The “game of thrones” has become such a powerful symbol in the broader ASOIAF fandom that our perceptions of how Westerosi politics function have been distorted by it, resulting in an imaginary that is far too authoritarian and top-down. The King of Westeros is not an absolute monarch, nor is it normal for liege lords to wipe out entire houses for disloyalty. Rather, Westerosi politics is still characterized by the reciprocal and decentralized (if not precisely bottom-up) nature of feudal politics.
There is no better example of this than the simple fact of the existence of the Great Councils of Westeros. In these gatherings, national authority is exercises not by all-powerful monarchs issuing decrees, but by hue, sprawling assemblies of fiercely independent lords who act as both the representation of the will of the political class of the nation, and the ultimate source of authority for major changes to the fundamental laws of the kingdom.
In this essay, I will examine the structure of the Great Councils and the ways they parallel with or diverge from the development of aristocratic assemblies in Medieval Europe, then discuss the historical development of the great Councils, and then conclude by examining whether the Great Councils signify a future for parliamentary government in Westeros.
So how do the Great Councils compare to the aristocratic assemblies that developed in Medieval Europe prior to becoming the more Parliamentary systems of the Early Modern period?
First, the Great Councils seem to have originated as a vehicle for building support for a consensus candidate during disputed successions, whereas Parliament in England, the Estates General in France, the Cortes Generales in Spain, and so on, were almost all created as a means of gaining consent for (and thus allowing for the better collection of) taxes.
In a rather surprising departure from historical patterns, the Targaryen monarchy doesn’t seem to have run into conflicts with its vassals over taxation. Perhaps this was because the early monarchy relied on dragons rather than armies, or perhaps because the Iron Throne has an unusually well-developed fiscal apparatus given its weakness in other areas. Whichever was the case, it’s notable that Westerosi rebellions, both large (the Dance, the Blackfyre Rebellions) and small (the Vulture King, the Peake Uprising) almost always focus on questions of rulership and succession rather than financial issues.
Second, the Great Councils are unusual in that the lords of the realm sit as one undifferentiated mass. While the Sejm of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth followed this model, most other councils recognized the separate statuses of the various classes of medieval society, whether through a bicameral assembly that separated lords from commons or through the division of the Three Estates. The exclusion of the Faith of the Seven from the Great Councils makes some sense, since the weakened position of the Seven compared to the Catholic Church (especially in the wake of the Revolt of the Faithful) meant that there wasn’t as much of a need to conciliate the clergy. However, it is interesting that we don’t see any presence for the Westerosi merchant class, given the importance of the burghers of medieval Europe in providing finance for the monarch.
But while the Great Council is very much a council of lords only, it’s curious that there are no distinctions made between the Great Houses and the Lesser. Indeed, from the limited evidence we have it seems as if all Houses have an equal voice and vote in the Great Councils, and there is an ambiguity as to whether the Great Houses can actually deliver their vassals’ votes, limiting their ability to guide national policy through the creation of coherent majorities. For example, as we’ll discuss in more detail later, the Great Council of 101 AC ended with a 20:1 result, despite the Starks and Baratheons (and possibly the Arryns as well) supporting the losing side, which one would think would have resulted in something closer to a 3:1 outcome.
Third, the Great Councils meet less often than medieval assemblies. In no small part due to their incessant needs for funds, medieval monarchs tended to frequently call assemblies: in England, there were no less than 23 Parliaments called during the reign of Henry III (1207-1272 CE); Edward I outdid his father by calling some 46 Parliaments between 1275 and 1307. To me, this suggests some form of divergence from historical trends, and thus throughout this essay I will explore what factors might have led to a weaker presence for the Great Councils compared to their historical counterparts.
