As avid fans of Game of Thrones, we are all familiar with certain characters. Their various characteristics and mannerisms appeal to us in their own unique ways. We can guess how they would react in a situation, with whom they are compatible, where their allegiance lies (for the most part). We also know the names of their houses. What many fans are not so familiar with, however, is the history of the different houses of Westeros. This is quite an important aspect to grasp, as from this knowledge we can more appropriately understand the characters in the show, and what their past and motivations are. In this multi-part series, I will attempt to provide a brief overview of the more important houses in the show, with reference to significant characters, while drawing relevant information from A Song of Ice and Fire. In this first part, I will focus on the Northern houses which are given significance in the show.
Words: “Winter is Coming”
Title: Warden of the North; Lord of Winterfell; King in the North
Ancestral Weapon: Ice – Valyrian Steel Broadsword
Since the days of the Targaryen Conquest, when Torrhen Stark bent the knee to Aegon the Conqueror, the Starks of Winterfell have loyally served the Iron Throne as the Wardens of the North. This vein spreads throughout the North, as Stark bannermen and vassal houses display the utmost loyalty and honor to their liege lords. The Stark sigil is that of a grey direwolf. Their words, ‘Winter is Coming’, reflect their cold, humble nature, as over the centuries the house has been shaped by the Northern conditions. It is one of the few house mottos which acts as a warning rather than an attempt to promote their personal worth. The Starks have never had an interest in dominion of the South, due to having both a great pride in their northern homeland and culture, and a deep resentment of the political machinations of the Realm, where the “Game of Thrones” is ever prevalent.
After Lyanna Stark, sister to Eddard, was betrothed to Robert Baratheon, the two families were set to join their houses. However, after the mysterious kidnapping of Lyanna by Rhaegar Targaryen, son and heir of the the “Mad King” Aerys Targaryen, followed by the murder of Ned’s brother Brandon and father Rickard, a rebellion was unleashed upon the Iron Throne. Led by Robert, Ned, and their close friend and foster-father, Jon Arryn, Robert’s Rebellion ravaged the lands of Westeros, resulting in the destruction of the Targaryen dynasty, and the ascent of Robert to the Iron Throne. The Starks traditionally held the Valyrian sword Ice, until it was taken by the Lannisters and used by Ilyn Payne to execute Eddard. After Ned was beheaded as a traitor by the boy king Joffrey Baratheon, his son Robb took up lordship over the house and declared war on the Iron Throne, thus beginning the War of the Five Kings. Robb was subsequently declared King in the North by his bannermen, a title which had not been held by the Starks since before the days before Aegon’s Conquest. Robb has recently wedded Talisa Maegyr (or Jeyne Westerling for all you book-readers) of Volantis, breaking his oath to Lord Walder Frey to marry one of his daughters.
Words: “Our blades are sharp”
Seat: The Dreadfort
Current Lord: Roose Bolton
Title: Lord of the Dreadfort
From their seat at the Dreadfort, House Bolton has always been suspicious and a bit eerie, perhaps due to their ancient practice of flaying their enemies and hanging the skins on their walls. Indeed, their sigil of the flayed man, and their words, ‘Our blades are sharp’, directly reflect this. Throughout their past, they have frequently opposed the Starks for their position of dominion of the North. However, in the recent history of Westeros, they have been relatively peaceable, at least under their current lord, Roose Bolton. Although under Stark rule they are sworn to abandon their habit of flaying, rumors abound that they in fact continue to do so, displaying the skins in a hidden chamber in the Dreadfort. Despite Roose being one of Robb Stark’s closest advisors, it is obvious that his patience is growing thin. This is evident by his reaction to the impulsiveness of Robb when confronted with the problem concerning Theon Greyjoy’s betrayal, not to mention the close relationship between Robb and his new wife, Talisa. Roose has one son, Ramsay, born out of wedlock, and thus commonly referred to as the Bastard of Bolton. Ramsay was recently dispatched by Roose to bring Theon to heel and claim Winterfell for the Starks once more.
Words: “The Sun of Winter”
Current Lord: Rickard Karstark
Title: Lord of Karhold
House Karstark of Karhold has ever been a noble house of the North. They, like most northern houses, are descended from the First Men, and are related by blood to the Starks of Winterfell. They owe their lineage to Karlon Stark, who quashed a Bolton rebellion, and was granted lordship over Northern land for his actions. Their words and sigil display a strong belief and pride in their house, being ‘The Sun of Winter’, and a white sunburst on a black background, respectively. At the time of the show, their lord is Rickard. However, Rickard’s loyal support of House Stark is fractured after Catelyn’s rash action to release the Kingslayer, Jaime Lannister, despite his cold-blooded murder of Rickard’s son, Torrhen.
