Northern Politics: the Stark Candidates

Posted: May 2, 2017 by patricksponaugle in Game of Thrones, Opinion, TV
Tags: , , , , , ,

Whoa, it’s the month of May, and there’s still no new Game of Thrones? Fine. (Pronounce that the way my teenage daughter might…)

So hopefully you’ll enjoy a short essay on the politics of the kingdom of the North, an area usually associated with the rule of House Stark. (Spoilers within if you’re not watching the show/reading the books. But you already know that.)


Politics? I hear you cry out. Don’t we have enough of that going on in the real world? Yup. We do. But I’m still going to write about Westeros and politics. (My family gets less worried about me when I’m talking about kings and not presidents.)

The King in the North! (Or should we be rooting for a queen?)

Roughly three centuries before the start of the series, the last King in the North, Torrhen Stark, knelt in submission to King Aegon Targaryen. He knelt a king, and arose Warden of the North. From then on, the kingdom of the North was one of several kingdoms ruled by the Targaryens from their seat of power in King’s Landing.

This changed with the death of King Robert Baratheon and the beheading of the North’s warden, Lord Eddard of House Stark. The legitimacy of Robert’s successor Joffrey was called into question, and both of King Robert’s brothers made claims to the throne. The North, stretching their independence legs and feeling their independence oats, opted to secede from the greater Seven Kingdoms. (They were also angry and stuff.)

The northern lords declared Robb Stark, the eldest son of the slain warden Ned Stark, to be the new King in the North.

King Robb was not a king for very long.

Robb: What the hell, man?
Roose: Look, I’m getting a promotion out of this. The North is now mine.

Well, Robb didn’t get to be a living breathing king for long. I guess he’ll get to be a dead king forever.

For a brief period, the North was ostensibly under the control of House Bolton, who betrayed the Starks and were granted overlordship of the North, backed up by Lannister authority. A political marriage with Sansa Stark was intended to smooth of the transition to Bolton legitimacy with the northerners, but things didn’t quite go as Roose Bolton planned.

Roose: You’re about to stab me, aren’t you?
Ramsay: Consider it me following your wonderful example.
Roose: I am filled with pride.
Ramsay: Filled with pride. Plus a dagger. So now the North is mine.

Things didn’t go like his twisted son Ramsay had planned as well.

Ramsay: Look, kill me if you want, but there’s no way they’re putting you in charge of the North!
Dog: Dude, I just want some dinner.

With the North still wanting to be independent of any southron king, fired up by the victory over the Boltons, and worried about an alleged invasion of the shambling dead from the lands beyond the Wall, the northern lords exercised their political will and declared the bastard Jon Snow the new King in the North.

Sitting right next to Jon was Ned Stark’s trueborn eldest daughter, Sansa Stark, seemingly unaccounted for as the position of northern authority was granted to her half-brother. (Hey, we all know that Jon is really Sansa’s cousin, but to streamline things, I’ll be talking from the perspective of the northern lords who don’t yet know that Jon is Rhaegar Targaryen and Lyanna Stark’s son.)

I want to examine some of the issues at play here.

Snow King? He’s no king!

Jon was declared king-by-acclimation after a rousing speech from the formidable Lady Lyanna Mormont, and following testimonials of support from Lord Robett Glover and Lord Wyman Manderly. There are several complications in Jon becoming king. Please understand that this isn’t me saying the lords were wrong to “elect” Jon as king, just that it isn’t necessarily a cut-and-dried deal.

Jon Snow has Ned Stark’s bloodline (the North believes that Ned is his dad) but he’s considered a bastard and therefore any claim he had to Winterfell would be subordinate to those of Ned’s trueborn children.

To be honest, if we’re talking about the transfer of kingly power it has less to do with Ned Stark and more to do with Robb Stark. Robb was the king, not Ned. (I sometimes wonder what Ned would think of the northerners declaring for Robb instead of Stannis whom Ned supported.)

Jon being a bastard isn’t necessarily a deal-breaker. Stannis offered to legitimize Jon and name him the new Lord of Winterfell. The grim and humorless Stannis hoped that this would rally the northern banners to his cause. Jon refused, feeling it would be wrong to break his oath of service to the Night’s Watch.

So bastards can be legitimized, provided people accept the legitimization. There seems to be some precedent of a king being the source for legitimacy: Stannis for Jon, and Tommen Baratheon transforming by royal edict Ramsay Snow into Ramsay Bolton. But I don’t think this is a hard and fast rule.

One of the themes of Game of Thrones is that power lies where men believe it lies.

If the northern lords opted to legitimize Jon Snow to be their king, that seems to be within the realm of possibility. The phrase kingmaking exists for a reason. Sometimes it has to take the action of people other than kings to make this happen.

