Artwork by Tomasz Jedruszek
Westerosi politics has a passing resemblance to the politics of late medieval Europe. Mortaring the politics of Westeros is the concept of marriage, marriage alliance, heirs and family. And though the North considers itself separated out from the flowery politics of the South, the truth is that as George RR Martin has advanced the story of Westeros, the North has become more three dimensional, more political. And who better to help readers flesh out the complexity of northern politics than an immortal, skin-changing vampire: Roose Bolton.
As we talked about in part 1, Bolton rule of the North was designed by Tywin Lannister to be undercut down the road by Tyrion and Sansa. But Roose Bolton had an ally on his side: time. If the Leech Lord could secure the North politically, he could defend himself and his claim to the Wardenship of the North all the while working to achieve his true aim: to become King in the North.
The Red Kings of Old
Artwork by HBO
Roose Bolton’s status as a villain in ASOIAF is well-known. What is lesser-known and still somewhat ambiguous is his villainous backstory. Why did he work to undermine the Starks? Certainly, Roose Bolton gained much and more through his betrayal of House Stark. But perhaps there was a bit more behind Roose Bolton’s actions. And it’s a common thread that runs throughout ASOIAF. Perhaps Roose Bolton may have thought that this was the culmination of thousands of years of Stark-Bolton hostility in the North.
Before the Andals invaded Westeros, the North was a chaotic land with multiple kings. The Starks ruled Winterfell but had rivals in the form of the Reeds known as the marsh kings and the so-called Barrow Kings in the Barrowlands. But all of these kings eventually bent the knee to the Starks: All save one:
Yet the bitterest foes of Winterfell were undoubtedly the Red Kings of the Dreadfort, those grim lords of House Bolton whose domains of old stretched from the Last River to the White Knife, and as far south as the Sheepshead Hills. (TWOIAF, The North: The Kings of Winter)
The wars that the Starks and Boltons fought lasted centuries. Of interest to our series, The World of Ice and Fire makes this note:
The wars between these two ancient families were legion, and not all ended in victory for House Stark. King Royce Bolton, Second of His Name, is said to have taken and burned Winterfell itself; his namesake and descendant Royce IV (remembered by history as Royce Redarm, for his habit of plunging his arm into the bellies of captive foes to pull out their entrails with his bare hand) did the same three centuries later. Other Red Kings were reputed to wear cloaks made from the skins of Stark princes they had captured and flayed. (TWOIAF, The North: The Kings of Winter)
Seemingly, the war did not come to a complete end until around the time that the Andals began arriving in Westeros. Perhaps the Boltons bent the knee, because they saw a greater threat in the form of the Andal invader. Perhaps the Starks suppressed Bolton royal ambition. Regardless, the Boltons became a house in service of the Kings of Winter and seemingly served that role until the Starks became Wardens of the North after the arrival of Aegon I Targaryen.
Turning back to Roose Bolton: we can’t know for certain that this fractious Stark-Bolton animosity was in Roose’s mind. He never makes a The debt owed to Royce Bolton has been paid line while stabbing Robb Stark through the heart. However, when we look at ASOIAF in totality, we see a common strain of long-held historical grudges veining the series.
Skahaz mo Kandaq, acting to unseat Hizdahr zo Loraq as King of Meereen tells Barristan that:
“Long has Kandaq waited for this night.” (ADWD, The Kingbreaker)
Back in Westeros, Hoster Blackwood tells Jaime Lannister about the origins of the Bracken-Blackwood conflict:
“Some of the histories were penned by their maesters and some by ours, centuries after the events that they purport to chronicle. It goes back to the Age of Heroes. The Blackwoods were kings in those days. The Brackens were petty lords, renowned for breeding horses. Rather than pay their king his just due, they used the gold their horses brought them to hire swords and cast him down.” (ADWD, Jaime I)
That the Kandaq-Loraq and Bracken-Blackwood conflicts span thousands of years perhaps points to the potential that Roose Bolton’s grievance against Robb Stark may have been a longer one than simply a cold-blooded betrayal done in the moment.
Still, though history may have served as backdrop for Roose Bolton’s actions in betraying Robb Stark, there was still the practical business of enhancing Bolton political power in the North. And Roose Bolton chose a tried and true method of gaining political power: marriage.
