Politics of the Seven Kingdoms: The Reach (Part II)

credit to ser-other-in-law

credit to ser-other-in-law

Last time, we discussed the geography of the Reach, and the pre-history of Garth Greenhand and how it structured the polity that House Gardener would build. In this essay, we’ll look at how House Gardener went from ruling a fortnight’s ride from the walls of Highgarden to the masters of the Reach.

The Rise of House Gardener and the Creation of the Reach

As we discussed above, when House Gardener began its rise to power the Reach was not one kingdom, but many. Even within “the Reach proper…stretching from the Shield Islands in the Sunset Sea, up the mouth of the Mander, past Highgarden, to Red Lake, Goldengrove, and Bitterbridge, as far as Tumbleton and the Mander’s headwaters,” which “was the realm ruled by the Gardeners of old,” we are told that “if Garth Greenhand ever ruled what he claimed was the Kingdom of the Reach, it is doubtful its writ was anything more than notional beyond a fortnight’s ride from his halls.” (WOIAF) Thus, the first task before the Kings in Highgarden would be to build a kingdom in fact as well as in name.


And as I will demonstrate in this section, this was not entirely done through war. While the Gardeners had their warrior-kings and we will examine their efforts in building the Kingdom of the Reach, with a few exceptions these kings were not the great state-builders of the Reach. In a sharp exception to the pattern we’ve seen with the Starks, the Arryns, the Mudds, Justmans, and Teagues – indeed almost all of the dynasties of the Seven Kingdoms – the Gardeners’ rise to greatness would be thanks in no small part to the “peacemakers” rather than a succession of great conquerors.

A Long Twilight Struggle

Or was it? There are two main difficulties with this section of the Reach’s history that complicate any attempt at analysis: the first is that we have very little information on any of the early Gardeners – specifically the “warrior-kings,” which makes comparisons between them and the comparatively well-documented “peacemakers” tricky at best – outside of a single paragraph. The second is that the WOIAF presents a contradictory narrative in which the early history of the Reach is both a tale of peaceful internal development and constant warfare:

“In those centuries of trial and tumult, the Reach produced many a fearless warrior. From that day to this, the singers have celebrated the deeds of knights like Serwyn of the Mirror Shield, Davos the Dragonslayer, Roland of the Horn, and the Knight Without Armor—and the legendary kings who led them, among them Garth V (Hammer of the Dornish), Gwayne I (the Gallant), Gyles I (the Woe), Gareth II (the Grim), Garth VI (the Morningstar), and Gordan I (Grey-Eyes).”

“Many of these monarchs shared a common foe, for during these dark and bloody centuries, seaborne reavers from the Iron Islands dominated almost all of the western shore, from Bear Island to the Arbor. With their swift longships, the ironborn were able to strike and depart before any response came. Their raiders oft came ashore at unexpected places, taking their enemies unaware. Though the ironmen seldom ventured far inland, they controlled the Sunset Sea and exacted cruel tribute from the fisherfolk along the coasts. Having established themselves upon the Shield Islands by killing all the men they found there and claiming the women as their own, the ironborn even raided up the Mander with impunity.” (WOIAF)

While the historical record still leaves us without any information about the lives of Garth V, Gwayne I, Garth VI, and Gordan I, a careful crawl through other sections of the WOIAF does give us just enough of a glimpse into the lives of some of these warrior kings that we can get a sense of the dynamics of inter- and intra-regional conflict in the early Reach.

The first theme that emerges is that the Iron Islands  posed an existential threat to the divided Reach – for as long as the Reach (like the Riverlands) was split between feuding petty kingdoms, the Ironborn could divide and rule, using their superior mobility to apply the whole of their forces against a fraction of their opponents. Indeed, the Ironborn are everywhere in the brief accounts of these warrior kings:

“No fewer than six of the Gardener kings died in battle, amongst them Gareth the Grim and Garth the Morningstar… Harron slew Gareth the Grim of Highgarden beneath the walls of Oldtown. Half a century later, Joron I Blacktyde captured Gyles II Gardener when their fleets clashed off the Misty Islands…After torturing him to death, Joron had his corpse cut into pieces so that he might bait his fishhooks with “a chunk of king.” (WOIAF)

