“All justice flows from the king.”
Synopsis: Eddard Stark, Hand of the King, arrives in King’s Landing, and meets with the Small Council. He is informed of the state of royal finances, and then is led by Littlefinger to his wife who informs him of a Lannister conspiracy. Eddard makes his plans for the future.
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 is where things really get interesting. Like a roller coaster with a really long, slow climb to the first drop, Eddard IV is where the long transition of the Lord of House Stark from his seat of power in Winterfell ends and his trial by fire in the politics of King’s Landing begins. And appropriately, this is where our assessment of Eddard Stark as a political actor should begin.
The first thing that should be said is that Eddard actually has quite a bit of self-awareness and not bad political instincts when it comes to his new environment; indeed, people who started from the HBO show and then migrated to the books are often surprised when they find out how perceptive Eddard is, and how disciplined he is in keeping his own counsel rather than saying what pops into his head. His initial reactions are quite interesting: Eddard is “cool and yet polite” Varys, the “councillor Ned liked least,” who is in reality a traitor to House Baratheon; he finds Renly engaging and yet maintains a slight distance; and he deeply dislikes Littlefinger (who is the most active force trying to destroy him), and is happy to return the man’s jabs and insinuations with verbal sallys of his own.
More importantly, he recognizes that “he did not belong here, in his room, with these men…Ned looked down at the council table and wondered which were the flatters and which the fools. He thought he knew already.” Whatever his faults, Eddard is not one of those romantics who believes that honesty is all that’s needed to triumph; he knows from the outset that he is outmatched, and attempts to compensate by “running silent” as it were. If nothing else, the revelation of Robert’s profligacy (more on this in a bit) and inattention to the business of government is revelation enough; when he thinks back to Robert’s behavior on the Kingsroad, Eddard is hardly idealistic when it comes to his old friend.
Rather, I would argue that Eddard’s critical weakness as a political actor comes from his tendency to think about politics in terms of people and personalities, rather than in terms of institutions and sources of power. This begins with how Eddard thinks of himself: “He would have to remember that he was no longer in Winterfell, where only the king stood higher; here, he was but first among equals.” Eddard sees the role of the Hand to be one of personal adviser to the King. His objection when he learns that the crown is six million crowns in debt is that “I will not believe that Jon Arryn allowed Robert to beggar the realm,” because he knew Jon Arryn as a man of honor. When he learns of the extent of corruption in the court, his first instinct is to “go to Robert…and pray that he is the man I think he is…and not the man I fear he has become.”
We know from the history of Westeros that this is completely wrong; the Hand of the King is second to none but the king, clothed in immense power: as I have said before, Eddard has the authority to raise troops, to replace the leadership of the Gold Cloaks and the Small Council itself, to levy taxes and reduce spending, to throw men he believes to be corrupt into jail, and to summon men he wants to interview with warrants and armed officers of the state. Past Hands of the King have been able to dominate, even overthrow, Kings if they understood how to make use of the machinery of government. What Eddard does not understand until too late is that the corruption of institutions is separate from the corruption of individuals, and that individuals can make use of institutions, even the very corruption of those institutions, in order to work reform. When he becomes Hand of the King, Tyrion Lannister will understand this at a bone-deep level.
This understanding of sovereignty as overwhelmingly personal is unfortunately just as bone-deep in Eddard Stark. He believes that “all justice flows from the King” because he was raised to believe in the Old Ways that say that a monarch should execute sentence himself, that crimes established by law and punishments enacted by the state have to be mediated through the individual conscience of the man holding the sword. For him to accept that there is power outside of that is to reject what it means to be a Stark. And yet…it’s fascinating how much Eddard understands his potential powers when he stands on the familiar ground of the North. When he is confronted with the threat of a Lannister conspiracy, Eddard acts with decisive, pragmatic action: he orders Houses Tallhart and Glover to reinforce and fortify Moat Cailin, he instructs Lord Manderly to increase the naval strength of White Harbor, and prepares to threaten Theon Greyjoy’s life to blackmail Balon Greyjoy for his fleet. These are not the actions of a naïf. Nor is Eddard mistaken when he says that “the Lannisters are merciless in the face of weakness…but they would not dare attack the north without all the power of the realm behind them, and that they shall not have. I must play out this fool’s masquerade.” On a crucial point of realpolitik, Eddard Stark understands at least somewhat that the monarchy itself is the high ground that will allow the possessor to marshal the forces of legitimacy and tradition against their foe.
