“The Freys have held the crossing for six hundred years, and for six hundred years they have never failed to exact their toll.”
Synopsis: Robb Stark‘s host arrives at the Twins to find that Walder Frey has holed up in his castle with 4,000 men rather than marching south to fight with Edmure Tully, who they discover has been roundly thrashed at Riverrun. Given the urgency of the situation, Catelyn Stark is sent to negotiate with the Lord of the Crossing. Robb agrees to pay his price in order to put his larger stratagem in motion.
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.
Catelyn IX is a very rich source of material for this section, in that the events of the chapter revolve around a political negotiation between Catelyn Stark and Walder Frey and the theme of the chapter revolves around the question of what kind of political learning Robb Stark has acquired and what use he’ll make of it. It’s also a chapter that I’ve been looking forward to for a long time, because this bargain is a subject that I think much of the fandom is simply wrong about…more on this a bit later.
Robb’s Political Learning
One of the few maxims of presidential politics that I’ve found to be generally accurate is that one of the best qualities a leader can have is the capacity for growth. It’s a good sign, therefore, that when Catelyn check in on Robb’s development as a leader in this chapter he shows a capacity for political learning. First, we learn that Robb “would ask one of his lords to join him…each day…so that they might confer as they marched; he honored every man in turn, showing no favorites, listening as his lord father had listened, weighing the words of one against the other. He has learned so much from Ned, she thought…but has he learned enough?” We’ve seen Ned doing this from Arya’s perspective, and it’s nice to be reminded that in his own sphere, Ned engaged in good political practice and that Robb has learned this from him. As Richard Neudstadt wrote in Presidential Power:
“A President[‘s] first essential need is information…to help himself he must reach out as widely as he can for every scrap of fact, opinion, gossip, bearing on his interests and relationships as President. He must become his own director of his own central intelligence. For that directorship two rules of conduct can be drawn from the case studies in this book. On the one hand, he can never assume that anyone or any system will supply the bits and pieces he needs most; on the other, he must assume that much of what he needs will not be volunteered by his official advisers.”
By listening widely to his bannermen and comparing their advice and information, Robb is giving himself both the widest possible lens of information but also gaining a perspective from which he can judge his advisers. It’s a good start.
More importantly for the question of political learning, when it comes time for Robb to choose between his personal happiness and the war effort, he shows his willingness to sacrifice the former for the latter, consenting to the betrothal in order to cross the river. Unlike Renly or Stannis who get frequently distracted from the task at hand when an issue of their reputation is raised, Robb prioritizes victory over the Lannisters and his father’s rescue over everything else. Another good sign.
Let’s Make a Deal (with Walder Frey)
As I mentioned above, the major political event of the chapter is that Catelyn trades Robb’s (and Arya’s) hand in marriage for the support of House Frey.* This betrothal, and Robb breaking it, is seen by many of the fans as *the* cause of Robb’s downfall, which in turn places the blame for House Stark’s defeat in the War of Five Kings squarely on Robb’s shoulders. However, as I will demonstrate in succeeding chapters from here to the Red Wedding, it is not the case that Robb breaking his marriage pact was the cause of his defeat.
While Catelyn does accomplish her immediate objective of getting the bridge crossing and the 4,000 men of House Frey, the fact that she has to give up both Robb and Catelyn to the Freys suggests that she might not have worked out the best deal possible. One sign that there might have been a better deal on the table comes from Walder himself when he says “your family has always pissed on me, don’t deny it…years ago, I went to your father and suggested a match between his son and my daughter…Lord Hoster would not hear of it. Sweet words he gave me, excuses, but what I wanted was to get rid of a daughter.”
Between this and Walder’s offer of a Red Wedding, I think getting Edmure married into the Freys was something that Walder wanted very dearly and might have considered a fair bargain for his support. Selling Edmure’s hand in marriage would have, in turn, kept Robb’s hand in marriage open for a dynastic alliance that would have been absolutely necessary in winning the War of Five Kings and maintaining an independent North afterwards.
Indeed, there is a basic philosophical inconsistency between the widely held position that Eddard’s defeat was the result of his being too honorable and the position that Robb’s defeat was caused when he lost his honor. One cannot take at face value that “in the game of thrones, you win or you die” and turn around and argue that one should never break one’s vows; either Robb should have been willing to break any vow, any law, any custom of Westeros in order to win (as Tywin does), or the callous calculus that Cersei follows is completely wrong.
