were ruled by the Marsh Kings. Singers tell of them riding on lizard lions and using great frog spears like lances, but that is clearly fancy. Were these Marsh Kings even truly kings, as we understand it? Archmaester Eyron writes that the crannogmen saw their kings as the first among equals, who were often thought to be touched by the old gods-a fact that was said to show itself in eyes of strange hues, or even in speaking with animals as the children are said to have done.

Whatever the truth, the last man to be called Marsh King was killed by King Rickard Stark (sometimes called the Laughing Wolf in the North, for his good nature), who took the man's daughter to wife, whereupon the crannogmen bent their knees and accepted the dominion of Winterfell. In the centuries since, the crannogmen have become stout allies of the Starks, under the leadership of the Reeds of Greywater Watch.

The World of Ice & Fire: The Crannogmen of the Neck

Rickard's case is an interesting one, because he was the second in a trinity of Kings of Winter who all focused on expanding House Stark's reach to new regions: his father Jon who built the Wolf's Den as a new fiefdom loyal to Winterfell; his son Rodrik would do much the same in the west by taking Bear Island from the Ironborn and giving it to the Mormonts so that they could hold the coast for the North. Rickard's conquest of the North not only gave his kingdom the perfect defensible border, but also established a borderland of Northern identity, for however much the crannogmen were and remain somewhat a people apart, defined by a geography unknown in the rest of the North, they shared enough of the Old Ways to find a common destiny with the far-off Starks, as we can see from their unique oaths of fealty.

Side-Note: Dynastic Marriages

At the same time, the Starks' conquest of the North cannot be reduced to their single-minded obsessive drive to force dozens if not hundreds of rival kings into submission through unrelenting military campaigns. If this was the only factor behind the Starks, they would likely have petered out thousands of years ago, as their armies were bled to death and their neighbors conspired against a House who would have been seen as hostis humani generis.

So the Starks paired military conquest with dynastic marriages with other northern Houses, which they used to put a period on conquests (lest some legitimist rebel a generation later), to create stronger ties with their neighbors, and for other, more mystical purposes. We can see this trend throughout the section above - when they defeated the last of the Barrow Kings, the Stark King took his daughter to wife; when the Warg King and his sons were put to the sword, his daughters were taken as prizes; when Rickard Stark slew the last Marsh King and claimed the Neck, he sealed his victory by marrying the dead man's daughter. (This could not have made for happy marriages, one feels...)

And while the family tree we have for the Starks only goes back a few hundred years, one quick look suggests that the same thing was happening with the rest of House Stark's formerly royal vassals. Since the time of Cregan Stark's grandfather, the Starks have married the Karstarks three times, the Manderlys and Umbers and Lockes and Glovers twice, and once for the Fenns, Ryswells, Cerwyns, and Flints. In this fashion, the Starks have ensured that almost the whole of the North are their kin, in a sort of gradual version of the Gardeners' hegemony-through-kinship rooted in the common descent of most of the Houses of the Reach from Garth Greenhand.

However, there may have been a stranger purpose for many of these dynastic marriages. As we can see from the early history of the Starks, they frequently warred against non-human or magical threats to their hold on the North, be they giants, "the skinchanger Gaven Greywolf," allies of the Children of the Forest, or the Night's King. I don't think it's an accident that in the case of the Warg King and the Marsh King, that the Starks first eliminated the practitioners of skin-changing and greensight respectively and then bred their talents into the Stark line, with these forced marriages being either the origin of the Starks' modern gifts for warging and greenseeing or at the very least a reinforcing of tendencies inherited from Brandon the Builder. It's almost as if the Starks wanted to maintain a monopoly on magic in the North...

The Final Phase

The end of the third phase of expansion saw the Starks as masters of the whole of the west country, from Brandon's Gift in the north to the Neck in the south, and from the Stony Shore in the west to Last Hearth. However, the Starks were not yet masters of all of the North - they still had to deal with their major eastern rivals, the Boltons, and the campaign to bring the Red Kings to kneel to the Stark hegemony would form the fourth and final phase of Northern unification:

Yet the bitterest foes of Winterfell were undoubtedly the Red Kings of the Dreadfort, those grim lords of House Bolton whose domains of old stretched from the Last River to the White Knife, and as far south as the Sheepshead Hills.

The enmity between the Starks and Boltons went back to the Long Night itself, it is claimed. The wars between these two ancient families were legion, and not all ended in victory for House Stark. King Royce Bolton, Second of His Name, is said to have taken and burned Winterfell itself; his namesake and descendant Royce IV (remembered by history as Royce Redarm, for his habit of plunging his arm into the bellies of captive foes to pull out their entrails with his bare hand) did the same three centuries later. Other Red Kings were reputed to wear cloaks made from the skins of Stark princes they had captured and flayed.

Yet in the end, even the Dreadfort fell before the might of Winterfell, and the last Red King, known to history as Rogar the Huntsman, swore fealty to the King of Winter and sent his sons to Winterfell as hostages, even as the first Andals were crossing the narrow sea in their longships.

The World of Ice & Fire: The Kings of Winter

Compared to any of the other regional rivals, the Boltons represented the greatest challenge that the Starks would have to face. Not only did the conflict between the Kings of Winter and the Red Kings last for two thousand years (much longer than the wars with the Barrow Kings) but only the Boltons ever successfully managed to threaten Winterfell itself on no less than three occasions - burning it once under Royce II Bolton, 300 years later under Royce IV Bolton - and again in the reign of King Edrick "Snowbeard" Stark. And we can see why when we look at the former territories of the Red Kings, which once included most of the lands currently claimed by Houses Umber, Karstark, and Manderly, allowing them to draw on far more resources than they could today, likely fielding armies many times the four thousand they can currently muster. For this reason, as I'll explain later, much of House Stark's political strategy in the six thousand years since their defeat has been to contain Bolton influence in the east.

Thankfully, the last bit of information above about the Boltons' defeat under Rogar the Huntsman helps us to construct a rough timeline of the North's expansion - we know this period began eight thousand years ago after the Long Night, and was essentially complete two thousand years later with the final defeat of the Red Kings (as opposed to the various revolts of the Boltons, of which more later) when the Andals invaded Westeros. The fact that the process was this far along when the invasion came greatly aided the Starks; as we'll see in future installments, other First Men kingdoms weren't that lucky.

Indeed, it may well have been the Andal invasion that prompted Rogar to give in, and it may well also have been Theon Stark who was the King who completed the conquest of the North, as we learn that "King Theon Stark, known to history as the Hungry Wolf, turned back the greatest of these threats, making common cause with the Boltons to smash the Andal warlord Argos Sevenstar at the Battle of the Weeping Water." (ibid) Given that the Weeping Water is at the very heart of Bolton territory, it may well be that the sudden threat from the East forced a reconsideration of the benefits and costs of independence from the rest of the North.

