“Fifteen years past, when they had ridden forth to win a throne, the Lord of Storm’s End had been clean-shaven, clear-eyed, and muscled like a maiden’s fantasy…In those days, the smell of leather and blood had clung to him like perfume. Now it was perfume that clung to him like perfume, and he had a girth to match his height…A beard as coarse and black as iron wire covered his jaw to hide his double chin and the sag of the royal jowls, but nothing could hide his stomach or the dark circles under his eyes.”
“I swear to you, sitting a throne is a thousand times harder than winning one. Laws are a tedious business and counting coppers is worse…the lies they tell…and my lords and ladies are no better. I am surrounded by flatterers and fools…There are nights I wish we had lost at the Trident…Lord Eddard Stark, I would name you the Hand of the King.”
Summary: King Robert Baratheon arrives at Winterfell, and Eddard Stark takes him down into the crypts at Winterfell to see the tomb of Lyanna Stark. The two discuss the death of Jon Arryn, the disposal of the Wardenship of the East, and other political matters. The King offers Eddard the Handship and marriage between their two houses. And winter is coming.
SPOILER WARNING: This chapter analysis, and all following, will contain spoilers for all Song of Ice and Fire novels and Game of Thrones episodes. Caveat lector.
This chapter introduces us personally to King Robert Baratheon, whose name has run through the proceeding chapters, and it’s here that we get our first sense of his character and our most intimate glimpse into the relationship he has with Eddard Stark, and the origins of the rebellion that placed him on the Iron Throne. I’m going to address three key themes: Robert Baratheon as Henry VIII and the nature of royal decadence, the nature of the Hand and other royal appointments in the geopolitics of the Seven Kingdoms, and the subtle yet vital importance of the mystery of Robert/Robin Arryn’s fosterage.
When Robert Baratheon hoves into our view like an aging battleship, the comparisons to Henry VIII are really quite stunning (especially when we find out later that Renly and Loras are scheming to put Margaery into Robert’s bed and supplant the queen). Like Robert, Henry was a jock in his youth, “the most handsomest potentate I have ever set eyes on” according to one ambassador, who went to seed when inactivity stopped him from burning off his excess consumption of food and alcohol – a keen tennis player, hunter, and jouster. In history, Henry suffered the fate that Robert avoided in the melee, having his horse fall on his leg, which left him permanently injured and unable to exercise as he had been accustomed to. Here, the Elvis-like change is unexplained. Despite the opinions of many fans who see only the drunken, absentee king, Robert is seen as having been active and dynamic until recently – when Eddard saw him “nine years before during Balon Greyjoy’s rebellion, when the stag and direwolf had joined to end the pretensions of the self-proclaimed King of the Iron Islands,” Robert was still fit and engaged in his reign (although how much of that has to do with a rebellion being more in his wheelhouse than peacetime government is hard to say). At the very least, we know Robert had good years before his decline – but we never quite find out what caused this change, why he stopped participating in his jousts and other exercises (although he’s clearly hale enough to hunt boar when sober), why all of the sudden his “pleasures were taking a toll on the King.”
One thing is very clear, Robert isn’t a micro-managing king. “Laws are a tedious business and counting coppers is worse,” he declares, and we learn that he basically devolves his government to his councilors – much as Henry VIII did with Thomas Wolsey and Thomas Cromwell – when it comes to “coins, crops, and justice” which are the chief peacetime functions of the government (although it’s clear that Robert is very much in charge when it comes to military and national security more generally). This isn’t necessarily a bad way to govern a kingdom when you have a monarch without a talent for monetary, agricultural, and judicial policy, as long as you have good advisors. And there’s the problem for Robert; he’s at the mercy of his talent pool. Part of this problem is an inherited one: as part of the post-rebellion reconciliation urged by Jon Arryn, his Hand, Robert kept on Grand Maester Pycelle (a Lannister spy who betrayed the last king), and Varys (whose competence and devotion to the Realm is genuine, although his loyalty is less so) who he can’t trust. He did, however, bring in his brothers who he could count on being loyal to the family and Stannis was a good Master of Ships, and Renly is at least a good courtier, although we don’t get the sense that he’s paying much attention to his job as Master of Laws. As we discussed previously, Jon Arryn seems to have been a fairly competent Hand, and while Littlefinger is a devious and untrustworthy man, no one’s ever said that he was bad at his job as Master of Coins.
