“You are the King’s Hand, and the King is a fool…your friend, I know, but a fool nonetheless…and doomed, unless you save him.”
Synopsis: Eddard views the body of Ser Hugh of the Vale, along with Ser Barristan Selmy succeeds in preventing the assassination of King Robert completely by accident, watches the Knight of Flowers defeat the Mountain and get saved by the Hound, and goes through the looking glass with Varys.
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.
Eddard VII is almost over-flowing with political content as Eddard deals with the fallout from the assassination of Ser Hugh of the Vale, inadvertently thwarts an assassination attempt against the King, considers the evidence he’s gathered and begins to formulate a plan of action, and makes his first big breakthrough in his investigations when Varys decides to illuminate him.
Brace yourself folks, this one’s a doozy!
The Assassination of Ser Hugh
First of all, the fallout from the assassination of Ser Hugh of the Vale. Regardless of whether Ser Gregor killed Ser Hugh on his own behalf or on orders from some third party, Eddard Stark’s first reaction is to wonder “if it had been for his sake that they boy had died. Slain by a Lannister bannerman before Ned could speak to him.” This belated paranoia has some interesting consequences: Eddard starts to really see the scope of “the Lannister appetite for officers and honors,” noticing that “Robert [is] surrounded by the queen’s kin, waking and sleeping.” I would argue that it’s hardly a coincidence that Eddard foils Cersei’s attempt to kill Robert Baratheon by forbidding “him to fight, in front of his brother, his knights, and half his court,” right after he begins seeing Lannisters around every corner; as he gains information, Eddard becomes more of a threat.
Varys arrives and provides further information about Ser Hugh in ways that are more revealing than at first glance. On the surface, Varys confirms that Arryn was poisoned by the tears of Lys, a “rare and expensive poison,” and speculates that Ser Hugh of the Vale, (“one boy…all he was, he owed Jon Arryn, but when the widow fled to the Eyrie with her household, he stayed in King’s Landing and prospered,”) was responsible. However, we also learn something else that’s not clear at first read: Varys is capable of making mistakes. As we will learn later, it was Lysa and Littlefinger who killed Jon Arryn (although it’s still possible that Ser Hugh was a conspirator or a witness to that murder), but Varys doesn’t know that in no small part because Littlefinger has been very good at keeping the information to a few parties and then getting those parties far away from Varys’ spies.
However, we also get further suggestion that Ser Hugh’s murder was carried out to prevent him from talking to Lord Stark, and that the reason he died “so untimely” was that he had been bribed with enough money to purchase the “bright new armor” that was going to jump-start the jousting career of an other-wise penniless knight. To me, this suggests that my theory about Littlefinger having arranged his death to clean up any loose ends in regards to Jon Arryn’s investigations is on the right track. Moreover, the talk of expensive armor throws Varys’ comment about the tears of Lys being expensive is I think a quiet hint (similar to Pycelle’s mention of Lysa’s mental state) that it would have taken someone with Petyr Baelish’ wealth to acquire the tears of Lys.
The interesting question, is how much Varys really knew about Jon Arryn and Ser Hugh. Varys definitely knew the secret that Jon Arryn was looking for, and also knew much if not all of what Jon Arryn had uncovered (given how he kept tabs on Gendry), but it’s not clear whether Varys knew who had killed Jon Arryn (since Varys definitely benefits from the Starks blaming the murder on the Lannisters, provided he can time their conflict correctly) and is simply lying through misdirection, or whether Varys really did think Ser Hugh was responsible. In a sense, Littlefinger’s assassination, meant to convince Eddard of the reality of the Lannister threat and that his investigation is on the right track, might also have been intended to act as a distraction.
Creating Ser Hugh as the very image of a patsy (a nobody hedge knight who was close to Lord Arryn, who then suddenly comes into a lot of money and a knighthood the moment Arryn dies, who then dies in a suspicious manner at the exact right time) is just the kind of twice-removed intrigue that is the signature of the Littlefinger Conspiracy. And insofar as we can tell, it seems to work, convincing Varys that he’s found the hand who wielded the tears of Lys, leading him away from further investigation. After all, it’s absolutely to Varys’ interests to, if he knew that Littlefinger was responsible, to uncover his rival and take him out of the game of thrones, and yet he misses a perfect opportunity. On the other hand, it’s equally in Varys’ interests to keep Stark focused on the Lannisters, hanging back to see what happens with Arryn’s murder, and biding his time in dealing with Littlefinger (given his need to keep Littlefinger’s eyes focused on Westeros, not Essos).