Of the six warrior-kings who met a violent end in this most violent period, fully a third of them died fighting Ironborn (and in a particularly brutal fashion in the case of Gyles II), which lends support to the idea that the Ironborn were the dominant force opposed to the unification of the Reach. Moreover, the detail that Harron Harlaw “slew Gareth the Grim of Highgarden beneath the walls of Oldtown” is a critical insight to how the Ironborn shaped this conflict: rather than simply acting as outside antagonists, the Ironborn intervened strategically to keep the Reach divided (in this case, by preventing the Gardeners from conquering the Hightowers’ lands). Indeed, one almost gets the sense that the Ironborn were “farming” the Reach, sacking Oldtown under Qhored the Cruel, but preventing a sack under Gareth II so that the city could recover enough to make sacking it again a worthwhile return on investment.

The second, related, theme is that the Reach was struggling with – and as I will argue throughout this essay, this is perhaps the predominant factor that has prevented the Reach from achieving continental hegemony – a multi-polar conflict, in which the Gardeners faced opponents from every corner of the map. For example, we know that Oldtown was sacked “once by Gyles I Gardener (the Woe), who reportedly sold three-quarters of the city’s inhabitants into slavery, but was unable to breach the defenses of the Hightower on Battle Isle” – a clear sign that as much as the chroniclers might say that “the Gardeners were the unquestioned High Kings, and lesser monarchs did them honor, if not obeisance,” that there was a good deal of violent contestation between the Kings of Highgarden and the Kings of the High Tower, and likely also many of the other petty kings of the Reach. But just as the Ironborn were not about to give the Gardeners a free hand in the southern Reach, so too we can see signs of persistent war with Dorne in this period: in the case of “the Dornish king Samwell Dayne (the Starfire)” sacking Oldtown in the first of three sacks in a single century, we see the stony Dornish weakening their primary opponent across the Torrentine by joining in on the dogpile. Likewise, the fact that Garth V was known as the “Hammer of the Dornish,” whether that moniker suggests a career more like Charles Martel of France or Edward I of England, does suggest that the Dornish were seen as a major threat – most likely to Gardener interests in the western marches.

The third theme that emerges is that this period saw that the contribution of the “warrior-kings” was ultimately, less a story of great set piece-battle victories but one of grinding attrition, gradually chipping away at the territory of their rivals and gradually pushing back the Ironborn menace. Thus, as WOIAF puts it in describing the warrior kings: “yet the victory was at long last theirs, and each of them pushed the domains of House Gardener farther and brought more lands and lords beneath the rule of Highgarden.”

Blessed Are the Peacemakers

The other side of the story when it came to the formation of the Reach was the “peacemakers,” although it would be oversimplifying things by far to portray this as a strict split between pacifists and warmongers. As I will argue in this section, the tension between these two approaches was really more of a dialectical process in which both contributed to the growth of the Reach and to the effectiveness of each other, ultimately resulting in a synthesis: the “Sage King” model best exemplified by Garth VII. Indeed, the connections between war and peace went deep, even during the reigns of the “peacemakers:”

“That being said, many scholars still believe that the greatest of the Gardener kings were the peacemakers, not the fighters. Fewer songs are sung of them, it is true, but in the annals of history the names of Garth III (the Great), Garland II (the Bridegroom), Gwayne III (the Fat), and John II (the Tall) are writ large. Garth the Great extended the borders of his realm northward, winning Old Oak, Red Lake, and Goldengrove with pacts of friendship and mutual defense. Garland accomplished the same in the south, bringing Oldtown into his kingdom by wedding his daughter to Lymond (the Sea Lion) of House Hightower, whilst putting his own wives aside to marry Lord Lymond’s daughter. Gwayne the Fat persuaded Lord Peake and Lord Manderly to accept his judgment on their quarrel, and do fealty for their lands, without fighting a single battle. John the Tall sailed his barge up the Mander to its very headwaters, planting the banner of the green hand wherever he went and receiving homage from the lords and petty kings whose lands lined that mighty river’s banks.” (WOIAF)

