Artwork by Marc Fishman
From Visenya’s Hill, the call went out to the faithful that Maegor’s Laws were undone; the Faith of the Militant had been reborn. Granted extraordinary powers by the crown, knights flocked the banner of the Warrior’s Sons while smallfolk men and women gathered under the Poor Fellows. Meanwhile on Aegon’s High Hill, Cersei Lannister began her preparations to undercut the growing power of Highgarden and bring about the downfall of Margaery Tyrell. None of these parallel political movements and conspiracies accounted for the wildcard of Aegon’s coming.
Across the Narrow Sea, Prince Aegon and his party made their final preparations for their invasion of Westeros. Prince Aegon had a strong force in the Golden Company, but he also had another weapon in his arsenal: ideology. Aegon had been shaped for rule since his youth, and part of his royal instruction included a strong religious education. When the young dragon landed in Westeros, he would bring his army of sellswords to bear against the might of Highgarden and Casterly Rock, but he would also present a striking ideological alternative to the ruling elite of King’s Landing. To the High Sparrow, this would present a difficult choice on whether to back Aegon, but to the young dragon, if he were to stand a chance at taking King’s Landing, he would need the support of the High Sparrow.
Meanwhile, with the Tyrells and Lannisters in near open conflict with each other, the High Sparrow and the Faith Militant were quickly becoming power players in Westeros, and their growing power in the capital itself made the them the most powerful political actors within the city itself in advance of Aegon’s final approach to the city.
The Sparrows Battle Wickedness
As Aegon and the Golden Company prepared to depart Essos, the High Sparrow gathered his flock of sparrows in King’s Landing:
The knights wore swordbelts striped in the seven colors of the Faith. Crystals adorned the pommels of their longswords and the crests of their greathelms. They carried kite shields of a style not common since the Conquest, displaying a device not seen in the Seven Kingdoms for centuries: a rainbow sword shining bright upon a field of darkness. Close to a hundred knights had already come forth to pledge their lives and swords to the Warrior’s Sons, Qyburn claimed, and more turned up every day. (AFFC, Cersei VIII)
Hundreds of men and women were taking up arms and joining the reborn military orders of the Faith of the Seven in the city, and some of those swearing fealty to the gods were veteran warriors with years of experience. Ser Theodan Wells took command of the Warrior’s Sons and seemingly began to mold these pious knights into a legitimate fighting force. The influx of sparrows wasn’t limited to King’s Landing either. In the Riverlands, Jaime Lannister saw the rising strength of the Faith Militant when he visited Darry enroute to Riverrun:
As Jaime trotted across the yard, chickens ran out from under Honor’s hooves, sheep bleated, and peasants stared at him with sullen eyes. Armed peasants, he did not fail to note. Some had scythes, some staves, some hoes sharpened to cruel points. There were axes in evidence as well, and he spied several bearded men with red, seven-pointed stars sewn onto ragged, filthy tunics. More bloody sparrows. Where do they all come from? (AFFC, Jaime IV)
What Jaime could not understand was that the growing power of the sparrows was due entirely to his family’s actions specifically in the Riverlands. The army of sparrows that were massing in King’s Landing and the Riverlands were the expression of a popular outrage against the abuses committed during the War of the Five Kings. This is one of the flashing warning signs that Cersei should have heeded in her conversation with the High Sparrow. The sparrows’ grievances were built on a foundation of war atrocities that had been committed by her father and brother’s armies. So, while Cersei Lannister had allowed the Faith to rearm with the expectation that the High Sparrow and his army to be loyal to her and her son, these men and women were already hostile to the Lannister regime. The sparrows wouldn’t follow Cersei’s orders on principle. Instead, these men and women obeyed the commands of gods as given through their avatar: the High Sparrow, and the High Sparrow had other priorities other than ridding the realm of Cersei’s enemies.