Overall, what personnel mistakes there seem to have been look more like Jon Arryn’s doing than Robert’s, and Robert recognizes that “I am surrounded by flatterers and fools…half of them don’t dare tell me the truth and the other half can’t find it.” If nothing else, he’s not a deluded king. His major failures seem two-fold: finances and his over-reliance on the Lannisters. The first is indisputable, plunging a kingdom with ample reserves into six million dragons in debt is a massive failing, one that Robert shares with his historical counterpart. Although I imagine that paying for two major rebellions had something to do with it, his penchant for tourneys is a good sign of the costs Robert was incurring – 90,000 dragons for the Hand’s Tourney represents the yearly income of almost fifty nobles, going by Game of Thrones’ pen-and-paper RPG. It’s a situation that Baelish seems to have dealt with largely through borrowing, simony (selling of offices), bribery, and kickbacks, which probably meant that the kingdom’s economy did rather well through the stimulus of royal spending (historically, Henry balanced the books with high taxes and the confiscation of the monestaries). Keynesianism in action aside, the more dangerous mistake was to plant so many Lannisters around him – Lancel and Willem are harmless as squires, but keeping Jaime Lannister in the Kingsguard was a huge mistake (indeed, sending him home to Tywin would probably have won him support from the Lord of Casterly Rock), and so was allowing the Lannisters to keep 500 men in King’s Landing.
This brings us to the second theme – the role of the Hand of the King and the other royal appointments, specifically the royal Wardens Cardinal as I call them. Eddard describes the Hand as “the second-most powerful man in the Seven Kingdoms. He spoke with the King’s voice, commanded the King’s armies, drafted the king’s laws. At times he even sat upon the Iron Throne to dispense justice.” This makes the Hand far more powerful than the historical Lord Chancellor, Lord President of the Council, Marshall, or Lord High Constable – essentially a deputy King, capable of doing a lot more than “building” or “wiping.” As I will argue later on, I think Eddard’s major failing as Hand later on isn’t as much his honor as his lack of understanding about how his office could be used – for example, Eddard Stark did not compel Hugh of the Vale or the other members of Jon Arryn’s household to give testimony, which he could have done under royal warrant; neither did he raise any royal troops to supplement the Goldcloaks or counterbalance the Lannister forces, which was likewise in his power to do.
The situation of the Wardens shows something of the costs of Robert’s dependency on the Lannisters. While it’s true that Tywin is a capable military man and organizer, putting Jaime in as Warden of the East (since he stands to inherit the Wardenship of the West) threatens to destabilize the balance of power between the Great Houses as well as alienating the lords of the Vale. As we’ve discussed before, the Wardenships are incredibly powerful positions, essentially mini-Hands with large military forces in each of the Cardinal Directions – the Warden of the North guards against wildlings, the Warden of the East is responsible for pacifying the hill tribes, maintaining the Vale as the ultimate stronghold, and dealing with pirates and potential invasions from across the Narrow Sea, the Warden of the West deals with the Ironmen, and the Warden of the South holds the Dornish Marches against rebellion or invasion from over the mountains. A man with the West and East essentially has the combined powers of the Westerlands and the Vale at his disposal, a true Kingmaker (as no doubt was Cersei’s plan). To his credit, Ned Stark realizes this instantly and tries to persuade Robert to at least name Stannis or Renly, which suggests that he actually does have some political savvy.
EDIT: one additional fact about the Wardens that didn’t make the shift from outline to post is that the Wardens have a seat on the Small Council, which gives an additional importance to Robert’s move, as it gives the Lannisters two seats on a Small Council of only eleven members even if they didn’t have any other posts. It also suggests something more of Eddard Stark’s distaste for politics, since he doesn’t seem to have ever used that right.
In comparison to Henry VIII, who created enormous political time bombs in the form of his multiple marriages and his climactic break with the Catholic Church, Robert Baratheon actually seems to have ruled fairly well for fifteen years, all things considered. In general, he seems to have avoided many of Henry VIII’s major flaws – he didn’t engage in a series of wasteful and pointless foreign wars, he didn’t create massive religious conflict for selfish reasons, and he didn’t use his royal favorites (who both Henry and Robert clearly accumulate) as scapegoats when things went wrong (after all, he keeps Lord Arryn and Lord Stark on for a long time despite heated disagreements with both)- although Robert’s mention of heads on spikes when Eddard crosses him on the matter of Daenerys’ assassination suggests that he certainly has the tendency.
Historically, to be a royal favorite was very much a double-edged sword; it was a way to rise very quickly (as we can see with how Cersei maneuvers Lannister men into key positions at court), but it also made you a target for other nobles and popular dissent. In a monarchy where the King is seen as being anointed by God, you can’t call for the King to be replaced or overthrown directly, so you direct your anger and frustration against the “evil ministers” who are deceiving the King, even when everyone knows that it’s the King who’s really behind whatever unpopular policy is being pursued. Clever Kings used this tradition as a safety valve, using their ministers and favorites as buffers between themselves and public opinion, throwing them to the wolves when necessary to rebuild public support. The Peasants Revolt of 1381, the Pilgrimage of Grace in 1536, the political crisis that lead to the English Civil War in the 1630s and 1640s, the Glorious Revolution of 1688, and the American Revolution all started as rebellions against “evil ministers” and “cabals.”
