Politics of the Seven Kingdoms: the Reach (Part III)

credit to ser-other-in-law


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.

In this part, we shall see how this state confronted the threat of the Andal Invasion of Westeros, and how this meeting of two peoples transformed the political culture of the Reach for all time. Indeed, I would argue that the history of the Reach should be divided into pre-and post-Andal as its main periodization.

The Three Sage Kings

“The Andals came late to the Reach.”

“Crossing the narrow sea in longships, they landed first upon the shores of the Vale, then later all along the eastern coasts. The fleets of Oldtown and the Arbor barred them from the Redwyne Straits and the Sunset Sea. Reports of the bounty of the Reach and the wealth and power of Highgarden and its kings undoubtedly reached the ears of many an Andal warlord, but other lands and other kings lay between them.”

“Thus, long before the Andals reached the Mander, the kings in Highgarden knew of their coming.” (WOIAF)

In many ways, the Reach’s handling of the Andal Invasion resembles the Lannister approach perfected. To begin with, the Gardeners undertook a major effort of military preparedness:

“They observed the fighting in the Vale, the stormlands, and the riverlands from afar, taking note of all that happened. Wiser perhaps than their counterparts from other regions, they did not make the error of allying with the Andals against local rivals…Mern II (the Mason) built a new curtain wall about Highgarden and commanded his lords bannermen to see to their own defenses…Lord Redwyne built more ships, and Lord Hightower strengthened the walls of Oldtown.” (WOIAF)

Notably, this military effort seems to have been an intelligence-led process, with the Kings of Highgarden not only setting the example but directing their bannermen to make the Reach as imposing a target as possible.[1] Unlike the Lannisters, however, the Gardeners somehow managed to skip the initial phase of warfare against the Andals, partly because of the defenses described above, but also because the Andal Invasion of the Reach happened to coincide with a run of Gardener Kings who pursued a policy akin to the peacemakers of old:

“Yet the great battles most of them had anticipated never came to pass. By the time the conquerors were done conquering the eastern shores, generations had passed and the Andals had raised up twoscore petty kings of their own, many of them at odds with one another. And in Highgarden, the Three Sage Kings followed one another upon the Oakenseat.

Garth IX Gardener, his son Merle I (the Meek), and his grandson Gwayne V were very different men, but they shared a common policy toward the Andals, one based on accord and assimilation rather than armed resistance.” (WOIAF)

The Three Sage Kings somewhat resemble Kings Tyrion III and Gerold II of the Rock, but from the way they are described above, they clearly had much more of a long-term impact on the political memory of the Reach than their peers to the North – albeit in different ways. In terms of commonalities, we can say that “all three kings took Andals into their service as household knights and retainers,” and that two out of the three (Merle I and Gwayne V) “took Andal maidens as their wives, as a means of binding their brides’ fathers to the realm,” showing that the value of dynastic marriages had not faded since the time of the peacemakers.

In terms of differences, Garth IX and Merle I both used religion, with Garth IX following the Constantine path of having “brought a septon to his court and made him part of his councils, and built the first sept at Highgarden, though he himself continued to worship in the castle godswood,” whereas “Merle I formally espoused the Faith, however, and helped fund the construction of septs, septries, and motherhouses all over the Reach.” Incidentally, given the unique relationship between House Gardener and House Hightower, I wonder how much coordination there was between these two Kings and the Lords Dorian, Damon, and Triston Hightower who helped to establish the Starry Sept and the High Septoncy itself in Oldtown – because the efforts of the Hightowers would have definitely aided in the Gardeners’ plan to inoculate the Reach against the Andals by making an attack on the Reach as an attack on the Faith itself.


credit to taaks

By contrast, Gwayne V embraced the cultural values of the Andal military caste by becoming the first Gardener “to be made a knight by solemn rite and vigil.” While this might seem like a fairly banal event – of course the first King of Highgarden born into the Faith and of Andal blood is going to be inducted into the fellowship of the warrior caste of Andal society – it represented a cultural revolution that has defined the Reach ever since: “it was in these green fields that chivalry was born, history tells us.” (WOIAF) The culture of the Reach became the culture of chivalry, and vice versa, such that the Reach’s history was read backwards and re-written so that it had always been the land of chivalry: John the Oak became the First Knight, Maris the Maid held the First Tourney, and legendary heroes like “Serwyn of the Mirror Shield, Davos the Dragonslayer, Roland of the Horn, and the Knight Without Armor” were all retconned into knights. And lest this be misunderstood as a natural or accidental process, the WOIAF is very explicit about the role that the Gardener Kings played in spreading the new culture of chivalry, much as their ancestors had spread the iconography of the Greenhand:

“No seat in the Seven Kingdoms has been more celebrated in song than Highgarden, and small wonder, for the Tyrells and the Gardeners before them have made their court a place of culture and music and high art. In the days before the Conquest, the Kings of the Reach and their queens presided over tourneys of love and beauty, where the greatest knights of the Reach competed for the love of the fairest maids not only with feats of arms, but with song, poetry, and demonstrations of virtue, piety, and chaste devotion. The greatest champions, men as pure and honorable and virtuous as they were skilled at arms, were honored with invitations to join the Order of the Green Hand.” (WOIAF)

Of course, Gwayne V did a lot more than just become the first knightly King of the Reach – he’s also responsible for creating a fateful alliance between his House and House Tyrell thanks to his patronage of “an Andal knight named Ser Alester Tyrell, whose prowess at arms was such that he was made the king’s champion and sworn shield under Gwayne V.” From this point onward, we have to include in our analysis of the historical development of the Reach the influence of the Tyrells, who would become a permanent part of the Gardener court as the High Stewards of Highgarden.