Now that the Faith Militant had the legal teeth to operate in Westeros, they were beginning to flex their muscles. Late in A Feast for Crows, Cersei received a delegation from the Faith headed by Septon Raynard. Cersei had heard that the sparrows had become a nuisance to one of the most lucrative sources of tax revenue in King’s Landing: organized prostitution:
“His High Holiness sent me in his stead, and bade me tell Your Grace that the Seven have sent him forth to battle wickedness.”
“How? By preaching chastity along the Street of Silk? Does he think praying over whores will turn them back to virgins?”
“Our bodies were shaped by our Father and Mother so we might join male to female and beget trueborn children,” Raynard replied. “It is base and sinful for women to sell their holy parts for Coin.” (AFFC, Cersei VIII)
Cersei, though, ordered the High Sparrow to cease and desist:
“These sinners feed the royal coffers,” the queen said bluntly, “and their pennies help pay the wages of my gold cloaks and build galleys to defend our shores. There is trade to be considered as well. If King’s Landing had no brothels, the ships would go to Duskendale or Gulltown. His High Holiness promised me peace in my streets. Whoring helps to keep that peace. Common men deprived of whores are apt to turn to rape. Henceforth let His High Holiness do his praying in the sept where it belongs.” (AFFC, Cersei VIII)
It’s unclear whether the High Sparrow obeyed Cersei’s command, but I have to imagine that he likely ignored Cersei’s order. This small scene, though, served as the plot underpinning for the High Sparrow’s most audacious act to come. The sparrows were preaching against prostitution and urging the prostitutes of the Street of Silk to marry and bear trueborn children. Cersei had strayed from her marriage bed and offered her body to the Kettleblacks in exchange for various favors and protection. And her children were all bastards born of an incestuous union between herself and Jaime.
The queen regent had set the stage for the High Sparrow to move against her, and the “justice” that the High Sparrow brought to Cersei would rock the political world of King’s Landing.
The High Sparrow Moves Against the Queens
Cersei had created a monster in the Faith Militant, and this monster was about to turn on its benefactor. Before Cersei could be arrested or be marched naked across King’s Landing, she first had to commit one final act that invested the High Sparrow with new implied powers. Though the queen regent envisioned the Faith Militant as her puppets, Cersei Lannister found out to her chagrin that this was not the case. In lieu of a lengthy section summarizing the conspiracy that Cersei Lannister enacted against Margaery Tyrell or a blow-by-blow account of Cersei’s arrest and walk of shame, I think here, it’s important to talk about the military and political effects of a Faith Militant growing ever-bold with each new action.
Ostensibly, the Faith had been allowed to rearm to defend pilgrims and holy sites from the horrors of war, but it did not have the ability to enforce its moral code on the populace of Westeros. This changed when Cersei had Osney Kettleblack approach the High Sparrow and confess that he had sexual relations with Margaery Tyrell. When the High Sparrow acted on this information and arrested Margaery, it signalled a new phase of radicalization.
By delegating the problem of Margaery to the High Sparrow, Cersei de-facto empowered the Faith to enforce its own legal code in Westeros. Though lords and lords paramount had some leeway in enforcing the laws of Westeros, they were still dependant on the crown for to serve as supreme authority for its laws. In fact, the only real judicial power that the Faith had prior to Cersei’s undoing of Maegor’s Laws was to serve as a sort-of master of ceremonies when nobles opted for trial by battle in lieu of a regular trial. Cersei’s short-sighted desire to rid herself of Margaery ended the jurisprudence limitations set on the Faith and instituted a separate legal code controlled by the High Sparrow. Cersei found this out to her horror at the end of A Feast for Crows when the High Sparrow imprisoned her and charged her with crimes:
Night or day, whenever the queen closed her eyes to sleep, one of her captors would appear to wake her and demand that she confess her sins. She stood accused of adultery, fornication, high treason, even murder, for Osney Kettleblack had confessed to smothering the last High Septon at her command. “I am come to hear you tell of all your murders and fornications,” Septa Unella would growl when she shook the queen awake. Septa Moelle would tell her that it was her sins that kept her sleepless. “Only the innocent know the peace of untroubled sleep. Confess your sins, and you will sleep like a newborn babe.” (ADWD, Cersei I)
This was a political, legal and military revolution in Westeros. Infused with the ability to create and enforce his laws and with a growing army, the High Septon was quickly becoming one of the most powerful political players in King’s Landing. He later set trials for the queens and then forced Cersei to march naked through the streets as “atonement” for her sins. The High Sparrow was not the subordinate or even the co-equal of the crown. He was the crown’s superior — raising an army, dispensing “justice” and imprisoning the elite. As the published narrative drew to a close, the ruling elite were beginning to grapple with this new military, political and legal power in the land.