In this chapter, we get the first real descriptions of the Battle of the Trident, where Prince Rhaegar Targaryen and an army of Dornishmen, Crownlanders, and Targaryen loyalists from the Stormlands and the Vale attempted to block the crossing of Robert Baratheon, Eddard Stark, Jon Arryn, Hoster Tully, and the rebel forces of the Stormlands, the North, the Vale, and the Riverlands into the Crownlands. We also learn more about the rebellion that brought it about – not only had the Mad King called for the heads of the heirs of the North and the Stormlands, but he had murdered Brandon and Rickard Stark (we also learn that Jon Arryn’s heir was also murdered) and Rhaegar had seemingly abducted Lyanna Stark. In the midst of this closely-fought battle between one larger army and one more seasoned army, Robert and Rhaegar came to a climactic duel in the middle of the ford, a dramatic throw of the dice that decided the fate of the Rebellion.
Robert won the duel, although was injured so badly that it was Eddard Stark who carried the victorious army into King’s Landing.
The Battle of the Trident very much resembles some of the great battles of the War of the Roses from which GRRM drew much of his inspiration for the novels, especially the Battles of Towton and Tewksbury. The Battle of Towton, the “largest and bloodiest battle ever fought on English soil,” featured scarcely 10,000 men less than its fictional counterpart. Here, the young rebel prince Edward of York, son of a murdered father, marched on his enemies after winning a number of victories, and led his men straight into a numerically superior force. Despite having the better position and a favoring wind that allowed their archers to outshoot the enemy, the Yorkists were pushed back under weight of numbers and might have broken had not Edward personally seized command of the left wing and held it in pitched combat until the Duke of Norfolk’s men crested the ridge overlooking the Lancastrian left flank and attacked – routing the exhausted enemy. As the Lancastrians fled, the Rivers Cock Beck and Wharfe turned into deadly obstacles – with thousands drowning in the water, Yorkist archers firing into the swimmers, and bridges collapsing under the weight of the enemy. After Towton, the Lancastrians fled into exile and Edward was crowned King of England.
By contrast, the Battle of Tewksbury was a much smaller affair, with only 10,000 men in attendance, but equally dramatic. Outnumbered two to one, the once-and-future Edward IV routed the Lancastrian army – with the Lancastrian Prince Edward and his father, King Henry VI executed that day. To create the Battle of the Trident then, GRRM placed Towton’s rivers right in the middle of the event rather than at the end, and gave the battle Tewksbury’s end.
This chapter gives us a whole bunch of juicy counterfactuals to play with:
- The Trident – as the turning point of the entire Rebellion, the duel between Robert and Rhaegar is incredibly consequential. Had Rhaegar won the duel, it’s unclear as to whether he would have won the battle; his right flank, the Dornishmen, had been broken by the forces of the Vale, and the rebels had motives beyond Robert’s kidnapped bride. Had it led to Targaryen victory, Rhaegar still would have had to deal with four rebellious Kingdoms. We know from Jaime that Rhaegar might have called a Great Council to try to settle the rebellion – which would have necessitated overthrowing his mad father. After the murder of Rickard Stark, Brandon Stark, and Elbert Arryn, it’s unlikely that even the reveal of his marriage to Lyanna Stark would have been enough to bring peace, even had he brought the Lannisters on-side. Certainly, a second Great Council might have had tremendous political implications, leading to greater constitutionalism in the Westerosi monarchy. Had Rhaegar won the duel and lost the battle, or had both combatants died, we might have had a situation in which Eddard Stark rides into King’s Landing, rousts Jaime Lannister from the Iron Throne, and sits down himself as the only other logical rebel leader. With the power of the North, the Riverlands, the Vale, and the Stormlands behind him, a King Eddard might have been Westeros’ own Cromwell.