So how can we assess the Three Sage Kings? A fair analysis has to begin with their stated objective of “accord and assimilation,” which means we have to consider both the question of immediate peace and the long-term union of two peoples into one nation:

“The Three Sage Kings also found lands and lordships for the more powerful of the Andal kings descending on the Reach, in return for pledges of fealty. The Gardeners sought after Andal craftsmen as well and encouraged their lords bannermen to do the same. Blacksmiths and stonemasons in particular were handsomely rewarded. The former taught the First Men to arm and armor themselves in iron in place of bronze; the latter helped them strengthen the defenses of their castles and holdfasts.

And though some of these new-made lords foreswore their vows in later years, most did not. Rather, they joined with their liege lords to put down such rebels and defended the Reach against those Andal kings and warbands who came later. “When a wolf descends upon your flocks, all you gain by killing him is a short respite, for other wolves will come,” King Garth IX said famously. “If instead you feed the wolf and tame him and turn his pups into your guard dogs, they will protect the flocks when the pack comes ravening.” King Gwayne V said it more succinctly. “They gave us seven gods, we gave them dirt and daughters, and our sons and grandsons shall be as brothers.”

Many noble houses of the Reach trace their ancestry back to Andal adventurers given lands and wives by Garth IX, Merle I, and Gwayne V, amongst them the Ormes, Parrens, Gracefords, Cuys, Roxtons, Ufferings, Leygoods, and Varners. As the centuries passed, the sons and daughters of these houses intermarried so freely with those descended from the First Men that it became impossible to tell them apart. Seldom has a conquest been achieved with less bloodshed.” (WOIAF)

There’s a lot to unpack in this passage. To begin with, we learn that the statement that “the great battles…never came to pass” is somewhat exaggerated. While the Three Sage Kings pursued a policy of “lands and lordships for the more powerful of the Andal kings descending on the Reach,” they also clearly had a policy of using their “new-made lords” to put down internal rebellions and stop foreign invasions by “those Andal kings and warbands who came later.” Thus rather than a purely pacifist strategy, the Three Sage Kings were trading land for military manpower and then bloodying their new soldiers against their fellow Andals, ensuring that the Gardeners would divide and rule.

We can also see the military bent of the Three Sage Kings in their eager embrace of Andal technology, although as we’ve seen already with regards to the intersections of the Reach and Ironborn timelines, it’s unclear whether the Reach’s adoption of iron arms and armor, new methods of fortification, and seafaring was related to the changing balance of power between Ironborn and mainlander, or whether instead it was aimed at maintaining parity with their continental rivals like the Kingdom of the Rock, who were also seeking rejuvenation through incorporation of the Andals into the realm.

Finally, it’s noticeable that, while the WOIAF mentions that “many noble houses of the Reach trace their ancestry back to Andal adventurers,” only nine houses are mentioned as having Andal roots out of some seventy-odd known Houses of the Reach, and none of the nine are among the principal or otherwise major Houses. To me, this suggests that the process of intermarriage by which “the sons and daughters of these houses intermarried so freely with those descended from the First Men that it became impossible to tell them apart” still took place in a political environment in which the Andals were assimilated into the old order, rather than creating a new one (as in the Vale or the Riverlands) or creating a hybrid (as in the Westerlands).


credit to Jennifer Sol Cai (Note the conspicuous absence of Andal Houses other than the Tyrells)

Despite the successes of the Three Sage Kings, it’s interesting that the chroniclers describe the Reach’s history after their incorporation as both a period of national rejuvenation and declension:

“The centuries that followed the Andal conquest were to prove less peaceful. The Gardeners who succeeded to the Oakenseat included strong men and weak, clever men and fools, and once even a woman, but few had the wisdom and cunning of the Three Sage Kings, so the golden peace of Garth Goldenhand did not come again.” (WOIAF)

As I suggested above with regards to Gwayne V, I think this sense of decline, that the time that came before was a Golden Age which would never come again, has a lot to do with the incorporation of chivalry into the culture of the Reach. While the knights of the Reach might revere Garth Goldenhand’s military victories, the knights of the Reach would find his mentality alien to theirs. In their reckless pursuit of glory, they would dream of a universal empire far beyond the borders that Garth had carefully drawn; in their belief that a sufficiently valorous cavalry charge could overcome any odds, they would forget his maxim that the rivals of the Reach should never be allowed to combine against it.

The Great Game

“In that long epoch between the assimilation of the Andals and the coming of the dragons, the Kings of the Reach warred constantly with their neighbors in a perpetual struggle for land, power, and glory. The Kings of the Rock, the Storm Kings, the many quarrelsome kings of Dorne, and the Kings of the Rivers and Hills could all be counted amongst their foes (and ofttimes amongst their allies as well.)” (WOIAF)

And so we enter into an under-sourced period of Westerosi history. As I’ve discussed elsewhere, the Great Game is indeed a “long epoch” of some four to five thousand years; and while it might seem at first blush that it’s a period of stasis (as it begins and ends with the Seven Kingdoms more or less intact, give or take the Riverlands), underneath there was an enormous amount of change, which makes our lack of information all the more frustrating.  We do know that the Great Game began rather early – going by lists of monarchs, we know that Lancel I (who invaded the Reach as far as Old Oak came at least eight generations after the Andal invasion of the Riverlands (roughly 5260 BC or later), and Garth Greenhand was clearly playing the Great Game against both the Westerlands and the Stormlands well before the arrival of the Andals.