More importantly, the question of whether Robb should have kept his word to Walder seems to rest on the mistaken assumption that Walder Frey was primarily reacting to the insult. Throughout Catelyn IX, it is repeatedly remarked on that Walder Frey is a disloyal man who will not uphold his vows and who cannot be trusted in the slightest. As Catelyn points out the moment she sees his host drawn up at the Twins, “It was the Trident all over, damn the man. Her brother Edmure had called the banners; by rights, Lord Frey should have gone to join the Tully host at Riverrun, yet here he sat.” Walder Frey’s protestations that he meant to send his swords are patently false, given that every other Riverlands House made it to Riverrun to fight in the battle. The fact that Ser Jared Frey the liar swears “on his honor” that Walder’s intent was good only confirms this. Likewise, his protestation that “I swore oaths to the crown too” are ultimately hollow (and ultimately more directed as setting up a bidding war for his loyalty) – Edmure’s call to fight went out almost a month before King Robert died, and the declaration that the Tullys and their bannermen would have to come to King’s Landing or be attainted couldn’t have reached him until after the battles of Golden Tooth and Riverrun, which ought to have made him a traitor by association. In other words, Walder Frey is blackmailing the Starks over something he is, by rights, obligated to do anyway.
At the same time, Catelyn has a pretty good read on Walder Frey’s character: “some men take their oaths more seriously than others…he has an old man’s caution and a young man’s ambition, and has never lacked for cunning….this bore Walder Frey’s seal beyond a doubt…hold back, wait, and take no risk unless forced to it.” This kind of a man doesn’t act solely out of a grudge; while clearly Walder Frey is a bitter man who treasures his grievances, he didn’t get to where he is today by letting his grievances overpower his sense of self-preservation. In that light, Robb marrying Jeyne Westerling is less the cause of Walder Frey’s betrayal than the excuse.
So…given that he’s dealing with a patently bad actor, who is blackmailing them over something he’s obliged to do anyway, and who won’t hesitate to betray them, it makes no sense to hold that Robb should have kept his word to Walder Frey at all costs. As Machiavelli says in his chapter on “How Princes Ought to Keep Faith” (one of his most controversial chapters in The Prince and what might have gotten his book banned by the Church):
Every one understands how praiseworthy it is in a Prince to keep faith, and to live uprightly and not craftily. Nevertheless, we see from what has taken place in our own days that Princes who have set little store by their word, but have known how to overreach men by their cunning, have accomplished great things, and in the end got the better of those who trusted to honest dealing. Be it known, then, that there are two ways of contending, one in accordance with the laws, the other by force; the first of which is proper to men, the second to beasts. But since the first method is often ineffectual, it becomes necessary to resort to the second. A Prince should, therefore, understand how to use well both the man and the beast….but since a Prince should know how to use the beast’s nature wisely, he ought of beasts to choose both the lion and the fox; for the lion cannot guard himself from the toils, nor the fox from wolves. He must therefore be a fox to discern toils, and a lion to drive off wolves.
To rely wholly on the lion is unwise; and for this reason a prudent Prince neither can nor ought to keep his word when to keep it is hurtful to him and the causes which led him to pledge it are removed. If all men were good, this would not be good advice, but since they are dishonest and do not keep faith with you, you in return, need not keep faith with them; and no prince was ever at a loss for plausible reasons to cloak a breach of faith. Of this numberless recent instances could be given, and it might be shown how many solemn treaties and engagements have been rendered inoperative and idle through want of faith in Princes, and that he who was best known to play the fox has had the best success.
I would argue that Robb’s major mistake was that he didn’t break his vow in a more calculated manner. As Catelyn points out, “boys might play with swords, but it took a lord to make a marriage pact, knowing what it meant.” Robb Stark is the heir to Winterfell, and will shortly be the Lord of Winterfell and then King in the North; in the middle of a civil war, he needs to be marrying much higher than the Freys and their 4,000 men. Asha Greyjoy could bring several hundred ships and 10,000 men; Arianne Martell could bring 25,000 spears and has a burning hatred of the Lannisters; the Tyrells have the largest army in Westeros, are already inclined to oppose the Lannisters, and have more than four unmarried female relations. Catelyn essentially admits as much, when she thinks “if you had to fall into a woman’s arms, my son, why couldn’t they have been Margaery Tyrell’s? The wealth and power of Highgarden could have made all the difference in the fighting to come.”
