Hoster Tully was the least-seen Lord Paramount in A Song of Ice Fire and yet one of the most consequential characters in the series. In A Clash of Kings and A Storm of Swords, we witness his declining health and death, but this belies a staggering influence that far outstrips his scant textual appearances.
Even in dying, Hoster retained a mind for the game of thrones. George R. R. Martin paints a picture of a Lord with no small amount of cunning, adept at playing the political game in a way that neither Ned Stark nor Robert Baratheon ever could. While not the master manipulator of people like Varys or Littlefinger, Hoster Tully had a keen understanding of feudal politics that served his family well while he was alive. While Doran Martell and Tywin Lannister receive accolades for the political acumen both from in-universe characters and from readers of the series, a careful analysis suggests that Hoster Tully was clever in his own right. In fact, Hoster Tully managed to raise the Tully family to the highest heights of its power it had seen in a single generation.
Family was the first of the Tully words and first in Hoster’s mind. Accordingly, he was blessed with two healthy daughters and one son. The daughters, he married to houses of ancient nobility and unquestioned honor. The son was destined to rule Riverrun. But much as healthy families have strains, so too did Hoster have strains in his own family. He and his only brother, Brynden, were on less-than-cordial terms. But even with this strain, the Tullys were one of the most successful families in Westeros.
It raises the question: Where did it all go wrong? How did Hoster succeed so much in his lifetime, only to have his strategy fail dramatically so shortly after his death?
The Riverlands – Nice to Visit, But I Wouldn’t Want to Live There
Hoster Tully was Lord Paramount of the Riverlands, in the metaphysical and actual center of Westeros. Throughout its history, the Riverlands had been the site of numerous wars and power struggles, due to its centralized location and lack of natural borders.
“The riverlands are rich and fertile and populous, but suffer from divided leadership and a lack of natural boundaries.” -George R.R. Martin, SSM, 2/28/2002
The Riverlands would always be the central location for any war on account of its geography. It borders no less than 6 of the 9 regions of Westeros and has an open coast for the Ironborn to invade as well. The only region not to share a border with the Riverlands was Dorne. The Riverlands border the North with the Neck, a swampy land which can be crossed only via the secret paths known only to the crannogmen (who owe allegiance to the Starks of Winterfell), or through the defensive bastion of Moat Cailin. It borders the Vale of Arryn with the Mountains of the Moon, a series of narrow mountain passes inhabited by violent mountain clansmen and infamous for rockslides. Past this lies the Bloody Gate, firmly in control of the aptly-named Knight of the Gate, who swore allegiance to the Arryns. In the west, two passes open to the Westerlands, via the River and Gold Roads. The former winds through the mountains at the Golden Tooth, held by the Leffords, a house sworn to the Lannisters. The latter falls within through the Reach, a powerful region held first by House Gardener, then by House Tyrell. To the south and southeast, a large stretch of land opens from King’s Landing, across the Blackwater Rush, and across almost the entire northern border of the Reach, offering little, if any, defensive position against an invasion by the Reach, Stormlands, or Crownlands. Only Harrenhal could be considered a defensive strongpoint against an army marching up the Kingsroad.
In addition to its location, the Riverlands are very fertile. It produces a large surplus of crops and fish that sell across Westeros. Despite its indefensibility, the ability to feed a large population makes the Riverlands a tempting target for any would-be invader, especially by agriculturally-poor Ironborn.
Historically, the Riverlands had been ruled by the Blackwoods, the Brackens, and the Mudds, who were the last kings before being conquered by the Andals. The Andals introduced novel elements to the Riverlands, chief among them, the Faith of the Seven. This faith was embraced by the by most of the noble houses and smallfolk of the Riverlands alike, the Tullys and Riverrun being no exception. They adopted this new Faith with zeal, uniting many of the regions of Westeros in what northerners would refer to as “southron culture.”
