This post contains spoilers for The Winds of Winter
“Daeron Targaryen was only fourteen when he conquered Dorne,” Jon said. The Young Dragon was one of his heroes.
“A conquest that lasted a summer,” his uncle pointed out. “Your Boy King lost ten thousand men taking the place, and another fifty trying to hold it. Someone should have told him that war isn’t a game.” (AGOT, Jon I)
As Aegon, Jon Connington and the Golden Company neared the shores of the Westeros, they confronted a Westeros that had repelled the Golden Company time after time. Their invasion towards the end of A Dance with Dragons faced similar difficulties; a seemingly strong political alliance between the Lannisters and Tyrells, enemy armies that far outnumbered the ten thousand men of the Golden Company and massive castles and cities that had withstood sieges stood athwart the Golden Company’s path to seat Aegon onto the Iron Throne. Despite the difficulties, Aegon’s pathway to victory was not without historical precedent.
Daeron I Targaryen was a mere fourteen years old when he launched one of the deadliest wars in Westeros’ history. The desert and mountain lands of Dorne had been a sore spot for House Targaryen ever since Rhaenys Targaryen had failed to take the hold-out kingdom during the Conquest. The Young Dragon was not content to let Dorne remain independent of the Iron Throne; instead, Daeron viewed his role as Lord of the Seven Kingdoms incomplete while one of those kingdoms remained defiantly independent. Vowing that he would “complete the Conquest,” Daeron planned and enacted the ensuing Conquest of Dorne, which saw Targaryen offensive warfare at its best and holding the peace at its worst. Daeron led his men from the front but the initial invasion cost the Iron Throne ten thousand men. Holding Dorne proved five times as costly. According to Benjen Stark and The World of Ice and Fire, Daeron lost fifty thousand men when the Dornish rose against his conquest. One of the final casualties of the war was King Daeron I Targaryen himself who died when the Dornish treacherously killed him under a flag of truce.
Regardless of how the conquest turned out, the military example that Daeron I Targaryen set during the conquest was not forgotten. Daeron had written himself into the history books in the aptly-titled Conquest of Dorne. This pivotal piece of propaganda ensured that the exploits of Daeron I Targaryen would not be forgotten by future generations.
Prince Aegon and Jon Connington never mention Daeron I Targaryen by name in A Dance with Dragons, but the landing of the Golden Company and Aegon’s (and Jon Connington’s) plan of swift strikes at key castles, divide and conquer tactics and military deception provide a good analogue between the two young dragons.
However decisive this Young Dragon planned to be, the odds were stacked against him. Would this time be different for the Golden Company? Would they be defeated in battle and forced to flee across the Narrow Sea? Or would Aegon, Jon Connington and the Golden Company take after the example of Daeron I and “complete the conquest” started by Daemon Blackfyre and Bittersteel so many years before? In pure military terms, even if Aegon, Connington and the Golden Company could pull off a landing in Westeros, their chances for victory seemed remote. Events in King’s Landing and the Stormlands, however, were shaping Aegon’s conquest to last a summer.
The Fraying of the Lannister-Tyrell Alliance in King’s Landing
Artwork by HBO
Jon Connington zeroed in on the Stormlands and the Crownlands – places where he had grown up and spent his brief political career – as the regions to begin his campaign on Aegon’s behalf. These regions, however, had changed significantly since Connington went into exile. High profile deaths, battles and shifting political allegiances in the Crownlands and the Stormlands shaped the regions into politically volatile regions willing to back the political strong horse.
King’s Landing had been the setting for many of the moments that ushered this new era of political instability. It was there that Lord Jon Arryn died mysterious, and where Lord Eddard Stark met grisly end on the steps of Baelor’s Sept. When Renly Baratheon died mysteriously, Stannis rolled most of Renly’s Stormlander army into his own force and marched on King’s Landing. The battle that followed saw sections of King’s Landing destroyed, though ultimately resulted in victory for the Lannisters and their new Tyrell allies. The creation of the Tyrell-Lannister alliance and power-bloc served as further far-ranging developments in the capital.
The deaths of Tywin Lannister and Joffrey Baratheon, however, coupled with the rise of Cersei Lannister threw this new political paradigm into doubt. Much of the King’s Landing plotline in A Feast for Crows centered on the fraying of the Tyrell-Lannister alliance – something recounted to Connington later in the story:
“The Lannisters make enemies easily but seem to have a harder time keeping friends. Their alliance with the Tyrells is fraying, to judge from what I read here. Queen Cersei and Queen Margaery are fighting over the little king like two bitches with a chicken bone, and both have been accused of treason and debauchery.” (ADWD, The Griffin Reborn)
When Tywin was alive, the ambitions of the Tyrells as well as the political power of Cersei Lannister had been kept in check by Tywin’s prestige, political management and force of personality. Tywin’s death, however, had ensured that these two factions now had relatively free reigns to exercise their political ambitions – through Tommen, and against each other.
A parallel political development in King’s Landing in A Feast for Crows was the rise of the Faith Militant. The Faith had become more radicalized, and more importantly, militarized, during the war and immediately after. While the Faith Militant had the ostensible role of protecting the smallfolk from the political class, the Faith began to entangle itself with the politics of King’s Landing and the rivalry between House Lannister and House Tyrell – something we’ll get into more in Part 7.
The Stormlands and Storm’s End
During the main timeline of A Song of Ice and Fire, much of the distinction of the Stormlands derived from their fluctuating loyalties in the War of the Five Kings. Many (though not all) houses have switched allegiance three times during the war. In A Clash of Kings, Stannis made special note of the treachery of some of the lords now serving beneath him:
“I have a tail of traitors, your nose does not deceive you. My lords bannermen are inconstant even in their treasons. I need them, but you should know how it sickens me to pardon such as these when I have punished better men for lesser crimes.” (ACOK, Davos II)
From Renly to Stannis to Joffrey/Tommen, many stormlords latched themselves onto the strongest horse regardless of any sworn loyalty. Some, certainly, remained loyal to one faction: at the conclusion of the Battle of the Blackwater, some of the stormlords – mostly those who were not captured during the battle and those who do not have close relatives being held by the Lannisters – stayed true to Stannis Baratheon. When Stannis sailed north, he tasked subordinates to hold Dragonstone and Storm’s End in his name. Allegedly, Dragonstone fell during the timeline of A Feast for Crows, but Storm’s End was another story.