Taking each of these kings in turn, we can see a complex interplay between strategic interests and diplomatic efforts at each step. Garth III (the Great)’s efforts to build a network of mutual defense treaties between the Gardeners, Oakhearts, Cranes, and Rowans can’t ultimately be understood outside of the real threat that the Westerlands historically posed to the security of the “Reach proper.” While the Westerlands were secured by mountains and forests, the northern Reach was a broad open plain across which Lannister armies could and did move easily. Garth III’s treaties created a clearly-defined defense network: Old Oak, Red Lake, and Goldengrove would serve as the first line, with the ability of any one castle to hold off an invasion force now enhanced by the ability to call up reinforcements and resupply from their neighbors. Their fortifications would allow Highgarden enough time to call its banners and come to the rescue of their new allies (while cleverly ensuring that fighting would no longer take place on House Gardener’s own lands).


At the same time, I think we have to see Garth III’s alliances as both shield and sword: by bringing the three major Houses of the Northmarch into their fold, first as allies and then as vassals, the Gardeners would have now controlled much more than the fortnight’s ride worth of territory that originally owed fealty to Highgarden. Instead, they would be able to bring the better part of the “Reach proper” (four full Houses’ worth of soldiers) to bear on both foreign invaders and domestic rivals, allowing the Gardeners to punch far above their own weight.

This transformation of the Kingdom of the Reach no doubt contributed mightily to the next phase of expansion pioneered by Garland II. As we have seen before, the Gardeners had frequently warred with the Hightowers of Oldtown over who would control the southern Reach, to mixed effect. Where Gyles the Woe and Gareth the Grim had sought to bring Oldtown into the Reach by war and failed, Garland the Bridegroom chose “long negotiations and marriage” and succeeded:

“When Lymond Hightower took to bride the daughter of King Garland II Gardener, whilst giving his own daughter’s hand in marriage to her father, the Hightowers became bannermen to Highgarden, reduced from wealthy but relatively minor kings to the greatest lords of the Reach…”

“By the terms of the marriage treaty, the Gardeners also undertook to defend the city against any assault by land, which freed Lord Lymond to turn his attention to his “great purpose,” the building of ships and conquest of the seas. By the end of his reign, no lord or king in all of Westeros could match the strength of House Hightower at sea. A great statue of Lymond Hightower stands overlooking Oldtown’s harbor to this day, gazing off down Whispering Sound. The last Hightower king is still remembered as the Sea Lion.” (WOIAF)

Leaving aside the messy interpersonal dynamics of the “I’m my own grandpa” marriage alliance (and evidence that polygamy had continued in the Reach!), the union of House Gardener and House Hightower shows a different face of state-building: the opportunity for growth through specialization. House Gardener now could call upon the land forces of Oldtown, Honeyholt, Blackcrown, the Three Towers, Sunhouse, and Uplands to defend the Reach from invasion; and because they no longer had to care about organizing their own land defenses, the Hightowers could concentrate on naval dominance. Once again, the expansion of the Gardeners’ kingdom was redefined as a win-win scenario for the lesser Houses of the Reach; as Lord Jeremy Hightower put it, “Highgarden defends our backs…so we are free to gaze outward, to the sea and the lands beyond.”


This alliance can’t be fully understood, however, without reference to the larger military picture – namely the existential threat of the Ironborn. Just as the Gardeners had doubly benefited from convincing the Oakhearts, Cranes, and Rowans to act as Highgarden’s bodyguards, so too did Garland II benefit from gaining a large navy that he didn’t have to pay for. This navy was immediately turned to the larger politico-military project of eliminating Ironborn influence and authority in the Reach, as “the Gardeners and the Hightowers were the first to cease paying tribute.” As this quote suggests, this seems to have been a joint project, with both Houses looking to emphasize their political independence from the Ironborn as well as to strengthen their fiscal position by ending the expensive (and useless, since tribute didn’t stop the reaving) tax. And of course, counter-attacking against the inevitable retaliation was always part of the plan:

“When King Theon III Greyjoy sailed against them, he was defeated and slain by Lord Lymond Hightower, the Sea Lion, who revived the practice of thralldom in Oldtown just long enough to set the ironmen captured during the battle to hard labor strengthening the city’s walls.” (WOIAF)