Roose Bolton’s Marriage Politics
Domeric Bolton by Bella Bergolts
Marriage in A Song of Ice and Fire as well as well as for much of real-world history was not always done for love, companionship or poetry. Instead and especially for noble and royal houses, it served political purposes. In Westeros, marriages were typically arranged and conducted to enhance the power of houses, ending and forestalling conflict or adding swords and spears into the ranks of one’s armies.
Roose Bolton was married three times. It’s unclear who Roose’s first marriage was to. We’ll talk about his third marriage a little later. However, his second marriage was to an older sister of Barbrey Dustin:
“Barbrey Dustin is my second wife’s younger sister, Rodrik Ryswell’s daughter, sister to Roger, Rickard, and mine own namesake, Roose, cousin to the other Ryswells.” (ADWD, Reek III)
Roose marrying a younger sister of a major noble house in the North was common practice. And it’s important to not get presentist here. This marriage was conducted long before Ned Stark or even his father Rickard died. So, it’s not simply that Roose Bolton was paving the way for his rise as the predominant power in the North.
However, it’s crucial-albeit-unintentional groundwork for Roose’s rise to power in a post-Stark North. The Dustins and Ryswells were the bedrock of Northern support for the Boltons in A Dance with Dragons. Other houses, as we’ll get into in later parts, only came to Winterfell, because they were coerced into backing the Boltons.
It’s also of interest where Roose chose to focus his second marriage. Bolton lands lay on towards the eastern half of the North. Winterfell was west of the Dreadfort. But the Barrowlands were lands even farther than south and west than Stark holdings.
Roose Bolton’s marriage into House Ryswell allowed for Roose to gain access to the Stony Shore and Barrowlands. Later, Barbrey Ryswell’s marriage to Lord Willam Dustin (the same Willam Dustin who accompanied Ned to the Tower of Joy) further enhanced Bolton interests in the region. The Boltons gained access to lucrative trade and commerce that flowed through the town of Barrowton. And Roose’s marriage into House Ryswell had another strategic advantage: a son.
Though Roose’s Ryswell wife died at some point, the union produced a son: Domeric. And the Lord of the Dreadfort put his son to work at an early age:
“For the moment. I had another, once. Domeric. A quiet boy, but most accomplished. He served four years as Lady Dustin’s page, and three in the Vale as a squire to Lord Redfort. He played the high harp, read histories, and rode like the wind. Horses … the boy was mad for horses, Lady Dustin will tell you. ” (ADWD, Reek III)
In Domeric, Roose had a son who could stiffen bonds between House Bolton and houses Ryswell and Dustin. By Roose’s telling, Domeric served as a page to Barbrey Dustin — while Lady Barbrey was married to Lord Willam Dustin. Barbrey took on Roose’s son as her page. Thereafter, Domeric was sent to the Vale to serve as a squire to Lord Redfort. And serve he did until 297 AC:
“[Ramsay] lived with his mother until two years past, when young Domeric died and left Bolton without an heir.” (ACOK, Bran II)
The death of Domeric Bolton was a tragedy for the Ryswells and for the now-Lady Barbrey Dustin. But it was a major blow to Roose’s stake within houses Ryswell and Dustin. However, the memory of Domeric Bolton wasn’t a distant one in the minds of the Ryswells and Dustins. Domeric had died just a few years prior to events from A Song of Ice and Fire. And Barbrey’s fond memory of Domeric and Roose’s past marriage into House Ryswell would serve as foundation for the Bolton-Dustin-Ryswell power bloc in a post-Stark North.
But Roose’s ambition went farther south than Barrowton and the Stony Shore.
Southron Ambitions: Roose-Style
With the arrest and murder of Ned Stark, Robb Stark called his banners. Roose Bolton answered his overlord’s call to arms. We’re going to address Roose Bolton as a military commander in significant depth a future part of this series; so, for here we’ll quickly summarize Roose’s actions in the War of the Five Kings. Roose Bolton marched south with Robb Stark. At the Twins, Walder Frey joined with the northern cause on the promise of Robb Stark’s marriage to a Frey girl. Roose Bolton was given command of a large contingent of northern and Frey troops and ordered to march against Tywin Lannister as a diversion from Robb’s true aim: to take on Jaime Lannister at Riverrun. Tywin defeated Roose Bolton at the Green Fork. Thereafter, Roose Bolton moved his mixed northmen and riverlander host north towards the Twins. And here we’ll pick up the narrative again.