Tyrant: What’s all this then?
Angry Nobles: Yeah, we don’t like you all that much, but we do like this guy. We’d like him to be king.
Tyrant: What’s this have to do with me?
Nobles: It’d be awesome if you’d, you know, declare him a prince or whatever. It’ll make things easier for us to depose you and elevate him to monarch.
Tyrant: Well, we tyrants are known for being accommodating.
Nobles: Whew! There’s no way this would have worked without your help.
Tyrant: Never let it be said that I wasn’t completely unreasonable.
Nobles: Uh, there’s too many negatives in that sentence for us to easily track your meaning.

Assuming the lords did want to legitimize Jon into being a Stark (or alternatively assuming that the lords just weren’t all that uptight with having a King in the North whose name is Snow) there’s another issue that I’ve already mentioned in my reference to Stannis. Jon Snow took an oath when he became a member of the Night’s Watch. Part of the oath makes being a king rather … complicated.

I shall take no wife, hold no lands, father no children.
I shall wear no crowns and win no glory.

The part about not wearing a crown seems most at odds with the job description of being a king, along with holding no lands, since I think kings usually have at least some stretch of land that they get to call their own. (Unless you’re Viserys, on the run.) But kings usually have the responsibility of marrying a queen and getting to work on producing legitimate heirs, for the stability of the realm.

King Robert Baratheon was all about producing children. Not so much about producing legitimate heirs.

The show seems to have side-stepped Jon’s unresolved Night’s Watch status to simplify the northern storyline. After his death and resurrection, Jon declared his intent to leave the Night’s Watch behind, since “now my watch has ended.” Jon is asserting that with his literal death, he’s fulfilled the conditions of the Night’s Watch oath.

Night gathers, and now my watch begins. It shall not end until my death.

I can understand this interpretation (particularly as a reaction to his being betrayed by his fellow Night’s Watchmen) but it runs afoul of another passage in the oath.

I pledge my life and honor to the Night’s Watch, for this night and all the nights to come.

“All the nights to come” certainly sounds like shorthand for forever. That assertion implies that the term of service for the oath is endless. But there is an implied end to service. “It shall not end until my death.” Something can’t be finite and infinite.

The original framers of the oath clearly weren’t taking resurrection into account. At least, not non-zombie resurrection into account.

Oi! I was just trying to find the Old Bear to tell him that “Now my watch has ended.” But snotty Lord Snow attacked me!

Putting the oath interpretation aside for the moment, there does appear to be some kind of loophole. Stannis Baratheon offered Jon an out from serving as Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch. Stannis’s offer to Jon was no less an oath-breaking moment. Jon, as the Lord of Winterfell, might not be getting a crown out of the deal, but he certainly would be holding lands. And he’d be expected to marry and produce heirs.

Stannis Baratheon is not known for taking oaths lightly, or for ignoring traditions and customs. If he was suggesting that a “pardon” of sorts could relieve Jon from service to the Wall honorably, then we have to consider it on the table and possible for Jon Snow to become King in the North, provided the lords of the North wished it.

So what about all these other guys at the Wall who ended up being beheaded because they couldn’t hack the lifestyle? Isn’t this inconsistent?

Only if they were up for serious consideration to become King in the North. I think Jon is the exception that proves the rule. Sorry, all you nameless, shifty, uncharismatic deserters.

So I don’t think Jon is an unreasonable choice. I just feel like Sansa is getting massively disrespected out of this deal.

Sansa Stark, the True Queen in the North? Or the Southron Pretender in the North?

Sansa presents many advantages over Jon. For starters, her last name is Stark, not Snow, and so doesn’t have to be legitimized in any way.

Sansa: Bastard usurper says “what?”
Jon: What?
Sansa: LOL! No take-backs!

She also has never taken any vows that would preclude her from being a queen. No eschewing of crowns or children.

Why shouldn’t the North rally to her, Robb Stark’s eldest sister, and declare her Queen in the North?

I’m not saying that they shouldn’t; I’m fond of the idea of Queen Sansa, but just like with Jon there are some wrinkles to examine.

I’ve said that Sansa has taken no complicated oath, and that her last name is Stark. Let’s examine that.

Until recently, Sansa’s last name was Bolton, and before that she was a Lannister by marriage. Lady Mormont makes mention of this when Sansa, Jon, and Ser Davos come to Bear Island seeking aid.

Sansa wasn’t Tyrion’s widow, so does her marriage to the awfulest Bolton imply that her marriage to Tyrion had been annulled so she could be re-married? (Aunt Lysa implied that some annulment ruling would need to be made so Sansa could marry little Lord Robin. This was before Littlefinger introduced Lysa to his ladder of chaos aka the Moon Door.)