Ned and Rob and Why We Should Care About the Bros
And to understand why Eddard Stark is genuinely a threat to Cersei and the other conspirators, why we shouldn’t dismiss him as doomed by his honor, I think we have to understand the bond between Eddard and Robert in all its complexity. It’s not as simple as Robert being willing to listen to Ned – as we have seen and will see, Robert is perfectly willing to overrule his Hand when he doesn’t care about the issue at hand (the killing of the direwolf) or when Eddard is urging against a course of action Robert views as necessary to the security of the state (the killing of Danaerys). Rather, Eddard knows Robert, not perfectly (he doesn’t yet know about the marital abuse, although he does know about the adulterous tendencies), but he knows his virtues and his vices. He knows that Robert is contrary when publicly told not to do something, he knows for all his drunkenness, Robert retains his memory (something that Eddard and Cersei share), but he also knows that Robert still has the qualities of the military leader that he displays later when Ser Gregor goes on a would-be psychotic killing spree in the tourney.
Secondly, he’s willing and able to tell his friend the king some hard truths and get the king to accept them – while telling Robert he’s grown too fat for his armor is a rather comic moment, telling a lifelong warrior that he can’t participate in a melee because everyone will let him win, and telling Robert that he didn’t know Lyanna as well as he thought is far more serious. And Robert does in fact listen to Eddard at this point, and in so doing, Eddard foils an assassination attempt without knowing. Certainly, Varus considers Eddard’s closeness to the King to be a major asset, arguing that “you, Lord Stark, I think…no, I know, he would not kill you even for his queen, and there may lay our salvation.”
It’s Varys’ opinion that made me re-think Eddard’s plan to lay everything in front of the king, “prove that the Lannisters were behind the attack on Bran, prove that they had murdered Jon Arryn,” gambling that Robert would act and “Cersei would fall,” isn’t such a bad plan after all. Now, we know in retrospect that Joffrey is the likeliest candidate for the attack on Bran (although as is often the case in Martin’s work, we don’t get any conclusive proof) and that Lysa Arryn and Littlefinger murdered Jon Arryn, but Eddard does ultimately succeed in gathering evidence of treason sufficient to bring down Cersei, and probably would have succeeded in getting Robert to move had he not been delayed just long enough by his injuries. After all, for Robert, Ned is the man in his life who is “always right,” and even in the moment that most people hold up as evidence that Ned can’t count on Robert (the decision to assassinate Danaerys), we should remember that Robert does ultimately accept the truth that Eddard was trying to tell him.
Granted, I still think Eddard makes a mistake in relying solely on Robert’s good character, as opposed to uniting the powers of his office with the favor of his king, but I think much of the fandom also judges his proposal with the hindsight knowledge that Robert is going to die before Eddard can let him know. When a plan requires that kind of deus ex machina to be derailed, I think reassessment is due.
Eddard’s Investigation Makes a Breakthrough
By Eddard VII, the lord of Winterfell has now proceeded far enough into his investigation that major players like Varys are beginning to come to him with significant pieces of information, and that he’s getting close to putting those pieces together into an overall picture of a conspiracy:
Littlefinger’s dagger, won by Tyrion Lannister in a tourney wager, sent to slay Bran is his sleep. Why? Why would the dward want Bran dead? Why would anyone want Bran dead?
The dagger, Bran’s fall, all of it was linked somehow to the murder of Jon Arryn, he could feel it in his gut, but the truth of Jon’s death remained as clouded to him as when he had started. Lord Stannis had not returned to King’s Landing for the tourney. Lysa Arryn held her silence behind the high walls of the Eyrie. The squire was dead, and Jory was still searching the whorehouses. What did he have but Robert’s Bastard?
