In Part IV of the Politics of the Seven Kingdoms, we come to the best example of a failed state in Westeros – indeed, the only region of Westeros to ever lose the status of a Kingdom. The Riverlands are a perpetual runner-up in the game of thrones, more often a pawn or even the game board than a real player, despite its relatively large size, fertile soil, and significant population. Numbers alone tell the story: despite a population of some four million, which places the Riverlands on par with the Westerlands and substantially higher than the Stormlands or Dorne, the Riverlands can only raise an army of 20,000 men.
For this very reason, the Riverlands are probably the most important region for us to study in this series, because it allows us to understand from the failure of the various dynasties who claimed the title of King of the Rivers and Hills what the necessary conditions are for the growth of a strong polity.
As I will argue throughout this essay, the failure of the Riverlands can be traced to a lack of internal cohesion, best exemplified by the Bracken-Blackwood feud, which sapped the Riverlands and prevented from ever growing to its full potential.
“Much history—rife with both glory and tragedy—has been made in the lands watered by the river Trident and its three great vassal streams. Stretching from the Neck to the banks of the Blackwater, and east to the borders of the Vale, the riverlands are the beating heart of Westeros… The three branches of the Trident give the riverlands their name: the Red Fork, colored by the mud and silt that tumbles down from the western mountains; the Green Fork, whose mossy waters emerge from the swamps of the Neck; and the Blue Fork, named for the purity of its sparkling, spring-fed flow. Their wide waters are the roads by which goods pass through the riverlands, and it is not unknown to see lines of poleboats stretching a mile or more.” (WOIAF)
As its name implies, geography has defined the Riverlands from the beginning. The rivers made the land fertile with their ample water and rich alluvial deposits, and gave the residents watery highways that amplified the Riverlands’ central position, making them the natural crossroads of the continent, with excellent access to eastern trade to boot. With these advantages, the Riverlands ought to be one of the great powers of Westeros, with fertility leading to wealth and population and wealth and population leading to mighty armies. Thus it was in our own history that the first human civilizations and the first empires grew up in the cradle of the rivers, whether it was the Sumerian city-states along the Tigris and Euphrates in the 3300s BCE, or the Old and New Kingdoms of Egypt rising with the flooding of the Nile around 3100 BCE, or the Indus Valley Civilization’s orderly brick-built cities that rose in 3300 BCE, or the Huang-He River Civilization that appeared on the banks of the Yellow River in 1700 BCE.
Unfortunately, the rivers also meant that the lands above and below the Trident had no bottleneck or great wall of mountains to provide it with defensible borders, and the same central position that made it such a haven for trade meant that they had enemies on every flank and that virtually any inter-kingdom war would have to go through the Riverlands to happen. The Riverlands was thus both a rich and easy prize for their more powerful and aggressive neighbors:
“No other land in the Seven Kingdoms has seen so many battles, nor so many petty kings and royal houses rising and falling. The causes of this are clear. Rich and fertile, the riverlands border on every other realm in the Seven Kingdoms save Dorne, yet have few natural boundaries to deter invasion. The waters of the Trident make the lands ripe for settlement, farming, and conquest, whilst the river’s three branches stimulate trade and travel during peacetime, and serve as both roads and barriers in times of war.” (WOIAF)
In this way, the Riverlands became the battlefield of Westeros, and so much of its bounty have been stolen away by war, whether taken as spoils of raiding, destroyed in the fighting, or taxed away by kings and conquerors to fuel the never-ending wars. The story of the Riverlands is a medieval spin on the modern phenomenon of the “resource curse,” where a land of plenty finds itself trapped in a cycle of blighted economic growth and political misrule.
However, as I have argued before, geography is not destiny.
While the Trident is less formidable than Moat Cailin or the Mountains of the Moon, Westerosi history from the Dance of the Dragons to the War of Five Kings has innumerable examples of how effective leaders could use the rivers and castles as a formidable defense-in-depth and interior lines that could bleed would-be conquerors to the bone while allowing the Riverlanders to punch far above their weight. If they had been better led, by kings who could fully exert their own authority to the borders of the realm and unite their countrymen – much as the Gardener Kings of old did for the Reach – they might have fully developed the raw potential of the Riverlands and reshaped the course of history.
Indeed, I would argue that the true cause of the Riverlands’ bloody history is not its geography but its poor leadership – a classic case of a failed state squandering its natural advantages. It may be impossible to say whether the Kings of the Trident were weak because they quite managed to extend their authority to the eastern and southern reaches of the kingdom or whether a pre-existing weakness led to a failure to expand and incorporate into a viable polity. What we can say is that the Kings of the Trident seem to have governed in a conservative, defensive, and fearful fashion:
“There has never been a city in the riverlands, strange as that might seem (though large market towns are common), likely because of the fractious history of the region and a tendency for the kings of the past to refuse the charters that might have given some Saltpans or Lord Harroway’s Town or Fairmarket leave to expand.” (WOIAF)
When your monarchs view economic development more as a potential threat to their own supremacy than as an opportunity to be grasped with both hands, weakness and disunity become a self-fulfilling prophecy. In the first, the failure to pursue economic development means that the Riverlands’ fiscal capacity will fall behind that of its more ambitious neighbors, especially when you’re a neighbor of the Westerlands. In the second, when one’s liege lord makes a deliberate policy of limiting the fortunes of his vassals, it eliminates any incentive for loyalty and instead creates a persistent incentive to rebel as the only means for upward mobility.
Indeed, I think this becomes all the more clear when we look at the Riverlands’ historical counterpart: medieval and early modern Poland. As with the Riverlands, Poland lacks much in the way of natural defenses, being for the most part located on the broad Northern European Plain and crisscrossed by many rivers like the Vistula and the Oder. And as with the Riverlands, Poland was historically surrounded by powerful rivals, whether we’re talking about the Austrians, Prussians, and Russians who partitioned Poland, or the Teutonic Knights and Mongols who merely invaded them. Once again, geography was not necessarily destiny – when linked to Lithuania through the Jagiellonian dynasty, Poland became one of the leading powers in Europe for the next five hundred years and came very close indeed to conquering Sweden and Russia. Ultimately, a combination of military overreach and political dysfunction – which incidentally involved underdevelopment of Poland’s cities by its rural nobility – was far more responsible for its downfall than any accident of geography.