As we have seen before, though, the arrival of the Andals clearly expanded and intensified the Great Game in a number of ways: first, the conquest of the Vale and the Riverlands showed that entire kingdoms could be conquered, leading ambitious monarchs to envision more sweeping victories. Second, the incorporation of the Andals into the Seven Kingdoms upgraded the military capacities of the mainland kingdoms and helped to remove the external threat of the Ironborn, both of which freed them up for continental wars. Third, as we’ve seen here, the adoption of chivalric culture placed the pursuit of martial glory above all other considerations of statecraft.

Pour La Gloire: Gyles III’s Stormlands Campaign

One of the best examples of how the incorporation of the Andals changed the Great Game is the case of Gyles III’s invasion of the Stormlands – which is one of the rare episodes of Reach participation in the Great Game where we actually say anything about when it happened. Since Gyles III was a contemporary of Lancel IV Lannister (who was at least the 14th King of the Rock since the Andals arrived in the Westerlands), we can say that Gyles probably ruled sometime at or not long after 5000 BC.[2]

The first major change to the Reach’s approach to the Great Game comes in the area of war aims. In sharp contrast to Garth Goldenhand’s limited territorial ambitions, Gyles III’s campaign was clearly a bid to win the Great Game outright:

“Highgarden reached the apex of its power under King Gyles III Gardener, who led a glittering host of armored knights into the stormlands, smashed the armies of the aged Storm King, and conquered all the lands north of the rainwood save for Storm’s End itself…” (WOIAF)

Gyles III’s campaign brought the Reach to its greatest territorial extent, absorbing virtually the whole of the Stormlands (which may or may not have included parts of the current Crownlands or Riverlands at the time). Thousands of years before Arlan III Durrandon “plant[ed] his crowned stag banner on the shores of the Sunset Sea,” a Gardener King had carried his own green hand banner to the shores of the Narrow Sea. It’s hardly an accident that this lunge for immortal glory took place at a time when the armies of the Reach were made up of a “glittering host of armored knights” motivated by thoughts of glory and freshly-conquered lands to the east that could be given out as fiefdoms.


The second major change to the Reach’s approach is that the Gardeners seem to have forgotten Garth Goldenhand’s maxim that the enemies of the Reach should never be allowed to allowed to unite. For while Gyles III was busy putting Storm’s End under a futile two-year-long siege:

“…the King of the Rock swept down upon the Reach in his absence, forcing him to lift his siege and hurry home to deal with the westermen. The broader war that followed involved three Dornish kings and two from the riverlands, and ended with Gyles III dead of a bloody flux and the borders between the realms restored to more or less where they had been before the bloodletting began.” (WOIAF)

In a classic example of the crab-bucket politics of the Great Game, the rest of Westeros reacted to both the possibility that the Reach might conquer the Stormlands and gain a permanent advantage in the Game, and the reality that the Gardeners had badly over-stretched their forces and left themselves vulnerable to invasion, by attacking the Reach in the hopes of forcing the Kings of Higharden into dividing their forces to the point where the invaders could achieve local superiority of numbers.

And so the Stormlands campaign spilled out into a “broader war” that was the age-old strategic nightmare of the Reach come to life, with Highgarden facing invasions from the northwest (under Lancel IV Lannister), the south (the “three Dornish kings”), and from the northeast (the “two [kings] from the riverlands”). In a sublime irony and a particularly bad example of poor coordination, the initial invasion that forced Gyles III to “lift his siege and hurry home,” was halted thanks to the ancient defensive structures set up by his ancestors:

“Yet it happened that while King Gyles was away, the King of the Rock saw his chance to tear a bite out of the Reach, so he gathered up a host of westermen and came down upon us. The Osgreys were the Marshalls of the Northmarch, so it fell to the Little Lion to meet them. It was the fourth King Lancel who led the Lannisters, it seems to me, or mayhaps the fifth. Ser Wilbert blocked King Lancel’s path, and bid him halt. ‘Come no farther,’ he said. ‘You are not wanted here. I forbid you to set foot upon the Reach.’ But the Lannister ordered all his banners forward.”

“They fought for half a day, the gold lion and the chequy. The Lannister was armed with a Valyrian sword that no common steel can match, so the Little Lion was hard pressed, his shield in ruins. In the end, bleeding from a dozen grievous wounds with his own blade broken in his hand, he threw himself headlong at his foe. King Lancel cut him near in half, the singers say, but as he died the Little Lion found the gap in the king’s armor beneath his arm, and plunged his dagger home. When their king died, the westermen turned back, and the Reach was saved.” (Sworn Sword)

With Lancel IV slain at the Battle of Red Lake[3], the northwest invasion was halted – and one can’t help but think that if Gyles III had learned this news a bit earlier (or had come up with any strategy other than putting all of his eggs in one basket and running them from one end of his kingdom to the other), he might have delayed long enough at Storm’s End to win the siege and not have to abandon all of his territorial gains. However, Gyles III still had two other invasions to deal with (which Ser Eustace characteristically elects not to recall) and so the war ground on.

The result was a classic example of the pointlessness of the Great Game: not only did Gyles III die a pointless, agonizing death from an epidemic disease, having lost everything that he had won, but so did all of the other participants, since the war ended with “the borders between the realms restored to more or less where they had been before the bloodletting began,” so that Dornishmen and Westermen and Riverlanders (and Reachermen for that matter) had perished in their thousands to ensure that the Stormlands would remain independent.