Conquest and Consolidation

With the fall of the Boltons, the Starks were now hegemonic throughout the North, bringing a successful end to a multi-thousand-year-long political project. In turn, this means that the Starks' political project would have to shift to defending what they'd won and (in the process) to extend their kingdom's grasp to the very limits of the North, in the process helping to further define what the North is.

And no Stark defined this epoch in the historical development of the North as much as King Theon Stark, the Hungry Wolf. It is said that the Kings of Winter were "hard men for hard times," and no one was harder than he, both for good and ill. Theon had already made his reputation as a warrior by bringing the Boltons to their knees when he was immediately called upon to defend his realm against new foreign threats:

After the defeat of the Boltons, the last of their Northern rivals, the greatest threats to the dominion of House Stark came by sea. The northern boundary of the Stark domains was protected by the Wall and the men of the Night's Watch, whilst to the south, the only way through the swamps of the Neck passed below the ruined towers and sinking walls of the great fortress called Moat Cailin. Even when the Marsh Kings held the Moat, their crannogmen stood staunch against any invaders from the south, allying with the Barrow Kings, Red Kings, and Kings of Winter as need be to turn back any southron lord who sought to attack the North. And once King Rickard Stark added the Neck to his domain, Moat Cailin proved even more imposing-a bulwark against the powers of the south. Few sought to push past it, and the histories say that none ever succeeded.

The North's long, ragged coastlines, both to the east and the west, remained vulnerable, however; it would be there where the rule of Winterfell would be most oft threatened ... by ironborn in the west and Andals in the east.

The World of Ice & Fire: The Kings of Winter

To meet the threat of the Andals was the common fate of a generation of First Men Kings, and each responded in their own fashion. While Theon engaged in the same defensive warfare that many other kings turned to - aided hugely, as we have said before, by the acquisition of Moat Cailin, which completely prevented the Andals from bringing their land forces to bear as they did in the Riverlands - his primary innovation was an aggressive offensive that relied on the use of terror as a central tactic:

Crossing the narrow sea in their hundreds and thousands, the longships of the Andals made landings in the North just as they did to the south, but wherever they came ashore, the Starks and their bannermen fell upon them and drove them back into the sea. King Theon Stark, known to history as the Hungry Wolf, turned back the greatest of these threats, making common cause with the Boltons to smash the Andal warlord Argos Sevenstar at the Battle of the Weeping Water.

In the aftermath of his victory, King Theon raised his own fleet and crossed the narrow sea to the shores of Andalos, with Argos's corpse lashed to the prow of his flagship. There, it is said, he took a bloody vengeance, burning a score of villages, capturing three tower houses and a fortified sept, and putting hundreds to the sword. The heads of the slain the Hungry Wolf claimed as prizes, carrying them back to Westeros and planting them on spikes along his own coasts as a warning to other would-be conquerors.


With Moat Cailin preventing the Andals from establishing a land foothold to the south, the Starks forced the Andals into all-or-nothing amphibious landings where they could be turned back decisively and quite literally pushed into the sea. However, Theon went far beyond that to launch punitive raids on Andalos (also showing a rare attention to naval power) that went far beyond immediate military objectives - the tower houses and fortified sept - to sow fear among the Andal population at large on both sides of the Narrow Sea. Lashing the dead to the prow of his ships and lining his eastern shores with hundreds of heads on spikes is honestly rather reminiscent of some of Euron's tactics, which speaks to the human cost paid for Northern independence.

We might ask ourselves whether Theon Stark's actions fall within Machiavelli's maxim that "he who quells disorder by a very few signal examples will in the end be more merciful than he who from too great leniency permits things to take their course and so to result in rapine and bloodshed." After the time of Theon Stark, we don't hear of any further Andal invasions of the North, suggesting that future bloodshed was avoided through the creation of a legend of the fearsome Kings of Winter and the Northern ferocity that would await any attempt to land on the (vulnerable) eastern shore. Likewise, when considering the violence done to the Andals, we have to include in our calculations not only the damage done to First Men civilians during the initial invasions but also the kind of ongoing violence we see inflicted upon and by the mountain clans of the Vale.

The Worthless War

On the other hand, we can see the limitations of Theon's militarism when it came to the case of the "Worthless War" against the Vale. While the Hungry Wolf's aggression stood him in good stead when it came to things like him squashing "a rebellion in the Rills, and join[ing] the Night's Watch in an incursion beyond the Wall that broke the power of the wildlings for a generation," all of which strengthened the North, the problem is that Theon Stark didn't know when to stop or how to assess the value of his conquests in comparison to the costs he and his countrymen paid for them:

Later in his blood-drenched reign, he himself conquered the Three Sisters and landed an army on the Fingers, but these conquests did not long endure.

The World of Ice & Fire: The Kings of Winter

The last isles to be wedded to the Vale were the Three Sisters. For thousands of years, these islands had boasted their own cruel kings, pirates and raiders ... These depredations finally led the Kings of Winter to send their own war fleets to seek dominion over the Sisters-for whoever holds the Three Sisters holds the Bite.

The Rape of the Three Sisters is the name by which the Northern conquest of the islands is best known. The Chronicles of Longsister ascribe many horrors to that conquest: wild Northmen killing children to fill their cooking pots, soldiers drawing the entrails from living men to wind them about spits, the executions of three thousand warriors in a single day at the Headman's Mount, Belthasar Bolton's Pink Pavilion made from the flayed skins of a hundred Sistermen...

How far these tales can be trusted is uncertain, but it is worth noting that these atrocities, whilst oft mentioned in accounts of the war written by men from the Vale, go largely unmentioned in Northern chronicles. It cannot be denied, however, that the rule of the Northmen was onerous enough to the Sistermen for them to send their surviving lords scurrying to the Eyrie to plead for help from the King of Mountain and Vale ...

He never returned, but his sons carried on the war after him. For a thousand years, Winterfell and the Eyrie contested for the rule of the Three Sisters. The Worthless War, some dubbed it. Time and time again the fighting seemed at an end, only to flare up once more a generation later. The islands changed hands more than a dozen times. Thrice the Northmen landed on the Fingers. The Arryns sent a fleet up the White Knife to burn the Wolf's Den, and the Starks replied by attacking Gulltown and burning hundreds of ships in their wroth when the city walls proved too strong for them.

In the end the Arryns emerged victorious ... "This was not a case of the Eyrie winning so much as Winterfell losing interest," Archmaester Perestan observes in A Consideration of History. "For ten long centuries the direwolf and the falcon had fought and bled over three rocks, until one day the wolf awoke as from a dream and realized it was only stone between his teeth, whence he spat it out and walked away."

