When last we left off in the story of the political development of the Riverlands, the grip of the Stormlanders on their province was beginning to slip, and the Ironborn were rowing across Ironman’s Bay, looking to shake it loose for good…
The Hard Hand of the Hoares
The Ironborn conquest of the Riverlands is one of the more significant events in the post-Andal, pre-Aegon period, again re-drawing the map of the continent and making the Ironborn a true contender in the fight over who would control Westeros. However, it’s also one of the more mythologized events, the key part of the story of Ironborn supremacy and the inherent inferiority of the “green landers” – especially the ones that the Ironborn ruled over back when they had an empire. So it’s important to peel away the legend to get at those facts underneath, starting with Harwyn Hardhand himself.
It is undeniable that Harwyn Hoare was a gifted commander who won an astonishing victory. And when we look at his campaign, we see an interesting mix of traditional Ironborn strengths and new techniques of war imported from Essos. On the one hand, the Ironborn’s seamanship with the light, shallow-drafted longships was crucial to their success, especially in the early stages of the war:
“The importance of the Trident to the region was never made clearer then when King Harwyn Hoare, the grandfather of Harren the Black, fought over the riverlands with the Storm King Arrec. The ironborn reavers were able to achieve dominance on the rivers and use them as a means to transport forces swiftly between farflung strongholds and battlefields. The Storm King suffered his worst defeat at the crossing of the Blue Fork near Fairmarket, where the longships proved decisive in allowing the ironborn to seize the crossing despite Arrec’s superior numbers.”
“Harwyn assembled a host and led it across the bay on a hundred of his father’s longships. Landing unchallenged north of Seagard, they carried their ships overland to the Blue Fork of the Trident, then swept downstream with fire and sword…Harwyn’s force landed forty leagues south of Seagard and marched inland to the Blue Fork, carrying their ships with them on their shoulders in a feat the singers of the isles still celebrate.”
“As the ironborn moved up and down the rivers, reaving and raiding as they pleased, the riverlords fell back before them or took shelter in their castles, unwilling to risk battle in the name of a king many of them reviled.” (WOIAF)
Through millennia of raiding up rivers in their fast-moving longships, the Ironborn understood the rivers in ways that many of the native sons of the Riverlands had either never known or forgotten, that the Trident could be used as a watery highway giving superior mobility of both manpower and material (what military scholars term “interior lines”), which can be used to concentrate their forces and gain local superiority of numbers, even against a numerically superior foe. On the other hand, we can also see in Harwyn Hoare an Ironborn who could think beyond the limitations of the Old Way. Harwyn had “sent out to sea at an early age…visited Volantis, Tyrosh, and Braavos…sold his sword to a free company in the Disputed Lands, and fought in several battles as a Second Son.” This proved crucially important when it came to fighting on the land, as “in those days, the ironborn were thought to be savage fighters at sea but easily put to rout on land. But Harwyn Hoare was not like other ironborn. Tempered in the Disputed Lands, he proved to be as fierce afoot as he was at sea, routing every foe.” (Ibid)
This is how the Ironborn remember the Conquest, as the result of the genius of Harwyn Hoare and the strength he imparted to his people that allowed them to conquer a kingdom ten times the size of their island homes. But there is another side to this story, one that suggests that the outcome of Harwyn’s war was dictated not by the strength of the Ironborn but by the divisions and dynamics of Riverlands politics.
Let’s begin with examining a critical detail that is often overlooked, when Harwyn invaded the Riverlands, “Harwyn assembled a host and led it across the bay on a hundred of his father’s longships.”(WOIAF) This figure of a hundred longships, which is repeatedly and consistently attested to in the WOIAF, means that Harwyn could only have landed with 3,000 men, against which the Riverlands had at least 20,000 men, and the Stormlords at least another 40,000. While this disparity of odds is proof to the Ironborn that “every man of you is worth twenty of them, for only we are made of iron,” (ADWD) in the eyes of a historian it shows that the Ironborn could never have conquered the Riverlands without the help of the Riverlands.
The proof of this becomes clear when we look at the early battles of the campaign, which the Ironborn remember solely as an unbroken string of “crushing defeats” inflicted on the enemy. In reality, however, the opening stages of the war saw the Ironborn fighting only small forces: “A bold young knight named Samwell Rivers, a natural son of Tommen Tully, Lord of Riverrun, assembled a small host and met King Harwyn on the Tumblestone, but his lines shattered when the Hardhand charged. Hundreds drowned attempting to flee.” (WOIAF) A small host whose losses are numbered in the hundreds – which even Harwyn’s relatively modest army could easily overwhelm in a frontal assault – rather than the thousands, led by the natural son of one noble House and not one of the most prominent at that, does not represent the full mobilization of the Riverlands. That would come at Raventree Hall:
“Lord Tully [fled]…with all his strength to join the host gathering at Raventree Hall under Lady Agnes Blackwood and her sons. But when Lady Agnes advanced upon the ironborn, her belligerent neighbor Lord Lothar Bracken fell upon her rear with all his strength and put her men to flight. Lady Agnes herself and two of her sons were captured and delivered to King Harwyn, who forced the mother to watch as he strangled her boys with his bare hands. Yet Lady Agnes did not weep if the tales are true. “I have other sons,” she told the King of the Iron Isles. “Raventree shall endure long after you and yours are cast down and destroyed. Your line shall end in blood and fire.”
”Likely this prophetic speech is a later invention, added to the tale by some singer or storyteller. What we do know is that Harwyn Hardhand was so impressed by his captive’s defiance that he offered to spare her life and take her as a salt wife. “I would sooner have your sword inside me than your cock,” Lady Agnes replied. Harwyn Hardhand granted her wish.” (WOIAF)
Here is where we see the true cause of Harwyn’s Conquest…the Bracken-Blackwood feud and the historical legacy of the Riverlands’ civil wars. The Tullys and the Blackwoods had sided with the Durrandons over the Teagues during the last invasion of the Riverlands, and so in the critical moment, the Brackens paid them back in kind by betraying the Blackwoods and routing them in the field, so that rather than Ironborn strength of arms, it was Riverlanders who had won the most important battle of the war up until that point. Indeed, the Ironborn invasion became just a part of the ongoing feud, with the Brackens exulting in their revenge and the Blackwoods promising vengeance for the murder of Lady Agnes and her sons.
Indeed, when we look at the rest of the war, we see Riverlanders becoming more and more prominent. Following the victory at Raventree Hall, “many lords of the Trident declared for” Harwyn, and by the time that “word of the invasion had finally reached King Arrec Durrandon at distant Storm’s End…many of the riverlords had joined the ironmen by then.”(WOAIF) By the time that Arrec’s “mighty host…raced north to meet the foe,” that foe was overwhelmingly Riverlander rather than Ironborn. And thus we get to the two accounts of the Battle of Fairmarket. The first is how the Ironborn remember it:
“At Fairmarket, Harwyn found himself facing Arrec Durrandon, the young Storm King, leading a host half again the size of his own…but the stormlanders were ill led, weary, and far from home, and the ironmen and riverlords shattered them. King Arrec lost two brothers and half his men, and was lucky to escape with his own life…The broad, fertile riverlands and all their wealth passed from the hands of Storm’s End to those of the ironmen.” (WOIAF)
In the Iron Islanders’ version, the narrative is streamlined down to a conflict between two kings, the difference in numbers is made into grist for the legend of Ironborn supremacy, and the outcome of the battle is cast in terms of the manifest destiny of the Iron Islands, suggesting that the Riverlands now belonged to them by right of conquest from House Durrandon – which rather ignores the riverlords who were there. The numbers alone show the scope of propaganda; however important Harwyn’s longships were in seizing the vital crossing, if Arrec’s army was “half again the size of his own,” that means that the Ironborn made up only 11% of Harwyn’s forces at Fairmarket!