The Center Cannot Hold: Garth X and the Collapse of the Reach

If the downfall of Gyles III came from over-much military ambition, the case of Garth X, who came the closest of any Gardener to losing the Great Game outright, came from an utter lack of martial will. Here again, we have only the vaguest outlines as to when it happened. We know from regnal numbers that Garth Greybeard ruled after Gyles III, since Garth IX came before Gyles III and Garth XI by definition came after Garth X – which places the war in question as happening sometime around or after 4900 BC.[4] Likewise, we know that Garth X was a contemporary of both Dornish kings and Manderlys in the Reach, places him as having ruled prior to 1000 BC (although once again, as a historian, the thought of a 3900-year range of dates rankles something awful).  All the same, the cause of the war was clear:

“The nadir of Gardener power came during the long reign of King Garth X, called Garth Greybeard, who succeeded to the crown at the age of seven and died at ninety-six—a reign even longer than that of his famous forebear Garth Goldenhand. Though vigorous in his youth, Garth X was a vain and frivolous king who surrounded himself with fools and flatterers. Neither wise nor clever, his wits abandoned him entirely in old age, and during the long years of his senility, he became the tool of first one faction, then another as those around him vied for wealth and power. His Grace had sired no sons, but Lord Peake had married one of his daughters, Lord Manderly another, and each was determined that his wife should succeed. The rivalry between them was marked by betrayal, conspiracy, and murder, finally escalating into open war. Others lords joined in on both sides.”

“With the lords of the Reach at swordpoint and the king too feeble to grasp what was occurring, much less stop it, the Storm King and the King of the Rock seized the moment, and large swathes of territory, whilst the Dornish raids grew bolder and more frequent. One Dornish king besieged Oldtown, whilst another crossed the Mander and sacked Highgarden. The Oakenseat, the living throne that had been the pride of House Gardener for years beyond count, was chopped to pieces and burned, and the senile King Garth X was found tied to his bed, whimpering and covered in his own filth. The Dornish cut his throat (“a mercy,” one of them said later), then put Highgarden to the torch after stripping it of all its wealth.” (WOIAF)

While I’ll save the discussion of the internal causes of the war for the Internal Divisions section of this essay, this episode is an excellent demonstration of one of the rules of the Great Game: any hint that someone might lose the Game leads everyone else to try to feed upon the corpse. In this case, the King of the Rock and the Storm Kings conquered the western and eastern reaches of the kingdom, while the Dornish struck at the heart of Gardener power by sacking Highgarden, killing the king, and burning the Oakenseat. (Incidentally, the participation of the Dornish here is quite strange, in that they don’t seem to have even tried to make any territorial gains, but instead inflicted a largely symbolic defeat on their enemies in a way that was guaranteed to lead to violent retaliation. Either they were very sure that this was the end for House Gardener, or these kings were remarkably short-sighted even by Westerosi standards.)


At this moment in crisis, for the first time we can see the hand of House Tyrell acting openly in Reach politics. The Tyrell influence in Highgarden dated back to the Three Sage Kings, under whom Alester Tyrell had become sworn sword to Gwayne V and “His second son, Gareth…of a more bookish …choosing to serve as a royal steward instead.” For a thousand years, the Tyrells had served quietly as “close confidants and advisors to their kings; some also acted as castellans in times of war. At least one ruled the Reach as regent during the minority of King Garland VI.” (WOIAF) But in the aftermath of disaster, the Tyrells were forced to act openly:

“Almost a decade of anarchy followed, but in the end twoscore of the great houses of the Reach, led by Ser Osmund Tyrell, the High Steward, made common cause, defeated both the Peakes and we Manderlys, reclaimed the ruins of Highgarden, and placed a second cousin of the late and unlamented Garth Greybeard upon its new throne as King Mern VI Gardener.”

“Though a man of modest gifts, Mern VI had able counsel in his stewards. Ser Osmund Tyrell was succeeded in that office by his son, Ser Robert, and later by a grandson, Lorent. Relying on their acumen, Mern VI ruled well, rebuilding Highgarden and doing much and more to restore House Gardener and the Reach.” (WOIAF)

Here we see Ser Osmund acting essentially as Regent and Protector of the Reach, bringing together no less than forty Houses of the Reach (a broad majority although hardly an overwhelming one), making war on both sides of the civil war, and re-reestablishing the succession of House Gardener on his own terms. In a notable exception to the rule that “a daughter comes before an uncle” (Jon IV, IX, X, ADWD) Ser Osmund chose a “second cousin” over either of the daughters of Garth Greybeard, in part to show that neither side in the civil war would be favored, and in no small part because Mern was a dummy in all senses of the word.

Maester Yandel frames the situation more politely, but describing Mern VI as “a man of modest gifts” who ruled well by “relying on [the] acumen” of Osmund, Robert, and Lorent Tyrell is tantamount to saying that the Tyrells were now truly the power behind the throne, whereas Mern VI was a mere figurehead. Most significantly, as quid pro quo for his crown, Mern VI “gave Ser Robert Tyrell the hand of his youngest daughter in marriage (thereby allowing their sons, grandsons, and all the generations to follow to claim descent from Garth Greenhand).” (WOIAF) Moreover, in the wake of a civil war in which the husbands of two Gardener daughters were the major contenders, Ser Robert’s marriage implicitly made it clear that the Tyrells would be claiming the throne should anything happen to the king.