Storm’s End is the largest castle in the Stormlands, and consequently grants significant political advantage to anyone holding the castle. In A Clash of Kings, Stannis besieged it before marching on King’s Landing due to the symbolic political propaganda that holding it granted him.
“If I leave Storm’s End untaken in my rear, it will be said I was defeated here. And that I cannot permit.” (ACOK, Davos II)
Even the Tyrells and Lannisters recognized the optics of holding Storm’s End. Cersei, in of her more lucid moments, correctly identified the symbolic danger of usurpers holding major castles in Westeros while her son sat the Iron Throne:
Tommen’s hold upon the Iron Throne was not secure enough for her to risk offending Highgarden. Not so long as Stannis Baratheon held Dragonstone and Storm’s End. (AFFC, Cersei III)
While Storm’s End was important to the Lannister cause, Cersei Lannister had her own intra-family reasons to try to take Storm’s End. Cersei feared the rise of the Tyrells and needed a way to flush as many Tyrells out of King’s Landing as possible. Her brother, Jaime, provided the plan:
“You need Tyrell,” Jaime broke in, “but not here. Ask him to capture Storm’s End for Tommen. Flatter him, and tell him you need him in the field, to replace Father. Mace fancies himself a mighty warrior. Either he will deliver Storm’s End to you, or he will muck it up and look a fool. Either way, you win.” (AFFC, Jaime I)
Cersei happily agreed with Jaime’s plan, and Lord Mace Tyrell marched on Storm’s End. Besieging the castle was no easy task though. Sitting on the coast of the Narrow Sea, Storm’s End had withstood sieges in its history (most famously during Robert’s Rebellion by our very same Lord of Highgarden). The castle’s defenses were natural, man-made and likely magical. Storm’s End had allegedly been raised by Durran Godsgrief with a potential magical assist by Bran the Builder and the Children of the Forest; even without that magical pedigree, the castle’s walls are massive and impenetrably thick:
To the south, meanwhile, Mace Tyrell had raised a city of tents outside Storm’s End and had two dozen mangonels flinging stones against the castle’s massive walls, thus far to small effect. (AFFC, Cersei V)
Its position also gives Storm’s End its impregnability. The castle can only be besieged from three directions on land while ships would need to blockade the castle from the sea to prevent re-supply to the garrison. Blockading from sea was no easy task either. The shoals and rocks of Shipbreaker Bay jutting from the turbulent waters ensure that any blockading ships would need skilled sailors to crew the ships.
Garrisoning the castle was a man by the name of Ser Gilbert Farring, along with a two hundred-strong garrison. House Farring was a noble house of the Crownlands which likely sided with Stannis Baratheon at the outset of the War of the Five Kings and never wavered in its loyalty. Ser Gilbert was noted by Stannis specifically for his loyalty:
“A few good men remain, it’s true. Ser Gilbert Farring holds Storm’s End for me still, with two hundred loyal men.” (ASOS, Davos IV)
That loyalty would be put to the test though. Ser Gilbert Farring and his garrison faced a besieging Tyrell army that likely numbered in the tens of thousands. The walls could hold against siege weapons, but what would happen to the men once their supplies dwindled and they were reduced to eating rats and shoe leather? They needed a miracle to hold out against the might of the Reach and starvation.
The arrest of the two queens in King’s Landing might have seemed that miracle to Ser Gilbert Farring. Cersei and Margaery’s imprisonment by the Faith Militant threw a further wrench into Mace Tyrell’s thus-far unsuccessful siege of Storm’s End. When the Lord of Highgarden heard of Margaery’s arrest, he raised most of his banners and marched north to King’s Landing. However, Lord Tyrell did not break the siege in totality. He left a token force behind him at Storm’s End to keep the castle invested by siege:
“Mace Tyrell has abandoned his siege of Storm’s End to march back to King’s Landing and save his daughter, leaving only a token force behind to keep Stannis’s men penned up inside the castle.” (ADWD, The Griffin Reborn)
The World of Ice and Fire app confirms that the commander of the forces left behind at Storm’s End is Lord Mathis Rowan, one of Mace Tyrell’s strongest bannermen (and an individual who will feature prominently in part 6 of this series). Besides that small token force, all of the other Reachmen involved in the siege have either marched back to King’s Landing or – most importantly – sailed west to confront the threat of the Ironmen.
Strange Sails on the Narrow Sea
The Arbor Queen by Tomasz Jedruszek
Lord Paxter Redwyne commands one of the largest fleets in Westeros. His ability to use that fleet on behalf of the crown’s cause was not always secure, though. Early in the War of the Five Kings, the Redwynes sat out the war as the Lannisters held Lord Redwyne’s twins hostage to their father’s good behavior:
“So long as I hold those poxy twins of his, Lord Paxter will squat on the Arbor and count himself fortunate to be out of it.” (ACOK, Tyrion IV)
Following the formation of the Tyrell-Lannister alliance, the Redwyne Fleet moved from the Arbor to the east coast of Westeros to provide naval support for the nascent alliance. The Redwyne Fleet’s first official mission was to ferry Lannister and Reacher soldiers to Dragonstone to take the fortress from Stannis’ loyalists, but it also had the dual mission of blockading Storm’s End in support of Mace Tyrell’s siege. However, the Ironborn invasion of the Reach had caused disruption in Tyrell force alignment and the Redwyne navy specifically.