Here’s how the Riverlanders tell the story of the Battle of Fairmarket, giving it a larger context that situates the battle as part of an ongoing war of national liberation, fought and won largely by the Riverlanders:
“So eager was this young king to come to grips with the ironmen that he soon outpaced his own baggage train—a grievous mistake, as Arrec learned when he crossed the Blackwater and found every castle shut against him and neither food nor fodder to be found, only burning towns and blackened fields.…Under the command of the Lords Goodbrook, Paege, and Vypren, they slipped across the Blackwater and fell upon the slow-moving baggage train before it reached the river, putting King Arrec’s rear guard to flight and seizing his supplies.”
“Thus it was a stumbling, starving host of stormlanders who finally faced Harwyn Hardhand at Fairmarket, where Lothar Bracken, Theo Charlton, and a score of other riverlords had joined him. King Arrec had half again as many fighters as his foes, but his men were weary from days of marching, confused and dispirited, and their king soon showed himself to be both headstrong and indecisive. When battle was joined, the result was a shattering defeat for the stormlanders. Arrec himself escaped the carnage, but two of his brothers died in the fighting, and the rule of Storm’s End over the lands of the Trident came to a sudden, bloody end.” (WOIAF)
To begin with, we see the formation of an anti-Durrandon coalition of Riverlords – headed up by the Brackens, but also including the Charltons (former rivals of the Blackwoods for the throne), the Vyprens (among the leading Andal Houses, and thus likely to have been a loyalist to the Teagues and thus no friend of the Blackwoods), as well as the Paeges, the Goodbrooks, and seventeen other Houses. This long list, especially in comparison to the two houses listed as having fought for the Durrandons, shows a Riverlands that had chosen to rise up against “a king many of them reviled.” It’s a rare foreign invasion that shows such overwhelming support from the people.
Moreover, in this telling we see the Riverlanders taking the initiative in the campaign and dictating the tactics and strategy in a way that is highly familiar to fans of ASOIAF: the scorched-earth guerilla warfare intended to starve a more numerous invader, the use of the rivers to attack isolated elements of the enemy from unexpected directions, and the focus on attacking an enemy’s logistics as opposed to their main force. As the WOIAF tells us, “Thus it was a stumbling, starving host of stormlanders who finally faced Harwyn Hardhand at Fairmarket…his men were weary from days of marching, confused and dispirited.” One cannot discount the impact of an army having to march more than 400 miles on an empty stomach – in premodern warfare, where almost all fighting is hand-to-hand, physical stamina is everything, and the better-rested, better-fed army has an enormous advantage, as the Romans found out to their dismay at Trebia when they had to make a dawn crossing of a river in the midst of winter without a chance to eat. Thus, I would argue, before Harwyn Hardhand ever saw a Stormlander on the battlefield, Arrec Durrandon had already been half-defeated, thanks entirely to the canny guerilla tactics of the Riverlanders.
When we look at the aftermath of the Battle of Fairmarket, we can see how, for a tragic moment of false hope, this really was a moment of national liberation for a country that had been ruled as a colonial province for three hundred years:
“Across the riverlands, it is said, many smallfolk rejoiced to hear the tidings, whilst their lords, emboldened, rose against the few small garrisons of stormlanders that remained scattered across the region, casting them out or putting them to the sword. The bells at Stoney Sept rang for a day and a night, the chroniclers tell us, and singers and begging brothers went from town to town to proclaim that the men of the Trident were their own masters once again.” (WOIAF)
The sources differ as to who was responsible for rising up against the stormlander garrisons across the Riverlands – above, we get one account that credits the riverlords who had sat out the fighting due to their hatred of the Storm Kings, now feeling safe to kick them while they’re down. However, we also read that “the smallfolk of the riverlands rose up, and his garrisons were driven out or slaughtered,” and given the smallfolk resistance we’ve seen earlier against the Durrandons, their participation would both fit the pattern and help to explain the widespread rejoicing at the fall of the Stormlords.
But as with the case of the downfall of the little-loved Teagues, we have to be careful about attributing the overthrow of Arrec Durrandon to a purely spontaneous nationalist uprising. Just as the ambition of House Blackwood had been there underneath the cause of religious freedom, so too was this rebellion linked to the ambitions of House Bracken:
“These celebrations proved short-lived, however. It has been said, particularly about Stone Hedge, that Lord Lothar Bracken had made common cause with the ironborn in the belief that the Hardhand would make him king once the stormlanders had been expelled, but there is no written evidence that supports this claim. It seems unlikely: Harwyn Hoare was not the sort of man to give away crowns. Just as Arlan III Durrandon had done three centuries earlier, Harwyn claimed the riverlands for himself. Those riverlords who had fought beside him had done naught but exchange one master for another…and their new master was harsher, crueler, and more exacting than the old one.”
“Lothar Bracken himself was amongst the first to learn that lesson when he sought to rise against the Hardhand half a year later. Only a few minor lords rallied to his banners, and King Harwyn crushed him utterly, sacking, then slighting Stone Hedge and hanging Lord Bracken from a crow cage for the best part of a year whilst he slowly starved to death.” (WOIAF)
Unlike the maesters, I don’t discount the possibility that the Brackens may have reached out to Harwyn, looking for an alliance – it absolutely fits in with the historical pattern of political rivals in the Riverlands unwisely turning to outside support, in complete contravention of Machievelli’s advice. When one considers how blatantly Lothar Bracken betrayed not just his Durrandon overlords but also his peers and neighbors, it would be odd indeed for him to have done so without any indication that his treason would be rewarded by his new overlord. It’s also not surprising that “no written evidence that supports this claim” survives, given that Stone Hedge was sacked and slighted less than a year after, by someone who would have a very good motive to destroy any evidence that such an alliance had ever been in the cards.
An alliance also makes sense from the Ironborn side. After all, Harwyn Hoare had targeted the Riverlands specifically because “he saw only weakness and confusion in the riverlands, where the lords of the Trident chafed restlessly beneath the heel of the Storm King, Arrec Durrandon, in distant Storm’s End.”(WOIAF) And unlike most Ironborn, Harwyn’s time as a sellsword in Essos during the tumultuous Century of Blood would have given him first-hand experience of the political intrigues and coalition-building in the more sophisticated political systems of the Free Cities, giving him the tools to make use of the observations he had made. (A man who’s willing to hire Faceless Men to kill his own brother for a crown is not an unsophisticated warrior.) If you’re looking to exploit resentment against a colonial overlord to help you seize said colony when you’re a huge numerical underdog, the natural thing to do is to reach out to potential allies among the colonial population.
Unfortunately for both House Bracken and the Riverlands, Harwyn Hardhand was far less scrupulous then Arlan III. Harwyn took the crown, and when Lothar tried an abortive attempt to take it back, Harwyn retaliated so thoroughly and memorably viciously that it was clear that, not only were the Riverlands not going to be “their own masters once again,” but that the colonial oppression they had experienced under the Durrandons was only going to get even worse:
“Those lords of the Trident who had joined him in hopes of freeing themselves from the Durrandons soon learned that their new masters were far more brutal and demanding than their old ones. Harwyn would rule his conquest with a heavy hand until his death, spending far more time in the riverlands than on the islands, riding from one end of the Trident to the other at the head of a rapacious army, sniffing out any hint of rebellion whilst collecting taxes, tribute, and salt wives. “His palace was a tent, his throne a saddle,” men said of him.” (WOIAF)
The legendarily “brutal domination of the ironborn over the peoples of the Trident” was due to several factors: First, unlike the Stormlords who had many other territories, the Ironborn only had the Riverlands, and so hands-on oppression rather than benign neglect would be the order of the day. Indeed, we can see from where Harwyn and his heirs spent most of their reigns that the Ironborn’s tradition of settler colonialism, driven by the home islands’ lack of land, was absolutely in effect in the Riverlands.