King’s Landing The Eve of War: Lannister vs Tyrell vs the High Sparrow
A Dance with Dragons closes from the POV perspective of Kevan Lannister desperately attempting to avert disaster in King’s Landing. Foremost in Kevan’s mind was the Lannister-Tyrell alliance. The Lannister-Tyrell relationship which had kept Joffrey and then Tommen onto throne had grown extremely chilly as a result of Cersei’s foolishness:
Lannister spearmen in crimson cloaks and lion-crested halfhelms stood along the west wall of the throne room. Tyrell guards in green cloaks faced them from the opposite wall. The chill in the throne room was palpable. Though neither Queen Cersei nor Queen Margaery was amongst them, their presence could be felt poisoning the air, like ghosts at a feast. (ADWD, Epilogue)
If the Lannisters were to have a chance at retaining the throne, relations between themselves and the Tyrells would have to warm, but there was another crisis that loomed larger than the Lannister-Tyrell crack-up: The High Sparrow. By the A Dance with Dragons, Epilogue, the ruling elite of King’s Landing were beginning to realize the power that the Faith now held. In a council conversation, Kevan Lannister and Randyll Tarly discussed the upcoming trial and how it was unwise to piss off the High Sparrow:
“No man doubts your daughter’s innocence, my lord,” Ser Kevan lied, “but His High Holiness insists upon a trial.”
Lord Randyll snorted. “What have we become, when kings and high lords must dance to the twittering of sparrows?”
“We have foes on every hand, Lord Tarly,” Ser Kevan reminded him. “Stannis in the north, ironmen in the west, sellswords in the south. Defy the High Septon, and we will have blood running in the gutters of King’s Landing as well. If we are seen to be going against the gods, it will only drive the pious into the arms of one or the other of these would-be usurpers.” (ADWD, Epilogue)
The small council was dancing to the High Sparrow’s tune, and they had good reason to. As Kevan Lannister pointed out, if the crown defied the now-empowered Faith, it would make the cause of the various “usurpers” much more sympathetic to the High Sparrow and the many Westerosi adherents to the Faith of the Seven. Still, even if the High Sparrow wanted to bolt from Tommen and the Lannisters and Tyrells, he still faced a problem — one that Cersei reminded him during their fateful conversation in A Feast for Crows:
“These false kings espouse false gods,” she reminded him. “Only King Tommen defends the Holy Faith.” (AFFC, Cersei VI)
Stannis and Euron worshipped R’hllor and the Drowned God respectively, and any Stark who would take up the northern crown would worship the Old Gods. None of these individuals were likely to receive support from the High Sparrow. However, there was one would-be king who had been trained in the mysteries of the Faith and had been groomed since youth to be the perfect prince.
Aegon the Prepared
Artwork by Porkapine
“Still, a curious man might wonder why some sellsword’s whelp would need a soiled septa to instruct him in the Faith, or a chainless maester to tutor him in history and tongues. And a clever man might question why your father would engage a hedge knight to train you in arms instead of simply sending you off to apprentice with one of the free companies. It is almost as if someone wanted to keep you hidden whilst still preparing you for … what? Now, there’s a puzzlement, but I’m sure that in time it will come to me. I must admit, you have noble features for a dead boy.” (ADWD, Tyrion V)
Before Prince Aegon stepped foot on Westeros, the boy had been trained in the royal art. The Young Dragon had been molded by his backers to be the prepared – even perfect – prince to gain the loyalty and acceptance of Westeros. Aegon and his band hoped that military victory would garner the allegiance of friends in the Reach and Doran Martell, but the young dragon would need more than these allies to pave the way to the Iron Throne. If Aegon were to have a chance at taking the capital, he would need to garner the love of the smallfolk in the city. Fortunately for the young dragon, he had a powerful weapon in his arsenal: his religious training.