That the armorer’s sullen apprentice was the king’s son, Ned had no doubt, the Baratheon look was stamped on his face, in his jaw, his eyes, that black hair…yet knowing all that, what had he learned? The king had other baseborn children scattered throughout the Seven Kingdoms…yet in the end it mattered little whether the king had one bastard or a hundred…none of them could threaten Robert’s trueborn children.
This summation is a pretty good barometer of the progress of Eddard’s investigation: he’s been misinformed about the dagger, but he is correct that Bran’s fall was linked to Jon Arryn’s murder, although the connection was somewhat tenuous; Littlefinger had been spying on Jon Arryn (who discovered after months of searching what Bran learned in an instant) and knew that if he had the Hand murdered, then it would be easy to direct suspicion towards the Lannisters who would have had the strongest motive, and while the selection of the dagger was a complete accident, Littlefinger’s decision to lie points the finger to him as someone who’s trying to turn the Starks and Lannisters against each other. Likewise, although he doesn’t realize, the fact that he has proof in the form of Gendry and the other bastards that all of Robert’s bastards bear the “Baratheon look” and that Cersei’s children don’t is threatening to the”trueborn” children and their mother. So there we have it, a man on the verge of breakthrough who doesn’t realize what he has.
Ironically, Eddard comes incredibly close in this chapter to nearly busting open the Littlefinger Conspiracy, and finding out who was responsible for the attack on Bran. had he inquired as to how Robert “know[s] him [Joffrey] as I do,” or had he inquired either with Robert about who won the dagger that was wagered when “the King of Flowers…dumped the Kingslayer on his golden rump,” or had he thought to ask Renly the moment that Renly says “A pity the Imp is not here with us…I should have won twice as much,” who had won Littlefinger’s dagger the last time Littlefinger had bet on the Kingslayer, he would have known that Joffrey is a psychopath, that only someone with access to the King would have had access to the would-be murder weapon, and that Littlefinger had lied to him. Unfortunately, Eddard is distracted by his thoughts on the Lannister Conspiracy and then by Ser Gregor’s attack on Loras Tyrell, and the moment is lost.
Varys choosing this moment to come forward represents both a potential opportunity and a potential danger to Stark’s investigation. On the one hand, he learns several important things from Varys – that Cersei attempted to kill her husband in the melee (more on that in a bit), that Robert is surrounded by Lannister loyalists who include two of the Kingsguard other than Jaime, that Jon Arryn had been murdered by the tears of Lys because he was asking questions, and that Ser Hugh was possibly involved. Outside of perhaps Stannis and the actual guilty parties, Varys is perhaps the most valuable source of information in Westeros. On the other hand, Varys is clearly not telling Eddard everything he knows (he clearly knows that Cersei’s children are not by Robert and that Littlefinger is deceiving Eddard about the dagger, for one), and is probably getting involved for the same reason that Littlefinger did, to guide Eddard’s investigation and modulate its tempo (although Varys probably also got involved to prevent Littlefinger from having a free hand with the King.
However, Varys’ motives for guiding the investigation are different from Littlefinger’s; he has no interest in getting Eddard to trust him, because he has no intent to betray him. Instead, I think we have to look ahead to Arya II, where he urges Illyrio to ready an invasion before the civil war is won; in order for the Varys/Illyrio Conspiracy to succeed, they can’t have any side in the civil war succeed and consolidate power before a Targaryen army lands in Westeros. At this moment in time, Varys wants to help Eddard protect King Robert’s life (note that he doesn’t offer to help with the investigation) because he doesn’t want the king to die and Joffrey to accede to the Iron Throne before Eddard can gather the necessary proof needed to discredit Joffrey and prevent a consolidation of the realm under the Lannisters.
Return to the Lannister Conspiracy
Next, we need to discuss the Lannister Conspiracy. I put off discussing this in Sansa II so that I could put it all in the same post, because it’s a critically important topic. In Sansa II, we see the queen set up her husband for an assassination attempt in the melee, and here we get confirmation from Varys that her reverse-psychology was a deliberate attempt to maneuver him into a place where a “tragic accident could take place.” This is very useful information, because it adds to our understanding of how the Lannister Conspiracy operates, and what its signature is – namely, the use of arranged “accidents” as a cover for murder, a tendency to passivity, and an overall sloppiness (Cersei couldn’t really count on her assassination actually killing Robert, given his skill in battle and the general chaos of the melee, and we see this again with Cersei arranging for Lancel to slip Robert fortified wine on his boar hunt, which doesn’t actually guarantee a kill).