Second, because of their relatively few soldiers and their one province, the Ironborn would need to extract even more taxes and tributes from the Riverlands to keep their empire, because the Stormlords were not about to let them keep it without a fight: “In later life, King Arrec twice attempted to cross the Blackwater and take back what he had lost, but without success. His eldest son and successor, King Arlan V, tried as well, and died in the attempt.” (WOIAF) As with the original conquest, these wars would have to be fought largely with Riverlander soldiers and Riverlander gold.
Third, and I would argue this is probably the most important factor, unlike the Durrandons who shared a common religion and common descent with many of the Riverlords, the Ironborn’s ideology designated their new subjects as subhuman. The Hoares believed that they had paid the Iron Price for the Riverlands, and thus everyone in the realm, highborn and smallfolk, were their thralls and thus chattel. Durrandon lords had demanded taxes and tribute as well, but only the Ironborn took “salt wives” from the Riverlands, adding the violence and humiliation of mass kidnapping and rape to the usual outrages of colonialism.
No surprise, therefore, that Harwyn (like Artys Arryn) had to spend his reign in the saddle putting down rebellions – but whereas this eventually wore down the Teagues and the Durrandons, it perfectly suited the Ironborn. Peaceful administration and governance of feudal estates wouldn’t have fit the worldview of vikinger warlords, but bloody repression and constant warfare did. In this fashion, the Hoare dynasty resembles the empire of the Spartans even more so than the knights of the Vale, for the Spartans too practiced a policy of declaring annual war upon their helot subjects, using terrorism to cow the overwhelming majority of the population from rising up against the mere three thousand or so Spartiates who owned them.
The result is that the Hoares’ rule over the Riverlands was the worst possible combination of anarchy and tyranny. Rather than looking after his territory like a steward of his own estate, Harwyn preferred “riding from one end of the Trident to the other at the head of a rapacious army,” as if the Riverlands were frozen at the moment of conquest, still a foreign land to be ravaged. Thus, while Harwyn enacted loyalty and tax payments with fire and sword, as a matter of policy he provided no governance, no law and order: “their ironborn overlords had largely ignored such conflicts amongst their vassals—indeed, if the Iron Chronicle can be believed, Harwyn Hardhand oft seemed to pit his bannermen against one another to keep them weak.” After all, there were only 15,000 Ironborn soldiers to keep down a population of some 4,000,000 Riverlanders, and while the Ironborn could use the rivers to strike without warning, it would be far easier to maintain their rule over the Riverlands by encouraging their traditional tendency for vendetta and blood-feud. (The declension narrative could not be more clear: in six thousand years, the Riverlands had gone from dynasties dedicated to even-handed justice that managed to keep the Bracken-Blackwood feud at bay, to weak dynasties that tried and failed to achieve the same goal, to downright malicious regimes that encouraged it.)
Unfortunately for the Riverlands, things only got worse when the Hardhand “died abed at the age of sixty-four, whilst taking carnal pleasure of one of his many salt wives.” Halleck Hoare was certainly more committed to his new empire than the first generation of conquerors had been:
“Halleck visited the Iron Islands only thrice during his reign, spending less than two years there all told. Though he called himself ironborn, sacrificed to the Drowned God, and always kept three priests at his side, there was more of the Trident than of the salt sea in Halleck Hoare, and he seemed to look upon the islands only as a source of arms, ships, and men.”(WOIAF)
We can see this in the fact that Halleck was the first Hoare to establish a permanent capital in the Riverlands, “rul[ing] his broad domains from a modest tower house at Fairmarket in the heart of the riverlands, near the site of his father’s greatest victory.” (As with the Mudds, this position would give Halleck immediate access to the Blue Fork and from there, he could sail his longships across almost all of his domain.) This commitment to his own imperium did not, however, come with any concern for the well-being of his subjects. Whereas Harwyn was content to put down rebellions and fight defensive wars to hold onto his legacy, Halleck saw the Riverlanders as mere fuel for his ambition to surpass his father: “His own reign was even bloodier than his father’s, if less successful, marked by unsuccessful wars against the westermen and stormlanders, and no less than three failed attempts to conquer the Vale, all ending in disaster at the Bloody Gate.” (WOIAF)
It is hard to put into words how disastrous Halleck’s reign must have been for the Riverlands. A relatively weak kingdom that had only managed to be a regional power at the best of times, was being pressed into service as janissaries in a campaign to conquer the entire continent. Halleck – named after Civil War general Henry Halleck, who while an excellent administrator, was something of a failure as a field commander – seems to have been a devotee of the Ronald Rust school of tactics, running his conscript armies headlong into the enemy again and again. It would be bad enough if Halleck had only decided to go to war with the Westerlands and the Stormlands, two powerful kingdoms either of which could easily outnumber the Riverlands and the Iron Islands put together. But to launch no less than three assaults against the Bloody Gates, a defensive fortification that destroys entire armies, is a level of military malpractice up there with the worst of those men who sent men over the top in WWI. And in a society in which many of the young men who died futilely in that mountain pass would have been desperately needed for primary food production, the long-term repercussions of Halleck’s disastrous wars echo across generations.
If the reign of Halleck showed the horrors of being ruled over by an incompetent tyrant, they are nothing compared the horrors that come when one is ruled over by a competent tyrant – Harren the Black, the last Hoare King of the Isles and Rivers. Harren’s “bloody hand[ed]” rule over the Riverlands had become a byword for brutality – as WOIAF says, “no king in Westeros was more feared than Black Harren, whose cruelty had become legendary all through the Seven Kingdoms.” This reputation came from an intensified form of settler colonialism, for just like Halleck,”Harwyn’s grandson, King Harren the Black, spent most of his life in the riverlands…returning to the Iron Islands only infrequently.” Instead, his obsession was the construction of “the gigantic fortress that would bear his name:”
“The largest castle ever raised in Westeros, Harrenhal boasted five gargantuan towers, an inexhaustible source of fresh water, huge, subterranean vaults well stocked with provisions, and massive walls of black stone higher than any ladder and too thick to be broken by any ram or shattered by a trebuchet…” (WOIAF)
The great seat of Harrenhal was both a practical project of military fortification and imperial domination, and a political statement of his own personal glory and the permanency of Ironborn rule. On the former, a castle as mighty as Harrenhal would allow a relatively small number of Ironborn to hold down the entire Riverlands from a single stronghold (much like the Eyrie does for the Vale), freeing up the rest of Harren’s army to seek out new conquests (much like a pyramid scheme, warrior societies require constant forward momentum in order to function). Moreover, its central location allowed it to both defend and attack by both land and water (being built on the shores of the God’s Eye means that the Ironborn would always be able to reinforce and resupply with their longships, unless someone actually managed to dam the Blackwater Rush). Even if the Riverlords rose up against him in his absence, the castle would shrug off any siege until his forces could return, making rebellion an impossibility.
On the latter, the larger-than-life extravagance (some might say over-compensation) of the castle – “its stables housed a thousand horses, its godswood covered twenty acres, its kitchens were as large as Winterfell’s Great Hall, and its own great hall, grandly named the Hall of a Hundred Hearths…was so cavernous that Lord Tywin could have feasted his entire host…walls, doors, halls, steps, everything was built to an inhuman scale” (ACOK) – was a symbolic message. To the outside, it proclaimed the arrival of House Hoare into the pantheon of the ancient Great Houses of Westeros. Harrenhal might not have been built on top of a mountain or inside of a mountain or by some ancient hero, but it was so magnificent that it had to be included. To the inside, Harrenhal was synecdoche for the House – just as that great and awful monument of stone and misery would last forever, so too would the rule of its masters.
