IntroductionHouse Peake is of the most loathed houses in Westeros, and not without reason. Its history seems to relate endless examples of treachery, deceit, and naked, clawing, even murderous ambition, without the veneer of likable characters or sympathetic circumstances to win readers’ hearts. Worse, its traditional rival family – House Manderly, now of White Harbor – is one of the most beloved secondary houses in Westeros, seemingly stocked with, if no better-hearted people, individuals of far nobler intentions.
Yet is that really all there is to say about the Lords of Starpike? It seems unfair – and uncharacteristic of George RR Martin – to create a simple villainous house, an eternal mummer’s dragon given for the chosen heroes to fight. Rather, in their historical conflicts, the Manderlys and Peakes were not clearly heroic or clearly villainous actors – simply two families, both eager for political placement and advancement in the cutthroat world of Westerosi politics. An examination of these conflicts, and others in which House Peake was involved, may serve to broaden understanding of House Peake – not, perhaps, to raise it to a level of belovedness enjoyed by its rivals, but instead remove its one-dimensional villainous aspects.
A Deep-Rooted Rivalry
To begin any analysis of House Peake, it is important to understand its origins. House Peake has been a noble house in the Reach for thousands of years, vassals to the Gardener kings long before the Andals ever stepped ashore. Like all the rest of the Reach’s most distinguished families, House Peake claimed descent from Garth himself, through one of his semi-mythical children – in the Peakes’ case, Florys the Fox (also claimed by House Florent and House Ball). As haughty as the Florents would appear later about their blood claim to Highgarden, the Peakes may have shared that firm belief in their dynastic importance.
Interestingly, House Manderly is not noted to have a heroic ancestor or ancestress among Garth’s children in The World of Ice and Fire. It may be simply an oversight on the authors’ part, or it may suggest that the Manderlys were not as dynastically exalted as their Reacher neighbors. Perhaps part of the origins of the Manderly-Peake feud can be traced to this source: the Peakes had a historically significant forebear in the person of Florys (Garth’s cleverest daughter) where the Manderlys may have not. A similar motivation lay behind part of the great and seemingly eternal feud between the Brackens and Blackwoods:
“How did all this begin, between Blackwood and Bracken? Is it written down?”
“It is, my lord,” the boy said, “but some of the histories were penned by their maesters and some by ours, centuries after the events that they purport to chronicle. It goes back to the Age of Heroes. The Blackwoods were kings in those days. The Brackens were petty lords, renowned for breeding horses. Rather than pay their king his just due, they used the gold their horses brought them to hire swords and cast him down.” (“Jaime I”, A Dance with Dragons)
With a number of reacher families initially claiming petty kingships – the Redwynes and Hightowers two examples of such – it would not be a far leap to suggest that the Peakes claimed to be kings as well. Could it be that, in Peake history, the Manderlys were simply ambitious, disloyal vassal lords, unwilling to accept the dominance of the mythically blooded masters of Starpike? It is at least a possibility; without more information on the origins of the rivalry, it must however remain in the realm of mere theory.
Whatever the cause of the rivalry, the feud was certainly noteworthy in the history of the Kingdom of the Reach. In The World of Ice and Fire, Maester Yandel makes note of several instances of historical house rivalry in the Reach; if the septons and maesters recording the Reach’s history found the rivalry important enough to record such that Yandel found these references in his research, the politics of that realm must have been strongly affected and influenced by the struggle for power between Manderly and Peake (especially as the feud likely began long before the Andal Invasion, before any written recording of history was taking place).