At the same time, the case of Garth X also shows how difficult it could be to lose the Great Game. Despite the punishing losses that the Reach suffered, it bounced back amazingly quickly, so that by the time that Mern’s son, Garth XI succeeded to the throne, the Reach was militarily recovered to the point of “taking such a terrible vengeance upon the Dornishmen that Lord Hightower said afterward that the Red Mountains had been green until Garth painted them with Dornish blood.” (WOIAF)

In the Margins of History

Now, clearly these two episodes are not the sum total of the Reach’s involvement in the Great Game, and if you look carefully in the WOIAF’s chapters on the other Seven Kingdoms you can find some hints of other instances of the Reach as a player in the Great Game. For example, in the section on the Thousand Ships, we learn that sometime in the late 690s BC, Nymeria “threw back two invasions by the Storm King Durran the Third and one by King Greydon of the Reach,” which demonstrates that the long enmity of the Reach and Dorne was not solely due to Dorne invading the Reach (as all previous examples would have suggested). However, there’s not really enough information in that one sentence to draw any conclusions as to the larger dynamics of the Great Game, let alone the internal political dynamics of the Reach during the reign of King Greydon, or the strategies involved.

By contrast, we do have a rough picture of the dynamics of the Reach/Stormlands nexus of the Great Game beginning in the mid-to-late 400s BC.  During this time, the Stormlands experienced a historic renaissance of power, beginning as “King Arlan I (the Avenger) swept all before him, extending the borders of his kingdom as far as the Blackwater Rush and the headwaters of the Mander.” As the Durrandons waxed, the Gardeners necessarily waned, as they were pushed back inside their historical eastern borders – although it’s likely they breathed a sigh of relief when Arlan the Avenger’s great-grandson Arlan III turned his conquering eye north to the Riverlands. After his conquest of that fractured kingdom, it became the turn of the Gardeners to pull down the frontrunner in the Great Game:

“…With the death of Arlan III, however, an inevitable decline began, for the stormlanders were stretched too thin to hold this vast kingdom together. Rebellion followed rebellion, petty kings sprang up like weeds, castles and keeps fell away…Even as the stormlanders reeled back before the ironmen in the north, the Dornish came swarming over the Boneway to press them in the south, and the Kings of the Reach sent their knights forth from Highgarden to reclaim all that had been lost in the west.” (WOIAF)

The over-reach of the Durrandon actually proved to be a long-term benefit to House Gardener in rebuilding their strength (just from their losses against Arlan I or were there earlier defeats?), as “the Storm Kings of House Durrandon[‘s] powers had been dwindling for centuries. The Kings of the Reach had nibbled at their domains from the west.” This suggests a steady process of Gardener territorial aggrandizement against their weakened rival that continued into the reign of Argilac Durrandon, who “arrested this decline for a time…slaying Garse VII Gardener, King of the Reach, in the Battle of Summerfield twenty years later.” (WOIAF)

It is perhaps this defeat that encouraged Mern IX to embark on the relatively conservative strategy of allying with the King of the Rock against Aegon the Conqueror. Without more evidence we may never know why the last King of the Reach did what he did, but that’s a story for another time…

[1] I’m less interested in the efforts of Gawyne the Gods-Fearing and Mern the Madling, both because it’s part of a rather clumsy trend of trying to shoe-in the Children of the Forest everywhere in Westeros long after they should have been a factor in Westerosi history, and because either this or Durran XXI is rather repetitious.

[2] On the other hand, and this is why I get really frustrated with the WOIAF timeline or lack thereof, all we can say is that Gyles III ruled at least five generations before Nymeria’s Conquest of Dorne…which means that he ruled sometime before 850 BC, giving us a range of some 4,150 years in which he could have lived.

[3] Which creates yet another timeline problem: Lancel IV is twice described as being “armed with a Valyrian sword,” and yet we’re told that Brightroar only came into the possession of House Lannister a hundred years before the Doom. While this might be a case similar to Lady Forlorn or Ice of a pre-existing family sword being replaced by a Valyrian upgrade

[4] Although the quick succession of Garths suggests that the zenith and the “nadir of Gardener power” came only a hundred or so years apart, which strikes me as a bit too convenient from a literary perspective and a bit too unlikely from a historical perspective.


31 thoughts on “Politics of the Seven Kingdoms: the Reach (Part III)

  1. I can’t help but wonder if Garth X could be considered the King Lear/Gorboduc of the Reach, the old King who enjoys flattery and has no sons but daughters can be linked to Lear. I wouldn’t be surprised if there were plays about him put on before Reach Kings to show the dangers of disputed succession, and like Gorboduc show the threat of foreign invasion, with Osmund being the wise counselor who goes against Garth not planning his succession. Mayhaps the Dornish King who sacked HG would be the Fergus in this scenario, entering and killing Garth and saying that now Dorne will rule the Reach, before Mern enters and defeats them. It would even make sense if The Tragedy of Garth X or something like that would be put on before Viserys I.

    Just indulging in worldbuilding and connections to British culture. Anyway, another good essay and I find the Great Game fascinating, particularly as I am doing worldbuilding myself.

  2. sulaimanbindaud says:

    I have to say, I am going through a really depressing time in my life right now, but reading your work always allows me to escape, even if only for a moment. Thanks for writing this.

  3. “which makes our lack of information all the more frustration.” Typo, I assume?

    “In a classic example of the crab-bucket politics of the Great Game (link)” Missing link, it seems.

    Otherwise a wonderful essay! However, is it really correct to characterize the Great Game as crab-bucket politics? if the impression I get from wikipedia is correct, it is about obstructing those around you even when doing so doesn’t help to fulfill your own goal. However, isn’t the Great Game by it’s nature a zero-sum game where you must wane as those around you wax? I suppose it depends on how you conceptualize the goals involved. If it is about securing your own safety, then yes, it is a crab-bucket war. But if it is about achieving pan-southern dominion under you as the sole ruler, can we still consider it an example of crab mentality?

