The north is hard and cold, and has no mercy. (ASOS, Catelyn III)
The North was in ruins. The North is in ruins. The king was dead. His armies decimated. Half the country was under foreign occupation. And the Starks, the ancestral rulers of the North, were dead, fled or captives of hostile houses. The Ironborn Invasion, the savagery of the Bastard of Bolton and above all the Red Wedding had despoiled a whole region of its king, its lords, its lands, its armies and its people. Injustice reigns in the North. But despite all the horrors visited on the region, despite it being a broken country, there was hope, a hope that wrongs would be righted and that justice would return.
Hello! And welcome to a brand new monthly series analyzing northern politics and winter warfare in the wake of the Red Wedding. In this series, I’ll be covering the major, middling and minor players, their plots and their conspiracies set in the North. We’ll be taking a deep-dive into all of this, because if anything, the North is an intriguing mess. Shifting alliances, vengeance and claims to Winterfell and the North present readers of A Song of Ice and Fire with a chaotic and enticing plot that starts in A Storm of Swords and takes off in A Dance with Dragons.
To kick things off, I wanted to talk about a theory about a subtle double-crossing that starts in A Clash of Kings, bounds its way into A Storm of Swords and sees some ramifications in the northern plotline from A Dance with Dragons. Tywin Lannister conspired with Roose Bolton and Walder Frey to betray the Starks and end Stark independence, but that may not have been the only betrayal he planned. In fact, Tywin Lannister seemed to be planning another betrayal against those he conspired with.
The Bolton Turn
Before talking about the subtle conspiring and counter-conspiring at work between Tywin and Roose, it’s important to briefly set the foundation of the original conspiracy to end the Stark-Tully rebellion. For this section, I’m indebted to the Matt from the Davos Fingers’ podcast who wrote his excellent It Is Wolves I Mean to Hunt: The Motivations of the Red Wedding Conspirators essay back in 2016.
In the essay, Matt runs down through the chronology of when and how Roose Bolton turned his cloak on the Starks. Though it’s possible that Roose Bolton planned betrayal against the Starks from the outset of Robb Stark calling his banners, a closer reading of the chronology shows a careful lord ruthlessly enhancing House Bolton’s stature during the War of the Five Kings, and then turning on the Starks when the opportunity arose.
That’s not to say that Roose Bolton wasn’t undermining the Stark cause as early as Robert’s Rebellion or the Battle of the Green Fork, but it does appear that the Leach Lord’s out-and-out secret turn to the Lannister cause didn’t occur until the end of A Clash of Kings or early in A Storm of Swords. But what were the terms that Tywin Lannister offered to Roose Bolton? What caused Lord Bolton to consider Tywin Lannister’s offer?
The Lion Lord’s Promises
“Some battles are won with swords and spears, others with quills and ravens. (ASOS, Tyrion I)
By the end of A Clash of Kings, Stannis Baratheon’s army lay defeated at the hands of the Lannisters and Tyrells. The combined Lannister-Tyrell victory sent shockwaves throughout Westeros, and the newly-assembled army was now the largest united fighting force in Westeros. While the bulk of the army remained in and around King’s Landing in the aftermath of the battle, the safe bet was that it wouldn’t remain at the capital for long. Tywin Lannister had more enemies to contend with: chief among them Robb Stark.
To the north and west, Robb Stark had divided his army into three with half his army in the Westerlands wreaking havoc among Tywin Lannister’s bannermen while Edmure Tully commanded a further a force of mostly Riverlanders in and around Riverrun. Finally, Roose Bolton had a significant host of mixed northmen and Riverlanders at Harrenhal.
North of King’s Landing and east of Riverrun, Harrenhal was a vantage point by which the Leech Lord could had a clear line of sight on the strategic movements in Westeros. So, among Robb Stark’s ostensible allies, it was Roose Bolton who likely first heard of Stannis’ defeat on the Blackwater. It’s in that context that Tywin Lannister likely first reached out to Roose Bolton with an offer.
Now, one of the ambiguities in A Song of Ice and Fire is whether the initial offer was one and the same with the one that was revealed later in A Storm of Swords or whether the arrangements shifted and changed as events transpired. But without further evidence indicating a change, we’ll go with what we’re presented in the text.
The deal Tywin Lannister presented to Roose Bolton was simple: betray the Starks in exchange for Roose Bolton being named Warden of the North, Ramsay Snow to be legitimized as Ramsay Bolton and that the new Ramsay Bolton would marry … Arya Stark?
“Roose Bolton becomes Warden of the North and takes home Arya Stark … Lord Bolton will wed the girl to his bastard son.” (ASOS, Tyrion VI)
Of course, readers know that the girl Ramsay Bolton would wed wasn’t Arya Stark. She was Jeyne Poole who had been horrifically abused within Littlefinger’s brothels and turned into a tool for future use by Littlefinger and his patrons.
But the question is: did Tywin Lannister know that Arya was fake? We’ll get to that after we untangle Tywin’s more personal northern marriage scheme.