“In all the long history of the Trident, under hundreds of rulers, there was hardly ever a time when the riverfolk were not at war with at least one of their neighbors. Sometimes they were forced to fight upon two or even three fronts at once.”
“Worse, few of the river kings ever enjoyed the full support of his own lords bannermen. Memories of ancient wrongs and bygone betrayals were not oft put aside by the lords of the Trident, whose enmities ran as deep as the rivers that watered their lands. Time and time again, one or more of these riverlords would join with some invader against their own king; indeed, in some cases, it was these very lords who brought the outsiders into the riverlands, offering them lands or gold or daughters for their help against familiar foes.”
“Many a river king was toppled by such alliances, and each new battle only served to set the stage for another to follow. With hindsight, it is plain to see that it was only a matter of time until one of the invaders chose to stay and claim the riverlands for his own.” (WOIAF)
As with the North and the Vale, developing a solid timeline for the early history of the Riverlands from the Dawn Age through the Andal Invasion is complicated by the lack of contemporary documentary evidence; hence why modern scholars say “the true history of the Riverlands begins with the coming of the Andals.” The irony here is that we know much more of the First Men culture of the Riverlands than we know about the North. We know, for example, that the war between the First Men and the Children of the Forest ended in the Riverlands, when:
“The chief heroes and rulers of both sides met upon the isle in the Gods Eye to form the Pact.. All the weirwoods of the isle on which the Pact was forged were then carved with faces so that the gods could witness the Pact, and the order of green men was made afterward to tend to the weirwoods and protect the isle.”(WOIAF)
Given how unusual it is for the faith of the Old Gods to have any form of organization whatsoever, the continual presence of the green men at a location that was clearly seen as sacred, as well as the existence in the Riverlands of High Heart as a place “especially holy to the First Men, as it had been to the children of the forest before them…the abode of the children and their greenseers,” we are left with the impression that the Riverlands must have been the religious center of First Man culture, especially in the 4,000 years that elapsed between the Pact and the Long Night.
Sometime after the signing of the Pact, “during the long centuries when the First Men reigned supreme in Westeros, countless petty kingdoms rose and fell in the riverlands.” Just as with the North, the Riverlands began as a mass of fractured petty kingdoms that gradually gave rise to the Kingdom of the Rivers and Hills (alternately known as the Kingdom of the Trident, although the two have significantly different meanings):
“The Fishers are said in some chronicles to have been the first and oldest line of river kings (in others, they are accounted the second dynasty, and the fragmentary Annals of the Rivers from the ancient septry at Peasedale suggests they were third). The Blackwoods and Brackens both claim to have ruled the riverlands at various times during the Age of Heroes.” (WOIAF)
Given the real-world mythology of the Fisher Kings, and the fact that House Fisher as the likely candidate for the first royal House of the Riverlands, it’s quite possible that the first Riverlander monarchs were “sacred kings” acting as liaisons between the First Men and their new gods. However, unlike the North and other kingdoms, we don’t see a process of consolidation and continuity, with House Fisher building on its religious authority to establish secular power – instead we see a succession of different rival dynasties, meaning that each new House had to start from scratch rather than being able to build on the kings who came before. The result is that the Riverlands of the Age of Heroes resembles the medieval conception of revolution, not in the sense of forward progress through history, but a ceaseless cycle of change overwriting change, with nothing lasting long enough to make any permanent alteration.
The Origins of the Bracken-Blackwood Feud
As I will argue throughout this essay, the Bracken and Blackwood feud both best exemplifies and often was the frequent direct cause of this tendency that constantly frustrated any progress towards the development of a functional state. And since the Brackens and Blackwoods are counted among the dynasties of the Age of Heroes, we can tell from their own history (and from the pull quote above) how this rapid turnover took place:
“The feud of the Blackwoods and Brackens is infamous, and rightly so, for it stretches back thousands of years to before the coming of the Andals. The origins of it are contested and shrouded in legend. The Blackwoods say they were kings and the Brackens little more than petty lords set on betraying and deposing them, while the Brackens say much the same about the Blackwoods.” (WOIAF)
“Before the Andals came to Westeros, House Bracken ruled this river. We were kings and the Blackwoods were our vassals, but they betrayed us and usurped the crown. Every Blackwood is born a turncloak.” (AFFC)
“It goes back to the Age of Heroes. The Blackwoods were kings in those days. The Brackens were petty lords, renowned for breeding horses. Rather than pay their king his just due, they used the gold their horses brought them to hire swords and cast him down.” (ADWD)
Obviously, these stories are mutually incompatible, and I would argue that the fact that “some of the histories were penned by their maesters and some by ours,” the lack of a resolution to who was in the right and who in the wrong, likely was a major contributory factor in keeping the feud between the Brackens and Blackwoods going for thousands of years. (For those of you who are interested, some of the new information that the WOIAF has given us actually points to the Brackens being in the right, as if the Blackwoods were refugees from the North, they were unlikely to have been kings before the Brackens.)
Regardless of which version you believe, the story is the same: a royal line betrayed and replaced by its vassals, the social contract of feudalism breaking down and reversing itself over and over again. We can see in this the origins of the phenomenon I discussed in the Geography section, with monarchs viewing their vassals with fear and suspicion (validated again and again by historical example) and looking to overawe them with force and limit rather than expand their wealth and power, creating a self-fulfilling prophecy where vassals chafed under the harsh authority of their masters and schemed to replace them.
