Blood of the Conqueror, Part 10: A Plague of Sparrows


Artwork by Nicole Cardiff

The Seven Gods who made us all, are listening if we should call. So close your eyes, you shall not fall, they see you, little children. (ASOS, Samwell III)

Opposite the Red Keep stands Baelor’s Sept. Within the walls of this massive cathedral lay the beating heart of Westerosi religion: the Faith of the Seven. Governing the form and functions of millions of adherents, the Faith of the Seven was one of the few Westerosi institutions whose reach extended from Dorne to White Harbor. At the pinnacle of this continent-spanning religion was a man known as the High Septon. Serving as Westeros’ version of a medieval pope, the High Septon was a powerful leader of this religion and was seen as the literal avatar of the gods themselves. However theoretically powerful this man was in though, he had practical limits imposed on him by Westeros’ history. A bloody war and the reforms of a Targaryen king had restrained the High Septon and curbed the power that the Faith of the Seven once held. By the start of A Game of Thrones, the Faith of the Seven had morphed into a placid, peaceful religion with a fat, corrupt religious elite presiding over the faithful, but this was about to change.

Within the span of two years, the country had seen its relative stability and peace evaporate into chaotic warfare. The War of the Five Kings had devastated the country, and it was not the warfighters who suffered. The smallfolk had borne the brunt of this war, and the brutalities inflicted on them upended the social fabric of Westeros. One of the chief victims of this upending of the social fabric of Westeros was the Faith of the Seven

Where once the Faith of the Seven had been a conservative, milquetoast part of society, the War of the Five Kings radicalized the religion. Standing atop this new movement was a man who would become known as the High Sparrow. And he was looking at the historical structure of the Faith of the Seven and seeing the power that the Faith once wielded.  

Structure of the Faith of the Seven

Artwork by HBO

Worshipping one god in seven persons, the Faith of the Seven was structured in a pyramid fashion. Organized more tightly at the top of the pyramid and more loosely at the base, the Faith was modeled after the historical medieval Roman Catholic Church. At the top of the pyramid was the High Septon. Much like the Roman Catholic Church’s pope, the High Septon served as the final authority figure for doctrinal disputes, but he was also seen as the manifestation of the gods themselves:

“The Faith will tell you he no longer has any need of a man’s name, for he has become the avatar of the gods.” (AFFC, Cersei VI)

Beneath the High Septon was the Most Devout (or College of Cardinals in Roman Catholicism): a council of the most senior-ranking septons in Westeros who would serve to advise the High Septon and elect a new High Septon once the old one died. Beneath the Most Devout were septons — male members of the clergy who carried out day to day religious worship across Westeros. Septas, then, were female members of the clergy who often served in regular septs as well as lordly houses. Rounding out the non-militant orders of the Faith were the Silent Sisters (a religious order of women who cared for the dead), the Begging Brothers (men who roamed the countryside preaching) and the Contemplative/Brown Brothers (essentially monks who absconded to remote locations to think, pray and study).

Moving beyond the more peaceful religious organization of the Faith of the Seven, the military orders of the Faith of the Seven known as the Faith Militant once played a dominant role in the history of Westeros. Resembling the Knights Templar, Knights Hospitaller and perhaps the crusaders from the Pilgrims Crusade, the military orders of the Faith of the Seven organized themselves into two distinct orders:

  • The Warrior’s Sons: knights and men of high birth who renounced land and titles to serve the Church.
  • The Poor Fellows: smallfolk men and women who protected pilgrims transiting to and from septs.

These military orders were exceptionally important in the history of the Faith of the Seven; however, by the time of the main narrative, the Faith Militant had been extinct for hundreds of years — for reasons we’ll get into in the next section.

As alluded to above, the structure and beliefs of the Faith of the Seven is similar to the medieval Roman Catholic Church — explicitly so. In a 2015 interview, George RR Martin stated that the Faith of the Seven and its structure were a version of the medieval Catholic Church:

“If you look at the history of the church in the Middle Ages, you had periods where you had very worldly and corrupt popes and bishops. People who were not spiritual, but were politicians. They were playing their own version of the game of thrones, and they were in bed with the kings and the lords. And there are other, more direct influences as well between Catholic Church and the Faith of the Seven as well, Martin pointed out. “Instead of the Trinity of the Catholic Church, you have the Seven, where there is one god with seven aspects. In Catholicism, you have three aspects—the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost.” – GRRM Interview, 5/24/2015

With the structure of the Faith of the Seven in place, we can turn towards the violent history of the Faith and its turbulent relationship to the Targaryens.

Church and State: A History

Artwork by Marc Simonetti

Thousands of years before the start of the main series, the Andals invaded Westeros and brought their religion with them:

The Vale and its surrounding peaks were divided into a score of petty kingdoms when the first Andals began wading ashore, with the seven-pointed star painted (or carved, in some cases) on their chests. (TWOIAF, The Vale)

As the Andals advanced from the Vale into the rest of Westeros, they continued carrying symbols of the Faith of the Seven in their conquest of the rest of Westeros south of the Neck:

The eyes of the Andals had turned south, and longships had begun to come ashore all up and down his coasts, full of hungry men with the seven-pointed stars painted on their shields and chests and brows, all of them bent on carving out kingdoms of their own. (TWOIAF, The Stormlands: Andals in the Stormlands)

This co-mingling of religious imagery and the instruments of warfare tied the Faith of the Seven to the sword. This mentality carried the Andals to victories across Westeros, and while the Andal invaders split into rival petty and larger kingdoms, the Faith grew in strength and popularity as well as structure. At some point after the Andal Conquest, the Faith took up residence in what was then-Westeros’ most populous city: Oldtown.  

Oldtown was also the center of the Faith. There dwelt the High Septon, Father of the Faithful, the voice of the new gods on earth, who commanded the obedience of millions of the devout throughout the realms (save in the North, where the old gods still held sway), and the blades of the Faith Militant, the fighting orders the smallfolk called the Stars and Swords. (TWOIAF, The Reign of the Dragons: The Conquest)

Under the protection of the Hightowers, the Faith of the Seven ensconced itself into the city and organized. For a millennia, the High Septon ruled the faithful from Oldtown:

The Lord’s Sept joined in a moment later, then the Seven Shrines from their gardens across the Honeywine, and finally the Starry Sept that had been the seat of the High Septon for a thousand years before Aegon landed at King’s Landing. (AFFC, Prologue)

With Oldtown hosting the High Septon and the Faith becoming the majority religion of most of Westeros, the Faith of the Seven became perhaps the first pan-Westerosi institution. The High Septon’s role as leader of the faithful was such that he was perhaps the most powerful individual in Westeros. This changed when Aegon I Targaryen invaded Westeros.