Marrying a Claim: Sansa and Tyrion
“The man who weds Sansa Stark can claim Winterfell in her name,” his uncle Kevan put in. “Had that not occurred to you?” (ASOS, Tyrion III)
Rewinding the clock a bit, let’s talk about Tywin Lannister in King’s Landing. After his victory on the Blackwater, Tywin quickly went to work to secure Lannister rule in King’s Landing. Primarily, this involved the betrothal of Joffrey to Margaery and then rewarding those who acted in Tywin’s interest leading up to and during the Battle of the Blackwater.
In that light, Tyrion Lannister met his father after healing enough from his wounds. In that conversation, Tyrion reminded Tywin of his role in defending King’s Landing from Stannis and wondered about his reward:
“You said something about paying debts, I believe?”
“And you want your own reward, is that it? Very well. What is it you would have of me? Lands, castle, some office?” (ASOS, Tyrion I)
Tyrion would, in turn, first demand gratitude and then Casterly Rock. Tywin refused both. He wasn’t about to let his hated son take Casterly Rock. That was reserved for his firstborn son Jaime. But there still remained any reward that Tyrion might receive for his conduct on the Blackwater. And in that, Tywin found both quandary and opportunity.
Rewarding Tyrion with Casterly Rock was out of the question, but there was an opportunity in the small council for Tyrion to serve as Master of Coin while Littlefinger was “away” securing the Vale on behalf of the Lannisters. But there was a further “reward” for Tyrion.
The Tyrells had plotted to wed Willas Tyrell, firstborn son to Mace Tyrell and heir to Highgarden, to Sansa Stark, but Littlefinger had picked up the intelligence via Ser Dontos Hollard. To offset the Tyrell conspiracy to wed Sansa, Tywin schemed to wed Tyrion to Sansa. But why was Sansa Stark so important to Tywin?
“Our alliances in the south may be as solid as Casterly Rock, but there remains the north to win, and the key to the north is Sansa Stark.” (ASOS, Tyrion III)
Tywin’s scheme was an effective-albeit-cruel one. Wedding the imprisoned daughter of Ned Stark had the potential to expand Lannister rule into the North. And the optics of having a Stark in hand after Robb Stark died would have benefits:
“When you bring Eddard Stark’s grandson home to claim his birthright, lords and little folk alike will rise as one to place him on the high seat of his ancestors.” (ASOS, Tyrion III)
And so, Sansa Stark was forcibly wed to Tyrion Lannister shortly after this conversation.
But there’s something very off about this plan. Though it was diabolically clever, the plan ran in contradiction to another conspiracy that Tywin Lannister was negotiating: Roose Bolton’s betrayal of the Starks.
Double-Crossing the Double Crossers
Let’s return back to the deal that Tywin Lannister negotiated with Roose Bolton:
“Roose Bolton becomes Warden of the North and takes home Arya Stark … Lord Bolton will wed the girl to his bastard son.” (ASOS, Tyrion VI)
So, Roose Bolton becomes Warden of the North and marries Arya Stark (Jeyne Poole) to Ramsay. That sounds all well and good, but wait! Didn’t Tywin marry Tyrion to Sansa for the stated purpose of winning the North the Lannister cause? Why the hell would Tywin do this?
In a word: because Tywin Lannister was double-dealing the Boltons:
“Lord Bolton will wed the girl to his bastard son. We shall allow the Dreadfort to fight the ironborn for a few years, and see if he can bring Stark’s other bannermen to heel. Come spring, all of them should be at the end of their strength and ready to bend the knee. The north will go to your son by Sansa Stark . . . if you ever find enough manhood in you to breed one.” (ASOS, Tyrion VI)
This is wheels within wheels of conspiring. Roose Bolton becomes Warden of the North while Ramsay is legitimized and married to Arya Stark. In Tywin’s view, Roose Bolton would clear the North of the Ironborn and fight all Stark loyalist houses during the fast-approaching winter. Then, Tyrion, Sansa and their son would come north after the region had exhausted themselves from war.
But what if the North said, “Fuck off. We already have a Stark: Arya”? And in that, we see a stroke of genius on Tywin’s part.
Though Tywin Lannister never openly states that he knows this isn’t truly Arya Stark, he hints as much to Tyrion:
“But Arya . . . Varys and Ser Jacelyn searched for her for more than half a year. Arya Stark is surely dead.”
“So was Renly, until the Blackwater.” (ASOS, Tyrion VI)
Renly had died via shadowbaby in A Clash of Kings. Garlan Tyrell had been dressed in Renly’s armor at the Blackwater and had ridden into battle as “Renly’s ghost” to spread fear among Stannis’ army as well as win those Stormlanders who had marched under Renly’s banner to turncloak on Stannis. In a similar way, Jeyne Poole was departing King’s Landing as a false Arya Stark to win the North to Bolton’s cause.
That Tywin Lannister knows that Arya is false is of extraordinary import. Imagine a scenario where the northmen decide to continue backing the Boltons, because they have “Arya”. In that scenario, it’s easy to imagine Tywin revealing that Arya is actually Jeyne Poole, and that the Boltons have used an imposter to gain the North while the Lannisters have a true Stark in the form of Sansa Stark and the son she and Tyrion would have.