This signature is important, because it allows us to rule out the Lannister Conspiracy for the attack on Bran (which had it succeeded would have been an obvious assassination) and the murder of Jon Arryn (which used poison), which bear no elements of this signature. The murder of Ser Hugh is an ambiguous case, since it relies on an accident (Ser Hugh’s gorget being loose), but it also involves the blatant use of a Lannister bannerman (which isn’t a part of the signature at all) – hence my conclusion that Littlefinger is to blame.
However, the incident itself raises other questions: what prompted this particular attack at this particular time? Given that this is only one of two times when the Lannister Conspiracy has actually acted, and that they didn’t act against Jon Arryn when he posed an existential threat to the Lannister Cause, it must have been something significant. My guess is that, following Varys’ comment that “the queen is watching you closely,” Cersei is worried that Eddard is coming too close to the truth and wants to kill Robert and have Joffrey crowned, with Eddard swearing an oath of fealty to the new king, in order to foreclose the possibility that Robert could be informed of the truth or that Eddard Stark might declare for Stannis.
The interesting question is why (as far as we know) Cersei hasn’t tried to assassinate her husband before, especially given her thinking in A Feast For Crows about her desire to make Tommen’s minority last as long as possible. My guess is that the problem was timing: if Joffrey was too young at Robert’s death, her plan to install him on the Iron Throne immediately (which was a vital element of her coup d’etat) wouldn’t be credible, and there would have to be a genuine Regent the realm would accept, either Jon Arryn or Eddard Stark. As is, her presence as Queen Regent was politically dicey enough to bolster Renly and Stannis’ support and even to create opposition within her own House.
Robert’s Political Awareness and Renly’s Plan
Another interesting moment in Eddard VII is that we finally get a sense of what Robert Baratheon thinks about the politics of the kingdom he supposedly is the monarch of. The first thing we learn is that Robert understands exactly how bad he is as king – “I was never so alive as when I was winning this throne, or so dead as now that I’ve won it,” – and the only reason he stays on the Iron Throne is that he realizes that Joffrey on the Throne and Cersei standing beside it would be so much worse than his benign neglect, given that his son is a sadistic maniac who shows many of the classic symptoms of psychopathy.
And Robert is also interested in doing something about it, when he has a Hand he can trust. “We’ll make this a reign to sign of and damn the Lannisters to seven hells,” he declaims and then in the same speech brings up Renly’s offer of Margaery Tyrell, which creates the potential for genuine change. If Robert is genuinely open to the Renly/Tyrell Conspiracy, this suggests an openness to dissolving his marriage to Cersei and disinheriting his children, bringing in the Tyrells to deal with the crown’s finances, and diplomatically isolating the Lannisters with a Stark/Tully/Baratheon/Tyrell bloc far too powerful to successfully rebel against even with the Arryns MIA.
The Love of the Crowd
Finally, one thing I wanted to bring up that was important in Sansa II but which I didn’t have time to get to – the importance of tourneys as a place for the manipulation of public opinion. We see in that chapter how Renly has used his showings in tourneys to garner public support among the commons to become “a great favorite,” which he definitely will trade on in his eventual bid for the throne. Loras Tyrell is also a skillful player in this particular political game, using his beauty, his wealth, and the tropes of romantic fiction to garner public support.
Jaime Lannister, no political aficionado, tries to win the public’s support, and certainly is attractive to the female half, but finds that it’s just as easy to become a figure of public mockery. Loras’ display of wealth is far more effective, as the commons go mad for the display of sapphires and roses, but in a chapter filled with upsets it’s ironic that it’s the Hound who wins “for perhaps the first time in his life, the love of the commons.”
So, last time I talked about the Victorian reinvention of jousting, but why did jousting get abandoned in the first place? A big part of it was that the introduction of the more powerful musket that replaced the arquebus in the 1690s made knightly charges non-viable, but another part of it was that jousting was insanely dangerous and fell out of fashion as a result.