Aegon I Targaryen intended to conquer Westeros and rule over all of the people south of the Wall, but he could hope to rule Westeros by force alone. He needed to be seen as ‘Westerosi’ by the people. One of the methods he undertook to ingratiate himself with Westeros was religion. Aegon the Conqueror had started his life as a practitioner of traditional Valyrian polytheism but converted to the Faith of the Seven after landing in Westeros. This move by Aegon was intended to offset the appearance of being a foreign conqueror. GRRM, himself, described Aegon’s conversion as a political maneuver. Aegon’s conversion, though, did not guarantee his acceptance by the Faith of the Seven.

After Aegon secured major military victories in Westeros, he moved towards Oldtown. There, the High Septon awaited him:

When word of Aegon’s landing first reached Oldtown, the High Septon had locked himself within the Starry Sept for seven days and seven nights, seeking after the guidance of the gods. He took no nourishment but bread and water, it was said, and spent all his waking hours in prayer, moving from one altar to the next. And on the seventh day, the Crone had lifted her golden lamp to show him the path ahead. If Oldtown took up arms against Aegon the Dragon, His High Holiness saw, the city would surely burn, and the Hightower and the Citadel and the Starry Sept would be cast down and destroyed. (TWOIAF, The Reign of the Dragons: The Conquest)

The High Septon was right to be concerned about the violence that Aegon could inflict upon Oldtown, but it’s interesting to speculate whether the High Septon may have been concerned that Aegon’s conquest and new role as King of the Seven Kingdoms threatened his unique role as leader of one of the only true pan-Westerosi traditions. Regardless, after the conquest was complete, Aegon decided to ally with the Faith of the Seven and wisely decided to have himself crowned in Oldtown by the High Septon. Later, Aegon ordered the construction of the Sept of Remembrance in his new capital of King’s Landing. In these ways, Aegon united the efforts of church and state into his crown and secured the support of Faith for the rest of his reign.

This would all change when Aegon’s sons took the reigns of power. Both Aenys and Maegor Targaryen faced considerable opposition from the Faith of the Seven during their reigns. Aenys began the unraveling of House Targaryen’s relationship with the Faith by sanctioning the expulsion of the Faith of the Seven from the Iron Isles and then further aggravated the Faith by allowing his brother Maegor to take a second wife (Maegor’s first wife was a Hightower and niece to the High Septon). Finally, Aenys nearly-irrevocably broke the union between House Targaryen and the Faith of the Seven when he had his Hand (a septon) preside over the incestuous union of his son Rhaena and daughter Aegon. The reaction by the Faith stunned Aenys:  

From the Starry Sept came a denunciation such as no king had ever received before, addressed to “King Abomination”—and suddenly pious lords and even the smallfolk who had once loved Aenys turned against him. (TWOIAF, The Targaryen Kings, Aenys I)

Thus began the Faith Militant Uprising — a war that would last seven years and span the reigns of Aenys and his half-brother Maegor. Aenys’ fecklessly attempted to defeat the uprising but failed to deter the rage against him. When Aenys died under suspicious circumstances, his brother Maegor succeeded him. Where Aenys seemed to have attempted to negotiate with the Faith to bring a peaceful resolution to the conflict, Maegor was of a different mind. He would destroy the Faith Militant Uprising in the most brutal ways possible.

Standing opposite Maegor during the entirety of his reign was the Faith Militant. The World of Ice and Fire puts it this way:

Chief among Maegor’s foes were the Faith Militant—the orders of the Warrior’s Son and the Poor Fellows—and his war against them provided a constant backdrop to his reign. (TWOIAF, The Targaryen Kings: Maegor I)

In return, Maegor Targaryen regarded the Faith Militant as his chief opposition and envisioned his role to snuff them out completely. One of his early actions against the Faith Militant was a legal one. He created a new sets of laws forbidding holy men from bearing arms. When the Faith Militant refused to disarm and began clustering at the Sept of Remembrance, Maegor instituted one of his most infamous acts:  

Maegor mounted Balerion and flew from Aegon’s High Hill to the Hill of Rhaenys and, without warning, unleashed the Black Dread’s fire. As the Sept of Remembrance was set alight, some tried to flee, only to be cut down by the archers and spearmen that Maegor had made ready. The screams of the burning and dying men were said to echo throughout the city, and scholars claim that a pall hung over King’s Landing for seven days. (TWOIAF, The Targaryen Kings: Maegor I)

However costly the act was for the Faith Militant, the uprising continued for all of Maegor’s reign. When Maegor died, his cousin Jaehaerys I Targaryen assumed power and inherited the Faith Militant Uprising. Jaehaerys was of a different mind than both Aenys and Maegor. Instead of feckless negotiation or extreme brutality, Jaehaerys had different ideas on how to end the bloodshed:

Some counselors urged the Old King to deal with the remnants of the Faith Militant harshly—to stamp them out once and for all before their zealotry could return the realm to chaos. Others cared more for ensuring that the septons were answerable to the same justice as the rest of the realm. But Jaehaerys instead dispatched Septon Barth to Oldtown, to speak with the High Septon, and there they began to forge a lasting agreement. In return for the last few Stars and Swords putting down their weapons, and for agreeing to accept outside justice, the High Septon received King Jaehaerys’s sworn oath that the Iron Throne would always protect and defend the Faith. In this way, the great schism between crown and Faith was forever healed. (TWOIAF, The Targaryen Kings: Jaehaerys I)

In a word, Jaehaerys ended the uprising and established an enhanced union between church and state. By making the Iron Throne the protector of the Faith in return for the disbandment of the Faith Militant, Jaehaerys both ended the war as well as strengthened the Targaryens’ hold on power.

With the military orders of the Faith of the Seven disbanded, the Faith became a much more peaceful religion. They carried out their practices throughout Westeros under the protection of the Targaryen Kings and in return, the military orders of the Faith remained extinct. Later Targaryen Kings strengthened the relationship between church and state. Baelor I Targaryen built a massive cathedral in King’s landing known as Baelor’s Sept and successfully moved the senior leadership of the Faith from Oldtown to the capital city.

With the Faith now centered in King’s Landing, the Targaryens had a much more proximate impact and relationship to the Faith. The High Septon would occasionally sit in small council session, and the Targaryens and their Baratheon successors faced no significant opposition from the Faith of the Seven.   