It was a dastardly scheme by Tywin, and it was one that might have proven successful if events in Westeros hadn’t gone the way they had. But though Sansa would escape King’s Landing, Tywin would die by a crossbow bolt and Tyrion would be smuggled to Essos, what about the Boltons? Did Roose know?
Shortly after the UK publication of A Storm of Swords, someone asked George RR Martin about Roose Bolton’s role in the Red Wedding and whether he was planning betrayal before Robb Stark married Jeyne Westerling. George’s response is … interesting:
Questioner: We know that Roose Bolton had already taken Walda Frey to wife before Robb married Jeyne Westerling. Does this then mean that Walder Frey had already planned to ally himself with Bolton to murder Robb before Robb’s marriage betrayal, or was his anger towards Robb and his reasoning towards his own family as to why Robb had to be killed more than just a pretext, and the genuine reason for the Red Wedding?
GRRM: As for Bolton, if you reread all his sections carefully, I think you will see a picture of a man keeping all his options open as long as he could… sniffing the wind, covering his tracks, ready to jump either way… even as late as his supper with Jaime at Harrenhal… – So Spake Martin, 8/23/2000
So, per GRRM: Roose Bolton was on the fence all the way until Jaime showed up in Harrenhal. But we know that Tywin had already reached out to Roose Bolton and the Freys before Jaime turned up in Harrenhal. And we can be reasonably certain that Roose Bolton had accepted Tywin’s proposal given that at Harrenhal, mention is made of Edmure Tully’s upcoming marriage at the Twins and Roose’s preparations to leave Harrenhal to Vargo Hoat while he attended Edmure’s wedding.
So, then, why was Roose Bolton still on the fence about whether to participate in the Red Wedding? Certainly, Vargo Hoat’s maiming of Jaime Lannister played a role:
“By maiming you, he meant to remove your sword as a threat, gain himself a grisly token to send to your father, and diminish your value to me. For he is my man, as I am King Robb’s man. Thus his crime is mine, or may seem so in your father’s eyes. And therein lies my . . . small difficulty.” He gazed at Jaime, his pale eyes unblinking, expectant, chill.
I see. “You want me to absolve you of blame. To tell my father that this stump is no work of yours.” Jaime laughed. (ASOS, Jaime V)
But there was something else at work too. Word had reached Harrenhal of a marriage in King’s Landing. When Roose Bolton offered to send a contingent of soldiers to escort Jaime down to King’s Landing, Brienne protested that Catelyn Stark had given her the charge to exchange Jaime for Sansa and Arya, Roose Bolton had news:
The Lord of the Dreadfort gave her an uninterested glance. “The girls need not concern you any further, my lady. The Lady Sansa is the dwarf’s wife, only the gods can part them now.” (ASOS, Jaime V)
Roose Bolton had heard of Sansa Stark’s marriage to Tyrion Lannister, and this was long before either of them departed King’s Landing for destinations unknown. And Roose knowing was a fly in Tywin’s ointment and may help explain why Roose was on the fence even at that late juncture.
For Roose, the Tyrion/Sansa marriage was a threat that Tywin would betray him. While Tywin laid out his double-dealing to the Boltons to Tyrion, it wasn’t hard to see from Roose’s perspective either. He knew that any children born from Sansa and Tyrion would inherit Winterfell and the North before any children born between Ramsay and “Arya.”
Speaking of “Arya”, it’s likely again that Roose Bolton knew that the Arya Stark that Tywin Lannister presented to him was a forgery. In the (horrific) exchange between Ramsay and Jeyne just before the bedding, Ramsay alludes to it:
“I was told that you’d know how to please a man. Was that a lie?”
“N-no, my lord. I was t-trained.” (ADWD, The Prince of Winterfell)
Theon, himself, gives us a POV of the marriage between Ramsay and Jeyne as Roose Bolton’s “mummer’s farce.”
They are using me to cloak their deception, putting mine own face on their lie. That was why Roose Bolton had clothed him as a lord again, to play his part in this mummer’s farce. (ADWD, The Prince of Winterfell)
So, if Roose Bolton knows that Tywin Lannister is plotting to use him to do his dirty work and knows that the Lion Lord plans to unseat him down the road, why did Roose Bolton end up participating in the Red Wedding?
“Truth be told,” she said, “Lord Bolton aspires to more than mere lordship. Why not King of the North? (ADWD, The Prince of Winterfell)
Next Month: The Turncloak King in the North
I am indebted to my fellow maesters on the /r/asoiaf subreddit for providing input and insight on this. Additionally, In researching for this essay, I discovered that Steven Attewell of Race for the Iron Throne made a similar finding a year ago. As always, if you haven’t read Steve’s blog, do so!
I invite you to follow me on twitter at @BryndenBFish. Additionally, PoorQuentyn and I have a ASOIAF Re-Read Podcast called NotACast where we analyze every chapter in ASOIAF one chapter a week. Come listen to us on itunes, podbay, soundcloud, google play, everywhere you get your podcasts!