    • S. Duff says:

      I think he means crab-bucket politics in the sense that as soon as any one player gets too powerful and comes close to gaining a hegemony they get dogpiled by their neighbors to prevent them from cementing their new status.

    • Yeah, that’s a typo and a missing link. Will fix.

      In terms of what I meant: if we go back to the original metaphors, the idea of the crab-bucket or tall-poppy is that, rather trying to win yourself, you’re acting to stop whoever’s closest to winning from achieving victory.

      For example, in the Gyles III scenario, we don’t see the Dornish invading the Stormlands (although they did so when it looked like Arlan III’s successors might win the Great Game) or the Riverlanders for that matter to try to grab the prize for themselves. Rather, they go straight at the Reach.

  4. Murc says:

    Damn good stuff, Steven.

    If you’ll permit me to speculate with my own thoughts… I know you don’t put a ton of stock in the notion that geography is destiny (or rather, you take a more nuanced approach to it) but it seems rather clear that the Reach’s geographic distance from Andalos, being the furthest away of the Seven Kingdoms from it, played an outsized role in how it was able to blunt the Andal advance so adroitly.

    Because the Gardeners had the chance to observe how the Andal conquest went in two other kingdoms (the Westerlands and the Stormlands) and two other kingdom-ish localities (the Riverlands and the Vale.) And that was important, because, like the Lannisters but unlike the Valemen and the Stormlanders, they got to observe the Andal modus operandi.

    I would submit there are four facts that would have jumped out about the Andals to anyone paying any attention at all:

    1) They’re shockingly perfidious towards non-Andals, oathbreakers and traitors of the first order.
    2) They’re fierce, driven warriors, willing to fight and die in large numbers for conquest, power, god, and glory. They can be defeated but almost never daunted; they’ll just keep coming and coming.
    3) They’re prone to infighting when not given a common enemy; an Andal king’s natural enemy is another Andal king.
    4) They take their faith very seriously, which can somewhat ameliorate 1).

    Knowing those four things about the Andals was deeply crucial for the Gardeners, and to a lesser extent the Lannisters, I think. The Gardeners don’t try and simply fight to the death; the Stormlanders and Riverlanders tried that and it didn’t really work out. Attempting to buy them off was tried by the Valemen and some in the Riverlands, and that didn’t work either; absent a boot on their neck or a cultural imperative the Andals will be happy to take your gold and your daughters and then shank you the second they get a chance.

    Instead they bring in the Faith, which gives them a cultural commonality with the Andals and makes 1) less likely. They use 3) to their advantage as best they’re able, and manage to control their Andal vassals to the point that 1) stops being an issue because the Andals have stopped seeing the Reachermen as “the other.”

    But I don’t think they have the intelligence to make this play, which requires threading a bunch of needles, without the intervening geography giving them a buffer zone.

    It’s exceedingly clever.

    One thing that’s always leapt out at me:

    The Three Sage Kings also found lands and lordships for the more powerful of the Andal kings descending on the Reach, in return for pledges of fealty.

    These Andal petty kings would almost certainly have to have been descending nearly purely out of the Riverlands and the Crownlands, would they not? Because going by the rest of WOIAF, the Stormlands and the Westerlands, after a brief period of chaos (somewhat longer in the Stormlands) consolidated entirely under a single king; the Durrandons in the Stormlands and the Lannisters in the Westerlands. There would not have been powerful Andal petty kings there free to roam around and make war and new kingdoms as they wished, in the style of, say, Togarion Bar Emmon.

    To me, this suggests that the process of intermarriage by which “the sons and daughters of these houses intermarried so freely with those descended from the First Men that it became impossible to tell them apart” still took place in a political environment in which the Andals were assimilated into the old order, rather than creating a new one

    You know, there’s another kingdom that happened in as well… the Iron Islands. Despite House Hoare being derided for their “black (Andal) blood” it seems like the Andal conquest of the Iron Islands was a lot like dropping a stone into a pond; it made a big splash and then vanished. The Reach, at least, now has the Faith and the chivalric ideal altering its political culture; the Iron Islands almost completely buried everything Andal.

    Incidentally, the participation of the Dornish here is quite strange, in that they don’t seem to have even tried to make any territorial gains, but instead inflicted a largely symbolic defeat on their enemies in a way that was guaranteed to lead to violent retaliation. Either they were very sure that this was the end for House Gardener, or these kings were remarkably short-sighted even by Westerosi standards.

    Is going to war solely for plunder really that much of a stretch in this era of Westerosi history?

    I mean… sacking Highgarden isn’t largely symbolic. The Dornish host stripped Highgarden “of all its wealth.” To say nothing of any other wealth and plunder they gained on campaign. That’s a lot of wealth! If the Reach is burning down and being ravaged by its enemies on all sides and can’t retaliate any time in the near future, why wouldn’t you jump on the corpse and cut yourself off a few choice bits?

    I mean, sure. House Gardener might bounce back and they might retaliate. What’s that to you? The Reach and the Dornish have been retaliating at each other across the Red Mountains for thousands of years. It is how things are done.

    Indeed, being eager to go to war for only short-term gain against people who can beat the shit out of you long-term seems to be a Dornish trait. It is hard to compare pre-Nymeria and post-Nymeria Dorne, of course… but in the books the Dornish are real, real goddamn eager to go to the spears and take on the rest of Westeros in the wake of Oberyn’s death, and indeed one of the Sand Snakes is pushing hard on a plan to invade the Reach and sack Oldtown, a plan that is truly Balon Greyjoy levels of idiotic.