The Faith on the Eve of War of the Five Kings

Artwork by Fantasy Flight Games

“The High Septon once told me that as we sin, so do we suffer. If that’s true, Lord Eddard, tell me … why is it always the innocents who suffer most, when you high lords play your game of thrones?” (AGOT, Eddard XV)

By the time of A Game Of Thrones, the leadership of the Faith of the Seven had become more or less intertwined with the Iron Throne. From Baelor’s Sept, a fat, corrupt High Septon ruled the flock and sat in small council sessions. Additionally and importantly, the High Septon and the Faith of the Seven had begun to run the church as a money-making organization. Mid-way through A Game of Thrones, Petyr Baelish told Lord Eddard Stark that he was borrowing money from a variety of sources — most recently from the Faith of the Seven:

“The Crown is more than six million gold pieces in debt, Lord Stark. The Lannisters are the biggest part of it, but we have also borrowed from Lord Tyrell, the Iron Bank of Braavos, and several Tyroshi trading cartels. Of late I’ve had to turn to the Faith. The High Septon haggles worse than a Dornish fishmonger.” (AGOT, Eddard IV)

Turning the Faith of the Seven into a money-lending organization had obvious financial benefits to the High Septon, but the second-order effect was to give the appearance that the Faith had more moneyed interests than spiritual ones. This in turn caused a subtle rift between the upper echelons of the Faith and its lay clergy as well as the laity itself. Wealthy and fat, the Faith’s elite were well-removed from the plight of most of their adherents. All of this was below the surface though. While the Faith of the Seven was ripe for reformation, no one knew that this would occur within the span of a few short years. For most of A Game of Thrones, the Faith played a decidedly tertiary role. This would change dramatically on the steps of Baelor’s Sept.

There, Eddard Stark was led in chains up the steps where he confessed his treason and acclaimed Joffrey as the rightful king. This highly-choreographed act was intended to quell the rising political and military tide against the Lannisters, and the High Septon had a part to play. Following Ned’s declarations, the High Septon knelt before Joffrey and then rose to speak to the masses:

“As we sin, so do we suffer,” he intoned, in a deep swelling voice much louder than Father’s. “This man has confessed his crimes in the sight of gods and men, here in this holy place.” Rainbows danced around his head as he lifted his hands in entreaty. “The gods are just, yet Blessed Baelor taught us that they are also merciful. What shall be done with this traitor, Your Grace?” (AGOT, Arya V)

The plan was that Joffrey would pardon Ned Stark on the steps of Baelor’s Sept and then Ned would take the black. However, Joffrey interrupted the careful choreography by instead ordering that Ned Stark be executed on the very steps of Baelor’s Sept. While the crowd roared its initial approval, this act would prove unpopular in the long-term. The High Septon, in particular, condemned the execution of Eddard Stark in the strongest terms:

[Cersei’s] hand tightened into a fist. “The High Septon claims we profaned Baelor’s Sept with blood, after lying to him about our intent.” (ACOK, Tyrion I)

The profaning of Baelor’s Sept would disaapear from the narrative for three books, but when it re-appeared, it would wield a profound resonance during the regency of Cersei Lannister. For the moment though, the death of Eddard Stark sent Westeros spiraling into a continent-wide war that would wreck havoc on the smallfolk of Westeros.

War Radicalizes the Faith of the Seven

Artwork by Rene Aignar

“The riverlands are awash in blood and flame all around the Gods Eye. The fighting has spread south to the Blackwater and north across the Trident, almost to the Twins.” (ACOK, Catelyn I)

From Aegon’s Conquest to the Dance of the Dragons to the Blackfyre Rebellions to Robert’s Rebellion, Westeros had suffered catastrophic continent-spanning civil wars in its history. Yet when the War of the Five Kings erupted across Westeros, the destruction it brought was comparable only to the dance of the dragons. At the epicenter of the clash between Stark and Lannister lay the Riverlands. As a region bordering nearly every region of Westeros, the Riverlands were no stranger to battles being fought on its soil. This war, though, would prove to be much more brutal and much more devastating than almost any war previously fought.

Though the Riverlands had seen its share of atrocities inflicted on it in its history, the level of carnage inflicted on the region during the War of the Five Kings would prove to be catastrophic — with the smallfolk suffering a hitherto unheard-of level of violence. And this violence wasn’t random or the by-product of individual soldiers and units committing war crimes. It was directed and organized. Towards the end of A Game of Thrones, Lord Tywin Lannister gave explicit instructions to his subordinate commanders to commit unparalleled levels of brutality in the Riverlands:

“Unleash Ser Gregor and send him before us with his reavers. Send forth Vargo Hoat and his freeriders as well, and Ser Amory Lorch. Each is to have three hundred horse. Tell them I want to see the riverlands afire from the Gods Eye to the Red Fork.”

“They will burn, my lord,” Ser Kevan said, rising. “I shall give the commands.” (AGOT, Tyrion IX)

Tywin’s objective was to force Robb Stark’s contingent of riverlords to withdraw from Robb’s side to defend their individual keeps and lands at the expense of the whole. This tactic proved to have some effect as the King in the North had reluctantly given leave to some of his riverlords to take their hosts home to defend their lands:

It had been at Edmure’s insistence that Robb had given the river lords leave to depart after his crowning, each to defend his own lands. Ser Marq Piper and Lord Karyl Vance had been the first to go. Lord Jonos Bracken had followed, vowing to reclaim the burnt shell of his castle and bury his dead, and now Lord Jason Mallister had announced his intent to return to his seat at Seagard, still mercifully untouched by the fighting. (ACOK, Catelyn I)

To make matters worse for the smallfolk, when the riverlords arrived back to their holdings, they ordered their own crops to be burned in an attempt to starve out the Lannisters:

“It is bad in the Riverlands, Tyrion. Around the Godseye and along the kingsroad especially. The riverlords are burning their own crops to try and starve us.” (ACOK, Tyrion V)

The damage that the Lannisters and the riverlords inflicted on smallfolk was catastrophic, and it wasn’t all physical. The surviving smallfolk of the Riverlands had seen their men murdered, their women raped and their crops/livestock killed or stolen — by both sides of the war. In a feudal society where the nobility’s right to rule was based on their ability to protect and provide for the people they ruled, the psychological impact was devastating.

As a result of the failure of the nobility, many smallfolk turned to alternative outlets for their protection. Some joined or supported Beric Dondarrion’s Brotherhood Without Banners. More still seemed to turn towards something older and more rooted in the region’s history: the Faith of the Seven. If we return to the idea of the Faith as a pan-Westerosi tradition, this wasn’t exactly a surprise. As the Riverlands turned to their old time religion, King’s Landing was experiencing a similar subtle shift in its religious character.

Though not exposed to the level of destruction that the Riverlands experienced, King’s Landing was beginning to see the effects of the War of the Five Kings. Formerly, food had been transported from the Reach to feed the city, but when Renly Baratheon was crowned by Mace Tyrell, the food shipments ceased. In response, the masses of King’s Landing grew hungry and angry. Much like the psychological impact of the riverlords inability to protect their people, the inability of the Lannisters to provide for the basic needs of the people of King’s Landing created a divide between the people and those in positions of power. Into that chasm stepped radical members of the Faith.

