Rickard Stark, by Elia Mervi
Rickard Stark was responsible for much of Westeros’s recent history. From marriage alliances to civil war, all of it can be traced back to the political machinations of one Lord Paramount. A long-faced, stern man, Rickard was the only child of Edwyle Stark and Marna Locke that survived to adulthood, and married his second cousin once removed Lyarra Stark, bringing together two distant branches of the family. The North, a remote and distant kingdom, did not interact much with the southern kingdoms. After all, only one King-Beyond-the-Wall ever strove against Westeros to mandate the Warden of the North having his position activated, and the Starks and Umbers defeated him before the rest of Westeros would have even been able to make the march north. Indeed, the North only ever seemed to involve themselves in eras of instability, good examples being Rickon Stark fighting in Daeron’s conquest of Dorne or Beron Stark allying with Tybolt Lannister to fight off rebelling Greyjoys, but little is said about the North involving themselves in the greater Westerosi political picture over the three-hundred tenure of the Targaryen kings. Torrhen Manderly was involved in the regency and administration of the early reign of Aegon III, but the Manderlys have many southron traditions and leanings, which coupled with their extensive political support of Rhaenrya Targaryen in the Dance, does not detract overmuch from Northmen largely involving themselves with the North and not the larger picture of Westeros. Cregan Stark best emphasizes what appears to be the common pattern of Northern involvement: fulfill your oaths and bring stability, perhaps with a marriage to help keep the peace. Perhaps they smoldered over the New Gift being ceded from the North to the Night’s Watch, or perhaps the courts and pageantry of the south were simply too foreign and too distant for the much more personal and direct politics of the North for the Northmen to feel any especial kinship. But all of that would change when it was Rickard Stark’s time to sit as ruling lord of Winterfell.
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Weakness on the Horizon
The War of the Ninepenny Kings, a succession war instigated against the recently-crowned monarch Jaehaerys II, was one of the few times in Westerosi history where the entire nation of Westeros faced an external threat together as a single kingdom. There were many wars in Westerosi history, but almost all of them were a kingdom or region against another, an intra-Westeros war, rather than a war between Westeros and another power. The regional Warden titles were activated, and as Warden of the North, Rickard Stark was expected to contribute and fight. The text doesn’t state what contributions Rickard did make, and we do not know how old Rickard Stark was at the time of the Ninepenny Kings, but given that there is no explicit mention of accolades or dishonor, it can be assumed that Rickard did reasonably well assuming he was of the age of majority, neither dishonoring himself nor winning glory equal to that of Steffon Baratheon, Tywin Lannister, or Brynden Tully.
However, this war brought many of the Lords Paramount into a setting where they spent a length of time with each other, and “fast friendships” grew as a result. Great Houses either sent their lords or heirs to win glory for their houses, and friendships forged in the fires of battle stayed long after Maelys the Monstrous’s blood ran dry on the Stepstones. This was one of the few times where the notion of pan-Westerosi thought actually ran strong, even for a short time. Rivermen whose ancestors had been subjugated by Stormlords and Westermen fought shoulder-to-shoulder with the descendents of their conquerors. Even the Ironborn under Quellon Greyjoy “led a hundred longships around the bottom of Westeros during the War of the Ninepenny Kings and played a crucial role in the fighting around the Stepstones.” (The World of Ice and Fire, The Iron Isles, The Old Way and the New), which gave many high lords, Ironborn, Andal, and First Men alike, the chance to interact for a good series of time.
However, while this idea of Westeros as a singular entity was stronger than it had ever been, the central monarchy could not boast the same claim. The previous king, Aegon V, had made marriage alliances with Houses Baratheon, Tyrell, and Tully, but all three of his children defied him, causing a brief rebellion where Lyonel Baratheon crowned himself the Storm King and had to be pacified by Ser Duncan the Tall. What’s worse, Jaehaerys II, the second son to the king at the time, commanded that his two children be wed on the words of a woods witch. Whether or not the prophecy was true, it made Jaehaerys appear befuddled and easily manipulated. After all, rational men scorned prophecy as quackery, with Gorghan of Ghis colorfully saying that prophecy “will bite your prick off every time” (A Feast for Crows, Samwell V). For a crown prince (Prince Duncan having given up his crown for a commoner who introduced the same witch to court) to follow such nonsense could, to conventional reason, spell disaster for the realm if he had used the same poppycock to influence decisions on war or economic policy. Worse still, Aegon V was so weak that he permitted the union, making the king appear so ineffective that he could not effectively quell disobedience from his own son, even though the incestuous union was blasphemous to the Faith, and Aegon had been known to be personally against wedding brother to sister, having “become convinced that such incestuous unions did more harm than good” (A World of Ice and Fire, Aegon V).
