“Those were the king’s words,” Ser Barristan said, shocked.
“We have a new king now,” Cersei Lannister replied.
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.
Although Eddard XIV isn’t the last Eddard chapter in A Game of Thrones, it is essentially the end of his political career – after this chapter, Lord Stark will be many things; a bargaining chip, a political symbol, a historical figure, but not a political actor.
As I discussed in the previous Eddard chapter, Eddard does make one smart move in summoning the Small Council immediately on the death of King Robert to install himself as Regent, notably ensuring that Ser Barristan Selmy (a pillar of legitimacy in the public’s eyes, as even Tywin agrees) was on hand to read the will and lend his authority to Eddard’s Regency. Indeed, Eddard is actually playing the Game of Thrones here: “the need for deceit was a bitter taste in his mouth, but Ned knew he must tread softly here, must keep his counsel and play the game until he was firmly established as regent.” Eddard even thinks to himself that he intends to delay revealing the truth of the succession until “Arya and Sansa were safely back in Winterfell, and Lord Stannis had retuned to King’s Landing with all his power.” Unfortunately for him, what Eddard has neglected here is the crucial importance of timing – Littlefinger has already made his deal with Cersei (the precise terms of which we’ll get into later), Sansa has informed Cersei of Eddard’s timing and his intent to get his children out (and only that), and Renly has fled in the night.
Faced with a choice between the long play and a swift strike, Eddard has chosen…poorly.
Littlefinger’s Nessun Dorma
Littlefinger’s actions here are crucial – by making Eddard sure that the Goldcloaks are on his side, Littlefinger ensures that Eddard reacts to news about Renly fleeing the city with all his 100 swords with equanimity, and even the news of Joffrey being installed on the throne: “Ned had expected Cersei to strike quickly; the summons came as no surprise.” While it’s clear that Eddard has made a crucial mistake of timing – failing to see that the crucial moment to get his children to safety and himself publicly proclaimed as the rightful Regent was the previous night rather than this morning – it also underlines how crucial his belief that he has the Goldcloaks is to LIttlefinger’s plans, because without that, Eddard would likely have copied Renly in booking it out of King’s Landing (or at least attempting to).
However, Baelish’s actions are rather ambiguous and unclear on a different level. It’s clear that, at some point, Littlefinger must have struck a bargain with Cersei for his support, given that he survives the cabinet reshuffle despite Cersei hating him. On the other hand, we know that Cersei turned down Littlefinger’s bid for Sansa’s hand in marriage (shudder) and that Harrenhal and the title of Lord Paramount of the Riverlands was Littlefinger’s deal with Tywin as his quid-pro-quo for sealing the Tyrell alliance. So what did Littlefinger ask for at his moment of greatest influence over Cersei Lannister?
At the same time, we can learn a lot about Littlefinger’s style as a conspirator from his actions here. As reckless as Littlefinger can be, he’s quite cautious at this moment – after all, there’s no practical limitation that prevents him from kidnapping both Eddard Stark and Cersei and Joffrey and trying to use them to bring both the Starks and Lannisters to their knees and declare himself King, or to sell them to Renly or anyone else who’s willing to buy a slightly-used kingdom. So even though I’m quite convinced he’s a sociopath, he’s at least intelligent enough to recognize that there are limits to his power at this moment in time.
However, there’s also a very personal sadistic side to his actions as well; there’s no need for Littlefinger to personally slip the knife under Eddard Stark’s chin with the dagger that was used in the attempt on Bran’s life. The only reason is to ensure that Eddard Stark knows that it’s he, LIttlefinger, who’s responsible for his downfall, because this is very much personal. Littlefinger is acting here to revenge himself on the man who married the woman he loves (and who in his head loves him in return) and to prove himself to be the man’s intellectual superior.
It is this latter quality that makes me look askance at those who see Littlefinger as a peerless mastermind who will triumph over all in the end. The man’s Achilles Heel – his Gatsby-like desire to turn back time while revenging himself on the families who injured him as a young man, and his insecure need to show himself to be the smartest man in the room – is so well-established by GRRM that I can’t see his downfall not happening.