Indeed, Robb should have been willing to break his oath to the Freys the moment it would have advanced the interests of his house, and used hostages and his 400 men at the Twins to force House Frey to remain in the field in defense of their liege lord.
Update on the War of Five Kings:
Also in this chapter, we get a major update on the War of Five Kings. Now, we’ve already seen from the Lannister perspective what the First Battle of Riverrun did for them, in that it basically eliminated the Riverlands as a military threat to the Lannisters. At the same time, it massively screws the Starks by taking out 20,000 allies that they badly needed in order to bring themselves up to the Lannisters’ level (once again, George R.R. Martin raising the stakes on our protagonists). The description of the battle given in this chapter raises new questions: namely, how exactly did it take place such that “the Kingslayer has destroyed Edmure’s host and sent the Lords of the Trident reeling in flight” to such an extent that “the Kingslayer went through him like an axe through ripe cheese?” What is the total military strength of the Riverlands?
It’s historically unlikely for an army to be so utterly destroyed in the field, especially since Jaime had 15,000 men and Edmure probably had somewhere between 16-20,000 men (his army is described as the “massed power” of the Tullys, Edmure raises 11,000 men at the Battle of the Fords after the losses of the first Battle of Riverrun, and Vance and Piper’s 4,000 were not present), putting them fairly even in numbers. If I had to guess, I would say that surprise is responsible, given the shock and the lopsided result; Edmure had sent Vance and Piper to block the River Road pass and most likely didn’t have scouts or pickets out to warn him of the sudden result. Especially given the fact that the Riverlords mobilized for war after the Lannisters, I think Edmure was drilling his new recruits and organizing his forces as the different lords came in when he was attacked – and as history has shown, green troops do not respond well to surprise attacks.
However, this also raises the question of what the massed forces of the Riverlands are. Elio estimates that the Riverlands have anywhere between 20,000 and 45,000 men, which is a very wide range that he admits is based on the disjuncture between what one would assume the Riverlands could support, given its size, the fertility of the region, the importance of rivers for trade and logistics, etc. and what GRRM has written about their forces. Now given that they lost somewhere in the region of 3,500 men at the Golden Tooth, that the Freys withheld their 4,000 men, and that the Riverlords got back up to a force of almost 20,000 right after the Battle of the Camps and then again 11,000 (minus the Freys) at the Battle of the Fords (which suggests that most of the army broke and ran rather than was cut down), I think the Riverlands must support at least 30-35,000 soldiers normally. Add 4,000 men of Vance and Piper plus 4,000 Freys plus around 20,000 at Riverrun gives you 28,000 men. This probably doesn’t include much of the southern Riverlands (or the “lower Trident”), which took significant casualties from Tywin’s march to Harrenhal and Gregor’s chevauchée after the Green Fork, who probably make up between 7-10,000 men.
All of this has huge military implications for Robb’s campaign. As we will see later, the military strength of the various contenders in the War of Five Kings is constantly fluctuating and can do so very quickly – so that a good commander has to be a good politician, always monitoring the health of his coalition and looking to expand it so that his effective fighting force keeps growing rather than shrinking. With one deal with the Freys, Robb goes from being outnumbered compared to Tywin by 2,000 men to outnumbering his opponent by the same margin. Likewise, given the size and importance of House Mallister of Seagard (and that the Mallisters are one of the few forces to retreat in good order from Riverrun), I think Robb arrived at the Whispering Woods with at least 2,000 men more than he departed the Twins with, contrary to AWOIAF’s estimates.
At the same time, however, Robb was heavily relying on both surprise to maximize his offensive multiplier and the geography of Riverrun to divide his enemy into sections that he could outnumber locally and thus defeat in detail, thus allowing him to split his army 16,000 foot to 6,000 horse and taking the smaller force into battle. Here I agree with BryndenBfish, who concludes that Robb took a good calculated risk in this part of the campaign, although I would stress more the extent to which Robb’s decision to make this gamble was informed by his and his uncle’s understanding of the geography of Riverrun. If Jaime had been able to have all 15,000 men united as one force, I think Robb’s actions would have more resembled his actions in the show…more on that later.