The World of Ice & Fire: The Vale

While the history of the Worthless War goes far beyond Theon's own story, given that the conflict lasted from approximately 6000 BC (Before Conquest) to 5000 BC, it is instructive how much the Hungry Wolf set the tone for the conflict. To begin with, we see a common strategic focus - control over the Three Sisters, with "the islands chang[ing] hands more than a dozen times," and an attempt to invade the Vale through the Fingers no less than three times. Interestingly, the Starks don't seem to have attempted a landing on the Vale's vulnerable eastern flank outside of an inconclusive assault on Gulltown. More importantly, to the extent that we can trust the Longsister Chronicles, Theon Stark imported the same terror strategy that he used against the Andal invaders of the North against the Andal rulers of the Vale, joining together with Balthasar Bolton (possibly the son of Rogar the Huntsman?) - yet another sign that the Kings of Winter were willing to embrace the legends of Northern barbarism for their advantage, and that (to an extent) the differences between Stark and Bolton may have been more of degree than kind.

Given a peripheral strategy and the built-up resentment of massacre, it's not surprising that the war with the Arryns continued for a thousand years or got very ugly on both sides. The men of the Sisters and the Fingers would have good reason (however based in propaganda) to hate the Starks, and the men of the eastern regions of the North would no doubt feel the same in the aftermath of the Arryns' retaliatory raids on the Wolf's Den on top of the piracy and raiding that the poor oppressed Sistermen had already been doing.

The political ramification of this conflict was twofold: first, for a thousand years, much of the North's blood and treasure were squandered in a long-term conflict with the Arryns that brought nothing to the North. (The same is true of the Vale, which might help to explain why the Andal invaders had less luck with more organized kingdoms like the Westerlands and the Reach, if their main ally was feeling the same pressure.) Second, and the two are linked, is that Stark influence was contained in the Bite and didn't spread to the Vale, at a time when the Andal conquest of that region was recent and potentially could have been reversed in favor of the First Men who instead became the penniless and downtrodden mountain clans.

Enemy to the West: The Ironborn

While the war with the Vale was described mostly as a war of choice that spiraled out of control from an initially limited attempt to shore up their eastern flank, Theon Stark's campaigns against the Ironborn on his west coast are explicitly described as having been "forced upon him" and were a clear case of a war of necessity. Eliminating the reaving bases not only spared the western coast from violence in the short-term but also prevented the North as a whole from suffering the conquest that the Riverlands would suffer at the hands of the Hoare kings. And in a classic case of doing well by doing good, it also expanded House Stark's grasp to the very margin of the North:

King Theon also fought the ironborn in the west, driving them from Cape Kraken and Bear Island ... The west coast of the North has also oft been beset by reavers, and several of the Hungry Wolf's wars were forced upon him when longships out of Great Wyk, Old Wyk, Pyke, and Orkmont descended upon his western coasts beneath the banners of Harrag Hoare, King of the Iron Islands. For a time the Stony Shore did fealty to Harrag and his ironmen, swathes of the wolfswood were nothing but ashes, and Bear Island was a base for reaving, ruled by Harrag's black-hearted son, Ravos the Raper. Though Theon Stark slew Ravos with his own hand, and expelled the ironmen from his shores, they would return under Harrag's grandson, Erich the Eagle, and again under the Old Kraken, Loron Greyjoy, who retook both Bear Island and Cape Kraken (King Rodrik Stark reclaimed the first of those after the Old Kraken's death, whilst his sons and grandsons battled for the latter). The wars between the North and the ironborn would continue thereafter, but less decisively.

The World of Ice & Fire: The Kings of Winter

Theon's campaigns clearly had their limitations, however, postponing Ironborn violence for only a generation or two at most, ensuring that the North would continue to experience ongoing conflict. The dynamics of this conflict were designed for stalemate: as we see with the case of Theon Stark and Rodrik Stark, the Ironborn never were capable of defending territory against a determined push against the Starks:

The histories of the North claim that Rodrik Stark won Bear Island back from the ironborn in a wrestling match, and perhaps there is truth to this tale; the kings of the Iron Isles were often moved to prove their prowess and their right to wear the driftwood crown with feats of strength. More sober scholars call this into question, suggesting that if there was "wrestling," it was with words.

The World of Ice & Fire: The Mountain Clans

This particular sober scholar is more of the opinion that Rodrik won Bear Island through force of arms rather than arm. We can also see the strength of the same model that led to the creation of the Wolf's Den and White Harbor: once Rodrik Stark gave Bear Island to a strong house like the Mormonts (following a similar model as with Manderly, it remained as an Northern stronghold from that day on. At the very least, it meant that the Ironborn would raid Bear Island instead of raiding the coast from Bear Island.

At the same time, however, persistent naval weakness on the west coast proved to be the Achilles' heel of the Starks on the West. This is where the fragmentary timeline becomes confusing: we know that Brandon the Shipwright was known for building many ships on the western coast and that Brandon the Burner destroyed them, such that "we have had no strength at sea for hundreds of years, since Brandon the Burner put the torch to his father's ships." (ACOK 17: Bran II) However, we don't know exactly when this happened, given ASOIAF characters' problems with historical chronology, and we don't have much of a sense of the status quo beforehand, although Theon and Rodrik Stark must have had enough naval strength to make the crossing to Bear Island. Likewise, we learn in the Ironborn section of WOIAF that within a hundred years of the initial loss of Bear Island (presumably to Theon Stark), "Balon V Greyjoy, called Coldwind, destroyed the feeble fleets of the King in the North." However, the timelines don't match up - Theon Coldwind is described as one of the Driftwood Kings elected at kingsmoot, well before the arrival of the Andals, whereas Theon Stark was a contemporary of the Andal invasion. Regardless of the chronology, Stark naval weakness seems to have been the norm, leading to a status quo of endless raiding along the western coast:

The clans of the Northern mountains ... Their hatred of the wildlings is matched only by their hatred of the men of the Iron Islands, who have often raided along the shore of the bay, burning their halls, carrying off their crops, and taking their wives and daughters as thralls and salt wives. Large tracts of the Stony Shore, Bear Island, Sea Dragon Point, and Cape Kraken have all been held by ironmen at times. Indeed, Cape Kraken, closest to the Iron Islands, has changed hands so many times that many maesters believe its populace to be closer in blood to the ironmen than to Northmen.

The World of Ice & Fire: The Mountain Clans

However, in an eerie parallel to Balon Greyjoy's doomed conquest of the North, the Ironborn never could make any part of the North Ironborn - partially due to the Stark's superiority on land, but partially also due to the Ironborn conceptions of social caste that we will discuss in a future essay. Thus, however much the people of Cape Kraken might be ironmen in blood, their identity is Northern - hence the Flints of Flint's Finger fighting for Robb Stark rather than Balon Greyjoy.