Henry VIII has passed into legend either for his divorce and remarriage to Anne Boleyn or as an obese wife-murderer, but the young Henry Tudor was considered a handsome, if somewhat bull-like, athletic young man and a keen enthusiast of jousting. However, in 1536, Henry VIII was badly wounded in a joust at Greenwich Palace when he was struck in the leg with his opponent’s lance in such a way that his horse then fell on top of him. The injury to his leg, which never completely healed, made maintaining mobility much more difficult, and so the formerly svelte monarch went from 180-200 pounds (on a 6’1″ frame) to 392 pounds at his death. Even more significant may have been the undiagnosed brain injury associated with the fall, which caused the young King to fall unconscious for two hours, after which the king’s personality began to shift to the paranoid, vindictive man of legend.
Even worse is the case of Henry II of France, Henry VIII’s contemporary, and sometimes friend and rival. In 1559, at a tourney to celebrate a peace treaty with Austria and the marriage of his daughter to the King of Spain, Henry II jousted against Gabriel Montgomery, the captain of his Scottish Guard, and received a blow to the head when Montgomery’s lance splintered. The resulting wound turned septic and led quickly to his death at the age of 40. After his death, his decidedly unhealthy son, Francis II, ruled only for eighteen months before dying of a disease of the ear, and in turn was replaced by the infant Charles IX. The result was four years of regency under Catherine de Medici, who oversaw the loss of virtually all of France’s territories in Italy, the collapse of the “Auld Alliance” with Scotland, and the beginning of the French Wars of Religion, which would paralyze the country for thirty years.
It’s not surprising, then, that the monarchs of Europe gave up a sport that could potentially wreck entire dynasties if the wrong monarch took a lance to the face. The interesting thing is that the same didn’t happen in Westeros, despite the death of Baelor Breakspear in a “Trial of Seven” in AL 209, and that for some reason Robert Baratheon managed to gain Henry VIII’s weight without suffering Henry’s debilitating injury.
Eddard VII gives us a wide variety of hypotheticals to consider, from both past and present:
- Ned became King? Let’s say the rebel alliance had decided not to link back to the past, either because Robert Baratheon thought twice about becoming king, or had died of his wounds after the Battle of the Trident; it’s not unreasonable that Eddard Stark would have become King. The story of the Mad King’s vendetta against the innocent Starks would certainly work as dynastic propaganda, and the Stark/Tully/Arryn political bloc united by marriage along with the support of House Baratheon. Interesting things follow: Eddard Stark probably would have had great difficulty in the beginning, given the remoteness of his northern base, so probably would have relied heavily on the Tullys to project his power in middle Westeros, but with three trueborn sons, his dynasty would have been well-founded. Policies would have been somewhat different – the crown would probably not have gone into debt, the Greyjoy Rebellion would have been handled swiftly, and I can’t see corrupt members of the royal bureaucracy lasting long, but Eddard would have had to deal with discontent from the Lannisters, Tyrells, and possibly also the Martells (although depending on how he handled Tywin’s sack of King’s Landing, that could have fallen out very differently), but he would have had Jon Arryn’s support as Hand to help him. Jon Snow’s presence would have proven exceedingly difficult, given his potential parentage, possibly leading to a Daemon Blackfyre situation, especially if Varys ever found out about his parentage.
- Jon Arryn became King? Jon Arryn had political weight and the respect of most of the Great Houses, and would have also had the Stark/Tully/Arryn power bloc and the support of House Baratheon. He probably would have had an earlier time than Eddard, given his political experience and the closer proximity of the Vale to the Crownlands, but he would also have had a different set of problems as King, namely a wife of questionable fertility and mental capacity, and a sickly solitary heir. I could easily imagine King Jon’s court becoming a den of intrigue, as the eligible daughters of the Great Houses are put forward to replace the barren Queen, and the constant fear that if the “mature” King and his sickly son both die, the realm is potentially without a rightful heir to the throne. Littlefinger’s rise to power would be all the more precipitous, given the allure of the Handship and the potential to become Regent to the young King Robert Arryn. On the other hand, the crown would not be heavily indebted, and openly corrupt men like Janos Slynt would have been purged from government.