Of course, the great irony of all of this is that the Hoares did what so many kings of the Riverlands failed to do – they created a unifying symbolic politics that put their House in everyone’s minds as the indisputable rulers of the Riverlands. However, because they were true believers in the Old Way, the result was universal hatred and resentment:
“Forty years of Black Harren’s rule, which brought penury and the deaths of thousands, had won him no love in the riverlands.”
“Though House Hoare had ruled the riverlands for three generations, the men of the Trident had no love for their ironborn overlords. Harren the Black had driven thousands to their deaths in the building of his great castle of Harrenhal, plundering the riverlands for materials and beggaring lords and smallfolk alike with his appetite for gold.”(WOIAF)
And here is where the ideology of the Old Way runs headlong into the practical politics of Machiavelli. The Iron Price is an honor code for pirates, but there is a fundamental incompatibility between the cycle of plunder and ring-giving and keeping a newly-conquered population quiescent. While most crude Machiavellians cite him in saying “it is better to be feared than loved,” but they often ignore what Machiavelli says next:
“Nevertheless a prince ought to inspire fear in such a way that, if he does not win love, he avoids hatred; because he can endure very well being feared whilst he is not hated, which will always be as long as he abstains from the property of his citizens and subjects and from their women. But when it is necessary for him to proceed against the life of someone, he must do it on proper justification and for manifest cause, but above all things he must keep his hands off the property of others, because men more quickly forget the death of their father than the loss of their patrimony.” (Il Principe, Chapter XVII)
“A Prince, as I have said before, sooner becomes hated by being rapacious and by interfering with the property and with the women of his subjects, than in any other way. From these, therefore, he should abstain. For so long as neither their property nor their honour is touched, the mass of mankind live contentedly, and the Prince has only to cope with the ambition of a few, which can in many ways and easily be kept within bounds.” (Il Principe, Chapter XIX)
In order to build his monument, Black Harren violated all of these maxims – the scale and scope that was at the heart of the project was beyond what could reasonably be expected from normal taxation, and so he began to rob his subjects wholesale, creating enemies among the nobility and the smallfolk alike, helping to build the unity that had so often been missing in the development of the Riverlands. But even worse was the mass enslavement of thousands of smallfolk to build his castle (because free laborers do not work themselves to death en masse). This importation of the sharpest edge of thralldom into the Riverlands not only violated mainlander custom, but it even goes against the self-interest of dictatorships: when obedience brings death just as surely as rebellion, one might as well become a rebel. And of course, we also know that, by concentrating death and despair into a single point, mixing it into the mortar and burying into the stone like the hundreds of thousands of workers who died during the construction of the Great Wall of China (resentment from which helped to bring down the Qin Dynasty which had built it) , we create a thin place…and so the Curse of Harrenhal is borne.
But at least for the moment, no one was willing to rise up against a man who ranks high on the list of the worst tyrants of Westerosi history, because Harren’s brutality went hand in hand with his effectiveness as a warlord. It began within; whereas Harwyn and Halleck had either ignored or encouraged infighting, Harren’s greater demands on his population led to order through repression:
“A decade before Aegon’s Conquest, the Blackwoods and Brackens had entered into a new private war in their ancient feud…But this time the feuding disrupted the construction of Harrenhal, and that was enough reason for Harren the Black to deal with them harshly. So it was that, when Aegon the Conqueror marched upon Harrenhal, the Tullys of Riverrun were the most powerful of riverlords still remaining.” (WOIAF)
While Harren’s ability to subdue the Brackens and the Blackwoods simultaneously is a testament to his military prowess, underneath the surface we can see signs that will explain why the Riverlands would shortly explode in rebellion. First, by attacking both sides at the same time, he accomplished the near-impossible feat of uniting the Brackens and Blackwoods by giving them a common enemy. Second, as we can see from the disturbing thought that the Tullys were the “most powerful of riverlords still remaining,” this was clearly not an object lesson meant to terrify the others into obedience, but a regular practice.
If this violence had been restricted to his own lands, Harren might have been just another tyrant rather than one of the “most belligerent kings of Aegon’s time,” and would likely have been toppled much sooner. But Harren had a conqueror’s heart and had set his eye on the ailing Stormlander empire of the Durrandons, and while the WOIAF suggests that “Harren himself had devoted most of his long reign, close on forty years, to building a gigantic castle beside the Gods Eye, but with Harrenhal at last nearing completion, the ironborn were soon free to seek fresh conquests,” it also tells us that “Harren the Black and his ironmen had pushed [the Stormlanders] from the Trident and the lands north of the Blackwater Rush.” Trying to reconcile this with the inconsistency about Halleck above, my explanation is that, while the Durrandons might have been able to regain some territories in the southeastern Riverlands and the northern Crownlands during Halleck’s inept reign, Harren had not only retaken the outlying regions of the Riverlands but had taken the whole of the northern Crownlands from Argilac and was poised to pour across the Blackwater and into the Stormlands now that he could bring his whole army to bear.
As long as Harren remained a victor on the field, few would be willing to risk experiencing the fate of the Brackens and Blackwoods. But this kind of strength is more fragile than most warlords would like to imagine; without a scrap of legitimacy to keep his people loyal, Harren Hoare would only be secure as long as there was no one else stronger on the horizon.
And then on one day in 2 BC, the whole of the Riverlands learned that a contender had arrived: “from this day forth there would be but one king in Westeros. Those who bent the knee to Aegon of House Targaryen would keep their lands and titles.”
Aegon’s Conquest in the Riverlands:
In this essay, I’m only going to be discussing the Riverlands campaign of Aegon’s Conquest and the ways in which that campaign shaped the political development of the kingdom. (If you want to know more about the campaign as a whole, you can read my essays on the Kings of Westeros here.) Notably, the Riverlands campaign was the main instance where Aegon the Conqueror decided to personally intervene, most likely judging that as Harren was the man on the rise, taking him out first would send the loudest message to the rest of Westeros. After a pair of virtually bloodless victories at Rosby, Duskendale, and Maidenpool, Aegon had already taken the northern Crownlands, denying Harren any staging area for an attack on the Aegonfort.
The opening of the Riverlands proper was an interesting example of two skilled strategists at work: Aegon understood that Harren would have to defend his castle and thus went straight for it, and Harren in turn hoped to use the same terrain-suited tactics that had worked against the Stormlords to his advantage, and thus took an unusually reactive stance:
“The king himself marched northeast, to the Gods Eye and Harrenhal, the gargantuan fortress that was the pride and obsession of King Harren the Black and which he had completed and occupied on the very day Aegon landed in what would one day become King’s Landing.”
All three of the Targaryen thrusts faced fierce opposition… Aegon himself was attacked on the south shore of the Gods Eye, not once but twice. The Battle of the Reeds was a Targaryen victory, but they suffered heavy losses at the Wailing Willows when two of King Harren’s sons crossed the lake in longboats with muffled oars and fell upon their rear.” (WOIAF)
If Aegon hadn’t been a dragonrider, his campaign might well have ended just as that of Arrec Durrandon, with a starving, exhausted shadow of an army breaking itself against the walls of Harrenhal. But Aegon was a dragonrider, and so just as happened at the Battle off Gulltown or the march on Storm’s End, the dragons proved themselves capable of singlehandedly turning defeat into victory: “the victors at the Wailing Willows, returning across the lake to Harrenhal, were ill prepared when Balerion fell upon them out of the morning sky. Harren’s longboats burned. So did Harren’s sons.” And I think it was this unlikely moment that inspired the uprising against Harren, by showing that unlike so many previous would-be conquerors, Aegon had an edge that would allow him to overcome any stratagem by Harren, that made him the man to bet on.