At the Twins, Roose Bolton made a surprise move:
Robb’s betrothed to one of Lord Walder’s daughters, and Roose Bolton wed another, I hear. (ACOK, Catelyn V)
The Frey woman that Roose Bolton married was named “Fat” Walda Frey, and Roose’s choice in marrying her was allegedly, because the dowry paid for her was her weight in silver:
“Fortunately for you, I have no need of a wife. I wed the Lady Walda Frey whilst I was at the Twins.”
“Fair Walda?” Awkwardly, Jaime tried to hold the bread with his stump while tearing it with his left hand.
“Fat Walda. My lord of Frey offered me my bride’s weight in silver for a dowry, so I chose accordingly.” (ASOS, Jaime V)
As amusing as this anecdote might be, that was not all that in play for Roose Bolton. In fact, what we are likely witnessing behind the scenes is Roose Bolton taking on the pseudo-Robb Stark role.
Let’s unpack this a bit. Roose Bolton’s first two marriages were to northwomen. His second marriage to House Ryswell created a bond between House Bolton and two strong northern houses. Roose’s third marriage was into House Frey: the house with arguably the largest internal army on-hand in the Riverlands.
And this marriage parallels what Robb Stark had promised in exchange for crossing the bridge on into the Riverlands at the outset of the War of the Five Kings:
“And you are to wed one of his daughters, once the fighting is done,” she finished. “His lordship has graciously consented to allow you to choose whichever girl you prefer. He has a number he thinks might be suitable.” (AGOT, Catelyn IX)
The timing of this marriage is fascinating though. Seemingly it occurred between the time when Catelyn Stark went south to treat with the Baratheons in the Stormlands and her return to Riverrun towards the end of A Clash of Kings. And around the same time that Roose Bolton married, Robb Stark was marching on the Crag, seat of House Westerling and home of Jeyne Westerling: Robb’s future wife.
The easy conclusion is that Roose Bolton’s marriage to Fat Walda Frey was part and parcel of his coming betrayal of the Stark cause. However, the timing of the marriage is an issue.
Now, of course, George RR Martin is on record as saying that fans need to put away the stopwatch and ruler and just enjoy the story. However, the timing aspect is important for story reasons. At the time that Catelyn Stark heard news of his marriage, Roose Bolton was likely marching against Harrenhal while Tywin Lannister was marching his army towards the Stone Mill against Edmure Tully. Was this part of Roose Bolton’s betrayal of Robb Stark? Furthermore, when did Tywin Lannister make his initial overtures to Roose Bolton. There are two options here:
- Tywin Lannister made initial overtures to Walder Frey and Roose Bolton while they were at the Twins.
- Tywin wrote to Roose Bolton at Harrenhal after the Battle of the Blackwater when he was ensconced in King’s Landing.
Of the two options, I favor the second option. The timing of Robb’s taking of the Crag and marriage to Jeyne Westerling, Roose Bolton’s seizure of Harrenhal and Tywin’s ability to send ravens to entice the Freys and Boltons to turn on the Starks best lines up with events overlap with events towards the end of A Clash of Kings and the start of A Storm of Swords. Martin himself made note of the chronology at the start of A Storm of Swords
In the case of the volume now in hand, the reader should realize that the opening chapters of A Storm of Swords do not follow the closing chapters of A Clash of Kings so much as overlap them. I open with a look at some of the things that were happening on the Fist of the First Men, at Riverrun, Harrenhal, and on the Trident while the Battle of the Blackwater was being fought at King’s Landing, and during its aftermath … (ASOS, A Note on Chronology)
In that moment, all of the characters were aligned in locations that favored the ability for messages to arrive in fixed locations. And in Tyrion’s first ASOS chapter, he makes note of Tywin and his letters:
“Did you come here just to complain of your bedchamber and make your lame japes? I have important letters to finish.”“Important letters. To be sure.”“Some battles are won with swords and spears, others with quills and ravens.” (ASOS, Tyrion I)
Additionally, Roose Bolton’s next move (as we’ll unpack in a future essay) was to march his host of northmen and Frey levies out of the Twins and seize Harrenhal out from under Tywin Lannister’s bannermen — a decidedly anti-Tywin move.
But while Roose worked his southron ambitions south of the Neck, his other son was doing his father’s work in the North.