When readers met Aegon in A Dance with Dragons, they were also introduced to his party. Among Aegon’s inner-circle were an exiled lord, a knight from the Reach, a half-maester, two Dornishmen and most importantly for our purposes, a septa. While Jon Connington instructed Aegon on leadership, Rolly Duckfield trained Aegon in combat arms and Halfmaester Haldon gave a maester’s education to the boy, Septa Lemore’s role was to ensure that Aegon had a proper religious education:
Young Griff went off with Septa Lemore to be instructed in the mysteries of the Faith. (ADWD, Tyrion IV)
Many fans have pondered on the true identity of Septa Lemore, but here, we’ll eschew that discussion and focus on why Septa Lemore was important to Aegon’s inner circle. Aegon could have been brought up in one of the myriad Essosi religions, but Varys and Illyrio knew the value of having a king that Westeros could identify with. Stannis Baratheon had failed to garner widespread Westerosi support for his claim in part because he was associated with a foreign religion and priestess of R’hllor. Aegon won’t have that problem. In lieu of a dangerous and foreign sorceress advising him, Aegon had a “simple” septa instructing him on the mysteries of the Faith. And though Aegon was not particularly devout, the education that he received from Septa Lemore was important “royal training.”
In fact, this was all part of the plan. Varys and Illyrio had ensured that Aegon had the best possible preparation for his ascension to the throne. When the Spider gave his supervillain monologue to Kevan Lannister in the A Dance with Dragons Epilogue, he made this explicit:
“Aegon has been shaped for rule since before he could walk. He has been trained in arms, as befits a knight to be, but that was not the end of his education. He reads and writes, he speaks several tongues, he has studied history and law and poetry. A septa has instructed him in the mysteries of the Faith since he was old enough to understand them. He has lived with fisherfolk, worked with his hands, swum in rivers and mended nets and learned to wash his own clothes at need. He can fish and cook and bind up a wound, he knows what it is like to be hungry, to be hunted, to be afraid. Tommen has been taught that kingship is his right. Aegon knows that kingship is his duty, that a king must put his people first, and live and rule for them.” (ADWD, Epilogue)
Varys knew the value of good optics, and the lionshare of those good optics was to mold Aegon into a leader that Westeros would identify with. Most Westerosi south of the Neck worshipped the Faith of the Seven, and the Faith’s ever-present role in the daily lives of both smallfolk and highborn alike necessitated Aegon’s need for an in-depth religious education.
So with all of this background in mind, we turn at last to Aegon and the High Sparrow.
The High Sparrow’s Choice
“The realm is full of kings. For the Faith to exalt one above the rest we must be certain.” (AFFC, Cersei VI)
Within Baelor’s Sept, I imagine that the High Sparrow will learn of Aegon at some juncture early in The Winds of Winter. Kevan Lannister’s small council was aware of the threat that Aegon posed at the end of A Dance with Dragons, and if they knew, it’s likely the High Sparrow knew as well or will soon. Regardless of when the High Sparrow hears of Aegon, the boy would present a choice to the High Sparrow: lion or dragon. And though the current ruling regime and the High Sparrow will likely find themselves at each others’ throats in The Winds of Winter, Aegon wasn’t a shoe-in to gain the High Sparrow’s blessing.