And so the Riverlands rose once more, just as they had done against the Durrandons and the Teagues before them. Just as with previous rebellions, we have to analyze the political context of this movement:
“Forty years of Black Harren’s rule, which brought penury and the deaths of thousands, had won him no love in the riverlands. Consequently, Aegon’s arrival was heralded by lords great and small flocking to his banner, keen to overthrow their cruel foreign king—and chief amongst them was Edmyn Tully.”
“So now the riverlands rose against him, led by Lord Edmyn Tully of Riverrun. Summoned to the defense of Harrenhal, Tully declared for House Targaryen instead, raised the dragon banner over his castle, and rode forth with his knights and archers to join his strength to Aegon’s. His defiance gave heart to the other riverlords. One by one, the lords of the Trident renounced Harren and declared for Aegon the Dragon. Blackwoods, Mallisters, Vances, Brackens, Pipers, Freys, Strongs…summoning their levies, they descended on Harrenhal.”(WOIAF)
When the rebel coalition included essentially the whole of the political class of the Riverlands – notably including both the Brackens and the Blackwoods, who had fresher reasons to hate Harren the Black than one another – I think it has to be conceded that this rebellion was a genuine expression of the pent-up anger and humiliation of 140 years of brutal colonial rule. One detail does add to confusion on how widespread – after this rebellion, Aegon claimed that he now had “eight thousand men outside your walls,” which is a small portion of the Riverlands’ strength even if we take the low estimate. There are a couple of explanations: one is that only the Tullys had the time to bring their whole forces to Harrenhal and the other Houses only sent token forces. A second possibility is that Aegon had divided his forces and sent some of his forces to guard the mouth of the Blackwater Rush and the Ruby Ford of the Trident to prevent Harren from being reinforced or escaping.
At the same time, however, the cascading nature of the rebellion does mean that we have to take into consideration the political interests of one Edmyn Tully. While the words of House Tully are “Family, Duty, Honor,” one unspoken connotation is that the interests of the family come ahead of both duty and honor, and so we see a long strain of effective political opportunism among the Tullys. While “the Tullys of Riverrun were never kings…the books of lineages will show any number of connections to the dynasties of the past,” suggesting a Tyrell-like focus of acquiring royal blood by marriage. More pointedly, Ser Edmure Tully had betrayed the other First Men the moment that Tristifer IV Mudd died, and had “received a grant of lands at the juncture of the Red Fork and its swiftrunning vassal the Tumblestone,” where they built “a red castle he named Riverrun,” with “great strategic value.” The House had then carefully built on this asset, gaining both wealth and power from “petty kings contending during the age of anarchy…[vying] for the support of House Tully.” Thus, by the time that the Justmans and Teagues had come and gone:
“the Tullys were accounted amongst the foremost lords of the riverlands by the time that the Storm Kings won their final war against the last King of the Rivers and Hills. Some noble houses were destroyed in those wars, but most bent the knee to the Storm Kings once the Teagues were dispossessed, and the Tullys were amongst them. Soon Tullys began to appear in prominent offices and trusted positions.” (WOIAF)
Having profited from the fall of House Mudd, the Tullys likewise were happy to betray the Teagues. And while House Blackwood and House Bracken suffered badly at the hands of the Ironborn, somehow “Riverrun weathered the reigns of the Storm Kings and survived the subsequent ironborn conquest largely intact. Other powerful houses of the riverlands were not so fortunate.” With Aegon in the field, the Tullys saw another chance to rise even higher and made sure that they were the first Riverlords to declare for House Targaryen, which not only put them first in line for royal favor but also meant that they could take credit for all the other Houses who came after.
Not being a complete idiot, when he found himself “suddenly outnumbered, King Harren the Black took refuge in his supposedly impregnable stronghold…. Harren barred his gates and settled down with his remaining sons and supporters to withstand a siege.” (WOIAF) Here was the test of his lifelong monument, and to believe that this caste couldn’t hold off an army and a dragon was to admit that his entire life had been in vain:
“Once inside, he sent every man of his to the parapets, armed with spears and bows and crossbows, promising lands and riches to whichever of them could bring the dragon down. “Had I a daughter, the dragonslayer could claim her hand as well,” Harren the Black proclaimed. “Instead I will give him one of Tully’s daughters, or all three if he likes. Or he may pick one of Blackwood’s whelps, or Strong’s, or any girl born of these traitors of the Trident, these lords of yellow mud.” Then Harren the Black retired to his tower, surrounded by his household guard, to sup with his remaining sons.” (WOIAF)
And if Harren had been facing any other opponent than Aegon Targaryen, he still might have survived, using his massive defensive multiplier to hold off any assault and his vast storehouse to outlast out his besiegers. Unfortunately (for him), his belief that “stone does not burn” turned out to be in error, and “Harren and his last sons died in the fires that engulfed his monstrous fortress that night. House Hoare died with him, and so too did the Iron Islands’ hold on the riverlands.”
The Targaryen Riverlands:
The immediate question following the fall of House Hoare, and one that would shape the political development of the kingdom for the next three hundred years, is on what terms the Riverlands would now be politically incorporated into Aegon’s new polity. Here was a rare opportunity for him to start from scratch – the previous monarchy was wiped out so he didn’t have to accommodate a previous ruling dynasty, and the population had voluntarily acclaimed him rather than having been conquered. And so as a reward for his services (and his eye for the main chance), Edmyn Tully was made the first of the Lords Paramount:
“The next day, outside the smoking ruins of Harrenhal, King Aegon accepted an oath of fealty from Edmyn Tully, Lord of Riverrun, and named him Lord Paramount of the Trident. The other riverlords did homage as well—to Aegon as king and to Edmyn Tully as their liege lord.” (WOIAF)
On the face of it, this was a rather good start for the new system: the whole of the political class of the Riverlands has signed up all in one go, and the new chain of command was clear. However, the first problems emerged when it became clear that the title was all that House Tully was going to get out of Aegon; while “some even proposed that Lord Tully be granted dominion over the Iron Islands as well,” Aegon put the kibosh on that in favor of having the Iron Islands elect their own Lord Paramount. Likewise, while Harrenhal was (curse and being a smoldering ruin aside) the logical capitol of the Riverlands, Aegon had claimed that castle by right of personal conquest and (in a rare example of Aegon advancing Valyrians over native Westeros) gave it to “Quenton Qoherys—once master-at-arms at Dragonstone.”
Thus the Tullys would have to govern the Riverlands despite lacking the prestige vis-à-vis their new vassal that the Lannisters, Starks, and Arryns would enjoy, while holding in their own right a single castle that (however strategic) was all the way out on the western border of the kingdom, at the same time while their most powerful bannermen (who was in a position to dominate the heart of the province) looked first to King’s Landing rather than to Riverrun. And this, I would argue, is the major reason why the weak political development of the Riverlands persisted for most of the Targaryen dynasty.
No one’s fool, Lord Edmyn played his hand as best he could, doing “did much to repair the damage that Harren had left behind him.” First, following the dictates of feudal politics, Edmyn married his daughter to “the new-made Lord Quenton Qoherys… by then lord of ruined Harrenhal and its sizable lands.” Unfortunately for Lord Edmyn, “in later years this would prove a troublesome connection, alleviated only by the swift, sad end of House Qoherys.” (My guess is that Lord Edmyn only had daughters, and that Quenton Qoherys or his son made a play for Riverrun and the Lord Paramouncy when Edmyn died.) Second, Lord Edmyn also sought out royal office, compensating for a lack of personal power by borrowing some of Aegon’s reflected glory. Again unluckily, Edmyn only lasted “two years as Hand of the King, ending when he resigned the office and returned to Riverrun and his family.” As I’ve discussed elsewhere, the Tullys were not able to turn this one term into a regular tradition of Tullys serving as Hands of the King, and indeed would be repeatedly faced with the embarrassing situation of having one of their own vassals serving as Hand of the King – Osmund Strong, Lucas Harroway, Lyonel Strong, Lord Bracken, Lucas Lothston, Ambrose Butterwell, etc. – further complicating their ability to establish control over their vassals.