The Failed Coup and the Question of Paper
It’s worth noting that at the crucial moment, Eddard Stark was willing to breach the rules of honor and law to seize the state itself:
“Your son has no claim to the throne he sits. Lord Stannis is Robert’s true heir.”
…”Ser Barristan, seize this traitor.”
The Lord Commander of the Kingsguard hesitated. In the blink of an eye he was surrounded by Stark guardsmen, bare steel in their mailed fists…the Hound drew his longsword. The knights of the Kingsguard and twenty Lannister guardsmen in crimson cloaks moved to support him…
“You leave me no choice…Commander, take the queen and her children into custody. Do them no harm, but escort them back to the royal apartments and keep them there, under guard.”
When it comes right down to it, despite being fooled by Littlefinger, Ned Stark comes within inches of actually pulling off a coup d’etat. And because in medieval polities, the symbol and the reality of power are more directly linked than in our times, Cersei is terrifyingly vulnerable to such a coup – in order to push Ned Stark out of the Regency, Cersei has to put Joffrey on the Iron Throne and keep him there to give him the aura of a king rather than a pretender, and in such situations, the military doctrine of “power to a point” means that if a few soldiers can get to within a sword’s length of either Eddard or Cersei and Joffrey, that side wins even if it’s outnumbered.
And the sides are more evenly matched than appears in hindsight. The throneroom constricts the total number of soldiers that can be in the room – Eddard has eight, Cersei has twenty, and the Goldcloaks have 100, and that’s about as many men as can fit into the room. Obviously in OTL the 100 Goldcloaks are decisive, but potentially had Eddard brought all of his 20 men and just rushed the throne, he might have had a fighting chance of capturing either Cersei or Joffrey and ending the fight with speed of maneuver. Indeed, if Eddard had actually reached out to Renly and requested his military support, their 120 men would have probably been enough in that confined space to carry the day with a little luck.
And this gets me to why I think the fandom is wrong when it accepts on face Cersei’s arguments that “power is power” and that paper shields are useless – legitimacy matters a great deal in politics, which is why Cersei’s placed her son on the throne instead of holing up in a more defensive position, and why she waits until Eddard has both openly spoken and acted against Joffrey in front of the Small Council to spring her trap. Military hegemony does decide whether Eddard’s words count as treason in the throne room, but military hegemony the other direction with the shift of a hundred men could have meant that Cersei tearing up the King’s will would have been seen as open treason; and in situations in which the military positions are evenly matched (if Renly’s men had also been in the room), paper can be the all-important factor.
Notably, legitimacy has a public dimension. Here and now, Cersei has claimed legitimate authority in the capitol with a private show of force and the astute use of monarchist symbolism. But look at how quickly she loses it, first to Tyrion when he arrives with a piece of paper declaring him Hand of the King, next when the Flea Bottom mob rises up against the “brotherfucker” in the name of “King Bread,” and then disastrously against the High Septon and his mob of sparrows.* There are limits to the “power of power.”
*Likewise, Eddard ignoring the public dimensions of legitimacy is crucial. Only in the Small Council room and the throne room is it known that Eddard Stark has been named Regent of the Seven Kingdoms; only in the throne room does Eddard declare Stannis to be the true heir to the Iron Throne. If Eddard’s status and intentions been a matter of public knowledge, Cersei’s counter-coup and Eddard’s public execution would have been instantly politically contentious in ways that they just weren’t in OTL.
In our last Eddard chapter, I discussed how Richard Duke of York spent the years 1450-1456 in a state of extreme frustration with the state of national policy, trying to right the fiscal ship of state and get Somerset and Suffolk behind bars, being made Regent when Henry VI lost his mind only to be sacked when Henry recovered, taking up arms against the Queen, becoming Regent again when Henry relapses only to be sacked again, and on and on.