Despite this new faith shared with its neighbors, the Riverlands themselves remained too tempting a prize for the ancient kings of Westeros. The Riverlands were conquered by the Storm Kings approximately 360 years before Aegon’s Landing. In turn, the Iron King Harwyn “Hardhand” Hoare slew the Storm King Arrec Durrendon to claim the Riverlands for the Iron Islands. Two generations later, Harren the Black would build Harrenhal on the backs of Riverlander thralls. This brutal subjugation lasted until Edmyn Tully, a Riverlander Lord, rebelled against King Harren, and swore fealty to Aegon I Targaryen. In turn, Aegon rewarded Edmyn Tully by naming him Lord Paramount of the Riverlands.
Alliances – Winning through Marriage
Aegon I Targaryen unified Westeros into a single political entity, but there were still localized disputes and unrest that occurred throughout the continent. The Riverlands were no exception. To bring us up to the events immediately preceding A Song of Ice and Fire, the Tullys maintained their position as Lords Paramount of the Riverlands, directly serving the Targaryen Kings. When Hoster was born and later ascended to the position of Lord Paramount, the Riverlands had been held by the Tullys for over 250 years
But though the Riverlands had been mostly peaceful for the last 250 years, trouble was brewing on the horizon. Hoster realized that he couldn’t defend his borders through military might or holdfasts alone. He needed alliances, and not merely with his own Riverlander bannermen. He himself married Minisa Whent, of the Whents of Harrenhal, a critical defensive stronghold to protect his east from armies on the Kingsroad. For his daughters, Hoster turned his attention outside his borders, to several of his fellow Lords Paramount.
While Robb Stark later learns of the indefensibility of the Riverlands in the War of the Five Kings to his dismay, an alliance with the Riverlands by any of the surrounding Lords Paramount was a political masterstroke by Hoster Tully. With the Riverlands, any Lord Paramount could move his levies to over half of Westeros unimpeded and benefit from the trade routes that the Riverlands offers as a central location. While the Riverlands have no major cities, it does have many roads and small towns for merchants to buy wares to sell throughout Westeros. While those advantages were tempting in their own right, Hoster himself knew most of the Lords Paramount personally, especially his direct neighbors.
“GRRM said that Petyr’s father and Hoster met up during the War of the Ninepenny Kings and became friends. Apparently that was a time when a lot of people from all over the realm forged friendships. LF’s dad later “cashed in” on the friendship to get LF fostered at Riverrun.” –SSM, 11/18/2005
When Hoster was younger, he served in the War of the Ninepenny Kings, between the Kingdom of Westeros and an assembled group of Essosi merchants, pirates, and mercenaries named the Band of Nine. During the war, knights and lords from all over the Realm met, fought side-by-side, and forged fast friendships. Hoster himself was no exception, and he befriended Lord Baelish, who was the “smallest of lords,” and agreed to foster his young son Petyr. In addition, Lord Tully, as a Lord Paramount, served on war councils with other Lords Paramount, including Rickard Stark of the North, and Tytos Lannister of the Westerlands.
He made plans to marry his daughter Catelyn Tully to Brandon Stark to secure the alliance to his North, and his second daughter, Lysa, to Jaime Lannister, to protect his western flank. A Lannister/Tully alliance would also serve to protect the Riverlands from any ambition or encroachment from the Reach, as any invading Reachmen would have their flanks dangerously exposed by Westermen levies marching down the Gold Road. To further cement his position against any ambitious Reachlords, Hoster arranged to marry his war hero brother, Brynden, to Bethany Redwyne, a powerful Reach house, securing himself and the Riverlands very comfortably on all four sides.
Unfortunately for Hoster, his marriage arrangements did not work as well as he might have hoped. Jaime Lannister was appointed to the Kingsguard before the marriage arrangement could be made. The book, because of the limited-narrative perspective, offers two explanations for this fact. Either it was the machinations of Cersei Lannister to allow her brother and lover Jaime to remain close to her in King’s Landing, or it was Aerys’s vengeful desire to rob Tywin of his heir, as Aerys perceived Tywin’s competence as Hand undermining his authority. It is worth mentioning however, that these two explanations are not mutually exclusive.