As with the long-running conflict with the Vale, however, the long-running conflict with the Ironborn had a long-term impact on the political development of the North - namely, containing its influence and geopolitical concerns to its western and eastern borders. Whereas the ambitions of the Westerlands, the Reach, the Stormlands, the Iron Islands, and Dorne grew larger once those kingdoms had unified behind a competent dynasty, the North seems to have gone the other direction, withdrawing from the struggle for control of the continent. Indeed, it may well be that the Northern reputation for isolationism dates from this period, when the Kings of Winter reached the limits of Theon Stark's approach and turned inwards to deal with their own problems.

Wildling Invasions

And it's not as if the North didn't have concerns of its own to deal with - even when they had managed to withdraw from the Worthless War with the Vale or reduce the Ironborn to a peripheral nuisance rather than an existential threat, the Starks still had to deal with the wildling threat. And while our sources on these conflicts are somewhat sporadic and largely based on oral history, it does seem that (just as the Night's Watch's mission changed over time from protecting the realms of men from the White Walkers to protecting them from the wildlings) House Stark became the key mobilizing force that ensured that the Kings-Beyond-the-Wall would be turned back time and again.

(Artist: Filip Storch)(Artist: Filip Storch)

For example, we know that the Stark in Winterfell at the time of Joramun was known as Brandon the Breaker - and while it's possible that this name refers only to his actions in bringing down the Night's King (we know that Brandon was responsible for "obliterate[ing] the Night's King's very name from memory," the fact that Joramun is counted among those who "broke his strength on the Wall, or was broken by the power of Winterfell on the far side" despite the fact that he had the Horn of Winter on his side suggests that Brandon may well have gotten his name from breaking the power of the wildlings. We then learn that, approximately two thousand years later, Theon the Hungry Wolf was involved in an expedition beyond the Wall, showing that the Starks' military strategy continued to be an aggressive one for some time. However, something seems to have changed in the period after the wildling invasion, likely as a result of increasing demands on Winterfell to devote military resources to its western, eastern, and southern borders, because the strategy clearly shifted:

The brothers Gendel and Gorne were joint kings three thousand years ago. Leading their host down beneath the earth into a labyrinth of twisting subterranean caverns, they passed beneath the Wall unseen to attack the North. Gorne slew the Stark king in battle, then was killed in turn by the king's heir, and Gendel and his remaining wildlings fled back to their caverns, never to been seen again.

The Horned Lord would follow them, a thousand years after (or perhaps two). His name is lost to history, but he was said to have used sorcery to pass the Wall. After him, centuries later, came Bael the Bard, whose songs are still sung beyond the Wall... but there are questions as to whether he truly existed or not. The wildlings say he did and credit many songs to his name, but the old chronicles of Winterfell say nothing of him. Whether this was due to the defeats and humiliations he was said to have visited upon them (including, according to one improbable story, deflowering a Stark maid and getting her with child) or because he never existed, we cannot truly say ...

The last King-Beyond-the-Wall to cross the Wall was Raymun Redbeard, who brought the wildlings together in 212 or 213 AC. It was not until 226 AC that he and the wildlings would breach the Wall by climbing in their hundreds and thousands up the slick ice and down the other side.

Raymun's host numbered in the thousands, by all accounts, and they fought their way as far south as Long Lake. There, Lord Willam Stark and the Drunken Giant, Lord Harmond of House Umber, brought their armies against them. With two hosts surrounding him, and the lake to his back, Redbeard fought and died, but not before slaying Lord Willam.

The World of Ice & Fire: The Wildlings

In both the case of Gendel and Gorne, the Horned Lord, and Bael the Bard we see the Wall breaking down as the North's first line of defense against wildling invasions, requiring the Kings of Winter to step up and coordinate the nation's defense at no small cost to itself as the deaths of two Stark Kings (and at least one Stark Lord attest.1 Indeed, as we've already discussed, it may well be this role (building naturally from their role as protectors against the Others) that helped the Starks to build a following among (at the very least) the hill clans of the North and the Umbers, who bear the brunt of wildling invasions.

At the same time, we can also see why the Starks and the North have invested so much in maintaining the Wall and the Night's Watch as an effective force - the stronger the Watch, the less the Starks and their vassals have to die fighting wildlings. The timing of Stark expansionism is hard to reconcile with Brandon's Gift supposedly being deeded to the Watch by the Builder, but what is clear is that this was an act of royal munificence: while not the most fertile land in the world, Brandon's Gift alone works out to 16.5 million acres of land (which, if we're going to go by American homesteading standards, should be able to support 100,000 households). The Starks' example has established a pattern for the North, and as Maester Yandel says, "Only the fact that the Northmen themselves greatly honor the Watch has kept it functioning, and a great part of the food that keeps the black brothers of Castle Black, the Shadow Tower, and Eastwatch-by-the-Sea from starving comes not from the Gift but from the yearly gifts these Northern lords deliver to the Wall in token of their support." (WOIAF)

Torrhen Stark and the North's Incorporation into Westeros

Unfortunately, while we know roughly what happened to the Starks for a thousand years after the Andal invasion, we enter something of a historical black hole when it comes to the period between -5000 AC and the Targaryen Conquest. And not coincidentally, once the Targaryen Conquest happens and the North is incorporated into the rest of Westeros, we suddenly get a lot more historical information on the Starks - beginning with King Torrhen Stark, the King Who Knelt.

Torrhen is an interesting case, because he seems to be something of a break from Stark norms. To begin with, he seems to have been a rather deliberative monarch, as we learn that the first thing he did upon receiving Aegon Targaryen's missive was to, "even in the North, King Torrhen Stark of Winterfell sat with his lords bannermen and counselors late into the night, discussing what was to be done about this would-be conqueror." (WOIAF) This consultative approach to politics is rather unusual for the Starks we have known, who have tended to turn to their subjects after declaring war. The reference later in the story to his having no less than three maesters on staff suggests a king committed to knowledge and statecraft, akin to the Beauclercs of medieval history who harnessed literacy to the benefit of the crown.

Torrhen also seems to have been a rather able commander when it comes to the oft-overlooked areas of logistics and maneuver. Given that Aegon's war for Westeros was centered in the middle of the continent, "King Torrhen called his banners; given the vast distances in the North, he knew that assembling an army would take time." But despite the challenges of time and space, the King in the North seems to have overcome them in dramatic fashion: "Torrhen Stark, King in the North, had crossed the Neck and entered the riverlands, leading an army of savage Northmen thirty thousand strong. Aegon at once started north to meet him." (ibid) Somehow, Torrhen was able to raise an army more than a third larger than Robb Stark's force in the War of the Five Kings and get it into enemy territory before Aegon could move his resources to block an invasion, which speaks to his skill in battle.