After the first battle of St. Albans, an extremely uneasy peace reigned for about four years; Queen Margaret worked to oust Yorkist supporters from royal office and extend her influence through the ranks of the kingdom’s sheriffs, whilst York rose in popular esteem by defeating the Scottish King (a secret ally of Margaret, and an alliance that would cause real political problems for the Lancastrians in the future) and Warwick by a successful naval campaign against French, Spanish, and British pirates (while indulging in a little piracy against France, Spain, and the Hanseatic League because hypocrisy is a game everyone can play). The spirit of the times was best exemplified by the famous “Love-Day” ceremony on the 24th of March, 1458 where Henry VI and the Archbishop of Canterbury sought to end the growing feud by having the Houses of Plantagent (York) and Neville (Warwick) parade to St. Paul’s Cathedral hand-in-hand with the Lancastrian Houses of Beaufort (Somerset), Percy (Northumberland), and Clifford, with the Duke of York escorting the Queen herself, where the two sides pledged peace and put up huge monetary pledges against any resumption of violence.
The eternal peace lasted about a year – by summer 1458, the Queen moved against Warwick, accusing him of piracy and ordering him to appear before the Privy Council. Warwick arrived with 600 armed men, and denounced the Council’s actions as a show-trial; the city of London, who loved the charismatic, fantastically-wealthy pirate hunter (who sold them a lot of pirated goods on the cheap), promptly rioted, forcing the investigation to be shelved. In the fall, Warwick was either accidentally almost skewered or narrowly avoided assassination by a roasting spit while passing through the royal kitchens at Westminster; the resulting scuffle turned into a fight between Warwick’s men and the royal guard that led to Warwick fleeing to Yorkshire with a royal warrant for his arrest.
Both sides armed themselves for war in early 1459, as York and Warwick renewed their accusation that the Prince of Wales was a bastard and the Queen was a tyrant, while the Queen denounced Yorkist armament as treason. Warwick moved quickly to take London without firing a shot and marched to Ludlow to united with York’s army; his brother the earl of Salisbury fought his way past a royal army twice his size at Blore heath to unite with the Yorkist army.
Finally, the two sides came head to head, 25,000 Yorkists staring down 30,000 Lancastrians – and something amazing happened: Richard Duke of York refused to fight the King in person and ordered a retreat to Worcester. The King’s army followed the Yorkist army to Ludlow, where Yorkist moral plummeted. Andrew Trollope, Warwick’s right-hand-man at Calais, defected with his entire forces, swelling the royal army to between 40-60,000 men. Outnumbered and desperate low in morale, York, Salisbury, and Warwick fled in the night for Calais, and the Yorkist army scattered.
For three months, “the Queen and those of her affinity ruled the realm as her [sic] liked, gathering riches innumerable.” At the so-called “Parliament of Devils,” York, Salisbury, Warwick and all the Yorkists lords were attainted for high treason and stripped of their lands, with York’s wife forced to bear witness.
 Davies’ Chronicle cited in Weir, Alison, The Wars of the Roses
By late June 1460, the Yorkists had readied themselves for an invasion of England. Warwick, Salisbury, and York’s son the Earl of March landed at Sandwich with 2,000 men. The south-east of England, which had shared London’s fondness for Warwick, rose up for the Yorkist, and by the 2nd of July, Warwick entered the city with 40,000 men, stating that his cause was to undo the Queen’s misrule in the name of the innocent and deceived King Henry. As the Yorkist army marched north to link up with York’s presumed landing in the west, they ran into the royal army at Northhampton. In the driving rain, Warwick advanced on the Lancastrians from three directions, claiming that he would speak with the King or die trying – and as he reached the earth-and-wooden-stake defenses on, the Lancastrian flank under the command of Lord Grey promptly dropped their weapons and helped the Yorkists over the fortifications. Within a half-hour the battle was over, with the Lancastrian soldiers in panicked flight and the King arrested by a common archer; hearing the news, Queen Margaret fled to Scotland.