The Reachmen desired to return home to defend their homelands against the Ironborn, but Cersei Lannister insisted that the Reachmen complete their mission of taking Dragonstone before they could depart the Narrow Sea. When that mission was “completed”, the Redwynes wasted no opportunity to begin the long voyage back to the Reach:
“Lord Paxter was taking on provisions for the voyage home when Sweet Cersei raised sail,”Lord Waters reported. “I would imagine that by now his main fleet has put to sea.” (AFFC, Cersei VIII)
By the timeline of The Winds of Winter, the Redwynes had sailed past the Stepstones west for their endangered homeland:
Since the Redwyne fleet passed through the Stepstones, those waters are crawling with strange sails, all the way north to the Straits of Tarth and Shipbreaker’s Bay. Myrmen, Volantenes, Lyseni, even reavers from the Iron Islands. Some have entered the Sea of Dorne to land men on the south shore of Cape Wrath. (TWOW, Arianne I)
Fortunately, Cersei had her own royal fleet to maintain the siege and defend King’s Landing from invasion. The Battle of the Blackwater had seen most of the remaining ships that the Lannisters could boast destroyed. However, Cersei found an “ally” in Aurane Waters – a skilled sailor once sworn to Stannis, now sworn to the crown – who was willing to take on the task of building new ships and crewing them with “loyal” sailors:
“Might we discuss the fleet?” asked Aurane Waters. “Fewer than a dozen of our ships survived the inferno on the Blackwater. We must needs restore our strength at sea.”
Merryweather nodded. “Strength at sea is most essential.” (AFFC, Cersei V)
Cersei Lannister agreed to Aurane’s proposal – not least of which was due to Cersei’s attraction to Aurane as Rhaegar Targaryen lite. Aurane, though, had his own purposes or perhaps those of others at work. After Cersei was arrested by the Faith Militant, Aurane Waters took sail from King’s Landing:
“As soon as word of Your Grace’s present troubles reached the river, Lord Waters raised sail, unshipped his oars, and took his fleet to sea. Ser Harys fears he means to join Lord Stannis. Pycelle believes that he is sailing to the Stepstones, to set himself up as a pirate.” (AFFC, Cersei X)
Aurane, though, didn’t join up with Stannis in the North. Instead, he likely took the royal fleet south to the Stepstones and (according to Arianne in The Winds of Winter) set himself up a pirate king:
“A new pirate king has set up on Torturer’s Deep. The Lord of the Waters, he styles himself. This one has real warships, three-deckers, monstrous large.” (TWOW, Arianne I)
The departures of the main contingent of the Tyrell army, as well as the Redwyne Fleet and the royalist fleet, had cataclysmic consequences on the Stormlands and King’s Landing. Without the Redwyne or Royalist Fleets sitting off the east coast of King’s Landing and the Stormlands, there were no ships to oppose say… a fleet carrying a ten thousand strong sellword company from landing on the shores of Westeros. Moreover, the absence of a large Tyrell army ensured that any response to the invasion would take a significant amount of time to develop as Tyrell hosts were at least a several days’ march from the Stormlands. Furthermore, the Tyrells were unwilling to march until Margaery Tyrell was exonerated in her trial:
“We must destroy Connington and his pretender now, before Daenerys Stormborn can come west.”
Mace Tyrell crossed his arms. “I mean to do just that, ser. After the trials.” (ADWD, Epilogue)
With no navy on the east coast of Westeros and only the smallest Tyrell army presence in the Stormlands, the opportunity was ripe for say… a fleet carrying a ten thousand strong sellsword company to land in Westeros.
Outrageous Fortune: The Golden Company Lands in Westeros
Ten thousand men had sailed from Volon Therys, with all their weapons, horses, elephants. Not quite half that number had turned up thus far on Westeros, at or near their intended landing site, a deserted stretch of coast on the edge of the rainwood. (ADWD, The Griffin Reborn)
Good planning, a strong cohesive military organization and good leadership often lead to success on the battlefield, but good fortune goes further than any of these tangible elements; outrageous, unbelievably good luck is better still. When we last left Aegon, Jon Connington and the Golden Company, they had laid swords at Aegon’s feet and embarked on the uncertain – if not reckless – course of sailing to Westeros without Daenerys, her army or her dragons. However, given the much reduced Lannister-Tyrell army presence in the Stormlands, the Redwyne Fleet’s departure from the Narrow Sea and Aurane Waters’ theft of the royal fleet, the timing of the Golden Company’s invasion of the Stormlands was outrageously fortune.
Landing in the Stormlands was a wise strategic choice on the part of the Golden Company. Tyrion Lannister had counseled Prince Aegon to land in Dorne and raise his banners there, but between that conversation and landing in the Stormlands, someone (likely Jon Connington) successfully counseled the young prince that the pathway to victory lay north of Dorne. The Stormlands were Westerosi through and through. If the Golden Company were to get off to a good, propaganda-driven start, a successful early campaign set in arguably one of Westeros’ most Westerosi regions (It was the homeland of Robert Baratheon and his alleged sons) would only enhance their prestige. The Stormlands had the added benefit of sitting due south of King’s Landing and of no longer having strong regional leadership:
Only a few years ago, he would never have dared attempt a landing on Cape Wrath; the storm lords were too fiercely loyal to House Baratheon and to King Robert. But with both Robert and his brother Renly slain, everything was changed. Stannis was too harsh and cold a man to inspire much in the way of loyalty, even if he had not been half a world away, and the stormlands had little reason to love House Lannister. (ADWD, The Griffin Reborn)
Tactically, the landing in the Stormlands was a wise move as well. Jon Connington was familiar with the lay of the land, the different noble and knightly houses and most importantly, the strengths and weaknesses of the castles that the Golden Company would likely have to take by force of arms.
The landing, though, was anything but outrageously fortunate. Having determined to land in Westeros, the Golden Company turned to the Volantenes to provide them passage to the Stormlands. Before the Golden Company departed Westeros, some of the leaders had notions that the Volantene Triarchs would help them on their voyage – perhaps even paying for their passage. Whether the Triarchs paid for their passage or not, the ships that took the Golden Company to Westeros suddenly found themselves struggling against storms near Lys.