At the same time, however, I think the end of this battle was somewhat overdetermined. Even without "Balerion, Meraxes, and Vhagar prowl[ing] the sky in ever-widening circles," at the end of the day, an army outnumbered 2:3 wasn't going to prevail in a pitched battle. This army that represented virtually the whole of Northern manhood of military age was up against a force of "Riverlords, westermen, stormlanders, men of the Reach" which represented only a little more than a tenth of the military resources of the Targaryen monarchy. Geography nailed the lid shut on the coffin - even if the dragons hadn't existed, even if the numbers had been more even, attacking across a contested river-crossing is an excellent opportunity to have your army chopped into pieces, as landing forces can be easily overwhelmed, surrounded, and then pushed back into the water.

But as with all battles that might have been, history offers a potential alternative. While Northern valor would have likely bled out on the riverbanks and a stand at Moat Cailin would have ended with a slightly soggy re-enactment of the burning of Harrenhal, Brandon Snow's alternative has more merit. (Indeed, it's interesting how close Torrhen seems to have been with his bastard brother, suggesting that the dynastic dynamics that Catelyn Stark would have predicted were not present. Although perhaps Brandon's use of weirwood arrows suggests that this Snow was more interested in Bran Stark's shamanistic path than political power.) Aegon Targaryen's conquest was accompanied by popular acclaim, but had always rested on a foundation of dracocracy - if his three dragons had been assassinated "under cover of darkness" mere hours before the battle, an army composed mostly of Aegon's former enemies would not have held together likely reversing the Targaryen's advantage.

(Artist: Chase Stone via The World of Ice & Fire)(Artist: Chase Stone via The World of Ice & Fire)

This would have been a gamble with 30,000 lives, however, and Torrhen proved himself to be more of a diplomat than a gambler: "King Torrhen did send Brandon Snow across the Trident. But he crossed with three maesters by his side, not to kill but to treat. All through the night messages went back and forth." (WOIAF) Uniquely in the history of the Targaryen Conquest, the Starks joined the realm through a process of negotiation rather than complete obliteration or unconditional surrender, although what the terms of that negotiation were beyond the exchange of a crown for the title of "Lord of Winterfell and Warden of the North" were, we don't exactly know.

To this end, Torrhen Stark deserves the commendation due to a commander who refuses to get tens of thousands of his own men killed fighting a hopeless battle - something that unfortunately few people in the history of Westeros can claim credit for. And there is a long-term historical impact to his decision to bend the knee at the Trident: unlike the Hoares or the Gardeners or the Durrandons, the Starks would continue to govern the North and influence the terms of what union with the rest of Westeros would mean. The Targaryens might now be the kings on the coins, but for the average Northerner, the simple fact of distance and feudal political structures meant that life went on much as it had done for thousands of years, with a Stark in Winterfell holding the day-to-day power of governance. We might even say that, unlike the Dornish, whose independence was bought with burned flesh and broken castles, through the actions of Torrhen the North got independence in all but name, for free.

The North in Westeros - From the Conquest to the War of Five Kings

One useful corrective that the WOIAF has given us is to explain that the coming of the Targaryens did not necessarily end the distinctive nationalisms of the various kingdoms of Westeros (a running theme in this series, as we shall see). Aegon had conquered, but in a feudal world that meant loyalty to the man, not necessarily to the system:

When the Dragon passed at the age of four-and-sixty, his reign had been uncontested by all save the Dornishmen. He had ruled wisely: showing himself well during his royal progresses, displaying due deference to the High Septons, rewarding those who served well, and aiding those who required it. Yet beneath the surface of this largely peaceful rule was a roiling cauldron of dissent. In their hearts, many of his subjects still cherished the old days, when the great houses ruled their own domains with unquestioned sovereignty.

The World of Ice & Fire: Aenys I

Targaryen loyalism and Westerosi identity came very slowly, and this was especially true in the North, which was so far removed from the symbols of royal authority - the walls of King's Landing, the Aegonfort and the still-in-construction Red Keep, the Iron Throne itself - and its practical reality. And in the North, we learn that this enduring nationalism was given voice by Torrhen Stark's own sons, "less glad of the Targaryen yoke, and some among them entertained talk of rebelling, and of raising the Stark banner whether Lord Torrhen consented or not." (WOIAF) Two things are worth remarking on here: first, as one might expect in a feudal system, generational conflicts were exacerbated by the fact that Torrhen's political decision (symbolically, at least) disinherited his son. Second, the use of the phrase "the Targaryen yoke" is clearly inspired by the "Norman yoke" invoked by Parliamentarians in the 17th century to contrast the tyranny of Charles II with an imagined era of Anglo-Saxon liberty. This suggests something of the level of intensity of anti-Targaryen sentiment in the first century AC.

And the Starks had a personal reason for resentment of Targaryen government - the Iron Throne had meddled with their family. As part of a fascinating move by Rhaenys Targaryen to "knit together the new, single realm with marriages between the great houses" (and one wonders which other Houses were included in this effort), Torrhen Stark's daughter's hand in marriage was requisitioned by royal decree:

Whether anti-Targaryen feelings were made worse by Queen Rhaenys Targaryen's efforts to knit together the new, single realm with marriages between the great houses is left to the reader to consider. That Torrhen Stark's daughter was wed to the young and ill-fated Lord of the Vale is well-known; it was one of the many peace-binding marriages forged by Rhaenys. But there are letters preserved at the Citadel suggesting that Stark accepted these arrangements only after much protest, and that the bride's brothers refused to attend the wedding entirely.

The World of Ice & Fire: The Lords of Winterfell

As we have seen with Robert's Rebellion, to marry off a daughter of House Stark without the consent of the Lord of Winterfell (and in this case to one of the historic enemies of their House) is a big deal. However well-intentioned Rhaenys' efforts may have been, it does seem to have been a rare case where the Targaryen queen's normal political savvy deserted her, producing the opposite effect as intended. It certainly wouldn't have helped when, in 37 AC, Ronnel Arryn was murdered in an act of rebellion that likely resulted in the death of his Stark wife as well.

This likely resulted in an extended alienation from the central monarchy; while their religious affiliation would have certainly meant that the Starks weren't about to join the Revolt of the Faithful, the Starks had no reason to fight for Maegor or Prince Aegon or anyone else. And while we have no evidence of any formal secession, it's quite possible that the Starks made use of their geographic isolation to spend a number of years in effective independence (taxes withheld while the succession was "in dispute," ravens bearing royal decrees experiencing unprecedented levels of attrition, etc.). Certainly, this would explain the rather extraordinary actions taken by King Jaehaerys and Queen Alysanne in the aftermath of the conflicts of Maegor's reign.