Aegon V had also made few friends among the nobility by passing a wide variety of unpopular edicts, likely inspired by complaints he had heard while he was wandering the land as the squire of a hedge knight. These royal commands won him much love among the smallfolk, but under which the nobility chafed considerably, as they were predictably not fond of having their rights eroded. Likely, they felt particularly cheated since Aegon owed his seat on the Iron Throne to them, as they were the ones who elected him via the Great Council. The other candidates were particularly unappealing (save Maester Aemon, who refused on moral principles), but to their view, they had put considerable trust in him and granted him great power, and were rewarded with royal commands weakening them in comparison to the smallfolk.
There was still the power of the Throne to quell any immediate revolt, but this was not as strong as it was in yesteryear. Without dragons to enforce their hegemony, the Kings of the recent past had used Brynden the Bloodraven’s spy network to help enforce order during periods of unrest, famously quoted as having “a thousand eyes” to ferret out treachery. However, this network was considerably weaker than in its heyday with the absence of its terrifying spymaster. After all, Lyonel Baratheon was able to successfully revolt and only relented after a duel, whereas the Blackfyre pretender John the Fiddler was successfully uncovered and imprisoned by Bloodraven before his rebellion ever got off the ground.
In contrast, several of the Great Houses were stronger than ever. Ormund Baratheon had died in battle, but his young son Steffon quickly demonstrated his skill in both battle and command. Tytos Lannister was weak, but Tytos’s son and heir Tywin distinguished himself in combat along with his two brothers Kevan and Tygett. House Tully sent Brynden Tully, one who so impressed Westeros with his skill in combat that offers of marriage came flowing in from places as far as the Arbor.
In the peace that followed, Jaehaerys died, spending much of his short reign reconciling the angry nobility, before dying of illness at 37 years of age. Aerys II took over afterward, and he had much of the charm that Jaehaerys lacked and friendships that Aegon V couldn’t make, especially with two of his most powerful bannerman, Steffon Baratheon and Tywin Lannister. Aerys had a conceit to him, declaring his wish to be the greatest Targaryen king yet. Despite that, he had the potential to establish closer bonds with his vassals and fortify the Throne’s position and power, if he only played his cards right.
“His Grace was full of grand schemes as well…most indeed, were forgotten within a moon’s turn.” -A World of Ice and Fire, Aerys II
Yet almost immediately, Aerys started to show signs of weakness. He became known as erratic and capricious, always drifting from one fancy to another, and often overreacting dramatically, once declaring the capital city’s odor offended him so greatly that he would build a new city. Rickard Stark almost certainly recognized these oddities personally, as he was mentioned to have paid a visit to King’s Landing in 264. Indeed, his visit stoked a wild idea from “Aerys the Wise”, to raise another Wall, adding one hundred leagues to Westeros’s territory (how he was to raise the Wall was not mentioned).
To make matters worse, it became increasingly evident that Tywin Lannister, the Hand of the King, was effectively ruling the Realm, setting tax and tariff policy, holding tournaments, making infrastructure investments, and treating with foreign powers. While Tywin, as Hand, was charged with these duties, and uniquely empowered to act as the voice of the king when other duties call the sovereign elsewhere, Tywin was ever-increasingly performing all of the King’s duties. This clearly spoke of astonishing weakness within the court.
So with a series of unpopular and ineffective monarchs, and the rise of strong, powerful Great Houses, Rickard Stark set a series of moves that would change the very fabric of Westeros.