Not one of the great cogs carrying the elephants had turned up yet. They had last seen them at Lys, before the storm that had scattered half the fleet. (ADWD, The Griffin Reborn)
As the storms split up the Volantene fleet, the ship captains suddenly found themselves with more important tasks than landing the Golden Company at the predetermined location that Jon Connington had chosen before the Golden Company departed Volon Therys.
“The damned Volantenes are so eager to be rid of us they are dumping us ashore on any bit of land they see,” said Franklyn Flowers. “I’ll wager you that we’ve got lads scattered all over half the bloody Stepstones too.” (ADWD, The Griffin Reborn)
The scattering of the Golden Company and the loss of the elephants was a stroke of bad luck for the invasion. However, the second and third order effects of this scattered landing were fortuitous to the Golden Company. While Jon Connington gathered the troops who landed where they were supposed to disembark for the attack on Griffin’s Roost, major castles began to fall to the small detachments of sellswords who landed amiss:
“Word’s reached the camp from Marq Mandrake. The Volantenes put him ashore on what turned out to be Estermont, with close to five hundred men. He’s taken Greenstone.” (ADWD, The Griffin Reborn)
“Rain House, Crow’s Nest, Mistwood, even Greenstone on its island. All taken.” (TWOW, Arianne I)
“Tarth has fallen too, some fisherfolk will tell you,” said Valena. “These sellswords now hold most of Cape Wrath and half the Stepstones. We hear talk of elephants in the rainwood.” (TWOW, Arianne I)
Grabbing these coastal or island fortresses may not have been tactically significant victories for the Golden Company, but the propaganda value of easily taking castles was significant. Word would spread in the Stormlands of the Golden Company’s easy victories. To a region that had largely backed the strong horse, the cause of the Young Dragon would look suddenly sympathetic.
The Battle of Griffin’s Roost
Win or lose, he would see Griffin’s Roost again before he died, and be buried in the tomb beside his father’s. (ADWD, The Lost Lord)
Artwork by Antonio Maínez
While much of the company had landed elsewhere and ended up taking several coastal and island castles, Griffin’s Roost had been the initial objective. The castle itself was a strong, albeit small castle which had been the historical seat of House Connington. Its recapture held special emotional significance for the rightful Lord of Griffin’s Roost:
Griffin’s Roost had been his, eventually, if only for a few short years. From here, Jon Connington had ruled broad lands extending many leagues to the west, north, and south, just as his father and his father’s father had before him. But his father and his father’s father had never lost their lands. He had. I rose too high, loved too hard, dared too much. I tried to grasp a star, overreached, and fell. (ADWD, The Griffin Reborn)
Following Jon Connington’s defeat at the Battle of the Bells and the fall of the dragons, Robert Baratheon had punished the griffins thoroughly for Jon Connington’s loyalty to the Targaryen cause:
Robert Baratheon had completed the destruction of the griffins after the war. Cousin Ronald was permitted to retain his castle and his head, but he lost his lordship, thereafter being merely the Knight of Griffin’s Roost, and nine-tenths of his lands were taken from him and parceled out to neighbor lords who had supported Robert’s claim. (ADWD, The Griffin Reborn)
Given the castle’s centralized location in the Stormlands, its ability to be used as a tactical springboard toward the goal of taking Storm’s End and the emotional attachments Connington ascribed to it, Griffin’s Roost was an obvious first objective. The castle was strong though, and a clever plan was needed to seize the castle.
Jon Connington landed with only a fraction of the Golden Company at the original landing zone near Griffin’s Roost. In normal circumstances, this might have been a show-stopper, but Jon Connington had prepared a contingency plan prior to the Golden Company’s departure from Volon Therys. Connington split Black Balaq’s archers into separate detachments for the voyage from Volon Therys instead of massing them together:
In its own way, the arrow was as deadly as the sword, so for the long voyage he had insisted that Homeless Harry Strickland break Balaq’s command into ten companies of one hundred men and place each company upon a different ship. (ADWD, The Griffin Reborn)
Black Balaq’s archers would be essential for the battle as taking Griffin’s Roost would need archer support to ensure victory. So, even though only a fraction of the army landed near Griffin’s Roost, Connington still had the archer support necessary to initiate the attack.
In the rainwood, Jon Connington gathered the Golden Company’s senior leaders around a map to discuss the battle plan:
“They will try to send out ravens,” he told Black Balaq. “Watch the maester’s tower. Here.” He pointed to the map he had drawn in the mud of their campsite. “Bring down every bird that leaves the castle.” (ADWD, The Griffin Reborn)
This was the first crucial step that Connington took to properly manage the battlefield. Even in today’s military, the first reconnaissance is always a map recon. Prior to even viewing the battlefield, commanders give subordinate leaders the lay of the land as seen on a map so that subordinates will know what to expect from the terrain ahead of them. Jon Connington’s pre-battle brief and use of the map ensured that the Golden Company had a snapshot of the terrain they’d be moving through as well as what defenses the castle could boast.