House Mudd and the Andal Invasion
Out of this chaotic situation came House Mudd, the “penultimate and greatest of the river kings to stand before the Andals,” (WOIAF) who ruled over the Riverlands for a thousand years – and it’s never a good sign when your longest-lasting dynasty is the oldest. While we know very little about the Mudd Kings, what we know speaks to an unusual level of success:
“Before the Mudds, there had been other kings near as powerful…the Mudds succeeded in unifying more of the riverlands than any of their predecessors…”
“The penultimate and greatest of the river kings to stand before the Andals was Tristifer IV of House Mudd, the Hammer of Justice, who ruled from a great castle called Oldstones, on a hill by the banks of the Blue Fork.” (WOIAF)
One thing that points to the Mudds’ exception to the previous rule is the fact that they took the title “King of the Rivers and Hills” as opposed to “King of the Trident,” which suggests a claim to both the northern and southern Riverlands. Nor was such a claim empty: we know that “Tristifer, the Fourth of His Name… ruled from the Trident to the Neck,” (ASOS) and also that “many petty kings had claimed dominion over the river mouth [of the Blackwater], amongst them …the river kings of old, be they Mudds.” (WOIAF) While much of the House’s strength no doubt derived from skilled military leadership, geographic location no doubt aided in the process. Oldstones’ position near the source of the Blue Fork meant that they could control the length of the river and potentially cut off the Greek Fork from access to the sea. Just as important, because Oldstones is in the interior of the Trident, the rivers couldn’t act as barriers against its expansion within, allowing it to dominate the area between the Red Fork and the Green and develop a powerful demesne to support its campaigns to unify the Riverlands.
Unfortunately for House Mudd and the First Men of the Riverlands, the process of unification and state-building remained incomplete when the Andals began to swarm into their kingdom:
“The true history of the riverlands begins with the coming of the Andals. After crossing the narrow sea and sweeping over the Vale, these conquerors from the east moved to make it their own, sailing their longships up the Trident and its three great branches. In those days, it seems the Andals fought in bands behind chieftains who the later septons would name kings. Piece by piece, they encroached upon the many petty kings whose realms the rivers watered.”
“Songs speak to us through the years of the Fall of Maidenpool and the death of its boy king, Florian the Brave, Fifth of That Name; of the Widow’s Ford, where three sons of Lord Darry held back the Andal warlord Vorian Vypren and his knights for a day and a night, slaying hundreds before they fell themselves; of the night in the White Wood, where supposedly the children of the forest emerged from beneath a hollow hill to send hundreds of wolves against an Andal camp, tearing hundreds of men apart beneath the light of a crescent moon; of the great Battle of Bitter River, where the Brackens of Stone Hedge and the Blackwoods of Raventree Hall made common cause against the invaders, only to be shattered by the charge of 777 Andal knights and seven septons, bearing the seven-pointed star of the Faith upon their shields.” (WOIAF)
While the mention of the “many petty kings” within the Riverlands gives a general impression of the limits of House Mudd’s conquests, the mention of the “boy king” of Maidenpool who was “fifth of his name,” is far more concrete, showing us that the Mudd’s domains did not include the eastern reaches of the Riverlands and had not for a hundred years or more. Another sign of division is the suggestion by maesters that the Andals started their invasion of the Riverlands by working as mercenaries to divide and conquer: a “nameless Andal chieftain had cut down the trees at the behest of a rival of the river king, who used the Andals as sellswords” just as the First Men of the Vale had called upon the Corbrays and the Graftons to help fight their internal battles.
Despite these shortcomings, what we see in the response of the First Men to the Andal Invasion is a combination of extreme bravery against impossible odds – with the three Darrys at Widow’s Ford standing in for both the Horatii and “Horatius at the Bridge” – and a belated drive for unity, best exemplified in the Battle of Bitter River where for the first time in recorded history, the Brackens and Blackwoods fought on the same side without one betraying the other. And as in the Vale, the First Men of the Riverlands had a charismatic political and military leader to rally around, King Tristifer IV:
“The penultimate and greatest of the river kings to stand before the Andals was Tristifer IV of House Mudd, the Hammer of Justice, who ruled from a great castle called Oldstones, on a hill by the banks of the Blue Fork. The singers tell us he fought a hundred battles against the invaders and won nine-and-ninety of them, only to fall in the hundredth, when he rode to war against an alliance of seven Andal kings. Yet it seems convenient that there are seven kings in the songs; likely this is another tale concocted by the septons as a lesson in piety.” (WOIAF)
As we saw last time (link), Tristifer was remarkably successful, holding back the Andals for a solid generation and even managing to defeat and indeed execute King Rolland II Arryn. Indeed, so legendarily heroic was he that the only acceptable “historical” parallel for Tristifer IV is King Arthur. According to legend and chronicle, Arthur Pendragon was a British king who fought to hold back the Saxon invaders in the late 5th and early 6th centuries CE; just as Tristifer IV had his ninety-nine victories, Arthur is credited with twelve great battles, culminating in the victory at the Battle of Badon Hill, where “here fell in one day 960 men from one charge by Arthur; and no one struck them down except Arthur himself,” who “carried the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ for three days and three nights upon his shoulders [or shield]” to achieve his victory. And as with Tristifer, Arthur won all of his battles but the last, namely the Battle of Camlann where according to legend Arthur was fatally wounded even as he killed his usurper son Mordred.
While “Tristifer V, or Tristifer the Last” was certainly less malicious than Mordred, he was no more competent, as he “proved unable to stem the Andal tide and failed even to hold his own people together,” and “soon the kingdom was lost, and then the castle, and last of all the line.” (WOIAF) Note how once again the central theme of disunity comes to the fore to explain the collapse of the First Men’s defensive campaign. In fact, we even have an example of this with a family that will become famous later on:
“…the first Edmure Tully and his sons fought beside the Hammer of Justice, Tristifer IV Mudd, in many of his ninety-nine victories. After Tristifer’s death, Ser Edmure went over to the mightiest of the Andal conquerors, Armistead Vance. It was from him that Edmure’s son Axel received a grant of lands at the juncture of the Red Fork and its swiftrunning vassal the Tumblestone. There Lord Axel established his seat, in a red castle he named Riverrun.” (WOIAF)
As the former loyalists of Tristifer IV deserted his unready and unlucky successor and bent the knee to save their own lives and lands, the defeat of the Mudds was total, with Tristifer V losing his vassals, his kingdom, his House’s own lands, his castle sacked, himself slain, and his line ended without an heir. That Oldstones is now only ruins, where “only the foundation remained, and a few waist-high piles of crumbling stone spotted with lichen,” and where the original name of the stronghold has even been forgotten, stands in as perfect synecdoche for the ruin of Houd Mudd.
Once again, the Riverlands would have to start from scratch.
