I’m in the middle of another re-read of the series, and I finished A Game of Thrones about a week ago. In this re-read, I’m giving special attention to a few plot points. One of those plot-points is Roose Bolton and when he turned against Robb Stark. In popular telling, Roose Bolton turned against Robb Stark when he determined that the Stark cause was lost after the Lannister victory against Stannis Baratheon at King’s Landing. However, after re-reading the first book, I think the evidence of betrayal goes farther back in the timeline than originally thought.
Now, before I jump too far into this post, I want to make a disclaimer. I don’t think that Roose Bolton was a Lannister stooge from the get-go. I think that Roose’s turn to the Lannister side occurred around the end of A Clash of Kings. Prior to that, Roose was as much an enemy to the Lannisters as he was a traitor to the Starks as we’ll see below. That said, I believe that Roose Bolton was never loyal to Robb Stark, and he actively worked to further his and his family’s ambition from the start at the expense of the Starks.
A History of Animosity
When Robb Stark called his banners after his father was imprisoned by Cersei Lannister in King’s Landing, Roose Bolton answered the call. But I doubt he did so out of any particular loyalty or love for the Starks. The Boltons were historical antagonists to the Starks. The two houses, Stark and Bolton, warred against each other for political dominance in the North. Though the Starks were the historical kings-in-the-north, the Boltons often rose in rebellion against the Starks, sometimes using cadet branches of House Stark in their rebellions.
The Greystarks had lasted the longest, holding the Wolf’s Den for five centuries, until they presumed to join the Dreadfort in rebellion against the Starks of Winterfell. (ADWD, Davos IV)
One of the more famous examples happened some centuries before the start of the events of the books.
“Centuries ago, House Bolton rose up against the King in the North, and Harlon Stark laid siege to the Dreadfort. It took him two years to starve them out.” (ADWD, Jon IV)
This likely was the last open rebellion by the Boltons against the Starks in pre-book history. The Boltons finally bent the knee to the Starks and seemingly served as loyal bannermen. But this history was not forgotten in the North, and I think it’s likely that Roose Bolton was well-aware of the bad blood between his family and the Starks.
Undermining Eddard Stark
Fifteen years before the start of A Game of Thrones, Roose Bolton stood alongside of Robert Baratheon and Eddard Stark at the Battle of the Trident. While Roose answered the call, I believe that this was an appearance of loyalty, and I think that Roose Bolton attempted to use the events of Robert’s Rebellion to undermine the Starks.
At the conclusion of the battle, the Starks/Tullys/Baratheons/Arryns were victorious. Rhaegar Targaryen lay dead along with thousands of Targaryen loyalists. However, several prominent loyalists survived the battle. One of the most prominent was Barristan Selmy. Badly wounded in the battle, Barristan’s ultimate fate was left to Robert Baratheon and Eddard Stark. Roose Bolton was there too. He had some interesting counsel for the two victorious lords.
“On the Trident, Ser Barristan here cut down a dozen good men, Robert’s friends and mine. When they brought him to us, grievously wounded and near death, Roose Bolton urged us to cut his throat, but your brother said, ‘I will not kill a man for loyalty, nor for fighting well,’ and sent his own maester to tend Ser Barristan’s wounds.” (AGOT, Eddard IX)
I think it’s easy to see Roose’s counsel as an example of his cruelty, but I think it goes deeper than that. Roose Bolton’s advice to kill Barristan Selmy would not have been justice. More importantly, it would not have been perceived as justice throughout the realm. Consider how Tywin regarded Joffrey’s humiliation and dismissal of Barristan at the end of AGOT.