The Other Son
Earlier, we analyzed Roose Bolton’s marriage politics in the years leading up to the War of the Five Kings, but we left something, someone out. Roose Bolton didn’t have just the one son. He had two. Domeric was his trueborn son, true. But he had another son: Ramsay Snow.
Ramsay’s origins lie in Roose’s rape of a smallfolk woman who dared to marry before Roose had the chance to perform his first night “rights.” This awful bit of backstory produced a son: Ramsay Snow. And Ramsay would have a major role to play in the context of Roose’s northern ambitions.
Roose Bolton extended Bolton influence through his marriage into House Ryswell. His son Domeric would play a role in gaining a Bolton stake into House Dustin. These were all soft-power moves on Roose Bolton’s part. Ramsay’s role would be different.
Ramsay Snow would push Roose Bolton’s interests in the North via hard power.
As we talked about earlier, Domeric Bolton had died around 297 AC. According to Roose, Domeric’s death wasn’t a natural one. He was murdered by Ramsay:
“Ramsay killed him. A sickness of the bowels, Maester Uthor says, but I say poison. In the Vale, Domeric had enjoyed the company of Redfort’s sons. He wanted a brother by his side, so he rode up the Weeping Water to seek my bastard out.” (ADWD, Reek III)
However, instead of punishing or executing Roose Bolton brought his bastard into service at the Dreadfort while still not acknowledging Ramsay as his bastard as Rodrik Cassel notes in ACOK:
“Lord Bolton has never acknowledged the boy, so far as I know.” (ACOK, Bran II)
Roose’s stated reason for not killing Ramsay is a familiar one:
“Tell me, my lord … if the kinslayer is accursed, what is a father to do when one son slays another?” (ADWD, Reek III)
That was Roose’s stated reason, but it may not have been all that Roose Bolton had in mind for Ramsay. In his bastard, Roose had a different kind of son than Domeric. Where Domeric had seemingly been a good man, able to extend Bolton influence by peaceful means, Ramsay was a bad one: a blunt instrument to expand Bolton power through war.
And how fortunate for Roose that Ramsay’s taint of bastardy gave the Lord of the Dreadfort a plausible deniability for Roose Bolton’s Northern Ambitions.
Plausible Deniability: Roose Bolton’s Northern Ambitions
When Roose Bolton answered Robb Stark’s call and marched south, he left Ramsay back at the Dreadfort. In AGOT, it’s not clear why Roose left Ramsay in the North. (For that matter, it’s not clear that GRRM had invented Ramsay until he was writing A Clash of Kings) However, the reason why Roose Bolton left Ramsay back home becomes clearer when we start to see Ramsay at work in the North.
At a strategic level, Roose Bolton left his bastard son behind to further Boltons interests, holdings in the North. And this wasn’t the smiling, soft-power Domeric Bolton style of wielding power. It was the violent, cold-blooded, machiavellian politics of seizing what could be seized all while denying responsibility and ownership of the actions undertaken.
Our first mention of Ramsay comes at the Winterfell Harvest Feast in Bran’s second ACOK chapter when Lady Hornwood informs Bran and Luwin of what’s occurring at the Dreadfort:
“Bolton’s bastard is massing men at the Dreadfort,” she warned them. “I hope he means to take them south to join his father at the Twins, but when I sent to ask his intent, he told me that no Bolton would be questioned by a woman. As if he were trueborn and had a right to that name.” (ACOK, Bran II)
So, Ramsay was calling the remaining Bolton men of fighting age to the Dreadfort, and that should strike readers as odd. Lady Hornwood’s as if he were trueborn and had a right to that name line signals that something is off about Ramsay’s military assembly What right did a bastard have to call his father’s banners without his father’s permission?
So, let me put my cards on the table. I don’t think Ramsay was operating out of bounds from what Roose wanted. Instead, I think that everything Ramsay did in the North was at the explicit orders of his father Roose Bolton. That Bolton fighting men answered Ramsay’s summons is our first clue of this. But it won’t be our last.
Lady Donella Hornwood brought her concerns to Bran, Maester Luwin and Rodrik Cassel, because she was in a vulnerable position. Her husband Halys had been killed at the Battle of the Green Fork while her son, Daryn Hornwood, had died at the Battle of the Whispering Wood. She was a widow without heir. And though her husband had a bastard son named Larence Snow, the boy couldn’t inherit the lands due to his bastardy. So, the widowed Donella held Hornwood Lands by her lonesome — and was viewed as a potential marriage prize.