The Justmans Wrestle With the Failed State
Despite the complete collapse of House Mudd, the aftermath of the Andal Conquest of the Riverlands was far more nuanced than that of the Vale. As we can see from the fact that it took “an alliance of Seven Andal kings” to bring down Tristifer IV, there was no one figure, no Artys Arryn, to unite the Andal adventurers into a single kingdom. Almost as if the ancestral curse of dusinity had been passed to the Andals along with the lands, the victors turned on one another:
“The Andal kings who brought down Oldstones and slew Tristifer the Last intermarried with remaining nobility of the First Men and butchered those who would not bend the knee. A quarrelsome, warlike folk, the Andals divided up the riverlands amongst themselves. The blood of the last kings of the First Men had scarce dried before their Andal conquerors began to war each upon the others for dominance. Though many a lord would name himself King of the Rivers and Hills or King of the Trident, centuries would pass before any of these petty monarchs held sway over enough of the riverlands to be worthy of these titles.” (WOIAF)
This internal conflict may help to explain why the outcome for the first men was so mixed. The extent of the religious and cultural change cannot be denied – in the wake of the Battle of Bitter River and Erreg the Kinslayer’s destruction of High Heart, the worship of the Old Gods was largely stamped out, the weirwoods mostly chopped down. Most of the remaining First Men, like the Brackens, were forced to give up their religion. At the same time, while many were slain and others married under less-than-voluntary terms, a good number of First Men Houses – the Brackens and the Blackwoods, the Darrys, the Tullys, the Mallisters, the Mootons – managed to hang onto their own. Unlike in the Vale, there was no large-scale ethnic cleansing, no reduction of thousands of people into barbarism.
That may have been the only positive outcome of the creation of what can only be called a failed state in the Riverlands. Compounding the already dire implications of a multi-century long civil war when no King had the military hegemony to restore peace and order, we begin to see the emergence of the Riverlands as the battlefield of Westeros in this period:
“As with the First Men, the dynasties of the Andal river kings oft proved short-lived, for enemies surrounded their realms on every side. Ironmen from the isles raided their coasts to the west, whilst pirates from the Stepstones and Three Sisters did the same to the east. Westermen rode down from the hills across the Red Fork to pillage and conquer, and the wild hill tribes emerged from the Mountains of the Moon to burn, plunder, and carry off women. From the southwest, the lords of the Reach sent iron columns of knights across the Blackwater whenever it pleased them; to the southeast lay the domains of the Storm Kings, ever eager for gold and glory.” (WOIAF)
This period of weakness does, however, show us some of the dynamics of continental politics in the post-Andal era. Note how involvement in the Riverlands varies by region: weakened by the shift in power that came with the Andal invasion, the Ironmen can as of yet only raid rather than conquer (although the timeline mixup with House Hoare continues to bedevil any clear sense of chronology); distracted by their war with the North, the Vale allows pirates and “wild hill tribes” to raid but does not attempt to conquer; by contrast, the Kings of the Rock, the Reach, and the Storm are actively looking to grab territory (or at least violate sovereign borders) wherever they can.
What is both fascinating and unexpected is that this chaos ended, not with the rise to power of any of the Andal Houses of the Riverlands, but rather with the victory of a dark horse candidate who came from not one but two First Men lines:
“The first of the Andal kings to bring all the riverlands under his sway was a bastard born of a tryst between two ancient enemies, the Blackwoods and the Brackens. As a boy, he was Benedict Rivers, despised by all, but he grew to be the greatest warrior of his age, Ser Benedict the Bold. His prowess in battle won him the support of both his mother’s house and his father’s, and soon other riverlords bent their knees to him as well. It required more than thirty years for Benedict to throw down the last of the petty kings of the Trident. Only when the last had yielded did he don a crown himself.” (WOAIF)
While Benedict’s bastard birth – a birth that couldn’t have been helped by the fact that he was the result of a star-crossed romance between “two ancient enemies” – might have meant that “as a boy, he was…despised by all,” I would argue that it was the foundation of his dynasty. For all of their feuding, the Brackens and Blackwoods are two of the oldest and most powerful Houses in the Riverlands, controlling wide swathes of territory. If they weren’t, these “over-mighty vassals” would have been crushed by their overlords eons ago. Unlike all of the River Kings who came before him, Benedict started his campaign to take the Riverlands with the combined potential of both Houses behind him – no wonder so many other riverlords thought he was the man to back.
At the same time, this ambition couldn’t have gotten off the ground without substantial military ability. For all his blood connections, we learn that it was “his prowess in battle” that “won the support of both his mother’s house and his father.” And certainly, when you consider the sheer determination and organizational know-how necessary to keep a military campaign going on for thirty years, at the very least we can say that Benedict the Bold was one hell of a general:
“As king, he became known as Benedict the Just, a name that pleased him so much that he set aside his bastard surname and took Justman as the name of his house. As wise as he was stern, he reigned for three-and-twenty years, extending his domains as far as Maidenpool and the Neck.” (WOIAF)
At the same time, we can see that there was more to Benedict than just another Iron Age warlord, something that explains how he was able to do what so many River Kings could not. Given the legacy of the “Hammer of Justice” in the Riverlands, I don’t think that Benedict I was called “the Just” lightly – and we know that the name “pleased him so much that” Benedict used it as the foundation for the symbolism of his entire House – hence the name Justman and the choice of a set of balanced scales for his sigil. My theory is that, based on his ability to get the Brackens and Blackwoods to put a hold on their feud (and perhaps given to empathy for the victims of crime due to his “despised” youth) Benedict was a practiced hand at providing even-handed justice, initially as an arbitrator during his youth, and maintained that interest when he was king. At the same time, as we saw with the history of House Stark, kings can “do well by doing good.” In a realm where the blood-feud and the vendetta has reigned, which had just suffered through several hundred years of chaos and disorder, a commitment to incorruptible royal justice would help to explain how Benedict and his successors enjoyed such an unusual degree of legitimacy among the Riverlords, in that the feudal social contract was finally being upheld.
It’s also interesting how incredibly long-lived Benedict was – beginning his campaign in adulthood, Benedict saw out a more than thirty year-long campaign and then reigning for another twenty-three years – allowing him to maintain an unusually consistent policy. As a result, we see the process of nation-building at work for the first time since Tristan IV, expanding his borders to the north right up to the Neck (one wonders what the Starks thought of that), and to the eastern Riverlands, bringing Maidenpool into the realm for the first time in recorded history. And unlike Tristan IV, Benedict the Just had the good fortune to be succeeded by “his son, another Benedict,” who “reigned for sixty years and added Duskendale, Rosby, and the mouth of the Blackwater to the river realm.” Winning the coin-toss of royal succession is never guaranteed, but House Justman managed to get no less than 113 years of good governance in a row right off the bat.