Thus once again, we see the dialectic of peace and war at work: through the peaceful union of Oldtown and Highgarden, not only are two of the four kingdoms of the Reach consolidated into a single polity, but that unity enhances the ability of the state to fight back against foreign invaders. For the first time in the history of the Reach, we start to read of Ironborn being defeated at sea, with their High Kings slain and their armies forced into humiliating servitude – it’s a marked change from the defeats and humiliations suffered when the Gardeners and Hightowers warred outside the gates of Oldtown, only to be hit with a chair shot from the Ironborn.[1]

The projects of Gwayne III and John II (to whom kudos are owed simply for being named with something other than the seventh letter of the alphabet) are even more innovative (and oddly totally orthogonal to the main conflicts of the Reach) experiments at state-building. In the former, as we have seen before with the Starks and the Justmans, the promise of justice and internal peace and security have been key to the establishment of hegemonic legitimacy. By showing that he could both provide even-handed arbitration and restrain the violence of the Peakes and the Manderlys, Gwayne the Fat was sending a strong signal to all the lesser Houses of the Reach that submission to the Gardeners would not only bring the rule of law but would also provide security against internal feuding. As to whether this had any larger geostrategic purpose (and this is rather speculative) it’s possible that the Peake vs. Manderly feud might have been something of a stand-in for a larger conflict between the Reachermen of the Mander and the Reachermen of the marches, with Gwayne III’s judgement a larger sign that these formerly independent and rival realms would have their interests maintained in the new regime.


John II’s project is even more abstract, but there’s a lot more going on under the surface than a suspiciously non-violent bit of gunboat diplomacy. In the first place, it’s one of the first times we see the potential of the Mander as a major riverine thoroughfare that could be used to establish superior interior lines, which we’ve seen used by the Tyrells at Tumbler’s Falls immediately preceding the Battle of Blackwater, tapped into. In making this voyage, John the Tall was demonstrating that he could move a ship quickly from the mouth of the Mander to “its very headwaters,” and where one royal barge could go, troopships could follow. In this fashion, his practice of “planting the banner of the green hand” was both a promise that Highgarden could provide protection from the depredations of the Storm Kings (in an eastern parallel to Garth III’s northern alliance), a threat that any of the “lords and petty kings whose lands lined that mighty river’s banks” who didn’t render “homage” would face those same forces, and a symbolic statement to the Durrandons about where the border between their kingdoms would be drawn.

Looking at the peacemakers’ work as a whole, one of the noticeable trends is that (with the rather significant exception of Garland II) none of the peacemakers dealt with the Ironborn – and yet we know from WOIAF that the Ironborn were the major threat to the Reach in this period. To me, this shows both the importance and the complexities of the idea of a dialectical process between the peacemakers and the warrior-kings: was this a case of specialization, with the peace-makers focusing on political actors who could be negotiated with while the warrior-kings dealt with bad actors who honored no vow with greenlanders? Or was there a mutually reinforcing process, where the breathing room won by the sacrifices of the warrior-kings allowed the peace-makers to strengthen the Reach on other fronts, and where that added strength allowed the warrior-kings to push the Ironborn that much further?


credit to Magali Villenueve

Garth VII, the Ideal King

A dialectical process involves the conflict of a thesis and an antithesis, resulting in synthesis: thus, with House Gardener we see the competing strategies of the warrior-kings and the peacemakers resolving in the person of Garth VII. Known as “a giant in both war and peace,” Garth the Goldenhand would combine the best of both approaches to achieve such a stunning success that he would become the model of kingship for all time to come, a towering figure in the political imagination of the Reach. Unfortunately, the Goldenhand’s methods and indeed often his objectives have often been ignored or overlooked by those who came later, so enthralled has the chivalry-obsessed Reach been with the sheer scope and pageantry of his accomplishments.