Mid-way through A Clash of Kings, Tyrion Lannister walked around King’s Landing with Bronn to get a sense of the atmosphere ahead of Renly’s or Stannis’ army. While wandering the city, Tyrion came across a begging brother preaching to a gathered mass of King’s Landers. His message of condemnation towards the political class of King’s Landing was dripping with overt religious overtones:

“Corruption!” the man cried shrilly. “There is the warning! Behold the Father’s scourge!” He pointed at the fuzzy red wound in the sky. “We have become swollen, bloated, foul. Brother couples with sister in the bed of kings, and the fruit of their incest capers in his palace to the piping of a twisted little monkey demon. Highborn ladies fornicate with fools and give birth to monsters!” (ACOK, Tyrion V)

The condemnation of the highborn was one thing, but the Begging Brother had another target of his diatribe: the High Septon:

“Even the High Septon has forgotten the gods! He bathes in scented waters and grows fat on lark and lamprey while his people starve! Pride comes before prayer, maggots rule our castles, and gold is all . . . but no more! He jabbed his bony finger back at comet and castle. “There comes the Harbinger! Cleanse yourselves, the gods cry out, lest ye be cleansed! Bathe in the wine of righteousness, or you shall be bathed in fire! Fire!” (ACOK, Tyrion V)

The denunciation of the High Septon was a curious twist and gives readers an early indication of the divide between the Faith’s senior leaders and its lower clerical orders. Where this Begging Brother and many of the smallfolk were suffering physical deprivation and the effects of the food shortage, the High Septon was fat and living a luxurious lifestyle. This contrast was key as it demonstrated how far removed the High Septon was from his alleged flock.

For the moment though, the preacher’s message did not resonate widely with his audience:

“Fire!” other voices echoed, but the hoots of derision almost drowned them out. Tyrion took solace from that. (ACOK, Tyrion V)

Still, the anger at the ruling class and High Septon remained. Later in A Clash of Kings, King’s Landing erupted into a riot. The High Septon, himself, was thrown from his litter and torn to pieces by the crowd. For a certainty, the riot had been caused by extreme anger that the smallfolk felt towards Joffrey and his family as well as the food shortage in the city, but killing the High Septon demonstrated something else: the High Septon’s exalted position could not save him if he was seen as corrupt by the people:  

The list of the slain was topped by the High Septon, ripped apart as he squealed to his gods for mercy. Starving men take a hard view of priests too fat to walk, Tyrion reflected. (ACOK, Tyrion IX)

Tyrion’s reflections were accurate, but after the riot in King’s Landing, Tyrion had a new High Septon appointed by the Most Devout. For a time, this man presided over an uneasy peace among the faithful. However, the war continued to rage in the Riverlands, and further consequences of this war were on their way to King’s Landing.

Enter the Sparrows

Artwork by Marc Simonetti

“The sparrow is the humblest and most common of birds, as we are the humblest and most common of men.” (AFFC, Brienne I)

Traditionally, Westerosi power players used warfare, wealth and diplomacy to amass power for their respective causes and houses. But a new power using old tactics had arisen. The rise of the sparrows movement in Westeros signaled that the power dynamics of the game of thrones was changing. Where the great lords of Westeros could call their banners, dip into their deep coffers or appeal to blood and marriage ties, the sparrows could appeal to a populist rage lashed to the bulwark of organized religion.

Seen as isolated events, the rape of the Riverlands and Riot in King’s Landing were bad but not all that consequential to Westeros. The High Septon had been brutally killed by the mob, but when Tywin Lannister assumed his duties as Hand, his first priority was to restore his particular form of order to Westeros — starting with the ruling elite in King’s Landing. An early target of this “new normal” policy was the Faith of the Seven and the new High Septon. The current High Septon had been appointed by Tyrion Lannister and seemed a placid man, but Tywin needed more from the High Septon.  

Placid and peaceful was part of what Tywin expected from his High Septon, but he also needed to project a restoration of order and Lannister power and wealth to the masses. To demonstrate this, one of Lord Tywin Lannister’s early small council directive was to recraft the High Septon’s crown. The previous crown had been lost when the High Sparrow was murdered during the Riot of King’s Landing. So, Tywin ordered a new, better crown to be forged:

“A few more items remain, my lords.” Ser Kevan consulted his papers. “Ser Addam has found some crystals from the High Septon’s crown. It appears certain now that the thieves broke up the crystals and melted down the gold.”

“Our Father Above knows their guilt and will sit in judgment on them all,” the High Septon said piously.

“No doubt he will,” said Lord Tywin. “All the same, you must be crowned at the king’s wedding. Cersei, summon your goldsmiths, we must see to a replacement.” (ASOS, Tyrion III)

The High Septon’s new crown was forged and according to Tyrion stood higher than the one that the previous High Septon had worn. All seemed normal and ordered; that appearance of normality, though, belied the reality on the ground.

The War of the Five Kings continued to rage in the Riverlands and grew more savage, and the Faith’s clergy were not exempt from its horrors. Jaime and Brienne encountered this as they were dragged to Vargo Hoat’s camp early in A Storm of Swords. There, they discovered a grisly sight:

Nearby, a skinny balding septon hung upside down from the limb of a spreading chestnut tree. Three of the Brave Companions were using his corpse for an archery butt. (ASOS, Jaime III)

The murder and desecration of the septon’s body that Jaime and Brienne witnessed was only one act, but the reality was that this was only a small taste of the mass atrocities committed against the holy in the Riverlands. Still, the war was nearing its close. Unbeknownst to most, the Red Wedding was just around the corner, and when that shocking event occurred, a brutal war drew to a brutal close. However, the effects of that war and the Red Wedding would continue to reverberate beyond the “end” of the war.

Early in A Feast for Crows, Brienne of Tarth encountered a band of begging brothers followed by a gaggle of men and women on their way south to King’s Landing singing religious hymns. In contrast to the High Septon and his brilliant crown of gold and crystal, the men and women she saw were of a much different sort:

A group of begging brothers led the way, scruffy bearded men in roughspun robes, some barefoot and some in sandals. Behind them marched threescore ragged men, women, and children, a spotted sow, and several sheep. Several of the men had axes, and more had crude wooden clubs and cudgels. (AFFC, Brienne I)

When Brienne and her companions spoke to the party, they identified themselves as sparrows. Why sparrows? Because the sparrow was ordinary, common. But this commonality of these sparrows also meant that they were numerous. Brienne noticed something else as well:

In their midst there rolled a two-wheeled wayn of grey and splintered wood, piled high with skulls and broken bits of bone. (AFFC, Brienne I)

When Brienne asked about the wagon of bones, an ordinary man spoke for the group. The wagon contained the bitter fruit of the War of the Five Kings.

“These are the bones of holy men, murdered for their faith. They served the Seven even unto death. Some starved, some were tortured. Septs have been despoiled, maidens and mothers raped by godless men and demon worshipers. Even silent sisters have been molested.” (AFFC, Brienne I)

The sparrows and the wagon were bound for King’s Landing. There, the sparrows planned to lay the bones in front of King Tommen and beg the king to resume his duties as Protector of the Faith. This subtle callback to Jaehaerys’ agreement with the High Septon gives our first indication of the grievances the sparrows were bringing to King’s Landing. Jaehaerys’ agreement with the Faith was that the crown would always protect the Faith of the Seven in exchange for the Faith not taking up arms. But to the sparrows, the crown had not held up their side of the bargain.