The result was that the Riverlands hit its historical apex under the Justmans: p2eace and justice internally, its borders extended not only to the full extent of its current realm, but also including what is today the northern half of the Crownlands. Economically, the Riverlands would have had a robust presence in naval trade, with control over the Trident, the Blackwater Rush, and Maidenpool and Duskendale as major ports. Militarily, the Riverlands would have been able to raise as many as 50,000 men to defend an empire with rivers anchoring its western, southern, and eastern borders (albeit with a bit of a buffer zone), and a bottleneck at its northern terminus. No wonder, therefore, that “House Justman ruled the riverlands for close on three centuries, the chronicles tell us.”
And yet…still the Justmans failed to extend any city charters to the ports they had conquered, or to the many towns of the Riverlands – a sign that the old attitude of suspicion and fear of one’s own vassals still persisted even in the most powerful of the Riverlander Kings, holding back economic development. Moreover, however much the Justmans kept a keen eye to state-building, at the end of the day they were still reliant on the strengths and capacities of the individual monarch. After three hundred years of solid governance:
“Their line was ended when Qhored Hoare, King of the Iron Islands, murdered the sons of King Bernarr II whilst they were held captive in Pyke. Their father did not long survive them, provoked into a hopeless war for vengeance against the ironborn.”
“… At thirty, [Qhored] defeated the Lords of the Trident in battle, forcing the river king Bernarr II to bend the knee and yield up his three young sons as hostages. Three years later, he put the boys to death with his own hand, cutting out their hearts when their father’s annual tribute was late in coming. When their grieving sire went to war to avenge them, King Qhored and his ironmen destroyed Bernarr’s host and had him drowned as a sacrifice to the Drowned God, putting an end to House Justman and throwing the riverlands into bloody anarchy.” (WOIAF)
Unfortunately, we have very little to go on to explain how a dynasty that began with such incomparable warriors and potentially had many times the military strength that the Iron Islands could muster could experience such repeated military catastrophes.
This brings me to an important side-note: my ongoing frustration with the Iron Islands section of the WOIAF, whose timeline is wildly inconsistent with the rest of the book. We’ve already seen some difficulties emerge in in Part II (link) of this series: Harrag Hoare is described as having been elected by the kingsmoot, but we are also told that Harrag warred with Theon “the Hungry Wolf,” who was a contemporary of the Andal invasion, and when the Andal Invasion took place, the Greyirons had abolished the kingsmoot and ruled for a thousand years. Here the problem is with Qhored “the Cruel” Hoare, the man who destroyed House Justman. Even if one tries to explain the whole Greyiron/Hoare problem by agreeing with those scholars who say he was “Greyiron in some accounts, and as Blacktyde in others,” Qhored the Cruel is indisputably described as a “driftwood” king who led the Ironborn to the zenith of their power before the coming of the Andals, which is plainly impossible since Urron Redhand had ended the reign of the driftwood kings and established the thousand-year line of Iron Kings, and because the death of Bernarr II and his children could not have happened less than 500 years after the Andal invasion of the Riverlands. (It’s also further complicated by the fact that the Andal invasion supposedly led to a huge decline in Ironborn power, as we saw in Part III (link), which makes their total victory over the Riverlands a weird rubber-banding between defeat and victory to begin with.)
The Resistible Rise of Torrence Teague
Regardless of how this happened, the fate of Bernarr II mirrored that of Tristifer V, with House Justman wiped out completely – no doubt the people of the Riverlands in this period looked with envy at the North or the Westerlands or the Reach, where dynasties from the Age of Heroes endured, seemingly untouched by time. And so once again, the state-building of many centuries was completely lost in the chaos of another extended civil war brought about by the lack of any agreed mechanism for how to replace a failed dynasty:
“Another period of anarchy and bloodshed followed. The realm that Benedict the Bold had knitted together was torn asunder once again, and a hundred years of conflict saw petty kings from the Houses Blackwood, Bracken, Vance, Mallister, and Charlton contending with one another for supremacy.” (WOIAF)
It’s never a good sign when the Bracken and Blackwood feud pops up again, and here we have both Houses seeking to reclaim their ancient crowns, no longer able to sublimate their claims through their common kinship with the Justmans. At the same time, the Vances finally reached out for the crown they might have been able to win during the Andal Conquest, so we see the west and the center of the Riverlands at war with one another. The Mallisters are interesting contenders – an ancient First Men family, but not one that had been kings during the Age of Heroes, they had managed on their own to conquer the whole of the Cape of Eagles from Torgon Greyiron, which suggests they were something of a regional favorite son. The Charltons are the oddest of the contenders, given that their current-day status as the vassals of the Freys means that they’re quite close to the Mallisters’ territory and that they’ve fallen a long, long way from their former glory. (One can only imagine the sheer gloating and petty tyranny that a status-obsessed nouveau riche like Walder Frey would have subjected poor Ser Andry Charlton to…)
In the end, none of these contenders won the crown of the Riverlands. Just as in the last cycle, a dark horse candidate broke through in the last moment, but even more so:
“The unlikely victor in these struggles was Lord Torrence Teague, an adventurer of uncertain birth who seized a fortune in gold in a daring attack upon the westerlands and used the wealth to bring sellswords across the narrow sea in great numbers. Seasoned warriors all, their blades proved the difference, and Teague was crowned King of the Trident at Maidenpool after six long years of war.” (WOIAF)
While Benedict Rivers was a bastard, he was at least a bastard who could trace his parentage back to two royal lines, which gave him a place (however unorthodox) within the feudal social hierarchy. By contrast, Torrence Teague was “of uncertain birth” – a term that GRRM has only ever used to describe smallfolk, which would make Torrence the most successful social climber in all of Westerosi history, which couldn’t have endeared him to the touchy lords of the Riverlands. Moreover, whereas Benedict Rivers recruited his armies from Riverlords who willingly pledged their swords to his service, Torrence won his throne with an army of Essosi mercenaries, which made him seem more of a foreign invader than a native son.