With total victory in his grasp, York landed in North Wales and marched to reclaim his wife, his children, and his lands. From there, he marched to London, timing it perfectly to coincide with Parliament’s first sitting. By this point, Richard Duke of York was done with Regencys and Lord Protectorships – he was descended from the second son of Edward III (the line of the Mortimers of the Earldom of March), whereas Henry VI was descended from the usurping Henry Bolingbrooke, son of the third son of Edward III, John of Gaunt. By law and right, in Richard’s mind, he was the rightful heir to the throne; compared to his lunatic cousin, Richard was the superior soldier and administrator. All England should welcome the return of good government.
Richard entered the city bearing the royal arms of England and carrying the sword of state before him. He dismounted his horse at Westminster Hall and entered the hall with his sword still in his hands. He marched up to the throne and placed his hands on the throne, laying claim to the kingdom. Instead of cheers of acclamation, Richard was met with total silence.
He had completely misjudged the political sentiment of the Parliament – incensed as they were with royal misgovernment, they were not ready to unseat an anointed monarch.
Any time when you have that many swords being swung in a confined space, a lot of different things can happen. Some entertaining possibilities include:
- Ned succeeds? Let’s say by some really lucky chance that one of the Stark guards gets with sword range of either Joffrey or Cersei and this forces the Lannisters in the Throne Room to surrender. This sets off a chaotic situation in which Eddard is besieged inside the Throne Room by the 100 or so Lannisters outside the Throne Room, outnumbered but with the ultimate bargaining chip. Littlefinger thus has the opportunity to switch sides once again if he wants, because no Goldcloak is going to attack the Starks if that might lead to the death of a royal. Meanwhile, this changes the military situation immediately: Tywin can no longer afford to focus on the Riverlands and desperately needs to get his hands on some Starks important enough to force a trade (which was his intention from the beginning), but also needs to get to King’s Landing before Stannis can arrive, establish local military superiority, and grab the Iron Throne before Renly. What happens then, I have no idea.
- Ned dies? A sword or spear goes awry and all of the sudden, Lord Stark is dead on the Throne Room floor. Cersei no doubt push the story that he died committing treason, but the very isolation that made her pre-emptive coup work would probably work against here, with conspiracy theories immediately going to work. Notably, Cersei loses the opportunity to either do a trade with Robb once the Battle of the Whispering Woods happens, or to use Eddard’s public confession to bolster her political position. The Starks, meanwhile, most likely go from rescue mode to total war as Robb rides into battle knowing his father has been murdered by the Lannisters. Most likely, Jaime loses his head on the spot – thus butterflying away his later release, the defection of the Karstarks, and any hope of peace with the Lannisters.
- Cersei dies? Depending on who’s in charge once the fighting stops, things probably go badly very quickly. If it’s Ned then one more ton of guilt lands on his shoulders, but he’s now the undisputed power in the capital and probably can hold it together long enough for Stannis to show up. However, now Tywin’s out for blood, and I highly doubt any retreat to Harrenhal happens. The war in the west gets very ugly very quickly, but the politics of the south gets very complicated, with Stannis on the Throne with the allegiance of the North, and Renly in Highgarden weighing his options. If it’s the Lannisters, then Joffrey’s got no one holding him back: Ned’s dead, so’s Sansa, and there’s no responsible adult in charge. The Capitol collapses into chaos while Tywin and Robb seek to revenge themselves on the other; Joffrey’s probably torn to pieces by the starving mob, Stannis arrives and gets ready for another siege.
- Joffrey dies? This one actually works out well for both sides, in that neither of them now have to deal with a giggling psychopath on the Iron Throne. If it’s Ned, then again the thing with the guilt and now Sansa’s really upset, but at least Tommen won’t be a problem while he waits out the siege; Cersei on the other hand is at Medea-levels of vengeance-madness. If it’s Cersei, well, it’s an open question whether love of her brother or love of her son takes precedence.
- Everyone dies? Fighting men can get carried away, and now there’s a huge damn mess on the floor of the Throne Room and no one’s clear about who’s in charge. Littlefinger does the awkward-collar-pull gesture, Stannis praises R’hllor, both Robb and Tywin are furious (but don’t really have many options at this point), and the war goes on.
Book vs. Show
The show played this one pretty straight, so nothing to discuss here. Better luck next time!