Indeed, the Tullys would only have 37 years of peaceful rule before their lack of ability to control their own kingdom became manifest:
“After the Conqueror’s death, it did not take long before challenges to the Targaryen rule emerged. The first of these was the bandit and outlaw named Harren the Red, who claimed to be a grandson of Harren the Black. With the help of a castle servant, Harren the Red seized both Harrenhal and its current ruler, the infamous Lord Gargon (remembered as Gargon the Guest for his custom of attending every wedding in his domain to exercise his right to First Night). Lord Gargon was gelded in the castle’s godswood and left to bleed to death while Red Harren proclaimed himself Lord of Harrenhal and King of the Rivers.”
“All this took place while the king guested at Riverrun, the seat of the Tullys. But by the time Aenys and Lord Tully moved to deal with this threat, they found Harrenhal empty, Gargon’s loyal men put to the sword, and Harren the Red and his followers returned to banditry.” (WOIAF)
For all that Gargon was a vile human being, the Tullys had just proven that they could neither protect nor avenge their most prominent vassal (and their kinsman) in full personal view of the King. Moreover, Harren the Red was at least symbolically claiming the Riverlands by virtue of kingly title – which the Tullys lacked – even if he didn’t actually try to hold Harrenhal. To make matters even worse, when Harren the Red was finally put down, it was “by Aenys’s Hand, Lord Alyn Stokeworth,” so that royal intervention ended the crisis. And as a final twist of the knife, Harrenhal then reverted not to the Tullys who had a blood claim through Quenton, but to the crown, who gave it to House Harroway instead, again elevating one of the Tullys’ bannermen to greater prominence than their overlord.
Only two years later, the Faith Militant uprising began, and once again the Tullys proved themselves unable to control their own lands. In 43 AC, Maegor had to come in person to put down the rebellion in the Riverlands, which many of the Tullys’ own bannermen had fought in:
“an even greater battle was joined at the Great Fork of the Blackwater, where thirteen thousand Poor Fellows—as well as hundreds of knights from the chapter of the Warrior’s Sons at Stoney Sept, and hundreds more besides from rebel lords of the riverlands and westerlands who joined them—fought against the king. It was a savage battle that lasted until nightfall, but it was a decisive victory for King Maegor. The king flew on Balerion’s back in the battle, and though rains dampened the Black Dread’s flames, the dragon still left death in its wake.” (WOIAF, unpublished)
No wonder, therefore, that when Prince Aegon marched his army into the Riverlands to reclaim his crown, the Tullys sided with the man who had already shown his fiery might and who treated Harrenhal like a bauble to be given away at tourneys. And so “the Tullys—together with the Harroways, who at that time ruled Harrenhal—fielded part of the army that surrounded and defeated Prince Aegon and his dragon, Quicksilver, in his war against his uncle, Maegor the Cruel.” (WOIAF) Five years later, the Tullys turned against Maegor, siding with the Poor Fellows, but I doubt that Jaehaerys I forgot that the Lords of Riverrun had helped to kill his brother.
Nor did Jaehaerys hold back from involving himself in the Riverlands. We know, for example, that the Bracken-Blackfood feud escalated into a new private war during the reign of Jaehaerys I, and that the King had to personally intercede to forge a peace agreement that lasted for the better part of his extremely long reign. Likewise, when House Towers finally collapsed, sometime around 100 AC, Jaehaerys gave the castle to “Lyonel Strong, famed as a warrior but also a man of great natural gifts who had earned six links in his chain at the Citadel…He served as master of laws, then Hand to Viserys I, while his sons became deeply entangled in the court.” (WOIAF) As Master of Laws and Hand of the King, and as the father of Ser Harwin Strong, the lover of Princess Rhaenrya, the Strongs would have been Lords Paramount in all but name.
It is most, unexpected, therefore, that these years should see House Tully rise to its greatest height of power (although it didn’t hurt that Lyonel and Harwin Strong died in that mysterious fire). It began with Lord Grover Tully, who “spoke for Prince Viserys Targaryen over Laenor Velaryon as the successor to Jaehaerys I in the Great Council of 101 AC.” (WOIAF) Grover’s camp carried the day, and thus the Tullys had a solid claim on the favor of Viserys I. Notably, they were close enough to the royal family that “the sons of Lord Tully of Riverrun…paid court to the princess,” (Princess & the Queen) in the hope of winning Princess Rhaenrya’s hand in marriage.
The outbreak of the Dance of the Dragons found the Tullys initially quite divided. At the Great Council of 101 AC, Lord Grover had spoken out in favor of the principle of agnatic primogeniture, and so “When the Dance of the Dragons erupted in 129 AC, the old lord proved loyal to his principles and King Aegon II…but he was aged then, and bedridden, and his grandson Ser Elmo defied him and had the gates barred and the banners kept close.” (WOIAF) Of course, what neither man realized was that the Dance of the Dragons would be almost entirely fought in the Riverlands, causing degrees of death and destruction never before and never again seen, even in the worst of the War of Five Kings.
Fighting between the blacks and greens broke out in the Riverlands, after the rogue prince Daemon Targaryen single-handedly captured Harrenhal, a stroke explicitly intended to give the blacks’ “friends in the riverlands….a place where they can gather.” And indeed, the tactic succeeded:
“…the Blackwoods and the other river lords streamed toward Harrenhal and Prince Daemon’s banners…the fall of Harrenhal to Prince Daemon came as a great shock to His Grace…Harrenhal left His Grace feeling vulnerable for the first time. Subsequent rapid defeats at the Burning Mill and Stone Hedge came as further blows, and made the king realixe that his situation was more perilous than it had seemed.” (P&Q)
For a civil war that centered around the bitter divisions within House Targaryen, the opening phase was oddly reminiscent of an old-fashioned Riverlander civil war, with the Blackwoods taking the opportunity of being on the side of the majority to exact revenge for the Brackens’ stabbing them in the back when they fought Harwyn Hardhand, defeating the Brackens at the Burning Mill and then capturing their seat at Stone Hedge just as their rivals had done at Blackwood Hall some hundred and forty years earlier. Outside of this one settling of scores, however, Ser Elmo Tully’s leadership (however founded on light usurpation) meant that the Riverlords were now unified behind the blacks.
That unity would be needed more than ever, because the Riverlanders would become (outside of the contributions of Roddy the Ruin’s Winter Wolves) the single most important and effective of Rhaenrya’s supporters, especially after King’s Landing fell to the blacks and the greens sent a series of military expeditions – one from the Westerlands, one from the Reach, and another from the retaken Harrenhal – to try to retake the capitol. The first thrust came from the Westerlands:
“Lord Jason Lannister had taken most of his knights, archers, and seasoned fighters east with him to attack Rhaenyra’s allies in the riverlands,…Queen Rhaenyra’s supporters met his host at the crossing of the Red Fork, where Lord Jason fell in battle, mortally wounded by the grizzled squire Pate of Longleaf (knighted after the battle, this lowborn warrior was known as the Lionslayer for the rest of his days)… the westermen broke the riverlords and swarmed into the riverlands.” (WOIAF)
While we might expect from the War of Five Kings that the Westerlands would always prevail in battle against the Riverlands, given their two-to-one advantage in manpower, the campaign that follows shows how an effective Lord of the Riverlands who understands how to properly conduct a defense-in-depth can overcome enormous odds. For while the Lannisters had won their battle, the loss of Jason Lannister meant that the Lannisters’ chain of command had broken at the very outside of the campaign:
“…the Lannister host slogged onward. The age and infirmity of their commander, Lord Lefford, had slowed their march to a crawl, but as they neared the western shores of the Gods Eye, they found a huge new army athwart their path.”