Thus, while Torrence siting his coronation at Maidenpool should be seen as a symbolic statement of intent – that just like the great kings of the past, he would bring all of the Riverlands under his rule – under the surface we can see a regime that never had the legitimacy needed to unify the Riverlands. (We can even see this even in the symbolism of the dynasty, with the Teagues taking the royal style of “King of the Trident” as opposed to “King of the Rivers and Hills” – the former focused on the northern half of the kingdom only, whereas the latter stakes a claim to the whole.) Without House Justman’s popularity among the nobility, the Teagues had to resort to military repression, kidnapping, and summary execution in order to keep the crown they’d won:
“It is said, however, that neither King Torrence nor his heirs ever sat securely on their thrones. The Teagues were so little loved by those they ruled that they were forced to keep the sons and daughters of all the great houses of the Trident at their court as hostages, in case of treason. Even so, the fourth Teague monarch, King Theo the Saddle-Sore, spent his entire reign ahorse, leading his knights from one rebellion to the next whilst hanging hostages from every tree.” (WOIAF)
Needless to say, these are not the policies of a successful and secure monarchy, but rather the fearful and paranoid tendency we’ve seen in previous regimes taken to an extreme, but with none of the good qualities. Notably, the emphasis on justice and the rule of law seen in House Mudd and House Justman is completely lacking. What we see instead is naked tyranny, and while a crude Machiavellian (link) might say that this brutality is the necessary and inescapable price of power, note that the result was rebellion and civil war rather than order. And so in the case of House Teague, we see the start of a declension narrative in the Riverlands, where each dynasty is weaker rather than stronger than the last, where opportunities to strengthen and develop the kingdom are lost and squandered.
Side-Note on Chronology
We now come to a part of the history of the Riverlands where the timeline gets very murky indeed. If we accept standard dating, the Andal invasion took place about 6,000 years before the Conquest (although there are some sources that say it’s more like 4,000 or 2,000 years ago). Now, it clearly took a generation for the Andals to conquer the Vale since it was unusual that Ser Artys Arryn was born in the Vale, and then it took a while for the Andals to move on to the Riverlands.
From the WOIAF, we can actually make some numerical estimates about that gap: we know that Tristifer IV Mudd was a contemporary of Roland II Arryn, who was the great-grandson of the grandson of Artys I. Since a generation is roughly thirty years long, this means that Tristifer lived about 180 years after the Andal conquest of the Vale, or about 200-300 years at most after the start of the Andal Invasion (~5700 BC). Likewise the WOIAF states that House Justman rose to power at least 200 years after the death of Tristifer V, and that it ruled for 300 years (from ~5500 BC to 5200 BC). A hundred years of civil war then passed between the fall of House Justman and the rise of House Teague (~5100 BC).
The problem is that House Teague also ruled the Riverlands around 450-400 BC, which would make them the longest-lasting Riverlands dynasty by far if they ruled continuously for almost five thousand years, which is odd given how unstable and unpopular they are supposed to have been. According to Elio Garcia, “Torrence Teague and his heirs succeeded for a few generations, then lost it, and then who knows how many centuries later some descendant of theirs had climbed his way back into ruling the realm.” Given that we know that the first Teague dynasty lasted four generations (or roughly 120 years), this leaves us with four and a half thousand years which we can’t even fill in from other chapters.
Presumably, in those four and a half thousand years, there were periods of civil war and periods where the Brackens or the Blackwoods or the Vances or other houses became king for a few generations and periods when there were multiple Kings in the Riverlands. Regardless, that still means that we almost have more years where we have nothing than we have years with some kind of historical evidence.
The Fall of House Teague
Regardless of the precise chronology (which is a painful thing to write, let me tell you), the Teagues had the misfortune of being the last Kings of an Independent Riverlands. Lacking legitimacy, popularity, and even basic military hegemony, the Teagues had to look for another foundation or their regime, much as the Targaryens would later do when they lost their dragons. The foundation that Humfrey I hit on was religion:
“Humfrey of House Teague was King of the Rivers and the Hills in those days. A pious ruler, he founded many septs and motherhouses across the riverlands and attempted to repress the worship of the old gods within his realm.” (WOIAF)
There is a lot to say about this policy. In the first place, it’s one of the few pieces of evidence we have of how the Faith of the Seven interacted with Westerosi politics prior to Aegon’s Conquest, where we see a political alliance forming between the High Septon and King Humfrey I which makes a lot of sense from both perspectives. For the High Septon, it means that he can extend his political influence by gaining the King of the Rivers and Hills as a client; and as we can see, Humfrey had to splash out a lot of money to found religious houses in order to gain the High Septon’s favor, as well as agreeing to “repress the worship of the old gods within his realm.” (Presumably, the High Septon of the time was not one of those nice tolerant High Septons who talk about “the Old Gods and the New”…)
For Humfrey, most of his subjects in the Riverlands are faithful sons of the Faith of the Seven; if he can get the High Septon to endow him with his blessing, he can potentially use religious to endow his House with the legitimacy it has historically lacked. (Perhaps that’s why he took the more ambitious royal style rather the one used by Torrence Teague.) Equally importantly, as we’ll see in a moment, Humfrey also got the military support of the Faith Militant. Given the historically weak position of many Riverlander kings, the many thousands of Warrior’s Sons and Poor Fellows could have given Humfrey I genuine military hegemony over the Riverlands – albeit at the cost of effectively turning the Riverlands into a client state of the Faith.
Unfortunately for Humfrey and House Teague, the result of this policy was not the establishment of a unified Riverlands under the secure reign of House Teague, but rather a holy and civil war:
“This led Raventree to rise against him, for the Blackwoods had never accepted the Seven. The Vances of Atranta and the Tullys of Riverrun joined them in rebellion. King Humfrey and his loyalists, supported by the Swords and Stars of the Faith Militant, were on the point of crushing them when Lord Roderick Blackwood sent to Storm’s End for aid. His lordship was tied to House Durrandon by marriage, as King Arlan had taken one of Lord Roderick’s daughters to wife, wedding her by the old rites beneath the great dead weirwood in Raventree’s godswood.” (WOIAF)
On one side of the civil war, we have the Blackwoods, the Tullys, and the Vances, on the other we have the Teagues, the Brackens, and the Faith Militant. (The Darrys and Smallwoods are also listed as having fought in the civil war but without mention of which side they fought on; given their stubborn loyalty to the Targaryens, it’s likely that the Darrys fought for House Teague, whereas the Smallwoods are vassals of the Vances and likely sided with the rebels.) The motivations for the contending parties are largely uncertain: while religious repression was the catalyst, only the Blackwoods are listed as followers of the Old Gods. It’s possible that the conflict was regional in nature (the rebels all came from the northwest of the Riverlands, whereas the loyalists were centered in the southeast), or whether the other houses simply joined because they hated the Teagues (the Vances after all had warred against the Teagues for the crown in the past and the Tullys were vassals of the Vances).