To possibly demonstrate the sparrows’ view that the crown had broken Jaehaerys’ agreement, several of the sparrows were armed, and they identified themselves in a quaint way:

“And you, brother,” said Ser Illifer. “Who are you?”

“Poor fellows,” said a big man with an axe. Despite the chill of the autumnal wood, he was shirtless, and on his breast was carved a seven-pointed star. Andal warriors had carved such stars in their flesh when first they crossed the narrow sea to overwhelm the kingdoms of the First Men. (AFFC, Brienne I)

The Poor Fellows had been extinct for hundreds of years, but these sparrows were subtly calling back to the power that the Faith of the Seven once wielded. In many ways, this callback to the past glories was reminiscent of how the Protestant Reformation framed itself in the 16th Century. In contrast to the high-medieval Roman Catholic Church, the Protestant Reformation took Western Europe by storm by  contrasting itself to a church which appeared (and was in many cases) corrupt and straying from its original founding principles. GRRM, himself, cited the Reformation as an influence on his construction of the sparrows movement:

“The Sparrows are my version of the medieval Catholic Church, with its own fantasy twist. But you also had periods of religious revival or reform—the greatest of them being the Protestant Reformation, which led to the splitting of the church—where there were two or three rival popes each denouncing the other as legitimate. That’s what you’re seeing here in Westeros. The two previous High Septons we’ve seen, the first was very corrupt in his own way, and he was torn apart by the mob during the food riots [in season 2]. The one Tyrion appoints in his stead is less corrupt but is ineffectual and doesn’t make any waves. Cersei distrusts him because Tyrion appointed him. So now she has to deal with a militant and aggressive Protestant Reformation, if you will, that’s determined to resurrect a faith that was destroyed centuries ago by the Targaryens.” – GRRM Interview, 5/24/2015

Led by reformers such as Martin Luther, John Calvin and others, the Reformation started as a protest against the growing influence of the sale of indulgences. This protest resonated across Western Europe and many political leaders of the time used the Reformation as cover for breaking away from the pope in Rome. This inevitably led to conflicts and war across Europe. Though somewhat similar as a protest movement, the sparrows had some differences to the Protestant Reformers. The Protestants challenged some of the dogmas and beliefs of the Roman Catholic Church which led to armed conflict. In contrast, the sparrows did not seem to have fundamental doctrinal issues with the Faith of the Seven. Instead, the sparrows were interested in restoring the power that the Faith of the Seven once held — military power to be precise.

The Faith Militant had disbanded hundreds of years before events from A Feast for Crows, yet in Brienne’s first chapter, armed men were declaring themselves to be members of one of its allegedly-extinct orders. This then was an early indication of the sparrows’ viewpoint that the crown was forgoing its role as protector of the Faith. With that grievance, these men and women were arriving in King’s Landing at a crucial moment.

Emerging Chaos in King’s Landing

The sparrows that walked into King’s Landing arrived at a time of turmoil within the city. Tywin Lannister had been murdered by his dwarf son, and with his death the new normal that he tried to institute had died with him. In his place, the boy king Tommen Baratheon nominally held power, but the true power rested with his mother. Cersei Lannister ruled the city as Queen Regent, and she brought new qualities to the ruling class. Chief among those qualities was her growing paranoia.

Where Tywin had attempted to institute order within the ruling class, Cersei Lannister undid much of her father’s work. Believing that Tyrion was within the city weaving new conspiracies, the Queen Regent saw Tyrion’s shadow in many of the players in King’s Landing. Chief among Cersei’s alleged foes was House Tyrell, but Cersei also counted the High Septon as one of her enemies. Tyrion had appointed this High Septon, and to her, that signalled that the High Septon could be working with her hated brother:

This High Septon was of Tyrion’s making, Cersei recalled suddenly. It was a disquieting thought.

The old man’s spotted hand looked like a chicken claw as it poked from a sleeve encrusted with golden scrollwork and small crystals. Cersei knelt on the wet marble and kissed his fingers, and bid Tommen to do the same. What does he know of me? How much did the dwarf tell him? The High Septon smiled as he escorted her into the sept. But was it a threatening smile full of unspoken knowledge, or just some vacuous twitch of an old man’s wrinkled lips? The queen could not be certain. (AFFC, Cersei II)

If the High Septon was working with Tyrion, this was a threat to her and King Tommen. Further damning the High Septon was a conversation that Cersei had with her cousin Lancel Lannister. Lancel and Cersei had an affair during the timetable of A Clash of Kings, but this affair ended after Lancel took a severe wound during the Battle of the Blackwater. Afterwards, Lancel’s father Kevan had brought the High Septon to Lancel’s sickbed, and the boy had found faith praying with the High Septon. When Cersei saw Lancel at Tywin’s funeral, the boy told Cersei of his newfound faith and that the High Septon had revealed to him that the Mother had spared his life so that he could atone for his sins. This seemed a clear threat to Cersei:

Lancel was a weak reed, and she liked his newfound piety not at all; he had been much more amusing when he was trying to be Jaime. What has this mewling fool told the High Septon? (AFFC, Cersei II)

Panicking, Cersei believed that she needed to find a solution to the problem of the High Septon — a permanent one. A few weeks later, bells rang out across King’s Landing signifying that the High Septon had died. Allegedly, the High Septon had died peacefully in his bed. It was only later revealed that Cersei had dispatched Osney Kettleblack to pay the High Septon a visit:

“She’s the queen I fucked, the one sent me to kill the old High Septon. He never had no guards. I just come in when he was sleeping and pushed a pillow down across his face.” (AFFC, Cersei X)

For the moment though, the death of the High Septon eased Cersei’s fears of a conspiracy within Baelor’s Sept against her, but it also created a critical vacancy. The Most Devout, duly tasked with selecting the next High Septon, set about determining who would fulfill this role. Seemingly, four major men rose as candidates for the position:

“My friends upon the other hill tell me that it will most like be Torbert or Raynard.”

Grand Maester Pycelle cleared his throat. “I have friends among the Most Devout as well, and they speak of Septon Ollidor.”

“Do not discount this man Luceon,” Qyburn said. “Last night he feted thirty of the Most Devout on suckling pig and Arbor gold, and by day he hands out hardbread to the poor to prove his piety.” (AFFC, Cersei IV)

While readers don’t get a firsthand account of the election process, it seems as though this was the traditional politicking which went into the election process. Torbert, Raynard and Ollidor were familiar faces to Cersei and save for their septon’s robes, were indistinguishable from the ruling class. Torbert was obese while Raynard and Ollidor were brothel patrons. Luceon appeared to be the wildcard in the mix, winning the faithful through bribery. Few knew at the time that the true wildcards were already in the city and gaining support.