Lord Wyman Manderly was first to present himself or his son as potential consorts to Lady Hornwood at the harvest feast. But he wasn’t the only one interested in Lady Hornwood or her lands:
“The Dreadfort has no claim that I know, but the lands adjoin, and Roose Bolton is not one to overlook such a chance.” (ACOK, Bran II)
This is our second clue that Roose Bolton was the one directing Ramsay’s actions in the North. With Hornwood lands bordering Bolton lands and Roose Bolton knowing about the deaths of Lord Halys and his son Daryn, there was an opportunity. But instead of utilizing soft-power, Roose Bolton turned to his blunt instrument of hard-power: Ramsay.
After the feast, Lady Hornwood attempted to return back to Castle Hornwood, but she was intercepted by Ramsay who had immediate plans for her:
Roose Bolton’s bastard had started it by seizing Lady Hornwood as she returned from the harvest feast, marrying her that very night even though he was young enough to be her son. (ACOK, Bran IV)
And though Rodrik Cassel gathered a host to march to save Lady Hornwood, they failed:
They came too late for poor Lady Hornwood, though. After their wedding, the Bastard had locked her in a tower and neglected to feed her. Bran had heard men saying that when Ser Rodrik had smashed down the door he found her with her mouth all bloody and her fingers chewed off. (ACOK, Bran V)
This horrific crime wasn’t a purposeless crime though. Ramsay, as readers know, is a dyed-in-the-wool sadist, murderer and torturer. But this particular torture and murder was a cold, calculated move:
“The monster has tied us a thorny knot,” the old knight told Maester Luwin. “Like it or no, Lady Hornwood was his wife. He made her say the vows before both septon and heart tree, and bedded her that very night before witnesses. She signed a will naming him as heir and fixed her seal to it.” (ACOK, Bran V)
And though Luwin countered Rodrik’s assertion with Vows made at sword point are not valid, the problem was that Rodrik didn’t see a way for this marriage to be undone without angering Robb Stark’s “valuable” vassal, Roose Bolton:
“Roose Bolton may not agree. Not with land at issue.” (ACOK, Bran V)
Now, the question readers should have about the Hornwood incident is whether Ramsay is competent enough to carry this out? Was he bold enough to call his father’s banners, ambush a noble lady and then force a marriage and will on her the same night?
Ramsay is noted as having a low-cunning, but these actions seem more on the high end of cunning. They appear to me to be directed by Roose Bolton. With all of the hints that Roose Bolton was interested in Hornwood lands and with him benefiting from their illegitimate seizure by Ramsay (and all done after Roose Bolton ensured that Lord Hornwood would die in battle as we’ll talk about in a future part), my read is that Ramsay Snow was acting under orders from his father.
Best of all for Roose Bolton, he had a catspaw that he could use for his moves in the North all the while maintaining the appearance of clean hands. Just prior to the Red Wedding, Catelyn Stark confronts the Lord of the Dreadfort on the conduct of his son in the North:
“Your bastard was accused of grievous crimes,” Catelyn reminded him sharply. “Of murder, rape, and worse.” (ASOS, Catelyn VI)
Roose Bolton admits that Ramsay is garbage. He’s a bastard after all:
“Yes,” Roose Bolton said. “His blood is tainted, that cannot be denied.” (ASOS, Catelyn VI)
Ramsay’s status as a bastard and the Westerosi prejudice against bastards gave Roose a degree of separation from his bastard. Any crimes that Ramsay committed was seen as a result of his “bastard blood” and definitely not as a result of the loyal and true Lord of the Dreadfort and his orders. It’s also a real possibility that Roose Bolton, perhaps knowing Catelyn’s own feelings about Ned Stark’s “bastard” Jon Snow, was playing into Catelyn’s own prejudices here.
Regardless, what I see in Ramsay’s early conduct in A Clash of Kings is an orchestrated, premeditated attempt to gobble up lands close to Bolton holdings. And though it’s not quite so concrete, my read is that this campaign was at the direction of Roose Bolton, using his blunt instrument in Ramsay.
But perhaps this becomes all the clearer when we consider the peculiarities of the Sack of Winterfell.