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Wolf, Trout, Falcon, and Stag – Making Alliances With Other Lords Paramount
At home, Rickard had four strong, healthy children, all free of deficiencies of mind, body, and personality. While this is great for the propagation of the family line, having healthy sons and daughters made it possible for Rickard to make alliances with other families. This was true both in Westeros and the Middle Ages of our own past, where noble families made alliances through children. After all, Cersei Lannister wed Robert Baratheon not of any attraction, but to ally Robert with Tywin Lannister and tie him closely to the Iron Throne. In this marriage economy, healthy sons and fertile daughters were the currency, and Rickard was lucky enough to have four pieces to play with.
His eldest son, Brandon, and his sole daughter, Lyanna, were both wild and passionate people. Brandon was quick to rages, full of confidence, and always eager for excitement. Lyanna was no less willful, she was quick to chastise rudeness, and it was said that she would have gladly carried a blade had her father permitted it. Lyanna, it was said, was also fantastically beautiful. A maiden with the last name Stark was a great offer for any marriage alliance, but her beauty made her a powerful asset in the marriage economy. Just like some commodities are worth more than others, a beautiful daughter was a far more lovely prize than a homely one.
By contrast, his second son Eddard was all that could be expected of one not in line for the head seat at Winterfell’s table. He was dutiful and honest, yet quiet and grim. One that would not shirk from cutting the head off of a Night’s Watch deserter, but yet one that was too shy to ask the lovely Ashara Dayne to dance, and needed to be prodded by his older, hot-headed brother to do so. A perfect second son: one that could be given orders, and strive for the betterment of his house, without the desire to take the Lord’s seat for himself.
One thing that is rather striking about the Stark children’s upbringings, and one that merits strict comparison with Aegon V, was that Rickard always established control and authority over his brood, especially hot-blooded Brandon and Lyanna. Lyanna desired to carry a blade, yet Rickard forbade it and Lyanna herself was not seen carrying a sword (it did not stop her from picking up a blunted sword and stopping bullies from attacking a young Howland Reed, but Rickard was not present for such matters). Brandon Stark took the maidenhead of Barbary Ryswell and would have taken her as a wife, but Rickard forbade the marriage and more importantly, Brandon accepted his father’s authority.
In the wake of the weakness of the central monarchy, Rickard Stark (perhaps prodded by his maester Walys if we are to believe the bitter Barbary Ryswell) began to politick with other Great Houses. He arranged for Eddard Stark to foster with Jon Arryn, the childless Lord of the Vale, who had also gained stewardship of the young and recently orphaned Robert Baratheon. The two became inseparable friends, and Rickard furthered this connection by promising Lyanna Stark’s hand to Robert, bringing these three regions into close connection. Later, Rickard would arrange for Brandon to wed Catelyn Tully, a natural choice given the Riverlands adjoined the lands of the Starks, Arryns, and Baratheons.
Oddly, no betrothal pact seemed to have been made for Eddard or Benjen Stark, though this perhaps could have been because of their respective youths, or perhaps Rickard was waiting to see who he could extend the offer toward. Certainly a marriage offer to Cersei Lannister could have borne fruit and brought Tywin into the fold following Aerys’s humiliating snubbing of Tywin’s offer of a Cersei-Rhaegar match, but that (and the likelihood of Tywin’s acceptance) is beyond the scope of this essay, as would a prospective match between a Stark and a prominent Reachman daughter.
While the Southron Ambitions theory spells out how unique this system of intra-Great House marriage and fosterage plainly, it is less clear as to what the conspiracy’s ultimate aim was. Tywin Lannister had already been working to undo the reforms made by Aegon V, and none of these four houses reached out to include him within the conspiracy, so the restoration or enrichment of noble power could not have been the sole aim. After all, Tywin had been working to undo Aegon’s reforms, and including him would have been a sensible step. It is certainly possible that they thought Tywin was still too close to Aerys despite increasing friction, or perhaps Tywin’s infamously lacking social skills called them off, or perhaps they simply thought that Tywin was too greedy and grasping for his own power rather than someone who would treat his fellow Great House lords as worthy equals. Overthrowing Aerys was possible, but the coalition never picked a successor for the throne or concocted plans to deal with a Targaryen ouster, at least, from what we can see in the text. Given what many of them could have conceivably thought as Aegon’s betrayal of their trust, they might have decided against propping up a new king in the event of a repeat of Aegon’s unpopular edicts. The most likely motive was to establish a counterbalance to unilateral royal action, which could have taken form as bureaucratic blockage, a rival assembly, or simply a force large enough to require backroom dealings to manage. This is the belief subscribed to by most believers of the Southron Ambitions theory, but Hoster Tully’s machinations right before Robert’s Rebellion suggested that he was not 100% on-board and required further capitulation, which could possibly mean that the conspiracy was either not fully formed, or not fully unified in aim.