“And dismissing Selmy, where was the sense in that? Yes, the man was old, but the name of Barristan the Bold still has meaning in the realm. He lent honor to any man he served.” (AGOT, Tyrion IX)
By advising the victors of the Trident to kill Barristan Selmy, I think that Roose Bolton was attempting to undermine them. If Barristan were to be killed, he would lend dishonor to those who ordered the sword swung and the man who swung it. Eddard Stark in particular would have been de-legitimized. Had Robert and Ned followed this advice, I think it likely that Eddard would have been the one to swing the sword. Ned was loathe to let another man enforce the sentence that he passed. When Robert gave the order to have Lady killed early in AGOT, Eddard did the deed himself rather than let a headsman do the job. And Roose? He would not be the one dishonoring his blade. He would stand apart while the deed was done. And when it was done, Eddard’s reputation would take a dive throughout Westeros while Roose’s would likely remain unchanged.
Fortunately, Robert did not heed Roose’s advice. But Roose was in for the long game. If he wasn’t able to improve the standing of his family at Robert’s Rebellion, he would wait for another opportunity.
An Unfriendly Bannerman
“You cannot afford to seem indecisive in front of men like Roose Bolton and Rickard Karstark. Make no mistake, Robb—these are your bannermen, not your friends.” (AGOT, Catelyn VIII)
What Roose couldn’t accomplish during Robert’s Rebellion could be accomplished in the next generation. When Eddard Stark was imprisoned and Robb Stark called his banners in a grand rescue operation, the Dreadfort answered the call. Of course, Roose and his host didn’t join Robb Stark for noble reasons. No, Roose was there for his own reasons. The most prominent was that Roose Bolton did not want to sully his own reputation among his fellow Northern Lords. If he stayed out of the war, he would be seen as cowardly and more importantly openly-treasonous. This would reduce his standing in the North at the very least. And Roose would need broad support in the North if he were to advance the Dreadfort’s power.
But to further his own power, he needed more than Dreadfort men. He needed a command. Fortunately for him, Catelyn Stark provided him with that opportunity. As Robb Stark prepared to march south from Moat Cailin, he planned to divide his army. His cavalry would advance southwest to relieve Jaime Lannister’s Siege of Riverrun. His infantry would continue south on the Kingsroad to engage Tywin Lannister. Robb would command the march on Riverrun, but he was unsure who to give the command of his foot to. Robb initially thought that the Greatjon Umber would be command the host, but Catelyn counseled someone else, someone who would be cold, cunning and cautious.
So I don’t want someone fearless, do I?”
“No. You want cold cunning, I should think, not courage.”
“Roose Bolton,” Robb said at once. “That man scares me.”
“Then let us pray he will scare Tywin Lannister as well.” (AGOT, Catelyn VIII)
The Northern foot would march under Roose Bolton’s command. When Catelyn successfully negotiated the loyalty of House Frey, their levies were given over to Roose Bolton as well. With a major command, Roose Bolton was now the most powerful field commander next to Robb Stark. An argument could be made that Roose was more powerful than his liege lord himself. His host was numerically superior to Robb’s, having some 16,000 soldiers under his command while Robb Stark had 6,000.
A Flight of Arrows
I’ve written extensively on the Battle of the Green Fork previously here and here. But on my latest re-read, I saw something new that I think shows evidence of Roose Bolton’s treason and overall perspective on the war.
Roose marches overnight to confront Tywin Lannister. This was an interesting move that belied Roose’s reputation as a cautious man. Roose’s only real orders were to stand athwart Tywin Lannister’s crossing the Trident or moving north towards Moat Cailin. Instead, he rushed south to give battle to the Lannisters. Why?
First, if Roose Bolton successfully defeated the Lannisters in battle, he would be hailed as a hero by his fellow Northern Lords. If he defeated Tywin Lannister, he would stand on par with Robb Stark; the glory that Roose Bolton would win would nearly be co-equal with the glory that Robb Stark won at Riverrun.
Secondly and probably more importantly, if Roose lost, the casualties suffered would be not come from the Dreadfort. Consider what banners Tyrion sees at the start of the battle.
He glimpsed the bull moose of the Hornwoods, the Karstark sunburst, Lord Cerwyn’s battle-axe, and the mailed fist of the Glovers . . . and the twin towers of Frey. (AGOT, Tyrion VIII)
Notice any banners missing? If you guessed the Flayed Man of House Bolton, you’d be correct. Roose was sending other, not-his-own men, into battle. Where would Roose’s host be? Somewhere in the rear.
