Jon Arryn, the venerable Lord of the Vale and elder statesman, was as towering a figure in Westerosi politics as much as his stronghold towered over the Vale. As Hand of the King and Robert Baratheon’s most beloved and trusted counselor, Jon Arryn was a powerful figure during the reign of Robert Baratheon up until his untimely death, and one that left an uneven legacy. Common knowledge painted him as a man too honorable for the political intrigue of King’s Landing, blindsided by his cuckold, and murdered by his wife. However, this portrayal does not begin to scratch the surface of Jon Arryn, the politician. In truth, while Jon Arryn may not have had either the cunning streak of Petyr Baelish or the ruthlessness of Tywin Lannister, Jon Arryn was a practical politician with a deft hand at conspiracy and a talent for dancing on eggshells. Lord Arryn was more honorable and kind-hearted than many of his contemporaries, but this did not stop him from working from a much more pragmatic mindset, as opposed to a more honor-bound politician such as Robb Stark.
The Misty East – The Geography and History of the Vale
“It stretched before them to the misty east, a tranquil land of rich black soil, wide slow-moving rivers, and hundreds of small lakes that shown like mirrors in the sun, protected on all sides by its sheltering peaks.” (AGOT, Catelyn VI)
Before exploring Jon Arryn, there are several important geopolitical features and historical facts that, when taken together, made House Arryn the perfect candidate for fostering rebellion and shepherding the Realm. Like House Stark and Lannister, House Arryn was a house of ancient nobility, one that used to rule an entire region of Westeros as King. House Arryn specifically held an impressive pedigree, as it remained one of the purest bloodlines of Andal nobility in Westeros. Their history was a storied and powerful one, with thousands of years to call upon, commanding respect from all those who had ears to hear. In addition, House Arryn had a family reputation for honorable action and accord, as epitomized by their words: “As High As Honor.” Such an impressive combination commanded respect, and the Arryns were widely respected across the length and breadth of Westeros, and Jon Arryn used that legitimacy and respect to win much support to his rebel cause.
Geographically, the Vale was bordered on all sides by the Mountains of the Moon, steep mountains with narrow passes, infested with dangerous mountain clansmen. There are few entries into the Vale, and most passes are treacherous even in the best of times. Gulltown offers a port, but even it requires difficult maneuvering to reach the impressive stronghold of the Eyrie, easily one of the most formidable and unassailable fortresses of Westeros. Protected by stout keeps and sheer cliff faces, the Eyrie was a fortress in the truest sense of the word, nigh-invincible to a besieging army. For any man, to call this place home was to command power and respect, and most importantly, cultivate safety and an aura of isolation. Far from prying eyes, the falcons of the Eyrie could hatch any sort of scheme in relative safety, especially after the death of the last dragon, rendering the Eyrie immune to aerial assault.
The Shepherd of Southron Ambitions – Putting Out the Fires
It was unknown how long Jon Arryn ruled the Vale before the outset of the series, as we know next to nothing about his father other than his name: Jasper Arryn. Jon learned stewardship and rule, as he kept the Gates of the Moon in service to his father as was tradition for House Arryn,
“Jon Arryn himself was Keeper of the Gates whilst his father lived.” (A Feast for Crows, Sansa I)
But that is the extent we are aware of Jon Arryn’s early life. Chronologically, the first thing that Jon Arryn participated in was the War of the Ninepenny Kings. As Warden of the East, Lord Arryn played a key role in defending Westeros from the Band of Nine. Jon Arryn was not noted in the text as being a warrior, and he was halfway through his third decade when the war erupted, so it is likely that he was not renowned for his battlefield heroism. However, it was known that Jon Arryn struck up several important friendships through the course of the war, including several of the Lords Paramount: Rickard Stark, Steffon Baratheon, and Hoster Tully.