Taking out any ravens that might fly from the castle’s rookery was another smart choice; Connington was controlling the flow of information that might reach his enemies in King’s Landing. If the Lannisters and Tyrells were blind to the threat to their south, they couldn’t assemble a quick response before the Golden Company could establish its foothold. It’s also likely a callback by George RR Martin to the good tactics that Catelyn Stark advised Theon Greyjoy to use when their army of northmen approached the Twins in A Game of Thrones:
“Theon, when you return to my uncle, tell him he is to place his best bowmen around the Twins, day and night, with orders to bring down any raven they see leaving the battlements. I want no birds bringing word of my son’s movements to Lord Tywin.” (AGOT, Catelyn IX)
The terrain conferred an additional advantage to the Golden Company. Prudent lords never allowed the treeline of a forest to encroach beyond the vantage point of their sentries as it reduced the ability of a castle’s defenders to observe any potential threat approaching the castle. However, Red Ronnet Connington and the men he left behind at the castle when he went off to war were negligent on this count:
The woods had been allowed to encroach on the field beyond the gatehouse, so Franklyn Flowers was able to use the brush for concealment and lead his men within twenty yards of the gates before emerging from the trees with the ram they’d fashioned back at camp. (ADWD, The Griffin Reborn)
Connington and the Golden Company were able to move practically silently through the rainwood up to nearly the castle walls of Griffin’s Roost. There, Black Balaq’s archers took out the sentries on the wall and the infantry moved speedily up the causeway with a battering ram:
The crash of wood on wood brought two men to the battlements; Black Balaq’s archers took down both of them before they could rub the sleep out of their eyes. The gate turned out to be closed but not barred; it gave way at the second blow, and Ser Franklyn’s men were halfway up the throat before a warhorn sounded the alarm from the castle proper. (ADWD, The Griffin Reborn)
The battle that followed was short and bloody – but only for the defenders. Due to Jon Connington’s good tactical planning and pre-battle management, the Golden Company stormed Griffin’s Roost and killed most of the garrison in the fighting. In contrast, Connington and the Golden Company had far fewer casualties:
Griff expected to lose a hundred men, perhaps more.
They lost four. (ADWD, The Griffin Reborn)
Griffin’s Roost now belonged to Lord Jon Connington once again. The battle had been expertly managed and executed, but what would Jon Connington do to his surrendering foes after he won the battle? In Part 4, we talked about how Jon Connington took Tywin Lannister’s consequentialist philosophy to heart, and here, Connington displayed Tywin-esque mercy to those who went to their knees.
He brought them forward one by one, asked each man his name, then bid them kneel and swear him their allegiance. It all went swiftly. The soldiers of the garrison – only four had survived the attack, the old serjeant and three boys – laid their swords at his feet. No one balked. No one died. (ADWD, The Griffin Reborn)
When the illegitimate son of Ser Ronnet Connington made a defiant outburst, readers might have expected the worst given Connington’s new underlying ideology. Instead, Ronald Storm was granted mercy by Connington:
Jon Connington presided from the Griffin’s Seat, sharing the high table with Homeless Harry Strickland, Black Balaq, Franklyn Flowers, and the three young griffins they had taken captive. The children were of his blood and he felt that he should know them, but when the bastard boy announced, “My father’s going to kill you,” he decided that his knowledge was sufficient, ordered them back to their cells, and excused himself. (ADWD, The Griffin Reborn)
Connington realized that starting off his campaign in Westeros with kinslaying would be poor optics. Ronald may have been distantly related to Connington, but killing his cousin’s bastard would tarnish his and Aegon’s cause with the accusation of kinslaying. The garrison at Storm’s End, though, did not contain any kin of Jon Connington (as far as we know) and the greater political priority of taking the legendary castle would outweigh any moral concerns.
Symbol Warfare: The Golden Company Moves on Storm’s End
Griffin’s Roost was strong but small, and so long as they sat here they would seem small as well. But there was another castle nearby, vastly larger and impregnable. Take that, and the realm will shake. (ADWD, The Griffin Reborn)
Artwork by Diego Gisbert Llorens
Storm’s End was Jon Connington’s pearl without price. He needed the castle, and he needed to take it quickly. While Griffin’s Roost and other notable castles had been seized, the primary objective wasn’t to gain these smaller castles. Instead, Jon Connington fixed the focus of the Golden Company on first securing a beachhead at Griffin’s Roost and then turning north to Storm’s End:
“We did not cross half the world to wait. Our best chance is to strike hard and fast, before King’s Landing knows who we are. I mean to take Storm’s End. A nigh-impregnable stronghold, and Stannis Baratheon’s last foothold in the south. Once taken, it will give us a secure fastness to which we may retreat at need, and winning it will prove our strength.” (ADWD, The Griffin Reborn)
Connington correctly identified the tactical utility of Storm’s End. If he and the Golden Company could take the castle, they had a good chance of maintaining their foothold in the Stormlands if the Tyrells and Lannister marched against them from King’s Landing. Without the Redwynes’ or Aurane Waters’ fleets patrolling the Narrow Sea on behalf of the Crown, the Golden Company had the advantage of maintaining a sea-based supply line running from the Free Cities.
“Proving our strength” meant more than simply securing military victory. Aegon holding Storm’s End would be statement politics at its faux-medieval finest. If Aegon, Jon Connington and the Golden Company could take Storm’s End and raise the dragon banner atop the castle battlements, it would be the first time that Storm’s End had fallen to force of arms and an astounding propaganda coup.
Moreover, taking the castle from Stannis Baratheon’s loyalists had the secondary purpose of fighting against an unpopular faction. While Stannis had gained the tepid loyalty of much of the Stormlands following the death of his brother Renly, the stormlords’ support for Stannis was never more than dutiful. When Stannis was decisively defeated at the Battle of the Blackwater, many of the storm lords bent the knee and flew the crowned stag banner of Joffrey and Tommen. At the start of The Winds of Winter, many towns and castles remained true to King Tommen:
The banners flapping from [the Weeping Town’s] stout wooden walls still displayed King Tommen’s stag and lion suggesting that here at least the writ of the Iron Throne might still hold sway. (TWOW, Arianne II)
If the Golden Company could take Storm’s End and defeat an unpopular faction in the process, the event had the potential to undermine the Lannisters and Tyrells politically. The storm lords might see the lion and rose as feckless, unable to win militarily. In contrast, Aegon would appear the stronger horse – an unrivaled military commander harkening to the examples of Aegon the Conqueror, Daeron I, and their own fiercely beloved Robert Baratheon. Given their propensity for turning cloak to the stronger horse, the stormlords might voluntarily replace the stag and lion banners flying atop their castles and towns with Prince Aegon’s red dragon.