“Roddy the Ruin and his Winter Wolves had joined with Forrest Frey, Lord of the Crossing, and Red Robb Rivers, known as the Bowman of Raventree. The northmen numbered two thousand, Frey commanded two hundred knights and thrice as many foot, Rivers brought three hundred archers to the fray. And scarce had Lord Lefford halted to confront the foe in front of him when more enemies appeared to the south, where Longleaf the Lionslayer and a ragged band of survivors from the earlier battles had been joined by the Lords Bigglestone, Chambers, and Perryn…more rivermen turned up the next day, led by Ser Garibald Grey, Lord Jon Charlton, and the new Lord of Raventree…”
“Caught between these two foes, Lefford hesitated to move against either, for fear of the other falling on his rear. Instead he put his back to the lake, dug in, and send ravens to Prince Aemond at Harrenhal, begging his aid…”
“The bloodiest land battle of the Dance of the Dragons began the next day, with the rising of the sun. In the annals of the Citadel it is known as the Battle by the Lakeshore, but to those men who lived to tell of it, it was always the Fishfeed.”
“Attacked from three sides, the westermen were driven back foot by foot into the waters of the Gods Eye. Hundreds died there, cut down whilst fighting in the reeds; hundreds more drowned as they tried to flee. By nightfall two thousand men were dead, amongst them many notables, including Lord Frey, Lord Lefford, Lord Bigglestone, Lord Charlton, Lord Swyft, Lord Reyne, Ser Clarent Crakehall, and Ser Tyler Hill, the Bastard of Lannisport. The Lannister host was shattered and slaughtered, but at such cost that young Ben Blackwood, the boy Lord of Raventree, wept when he saw the heaps of the dead.” (P&Q)
At an enormous cost to themselves, the Riverlanders had (in the space of two battles) entirely destroyed the military forces of the Westerlands. And while the death of Ser Jason and the incompetence of Lord Lefford were certainly helpful factors in this unlikely victory, ultimately the reason the Riverlanders prevailed was that they understood how to use their terrain to their advantage. Just as they had against Arrec Durrandon, they exhausted and bled out a larger and stronger enemy along a long march, and then maneuvered that army such that it would have to fight with its back to water, so that a defeat would lead to a rout into a lake and the complete destruction of the Lannister army.
The second thrust that the Riverlanders would have to parry came from Harrenhal, where “Ser Criston Cole…[struck] south along the western shore of the Gods Eye with thirty-six hundred men behind him,” looking to link up with the third thrust coming up from the Riverlands, while Prince Aemond “descended from the autumn sky again and again to lay waste to the lands and villages and castles of the river lords.” And so for months, the Riverlands experienced their own version of the Wroth of the Dragons:
“…Castle Darry was consumed in a firestorm. Three days later, it was Lord Harroway’s Town left smoking. Lord’s Mill, Blackbuckle, Buckle, Claypool, Swynford, Spiderwood … Vhagar’s fury fell on each in turn, until half the riverlands seemed ablaze. Vhagar’s flames reduced Old Willow and White Willow to ash, and Hogg Hall to blackened stone. At Merrydown Dell, thirty men and three hundred sheep died…Harrenhal, where he burned every wooden structure in the castle.” (P&Q)
But just as happened in Dorne, the destruction wrought by dragonflame produced not surrender but an increasingly embittered resistance that increasingly ignored the laws of war. Unable to revenge themselves against Aemond and Vhagar (that would have to wait for Prince Daemon’s duel above the Gods Eye), the riverlords turned their attentions to Criston Cole’s army:
“Every village that he came to he found burned and abandoned. His column moved through forests of dead trees where living woods had been just days before, as the river lords set blazes all along his line of march. In every brook and pool and village well, he found death: dead horses, dead cows, dead men, swollen and stinking, befouling the waters. Elsewhere his scouts came across ghastly tableaux where armored corpses sat beneath the trees in rotting raiment, in a grotesque mockery of a feast. The feasters were men who had fallen in battle, skulls grinning under rusted helms as their green and rotted flesh sloughed off their bones.”
“Four days out of Harrenhall, the attacks began. Archers hid amongst the trees, picking off outriders and stragglers with their longbows. Men died. Men fell behind the rearguard and were never seen again. Men fled, abandoning their shields and spears to fade into the woods. Men went over to the enemy. In the village commons at Crossed Elms, another of the ghastly feasts was found. Familiar with such sights by now, Ser Criston’s outriders grimaced and rode past, paying no heed to the rotting dead … until the corpses sprang up and fell upon them. A dozen died before they realized it had all been a ploy.”
“All this was but prelude, for the Lords of the Trident had been gathering their forces. When Ser Criston left the lake behind, striking out overland for the Blackwater, he found them waiting atop a stony ridge; three hundred mounted knights in armor, as many longbowmen, three thousand archers, three thousand ragged rivermen with spears, hundreds of northmen brandishing axes, mauls, spiked maces, and ancient iron swords. Above their heads flew Queen Rhaenyra’s banners.”
“The battle that followed was as one-sided as any in the Dance. Lord Roderick Dustin raised a warhorn to his lips and sounded the charge, and the queen’s men came screaming down the ridge, led by the Winter Wolves on their shaggy northern horses and the knights on their armored destriers. When Ser Criston was struck down and fell dead upon the ground, the men who had followed him from Harrenhal lost heart. They broke and fled, casting aside their shields as they ran. Their foes came after, cutting them down by the hundreds.” (P&Q)
Once again, the Riverlanders had used scorched-earth tactics to deny their enemies supplies on a long-march, then used guerilla warfare to whittle down their numbers and shred their morale, and then used their superior knowledge of the geography to stage a final pitched battle on advantageous terms that would allow them to inflict a total defeat on their enemy – this time bringing down the remains of the royal army and the Hand of the King.
credit to SuperMercado Comics
Now, as I’ve said earlier (referencing this), one of the reasons why the Dance of the Dragons is my least favorite historical conflict is that its dominated by a series of one-sided conflicts. For the Riverlanders who have historically never been the most successful military powers in Westerosi history to completely destroy two armies in a row (despite suffering enormous casualties in the process) would be an amazing feat of arms worthy of Daeron I or Robb Stark. But during the Dance of the Dragons, the Tullys would go on to accomplish several more unlikely feats of valor: slaying Ormond Hightower and checking the green advance at the First Battle of Tumbleton, turning yet another loss into a purely pyrrhic victory for the greens; and then destroying the army that had won that battle at the Second Battle of Tumbleton; and then going on to completely eliminate the completely fresh army of the Stormlands at the Battle of the Kingsroad. No wonder, therefore, that the names of Elmo and Kermit Tully became synonymous with the greatest hour of House Tully:
“Later during the Dance, Ser Elmo Tully led the riverlords into battle at Second Tumbleton, but on the side of Queen Rhaenyra rather than King Aegon II, whom his grandsire had favored. The battle proved a victory—at least in part—and soon after, his grandfather finally died, and Ser Elmo became Lord of Riverrun. But he did not long enjoy his station; he died on the march forty-nine days later, leaving his young son, Ser Kermit, to succeed him.”
“Lord Kermit brought the Tullys to the height of their power. Vital and bold, he fought tirelessly for Queen Rhaenyra, and her son, Prince Aegon, later King Aegon III. Lord Kermit was the chief commander of the host that descended on King’s Landing in the last days of the war, and he personally slew Lord Borros Baratheon in the final battle of the Dance of the Dragons.” (WOIAF)
The astonishing thing is that, while arguably the Tullys had won the Dance of the Dragons for the blacks, they got nothing for their loyal service, or in recompense for their lands having born the brunt of the fighting. The unbloodied Cregan Stark seized the Handship, and then passed it on to the Lannisters, Peakes, Rownas, Waters, Grand Maester Munkun, and Manderlys. Not only did the Council of Regents not include Kermit Tully, but it didn’t include a single lord from the Riverlands (although to be fair, many of those riverlords had fallen on the field). A more astonishing display of royal ingratitude can hardly be conceived of.