    Dornishmen gonna Dornish.

    • On geography, I think you kind of make my own case for me, because almost everything you mention comes down to the Three Sage Kings paying a lot of attention to culture, as opposed to any geographic feature of the Reach, which had wide-open borders to the north that the Andals could have exploited if they hadn’t gotten distracted and divided in the Riverlands.

      On the Andal petty kings, you’re probably right, although they could be fresh arrivals from Andalos – we don’t have a great sense of when we’re dealing with Andals in the Vale->Riverlands pipeline and when we’re dealing with warlords and kings who are making the trip lured by stories of previous successes.

      On the Iron Islands, good point, although that’s partially a factor of an extremely late invasion and relatively few people making the trip (because why bother taking a few flinty islands when you’ve got a whole continent to steal?).

      On Dorne, yeah, plunder is a thing. But killing the King of Highgarden and cutting down the Oakenseat makes it seem…personal, ideological, emotional.

      • We don’t get much on the Seven but considering the Reach is sort of France… I can’t help but wonder if the Gardeners took to the Seven because of it emphasizing loyalty to Kings, similar to why Christianity took off among royals such as the Merovingian Clovis I. And that might have helped the Gardeners hold the Kingdom together. The Kings of France, from Merovingian to Carolingian to Capet, liked to emphasize how sacred they were. They were the people the Pope turned to when he needed help… and I imagine the Gardeners might have done the same thing with the Seven.

      • Murc says:

        On geography, I think you kind of make my own case for me, because almost everything you mention comes down to the Three Sage Kings paying a lot of attention to culture, as opposed to any geographic feature of the Reach, which had wide-open borders to the north that the Andals could have exploited if they hadn’t gotten distracted and divided in the Riverlands.

        The thing is, though, do the Three Sage Kings get the chance to pay that sort of attention to culture if not for the fact that geographic position of the Reach placed them in a position to watch other kingdoms getting the shit kicked out of them first?

        Like, suppose Westeros were mirror-imaged across its longitudinal center and the Westerlands and the Reach are the ones facing Andalos across the narrow sea instead, and the Lannisters and the Gardeners have to formulate policy towards the Andals ex nihilo, as it were, without any prior examples of Andal invasions to draw from. Do they still handle it as skillfully? I think the odds are much lower, at least.

        On Dorne, yeah, plunder is a thing. But killing the King of Highgarden and cutting down the Oakenseat makes it seem…personal, ideological, emotional.

        Well, I mean… at the meta level, I think we can both acknowledge that that whole thing is largely there as a cool example of the wrongs done and bad blood that came from them during the long, long years of Dornish/Reachermen conflict, right? Like how the Brackens’ posioned the Blackwoods’ awesome giant weirwood tree. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try and analyze it from a standpoint of political economy and try to make it make sense in-universe, of course.

        What’s telling for me in the reading of that history as a historical document is this:

        The Dornish cut his throat (“a mercy,” one of them said later), then put Highgarden to the torch after stripping it of all its wealth.

        Emphasis mine.

        Now, I might be overanalyzing this, but I think there are a few ways to read this. It’s very generic; “the Dornish.” No name of the king or lord ordering these actions? This was a sacking of huge historical significance! The seat of one of the Great Houses put to the torch, one of the wonders of Westeros destroyed in an act not even of plunder, but of wanton vandalism. You’d think names would be named…

        … unless this wasn’t premeditated and done on orders from above but simply opportunistic sacking after a bloody siege.

        I’m sure I don’t have to tell you that controlling soldiers during a sack is… difficult, even if you’re inclined to do so. The Siege of Badajoz is what springs immediately to mind, nobody can accuse Arthur Wellesley of having badly-disciplined men or a light hand, and he still couldn’t control them, but examples abound, both here in the real world to a lesser extent in Westeros.

        So I’m going to say that I consider it within the realm of possibility that during the sack of Highgarden things got kind of crazy and out of control. Cut down and burn the Oakenseat? Sure, why not! It’ll make a great story for the folks back home. (I bet that a lot of pieces of it were carried away from Highgarden as war trophies, and even more were invented after the fact; pieces of the Oakenseat are probably as common in Dorne and the Reach as pieces of the True Cross are here.) Some Dornish soldiers find the contemptible, senile, filth-smeared King of Highgarden gibbering in his chambers? Entirely possible some nameless man-at-arms slit his throat for no better reason than to shut him up while they plundered his apartments. Garth was certainly no use as a hostage.

        Afterwards stuff was just sort of… justified. “A mercy killing.” Suuuuuure, guys.

        I can’t say as I’d have done it this way; I’d have saved this sort of strike at Highgarden and House Gardener for Dorne as a united kingdom, for House Martell, to really help cement that particular enmity.

  5. Sean C. says:

    The history of the Reach is one of the better examples of how GRRM seems to have really altered his idea for the history of Westeros in regard to the Andals as the series goes on. In the early books, Southern houses having First Men heritage is something that seems to be anomalous enough for it be worth remarking upon, e.g., the Blackwoods and the Royces. But TWOIAF makes it seem like virtually all significant houses in the South are descended from the First Men outside of the Vale, the only region where the Andal Conquest is depicted as really constituting a sea change in the region.

    If you compare the pre-Andal and post-Andal histories of the Reach, it barely feels like there’s a difference.

    • Agreed. The Vale and the Riverlands are really the only places where you see a genuine revolution in the ruling class.