The Man Who Gave the Command: The Sack of Winterfell
The ambush and forced-marriage of Lady Hornwood was only a precursor to what the Boltons planned with regard to the ancestral castle of House Stark. Fortunately for the Boltons, much of their dirty work would be done by Theon Greyjoy.
As readers know, Robb Stark dispatched Theon Greyjoy to his father Balon to gain the Greyjoys’ allegiance to Robb and entry into the War of the Five Kings against the Lannisters. Unfortunately for Robb Stark, Balon Greyjoy had other plans. Dispatching his brothers Victarion and Aeron, along with Theon and Asha, the Greyjoys invaded and raided along the western shore of the North, seizing Deepwood Motte, Moat Cailin, the Stony Shore and … Winterfell.
Mid-way through A Clash of Kings, Ser Rodrik Cassel arrived back in Winterfell after having tracked down and “killed” Ramsay Snow. Arriving in chains to Winterfell was a certain prisoner:
Ser Rodrik returned to Winterfell with his prisoner, a fleshy young man with fat moist lips and long hair who smelled like a privy, even worse than Alebelly had. “Reek, he’s called,” Hayhead said when Bran asked who it was. “I never heard his true name. He served the Bastard of Bolton and helped him murder Lady Hornwood, they say.” (ACOK, Bran V)
This prisoner, of course, was not Reek. Instead, it was Ramsay Snow who swapped out his clothing with Reek and assumed his identity after Rodrik Cassel’s men killed the man they thought was Ramsay.
Thereafter, Rodrik Cassel departed Winterfell to confront the Ironborn who had taken Torrhen’s Square. Shortly after Ser Rodrik’s departure, Theon took Winterfell and freed Reek after he took service with Theon. Thereafter, when the Stark children “fled” the castle, Reek assisted in the hunt. And he was the one who suggested murdering the miller’s boys in lieu of Bran and Rickon and mounting their burned bodies on the wall to deceive the world on the fate of the Starklings. But even as Theon and Reek made these moves, Rodrik Cassel was marching on Winterfell.
Theon’s ironborn garrison was not strong enough to hold Winterfell against an attack by nearly two thousand Stark retainers. Fortunately for Theon, Reek had an idea to get more men:
“Well, might be I could help you,” said Reek. “Give me a horse and bag o’ coin, and I could find you some good fellows.”Theon narrowed his eyes. “How many?”“A hundred, might be. Two hundred. Maybe more.” He smiled, his pale eyes glinting. “I was born up north here. I know many a man, and many a man knows Reek.” (ACOK, Theon V)
“Save me the Freys,” the Bastard was shouting as the flames roared upward, “and burn the rest. Burn it, burn it all.” (ACOK, Theon VI)
Of course, Ramsay took the women captive and took them to the Dreadfort while putting all of the men to the sword, but the Freys that Ramsay singling out the Freys for salvation is of significant interest. Certainly, the Frey boys had been part of the hunt for Bran and Rickon after they “escaped” Winterfell. But for a sadist and psychopath like Ramsay, that wouldn’t merit their survival.
Instead, the reason why the Frey boys were spared was that Roose Bolton likely ordered them spared. Roose’s marriage to Fat Walda Frey was instrumental in Roose’s alliance with the Freys in the Riverlands. His son murdering the Frey boys would end that alliance. Consider that Walder Frey had committed himself to the Red Wedding after Robb Stark forsook his marriage vows. If Roose Bolton’s bastard murdered his grandchildren, there’d be no Frey-Bolton alliance. So, Roose Bolton needed the boys alive. Ramsay sparing their lives during the Sack of Winterfell was an intentional move on the part of Roose Bolton to preserve his nascent alliance with House Frey.