And so the Dance of the Dragons proved to be a moment of phoenix-like glory for House Tully, a glorious conflagration that left only ashes in its wake – which should make us somewhat ambivalent about Kermit Tully who had sacrificed so much for so little. Thus, “his successors ruled as best they could after him, but Riverrun was never again as prominent as during those years.” Harrenhal would remain a royal possession for twenty years and then be given away to the Lothstons to cover up royal infidelity. Thus, when the Blackfyre Rebellions began, once again House Tully was in no position to stop disloyalty among their own ranks – especially by the Brackens, whose feud with the Brackens was badly exacerbated during the reigns of Aegon IV (thanks to Aegon’s fickle taste in mistresses) and Daeron II (thanks to Otho Bracken’s “accidental” slaying of Quenton Blackwood at a tourney) – or to prevent the Blackfyre rebels from pouring out of the Westerlands and storming through the Riverlands on their way to Redgrass Field and history.
Thus, when it comes to recent Westerosi history that directly impacts on ASOIAF, I think we have to conclude that one major reason why Hoster Tully joined the Southron Ambitions Conspiracy was simply to once again try to acquire enough power to successfully govern the ungovernable Riverlands.
In the Arthurian myths, there is a story that King Vortigern (the usurper who stole the throne from Uther Pendragon, the father of Arthur) sought to build a great castle to help him hold his kingdom against the Saxons whom Vortigern had invited into England as mercenaries. But every night, the castle that Vortigern had constructed would fall into ruin. Vortigern consulted his wise men as to how to prevent this from happening, and they told him to “find a child born without a father, put him to death, and sprinkle with his blood the ground on which the citadel is to be built, or you will never accomplish your purpose.” The boy they found was the young Merlin, who told Vortigen that he knew why his castle kept being destroyed and told him to dig under the hill that the castle was being built on. Vortigen did so and found two dragons warring in a cave under the hill, and Merlin told him that the eternal struggle between these dragons was responsible for the collapse of his fortress, and that as long as the dragons fought the castle would never stand:
In the myth, the Red Dragon symbolized Wales and the original Celtic Britons, whereas the White Dragon represented the Saxons. But for the Riverlands, they could just as easily represent the ancient and endless conflicts between the First Men and the Andals, the Old Gods and the New, and the Brackens and Blackwoods who are both cause and symbol of Riverlander political dysfunction. (Ironically it is House Paege whose sigil is the white and red serpents intertwined, although I would also point out that the sigil of the Brackens is a red horse and the Blackwoods a white tree…) In addition to their original conflict during the Age of Heroes, and the many private wars in-between, the Blackwoods brought in the Durrandons to bring down House Teague, the Brackens betrayed the Blackwoods and put the Hoares on the throne.
Indeed, as I’ve touched on briefly before, we can even see the Blackfyre Rebellions as an extension of the old feud: Barba Bracken had not just been Aegon IV’s mistress but the hope of her family to greater status, with her father becoming Aegon’s Hand and hoping to have his daughter become the queen when it looked like Naerys might die, which might have led to Barba’s son Aegor Rivers being legitimized as Aegor Targaryen. However, the Bracken’s bold talk led them to be exiled from court by Prince Daeron, who tolerated Aegon’s new mistress, Melissa Blackwood, who gave birth to Brynden Rivers. While Melissa may have had “a kind heart and a generous nature,” she wasn’t above feudal politics either, persuading the King to “casually appropriated the great hills called the Teats from the Brackens and gifted them to the Blackwoods.” (WOIAF) In this fashion, a grudge between the two men began that would lead to generations of civil war, as if the Bracken-Blackwood feud had somehow infected the entire kingdom.
However, disunity and dysfunction go beyond just the two warring clans. For the last three hundred years, Harrenhal has been a natural pivot point for the Riverlands, a castle and fief strong enough to bring the unruly lower half of the Riverlands together as a single force. And yet it has never been able to fulfill this purpose – perhaps due to the curse or perhaps due to royal mismanagement. Time and time again, whenever a dynasty has looked like it’s going to set down the kind of roots one needs for effective control of such a province, it’s wiped out – the Qoherys by anti-Targaryen rebels, the Harroways by a tyrant’s paranoid decree, the Towers by a failure to propagate, the Strongs by a mysterious fire, the Lothstons by madness and sorcery, and the Whents by misfortune and miscarriage.
And we can’t forget the most recent example of an “overmighty vassal” undermining the unity of the realm: House Frey. Rather than an ancient bloodline weighed down by feuds and curses, the Freys are ambitious nouveau riche, always straining to rise above their ignoble beginnings as “toll collectors, one lot of coin clinkers joining with another.” (Mystery Knight):
“The Freys were not an old house. They had risen to prominence some six hundred years ago, their line originating from a petty lord who raised a rickety wooden bridge across the narrowest part of the Green Fork. But as their wealth and influence grew, so did the Crossing. And soon the castle grew from a single tower that overlooked the bridge to two formidable towers that bracketed the river between them. These two keeps, now called the Twins, are amongst the strongest in the realm.” (WOIAF)
Along with a certain resemblance to mustela mustelinae, the Freys have always had an eye for the main chance – siding with Aegon against the Hoares, trying to win the hand of Rhaenrya Targaryen and then siding with the Blacks in the Dance, siding with the Blackfyres but being careful to keep their hands clean enough to avoid persecution by Bloodraven, being conveniently late to Robert’s Rebellion, and of course, first joining and then betraying Robb Stark and the rest of the Riverlands. In the process, they’ve gained much and more: Darry, Riverrun, Seagard, and marriage into both House Lannister and House Bolton.
But will they be able to hang on to their ill-gotten gains when Lady Stoneheart comes a-calling?
I doubt it.
Strengths and Weaknesses:
As is by now painfully obvious, the great weakness of the Riverlands is its disunity and lack of development, which has repeatedly led the Riverlands to fall into the status of a failed state, unable to either establish internal order or fend off its more powerful neighbors.
But as I hope I’ve demonstrated by now, the Riverlands possesses a curious, if often hidden, strength. Whether we’re talking about Tristifer IV or Benedict the Just, the victories over Arrec Durrandon, Harren the Black, or the greens during the Dance of the Dragons, the Riverlands have shown themselves to be Davids standing between so many Goliaths.
 The Stormlands and Crownlands together add up to 40,000 men under arms. If Arrec’s army was half-again the size of Harwyn’s, that makes Harwyn’s army about 26,000 strong, and only 3,000 of those were Ironborn.
 Slighting a castle refers to the deliberate destruction of a castle’s walls and other defenses, so that the structure is no longer defensible.
 “The Rust family had produced great soldiers, by the undemanding standards of ‘Deduct your own casualties from those of the enemy and if the answer is a positive number, it was a glorious victory’ school of applied warfare.” (Terry Pratchett, Jingo)
 There’s a confusing inconsistency here. On the one hand, we’re told that Halleck’s wars against the Storm Kings were unsuccessful. On the other, we’re told that “Harren’s father had extended his domains east to Duskendale and Rosby.” This, in turn, is contradicted by the accounts that Harren himself is said to have conquered the same lands a generation later: “Harren the Black and his ironmen had pushed them from the Trident and the lands north of the Blackwater Rush.” Personally, I lean towards Harren having been the conqueror and Halleck the incompetent, as that’s more thematically consistent and better explains Argilac’s actions with regard to Aegon Targaryen.