These relationships would bear fruit in the form of several marriage arrangements, either innocent or as a result of the “Southron Ambitions” conspiracy. Steffon Baratheon and Rickard Stark arranged a betrothal between Robert Baratheon and Lyanna Stark. Additionally, Rickard and Hoster Tully arranged the marriage of Brandon Stark to Catelyn Tully. Jon Arryn, who had no children of his own, agreed to foster Eddard Stark.
While marriage was often a way of cementing an alliance, alliances were also established through fosterage, where a child was sent to be raised with another lord, establishing a close bond of trust. Being selected to foster a child was considered a very high honor, both in the world of ASOIAF and our own history.
“There still remains in the Islands, though it is passing fast away, the custom of fosterage. A Laird, a man of wealth and eminence, sends his child, either male or female, to a tacksman, or tenant, to be fostered. It is not always his own tenant, but some distant friend that obtains this honour; for an honour such a trust is very reasonably thought.” -Samuel Johnson, A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland
Where Jon Arryn’s fostering of Eddard Stark differed was that in most cases, fosterings, much like marriage arrangements, were done with bannermen within the region, and there were multiple examples of this. Jaime Lannister was fostered with House Crakehall, one of House Lannister’s more prominent bannermen. Oberyn Martell was fostered in Sandstone, seat of House Qorgyle. Samwell Tarly was sent to the Arbor as a page. It is not inconceivable that a second son might foster with a distant family, especially given that the older Jon Arryn had no sons of his own and might have selected Eddard to be adopted into House Arryn, but it most certainly was not a regular occurence.
I can understand why Robert Baratheon was sent to be John Arryn’s ward — his parents had died — but why was Eddard Stark sent as well? Was this an established practice among noble houses? Were Stannis and/or Renly Baratheon sent to be wards with anyone?
Martin: Yes, fostering was common among noble houses, both in Westeros and in the real middle ages. Especially for boys. It was considered both a means of education, and a way to cultivate friendships and alliances. – So Spake Martin, February 28, 2002
His next action would cement Jon’s role within the conspiracy, and it was a brilliant one. Steffon Baratheon, Robert’s father, had recently died in a shipwreck along with his wife. Steffon, likely involved in the conspiracy given his betrothal arrangements with Rickard Stark, would be a tragic loss for the conspiracy, as an alliance of three Lords Paramount could be overpowered by another alliance. To save it, Jon took on the young Robert Baratheon as a ward, ensuring that he would be raised to be a willing participant in the conspiracy, whether or not he was aware of it. This action is highly irregular in Westeros. The Lord Paramount of the Stormlands was a very important noble even if he was still below the age of majority. Most Stormlanders would have jockeyed quite viciously for the honor of fostering young Robert, in the hopes that their tutelage would be rewarded later with prestige, favorable alliances, advantageous economic consideration, and lordly favor when he grew to maturity and took over his role as Lord Paramount. That Jon Arryn was able to secure himself as Robert’s guardian speaks highly of his title and reputation within Westeros.
Not content with simply bringing them close to himself, Jon Arryn also ensured that the Arryns, Baratheons, and Starks were personally tied very close together. Jon took on fostering Eddard Stark with Robert Baratheon, and Jon ensured that the two would be raised like a family, with strong bonds of friendship established between the two. All the while, his nephew, Elbert Arryn, was a close companion of Brandon Stark, and the two trusted each other greatly, as Elbert was willing to follow Brandon Stark to King’s Landing when Brandon went there to demand the return of his sister Lyanna, who was abducted by the crown prince, Rhaegar Targaryen, which did not end well for anyone involved.