(Artist: Emile Denis)(Artist: Emile Denis)

Alysanne's royal progress to the Wall was, as far as we can tell, the first time that a Targaryen had ever visited the North. When it comes to the symbolism and political impact of the event, I would refer you to Nina Friel's excellent work on the topic, but it certainly entrenched the feeling of alienation and resentment left over from Aegon's reign:

And the Night's Watch came to rename the castle of Snowgate in her honor, dubbing it Queensgate instead. They did this in thanks for the treasure in jewels she gave them to pay for the construction of a new castle, Deep Lake, to replace the huge and ruinously costly Nightfort, and for her role in winning them the New Gift that bolstered their flagging strength.

The World of Ice & Fire: Jaehaerys I

Though in these days it is said that Lord Ellard Stark was glad to aid the Night's Watch with the Gift, and took little convincing, the truth is otherwise. Letters from Lord Stark's brother to the Citadel, asking the maesters to provide precedents against the forced donation of property, made it plain that the Starks were not eager to do as King Jaehaerys bid. It may be that the Starks feared that, under the control of the Castle Black, the New Gift would inevitably decline-for the Night's Watch would always look northward and never give much thought to their new tenants to the south. And as it happens, that soon came to pass, and the New Gift is now said to be largely unpopulated thanks to the decline of the Watch and the rising toll taken by raiders from beyond the Wall.

The World of Ice & Fire: The Lords of Winterfell

Later still, it was said that the Starks were bitter at the Old King and Queen Alysanne for having forced them to carve away the New Gift and give it the Night's Watch; this may be one reason for why Lord Ellard Stark sided with Corlys Velaryon and Princess Rhaenys at the Great Council of 101 AC.


Ironically, Alysanne may have succeeded in a way that she didn't anticipate. While the forced handover of the New Gift increased Stark resentment toward the Targaryens, rather than provoking a rebellion or later on a bid for independence during the Dance of the Dragons, the Starks retaliated from within the system by supporting Laenor Velaryon during the Great Council - interfering with Jaehaerys' plans for succession in the same way that the Targaryens had interfered with the North. Happy or not, the Starks were now a part of the polity of Westeros, as they would demonstrate during the Dance of Dragons.

The Dance and its aftermath represent a fascinating, if still ambiguous, moment in the history of the North in Westeros. For the first time in Westerosi history, the North was fully involved in continental politics, as among "Rhaenyra's chief supporters were ... Lord Stark." Cregan Stark's support did not come without a price, however, as when the greens came calling for his assistance:

Lord Cregan Stark reaped many rewards for his loyal support of King Aegon III... even if it was not a royal princess marrying into his family, as had been agreed in the Pact of Ice and Fire made when the doomed prince Jacaerys Velaryon had flown to Winterfell upon his dragon.

The World of Ice & Fire: The Lords of Winterfell

We can dismiss Mushroom's claim in his Testimony that the dragon Vermax left a clutch of eggs somewhere in the depths of Winterfell's crypts, where the waters of the hot springs run close to the walls, while his rider treated with Cregan Stark at the start of the Dance of the Dragons.

The World of Ice & Fire: Winterfell

The Pact of Ice and Fire is to my eyes one of the most fascinating mysteries introduced by The World of Ice & Fire, linked as it is to the prophecy of the Prince Who Was Promised and the Reeds' relationship to House Stark. The fact that it involved a Targaryen princess marrying into House Stark is telling - the Starks have tended to almost exclusively marry First Men families, even when marrying outside of the North, as if trying to maintain their connection to the Old Gods as the Valyrians tried to keep sorcery in the bloodline; on the other hand, the Starks have a history of trying to incorporate magic into their bloodline, so maybe there was some long-term plan to incorporate the Targaryen gifts into their own line? This would certainly explain why (if it happened) Jacaerys left a clutch of dragon eggs - it would serve as a sign of good faith that the marriage would go forward, a method of telling if and when the Targaryen traits had bred true into the Stark line, and in the midst of a civil war where dragons were a decisive strategic factor it would give the blacks a secure fall-back position. And at the same time we have to ask - what were the many rewards that Cregan Stark "reaped" in the absence of a royal princess? (The answer, as with so many Stark mysteries will probably have to wait for the She-Wolves of Winterfell...)

And this is only the first thing we learn about Cregan Stark, one of the most fascinating Starks ever and a man who exemplified the Targaryen period of the North in the same way that Theon exemplified the Kings of Winter. To begin with, Cregan Stark seems to have been, like Torrhen Stark, a ruler who combined the traditional emphasis on skill at arms (given his later duel with Aemon Dragonknight) with a keen understanding of logistics, statecraft, and politics. Thus, "his help was slow in coming, as he kept every man to harvest what they could before winter fell on the North." Privileging the good of the North against any abstract consideration of loyalty or honor, Cregan clearly considered the winter to be the more important front to be fought, and remained in the North, behavior we don't normally associate with Starks.

Instead, he turned to Roderick Dustin to lead an advance guard of some two thousand men to make good on House Stark's promises (and to rid the North of two thousand mouths to feed). In Roddy the Ruin, Cregan Stark had clearly found a general uniquely gifted in what must be, given the way that Northern armies are described in ASOIAF, the North's traditional style of shock tactics:

The bloodiest land battle of the Dance of the Dragons began the next day, with the rising of the sun. In the annals of the Citadel it is known as the Battle by the Lakeshore, but to those men who lived to tell of it, it was always the Fishfeed ... By nightfall two thousand men were dead ... The most grievous losses were suffered by the northmen, for the Winter Wolves had begged the honor of leading the attack, and had charged five times into the ranks of Lannister spears. More than two thirds of the men who had ridden south with Lord Dustin were dead or wounded.

The Princess and the Queen

The [Butcher's Ball] was as one-sided as any in the Dance. Lord Roderick Dustin raised a warhorn to his lips and sounded the charge, and the queen's men came screaming down the ridge, led by the Winter Wolves on their shaggy northern horses and the knights on their armored destriers. When Ser Criston was struck down and fell dead upon the ground, the men who had followed him from Harrenhal lost heart. They broke and fled, casting aside their shields as they ran. Their foes came after, cutting them down by the hundreds.


Of the Battle of Tumbleton we know much and more, however. Six thousand of the queen's men formed up to face Lord Hightower in the field, and fought bravely for a time, but a withering rain of arrows from Lord Ormund's archers thinned their ranks, and a thunderous charge by his heavy horse broke them, sending the survivors running back toward the town walls. When most of the survivors were safe inside the gates, Roddy the Ruin and his Winter Wolves sallied forth from a postern gate, screaming their terrifying northern war cries as they swept around the left flank of the attackers. In the chaos that ensued, the northmen fought their way through ten times their own number to where Lord Ormund Hightower sat his warhorse beneath King Aegon's golden dragon and the banners of Oldtown and the Hightower. As the singers tell it, Lord Roderick was blood from head to heel as he came on, with splintered shield and cracked helm, yet so drunk with battle that he did not even seem to feel his wounds. Ser Bryndon Hightower, Lord Ormund's cousin, put himself between the northman and his liege, taking off the Ruin's shield arm at the shoulder with one terrible blow of his longaxe... yet the savage Lord of Barrowton fought on, slaying both Ser Bryndon and Lord Ormund before he died.