And it all comes together when we receive Roose Bolton’s after-action report of what went down at Winterfell:
Bolton’s pale eyes met her own. “The ironmen burned both castle and winter town. Some of your people were taken back to the Dreadfort by my son, Ramsay.” (ASOS, Catelyn VI)
By the time Roose Bolton intersected with House Stark at the Twins, we are months beyond the Sack of Winterfell. But Roose Bolton is deceiving Catelyn Stark about what actually went down at Winterfell. Because as readers find out in ADWD, Roose Bolton was in on the deception:
That prospect did not appear to please Lord Ramsay. “I laid waste to Winterfell, or had you forgotten?”“No, but it appears you have … the ironmen laid waste to Winterfell, and butchered all its people. Theon Turncloak.” (ADWD, Reek III)
Roose Bolton covered up what Ramsay did in Winterfell, Ramsay spared the Frey boys from any harm and most importantly the Sack of Winterfell bolstered Roose Bolton’s position in the North. With Winterfell burned and broken, House Stark lost a key symbol of its legitimacy: its castle. And in losing that legitimacy, Robb Stark’s position in the Riverlands and Westerlands became untenable. How could Robb be king if his own castle and lands were being despoiled by “the ironborn”?
And yet, despite everything, Roose Bolton hadn’t committed to turning cloak on Robb Stark completely — and this despite all appearances to the contrary.
The Original End-state in Roose Bolton Northern and Southron Ambitions
Like we talked about in part 1, George RR Martin has indicated that Roose Bolton had not yet turned on House Stark even as late as his dinner meal with Jaime Lannister in ASOS:
“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, if the thesis that Roose Bolton was directing Ramsay Snow’s actions in ACOK holds true and that Roose Bolton cemented a marriage alliance with the Freys, what was Roose Bolton up to? Simply: Roose Bolton was rapidly enhancing the position of House Bolton sans an out-and-out betrayal of the Starks. In seizing Hornwood lands, burning Winterfell, killing hundreds if not thousands of Stark loyalists, Roose undid much of the foundation for House Stark in the North. While this was perhaps satisfying to Roose Bolton in a historical context, it also satisfied Roose Bolton’s need for lands, enhanced Bolton power and perhaps too, it forced Robb Stark to over-rely on House Bolton for support.
But moving outside of the plot itself, it’s clear that on a meta level, all of the political actions of Roose Bolton and Ramsay Snow worked to thumb the scale hard against Robb Stark in the lead-up to the Red Wedding.
My original intent was to talk about Roose Bolton’s planned rise as King in the North, but in writing all the build-up to it, I felt that this detour in talking all of the pre-Red Wedding, pre-betrayal of Robb Stark was important to establish in an essay prior to Roose Bolton’s attempt at royalty.
A face-value reading of the books has led many fans to think that Roose Bolton was always planning betrayal, always working against Robb Stark. But a deeper look at the narrative doesn’t lead to the conclusion. Instead, Roose Bolton’s marriages to the unnamed Lady Ryswell, his trueborn son Domeric, his bastard Ramsay’s actions, his third marriage to Fat Walda Frey were timed fortuitously. It wasn’t part of his long-term plan to become King in the North — though it set that foundation in place.
Furthermore, and most importantly, in fulfilling his marriage into House Frey, Roose established a contrast between himself and his liege Robb Stark — who would shortly break his betrothal promise to House Frey. And therein, we see a meta angle to analyze the actions of Roose Bolton: namely, that George RR Martin thumbed the scale hard to ensure Roose Bolton would have a plausible rise to power.
And that’s important in narrative construction. Roose Bolton is and becomes an out-and-out villain at the Red Wedding, but that single, horrible moment wouldn’t have necessarily led to his continued villainous presence in A Dance with Dragons and potentially in The Winds of Winter. George RR Martin needed to write Roose Bolton’s base of support and write it in such a manner that would be consistent within the world he constructed. So, Roose having multiple wives, heirs, lands and allies all cascaded towards the Red Wedding and Roose’s ability to project power into the North in A Dance with Dragons.
But Roose’s marriages, allies and heir would have far-reaching consequences for the North and Riverlands. At the end of A Storm of Swords, Merrett Frey thinks about Roose’s marriage to his daughter Fat Walda and considers it the start of the Frey-Bolton alliance:
Merrett had dare to hope that his luck was finally changing when Roose Bolton chose to wed his Walda instead of one of her slimmer, comelier cousins. The Bolton alliance was important for House Frey, and his daughter had helped secure it. (ASOS, Epilogue)
Roose had brought a large host in “service” of Robb Stark, and the introduction of thousands of Frey levies and knights would be force multiplier that Roose Bolton would need to secure the North ostensibly on behalf of King Tommen. But as we’ll find out in part 3, Roose wasn’t intending to restore the North to the Iron Throne. Instead, his true aim was much loftier.
Next up: The Turncloak King in the North
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