However, to my mind, this civil war cannot be understood without taking the Bracken-Blackwood Feud into account. Beyond the obvious level that the Blackwoods started the rebellion and the Brackens were Teague loyalists, there is a religious element to their dispute. As we learn from a So Spake Martin, “They were also divided by religion; the Brackens went over to the new gods, while the Blackwoods remained with the old.” Even more pointedly, the Blackwoods claim that “the Brackens poisoned [our weirwood tree]…for a thousand years it has not shown a leaf.” (ADWD) Thus, in the eyes of the Blackwoods, the Brackens had betrayed the gods of their ancestors and attacked the Blackwoods’ religious freedom; in the eyes of the Brackens, the Blackwoods were heathens in rebellion against a pious king and the true religion. At the same time, this civil war would become a new catalyst for the Bracken-Blackwood feud, with the Blackwoods blaming the Brackens for siding with their oppressors, and the Brackens blaming the Blackwoods for betraying both their King and their realm by calling on the Stormlands to invade:
“Arlan III was quick to respond. Calling all his banners, the Storm King led a great host across the Blackwater Rush, smashing King Humfrey and his loyalists in a series of bloody battles and lifting the siege of Raventree. Roderick Blackwood and Elston Tully both fell in the fighting, along with Lords Bracken, Darry, Smallwood, and both Lords Vance. King Humfrey, his brother and champion, Ser Damon, and his sons Humfrey, Hollis, and Tyler all perished in the campaign’s final battle, a bloody affray fought beneath two hills called the Mother’s Teats on land claimed by both the Blackwoods and the Brackens.”
“King Humfrey was the first to die that day, it is written. His heir, Prince Humfrey, took up his crown and sword, but died a short time later, whereupon the second son, Hollis, did the same, only to be killed in turn. And so it went, the bloody crown of the last river king passing from son to son, and finally to King Humfrey’s brother, all within the space of a single afternoon. By the time the sun went down, House Teague had been entirely extinguished, along with the Kingdom of Rivers and Hills. The fight in which they died has hereafter been known as the Battle of Six Kings, in honor of Arlan III the Storm King and the five river kings his stormlanders slew, some of whom reigned for minutes, not even hours.”(WOIAF)
We can see from the casualty list alone how absolutely devastating the fighting was: the heads of every single House that fought on either side perished in battles that stretched all the way from the Blackwater Rush to Raventree Hall north of the Red Fork. And as if to underline how this civil-war-turned-foreign-intervention was all rooted in the ancient feud of the Brackens and Blackwoods, the whole thing ended with a battle at the Teats which the two Houses would fight over to the present day.
For House Teague, the Battle of Six Kings was a complete and utter disaster akin to the fate that had befallen the Mudds and the Justmans, with multiple generations and lines of succession wiped out in a single day. For a third time, the progress of state-building was wiped out completely, but this time, there would be no Riverlander to start from scratch.
The days of an independent Riverlands were over.
The Riverlands as Stormlander Colony
The Battle of Six Kings did more than wipe out House Teague; it also up-ended a plan to restore the Blackwoods to the throne of the Riverlands. Underneath the pretext of religious liberty and resistance to tyranny lay the reality of self-interest:
“Certain letters found by maesters in service at Storm’s End and Raventree Hall in later centuries suggest that Arlan III did not intend to claim the riverlands for himself when he marched north but rather planned to restore the crown to House Blackwood, in the person of his good-father Lord Roderick. His lordship’s death in battle twisted those plans awry, however, for the heir to Raventree was a boy of eight, and the Storm King neither liked nor trusted Lord Blackwood’s surviving brothers. It appears that King Arlan briefly considered crowning his good-daughter Shiera, Roderick Blackwood’s eldest child, with his own son ruling at her side, but the riverlords spoke out against being ruled by a woman, and His Grace decided to add the riverlands to his own domains.”(WOIAF)
Just as the High Septon had loaned his swords to Humfrey I out of self-interest, so too had the Durrandons aided the Blackwoods out of self-interest as much as from the affinity of marriage. Arlan III’s ambitions seem to have been relatively limited at first –he probably wanted to keep the High Septon (and thus Oldtown, and thus the Gardeners) from gaining the Riverlands as a client kingdom, and definitely wanted to have his good-father instead serving as Arlan’s client king, with the Stormlands and Riverlands tied together with double bonds of marriage (even if it meant the bizarre scenario where Arlan III was his own son’s brother-in-law). But with the death of Roderick, there was no longer a consensus candidate among the former rebels, with competing claims from Roderick’s child heir, Roderick’s surviving brothers, and Arlan’s sister-in-law/daughter-in-law.
This last choice would allow Arlan III to put his son on the throne; whether he did so by claiming to have inherited it from Shiera’s dowry or merely serving as King Consort, Shiera’s heir would be half a Durrandon, allowing the dynastic alliance to continue while preserving the face-saving appearance of two independent kingdoms. However, in a spectacularly self-defeating bit of misogyny, the lords of the Riverlands refused this fig-leaf and as a result threw away their last chance to maintain their independence. No doubt fed up with the complaining, Arlan III decided to dispense with the niceties and “to add the riverlands to his own domains.” Note that he wasn’t crowning himself King of the Rivers or the Trident; nor did he declare himself an Emperor or High King of two separate kingdoms – Arlan III was declaring that the Riverlands no longer existed as a kingdom, that it was now merely a possession of the Durrandons.