The propaganda of seizing a symbolically-rich fortress such as Storm’s End, defeating an unpopular faction in battle and using the castle as a tactical foothold has an ironic parallel to Stannis Baratheon’s campaign in the North. Stannis Baratheon’s goal of achieving long-term victory through fighting the universally-despised Ironmen at Deepwood Motte and seizing the heart of the North at Winterfell parallels to Connington’s objective to take Storm’s End:
Even ruined, Winterfell itself would confer a considerable advantage on whoever held it. Robert Baratheon would have seen that at once and moved swiftly to secure the castle, with the forced marches and midnight rides for which he had been famous. Would his brother be as bold? (ADWD, Jon VII)
Even prisoners have ears, and she had heard all the talk at Deepwood Motte, when King Stannis and his captains were debating this march. Ser Justin had opposed it from the start, along with many of the knights and lords who had come with Stannis from the south. But the wolves insisted; Roose Bolton could not be suffered to hold Winterfell, and the Ned’s girl must be rescued from the clutches of his bastard. (ADWD, The King’s Prize)
Back at Griffin’s Roost, Lord Connington prepared his army for the Storm’s End mission. However, there was a catch. Jon Connington thought to lead the attack himself, but when he brought Aegon out from their hidden camp in the rainwood, the young dragon declared that he, not Connington, would lead the attack:
“We’ve been talking with Strickland and Flowers. They told us about this attack on Storm’s End that you’re planning.”
Jon Connington did not let his fury show. “And did Homeless Harry try to persuade you to delay it?”
“He did, actually,” the prince said, “but I won’t. Harry’s an old maid, isn’t he? You have the right of it, my lord. I want the attack to go ahead … with one change. I mean to lead it.” (ADWD, The Griffin Reborn)
This was a reckless and dangerous course, but it was also an unwitting statement on the part of Aegon. He wouldn’t remain in the rear with the gear providing only figureheaded battlefield leadership. Instead, Aegon would emulate Daeron I’s example during the Dornish Conquest and lead his army from the front. Soldiers in Westeros and Essos love this type of leadership: Robb Stark gained the utmost respect from his battle-hardened bannermen by constantly leading every single attack he was a part of. Ser Barristan Selmy inspired the Stormcrows by leading the charge against the Yunkish lines at the Battle of Meereen. To a sellsword company of mixed Westerosi exiles and Essosi adventurers, Aegon’s declaration to lead the attack was likely electrifying.
Moreover, Aegon’s decision had promise of creating even greater dividends for his cause politically. Daeron I had inspired his men in battle, but the public relations effect had been immense for the Targaryen cause. The storm lords, particularly those in the Marches, rallied fiercely around the royalist cause. Robert Baratheon inspired similar political loyalties among the stormlords due to his personal heroism and willingness to swing his own war hammer during his rebellion. To the martial storm lords, Prince Aegon was creating the public persona of a strong leader who would take battlefield risks and inspire Westerosi nobles and smallfolk alike.
Storm’s End, though, would be a tough proving ground for this young dragon. As Aegon and Jon Connington started north to Storm’s End, they faced walls, a garrison of fierce Stannis loyalists and a Tyrell army surrounding the castle on three sides. Fortunately, Jon Connington had a plan.
The Battle of Storm’s End
The Siege of Storm’s End by fkcogus333
While Aegon might technically lead the attack, the plan to take Storm’s End would be Connington’s. So, what was Jon Connington plan to take Storm’s End?
“If Storm’s End is so impregnable, how do you mean to take it?” asked Malo.
“By guile.” (ADWD, The Griffin Reborn)
Originally, George RR Martin intended the “guile” that Jon Connington planned to use to take Storm’s End to be left off-page, but after publishing A Dance with Dragons, GRRM decided to write a chapter on the battle in The Winds of Winter:
As speculated by many, two large battles will take place early on, a ‘battle of ice’ (presumably at Winterfell) and a ‘battle of fire’ (presumably at Meereen). A third battle has been added, namely the assault on Storm’s End by Jon Connington’s forces. Originally this was going to happen off-page, but GRRM decided it really should be shown. Possibly because we’ve seen Storm’s End under siege forever and it might be cool to finally see the place under full-scale assault. – Adam Whitehead recount of Worldcon 2011
This development in George RR Martin’s writing process will lead to at least one chapter in The Winds of Winter – likely from Jon Connington’s POV perspective – detailing the battle and the guile that Connington plans to use win at Storm’s End.
Guile would be the only way that the Golden Company could take Storm’s End. As Arianne and her party traveled north to rendezvous with Aegon and Connington (Something that will be discussed in-depth in Part 6), one of the Golden Company’s men let slip that the plan was to take Storm’s End. Arianne recounted what so many before her said about taking the castle by force of arms.
Storm’s End? This Griffin is a bold one, it would seem. Or else a fool. The seat of House Baratheon for three centuries, and the ancient Storm Kings for thousands of years before that. Storm’s End was said by some to be impregnable. (TWOW, Arianne II)
However, when Arianne and her company reached Storm’s End, Haldon Halfmaester revealed startling news about Storm’s End:
“Has no one told you?” Haldon Halfmaester favored her with a smile, thin and hard as a dagger. “Storm’s End is ours, the Hand awaits you there.” (TWOW, Arianne II)
This bombshell changed the entire strategic picture of southern Westeros. The Golden Company now held the greatest fortress in southern Westeros, and the political and military impact of its victory would be massive. Yet the question remains: how did Aegon and his forces win?
The Golden Company could not take Storm’s End in the similar fashion that they took Griffin’s Roost: the walls were too strong and the garrison much more numerous and vigilant than the one stationed at Griffin’s Roost. Besides, the Tyrell siege lines surrounding Storm’s End prevented direct access for the Golden Company to launch an assault. Jon Connington likely also recognized the value in avoiding direct conflict with the Reachmen; if he could avoid crossing swords with Lord Mathis Rowan’s army, he had a better chance of persuading some of the Reachmen to join the cause of the Young Dragon. Thus, Connington and Aegon would likely have needed to find another way to get to the castle.