Historical Development of the Great Council
The origins of the Great Council are somewhat shrouded in mystery. For example, the earliest mention we have of the institution is that King Aenys intended to call a Great Council in 37 AC to solicit advice from the lords of the realm:
“More rebels soon appeared in the Vale and the Iron Islands, while a Dornishman naming himself the Vulture King gathered thousands of followers to stand against the Targaryens. Grand Maester Gawen wrote that the king was stunned by this news, for Aenys fancied himself beloved of the commons. And the king again acted indecisively…The king even determined to call a Great Council to discuss how to deal with these matters. Fortunately for the realm, others acted more swiftly.” (WOIAF)
What I find intriguing about this passage is that the term “Great Council” is used quite precisely and explicitly, despite the fact that the first Great Council proper wouldn’t take place for another 64 years. It’s possible that Maester Yandel is indulging in the same presentism he criticizes other scholars for, using a later term to describe a looser and more informal assembly of lords.
However, if that’s not the case, it suggests that the term “Great Council” was known in 37 AC, which raises the question of where it came from. It could be that King Aenys was simply extrapolating from the Small Council (although that’s unlikely, given that the term “small council” only came about in the reign of Jaehaerys I) , with the idea being to take soundings from a broader and more representative sample of the political class of the nation. This might explain why the proposed Great Council would have had a very different remit – debating royal policy – than all later Great Councils. However, it could also be the case that the term predated the Targaryen monarchy. Councils of various kinds are attested to in the records: the Ironborn’s kingsmoot are described as “great councils,” a council was called in the Westerlands to decide the succession of House Lannister following the death of Gerold III, and there are ruling councils of magisters, princes, priests, and other notables throughout Essos.
Whichever is the case, the first Great Council came about in 101 AC, in circumstances that couldn’t be more different than those of 37 AC: in 101 AC, the Targaryen dynasty was led by a superlative monarch and the realm was at peace. Instead, Jaehaerys I seems to have called the Great Council of 101 to deal with the crucial issue of the succession in a hands-off fashion (indeed, Jaeherys is said to have been “not present for final deliberations”), in order to avoid a repetition of the clash between himself and Queen Alysanne as happened in 92 AC. The Great Council of 101 is the best documented of all the councils, which allows us to learn much about the structure and practices of this assembly:
“To resolve the matter of his heir once and for all, Jaehaerys called the first Great Council in the year 101 AC, to put the matter before the lords of the realm. And from all corners of the realm the lords came. No castle could hold so many save for Harrenhal, so it was there that they gathered. The lords, great and small, came with their trains of bannermen, knights, squires, grooms, and servants. And behind them came yet more—the camp followers and washerwomen, the hawkers and smiths and carters. Thousands of tents sprang up over the moons, until the castle town of Harrenton was accounted the fourth largest city of the Realm.” (WOIAF)
This passage gives us something of a sense of the scale of the proceedings: if Harrenton became the fourth-largest city in Westeros during the Great Council, that suggests that it had a population below 250,000 (the usual estimate given for the population of Lannisport, Westeros’ third-largest city) and above 50,000 (the usual estimate given for Gulltown and White Harbor). Since the 300-strong retinue of Tymond Lannister was considered exceptional, we can say that anywhere between 170 and 830 lords attended (which would explain why only Harrenhal of the Hall of a Hundred Hearths could hold them all). Moreover, it raises an interesting issue – if the lords brought their bannermen with them as a matter of prestige, does this suggest that liege lords can call upon their bannermen to vote the way they want them to in a manner similar to the client system of Republican Rome? If so, how do we explain the lopsided outcome of the vote? If not, why go to the enormous expense and trouble for mere bragging rights?
Nor do the questions end there. We have very limited and often contradictory information as to how the Great Council of 101 conducted its business, even when it comes to the basic issue of how voting took place:
“The annals of the Great Council of 101 were brought forth and examined, and note was made of which lords had spoken for Viserys, and which for Rhaenys, Laena, or Laenor…”
“….the tide was against them, and though the maesters who counted the results never gave numbers…” (WOIAF)
The first quote, which at least tells us that the proceedings and debates of the Great Councils are minuted and preserved (most likely by the maesters who attended the event), suggests that there was no secret ballot, or at least that the preliminary debates between the partisans of the two main candidates were comprehensive enough to tell who voted which way. The second quote, by contrast, suggests that the Great Council operated by a secret ballot controlled by the maesters of the Citadel (what fertile ground for conspiracy theories!), who maintained the secrecy of the ballot to point of not actually providing vote totals but rather only the actual result of the balloting.