In that same small council meeting where the election of the new High Septon was discussed, the sparrows were brought up:

The queen turned to her Hand. “What were you speaking of when I arrived, Ser Harys?”

“Sparrows, Your Grace. Septon Raynard says there may be as many as two thousand in the city, and more arriving every day. Their leaders preach of doom and demon worship . . .” (AFFC, Cersei IV)

Thousands of sparrows had followed suit with the party that Brienne saw near Duskendale, and their number was growing. And while these sparrows preached against doom and demon worship, they had another grievance too:

“These sparrows are especially outspoken,” warned Qyburn. “The Red Wedding was an affront to all the laws of gods and men, they say, and those who had a hand in it are damned.” (AFFC, Cersei IV)

Guest right was sacred to the Faith of the Seven, and the subversion of this in this in the Red Wedding served as a moral rallying cry to the smallfolk. If Cersei’s small council had been able to put two and two together, they might have seen that the influx of sparrows and their anger over the violation of the most sacred rite in Westeros would have an impact on the choosing of the new High Septon. Cersei, however, dismissed these sparrows as problems for the next High Septon:

Cersei took a taste of wine. Very nice. “And long past time, wouldn’t you agree? What would you call this red god that Stannis worships, if not a demon? The Faith should oppose such evil.” Qyburn had reminded her of that, the clever man. “Our late High Septon let too much pass, I fear. Age had dimmed his sight and sapped his strength.” (AFFC, Cersei IV)

Little did Cersei realize that a member of these sparrows (the very one that Brienne encountered) was on his way to becoming the new High Septon.

The Rise of the Sparrows

Artwork by Marc Simonetti

“They call themselves sparrows,” said Cersei. “A plague upon the land. Our new High Septon will need to deal with them, once he is crowned. If not, I shall deal with them myself.” (AFFC, Cersei V)

Mid-way through A Feast for Crows, all seemed to be going to plan for Cersei Lannister. She had ousted the Tyrells from the small council, Tyrion’s High Septon was dead and she reigned supreme over the city and more nominally over the rest of Westeros. However, this appearance of success obscured the growing radicalization of the smallfolk in the city and in Westeros at large. This radicalization found its natural home and focus in the Faith of the Seven. But the power of this growing radicalization saw its coalescence in a man with no name: the High Sparrow.

Described as an older, small, thin man with hard eyes, the High Sparrow’s past was mostly a mystery.  This has led fans to wonder who this man is — giving rise to theories that he is an agent of Doran Martell’s or perhaps even Howland Reed in disguise. All of these theories posit the High Sparrow working in the context of conspiracies to restore the Targaryens to power or get justice for Ned Stark. However, I find all of these theories to be lacking. The High Sparrow, as we’ll come to find out, entered the stage not as a force for any traditional power player in Westeros. Rather, this man rose to power as the focal point of an organic Westerosi rage against the political and religious elite. Much like the Protestant Reformers of the 16th Century that GRRM based the sparrows movement on, this man’s goals were of a spiritual nature, but they would see its practical implication as a unique power in Westeros.

Regardless of the theories on the High Sparrow’s identity, his power was growing. Thousands of sparrows were in King’s Landing or on their way to the city. At the same time, Cersei Lannister moved to unintentionally weaken herself. In a particularly short-sighted measure, Cersei ordered her brother Jaime and nearly a thousand Lannister soldiers out of King’s Landing to press the crown’s interests in the Riverlands. On his way from King’s Landing, Jaime witnessed the power of the sparrows as two sparrows preached to hundreds of smallfolk:

In Cobbler’s Square two threadbare sparrows were haranguing several hundred smallfolk, crying doom upon the heads of godless men and demon worshipers. The crowd parted for the column. Sparrows and cobblers alike looked on with dull eyes. “They like the smell of roses but have no love for lions,” Jaime observed. “My sister would be wise to take note of that.” (AFFC, Jaime III)

Meanwhile, the city was growing overwhelmed by all of the sparrows who were now inhabiting it, the business interests in particular viewed the sparrows as a threat to their profits:

The queen was pleased to grant him his request. Moon Boy capered as she took her midday meal with members of the merchant guilds and listened to them complain about sparrows wandering the streets and sleeping in the squares. I may need to use the gold cloaks to chase these sparrows from the city, she was thinking. (AFFC, Cersei V)

Finally and most importantly, the sparrows were having a major impact on the selection of the next High Septon. After Cersei’s small council session, the Most Devout were close to electing someone to the position of the High Septon, but then something happened:

“Has His High Holiness been chosen yet?” asked Falyse.

“No,” the queen had to confess. “Septon Ollidor was on the verge of being chosen, until some of these sparrows followed him to a brothel and dragged him naked out into the street. Luceon seems the likely choice now, though our friends on the other hill say that he is still a few votes short of the required number.” (AFFC, Cersei V)

The sparrows were escalating from nuisance to serious problem for the ruling elite of King’s Landing, and they weren’t done. Unbeknownst to Cersei, Luceon was not destined to become the High Septon. Instead, the sparrows were about to perform their boldest act yet. At Baelor’s Sept, the Most Devout continued their deliberations on who would become the next High Septon. Luceon was gaining support and was just shy of victory when the sparrows entered the church:

Qyburn’s whisperers claimed that Septon Luceon had been nine votes from elevation when those doors had given way, and the sparrows came pouring into the Great Sept with their leader on their shoulders and their axes in their hands. (AFFC, Cersei VI)

Using the threat of violence to the Most Devout, the sparrows forced the Most Devout to vote for the begging brother that Brienne spoke with outside of Duskendale. Rather than be slaughtered in Baelor’s Sept, the Most Devout bowed to the will of the men with the axes and selected the High Sparrow to become the new High Septon. No longer marginalized from the vestibule of power, the sparrows now held one of the most important offices in all of Westeros. Still, the sparrows’ power had not reached its full zenith. While men and women self-identified as Poor Fellows, their order was still technically illegal under Jaehaerys’ agreement with the Faith of the Seven. The new High Septon may have been radical, but he did not have the teeth to enforce his radical vision. That would require one of the most consequential conversations in all of A Song of Ice and Fire.

Cersei and the High Sparrow

“In The Seven-Pointed Star it is written that as men bow to their lords, and lords to their kings, so kings and queens must bow before the Seven Who Are One.” (AFFC, Cersei VI)

In writing A Song of Ice and Fire, George RR Martin has written fairly consistently funny, concise and good dialogue. However, in a few rare spots, he’s used dialogue between two characters as points where he intentionally derails the story to allow for a fresh plot twist or direction — Think Tyrion’s dialogue with Aegon over a game of cyvasse in A Dance with Dragons. In A Feast for Crows, readers are treated to one such scene where game-changing dialogue sends the story spiraling into an unexpected direction with massive consequences for the rest of A Song of Ice and Fire.