The clearance of the Narrow Sea of enemy sails provided such a route. It’s unclear how many ships the Golden Company had on hand for the Storm’s End mission, but they at least had a few. In Arianne’s second chapter in The Winds of Winter, Haldon Halfmaester made a passing reference at providing seabound passage for Arianne up to Storm’s End:
“The rains have turned the routes to mud. The journey would take two days, perhaps three,” said Haldon Halfmaester. “A ship will have the Princess there in half a day or less.” (TWOW, Arianne II)
Given that the Golden Company had at least a few ships in its possession, it seems at least possible that the Golden Company sailed on Storm’s End instead of marching on it. If this is what happened, a contingent of the Golden Company possibly bypassed Tyrell siege lines and landed on the thin rocky shore due east of the coastal fortress. There, in clear sight of the garrison, they may have raised the fiery stag banner and the sellsword banners of the Golden Company.
Raising the banners of the Golden Company might seem a foolish move, but that act would be in keeping with Connington’s plan to use guile to take the castle. “Loyal” sellswords hired by Stannis would have perhaps been a familiar sight to the garrison. Stannis Baratheon had never been able to garner the sworn swords necessary to fight on his behalf: his paltry army at the start of A Clash of Kings forced the king to seek sellswords and sellsails from across the Narrow Sea.
Here was the heart of his lord’s weakness; for Dragonstone, old and strong though it was, commanded the allegiance of only a handful of lesser lords, whose stony island holdings were too thinly peopled to yield up the men that Stannis needed. Even with the sellswords he had brought across the narrow sea from the Free Cities of Myr and Lys, the host camped outside his walls was far too small to bring down the power of House Lannister. (ACOK, Prologue)
This pattern of Stannis trying to find coin to keep his sellswords and sellsails fighting on his behalf and purchasing the service of new sellsword companies continued throughout his arc. In A Storm of Swords, Stannis’s empty treasury forced him to consider sacking Claw Isle to pay for Salladhor Saan and his sellsails. When Jon Snow made his loan deal with Tycho Nestoris and passed the Braavosi banker onto Stannis to negotiate similar terms, he recognized the value that this potential loan could serve for Stannis’ ability to hire new swords:
If Stannis was not too stiff-necked to accept their terms, the Braavosi would give him all the gold and silver he required, coin enough to buy a dozen sellsword companies, to bribe a hundred lords, to keep his men paid, fed, clothed, and armed. (ADWD, Jon IX)
When the Braavosi finally made contact with Stannis Baratheon, they signed a loan deal which extended a line of credit to Stannis. The king immediately dispatched Ser Justin Massey for Braavos to hire sellsword companies. Stannis’ first choice in sellsword companies was a familiar one to this analysis:
“The Iron Bank has opened its coffers to me. You will collect their coin and hire ships and sellswords. A company of good repute, if you can find one. The Golden Company would be my first choice, if they are not already under contract. Seek for them in the Disputed Lands, if need be.” (TWOW, Theon I)
A sellsword company showing up outside of Storm’s End would have been a welcome and perhaps familiar sight to the embattled garrison. More importantly, there’s a precedent for a heroic relief force arriving at Storm’s End. Davos Seaworth had sailed through the Redwyne blockade during Robert’s Rebellion and brought crucial salt fish and onions to Stannis Baratheon and his besieged garrison at Storm’s End. Were the Golden Company to follow a similar course, they would bring foodstores to a garrison likely running low on supplies. Perhaps in a devious mirroring of events from Robert’s Rebellion, Connington might have claimed that Stannis was coming behind the Golden Company’s advance force to break the siege much as Ned Stark did at the end of Robert’s Rebellion. Given the possible starvation of the garrison, Stannis’ heavy use of sellswords during the War of the Five Kings and the historical precedent set by Davos, the garrison would likely open their gates to the sellsword contingent allowing them into the coastal fastness.
Inside, Jon Connington and the Golden Company would be face-to-face with their enemy. However much the food and extra swords might have been welcomed by the garrison, caution would have been the first course of action by Ser Gilbert Farring and his garrison. Under siege, Farring and his men would likely have been cut off from information pertaining to the outside world. Even if word reached the garrison at Storm’s End of the Golden Company’s landing, Jon Connington’s guile might have partially revolved around letters he began to send at the end of A Dance with Dragons. Part of Connington’s deception against the Iron Throne was to write King Tommen feigning loyalty in exchange for reward:
“Has the time come to raise his banner?” asked Pease.
“Not yet. Let King’s Landing think this is no more than an exile lord coming home with some hired swords to reclaim his birthright. An old familiar story, that. I will even write King Tommen, stating as much and asking for a pardon and the restoration of my lands and titles.” (ADWD, The Griffin Reborn)
Did Connington act similarly against the garrison of Storm’s End by writing a letter stating their intention to relieve the siege in Stannis’ name in exchange for pardons? Perhaps, but I think it’s more likely that the castle knew nothing of what transpired outside of Storm’s End. Stannis sent no letters or ships to Storm’s End in A Dance with Dragons, and however small Mathis Rowan’s army surrounding the castle may have been, they would have been wise to shoot down any birds that might fly to the castle’s ravenry. In that case, Jon Connington and Aegon would have been wiser to return to their secret names and Tyroshi appearances.
In Essos, Jon Connington and Prince Aegon dyed their hair blue and named themselves “Griff” and “Young Griff.” As they entered the walls of Storm’s End, they would have been wise to continue this ruse. “Jon Connington” was a well-known name in the Stormlands, and Jon Connington’s reputation as a fierce opponent of House Baratheon would have preceded him. Moreover, Connington’s flaming hair color coupled with Prince Aegon’s silvery “Targaryen” hair would have been well-known. Thus, Griff and Young Griff would likely have been the names used by Jon Connington and Prince Aegon. While Connington had vowed to let Prince Aegon wash his hair when they arrived in Westeros and allowed his own red and gray beard to grow out naturally during the voyage from Volantis, Connington and Aegon would have been wise to re-dye their hair and beards blue to augment the deception. However, this would not be the full extent of Jon Connington’s deception.