The other major political thread here is our second direct glimpse into the Littlefinger Conspiracy at work. As I pointed out last time, Baelish has a major weakness in his ego and his need to continually show everyone around him how much smarter he is than them: consider that Baelish spends most of the chapter making veiled comments about his wife, Eddard’s death, Littlefinger’s plans to “[lead] you to the dungeons to slit your throat,” that Eddard is an idiot, that he’s old and slow, that Littlefinger hates his family, and so forth. Given that he’s never met Eddard Stark before, this is incredibly risky behavior (he’s all but telling Eddard what he plans to do and giving him a dozen reasons to consider him an enemy) and it winds up with Eddard shoving a dagger up against his chin, at the very edge of death.
Similarly, as I have discussed, his belief that he holds Varys’ “balls in the palm of my hand…or would, if he were a man, or had any balls” is dangerously and potentially deadly stupid a belief, especially since in lying directly to Eddard about the dagger, he’s given the Spider a perfect opportunity to out Littlefinger’s duplicity. At the same time, Littlefinger is successful in convincing Eddard to make use of him (if not to trust him), although notably Eddard is clever enough to question why Tyrion Lannister would want Bran dead, and convinces Catelyn that in him she has “found a brother I’d thought lost.”
Overall, it points to a conspirator with the soul of a high-stakes gambler.
Speaking of gambling, Eddard IV also brings us to the question of the six million coins in debt and to what extent Littlefinger engages in embezzlement and other financial misconduct, and what part this played in his overall conspiracy. Personally, I’m of the belief that, while Robert Baratheon did run up significant debts through high living and dealing with the Greyjoy Rebellion, Littlefinger probably did engage in corrupt practices in order to further his agenda. Here’s how I think it worked:
- Littlefinger got his start as the Master of Customs at Gulltown, by trading on Lysa Tully’s unrequited love for him. He gains Jon Arryn’s respect and patronage when he increases income ten-fold (ASOS Chapter 68) – although Tyrion says that it was only three-fold (ACOK Chapter 17). Increases of tax revenue of that extent (without any mention of increase in tax rates or increased enforcement, etc.) are unlikely to have come through strictly legal means. My guess is that what Littlefinger did was something like this: instead of passing on the legitimate revenue, Littlefinger instead diverted the funds to his own accounts along with bribes and kickbacks he takes from allowing selected merchants to avoid customs duties, and takes that money and lends it at high interest rates and buying and selling high value mercantile goods (again, favoring the merchants who owe him for the pass on customs duties, and probably getting preferable rates), and then using that money as collateral for loans that he would then represent as increased revenue.
- After three years of minor positions within the bureaucracy of King’s Landing, he is named Master of Coins, at which post he remains for seven years. Yet again, income is increased ten-fold (ACOK Chapter 17). And we know that a big part of the way that Littlefinger accomplishes this is by massively borrowing from House Lannister, House Tyrell, the Iron Bank of Braavos, Tyroshi trading cartels, and the Faith of the Seven, and then not paying back either interest or principle on the loans, instead using the money to speculate in real estate, shipping, commodities, and become a moneylender. He also engages in the sale of tax licenses and offices, receiving kickbacks from “the Keepers of the Keys…the King’s Counter…the King’s Scales…the officers in charge of all three mints. Harbormasters, tax farmers, customs sergeants, toll collectors, pursers, wine factors; nine out of every ten belonged to Littlefinger.” We know moreover that Littlefinger prevents exposure by convincing the king to excuse Janos Slynt’s corruption, and by adding troublesome debtors to the Crown to the death list of Antler Men.
- This tells us several things – first, the only way that kind of scheme draws a profit is if tax farmers take in more than they pass on to the king, and moreover more than they paid for the license and the kickbacks. Hence, total royal taxation and total royal revenues can’t have been matching up. Second, in addition to the sale of offices and kickbacks (which represents public corruption), the mention of wine factors (private citizens and businessmen, not royal officials), and the purchase of “wagons, shops, ships, and houses” at the same time that he’s personally purchasing a number of brothels, suggests that there’s a strong element of personal corruption here as well. As a hedge lord and royal official, Littlefinger shouldn’t have the personal capital to make these kinds of purchases, so he must be getting the money somewhere, and the most logical explanation is that he’s using the royal treasury as his personal bank.