After the Sparrow’s coup, Cersei Lannister expected the High Sparrow to come to the Red Keep to bless King Tommen. This ritual was seen by Cersei to be an empty act, but she saw the public relations power that this act had:

The blessing was an empty ritual, she knew, but rituals and ceremonies had power in the eyes of the ignorant. Aegon the Conqueror himself had dated the start of his realm from the day the High Septon anointed him in Oldtown. (AFFC, Cersei VI)

Unfortunately for Cersei and Tommen, the new High Septon had not come to the Red Keep to bless Tommen. Cersei needed the High Septon’s blessing, but if he wasn’t going to come to the Red Keep, Cersei would go to him in Baelor’s Sept.

As Cersei ascended Visenya’s Hill, she saw that the election of the High Sparrow had brought more and more men and women of similar circumstance to King’s Landing. Seemingly, the election of the High Sparrow had been a clarion call to more smallfolk to come to King’s Landing. Many of those who arrived had lost their homes, families and livelihoods in the War of the Five Kings. Cersei, though, loathed the people she saw:

Ahead loomed the Great Sept of Baelor, with its magnificent dome and seven shining towers, but between her and the marble steps lay a sullen sea of humanity, brown and ragged and unwashed. Sparrows, she thought, sniffing, though no sparrows had ever smelled so rank.

Cersei was appalled. Qyburn had brought her reports of their numbers, but hearing about them was one thing and seeing them another. Hundreds were encamped upon the plaza, hundreds more in the gardens. Their cookfires filled the air with smoke and stinks. Roughspun tents and miserable hovels made of mud and scrap wood besmirched the pristine white marble. They were even huddled on the steps, beneath the Great Sept’s towering doors. (AFFC, Cersei VI)

Worse-still in Cersei’s eyes, the bones that were originally intended to be presented to King Tommen had instead been piled up around a statue of Baelor the Blessed. A man explained it to Cersei:

“Your Grace, these are the bones of holy men and women, murdered for their faith. Septons, septas, brothers brown and dun and green, sisters white and blue and grey. Some were hanged, some disemboweled. Septs have been despoiled, maidens and mothers raped by godless men and demon worshipers. Even silent sisters have been molested. The Mother Above cries out in her anguish. We have brought their bones here from all over the realm, to bear witness to the agony of the Holy Faith.” (AFFC, Cersei VI)

Cersei attempted to win the crowd by pinning all of the atrocities on Stannis and on the northmen, and promising vengeance. But Cersei met a cool reception from the assembled sparrows. They didn’t want vengeance for the dead, they wanted protection for the living, and so far Tommen wasn’t providing any:

“The Iron Throne must defend the Faith,” growled a hulking lout with a seven-pointed star painted on his brow. “A king who does not protect his people is no king at all.” Mutters of assent went up from those around him. (AFFC, Cersei VI)

The mass atrocities that Westeros endured during the War of the Five King and the broken bond between ruler and ruled was now rearing its ugly head. Though Tommen was only a boy and was not directly responsible for the suffering of the smallfolk, he was the figureheaded inheritor of the atrocities that his predecessors had enacted in Westeros.

Within Baelor’s sept, Cersei finally came face to face with the High Sparrow. Where previous High Septons had flaunted their high position with expensive clothing and a crown, this man wore common robes and was scrubbing the floor of Baelor’s Sept with other septons. Cersei was outraged at her treatment thus far by the High Septon and angrily demanded to know what was going on:

“By rights you should have met me on the steps in your finest robes, with the crystal crown upon your head.”

“We have no crown, Your Grace.”

Her frown deepened. “My lord father gave your predecessor a crown of rare beauty, wrought in crystal and spun gold.

“And for that gift we honor him in our prayers,” the High Septon said, “but the poor need food in their bellies more than we need gold and crystal on our head. That crown has been sold. So have the others in our vaults, and all our rings, and our robes of cloth-of-gold and cloth-of-silver. Wool will keep a man as warm. That is why the Seven gave us sheep.” (AFFC, Cersei VI)

The sale of the High Septon’s crown was an insult to Cersei. Tywin Lannister had spent money to craft a new and more glorious crown for the Faith to demonstrate the power and wealth of the Lannisters, but now this man had sold it to feed the poor. What Cersei did not realize was that there was power in the High Sparrow’s act. While she dismissed him as “mad”, the people saw this man as one of their own instead of a leader removed from their struggles. Scrubbing the floors of Baelor’s Sept and wearing simple garments further augmented this man’s standing in the eyes of the smallfolk. Still, the High Sparrow’s appearances belied an ambitious intelligence underneath.

As the High Sparrow and Cersei spoke further, a rhythm took shape in the conversation. Cersei would bring up a grievance, and the High Sparrow would respond with the underlying cause to that grievance or a larger issue. Cersei’s chief concern was to secure the High Sparrow’s blessing for Tommen, but she had other issues to bring up. First was the issue of the sparrows themselves:

“High Holiness,” she said, “these sparrows are frightening the city. I want them gone.”

“Where should they go, Your Grace?”

There are seven hells, any one of them will serve. “Back where they came from, I would imagine.” (AFFC, Cersei VI)

The High Sparrow’s riposte crushed Cersei’s argument:

“Most have lost their homes. Suffering is everywhere . . . and grief, and death. Before coming to King’s Landing, I tended to half a hundred little villages too small to have a septon of their own. I walked from each one to the next, performing marriages, absolving sinners of their sins, naming newborn children. Those villages are no more, Your Grace. Weeds and thorns grow where gardens once flourished, and bones litter the roadsides.” (AFFC, Cersei VI)

Cersei then attempted the tact of stating her shock at the piles of bones that “defiled” Baelor’s statue. The High Sparrow responded that Baelor’s statue had already been defiled by the execution of Ned Stark:

“Night soil can be washed away more easily than blood, Your Grace. If the plaza was befouled, it was befouled by the execution that was done here.” (AFFC, Cersei VI)

Here, the High Sparrow’s comments on Ned Stark weren’t a statement of some secret affinity or alliance with the Lord of Winterfell. Instead, he was upset that the act had been done in a holy place. Citing Baelor I Targaryen’s record of forgiving his enemies, the High Sparrow then bluntly told Cersei that Ned should have been forgiven. All of the High Sparrow’s responses undercut Cersei’s arguments, but the High Sparrow had one final riposte to Cersei that would send the realm spiraling.