While the boy provided an alternative to the Lannisters and Tyrells, his ultimate success was uncertain at best. Aegon had won major victories and gained key allies, but Daemon Blackfyre and Bittersteel gained the allegiance of key allies and major victories during the First Blackfyre Rebellion before they were massacred on the Redgrass Field. Moreover, if the High Sparrow threw his support behind Aegon, it potentially undercut the substantial political gains he had made under Tommen’s rule. The High Sparrow had manipulated Cersei into undoing Maegor’s Laws to allow the Faith to rearm its military orders. If the High Sparrow turned on Tommen and Cersei, it opened up the potential for all of the High Sparrow’s work to be undone.
So, if the High Sparrow were to back Aegon’s he’d have several questions answered first:
- What was Aegon’s position on Maegor’s Laws?
- Could the Faith Militant remain militant if Aegon was calling the shots?
Most importantly (and probably strangely to our modern ears), the High Sparrow would need the approval of the gods to determine whether he should support this king. Though some theories advance the idea that the High Sparrow is cynically pursuing political power, I think it’s important to note that by all our impressions, the man is a true believer. He has a political agenda, but more importantly, he is walking the sparrow walk. In the context of Prince Aegon, the High Sparrow will likely look to the Faith’s history and the gods to guide his decision. He said as much to Cersei when she demanded the High Sparrow’s blessing for Tommen:
“The realm is full of kings. For the Faith to exalt one above the rest we must be certain. Three hundred years ago, when Aegon the Dragon landed beneath this very hill, the High Septon locked himself within the Starry Sept of Oldtown and prayed for seven days and seven nights, taking no nourishment but bread and water. When he emerged he announced that the Faith would not oppose Aegon and his sisters, for the Crone had lifted up her lamp to show him what lay ahead. If Oldtown took up arms against the Dragon, Oldtown would burn, and the Hightower and the Citadel and the Starry Sept would be cast down and destroyed. Lord Hightower was a godly man. When he heard the prophecy, he kept his strength at home and opened the city gates to Aegon when he came. And His High Holiness anointed the Conqueror with the seven oils. I must do as he did, three hundred years ago. I must pray, and fast.” (AFFC, Cersei VI)
That’s not to say that the High Sparrow won’t be sympathetic to Aegon. After all, the High Sparrow’s crusade against wickedness had seen its culmination in the arrests of the queens and marching the queen regent naked through the streets. Moreover, from the Mercy Winds of Winter chapter, we also know that Cersei Lannister survived her Trial by Battle. During an overheard conversation, Arya listens as Raff and a Lannister guard talk about Harys Swyft returning to “the queen” empty-handed:
“How long do you think we’ll be here?”
“Longer than you’d like,” the old man replied. “If he goes back without the gold the queen will have his head. Besides, I seen that wife of his. There’s steps in Casterly Rock she can’t go down for fear she’d get stuck, that’s how fat she is. Who’d go back to that, when he has his sooty queen?” (TWOW, Mercy)
Whatever plot points that GRRM has in store for Cersei in The Winds of Winter, it’s a certainty that the lion queen will be in significant conflict with the High Sparrow and Faith Militant long before Aegon ever reaches the capital. The man had arrested her, humiliated her in front of the entirety of the city and subjected her to the justice of the gods. This would factor into the High Sparrow’s consideration of Aegon as well. Even then, that’s not a guarantee that the High Sparrow will vault to Aegon’s side. He’ll need to ensure that if he throws his support behind Aegon, he’s not putting a Stannis or Balon or even a Jaehaerys/Maegor onto the throne.
In that light, I believe it’s possible that the High Sparrow may send a secret delegation to probe Aegon on his beliefs and his intentions were he to take the Iron Throne. If Jon Connington is still alive at this point in The Winds of Winter, I imagine that he would try to prepare his prince for the High Sparrow’s delegation. Given that Connington has become well-read on the goings-on in Westeros thanks to the cache of messages that Halfmaester Haldon has been sifting through in Griffin’s Roost, it’s possible he’ll have a fairly detailed accounting of recent events that have transpired in the capital. More importantly, Connington might have the information might require from Aegon to receive his support.
But the young dragon might have an unexpected ally in the High Sparrow’s delegation.