- So how does this answer the question of tenfold increases in revenue and debt? What’s going on here, I think, is that Littlefinger came upon a situation where the riotous living of the King could be used to hide his own actions: thus, by using the same divert-and-speculate model that he used in Gulltown (along with falsifying the books), Littlefinger is able to represent a vast increase in the King’s revenues (even though much of that increase is being taken by Littlefinger and his army of corrupt officials) as collateral for massive loans from House Lannister, Tyrell, the Iron Bank, Tyroshi traders, and the Faith, which he uses to increase his own financial standing. In this fashion, Littlefinger kills several birds with one stone: he enriches himself at the expense of some of the most powerful Houses and institutions in Westeros; he creates a political and economic powerbase in the merchant and bureaucratic classes of King’s Landing; and he destabilizes the monarchy while creating the conditions for conflict between major powers when the whole house of cards comes tumbling down. Most importantly, Littlefinger makes himself indispensable – a prosperous monarch could easily replace him, but an indebted monarch needs a wizard to manage his shaky finances.
I’m not going to add much here, since I’ve already given my thoughts about Littlefinger’s historical doppleganger. However, I would like to extend my previous comments about royal indebtedness. Medieval and royal monarchs were perennially in debt because they had a limited tax base (thanks to the tax-free status of the nobility and the clergy), a weak bureaucracy for the collection of said taxes, and because of the extreme expense of war and the high living monarchs were expected to maintain.
To give some examples: Robert Baratheon’s spiritual counterpart, Henry VIII, was £3 million in debt (or £1.2 billion in today’s money) and that was after he pillaged the monasteries of England and halted tithes to the Catholic Church. Other early modern monarchs fared even worse: Henry II of France (ruled 1547-1559) owed 40 million livres compared to an income of 12 million livres, and went bankrupt in 1557. The French monarchy didn’t recover its finances until around 1600 thanks to Henry IV’s appointment of Sully as his chief minister. His contemporary Phillip II of Spain, despite all the wealth of Mexico and Peru, went bankrupt three times (1557, 1560, and 1576), and historians suggest that his personal debts were equal to 60% of Spain’s GDP at the time.
At the same time, these monarchs were constantly at war. Robert Baratheon experienced only two brief wars – his own rebellion and the even shorter Greyjoy Rebellion – and had the benefit of ten years of warm and clement weather. That’s a big part of the reason why I’m skeptical that even Robert could have spent that much money. The Kings on the Iron Throne don’t have a standing army to drain their finances, they don’t have an early modern bureaucracy (even relatively decentralized early modern England had 1,000 royal officials) in any near the size – the “usual suspects” just aren’t there.
I only see one major hypothetical here: What if Eddard had killed Littlefinger then and there? We’re talking an enraged Stark with a knife under Littlefinger’s chin. Naturally, there’s a short-term problem of having murdered a Small Councillor, but Littlefinger is roundly loathed, and Eddard could easily claim provocation. Littlefinger could be replaced by Wyman Manderly or even a Mace Tyrell, and an audit of his books, followed by the expropriation of his estate for corruption would no doubt put some dent into the crown’s debts.
Long-term, Eddard Stark avoids being double-crossed by Janos Slynt, arrests Cersei and Joffrey, Stannis is proclaimed King of Westeros, and Eddard Stark can go home in peace, securing his reputation as a reformist Hand on the Cincinnatus model.
Book vs. Show:
There’s a couple of minor but telling differences between the book and the show’s depiction of Eddard’s arrival in King’s Landing. To begin with, in the book Eddard as an educated nobleman asks for a change of clothes, whereas in the show Benoiff and Weiss decided to reinforce the contrast between the gruff, no-nonsense Northerners and the effete, cultured Southerners. A minor detail, but one that points to a slightly more complex Eddard. Secondly, Eddard in the book actually draws steel on Littlefinger whereas in the show he just chokes him out, which I’m rather indifferent to.
Rather, the more important difference is that we lack Eddard’s internal voice. I think Sean Bean’s a great actor, don’t get me wrong, but the disjuncture between Eddard’s outward appearance, speech, and actions and his internal monologue is so stark that I don’t think any actor could have expressed such complex inner life without resorting to the dreaded voiceover.