The first thing that has to be noted about Garth VII is that he was one of those rare military prodigies like Daeron I or Robb Stark thrown up by Westerosi history: “As a boy, he turned back the Dornish when King Ferris Fowler led ten thousand men through the Wide Way (as the Prince’s Pass was then called), intent on conquest.” Now, we know very little about this conflict beyond this brief statement, but there are a couple things to note: first, the fact that a single king of the Stony Dornish could muster a host of 10,000 men (which would today be 40% of all Dornish military manpower)  is a key data point in my theory that Dorne experienced a permanent decline in population after the First Dornish War, similar to the impact of the Mongol invasion on Persian demographics. Second, the fact that Fowler was “intent on conquest” both points to the fact that Dorne spent as much time as the aggressor as the defender in the various wars between the Reach and Dorne and suggests that Garth VII may have ascended to the throne unexpectedly (he was only twelve, according to the history books) leading King Ferris to think that he could roll the Gardeners while they were suffering under the “bane of any house.” (ADWD)

That Garth VII triumphed over the King of Stone and Sky at such an early age made his reputation, but what made him unique as a military prodigy was not merely his battlefield acumen, but his larger strategic vision. Unlike so many rulers of the Reach who came before and after him, the Goldenhand managed to overcome the Reach’s perennial problem of having too many enemies on too many borders (and the associated recurring problem of overreach) by maintaining a laser focus on one problem at a time. Thus, rather than pushing his luck with the Dornish like past and future kings, Garth VII accepted a status-quo victory on this front in favor of being able to follow his own maxim of focusing on one threat at a time, which enabled him to act with maximum impact:

“The most telling blow was struck by King Garth VII, the Goldenhand, King of the Reach, when he drove the ironmen from the Misty Islands, renamed them the Shield Islands, and resettled them with his own fiercest warriors and finest seamen to defend the mouth of the Mander.”           

“…Soon after, he turned his attention to the sea and drove the last ironmen from their strongholds on the Shield Islands. Thereafter he resettled the islands with his fiercest fighters, granting them special dispensations for the purpose of turning them into a first defense against the ironborn, should they return. This proved a great success, and to this day the men of the Four Shields pride themselves on defending the mouth of the Mander and the heart of the Reach against any and all seaborne foes.” (WOIAF)

It is in this campaign that I think we can see the particular style of the Goldenhand coming into its own: while he fought the same foe as the warrior-kings before him, rather than attrition warfare, Garth held back until he could make a strategically decisive strike that would end Ironborn influence in the Reach forever. Moreover, rather than trying to achieve his desired outcomes solely through battlefield victories, the Goldenhand looked to build institutions – borrowing from the peace-makers’ model – that would allow him to chip away at the Reach’s strategic problems. In this case, conquering the Shield Isles not only allowed Garth VII to reward his followers with his enemy’s assets (an excellent Machiavellian strategy) while bolstering his ow reputation as a king who rewards service, but it also created a strategic buffer for the northwest coast that would allow him to focus the Reach’s strength on other fronts.

The payoff for Garth VII’s strategic focus and institution-building aimed at reducing the Reach’s geographic vulnerabilities came in his “last and greatest war” in which he faced the old nightmare of the Gardeners: a simultaneous invasion from west and east that would force the Reach to divide its forces and risk being overwhelmed on either flank:

“… Garth VII faced an alliance between the Storm King and the King of the Rock, intent on carving up the Reach between them, but he defeated them both, then with cunning words sowed such discord between them that they turned on one another with great slaughter at the Battle of Three Armies. In the aftermath he married his daughters to their heirs and signed a pact with each, fixing the borders between the three kingdoms.” (WOIAF)

What the Goldenhand achieved was not merely an improbable one-against-two victory, but the kind of complete victory that becomes legend. In one campaign, he managed to: defeat his enemies in detail (presumably by using Napoleon’s strategy of the central position); in a feat of espionage and statecraft that rivals Themistocles as his most cunning, to somehow trick his enemies into turning on one another (most likely by persuading each that the other was going to sell them out during the upcoming battle); then winning a massive set piece battle with barely any losses himself due to this strategy of disinformation; then winning a decisive diplomatic victory.  And you can see from all of this why the Goldenhand would become such a dominant figure in the political culture of the Reach: here was proof that the key strategic limitation of the Reach (those wide-open borders with power enemies on every flank) could be overcome, that the Reach could take on all comers at once and still triumph.