Thus began a whole new chapter of the history of the Riverlands, and a new role in the politics of the Seven Kingdoms. To mark the occasion, Arlan IIII “plant[ed] his crowned stag banner on the shores of the Sunset Sea,” much as Sargon the Great washed his sword in the Persian Gulf to mark his conquest of the whole of the Fertile Crescent. The Durrandons now controlled a vast empire – encompassing the Stormlands, the Crownlands, and the Riverlands – that stretched all the way from the Red Mountains of Dorne to the Neck and all the way from sea to shining sea:
(credit to Adam Werthead)
In the endless crab-bucket politics of the Seven Kingdoms, this meant that the Durrandons would now be ganged up on by all of their neighbors lest they overawe the whole continent – and with the expansion of their borders, those neighbors included the Gardeners of the Reach, the Martells of Dorne, the Lannisters of the Rock, the Hoares of the Iron Islands, the Arryns of the Vale, and the Starks of Winterfell; in other words, every single other power in Westeros. And thus “the Dornish came swarming over the Boneway to press them in the south, and the Kings of the Reach sent their knights forth from Highgarden to reclaim all that had been lost in the west.” (WOIAF) To fight wars on every front, the Durrandons could call upon three kingdoms’ worth of armies – anywhere from 60,000 to 80,000 men, which helps to explain why they were able to hang onto their empire for just a bit longer than the Targaryens were able to hang onto theirs.
But to fight these warriors, the Durrandons would have had to extract both blood and treasure from the Riverlands. Thus, despite the fact that House Durrandon was doubly wed into an ancient line of Riverlander kings, their naked acquisition of the kingdom by force and the heavy hand of their rule meant that they entirely lacked legitimacy (outside of the Blackwoods themselves):
“And so they would remain for more than three centuries, though the riverlords rose against Storm’s End at least once each generation. A dozen pretenders from as many houses would adopt the style of River King or King of the Trident and vow to throw off the yoke of the stormlanders. Some even succeeded…for a fortnight, a moon’s turn, even a year. But their thrones were built on mud and sand, and in the end a fresh host would march from Storm’s End to topple them and hang the men who’d presumed to sit upon them. Thus ended the brief inglorious reigns of Lucifer Justman (Lucifer the Liar), Marq Mudd (the Mad Bard), Lord Robert Vance, Lord Petyr Mallister, Lady Jeyne Nutt, the bastard king Ser Addam Rivers, the peasant king Pate of Fairmarket, and Ser Lymond Fisher, Knight of Oldstones, along with a dozen more.”(WOIAF)
One of the signs of this shortcoming is the fact that the various rebel were all in some way claiming to represent a link to the legitimate dynasties of the past. Hence House Justman and House Mudd and even House Fisher emerged from oblivion, although given their later sobriquets, these claims were likely spurious, but the choice of names clearly suggests a desire to evoke the just rule of those previous dynasties. The rebellions of the Vances and Mallisters (both Houses that had claimed the title of King of the Rivers after the fall of House Justman) were clearly better-organized and with more support from the riverlords, again suggesting a search for legitimacy. At the same time, however, we can also see that the tyranny of the Storm Kings created an opening to question the social hierarchy, with women and peasants and bastards all claiming a right to political participation in the Riverlands. It’s my belief that this political activity shows the beginning of a tendency of persistent smallfolk resistance in the Riverlands that, while less dramatic than say that of the Dornish, does help to explain why the Brotherhood Without Banners was able to gain such a persistent foothold in the kingdom.
To me, this speaks to the often-overlooked resilience and understated strength of a kingdom often dismissed by much of the fandom – for while the polity of the Riverlands might have failed to establish and defend itself, when the people of the Riverlands rise up against their oppressors in guerilla warfare, they show a surprising capacity to topple oppressors. In the case of the Durrandons, it was a coup by a thousand cuts: “With the death of Arlan III, however, an inevitable decline began, for the stormlanders were stretched too thin to hold this vast kingdom together. Rebellion followed rebellion, petty kings sprang up like weeds, castles and keeps fell away.” (WOIAF) Even if in the end the Stormlords could put down these rebellions, the sheer cost in blood and treasure of having to put down no less than twenty rebellions – on top of having to fight the Reach and Dorne and everyone else – gradually wore them down to the point where they were ready to fall.
And then, as the chroniclers put it, “and then the ironborn came.”
 Another sign of the Riverlands’ importance for the First Men is that much of the surviving First Men “myth and song…colorful tales of Artos the Strong, Florian the Fool, Nine-Finger Jack, Sharra the Witch Queen, and the Green King of the Gods Eye,” are set in the Riverlands, with Florian and Jonquil associated with Maidenpool and the Green King with the Godseye.
 According to a 1999 So Spake Martin, “the Mudds and Fishers were two dynasties of River Kings, who ruled the lands around the Trident in ancient times, but were destroyed in wars by the Storm Kings or Ironmen.” GRRM clearly changed his mind about House Mudd in A Storm of Swords, but it’s worth noting that if the line of the Fishers ended in a war with the Storm Kings or the Ironborn, it would fit the pattern of the Mudds (defeated by the Andals), Justmans (defeated by the Ironborn), and Teagues (defeated by the Stormlords).
 This last detail may explain how the Vances, who were the “mightiest of the Andal conquerors” in the immediate aftermath of the fall of House Mudd, failed to become true Kings of the Rivers. Given that Wayfarer’s Rest is at the far western border of the Riverlands and that the Vances were formerly the overlords of the Tullys, it’s likely that Atranta also lies to the west. If the Westermen were pouring over the border to “pillage and conquer,” it’s possible that they sapped the strength of this House before they could establish themselves as the Arryns of the Riverlands.
 Incidentally, the detail about Torrence paying for his army by “seiz[ing] a fortune in gold in a daring attack upon the westerlands” is quite puzzling. The WOIAF tells us that the Lannisters met the Andal invasion of the Westerlands with ease, with the first three armies of Andals smashed to pieces in the hills, and the sage Kings Tyrion III and Gerold II co-opting the Andals into fighting their own. So where is there space for Torrence’s daring raid? I see two possible solutions: the first is that Torrence was raiding those parts of the Westerlands that were outside of the realm at that time (the WOIAF mentions that …. The second is that, as the Lannisters used co-opted Andals to fight back would-be conquerors, it might be that Torrence was one of those Andals who fought for the Lannisters, but preferred to take his payment in Casterly Rock gold rather than land and title.