But enough about structure and practice; what was the political question that the Great Council was called to answer? In 92 AC, Jaehaerys had “pass[ed] over his granddaughter Rhaenys – the daughter of his deceased eldest son and heir, Prince Aemon,” who had been “killed in battle against Myrish pirates hwo had seized the eastern side of Tarth,” in favor of “bestowing Dragonstone and the place of heir apparent on his next eldest son, Baelon the Brave.” While a brave soldier and admirable Hand, Prince Baelon unexpectedly “died within days of a burst belly” (mostly likely a perforated stomach ulcer) less than a decade later). Thus, the Council of 101 had to choose between the heirs of dead crown princes who never ascended to the throne:
“At this council, nine lesser claimants were heard and dismissed, leaving only two primary claimants to the throne: Laenor Velaryon, son of Princess Rhaenys—who was the eldest daughter of Jaehaerys’s eldest son, Aemon—and Prince Viserys, eldest son of Baelon the Brave and Princess Alyssa. Each had their merits, for primogeniture favored Laenor, while proximity favored Viserys, who was also the last Targaryen prince to ride Balerion before the dragon’s death in 94 AC. Laenor himself had recently acquired a dragon, a splendid creature that he named Seasmoke. But for many lords of the realm, what mattered most was that the male line take precedence over the female line— not to mention that Viserys was a prince of four-and-twenty while Laenor was just a boy of seven.” (WOIAF)
Who the nine lesser claimants might have been is something of a mystery: Goodqueenaly suggests that they may have been “various descendants of [Jaehaerys’ brother] Prince Aegon’s twins, Aerea and Rhalla,” and that’s as good an explanation as any other, or perhaps they might have been the natural offspring of Princess Viserra or Princess Saera, either of whom might have had offspring.
But as to the main two claimants, what was the issue between them? To elucidate these thorny legal issues somewhat: “primogeniture favored Laenor” because Laenor was the grandson of Jaehaerys’ oldest son Aemon, whereas “proximity favored Viserys” because his father had been named Crown Prince after the death of Aemon (which implies that the heir apparency had not been passed down to Aemon’s heirs, but rather regifted by King Jaehaerys’ in 92 AC).
Which of these were the stronger argument depends on how Westerosi inheritance law compares to say, English inheritance law during the disputed succession of the various sons of King Edward III that would later give rise of the Wars of the Roses. In the English case, the son of an elder brother (in this case, Edward the Black Prince, even though he died before he could succeed to the throne) was deemed to inherit over his uncles; likewise the conflicts between York and Lancaster centered on the legal point that Henry IV of Lancaster (who usurped the throne from Richard II) descended from John of Gaunt, the third son of Edward III, whereas the Yorkists could claim descent from the House of Mortimer (the designated heirs of Richard II) and from Lionel of Antwerp (the second son of Edward III) but only through the female line and only from the fourth son of Edward III (Edmund, Duke of York) on the male line. At various times, the Yorkists would succeed at getting Parliament to issue decrees recognizing their claim as superior, only to find the legal situation reversed when the Lancastrians gained the upper hand. The ultimate victor is a bit hard to parse, as the Tudors’ claim was highly dodgy and practically relied heavily on Henry VII’s marriage to Elizabeth of York.