Indeed, I would argue that the North's part in the Dance of the Dragons was one of the two most consequential interventions in that conflict, vying for the honor with the Riverlanders. In all of the battles in which the Winter Wolves participated, they proved decisive: at the Fishfeed, they removed the Westerlands from the Dance; at the Butcher's Ball, they slew the green's Hand and forced a rout; at First Tumbleton, even in tactical defeat they managed a strategic victory by eliminating the greens' leadership so that no one was left to push on to King's Landing.

Thus, by the time that Cregan arrived in the south with his "army of childless and homeless men, unwed men, old men, and younger sons," he had already won his war. And so for the first time in the history of Westeros, a Stark now ruled in King's Landing:

The poisoning of King Aegon II had denied them that chance. Lord Stark still marched his army into King's Landing, but to a much different outcome. He had planned to punish Storm's End, Oldtown, and Casterly Rock for having supported the king. But Lord Corlys had already sent envoys to the Rock and Storm's End and Oldtown, suing for peace. For six days, while the court waited for news of Lord Corlys's success or failure and the realm trembled at the thought of more war, Lord Cregan Stark held sway at court. This came to be known as the Hour of the Wolf.

Yet in one thing, Lord Stark would not be dissuaded: the betrayers and poisoners of King Aegon II must pay the price. To kill a cruel and unjust king in lawful battle was one thing. But foul murder, and the use of poison, was a betrayal against the very gods who had anointed him. Cregan had twenty-two men arrested in Aegon III's name-among them Larys Clubfoot and Corlys Velaryon. Cowed, the young Aegon III-who was eleven at the time-agreed to make Lord Stark his Hand.

Cregan Stark served in that office for a single day, presiding over the trials and executions. Most of the accused took the black (led by the cunning Ser Perkin the Flea). Two alone chose death-Ser Gyles Belgrave of the Kingsguard, who did not wish to outlive his king, and Larys the Clubfoot, the last of the ancient line of House Strong.

The World of Ice & Fire: Aegon III

The Hour of the Wolf is a much-mythologized event, with Cregan cast in the role of the typical Stark - primarily concerned about honor and law, uninterested in political machinations or personal gain, an outsider who comes and goes in a cloud of rowdy barbarians. However, I think this interpretation, largely founded in southron prejudices, falls at the first hurdle, because the Cregan Stark it portrays is not the canny and coolheaded Lord of Winterfell who fleeced Jacaerys and sent Roddy the Ruin to battle in his stead, who seized the capital and installed himself as Hand of the King through sheer force of personality, and who systematically purged anyone who might challenge his power at court.

Several of Cregan Stark's political moves suggest a man who, far from being the First Coming of Ned the Honorable, played the game of thrones at a very high level indeed. While the pardoning of Corlys Velaryon is normally attributed to the "machinations" of two scheming women, it was Cregan Stark who benefited and who had the ultimate say in the matter. Moreover, when Cregan Stark left King's Landing, far from eagerly sloughing off all political power, he left behind Torrhen Manderly to serve both as a member of the council of regents and Hand of the King - so rather than Northern influence in King's Landing being only a six-day affair, it endured for at least six years.

If Cregan Stark resembles any other Stark, I would argue instead that he resembles the savvy Lord Rickard Stark, a political wheeler and dealer comfortable with southron politics and southron marriages. This is especially true when we consider the complicated succession of House Stark following Lord Cregan: I'm entirely convinced that the marriages between Edric and Serena Stark and Jonnel and Sansa Stark were made at Cregan's insistence in order to try to resolve the claims of Rickon Stark's children with their ambitious in-laws, as part of a grand dynastic shell-game that somehow managed to sideline all of Black Alys' daughters and the sons of Edric and Serena in favor of Brandon Stark and his descendants.

And that's where we will leave the historical development of the North. While there is certainly several hundred years to discuss - the death of Rickon Stark, "the troubles that dogged the reigns of his half-brothers," the brothers Willam and Artos who clashed with Raymun Redbeard, the mysterious story of Rodrick the Wandering Wolf, the Southron Ambitions conspiracy, Robert's Rebellion, and the War of Five Kings - for much of this period, we either have relatively little sources, especially having to do with any Stark activities in this period outside the North (again, I'm waiting on the She-Wolves to find out how the Stark-Lannister negotiations to cooperate against Dagon Gregyoy worked), or we've already been over this material in great detail, leaving little need for elaboration here.

Internal Rivalries of the North

Part of my larger metafictional mission, ever since I wrote about Bran VI of AGOT, is to deconstruct the idea of the North as an apolitical land of gruff, honorable warriors. As I have said repeatedly, the North is just as much a world of feudal politics as the South. Whether it's noblemen trying to bully or cajole Robb Stark because he's young and inexperienced, or the intrigues and brutality of the Hornwood Crisis, the baroque revenge of the Manderlys, the political maneuverings of the Umbers, Glovers, Karstarks, and other houses, it is clear that "the game is the game," even in Northern accents.

As I have suggested before in this essay, much of House Stark's success as a hegemon is through successful use of feudal politics to expand its own power and clamp down on internal division. I've already talked about how the Starks used these tactics to fight their enemies in detail and to resolve competing claims through dynastic marriages, but I want to explore a case study in Stark political strategy in looking at how the Starks sought to contain Bolton influence over the long term.

The first step in this long-term project was the construction of the Wolf's Den: at one stroke, the Starks could prevent seaborn raids into the interior, create a stronghold in Bolton territory from which to expand their own influence, and demonstrate to easterners that (unlike the Boltons) the Starks could be called upon for protection:

Even before the coming of the Andals, the Wolf's Den had been raised by King Jon Stark, built to defend the mouth of the White Knife against raiders and slavers from across the narrow sea (some scholars suggest these were early Andal incursions, whilst others argue they were the forebears of the men of Ib, or even slavers out of Valyria and Volantis).

Held for centuries by a succession of houses (including the Greystarks, an offshoot of House Stark itself, as well as Flints, Slates, Longs, Holts, Lockes, and Ashwoods), the ancient fortress would be the focus of a succession of conflicts.