Brynden’s marriage arrangements to Bethany Redwyne fared no better. For an unknown reason, Brynden refused to marry Bethany Redwyne, or any woman. According to Hoster, he had no shortage of proposals for Brynden’s hand, but his brother spurned every offer.
“Even so,” Lord Hoster muttered. “Even so. Spit on the girl. The Redwynes. Spit on me. His lord, his brother . . . that Blackfish. I had other offers. Lord Bracken’s girl. Walder Frey . . . any of three, he said . . . Has he wed? Anyone? Anyone?”“No one,” Catelyn said. (A Game of Thrones, Catelyn XI)
Only Catelyn’s betrothal to Brandon seemed to work, though even that had its own problems, as Hoster’s young ward Petyr Baelish grew enamored of Catelyn, and attempted to duel Brandon for her hand. Petyr was severely outmatched by Brandon.
That fight was over almost as soon as it began. Brandon was a man grown, and he drove Littlefinger all the way across the bailey and down the water stair, raining steel on him with every step, until the boy was staggering and bleeding from a dozen wounds. “Yield!” he called, more than once, but Petyr would only shake his head and fight on, grimly. When the river was lapping at their ankles, Brandon finally ended it, with a brutal backhand cut that bit through Petyr’s rings and leather into the soft flesh below the ribs, so deep that Catelyn was certain that the wound was mortal. (A Game of Thrones, Catelyn VII)
Consequentially, Petyr began to nurse a life-long grudge against both the man who had “stolen” Catelyn and the man who arranged the betrothal. In spite of that however, Catelyn loved Brandon Stark dearly.
However, as fate would have it, none of Hoster’s three marriage contracts would ever bear fruit. Before the two could be wed, Prince Rhaegar abducted Lyanna Stark, enraging her brother Brandon, who demanded her return and for Rhaegar to pay for his crime with his head. Aerys seized Brandon and demanded Brandon’s father Rickard ransom him personally at King’s Landing. When Rickard Stark complied, Aerys accused him of treason, and sentenced him to death. When Rickard demanded his lordly right of trial by combat, Aerys sadistically burned him alive in his own armor in front of his son, who was killed trying to save his father. Not only were the Lord Paramount and his son and heir slain brutally in King’s Landing, but all of Brandon’s companions save his squire, which included Jeffory Mallister, a Riverlander noble, were murdered as well. Afterward, Aerys demanded that Jon Arryn turn over Brandon’s brother, and now Lord of Winterfell, Eddard, as well as Lyanna’s betrothed, Robert Baratheon. Jon Arryn refused, and raised his banners in revolt, along with Robert Baratheon and Eddard Stark.
Unlike Eddard Stark or Robert Baratheon, Hoster Tully and his immediate family were not directly threatened by the latest Targaryen King, Aerys II. But this did not mean that the Riverlands would be spared from any conflict which might arise between the Targaryens and the other powerful Houses of Westeros. As we saw above, the Riverlands bordered the Crownlands and Kings Landing, all but guaranteeing that the war, in some small part, would be fought on Riverlander soil.
When Brandon Stark was killed by the Mad King before ever being wed to Catelyn Tully, it put the alliance with the Starks at serious risk. So it naturally raised the question, would the Tullys raise their banners against the Mad King?
Certainly Aerys II Targaryen and his behavior had a significant part of Hoster’s decision. After Rickard Stark was burned alive in his own armor following his daughter’s abduction, it was clear to Hoster that the Targaryens could and would deny their vassals of their lordly rights. An unpredictable lord, after all, might quickly forget service rendered unto him by a faithful vassal. Not only that, but the Mad King had already threatened Robert Baratheon, Lyanna’s betrothed. It may have been possible that the next target for the Mad King would be Brandon’s betrothed, Hoster’s own daughter.