The decisions of the Council of 101 were not ultimately decided by legal principles; this was, after all, a political gathering rather than a mere convocation of scholars. We know that “Boremund Baratheon…supported Laenor’s claim, as did Lord Ellard Stark,” who was joined by his bannermen “Dustin of Barrowton and Manderly of White Harbor.” We also know that Laenor was also supported by “Lord Blackwood, Lord Bar Emmon, and Lord Celtigar,” as did “Lords…Massey…and Crabb most like, perhaps even the Evenstar of Tarth.” (WOIAF) These lords, however, acted very much for their own political reasons. As I’ve discussed before, Lord Boremund Baratheon’s support for Laenor stemmed from a long-term political project of the Baratheons to place one with their own blood on the Iron Throne. By contrast, the support of House Stark and their vassals largely had to do with settling scores with King Jaehaerys:
“Later still, it was said that the Starks were bitter at the Old King and Queen Alysanne for having forced them to carve away the New Gift and give it the Night’s Watch; this may be one reason for why Lord Ellard Stark sided with Corlys Velaryon and Princess Rhaenys at the Great Council of 101 AC.” (WOIAF)
As for the Lords Bar Emmon, Massey, Celtigar, and Crabb, their support for Laenor was almost certainly determined by the proximity of their wealthy and powerful neighbor, House Velaryon, and their politically influential leader Lord Corlys the Sea Snake. Money in politics was no less important in the Middle Ages (especially given their more lax attitude with regards to bribery), and Corlys had a lot of money to spend:
“But against all this, Laenor had one shining advantage: he was the son of Lord Corlys Velaryon, the Sea Snake, the wealthiest man in the Seven Kingdoms.…his fame did not come from his skill with sword and lance and shield but for his voyages across the seas of the world, seeking new horizons…Lord Corlys traveled widely, both to the south and to the north… Many ships of Westeros had sailed as far as Qarth to trade for spices and silk, but he dared to go farther, reaching the fabled lands of Yi Ti and Leng, whose wealth doubled that of House Velaryon in a single voyage.
Nine great voyages were made upon the Sea Snake, and on the last, Corlys filled the ship’s hold with gold and bought twenty more ships at Qarth, loading them with spices, elephants, and the finest silk. Some were lost, and the elephants died at sea, according to Maester Mathis’s The Nine Voyages, but the wealth that remained made House Velaryon the richest in the realm—richer even than the Lannisters and Hightowers, for a time.” (WOIAF)
While Corlys’ support for his own son was never in doubt, his efforts on Laenor’s behalf were no doubt intensified by the fact that, despite being probably the closest House to House Targaryen by blood, Corlys had seen his wife passed over in 92 AC. And once again, despite the support of the Lords of Dragonstone and two out of the seven Lords Paramount, Corlys’ wealth turned out to be insufficient to win the vote for his son.
While we don’t have a complete list of Viserys’ supporters, those that we have suggest some reasons why the future King was able to triumph in council. To begin with, as the husband of Aemma Arryn, he would have had the support of the lords of the Vale who would prosper if the Arryns continued to enjoy pre-eminence at the Red Keep. Moreover, Viserys seems to have had support from most of the Lords Paramount, although we only have specific evidence for two: 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,” and Lord Lymond Lannister. This last is perhaps the most significant factor:
“Lord Tymond Lannister was present at the Great Council of 101 AC that decided the succession, famously arriving with a huge retinue of three hundred bannermen, men-at-arms, and servants … only to be outdone by Lord Matthos Tyrell of Highgarden, who counted five hundred in his retinue. The Lannisters chose to side with Prince Viserys in the deliberations—a choice remembered and rewarded some years later, when Viserys ascended the Iron Throne and made Lord Jason Lannister’s twin brother Ser Tyland his master of ships. Later, Ser Tyland became master of coin for King Aegon II, and his close association with the Iron Throne and favored position at court brought his brother, Lord Jason, into the Dance of the Dragons on Aegon’s side.” (WOIAF)
While Tymond’s bannermen no doubt delivered a substantial number of votes for Prince Viserys (although we still don’t know how Matthos Tyrell and his retinue voted), ultimately it was likely Lannister gold which was the most significant factor in putting the future King over the finish line, allowing Viserys’ faction to match Corlys’ financial inducements and cancelling out that advance. Hence why Tyland Lannister was so richly rewarded with multiple Small Council appointments when Viserys ascended to the Iron Throne.