“Ethan Glover was Brandon’s squire,” Catelyn said. “He was the only one to survive. The others were Jeffory Mallister, Kyle Royce, and Elbert Arryn, Jon Arryn’s nephew and heir.” (ACOK, Catelyn VII)
When Rickard and Brandon Stark were murdered by the Mad King, Jon was the only lord left as the senior member of the conspiracy, given Hoster’s actions later during the Rebellion. When the Mad King demanded that Eddard Stark and Robert Baratheon be turned over to the crown, the time for secret conspiracy was at an end. The Lord of the Eyrie worked to keep the conspiracy together in the form of a military alliance. Hoster Tully forced the issue of marriage by wedding Catelyn Tully to Eddard Stark, and Jon Arryn wed Lysa Tully, who, despite her status as the daughter of a Lord Paramount, was not very marriageable due to her aborted pregnancy, and Jon paid the price for the alliance easily and likely out of desperation.
The rest is history. Jon Arryn called his banners, and the rebellion against the Mad King began in earnest. That Jon Arryn himself would rise against the Mad King was never in doubt. By demanding Eddard and Robert, Aerys was demanding that Jon forsake one of Westeros’s firmly-held notions of hospitality. Lord Arryn was not likely to abandon the conspiracy he had spent years cultivating, especially when his nephew and heir Elbert Arryn was murdered by Aerys. In the end, Jon was left with a single option: open rebellion against the crown.
By keeping the Starks, Tullys, Baratheons, and Arryns together, Jon established himself as the political leader of this alliance, even though Robert Baratheon would be the one crowned king. This idea of a popular figurehead, and its converse, has precedent in Westeros. Varys himself is using the idea, with Aegon VI as his puppet figurehead. Both the Spider and Jon Arryn understood the value of a popular face for the masses. Robert Baratheon was the picture-perfect candidate: gregarious, virile, and larger-than-life, and made for the perfect king to sit the Iron Throne, while Jon Arryn worked behind the scenes to support the regime. In the same vein, Daeron II Targaryen, known as “Daeron the Good,” was a very educated man, but Westeros was a martial culture, and his vigorous counterpart, Daemon Blackfyre, won much of the realm to his side due in large part to his personal charisma and fighting prowess. The converse was also well-known to Westeros, in the bastard son of Aegon IV, Brynden Rivers. Brynden was very effective in his bitter work, both on the battlefield and in organizing an intelligence network to counter his half-brother and rival, Aegor Rivers, but his unsettling appearance and nature invited rumor, discontent, and controversy, and his tenure as Hand was marked with suspicion and conspiracy. This is the same sort of representation marked by Aerys II’s later reign, full of wild accusations and unclipped fingernails. Jon needed a king that represented what Westeros valued as good traits, to aid in distancing the new regime from the rampant paranoia of Aerys II’s reign, and Robert was the poster boy to do so.
Robert’s Rebellion – The Importance of Symbols
“This Baratheon is fearless. He fights the way a king should fight.” (ADWD, Davos I)
In Robert’s Rebellion, Jon Arryn had a difficult task ahead of him. Eddard Stark and Robert Baratheon would surely rally the North and Stormlands respectively, but they were in the Eyrie, far from home. Marshalling the banners would take time, and Eddard needed to wed Catelyn Tully before Hoster Tully would commit the Riverlands to the cause. What was worse, House Grafton of Gulltown, the economic center of the Vale and central harbor for the Vale’s ships, declared for Aerys Targaryen.
“The Mad King had sent to the Eyrie for Stark’s head, but Jon Arryn sent him back defiance. Gulltown stayed loyal to the throne, though.” (ADWD, Davos I)
Without Gulltown, Robert Baratheon would not have secure passage to the Stormlands, as the road took him past King’s Landing and too close to Aerys. Eddard Stark might have been able to sail past the Sisters, but to counter the naval presence of King’s Landing and return Robert Baratheon home, Jon required Gulltown.