Seat: Last Hearth
Current Lord: Greatjon Umber
Title: Lord of Last Hearth
The Umbers of the Last Hearth, like the Starks, have been shaped and hardened by the extreme climate of the North. After Robb proves his worth as Lord of Winterfell, Lord Jon Umber, more commonly known as the Greatjon, proudly supports him, and is the first to declare him as the King in the North. Their sigil in the show is that of broken chains, symbolising their hardiness and steadfastness.
Words: “Here We Stand”
Seat: Bear Island
Current Lord: Maege Mormont
Title: Lord of Bear Island
Ancestral Weapon: Longclaw – Valyrian Steel Longsword
House Mormont of Bear Island is a very old and honorable house, unfailing in their loyalty to the Starks of Winterfell. Since Jeor Mormont joined the Night’s Watch and his son, Jorah, fled into exile in the Free Cities, Lady Maege has ruled Bear Island. The Mormont sigil is a black bear, and their words ‘Here We Stand’. Upon being accused of attempting to sell poachers into slavery, Ser Jorah Mormont chose to flee across the Narrow Sea rather than face death or a lifetime of serving the Night’s Watch. It was there in Essos, at the wedding of Khal Drogo and Daenerys Targaryen, that he met Viserys Targaryen and swore fealty to the him as the “rightful king”. He maintained a close relationship with the Targaryens, secretly feeding information of the Targaryen’s exploits back to Varys the Spider in King’s Landing with hopes of earning a royal pardon. However, upon spending time with Daenerys, he grew to love and admire her, and perceive her as the one true ruler of the Seven Kingdoms. The Mormonts have traditionally held the Valyrian sword Longclaw. Upon giving up his lordship and taking the black, Jeor Mormont passed the weapon on to Ser Jorah, who, upon fleeing into exile, had it sent back to his father on the Wall. It is currently in the possession of Jon Snow, a gift for saving the life of Lord Commander Mormont. Mormont had the pommel refashioned from the likeness of a bear to that of a direwolf, symbolising Jon’s Stark ancestry, and his albino direwolf, Ghost.
Seat: The Wall; Castle Black; Eastwatch-by-the-Sea; Shadow Tower
Title: Lord Commander
Vows: “Night gathers, and now my watch begins. It shall not end until my death. I shall take no wife, hold no lands, father no children. I shall wear no crowns and win no glory. I shall live and die at my post. I am the sword in the darkness. I am the watcher on the walls. I am the fire that burns against the cold, the light that brings the dawn, the horn that wakes the sleepers, the shield that guards the realms of men. I pledge my life and honor to the Night’s Watch, for this night and all nights to come.”
The Night’s Watch is an order sworn to defend the Wall, and consequently, the Seven Kingdoms, from what lies beyond it to the north, namely wildlings. However, there have been recent rumors of Others, or White Walkers, resurfacing after thousands of years. In years past, joining the Night’s Watch was a noble calling in life, bringing honor to one’s house. More recently however, it has become more of a “second chance”, a haven almost, for the criminal world of Westeros as an alternative to public disgrace or execution. Upon swearing themselves into the Night’s Watch, the newly dubbed “brothers” abandon their houses and past lives, and begin anew, with the sole purpose of defending the Realm from what lies beyond. The Night’s Watch consists of three distinct orders; Rangers, Stewards and Builders, each with their own duties and responsibilities. They are led by the Lord Commander. Rangers regularly venture out on scouting expeditions beyond the Wall, stewards provide the day to day services such as providing food, supplies and clothing, and builders maintain the Wall, castles and equipment. There are nineteen castles along the length of the Wall, although currently only Castle Black, Eastwatch-by-the-Sea, and the Shadow Tower are manned due to lack of manpower.
Although technically not a house, the Free Folk, or wildlings, are an important group in Northern history. They are a race living beyond the Wall, and are spited by all living in the relative comfort south of the Wall. Although realistically no different than their Westerosi counterparts, their culture is vastly different, and they pride themselves on not being ‘kneelers’. They believe all Free Folk to be equal and free to do as they will, as opposed to the Westerosi belief that they are all savages, murderers and rapists. The Free Folk are split into hundreds of splinter groups, each going their separate ways and living to their own preferences. Nevertheless, occasionally they may follow one particular man or woman after they have proved themselves in some way, usually due to prominence in combat. Such is the case with Mance Rayder, once a sworn brother of the Night’s Watch, now the self-proclaimed King-Beyond-the-Wall. It has been rumored that Mance is amassing an army with the intent to launch an attack on the Wall. The recently captured Jon Snow is in a prime position to witness the truth behind such rumors first hand.
Such are the houses of the North; descended from the First Men, molded by the land, and proud in their honor. Read the full series here:
1. The North
Cian is a student of Theology and History. He frequently confuses the real world with Westeros, and if he’s not talking about A Song of Ice and Fire…he’s talking about Game of Thrones. Mainly interested in old HBO classics such as Rome, Deadwood and The Wire, he currently maintains a vested interest in Treme and Game of Thrones. He also runs a personal blog detailing his writing endeavors.