At the same time, the Great Council of 101 strained the boundaries of “normal” politics. Prince Daemon Targaryen “had been among the brashest of Viserys’s supporters prior to the Great Council,” although “some said that Daemon’s support for his brother in the Great Council was motivated by the belief he would be his brother’s heir,” due to Viserys and Aemma’s fertility problems. The problem for the Great Council was that:
“Prince Daemon Targaryen. Daemon was mercurial and quick to take offense, but he was dashing, daring, and dangerous. He…had even gathered a small army of sworn swords and men-at-arms when rumors claimed that Corlys Velaryon was readying a fleet to defend the rights of his son, Laenor. King Jaehaerys avoided bloodshed, but many remembered that Daemon had been ready to come to blows over the matter.” (WOIAF)
While Daemon was something of an unusual bad actor in feudal politics (although to be fair, I wouldn’t be surprised if the ever-pragmatic Corlys had been preparing to meet force with force), I do think this example shows why it was so difficult for the Great Council to deal with something so weighty as the succession of the Iron Throne, where the stakes for the winners and losers are enormous, and where it’s very easy in a society governed by a warrior caste to appeal from the ballot to the bullet. Especially as a brand-new institution which could hardly lay claim to the loyalties of any armed men, let alone the full military forces of the kingdom, it would be impossible for the Great Council to enforce its monopoly on political legitimacy. No wonder that it took King Jaehaerys’ personal intervention, when he had previously been so careful to remain aloof from the proceedings, to ensure that the Council’s deliberations would not be tainted by bloodshed. Future Councils would not be so lucky.
The results of the Great Council of 101 AC were twofold. First, “the Great Council…voted twenty to one in favor of Prince Viserys,” who was then “named…the Prince of Dragonstone,” shortly thereafter. The dynastic split between the lines of Aemon and Baelon would ultimately be repaired through the betrothal of Viserys’ daughter Rhaenrya to Laenor Velaryon (although not before Viserys once again salted Corlys’ wounds by rejecting the hand of Laena Velaryon in favor of Alicent Hightower), although ultimately the disastrous career of that marriage would create future tensions between the Targaryens and the Velaryons. Second, the Great Council had left its mark in Westerosi law:
“In the eyes of many, the Great Council of 101 AC thereby established an iron precedent on matters of succession: regardless of seniority, the Iron Throne of Westeros could not pass to a woman, nor through a woman to her male descendants.” (WOIAF)
One of the more contentious legal maxims amongst the ASOIAF fandom, this precedent would have significant implications for the future of Westerosi politics. Most obviously, it would disenfranchise many potential female claimants to the Iron Throne, from Rhaenrya (although in the case of Aegon III, it’s pretty clear that the victorious blacks decided to ignore the “nor through a woman to her male descendants” part, although there were no green Targaryens left to object), to Daena the Defiant and her sisters (thus bringing Viserys II and thus Aegon IV to the Iron Throne), to Vaella daughter of Daeron the Drunken (thus allowing Aegon the Unlikely to become king), shaping the course of Westerosi history. Beyond that, it further divided Westerosi law from Dornish law, exacerbating the cultural differences between the two kingdoms.
Still unresolved was whether among the results of the first Great Council was its establishment as a permanent part of Westerosi politics…
 This an example of the ambiguity of the Great Councils: the Starks clearly were able to rely on their bannermen’s votes, although it may well be that these were the only bannermen who made the trek from the North to Harrenhal, which suggests that geography might play a very restrictive role in how representative the Great Councils truly are. However, the same geographic pressures clearly wouldn’t have affected the Baratheons, so why aren’t any of Lord Boremund’s vassals mentioned as supporters of Laenor?
 Another way we can estimate attendance at the Council of 101 is the fact that Laenor’s faction numbered at least ten Houses, and yet were outvoted 20:1, which suggests that there were at least 210 Houses represented at the Council.