But is that implication accepted at the moment? Baelish convinced Lord Royce that Sansa had been abducted by the Boltons and forced to marry Ramsay. It’s unclear to me if that’s a cover story that Sansa is also supporting (it really hasn’t come up in conversation) and I’m interested in that, largely because Lord Royce has been eyeing Littlefinger with some disgust and suspicion. (I just want Baelish’s lies to come under some scrutiny.)

It’s not unreasonable for the northern lords to want Sansa’s marriage status clarified, before making her queen. No one wants some unresolved first husband as an argument against the legitimacy of Sansa’s future children. Because you know that they’re eyeing Sansa up for a political marriage already.

I’m not considering this a tremendous worry on the behalf of the northern lords. No one probably cares all that much about Tyrion’s grievances, since the country is back on secessionist footing. But history is full of kingmaking/kingbreaking opportunities if things aren’t handled with the most clarity.

Is Sansa’s being overlooked in favor of Jon just the patriarchy at work as usual? The North does seem to respect female leaders. Lady Mormont is just a child but she’s clearly calling the shots on Bear Island. The books have several examples of widows running the show in their lands, like the tragic Lady Hornwood and the enigmatic Lady Dustin.

But it just feels like Sansa is getting a measure of disrespect. Possibly, if Sansa were more northern, this wouldn’t be the case.

Now hold up. I know this seems like a huge helping of Sansa-blaming from me, and maybe it is. But I don’t really think it’s Sansa’s fault that she’s not more Northie-North. I guess I blame her mother Catelyn.

Sansa: The North is the worst kingdom.
Catelyn: Don’t tell your father this, but I agree.

Blame probably isn’t the right word, but it’s clear that Sansa took after Catelyn, who admitted to never really feeling like she was part of the North. I think Cat was quietly hoping to marry Sansa off to some upstanding lordling in the Riverlands, or a valiant upwardly-mobile son of a mighty lord of the Vale, before King Robert decided to play Matchmaker-or-Else.

Sansa’s fish-out-of-water aspect was most evident when she tried to win over the Mormonts and the Glovers with little success (thank you Davos for the save with Lady Lyanna.) Sansa is certainly a lady with a lady’s courtesies, but something wasn’t clicking.

Hold those horses, I imagine you saying. Jon was with Sansa at Bear Island and Deepwood Motte, and he didn’t fare any better.

That’s true, I shouldn’t use just this example as a means to illustrate Sansa not quite getting “it” – whatever “it” is. But in other ways, Jon does seem to get northern culture. (At least in my opinion, which I’m going to bandy about, of course. Forgive me.)

Early in Season Six, Jon and Sansa have an emotionally-satisfying reunion at Castle Black. These two quasi-siblings really had few happy memories between them. Growing up in Winterfell, they were not all that close. But having a family member nearby after all of their bad experiences kicked in an immediate bonding moment.

Sansa: Let’s keep one thing clear. I’m prettier than you.
Jon: Only because I have this scar.

Sansa and Jon reflected on their past, with Sansa admitting to him that she was awful and Jon acknowledging that he probably didn’t help matters by being so angsty and moody.

Sansa: Can you forgive me?
Jon: There’s nothing to forgive –
Sansa: Forgive me!
Jon: Right. Alright, I forgive you.

At the time, I didn’t pay much attention to this exchange, other than seeing it as an expression of their characters. Jon is being deferential; Sansa is being the bossy sister in her way. It’s kind of charming.

This scene is echoed a bit later during the post-battle gathering at Winterfell, when some of the northern lords are called to account for their initial lack of support for Jon and Sansa’s effort to retake the North from the Boltons.

Robett Glover: A man can only admit when he’s wrong. And ask forgiveness.
Jon Snow: There’s nothing to forgive, my lord.

This repetition of asking for forgiveness with a response that implicitly grants forgiveness, by setting aside the grievance, just feels very northern to me. It reminded me a little of Ned.

The master called over a tall lad about Robb’s age, his arms and chest corded with muscle. “This is Lord Stark, the new Hand of the King,” he told him as the boy looked at Ned through sullen blue eyes and pushed back sweat-soaked hair with his fingers. Thick hair, shaggy and unkempt and black as ink. The shadow of a new beard darkened his jaw. “This is Gendry. Strong for his age, and he works hard. Show the Hand that helmet you made, lad.” Almost shyly, the boy led them to his bench, and a steel helm shaped like a bull’s head, with two great curving horns.


The men of the North are a proud people. Hurt pride can lead to grudges and simmering feuds, and that’s not adaptive when living in the North requires so much cooperation.

This apparent mechanism of admitting wrong without having one actually be shamed for it seems like a natural northern tradition. Something that Jon understands but possibly Sansa does not.