In this battle, we find Jon Arryn’s political strategy in a nutshell. Robert, the gregarious warrior-lord, led the attack personally. While BryndenBFish argues in his column on Stannis Baratheon that a good general needs to stay back in order to maintain a clear strategic picture, a numerically disadvantaged force often requires its soldiers to have high morale, and common-born levies can identify greatly with a noble-born commander in the trenches, galvanizing them. This bears precedent in the campaigns of Hannibal during the Second Punic Wars. At Cannae, arguably Hannibal’s greatest military triumph, Hannibal placed himself in the center with his weakest troops, to let them know that he stood with them, which caused his center to hold, allowing Hannibal to encircle and destroy the larger Roman army. While the Battle of Gulltown doesn’t have much information to suggest such strategic trickery, Robert Baratheon’s presence on the battlefield, personally slaying Marq Grafton and taking the walls himself, unified the troops under his command and surely aided in his victory, as well as causing the rebels’ morale to skyrocket.
“So, too, it is better to recapture an army entire than to destroy it, to capture a regiment, a detachment or a company entire than to destroy them.”
“Mix the captured chariots with our own, treat the captured soldiers well.” -Sun Tzu, The Art of War
Jon Arryn’s role in this battle is no less important. As an elder lord, his absence from the battle would be excused due to his age, and in rising against Gulltown, Arryn let it be known that rebellion against him would not be tolerated (despite the fact that he was in open rebellion himself). This lesson was one that fellow rebel lord Hoster Tully would reiterate in his sacking of Goldbrook. By taking Gulltown, Arryn made it clear to the Lords of the Vale that they must stand with him, lest he take their towns by storm. In addition, Jon’s pardoning of Lyn Corbray and permitting him to fight with the rebel forces illustrated a clear contrast between the rebel forces and the royalists. During the Defiance of Duskendale, King Aerys demanded the execution of Lord Darklyn over a minor tax and village charter dispute which quickly escalated.
At the outset of the war, Aerys executed Rickard Stark, denying him his right to trial, over the actions of his adult son, painting a picture of abject tyranny of the Targaryen dynasty. In a world where many were illiterate, symbols were an important propaganda tool for the rebels. While their true objectives may have been less than benign if the Southron Ambitions conspiracy is true, Jon wasted no time in capitalizing on the symbol that Aerys Targaryen provided. The semantics of regional politics and the rights and duties of kings would go far over most heads in Westeros, but the image of a son strangled trying to free his murdered father, especially from a house of such ancient lineage as House Stark, and a giggling sadist watching a Lord Paramount burn to death in a grotesque mockery of the laws and rights of Westeros, are altogether powerful ones. Jon, the master politician, not only presented an image, but presented an alternative with Lyn Corbray. Jon Arryn let it be known that royalist lords will not be murdered if they side with the new regime, despite their previous loyalties. This reputation served Robert Baratheon well at his later exploits in the Battle of Summerhall, and would lend much support and legitimacy to Robert’s reign afterward.
“Make it too tough for the enemy to get in, and you won’t be able to get out.” -Murphy’s Laws of Combat
After the Battle at Gulltown, Jon Arryn would begin the slow process of moving troops out of the Vale of Arryn. The Vale excelled as a defensive position, with it’s narrow mountain passes, and would arrest the pace of the advancing Vale soldiers, and they would arrive to the Riverlands and the field of battle at about the same time as the Northern soldiers under Eddard Stark. Unfortunately for Jon, his new heir, Ser Denys Arryn, would be slain by Jon Connington on the field of battle, and Lord Jon would be left without an heir yet again. Jon himself would be in command of the Vale’s soldiers during the Battle of the Trident, where his troops would fight on the left flank of the battle.
Jon is not noted to have participated in the battle, though his bannermen Lyn Corbray killed Lewyn Martell, uncle to Doran Martell. Jon was not a warrior, and his talents were not in command. Robert emerged victorious on the Trident, and the loyalists were irreparably broken. The crown prince was dead, their most capable generals and swordsmen were either killed, incapacitated, or on the other side of King’s Landing, and now their levies were sorely outnumbered. In contrast, the rebels were at the heights of their power. Their full forces were gathered and they were only a few days from the capital city. However, the rebellious coalition nearly collapsed upon itself due to the machinations of a single third party: Tywin Lannister, Lord of Casterly Rock and Lord Paramount of the Westerlands.