House rivalries are no new phenomenon in Westeros: with a number of noble houses living in a concentrated area, continually attempting to ensure their own dominance by increasing family lands and making advantageous marriages, rivalries among neighbors are expected rather than surprising. Bracken and Blackwood might be the most famous example of this rivalry system, but equally heated, mutual enmity may be observed between the marcher lords and their Dornish neighbors. Even among non-marcher Reacher houses, loathing for the Dornish to the south runs deep; Ser Arys Oakheart comments on the strong hatred:
He was a man of the Reach, and the Dornish were his ancient foes, as the tapestries at Old Oak bore witness. Arys only had to close his eyes to see them still. Lord Edgerran the Open-Handed, seated in splendor with the heads of a hundred Dornishmen piled round his feet. The Three Leaves in the Prince’s Pass, pierced by Dornish spears, Alester sounding his warhorn with his last breath. Ser Olyvar the Green Oak all in white, dying at the side of the Young Dragon. (“The Soiled Knight”, A Feast for Crows)
In this context, it is wholly unsurprising that the Manderlys and Peakes would become rivals. Yet should that mere rivalry imply some villainous intentions on the parts of the Peakes? That King Gwayne III Gardener was lauded as a peacemaker for persuading the heads of the houses to accept his judgment on their quarrel, without shedding blood in battle, suggests that there had been mutual antagonism and sword-rattling before the Gardener crown intervened (much in the way Duncan the Tall offered to appeal to Lord Rowan, mutual liege of the Webbers and Osgreys, to relieve the rising tension between the neighbors). If the Peakes had been the simple aggressors of the helpless Manderlys, it seems probable King Gwayne would have censured the Peakes more harshly.
Indeed, that the Manderlys were not passive victims of Peake aggression can be plainly noted by their participation in a Gardener succession crisis. King Garth X, longest-reigning of the Gardener kings, lacked the sagacity of Gwayne III: his vanity and frivolousness encouraged factionalism at his court among scheming sycophants (as was seen in the court of Aegon IV), and in his years of senility these schemers openly manipulated the weak king for their personal gains. Worse for the realm; King Garth had sired no male heir. While the Reach presumably followed the Andal-First Men succession rules of daughters before uncles, no Queen of the Reach was recorded by Maester Yandel. When King Gerold III Lannister died leaving only a daughter, the lords of the Westerlands had bypassed that daughter for rule entirely and crowned her Andal husband, Joffrey Lydden, as King Joffrey Lannister; doubtless any the reacher lords who had married Garth X’s daughters thought – or hoped – that the same fate would befall him.
Demonstrating active ambition, both Houses Peake and Manderly had arranged marriages to the Gardener princesses (more houses are not reputed to have done so; it may be presumed that Garth left only the two daughters, or that any other daughters were quickly invalidated or unwed for one reason or another). As Garth Greybeard grew weaker, Manderly and Peake both claimed the Reach on behalf of their princess brides; according to Maester Yandel, the rivalry was “marked by betrayal, conspiracy, and murder, finally escalating into open war”. Once again, the Peakes do not seem to have been mere villains here; Peakes and Manderlys together formed reacher coalitions and waged a decade of anarchic war in a Dance for the Reach – a war for which finger would become the new green hand.
Further demonstrating the ambiguity of the conflict, both the Peakes and Manderlys ignored the exterior threats to the kingdom; Lannister and Durrandon kings claimed huge swaths of territory, and Dornish petty kings sacked Highgarden, slew Garth himself, and destroyed the precious Oakenseat. Like the greens and blacks during the Dance, the Manderly and Peake factions were equally responsible for undermining general Reach power for the personal triumph of their respective ambitions. Indeed, both houses became so loathed during the conflict that High Steward Osmund Tyrell gathered 40 reacher houses and defeated both in battle; to underline that neither Peake nor Manderly would rule the Reach, Osmund offered the crown to a second cousin, who was subsequently crowned as King Mern VI. Neither Peake nor Manderly emerged from the conflict with unscathed reputations; indeed, the new power in the Reach (Osmund Tyrell and his son and grandson were considered invaluable for their acumen during Mern’s reign) had black-marked them both.
Less well known is how the Peakes managed finally to drive the Manderlys out of the Reach permanently. Yandel only notes the following about the circumstance:
Built with the wealth that the Manderlys had brought with them from the Reach after having been driven into exile by Lord Lorimar Peake at the behest of King Perceon III Gardener, who feared their swelling power in the Reach, White Harbor has more in common with the fine castles and towers of the Reach than with the castles of the North; it is said that the New Keep was built to reflect the castle of Dunstonbury, which the Manderlys had lost in their exile. (“The North: The Kings of Winter”, The World of Ice and Fire)
It may be easy for readers to dislike the Peakes for the Manderlys’ exile. The image of devious Lorimar Peake, whispering in the ear of King Perceon III that his cousins of Manderly, swelling in power, would claim the throne themselves, is perhaps a natural one, especially given later shadowy, ambitious moves associated with the House. Indeed, Lorimar might well have reminded his king about the Manderly’s role in the Dance for the Reach, while neatly downplaying House Peake’s involvement in the conflict.