So while we’re talking about Walder Frey, I might as well take this opportunity to discuss the topic of treachery in the Wars of the Roses. While the Wars of the Roses has often been seen as a bitter, entrenched struggle between families bent on victory and revenge, which it was, it was also a conflict in which individual lords and entire families betrayed their liege lords repeatedly, switching sides over and order again – one major reason why all of the kings who succeeded Henry VI all focused on reducing and then eliminating the “affinities” (paid soldiers wearing the livery of a nobleman) of the noble families of England.
Some of the more impressive scoundrels of the Wars of the Roses include:
- “perfidious” Lord Stanley, the Earl of Derby (a good pick for historical parallels to Walder Frey), who came from a staunch Lancastrian House, but was married into the Yorkists through the Earl of Warwick. At the Battle of Blore Heath, one of the opening battles of the war, Stanley raised 2,000 men at his King’s command but then withheld them just a few miles away as a Lancastrian army was defeated by a smaller Yorkist force. When Edward IV took up the Yorkist cause, Stanley defected and fought alongside the new King; when Warwick defected from Edward IV, Stanley fought to restore Henry VI for the last time. Remarkably, he managed to get appointed to Edward IV’s royal council even after his betrayal. He then married Margaret Beaufort, the mother of Henry Tudor, while helping Richard III fight the Scots. Famously, Stanley held back his forces at Bosworth Field despite Richard III holding his son hostage, and then charged Richard’s rear once the King was fully committed, personally crowning Henry VII to make sure he ended up on the right side.
- Andrew Trollope, a career soldier, was one of Warwick’s closest lieutenants from his service at Warwick’s side in Calais. After sailing to England with Warwick’s fleet, Trollope defected to the Lancastrians with his entire force at Ludlow. His tactical genius proved invaluable to Margaret D’Anjou, as he devised the stratagems of sending false reinforcements to York wearing looted surcoats to lure him out of Sandal Castle, and in hiding the two wings of the Lancastrian forces in the woods to destroy the Yorkist army at Wakefield, and was knighted at the Lancastrian triumph of the Second Battle of St. Albans. Less skilled at “re-ratting” than Lord Stanley, Andrew Trollope died on the field at Towton.
- Lord Grey, a veteran of the wars in Acquitaine, served the Lancastrian cause consistently…right up until the Battle of Northhampton, when he ordered his men to lay down their arms as Warwick’s forces neared the fortifications of the Lancasttrian left flank, after which Warwick rolled up the line, sent the Lancastrian army into a panicked rout, and captured King Henry VI. For his pains, Lord Grey was awarded a disputed manor, the position of Lord Treasurer, and with the hand of Joan Woodville, the title of Earl of Kent. Apparently the wages of treason are real estate.
- William Neville, the uncle of the Kingmaker and Baron of Fauconberg, fought by Richard Duke of York’s side in France for seventeen years. After being ransomed by the King and then paid a thousand pounds in restitution, Neville fought for the Lancastrians at the First Battle of St. Albans, but then managed to get appointed to the Royal Council during Richard’s reign as Lord Protector; when the wars started up again, Neville defected to the Lancastians again with perfect timing, right before the disastrous Battle of Wakefield. When Edward IV came along, Neville fought for the new King, and got made Lieutenant of the North, Lord Admiral, and the Earl of Kent (Lord Grey would take the title after his death in 1463).
And that’s just the early Wars of the Roses; I haven’t even gotten into the Edwardian or Ricardian phases yet. So if you think that George R.R Martin lays it on thick with the Florents and the Tyrells, the Brackens and the Blackwoods, the Boltons and Freys, etc. if anything he’s slightly understating how thoroughly “each for his own” became the way to survive in our own timeline.