Tywin, looking to end the war and prove himself vital in the face of Robert’s imminent victory, ruthlessly sacked King’s Landing, dispatching his bannermen Amory Lorch and Gregor Clegane to eliminate two of the remaining three (as Daenerys had not yet been born) Targaryen claimants to the throne: Rhaenys and Aegon Targaryen, the young children of Elia Martell. This was accomplished in an extremely brutal fashion. Tywin meant for the deaths to prove his loyalty to the new regime, and to offer Robert an easy out from the brutal necessity of purging the land of rival claimants, and this left Jon Arryn in a bind. The Lannisters were the wealthiest house and of high status, equal in prestige to the Starks or Arryns. Robert’s authority, hard-won on the Trident, was anything but secure, given that the Tyrells and Martells actively fought the rebels and the Greyjoys abstained from the war. If the Lannisters were snubbed, there was potential for a counter-alliance that would render Westeros unstable, especially if the food-rich Reach and gold-rich Westerlands actively opposed Robert. Arryn was caught in a difficult position. Accept the action and welcome the Lannisters into the ruling coalition, or condemn them and risk civil unrest and a potential second war?
To make matters worse, Eddard Stark, one of the most prominent rebel leaders, was furious at the actions of Tywin Lannister, and came to vocal disagreement with Robert Baratheon over the action.
Robert’s hatred of the Targaryens was a madness in him. He remembered the angry words they had exchanged when Tywin Lannisters had presented Robert with the corpses of Rhaegar’s wife and children as a token of fealty. Ned had named that murder; Robert called it war. When he had protested that the prince and princess were no more than babes, his new-made king had replied, “I see no babes. Only dragonspawn.” Not even Jon Arryn had been able to calm that storm. (AGOT, Eddard II)
The decision was even harder to manage once Eddard made his opinion known. No matter which option occurred, approval of the Lannister’s actions or condemnation, the regime would lose one of the most powerful families of Westeros. While House Stark was not as rich as House Lannister, the symbolism that was so important to Robert’s regime was tied intrinsically to House Stark. Jon Arryn could not claim that the new regime had moral legitimacy if the family who was most grievously wronged actively condemned it. Fortunately, the siege of Storm’s End bought Jon additional time to think and consider his course. Lord Stark lifted the siege and journeyed south to Dorne, to rescue his sister Lyanna, whose abduction initiated the entire mess to begin with, that is according to popular accounts.
But when Eddard Stark returned from Dorne, he brought grave news. Lyanna was dead, and Robert and Ned were both devastated by the news. The two reconciled in their grief, keeping the Starks and Baratheons tied together, and offering Jon a way to bring the two back together without alienating Tywin Lannister.
From this tragic development, we begin to see Jon Arryn’s true character, a man who made decisions on logic and political reality. Far from being an honor-bound traditionalist blundering into his own assassination, or a tired old man unable to control the lusts of his chosen king and the fuzzy math of his Master of Coins, Jon Arryn was a man who was able to steer a conspiracy through untimely deaths and setbacks, effectively utilizing the pieces he had been given to craft an almost-perfect rebellion. Jon was able to be so essential as to be named Hand of the King, and craft an alliance of four Lords Paramount in a military rebellion against a sitting king, a feat unequalled in Westerosi history. In his defeat of Gulltown, Jon proved that he had the capability to be as a cold as the winds in the Eyrie’s sky cells, should the need arise. Far from perfect, but far from a fool, Jon was an eminently practical politician, and that trait would be held up very consistently throughout his long tenure as Hand of the King.
In Part 2, we will examine Jon Arryn’s realpolitik ideas and strategies during his tenure as Hand of the King, and the notion of illusory peace for Westeros. For further reading on Jon Arryn, I suggest Steven Attwell’s Hands of the King column hosted on the Tower of the Hand.