After all, the evidence of Southron Ambitions was relayed largely through a thoroughly embittered Barbary Ryswell, now Dustin, 20 years after the fact. Likely Barbary had no access to Walys’s thoughts, so it’s not known exactly how she knew of this conspiracy, and cries of “it was a conspiracy” are often heard among embittered people who feel cheated out of their due. The cigar could have easily just been a cigar, or Rickard Stark could have just been a relatively unique Stark in wanting to expand beyond his own borders.
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On The Murder and Kidnapping of Starks – Why Royal Credibility Matters
When Rhaegar Targaryen named Lyanna Stark the Queen of Love and Beauty, there were few happy with that state of affairs. Naming a Queen of Love and Beauty was a champion’s right, and most commonly, tournament champions favored their beloved, intended, or lawful wife with the garland of roses that marked the Queen. By shunning Elia Martell (who was present) and dropping the roses in the lap of Lyanna, engaged to Robert Baratheon, Rhaegar stoked the ire of many of the nobles in attendance.
Brandon Stark was particularly enraged, as Rhaegar’s actions suggested that his sister was a woman who would cheat on her betrothed with another man, one who was married at that. Robert Baratheon, another hot-headed man and quick to take offense, was said to have brooded on the insult to his betrothed. Even Eddard Stark, a man thought to have ice in his veins, was noted to have been displeased at the turn of events. House Martell did not look upon this insult any kinder, and that insult would not serve Aerys and Rhaegar Targaryen later in the war to follow.
While the nobles were content to gossip and seethe on this slanderous incident, it would quickly spiral out of control when Lyanna Stark was seemingly abducted by Rhaegar Targaryen near Harrenhal. What she was doing in the Riverlands is unknown, but it was likely that she was going to Riverrun for her brother Brandon’s marriage to Catelyn Tully, or had remained in the area to help plan the wedding. This would be the final straw for wolf-blooded Brandon, who brashly went forth to King’s Landing, demanding that Rhaegar “come out and die” for his kidnapping of Lyanna, much to chagrin of Hoster Tully.
Neither Rhaegar nor Lyanna were present in the capital, but Aerys II was, and he had Brandon arrested for plotting the murder of the crown prince. He issued a demand for Rickard Stark to go to the capital and answer for his son’s crimes, to which Rickard agreed, and the Lord Paramount made the journey to King’s Landing to ransom his son. What happened next was infamous and spelled the end of the Targaryen dynasty. Rickard himself was charged with treason, and when Rickard demanded trial by combat, he was burned to death in a grotesque mockery of the law of Westeros, by Aerys declaring fire the champion of House Targaryen, all while his son Brandon watched, strangling himself to death in a vain attempt to free his father.
Many Targaryen apologists say that Aerys was within his rights to execute Brandon for seeking the death of the crown prince, but these people ignore critical pieces of Aerys’s conduct, that he had stated that Rickard was to come to King’s Landing to account for his son. This is not a mere courtesy, highborn prisoners charged with crimes had the right to trial, and Aerys had made it plain that Rickard was to come to King’s Landing to settle affairs, meaning that Brandon would have had his due when Rickard arrived. Rickard, acting in accordance with the law, was suddenly seized, bound, and murdered. So, whether Aerys could have had Brandon killed on royal authority is irrelevant. Once he had issued his decision, he couldn’t retract it without risking royal credibility and authority in the face of highborn rights.