Here’s my theory (and I have /u/indianthane95 to thank for turning me onto this a while back): Roose Bolton was sending loyalist Stark men to die while keeping his own men safe.
And when the battle was joined, the Dreadfort men did not cross swords with the Lannisters. They stayed in the rear, likely as a reserve. However, I don’t think that’s all that they did. On my first read and subsequent re-reads, I glossed over something potentially significant. In the middle of the battle, Tyrion observes something curious.
A flight of arrows descended on them; where they came from he could not say, but they fell on Stark and Lannister alike, rattling off armor or finding flesh. (AGOT, Tyrion VIII)
Now, who would fire arrows on friends and foes alike on the battlefield? Perhaps Tywin was cruel enough to do so, but I doubt it. Tywin needed the Mountain Clansmen to break along the east bank of the Trident so that his cavalry could envelope the Stark left flank. If arrows were being fired from the south, the clansmen would have no reason to rout — not that they did in any case, but it would go against Tywin’s nature to deviate from his battle plan.
I think that the arrows came from the North. I think the archers were Dreadfort men. My theory is that Roose Bolton ordered the arrows fired into the ranks. And I think this is indicative of Roose Bolton’s personality and outlook on the war. What’s the evidence?
Before I go into the evidence for this, let me describe the evidence against it. Tywin Lannister did have archers that were firing arrows from the Lannister right flank into the charging Northern infantry.
As the horns died away, a hissing filled the air; a vast flight of arrows arched up from his right, where the archers stood flanking the road. The northerners broke into a run, shouting as they came, but the Lannister arrows fell on them like hail, hundreds of arrows, thousands, and shouts turned to screams as men stumbled and went down. (AGOT, Tyrion VIII)
So, I do see that there is the possibility that my theory is incorrect. But here’s the evidence for Bolton friendly fire. First, he had men behind the front line to do the deed. Dreadfort men were in reserve and behind the fighting. So they had opportunity going for them. Secondly, he certainly had the means. Tyrion and his mountain clansmen were hit by arrows, killing some and wounding others. Finally, Roose had motive: he needed loyal Stark men and Lannister alike to die on the battlefield all the while preserving his own men and reputation.
Though Roose Bolton lost the battle, this would not be the end the end for him. The Northerners took heavy casualties in the battle. Strangely absent from the casualty list were any Dreadfort men.
“My liege, we have taken some of their commanders. Lord Cerwyn, Ser Wylis Manderly, Harrion Karstark, four Freys. Lord Hornwood is dead, and I fear Roose Bolton has escaped us.” (AGOT, Tyrion VIII)
Did Roose Bolton lose the battle intentionally? I’d like to think that he didn’t care one way or another. Any outcome for the battle would bolster Roose Bolton’s station in life. Roose had suffered a defeat, but he retained command of the surviving soldiers from the battlefield despite superseding his orders from Robb Stark. Though nominally placed under the command of Edmure Tully later on, for all intents and purposes, Roose operated independently of any real command structure. Through his efforts, he cultivated loyalty from some of his banner lords while continuing the practice of sacrificing those bannermen whose loyalty was first and foremost to the Starks.
As I said in the introduction, I don’t think that Roose Bolton was acting on Tywin Lannister’s behalf in AGOT. I think that he was furthering his own ambition. He hitched his horse to Eddard Stark’s during Robert’s Rebellion and then attempted to undermine him at the Trident. He later hitched his own ambition onto Robb Stark when he called his banners. And in his capacity as a subordinate commander in Robb Stark’s army, he undermined Robb Stark’s legitimacy and his combat power.
Roose Bolton’s turn to the Lannisters isn’t evident until the end of A Clash of Kings. But his disloyalty to the Starks had a long history, and I believe that it is much longer than is commonly believed by the fans.
Apologies for the long post. I originally attempted to self-post this on reddit, but I ran up against 10K character limit. Feel free to comment below or in the comment section for this article on reddit. Thanks for reading!