- No Lannister marriage? Given that Robert had no great interest in marrying Cersei Lannister, it’s possible that a different dynastic match could have been made. Who precisely that would have been is trickier: Margaery was born the year of the rebellion, so House Tyrell, the logical alternative to House Lannister as a rich and powerful House that needs to be brought into the fold, would probably have had to offer either Janna or Minna Tyrell (Lord Mace’s sisters). House Martell was out of the question, both because of the murder of Elia and Arianne being six; House Tully’s women were already married; House Greyjoy had no women of marriageable age; and House Stark’s only daughter was dead. A Tyrell match would have probably resulted in the same scramble for royal appointments and favors, but the marriage would probably have been much more peaceful and Robert would have had trueborn children. Hence, no need for Jon Arryn’s investigation, assassination, and Eddard Stark would never have gone South.
- Renly’s plan worked? Margaery becoming the new queen is something I’ve brought up before, but it happening at this time would have been quite interesting. Certainly, I think a Henry VIII/Anne Boleyn-style match would probably have gone off like gang-busters, and Renly and the Tyrells would have certainly helped Eddard to root out the Lannister Conspiracy and install a new regime in King’s Landing. What happens next is harder to say. Potentially, a civil war in the vein of the Blackfyre Rebellion could have broken out between those who favor the Lannister claimants and those who favor the Tyrells – Tywin would have a much harder time of it, but I could see him buying off Balon and using the Martell’s historic hatred and fear of the Tyrells to counter-balance their hatred for his own person (although he’d probably have to trade them Gregor and Amory Lorch). That plus a hefty investment in mercenaries might have worked, but it would be a really heavy lift. Certainly, I think we would have seen an interesting situation emerge where once Margaery gives birth to an heir, “Uncle Renly” begins working to isolate Eddard and get himself named as Regent when his brother dies.
- Cersei’s plan had succeeded? If Robert Baratheon dies at this point, things become very interesting indeed. Without firm proof of Joffrey’s genetic bastardy, Eddard probably would have sworn an oath of fealty to the new King – but unless Robert dies instantly, Eddard’s the new Regent. With no cause to remove him, Cersei now has to work to unseat an Eddard Stark who now has the powers of the King of Westeros, and who will be quickly lobbied by Stannis and Renly (if not also by Littlefinger and Varys) with proofs that Joffrey is king. This could potentially kick off a Dance of the Dragons-style coup d’etat, with Eddard standing in for Ser Criston the Kingmaker. Alternatively, had Eddard ceased his investigations and truly believed Joffrey was the rightful King, I could see him unhappily leading the royal armies against Stannis and Renly before being dismissed from service or resigning when Joffrey’s madness becomes evident.
- The jousts go differently? If Jaime beats the Hound, then it’s possible the Hound is injured or not on hand when his brother goes berserk, which might lead to a dead Ser Loras and the Tyrells and Renly joining Eddard in an anti-Lannister coalition. Moreover, without the tourney winnings, the Hound has no reason to return to the Brotherhood Without Banners following his trial, which might have significant consequences for Arya. Alternatively, it could mean that Jaime and Loras have a re-match following Loras’ defeat of the Mountain, and nothing more comes of it. And if the Mountain beats the Knight of Flowers without trying to murder him, maybe it’s a total non-event.
Book vs. Show:
This is one area where I feel the show diverges from the book in ways that diminish the narrative. Not showing the Hound vs. Jaime I can understand, since it’s not critical to the plot at all (although the idea of Jaime stumbling around unable to see is a funny sight), but what really gets me is the deletion of Cersei’s assassination plot against Robert. This could easily have been added to the scene between Eddard and Varys without any increase in budget, and it would have accomplished several things: firstly, it would have meant that Eddard actually accomplishes something significant in the first half of the series; secondly, it would have ratcheted up the tension, as now the watchers realize that the King could get whacked at any moment (it also makes Varys’ reaching out to Eddard more significant); thirdly, it would have made Cersei more of a villain and an active presence in the plot, whereas she kind of disappears from the narrative between the death of Lady and Eddard’s injury.
The only explanation I can think of is that the showrunners wanted to stick to the Jon Arryn assassination through-line to avoid confusion, which isn’t a very satisfying answer.