The conversation turned back to the suffering of the smallfolk, and the High Sparrow did not hold back in telling Cersei that not all of the horrors of war were committed by her enemies. Many of the atrocities had been committed by lions:

“Some of my sparrows speak of bands of lions who despoiled them . . . and of the Hound, who was your own sworn man. At Saltpans he slew an aged septon and despoiled a girl of twelve, an innocent child promised to the Faith. He wore his armor as he raped her and her tender flesh was torn and crushed by his iron mail. When he was done he gave her to his men, who cut off her nose and nipples.” (AFFC, Cersei VI)

The High Sparrow then twisted the knife and demanded to know where in the world were the king’s knights to defend the smallfolk:

“As you say. Yet it must be asked—where were the king’s knights when these things were being done? Did not Jaehaerys the Conciliator once swear upon the Iron Throne itself that the crown would always protect and defend the Faith?” (AFFC, Cersei VI)

This was the heart of the sparrows’ grievance against King Tommen and why he had not come to bless him. Was Tommen truly a king if he did not defend his people? Not truly comprehending the Faith’s grievances or its history, Cersei lamely told the High Sparrow to send the smallfolk armed with axes and cudgels to defend against who were destroying septs and killing septons. The High Sparrow called back to the Faith’s history:

“King Maegor’s laws prohibit that, as Your Grace must know. It was by his decree that the Faith laid down its swords.” (AFFC, Cersei VI)

What followed next was Cersei’s worst possible move. Not truly thinking through any of the consequences of what might happen, Cersei decided in a stroke to undo the last thing that restrained the sparrows from coming into their fullest power:

“Tommen is king now, not Maegor.” What did she care what Maegor the Cruel had decreed three hundred years ago? Instead of taking the swords out of the hands of the faithful, he should have used them for his own ends. She pointed to where the Warrior stood above his altar of red marble. “What is that he holds?”

“A sword.”

“Has he forgotten how to use it?”

“Maegor’s laws—”

“—could be undone.” (AFFC, Cersei VI)

Undoing the laws that prevented the Faith from arming was an incredibly dangerous course of action that Cersei was proposing. For one, this would create an army headquartered in King’s Landing at a time when Cersei’s own forces were significantly diminished. More importantly, the arming of the Faith created a separate military structure whose loyalty to Tommen was dubious. By granting the right for the High Sparrow to raise soldiers, Cersei was in effect elevating the man to practical lordship. Worse still, the power of most lords was restrained by the limitations of their holdings and borders. Given the preeminence of the Faith of the Seven over much of Westeros, the High Sparrow could raise tens of thousands of men from across the land.

Cersei, though, believed that she had gained victory and secured a loyal army for her son. Most importantly for her, she finally convinced the High Sparrow to forgive the loans that the Faith of the Seven had lent to Littlefinger:

“Your High Holiness spoke of forgiveness earlier. In these troubled times, King Tommen would be most grateful if you could see your way to forgiving the crown’s debt. It seems to me we owe the Faith some nine hundred thousand dragons.”

“Nine hundred thousand six hundred and seventy-four dragons. Gold that could feed the hungry and rebuild a thousand septs.”

“Is it gold you want?” the queen asked. “Or do you want these dusty laws of Maegor’s set aside?”

The High Septon pondered that a moment. “As you wish. This debt shall be forgiven, and King Tommen will have his blessing.” (AFFC, Cersei VI)

To Cersei, this entire conversation had been a triumph for her and her interest. The crown had fewer debts, Tommen had soldiers for his own army, and most importantly to Cersei, she was planning to use the High Sparrow and the reborn Faith Militant against the final “conspirators” against her rule: the Tyrells.

These seemed victories for Cersei, but they would have massive unintended consequences for Cersei and the realm.


The return of the Faith Militant in A Feast for Crows to Westeros upended the story and introduced a brand new faction into the realm’s power politics. Now armed and growing in popularity and numbers, the Faith Militant emerged as a powerful force within King’s Landing to Cersei’s initial delight. Events after the rebirth of the Faith Militant would subsequently sour Cersei’s delight. As we’ll come to discover though, the radicalization and militarization of the Faith of the Seven would have far-ranging consequences to the rule of the Lannisters, but it would also have consequences for the queen herself.

While the War of the Five King was over, Tommen’s hold over Westeros was tenuous at best with many claiming that the boy was a bastard born of incest and thus not the true king. As the High Sparrow mentioned to Cersei, there were other claimants to the Iron Throne and to elevate Tommen over them made for poor politics. Fortunately at the time for Cersei, the other would-be kings were of no interest to the High Sparrow. Stannis Baratheon was a follower of R’hllor. Balon and Euron Greyjoy were ostensible believers in the Drowned God. And those surviving Starks or northmen who might stir up new war against the Iron Throne were followers of the old gods. The only choice during the timeline of A Feast for Crows was Tommen.

However, there was another choice on his way to Westeros. A boy bearing the name of Aegon was coming to Westeros, and this boy was not like Cersei. He knew his histories and he had been instructed in the mysteries of the Faith of the Seven. He was not ignorant of the power of symbol politics either. Beneath the banners of the red dragon, Aegon presented a palpable alternative to Tommen, but would the High Sparrow remain stand with the Lion or choose the Dragon?

Thanks for reading! I invite you to follow me on twitter at @BryndenBFish. Additionally, I invite you to follow the Wars and Politics of Ice and Fire twitter, facebook and tumblr to stay abreast of all that we’re doing!

Next Up: An Alliance With God

Further Reading



Filed under ASOIAF Analysis, ASOIAF History, ASOIAF Political Analysis

9 responses to “Blood of the Conqueror, Part 10: A Plague of Sparrows

  1. Gonzalo

    Just to clarify that the Most Devout also include septas

  2. This is massive – must have AUDIO!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  3. Very nice addition to your series! I agree with the above commentator, an audio version would be really nice. I’ve enjoyed the audios you have created in the past.


    Two months since an update… I was starting to worry a Faceless Man had gotten you guys, Brynden 😀

  5. Maya

    You wrote, “incestuous union of his son Rhaena and daughter Aegon”.
    The names should be switched.

  6. Kuruharan

    No point in ignoring the elephant in the room.

    Since the show has brushed the Faith aside as irrelevant in the end game of the TV series, do you see them as being ultimately irrelevant in the books as well?

    My theory, and you touch on the topic at the end, is that the Sparrows are destroyed in the wrangle between Cersei and Aegon, which Cersei wins to then face Daenerys.

  7. Maurice Mosseri

    we need more!!!

  8. species5618w

    I never quite understood the power of the faith (probably because I am faithless). In the show, the army of Tyrell besieged the high sparrow and the faith militants were powerless and scared. The Tyrells backed down because Tommen backed the high sparrow. I never quite understood why since the high sparrow still had their heir. If it was Tywin Lannister, he would have said “The king is tired. See him to his chambers! Kill the rest!”. The faith militants would no doubt be a major power in the long run, but I don’t see them being a threat in a few years.

  9. Spike

    I really appreciated this essay. I over looked and disliked the Septon And Faith militant in the novels and so I found this really interesting.

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