True to his nature, however, Hoster Tully did not immediately leap to join Jon Arryn’s rebellion when the Lord of the Vale raised his banners in rebellion. Instead, he forced the issue of alliance to the new Lord of Winterfell, Eddard Stark. If the rebels wanted the allegiance of the Tullys and Riverlander swords for the war, Eddard would fulfill his brother’s marriage contract and marry Catelyn Tully in Brandon’s stead. Hoster then upped the price for his support by proposing marriage between his second daughter, Lysa Tully and Jon Arryn himself.
This was a smart move on his part. Robert Baratheon was still betrothed to Lyanna Stark, so he could not arrange a marriage to Robert with either of his other two daughters, and Robert still had to rally the Stormlands quickly, before Dorne and the Reach encircled and crushed him. Not only that, but Hoster firmly allied himself to the leadership of the rebellion. The rebels, at that point, were isolated and separated, especially their candidate for the Throne, Robert Baratheon, who was on the other side of King’s Landing from Jon Arryn and Eddard Stark. Like a keen merchant, Hoster saw the value of what he could offer, and got the highest price he could. Like his ancestor Edmyn did over 250 years ago, the Tullys joined forces with a conqueror to stop a cruel tyrant.
Hoster Tully’s contributions to Robert’s Rebellion were well-documented. Initially, Hoster had to deal with several rebelling bannermen, and he did so with haste, putting towns belonging to House Goodbrook to the sword. Hoster’s first contribution in a large-scale battle was in the Battle of the Bells, where Eddard Stark and Hoster Tully marched on Jon Connington’s army and saved Robert Baratheon’s life. There is little information about the disposition or movement of forces, and some of the information about the battle is contradictory, as befits as story told from a limited perspective. Harwin, a guard of House Stark, tells of the battle to Arya:
“Robert always said your father won it, not him.”
“(Robert) would have slain (Jon Connington) as well, but the battle never brought them together,” (A Storm of Swords, Arya V).
Jon Connington believed much differently, as he expresses privately when recalling the battle.
“Robert emerged from his brothel with a blade in hand, and almost slew Jon on the steps of the old sept that gave the town its name,” (A Dance With Dragons, The Griffon Reborn).
Ultimately, it was known that Jon Connington wounded Hoster Tully in the battle but it was not a significant injury, as Hoster Tully was present at the Battle of the Trident.
To the Victor Go the Spoils
House Tully benefitted greatly from Robert’s Rebellion. His daughters were married to two of his neighboring regions, and he had earned the gratitude of the sitting king for his loyal support. The Lannisters were, if not allies, at least invested in the new regime, both by their sack of King’s Landing and the marriage of Cersei Lannister to Robert Baratheon.
Curiously, however, there were few Riverlanders in King’s Landing following the rebellion, and the reader is never given much of an indication as to why. Certainly, Renly and Littlefinger were appointed later to the Council, so it is entirely possible that the Riverlanders were on the council before the appointment of these two men, but there is no way to be certain without more information which might come in future books, or So Spake Martin. The actors that possibly could have worked to reduce Riverlander influence are listed below:
Cersei Lannister had a great amount of influence, and nagged Robert to appoint easily-manipulated pawns, Lannister family members, and cronies to positions in court, most prominently in the Kingsguard, as well as Robert’s two squires.
Varys was working to destabilize the Realm, and as such, he would welcome the addition of disloyal councilors such as the Lannister-backed candidates.
Historical concerns. Unlike the other Houses of the ruling coalition, the Tullys were never kings. On the contrary, they were brutally subjugated by the Ironborn until the arrival of Aegon I, and thus never held a crown of their own, much like the Tyrells.
Even without courtly appointments, by all accounts the Riverlands fared well during Robert’s reign. Lord Mallister contained Rodrik Greyjoy’s attack on Seagard, blunting the Greyjoy Rebellion, and beyond that, there were no noticeable incidents to mention for the whole of Robert’s reign…until Catelyn.
In Part 2, we’ll examine Hoster’s actions during the War of Five Kings.