Given the momentous decisions involved in Catelyn IX, this chapter gives rise to a number of hypothetical scenarios:
- Robb had brought some wood? One of the hypothetical scenarios I’ve always wondered about is what would have happened if Robb (or Brynden the Blackfish) had brought a load of lumber to the Twins, for example from White Harbor, to use in rafting or pontooning across the Green Fork. George R.R Martin somewhat exaggerates the time it takes to cross a river in order to force Robb into making this particular choice, but historically, the Earl of Warwick was able to rebuild the bridge at Ferrybridge the day before Towton in far less than a day (given that he had to slowly force a crossing under fire, and then had time at the end of the day to set up camp as well as to repair the bridge), and Edward IV then had to repeat the feat the next day when a surprise Lancastrian attack forced a retreat and a torching of the repaired bridge, and then went on to fight the Battle of Towton. If Robb had had the opportunity to build a pontoon bridge or raft across the Green Fork, Catelyn would have been able to negotiate a much better deal with the Freys, given that the Freys’ most potent bargaining chip would have been neutralized, and in the case of a pontoon bridge, gives the Starks a bargaining chip to throw to the Freys.
- Catelyn had negotiated a different deal? So let’s say either that Catelyn had that to work with or that Walder would have been interested enough in the possibility of getting Edmure’s hand in marriage. If Robb can get across the Twins without offering his hand in marriage, then the politics of the later War of the Five Kings change dramatically. For example, let’s say Robb’s offer to the Greyjoys had more meat on the bone than the offer to make Balon King of the Iron Islands, if instead he had offered a marriage alliance between their two Houses? While Balon would likely have reacted with hostility, Asha Greyjoy, with her mind on pinecones and seashells, might have reacted differently. A Stark-Greyjoy alliance garners Robb 10,000 Ironborn and their fleet, frees up 17,000 Northmen to come down south and reinforce him, and potentially allows Robb to take Lannisport from the sea and enough troops to keep Casterly Rock under siege, while putting his total forces in the Riverlands up to 55,000, which would be enough to take on a Lannister-Tyrell alliance and get to equal footing or better with one or two victories in the field. Likewise, if Catelyn Stark had had the presence of mind at Bitterbridge, she might have been able to nip in before Littlefinger and create a Stark-Tyrell alliance strong enough to win the War of Five Kings for the Starks outright, even with the temporary loss of the North (and hey, both groups hate the Lannisters and the Greyjoys!).
- There was no deal? Let’s say Walder is just too cautious on a given day to cross Lord Tywin, and no deal is reached. So Plan A is off the table, and Robb has to go with Plan B – go straight at Tywin and gamble on a sudden victory. With Brynden Tully in charge of his scouts, there’s no way the night march is detected. If 18,000 Northmen hit Tywin’s army completely unexpectedly, it’s quite possible that the War of Five Kings goes mirror-image, with Tywin (and maybe Tyrion) in Jaime’s place and Jaime now seeing the Starks between him and King’s Landing. This would be very interesting indeed, especially with a Jaime who’s still in his over-confident and reckless phase, but especially in political terms – Tywin hasn’t heard word one about the Stark perspective on the war, and he and Tyrion might be smart enough to put two-and-two together about who’s really responsible for the war. At the same time, it’s really unclear what happens politically once Tywin’s a prisoner – Jaime is aggressive and reckless, but would he risk his father’s life? Would Cersei? Granted, it would probably be too late to save Ned’s life, but with Tywin in chains, Cersei might actually have to give in to Robb Stark’s demands.
Book vs. Show:
One of the plotlines that has been the most changed from transition from book to show is the War of the Five Kings, and as I’ll point out going forward, this has often been for the worse. However, one change that I found intriguing is Robb sending only 2,000 men vs. 16,000 down to confront Tywin while he crosses the Twins. Despite the callousness of sending 2,000 men to their deaths, this probably would save many lives overall, given 2,000 casualties vs. the 4,000 to 6,000 that BookRoose seems to have suffered at the Green Fork (more on this in the next Tyrion chapter). It also gives Robb Stark many more men on the west side of the Green Fork to use for his invasion of the Westerlands, which if Benioff and Weiss had thought carefully about this part of the plot, definitely makes the “take Casterly Rock” plan more sensible (and one wonders why it didn’t happen earlier, between Seasons 2 and 3).
Historically speaking, it’s perfectly possible for a force of 2,000 men to masquerade as a larger force – it happened repeatedly during the American Civil War, for example. So the change isn’t necessarily a bad one from a historical or military perspective.
It’s what comes after where things get screwed up.