And that ultimately is the irony of Garth the Goldenhand, that his victory was so awe-inspiring in scope and so close to the politico-strategic dilemmas that would have obsessed later generations of warlike courtiers at Highgarden that both his methods and his political thinking were lost. First, rather than relying on glorious cavalry charges and the code of chivalry, Garth’s victory over the Kings of the Rock and the Reach would not have been possible without an embrace of intelligence-led underhanded tactics to undermine and divide his enemy. Second, rather than trying to take on all of Westeros at once, Garth’s efforts across his entire career was based on the idea of gradually eliminating the Reach’s strategic threats one-at-a-time so that he wouldn’t have to take on all of Westeros at once.

Third and most importantly, Garth’s larger strategic and diplomatic objectives in his last war were aimed not at universal conquest, but at a more modest but long-lasting victory: “in the aftermath he married his daughters to their heirs,” which ensured that his regional rivals would be kinfolk and thus less likely to cooperate against House Gardener and more likely to cooperate with House Gardener, and “signed a pact with each, fixing the borders between the three kingdoms.” Rather than trying to win the Great Game outright, Garth VII instead was looking to establish inter-regional stability and accept the Reach’s status as primus inter pares. But in exchange for these lowered expectations, the Reach gained secured borders on its northern and eastern borders that would allow it to act with supreme freedom, and something more valuable:

“Yet even that paled before his greatest accomplishment: three-quarters of a century of peace. Garth Goldenhand became King of the Reach at the age of twelve and died upon the Oakenseat when he was ninety-three, still sound of wits (if frail of body). During the eighty-one years of his reign, the Reach was at war for less than ten. Generations of boys were born and grew to manhood, sired children of their own, and died without ever knowing what it was to grasp a spear and shield and march away to war. And with this long peace came an unprecedented prosperity. The Golden Reign, as this time came to be known, was when the Reach truly flowered.” (WOIAF)

In a process that lasted the better part of two thousand years (although according to WOIAF, the wars against the Ironborn from the beginning to Garth VII took only three centuries), House Gardener had started from a petty kingdom that ruled only a fortnight’s territory beyond the walls of Highgarden and had built the Reach into a strong and united kingdom that could guarantee peace and prosperity against all internal and external threats, a true Golden Age:

“Yet all golden ages end, and so it was in the Reach. Garth Goldenhand passed from this world. A great-grandson followed him upon the Oakenseat, then gave way to his own sons. And then the Andals came.” (WOIAF)

[1] Unfortunately, I do have to note another discrepancy in the WOIAF timeline, partially in the Reach chapter and partially in the Ironborn chapter. According to the latter, Oldtown and Highgarden allied very early on in the process, with the former king Lymond personally duking it out with Theon III. However, the Reach chapter states that “Oldtown was the last of the ancient realms to bend the knee to Highgarden, not long after the last King of the Arbor was lost at sea, allowing his cousin, King Meryn III Gardener, to make the isle part of his domain).”


9 thoughts on “Politics of the Seven Kingdoms: The Reach (Part II)

  1. poorquentyn says:

    Great work as always, especially teasing out the dialectic–love the idea of “mutually reinforcing” warriors/peacemakers.

  2. Ever thought of recording audio versions of these? I like listening to ASOIAF stuff at work. I can’t read a 1000 word essay but I can listen.

    Just a thought! Thanks for your work.

  3. I’m honestly surprised the Lannisters and Durrandons weren’t more of a threat during this period, particularly the latter given the warmongering of the Storm Kings.
    Also, you didn’t mention that the Gardeners sometimes teamed up with the Lannisters against the Ironborn. Was that because you didn’t think such a detail significant?
    Thanks for another wonderful essay! Looking forward to the next!

  4. […] Last time, we saw how a succession of frighteningly single-minded and capable monarchs turned the Kingdom of the Reach from a petty kingdom ruled from a hillfort into a powerful and dynamic state that could reshape the map of southern Westeros and defeat its regional rivals singly and in combination. […]

  5. […] It is hard to explain how momentous this was: House Gardener had created the Reach as an idea and ruled over its ever-expanding borders for the whole of recorded history. The sense of chaos, uncertainty, and alienation that the […]

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