    • Sdelg says:

      They kept their names and their lands, but they are pretty much Andals now (at the time of the main series) and they have been that way for thousands of years, we don’t know if many of those houses are really the original First Men ones, like it happened with House Lannister (even if in this particular case they are descendants of the original Lannisters through the female line) a lot of this Houses might be names taken by powerful lords to link themselves with ancient traditions; a powerful warrior who thanks to his merits elevated himself from let’s see…… a whore’s son (or any kind of person that has no name or no interest of keeping his name) to be the lord of some lands might be tempted to take the name of a now extinct house that once rules those lands, I am not saying that this happened a lot (or even if at all) but it is a possible scenario, maybe the Royces and the Blackwoods are some the few that can trace their origins without any doubt to the days of the First Men, or some of the few that actually care about it; most of the rest have embraced the Andal side for millenia and even the Royces themselves culturally seem to be more Andal than First Men (Bronze and Runes aside).

  6. artihcus022 says:

    I was always skeptical about the Reach in terms of World Building, just as I was skeptical about the Tyrells and their PR sleaze (but this might have been influenced by the show of course which made me dislike them even more than the books).

    Mostly, it’s because of a kind of dated quasi-Marxist attitude that the royals who are harder to dislodge and so most greatly to be feared (the Gardeners) are the ones who are good at their job and seem to lack neurosis that often accompanies those in power. I prefer reading about the interesting self-destructive monarchs, the utterly insane death cults (the Ironborn) and the failed kingdoms like the Riverlands, and the plucky convivencia of Dorne.

    • I agree. I’m not really a big fan of the Tyrells. Willas and Garlan may be decent.. but the Tyrells as a whole still support two bad usurping regimes and I can’t forget that. I find Mace Tyrell an underrated villain, not just in terms of how cunning he is, but in how villainous he is. He really deserves more hate from the fandom.

      • artihcus022 says:

        Nah he’s like a French bourgeois bad guy, too lacking in qualities to properly detest, but irritating and perplexing eternally, mostly because he tends to land on his feet…but eventually his luck will run out, and the Doom will come to the Reach in the form of Euron Greyjoy who is there in the narrative solely to bring those spunging parasites who feast and dance while the rest of Westeros lives in war and grief, a real awakening.

        About the only time I liked the Reach was in The Sworn Sword…

      • Grant says:

        The worst that he’s done was to back Renly, and frankly that might have been Olenna (we only have her word that she disagreed with the idea). Brienne did the same and that’s not considered villainous, let alone on par with the things people like Cersei, Tywin, Gregor and Joffrey have done. Marrying Margaery to Joffrey? No one in the family seems to care that she doesn’t really want to be queen and given his apparent lack of wits I wouldn’t be surprised if he was the one Tyrell who honestly didn’t know that Joffrey was a bastard or a young tyrant.

  7. thatrabidpotato says:

    ” In a notable exception to the rule that “a daughter comes before an uncle” (Jon IV, IX, X, ADWD)”


  8. Mark hayes says:

    Hey question in your opinion what military force win in both one on one and 8000 vs 8000 Spartans or unsullied

  9. Mark hayes says:

    Also what if Jon Aryn had a son with his second wife that survived to the start of the series let’s say Jason aryn how would his existence change the story

    • fjallstrom says:

      Then Jason would inherit the Vale, therefore Littlefinger and Lysa doesn’t poison Jon Arryn. Jon Arryn manages to collect the evidence against Cersei, who along with her kids get removed from power. Ned stays in the North and when the Others start messing with the Watch, Ned gives them the resources they need. When Jon Snow tells Ned about the Wildlings and the Others, Ned settles the Wildlings on the Gift and prepares for the Others invasion.

      No war, no invasions, no story.

  10. Ryan says:

    I know you’ve argued against this before, but I really feel like there isn’t enough history for a ~5,000 year old country. France got through 18 Louis’s and 10 Charles’s from 4 main dynasties in 1,000 years, how on earth did House Gardner rule for 5 times that while only producing 12 Garth’s and 9 Mern’s? The level of technological development is more or less reasonable, but the amount of political development is not, especially given the rate of change over the past ~500 years.

  11. I think your numbers for the late-Great Game regarding the Stormlands might be a bit off. The Durrandons held the Riverlands for “more than three centuries” about a hundred years before Aegon’s Conquest and Arlan III was Arlan I’s great-grandson, which should the latter in the 500s or 600s I think. Otherwise, another great essay!

  12. […] Polecam również blog historyka Dr Stevena Attewella Race for the Iron Throne, zwłaszcza serię esejów Politics of the Seven Kingdoms, np. najnowszy odcinek o Reach. […]

  13. […] the previous section (link), I looked at how House Gardener responded to the Andal Invasion of the Reach through a […]

  14. You know, there’s a lot of times during these essays where you run into a timeline scale problem and it appears like nothing happened during periods between 2000 and 5000 years. Have you maybe considered that the traditional 8000 year scale is flat-out wrong?

    Even if the Andals came 2000 years before Aegon’s Conquest that seems too much. I’ve thought about it before and it’s probable that the Andals only came to Westeros around 600 years ago, since the Valyrians only deemed necessary to deal with the Rhoynar 800 years ago, and the Rhoynar would have been in the way of the Valyrian’s expansion to Western Essos. Qarlton the Great’s fall might have taken place between 700-600 years ago and that combined with the Valyrian’s conquest of Myr (which couldn’t have taken place before they dealt with the Rhoynar) would have prompted the Andal migrations.

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