The Dornish Connection
Artwork by Fantasy Flight Games
You want to know what the Sand Snakes, Prince Doran, Areo Hotah, Ellaria Sand, Darkstar, and the rest will be up to in WINDS OF WINTER? Quite a lot, actually. – GRRM, notablog, “A Taste of This, A Taste of That”
Though many of the major players are already in place in King’s Landing by the end of A Dance with Dragons, there remains two individuals who have yet to reach the city: Nymeria and Tyene Sand. When they do arrive in King’s Landing it will signal a new, Dornish phase of the game of thrones. If you’ll recall from part 8, Doran Martell had dispatched three Sand Snakes from Sunspear on various missions to prepare the way for “Quentyn and Daenerys’” return. Elia Sand would accompany Arianne on her way to Griffin’s Roost while Nymeria Sand would take the Dornish seat on the small council. Meanwhile, Tyene Sand had a particularly intriguing role:
“Your mother was a septa. Oberyn once told me that she read to you in the cradle from the Seven-Pointed Star. I want you in King’s Landing too, but on the other hill. The Swords and the Stars have been re-formed, and this new High Septon is not the puppet that the others were. Try and get close to him.” (ADWD, The Watcher)
Given that the High Sparrow was gathering sparrows to his cause already, it’s probable that Tyene will succeed in infiltrating the Faith Militant. Moreover, though the High Sparrow was a committed misogynist, he kept septas like Unella, Moelle and Scolera in close company. Tyene herself had the perfect look for her infiltration of the Faith Militant:
“Why not? White suits my coloring. I look so … pure.” (ADWD, The Watcher)
Still, Tyene Sand’s mission was limited. Like Arianne’s instructions from Doran in The Winds of Winter, Doran Martell did not want Tyene to start acting, at least not yet:
“If … if certain things should come to pass, I will send word to each of you. Things can change quickly in the game of thrones.” (ADWD, The Watcher)
But as we talked about in “Dragon or War”, Dorne looks likely to join Aegon’s cause at some point in The Winds of Winter. If they do join up with Aegon, it’s possible that Doran may send word to Tyene to start working to turn the Faith towards Aegon. Moreover, in that proposed secret delegation that the High Sparrow may send in The Winds of Winter, I think it’s possible that Tyene Sand herself will be in the party. If she is, it’s pregnant with all sorts of possibilities. If Arianne has reached Aegon at that point, will the two interact? Will they keep on airs of not knowing each other despite the fact that Arianne considers Tyene her best friend? These are all distinct possibilities. More importantly though, Tyene has the potential to serve as the connecting glue between Aegon and the High Sparrow. Perhaps she returns to the High Sparrow and urges the man to back the dragon over the lion.
As with Doran Martell, I expect the High Sparrow to ally with Aegon, but this alliance will have a cost for Aegon. Though the prince may gain a plethora of swords in the Warrior’s Sons and the Poor Fellows and a fifth column within King’s Landing, the price of these warriors will be the continued suspension of Maegor’s Laws and independent military orders that will continue to operate under the auspices of the High Sparrow, not the crown.
This, though, will seem a minor cost in the moment. After his victories in the Stormlands, the young dragon and his host of Dornishmen, Reachmen and sellswords will turn north to their true objectives: King’s Landing and the Iron Throne. To the heirs of Daemon Blackfyre and Bittersteel, King’s Landing was pearl without price, and here, the final gripping sequences from The Winds of Winter will play out in dramatic fashion as lion, dragon, snake, rose and seven pointed star face off.
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Next Up: We conclude the Blood of the Conqueror series with A Last Mad Act
- Steven Attewell’s Hollow Crown and Deadly Thorns, Part V: “The Prepared Princes”
- Militant_Penguin’s Reddit Discussion of the Faith Militant
- SomethingLikeaLawyer’s take on the historical inspiration for the High Sparrow
- PoorQuentyn on the High Sparrow not instituting socialism in Westeros
- My Theory for who Septa Lemore Truly Is