Yet what more lay behind the circumstance which Yandel fails to record? The Manderlys certainly do not appear to have been a helpless family; their having taken sufficient funds into exile to build a splendid keep worthy of its reacher inspirations argues against some hurried, midnight flight out of the Reach and for a more complicated political situation. Moreover, their earlier involvement in Garth X’s decline indicates a family willing to use its considerable personal power to advance itself. To blame Lorimar alone is to suggest that King Perceon was too exceptionally weak to see the ambition the Peakes probably held to seize the lands of their rivals once and for all; to see the Manderlys as powerless victims of fate is to suppose that the house had done nothing to merit Perceon’s distrust, and that the fellow houses of the Reach were complacent to watch blatant royal tyranny deprive an ancient family of its holding for no crime.
Without more information, it is naturally impossible to say what spurred the exile of the Manderlys, yet it seems unlikely the exile was a simple case of the poor, helpless Manderlys driven away from home by the malicious Peakes. Given Wyman Manderly’s own ambitions for his house in the present story – ambitions which potentially foresee the installation of a Manderly-backed lord, a Manderly regency and even a Manderly queen – it might well be that in the Peake-Manderly struggle of wills, the Peakes simply outplayed their rivals, at least short-term. Can an ambitious Westerosi house be faulted for triumphing over its longtime rivals, at least where no obvious underhanded tactics are known to have been used? Affirming so arbitrarily divides certain players of the game of thrones into necessary protagonists and antagonists, a system incompatible with the complex politics of Westeros or the greater themes of Martin’s novel series.
House Peake in the Time of Dragons
The dismissal of the Peakes’ rivals would not end the Peakes’ ambitions, as would not the destruction of the Kingdom of the Reach; instead, as with every other ambitious Westerosi house, the Peakes continued to seek avenues of advancement. The most notable avenue, at least for the Peakes, came almost two centuries after the Targaryen Conquest, when Daemon Blackfyre declared himself the rightful Lord of the Seven Kingdoms. Lord Gormon Peake was one of the staunchest supporters of the Blackfyre cause, yet that association should not alone taint his reputation as villainous. The war divided the realm, with great noble houses choosing sides and many choosing the Blackfyres. To damn the Peakes for black dragon allegiance is to likewise censure the Yronwoods, the Hightowers, the Oakhearts, the Reynes, the Crakehalls, and the dozens of other families who clashed with red dragon forces. Indeed, Lord Gormon was reputed to be one of the finest knights of his day; his allegiance to Daemon Blackfyre likely stemmed in part from personal respect of gregarious, charming, consummately chivalrous, and peerlessly martial Daemon.
To be sure, there were material gains to be had from joining the Blackfyre cause, yet once again, the Peakes were by no means alone in that ambition. It seems probable that Lord Gormon believed Daemon would name him Lord Paramount of the Reach after he won, replacing the Tyrells (who had backed Daeron II). Perhaps the Peakes drew on their ancient blood connection to the Gardener kings to reach that conclusion: like the Florents, who complained vociferously of their superior claim to Highgarden, their kin the Peakes may have also believed they had a far better claim to become the rulers of the Reach, and the opportunity to press that claim in the power shift that would inevitably follow a victory by Daemon. Indeed, a number of ambitious secondary houses besides the Peakes backed the Blackfyres, all perhaps sharing the hope of removing their overlords and becoming paramount houses. Like the Peakes, the Yronwoods and Reynes both had arguably better claims to rule their respective regions (the Yronwoods were High Kings of Dorne before Nymeria’s conquest, and the Reynes petty kings before the arrival of the Lannisters), and both were notable in their backing the black dragon. It may have appeared a worthy gamble to Lord Gormon: supporting his Tyrell lieges would allow him to keep his lands if Daeron won, but throwing the family lot behind Daemon allowed for the glittering possibility of gaining Highgarden and all the fertile Reach. That it was a gamble the Peakes lost does not any more qualify them as villains than any other family who tried and failed to play the game of thrones.