- Lyanna’s kidnapping/the murder of the Starks – for a supposedly intelligent man, Rhaegar Targaryen’s actions in “abducting” Lyanna Stark are remarkably short-sighted. Regardless of how Lyanna herself might have felt, the act was an open insult, making Robert Baratheon out to be a cuckold, and showing Rickard Stark to be so weak that he can neither uphold his marriage promises nor protect his own family from outsiders; had the Targaryens gone no further, it’s still likely that the event would have led to a civil war, and one in which Rickard and Brandon call the Stark banners rather than go to their deaths in King’s Landing. We really have to ask why Rhaegar Targaryen didn’t make an offer of marriage to Rickard Stark, perhaps offering Rhaenys or Daenerys to compensate Robert Baratheon – or leave any instruction for anyone in King’s Landing about what to do if the Starks showed up angry. At the very least, it would have staunched the spread of the Rebellion, kept the North loyal, and perhaps isolated the Baratheons, and at least given the Targaryens a better public rationale for the civil war. Even more so, the “execution” of Rickard and Brandon Stark was an act of such folly that you really have to wonder why no one in the capitol could at least delay matters so that Rhaegar could do something about this. Because what I don’t think many fans of the series quite get is how threatening to the entire political order Aerys II’s actions were – to begin with, to arrest the heir to a Great House immediately raises the possibility that the crown might arrest the heirs of the other Great Houses while maintaining the troubling position that the Crown can kidnap the children of the Great Houses with impunity. But to then summon Rickard Stark and murder him rather than grant him a fair trial not only discredits royal justice but brings into question the physical safety of the Lords Paramount of the Seven Kingdoms – if one law-abiding Lord Paramount can be executed on a whim, any of them can. In retrospect, it’s rather amazing that any House took the Targaryen’s side in the Rebellion.
- The Importance of Robert Arryn’s Fosterage: Robert Arryn has to be one of the least visible pawns in the great chess game between the conspiracies in Game of Thrones. As we learn much later, Jon Arryn had learned the secret of Cersei and Jaime Lannister’s incestuous treason – although we never quite find out how Cersei planned to deal with this – and his attempt to foster his son at Dragonstone with Stannis Baratheon, safe from the hands of the Lannisters, shows that he was preparing to fight it out with them when he was blindsided by Petyr Baelish’s treachery. It’s equally clear that Cersei’s attempt to have him foster with Tywin was a move to keep the truth of her children’s parentage from being leaked (although how Cersei planned to sell this to her father is less than clear). Had Jon Arryn moved just a bit faster (or if he had made common cause with Renly and the Tyrells), Cersei might have been exposed and the Lannisters forced into a sudden reprise of the Greyjoy Rebellion against the Baratheons, Starks, and Arryns. Interestingly, had Cersei succeeded, it’s possible that Baelish’s plot (more on this later) to have Lysa Arryn stoke the flames of a Stark/Lannister feud might have been forestalled completely (no way Lysa sends that letter with her son in danger) – in which case, Ned Stark might have served out his time as Hand, the Starks and the Lannister/Baratheons might have merged houses, and a very strange power bloc might have formed. Finally, Eddard Stark offers somewhat belatedly to foster the boy at Winterfell – which might have prompted the very paranoid Cersei to some action even rasher than her urging an attempt on the life of Bran Stark. (Incidentally, Cersei and Jaime were incredibly idiotic to fornicate in Winterfell, so soon after dodging the Jon Arryn bullet)
- What If the Marriage Pact had been Robb and Myrcella: the fanfictionados are somewhat fond of this pairing, I think because Myrcella seems both non-sadistic and reasonably intelligent for a Lannister incest-baby. I must say that I find it unlikely – unlike the Sansa/Joffrey match, it doesn’t put Stark blood in the royal succession – although it’s possible that it could have been combined with that wedding. In the larger scheme of things, Robb Stark’s military gifts probably wouldn’t have changed events much in King’s Landing had the couple accompanied them south – although had Myrcella stayed in the North, it’s less likely that Cersei allows Eddard Stark’s death given the risk to her child; instead, we might have seen a very complicated Stark/Lannister conflict, with both sides trying to capture enough hostages to make the exchange favorable – or perhaps in that situation, Tywin forces a peace and deals with the Baratheons first.
There’s a few interesting changes between the show and the book. A minor alteration is to have Robert call Ned fat rather than say he hasn’t changed, which I rather like as a comedic beat in what can be a very bleak series. The exchange between Robert and Ned is pretty much straight from the books (omitting the Warden of the East plot as unnecessary), although I liked the addition of Robert saying “it’s not [Jon Arryn’s] fault I never listened” when he was being fostered, which nicely mirrors their relationship as Hand and King. The major change is more of a character moment – instead of Ned saying in the show, “this is where she belongs,” in the book Ned says “I was with her when she died…She wanted to come home.” Not only does this give Lyanna more of an active presence, but it also brings up that Ned was present when Lyanna died.
As it is, I have no idea how the showrunners plan to bring this thread back into the plot. Although a flashback sequence to bring back Sean Bean would be nice…