Blue hair and pseudonyms might have gotten Jon Connington, Aegon and his detachment of sellswords through the gate, but Ser Gilbert Farring and his garrison would likely still be suspicious. The garrison had likely been under siege for a few months and any “relief force” could have been a… deception by Stannis’ enemies to gain entry into the castle. To offset this suspicion, I think that it’s very likely that Lord Jon Connington invoked guest right by asking for salt and bread from his “hosts.”
Invoking guest right had the potential impact of allaying fears that the Golden Company intended harm to Ser Gilbert Farring and his garrison. Guest right had been the prevailing tradition guaranteeing the safety of those beneath the roof of of an unfamiliar castle:
“Once you have eaten of his bread and salt, you have the guest right, and the laws of hospitality protect you beneath his roof.” (ASOS, Catelyn VI)
Invoking guest right also guaranteed the inverse protection of the hosts from potential violence of their guests. When Night’s Watch mutineers murdered Craster at his keep in A Storm of Swords, Lord Commander Jeor Mormont decried this breaking of guest right in the harshest terms:
“The gods will curse us,” he cried. “There is no crime so foul as for a guest to bring murder into a man’s hall.” (ASOS, Samwell II)
Here, we return to Jon Connington’s turn towards Tywin Lannister. The Lion Lord allowed no written law, universally-accepted Westerosi tradition or warfare norm to interfere with a victorious endstate for House Lannister. Guest Right could be subverted and garrisons could be slaughtered for the sake of ultimate victory. I think the Griffin Lord acted similarly at Storm’s End. Ser Gilbert Farring and his garrison would likely view the invocation of guest right as the final benchmark to fully accepting the Golden Company into the castle. However, Jon Connington would view guest right as an opportunity for treachery.
Connington now “understood” the utility of vile and evil acts to advance the cause of the “son” of Rhaegar Targaryen. Societal boundaries that prevented his victory at Stoney Sept won’t stand in his way. In The Winds of Winter, I expect that Jon Connington, Aegon and the Golden Company will take salt and bread from Stannis’ garrison at Storm’s End and when the opportunity strikes, turn their swords on their hosts.
In 1491, Perkin Warbeck – allegedly Richard, the younger son of the Yorkist King Edward IV, but actually a false pretender – and his followers gathered swords in France and landed in Ireland hoping to gain the support of the Irish. When support failed to materialize, Warbeck retreated with his small army back to France to try again. His next landing in England proved a more bloody affair as he lost about one hundred and fifty men in his advance party to King Henry’s army before Warbeck could even land. He retreated to Ireland this time gaining the support of the Maurice FitzGerald, 9th Earl of Desmond.
Sensing an opportunity, Warbeck sailed from Ireland to the land of the Scots in 1495. King James IV of Scotland also sensed an opportunity in Warbeck and backed his claim to the English throne with gold and troops (and a Scottish bride). In 1496, Warbeck and his Scottish allies invaded Northern England and burned three or four small keeps. The initial success of Warbeck and his Scottish backers though was thrown into doubt as King Henry VII marshaled an army to confront the pretender.
We’ll have cause to return to Perkin Warbeck, his invasion and his fate in future installments, but the history of Perkin Warbeck has strong parallels to the story of Aegon, Jon Connington, Illyrio, Varys and the Golden Company. The failed invasions of Warbeck and his mixed band of Yorkist exiles and FitzGerald’s Irish troops have broad analogues to the four failed invasions of the Golden Company in the years leading up to the main series and the Golden Company’s composition as a sellsword company of mixed Westerosi exiles and Essosi adventurers. Maurice FitzGerald loosely parallels Illyrio and Varys’ role in the story as the foreign backer of Perkin. King James IV of Scotland and Jon Connington share similarities as fierce military commanders willing to kill their way into a throne for their pretender.
Aegon and Jon Connington’s invasion of Westeros and their initial victories at Griffin’s Roost and Storm’s End won’t go unanswered. Like their Yorkist parallels in the 15th century, they will face a response from the Lannister and Tyrells (Or Henry VII if you prefer). At Griffin’s Roost, Haldon Halfmaester had ominous tidings to report to Arianne:
“There is an army descending on Storm’s End from King’s Landing. You’ll want to be safe inside the walls [of Storm’s End] before the battle.” (TWOW, Arianne II)
The army marching against him would not be a token besieging army or small garrison. The might of the Reach was coming for the Young Dragon, and their numbers vastly exceeded the strength of the Golden Company. Battle would soon be joined, and it would decide the fate of Aegon’s nascent conquest. Southern Westeros was gearing up for another bloody conflict, but would they choose dragon or war?
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- Storm’s End and the Griffin Reborn: An alternate take on how the Battle of Storm’s End will go down by ShopeIV
- The Reds and the Blacks: Steven Attewell’s 4-part series on the history of the Blackfyres
- From Easiest to Hardest: A Ranking of Castle Defenses: SomethingLikeaLawyer’s ranking of the easiest to hardest castles to take by storm. (Storm’s End is the third hardest castle to take in his ranking)
- Symbol and Stories in Westeros, Part 1: The Spider and the Dragon: I’ve linked to SomethingLikeaLawyer’s essay previously, but this essay furthers the idea of how Varys, Aegon and Connington are fixed on symbolic and propaganda victories in their crusade to take Westeros
- A Dance with Dragons Re-Read Project: The Griffin Reborn: Stefan Sasse’s analysis of ADWD, The Griffin Reborn and the strategic situation that Aegon, Connington and the Golden Company face.
- Character Discussion: The Griffin: Reddit character discussion of Jon Connington and his plans to take Storm’s End
Next Up: Dragon or War?