The World of Ice & Fire: The Kings of Winter

And on a symbolic level, naming the fortress the Wolf's Den (i.e, the wolf's home and thus House Stark's home) was a signal to the whole of the east that this was now Stark territory permanently. And from a practical feudal politics perspective, it allowed the Starks to expand their own power base out of someone else's territory - hence giving the castle to "many a younger son of the King in the North ... many a brother, many an uncle, many a cousin. Some passed the castle to their own sons and grandsons, and offshoot branches of House Stark had arisen" (ADWD 30: Davos IV) such as the Greystarks. But even in the absence of cadet branches, the ability to pass on such a rich fief to followers like the Flints, Slates, et al. would have increased the political power of the Starks basically for free. No wonder the Starks committed so heavily to this strategy:

During the wars between Winterfell and the Andal Kings of Mountain and Vale, the Old Falcon, Osgood Arryn, laid siege to the Wolf's Den. His son, King Oswin the Talon, captured it and put it to the torch. Later, it fell under attack from the pirate lords of the Three Sisters and slavers out of the Stepstones. It was not until some thousand years before the Conquest, when the fugitive Manderlys came to the North and swore their oaths at the Wolf's Den, that the problem of the defense of the White Knife-the river that provides access into the very heart of the North-was resolved with the creation of White Harbor.

The World of Ice & Fire: The Kings of Winter

Until King's Landing rose beside the Blackwater, White Harbor was the newest city in the Seven Kingdoms. Built with the wealth that the Manderlys had brought with them from the Reach after having been driven into exile by Lord Lorimar Peake at the behest of King Perceon III Gardener, who feared their swelling power in the Reach, White Harbor has more in common with the fine castles and towers of the Reach than with the castles of the North; it is said that the New Keep was built to reflect the castle of Dunstonbury, which the Manderlys had lost in their exile.


For the Starks, the arrival of the Manderlys offered a perfect solution to their eastern problems: as an incredibly rich Southern House, the Manderlys could finance both the New Keep as a much larger defensive fortification, and a new port city that could bring in a sufficient population and revenue necessary to support an army and fleet large enough to expel any potential invader. At the same time, as Seven-worshipping Andals surrounded by Old Gods-worshipping First Men, the Manderlys were not going to become the head of any counter-Stark political coalition. With the Lockes, Woolfields, Flints, a dozen petty lords, a hundred landed knights under them, and a territory that borders the Bolton lands along the Sheepshead Hills (which the Starks gave to the Manderlys out of Bolton lands) and the Broken Branch, the Manderlys would be a natural bulwark against Bolton revanchism.

Indeed, almost exactly at the same time that the Manderlys were installed at White Harbor, the Karstarks were established as a cadet branch of House Stark under Karlon Stark, "a younger son of Winterfell who had put down a rebel lord a thousand years ago, and been granted lands for his valor." (ASOS 21: Catelyn III) (This may have been the rebellion in which the son of Bael the Bard died, but it's unclear.) Whether this rebel had been a Bolton or not (and I lean to the former), it's almost certain that this vast swathe of eastern lands, so close to the Dreadfort, had once been Bolton lands. Thus at a stroke the Starks had extended their House's influence in the east, weakened their traditional rivals, and created a new loyalist house on House Bolton's northeastern flank. A similar process helps to explain how House Hornwood, not one of the oldest houses mentioned as former First Men royalty, gained such choice lands on the Boltons' borders, or how House Umber came to own the Lonely Hills, so far south of their original stronghold at Last Hearth, where once the Boltons had ruled up to the Last River.

In sum, we can see a strategy of containment through subinfeudation, of coalition-building through the dismemberment of the former Bolton empire, consistently applied over thousands of years. And while the Boltons had some successes with a strategy of subversion of Stark's regional proxies - hence the rebellion with the Greystarks some 500 years after their installment at the Wolf's Den - for the most part, the Starks' strategy was successful in keeping the Boltons in the fold and making sure that the rest of the North viewed the Starks as "open-handed" with land and was thus eager to curry favor with their liege lords of Winterfell.

When combined with the symbolic strategy of Winterfell-as-refuge and Stark-as-justice that we have discussed, the Starks succeeded in making themselves ideological as well as military hegemons over the North. Consider, for example, how the Starks managed to handle their wilder bannermen, the hill clans:

The clans of the Northern mountains ... owe their allegiance to the Starks, but their disputes have oft created difficulties for the Lords of Winterfell and the Kings of Winter before them, forcing them to send men into the mountains to quell the bloodshed (commemorated in such songs as "Black Pines" and "Wolves in the Hills"), or to summon the chiefs to Winterfell to argue their cases.

The World of Ice & Fire: The Mountain Clains

The parallels here to the feuds that have destabilized other regions are clear: the Brackens and the Blackwoods in the Riverlands, or the conflict between the Peakes and the Manderlys that almost destroyed House Gardener, or the disorder brought on by the Reynes and Tarbecks that saw Aegon V also "send men into the mountains to quell the bloodshed." The difference in the outcomes is also clear - by making themselves the unquestioned arbitrator of all such disputes, the Starks turned even these divisions to their advantage. While the hill clans might feud against one another, they would naturally turn to Winterfell as the fount of justice, rather than attempting either to unseat their liege lords or call in foreign monarchs to fight in their corner, as happened elsewhere.

When taking all of these factors into consider, we must conclude that the Starks were and are far more than the caricature of either barbarous strongmen or easily-gulled honor-bound simpletons.

Strengths and Weaknesses

Throughout this essay, the strength and weakness of the North has been the same: the Starks made themselves indispensable. As a strength, this allowed one dynasty to rule uninterrupted for eight thousand years, in no small part because the whole of the North had internalized the belief that "there must always be a Stark in Winterfell." This in turn allowed the Starks to repel invasions that would have (and did) toppled lesser kingdoms.

However, and this is where the weakness comes in, it created a dependency on Stark leadership. As we saw with Ned Stark's intense belief in personal, individual rule, the Starks never built up much of a bureaucracy that could steer the ship of state in their absence. And this utterly doomed the North in A Clash of Kings, because it meant that they couldn't adequately mobilize for an extended war or maintain internal unity while a child was left in command at Winterfell. It also means that the North is likewise vulnerable if the Stark family should break its prodigious streak of producing offspring - although as we've seen in the past, the Starks do seem to be unusually good at bouncing back from demographic setbacks.

As they seem to have done in the War of Five Kings, somehow keeping no less than four Starks and one Snow alive despite the near-total obliteration of their House. Who knows what the future will hold?

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Warning: Footnotes may contain spoilers from later chapters or books.
  • 1 - Incidentally, the fact that Bael the Bard is mentioned as coming only centuries after the Horned Lord who ruled one to two thousand years ago is more evidence that the legend's reference to Stark lords and the Kingsroad are later additions - which in turn places Brandon the Daughterless and his grandson who died during an otherwise unaccounted-for Bolton rebellion somewhere between -1770 AC and -770 AC.