The Peakes remained notorious for their support of the Blackfyres long after the banners left the Redgrass Field: perhaps the Peakes clung to the ideological draw of the Blackfyre cause, the tempting prize of Highgarden, or the losses they had suffered backing the Black Dragon (or perhaps all three). It was not on its face foolish to support the Blackfyres in their first rebellion; it was reasonable to believe, at the beginning of his campaign that Daemon had a legitimate chance to overthrow Daeron II, and indeed, Daemon came incredibly close. Some 15 years after the end of the First Blackfyre Rebellion, however, Gormon allowed his ambitions to overstep his reason. Doubtless Gormon thought he might become the head of a glorious new rebellion – a sure choice to be Daemon II’s Hand – but the logistics of the plan were so poor and the execution even more so that Bloodraven quashed it with relative ease. None can doubt that the Second Blackfyre Rebellion was a foolish attempt to revive the glory of the First, and Lord Gormon’s framing of the proud but good-hearted Glendon Ball earns him no love from readers. Still, the Second Blackfyre Rebellion was not the only failed political coup in Westerosi history, and if Gormon Peake was rightly a fool for trying it, he is in a great company of fools.
The last mention of the Peakes in history came in 233 AC, at the Peake Uprising. Why the Peakes chose that moment to rebel against the crown is not known, though their rebellion may not have been entirely illogical. After the death of Daeron II, the country was ruled nominally by the reclusive Aerys I and in practice by the notoriously anti-Blackfyre Bloodraven. The Hand’s secret police network became infamous, and it may have been that the Peakes especially felt Bloodraven’s thousand and one eyes fixed upon them, open as they had been in their Blackfyre support.
Moreover, after the death of Aerys, his brother Maekar came to the throne – a man who had actively fought against the Blackfyres in the First and Third Blackfyre Rebellions. Maekar was a consummately dutiful man, as firm and unyielding in his sense of duty as Stannis Baratheon would be later; to such a man, a family which had conspired in rebellion against the Iron Throne twice in two decades would be a family to watch closely, and more probably a family fit to be punished. If the Peakes felt themselves wronged by the Iron Throne enough to rebel, they would not be the only ones in Westerosi history. Lord Lyonel Baratheon, incensed at Prince Duncan’s spurning of his Baratheon fiancee for the commoner Jenny of Oldstones, declared himself the new Storm King, a rebellion only suppressed by single combat with Duncan the Tall and the promise of a Targaryen bride for Ormund.
One Peake, of course, cannot be defended: Lord Unwin Peake. Lord of Starpike, Dustonbury and Whitegrove during the Dance and its aftermath, Unwin had sworn allegiance to greens (doubtless to remain in the good graces of his overmighty Reach neighbors, the Hightowers) and had received “royal” assent (that of Aegon II’s youngest brother, Prince Daeron) to the murders of the black dragonriders Hard Hugh Hammer and Ulf the White. Unwin did not in the end murder the dragonriders, though his spirit remained devious.
In the reign of Aegon III, Unwin insisted on becoming regent, and used his position to be appointed Hand of the King, advance his relations, and undermine his enemies. Desirous to have his own daughter made queen, Unwin almost certainly (even Yandel believes it to be the case) arranged the murder of Aegon’s queen, Jaehaera. The use of Unwin’s own bastard brother, Ser Mervyn Flowers of the Kingsguard (whose position ensured he could be near the queen without suspicion), or the sellsword Tessario the Tiger, kept the regent’s own hands clean, though he failed to place a crown on his daughter’s head. If any Peake could rightly be called a villain, it would be Unwin.
It may be right to call Unwin a true villain, but is he the exception that proves the rule? To be sure, the Peakes have demonstrated ambition enough for any house, and proved willing to use many means – from backing rival claimants to attempting to seize control of a kingdom – in order to secure the fruits of that ambition. Yet ambition cannot be a cardinal sin for House Peake, while excused in every other Westerosi house. If the Peakes had been devious, they had hardly exceeded their reacher neighbors, much less their fellow Westerosi; they had gambled poorly on more than one occasion, but they had the tenacity to survive where others had been swiftly erased from the annals of history.
It might also be remembered that for the thousands of years House Peake has thrived in Westeros, we as readers have only a very small handful of individuals – and only one indisputable Peake encountered in narrative – recorded on which to base the house’s reputation. Could there have been nice Peakes in that entire span, generous Peakes in all these generations, Peakes who served their lieges faithfully and demonstrated courage, wit, and prudence? To argue the negative would rely on a wildly unlikely statistical outcome. It may be impossible to truly sympathize with the Peakes, but nevertheless one may still show the masters of Starpike some pity – not for their great reputation, but for a seemingly fated designation to always be on the wrong side of history.