“King Aegon felt he had no choice but to condemn (Bloodraven), lest the word of the Iron Throne be seen as worthless.” -The World of Ice and Fire, Aegon V
This point is proven by a critical piece of precedent, that murdering people coming on behalf of the Crown had happened before, and the Crown needed to save face quickly as a result. When Maekar I died and Westeros was mired in a Great Council on the issue of succession, Aenys Blackfyre had been promised safe passage from Tyrosh to King’s Landing to present his own claim in person. When he arrived in King’s Landing, he was seized on Bloodraven’s orders, executed, and his head presented to the lords of the Great Council to warn them against any lingering Blackfyre sympathies. Yet Aegon had to punish Bloodraven, and sentence him to death for the crime of murdering a man who came at the Crown’s behest. The message is clear: when the Crown extends an offer of safe passage only to revoke it and murder a man who arrived in good faith, it is considered abhorrent conduct, worthy of a death sentence. Royal credibility as an institution is a real and established concept, one that the Yunkish use to elicit great concessions out of Daenerys. The institution of the Throne is larger than a single king, and the notion that ‘the king can do as he likes’ is ridiculed, and rightly so, by all who deal with Joffrey, and the notion that Aerys II could do so is likewise ridiculous.
By issuing a command and then using it to murder his obedient lord, Aerys II undermined all semblance of royal credibility, and in a feudal system of government, where the specifics of service due by both lords and vassals, are outlined in contracts, credibility at the top is absolutely vital. As Steven Attewell points out in his column: “if one law-abiding Lord Paramount can be executed on a whim, any of them can.” However, it goes slightly further than even the great extent that Mr. Attewell offers, for not only was Rickard murdered, but he was murdered in a fashion as to spit in the face of lordly rights with a showy “trial by combat.” This exercise mocked both the lordly rights that highborn enjoyed as a privilege due to their status, but the very gods who were supposed to sit in judgment over trials by combat and render their verdict through the swordarm of the truly just party. Aerys demonstrated that he believed highborn noble rights to be a joke, that he was the absolute authority whose dictates superseded all laws of gods and men. In doing so, he caused half of his kingdom to rise in revolt and spelled the doom of his authority.
Others believe that Rickard Stark was a fool to step into the lair of an obvious madman, that he foolishly marched to his death and should have never trusted the crown to act rationally in the face of such provocation. However, that point of view neglects several key components of the situation. Brandon in his rashness had left before marrying Catelyn Tully, leaving the state of alliance with Hoster Tully in doubt, and, as one of the most remote kingdoms, Rickard rebelling immediately would have meant asking other allies to put themselves between Rickard and Aerys while he called his banners and marched his troops south of the Neck, which is a very hard sell. Brandon had been offended, and rightly so, by Rhaegar abducting Lyanna Stark, and that abduction demanded a response. After all, the crown prince just absconded with his sister, to allow such was to suggest that Stark daughters could be taken by any desirous noble and that House Stark was so weak as to not enforce their own contracts. However, Brandon’s response was to demand Rhaegar’s head, blood for the insult that he had carried out, not just the return of Lyanna Stark, and this fundamentally changed the nature of the demand and it’s impact to other lords. The former plays into the very office of the Throne, as the king cannot reasonably anticipate loyalty if his family members simply snatch highborn maidens away like a common brigand, disrupting the marriage economy that all the lords depended upon to make alliances. The latter, however, is Brandon attempting to avenge the insult to House Stark, and that matters little to non-Starks. While some lords would be quick to voice support for the return of Lyanna Stark, lest their own betrothed daughters be next to be taken as a royal mistress and deprive them of a coin in the vicious Westerosi marriage economy, fewer would be willing to fight for the honor of House Stark on principle. Stark honor is a Stark concern, and not one that merits a different family’s food, soldiers, and coin.
Rickard did the best of what can be expected, and only a drastic failure of all present within the court caused the events surrounding Brandon Stark to spiral out of control. Rickard himself could not possibly have foreseen the consequences, specifically because the outcome that happened was so drastic, so against the social grain, that do so meant inevitable rebellion, and Rickard had good reason to believe that Aerys, even as capricious as he was, wouldn’t have thrown centuries of tradition and law into the dirt on mere whim. Aerys was violent and capricious, but he was still aware of reality.
Still, Rickard’s death was not in vain. Fully committed to his madness, Aerys would demand that Eddard also be killed to eliminate any Stark reprisal, and Robert Baratheon be killed to pre-empt any chance of Lyanna’s betrothed avenging her honor. These would lead to Jon Arryn rising in revolt, the North and Stormlands (mostly) rallying behind their lords, and Robert’s great rebellion. And at the start of it all was a man who never shows up alive during the books, who has barely a hundred words devoted to him in the text, but like Jon Arryn, a man whose influence lasted far beyond his death.