But would Sansa’s southern-trained instincts be a hindrance in being accepted by the northerners? Look, Westeros is Westeros and historical Scotland is historical Scotland, but we seem to have a strong Mary, Queen of Scots parallel happening.

Some lemoncakes would be delightful! Mon Dieu!

Scottish royalty Mary was raised as a small child at court in France, as part of the Franco-Scottish alliance against England. But as a young adult, the marriage between her and French royalty hit a snag (he died), initiating her return to Scotland to replace a regent and to rule as queen.

Despite being Catholic and far more French in nature than Scot, she managed win over (most of) the Protestant lords to succeed in her reign. (Well, for a few years. Then things went pretty badly.) So I don’t think Catelyn’s southern focus for Sansa should be all that of a hindrance. Particularly because Sansa has significant allies.

It’s best not to cross Sansa. At the moment, she practically has control of Winterfell with the numerous knights of the Vale in residence.

Baelish: Future Mrs. Baelish says “what?”
Sansa: What? UGH! Dammit!
Baelish: No take-backs!

Littlefinger of course would like to see Sansa have as much power as possible, since he’s assuming that he has manipulative leverage over her, despite the setback of convincing her to marry the ever-charming Ramsay Bolton.

Regardless of the North’s reasons for supporting Jon Snow as king in preference to Sansa Stark as queen, either of those decisions seem premature. Because no one should count out the true King in the North.

Bran Stark.

Which King? Or Queen? Or Witch-King?

The show has pretty much omitted a book element that would weigh heavily in supporting Jon Snow as the legitimate king for the northmen. There’s always a chance that one or two northern lords will get around to reading some mail that was written prior to the Red Wedding, and bring this to light on the show, but I doubt it. (I’m being super vague, non-book readers. Too bad. Read the books.)

So let’s continue to consider the somewhat normal-seeming rules of succession, with King Robb dying without a child or designated heir and Jon Snow merely his acknowledged bastard brother.

Sansa Stark has a stronger claim in these circumstances, but Bran Stark has the strongest claim. The North presumably follows the male-preferential line of succession (the law of the land except in Dorne) and therefore Bran should be acknowledged as the next king.

In the kingdom of the blind, the three-eyed man is king. Suck on that, one-eyed man!

But everyone knows that Bran and Rickon died when Theon sacked Winterfell, right? No no, that’s old news that was debunked. Or to be politically topical, FAKE NEWS.

Sam Tarly, on the show (and unlike in the books) told Jon Snow that he encountered Rickon and Bran at the Nightfort when he and Gilly were getting past the Wall. Jon has known for seasons that Bran could be alive.

Sansa learned from Theon directly that Bran and Rickon were not killed during his stay as Prince of Winterfell. She wouldn’t necessarily know about Bran and Rickon’s whereabouts, but one assumes that Jon would have confided in Sansa that Bran and Rickon had been reported as alive.

And then there’s that whole “Hey, Ramsay Bolton has Rickon Stark, alive and well” aspect.

Ramsay: It just occurred to me that for the next few minutes, you have a really solid claim on being the King in the North.
Rickon: …
Ramsay: For the next few minutes.

Although Rickon is now dead, the question should be raised by the northmen about the possibility of Bran being alive, and his whereabouts.

The fact that the show (and the North) is being quiet on the topic is a bit head-scratching, other than the likely excuse that there’s very little time to debate political niceties on the show at the moment. But I assume the entire North will soon learn that Bran is alive, when Meera drags him the remaining mile or so to the gate at Castle Black.

Will anyone advocate on Bran’s behalf for the northern crown? Will Bran’s existence short-circuit any arguments from Sansa, that Jon’s illegitimate status precludes him from the monarchy? Since that argument undermines any claim she’d put forward as well?

Will Bran be accepted as the new King in the North, since he won’t be able to ride forth all that easily to inspire his retainers? Or will the saddle Tyrion designed make that not an issue? Or does Bran have any interest in ruling at all?

I can be a king whenever I want! I can just warg back in time and possess one of the previous kings. Like crazy old Aerys! No harm could come from that. He’s already bonkers.

Will Bran’s new-found magical powers make him more likely to be accepted by the North as their king, or make them less likely to get behind a king with mysterious powers?

Or will the Stark (and Snow) children work out some arrangement? That Bran would abdicate any claim, that Sansa be content with being the rightful Lady of Winterfell, and that Jon would operate as a kind of war-time king, not officially holding lands, but commanding armies until the threats (both north and south) are dealt with?

We won’t know until Season Seven starts up (that is, if the show has enough breathing room to ask and answer any of these questions) but we can go ahead and speculate now. It’s not like we have any Game of Thrones to watch at the moment.

Quick poll, just to see what people think:

Praise the Old Gods! We’re at the end of this damnably-long post!

Okay, if you read this all the way through (other than just the captioned photos and the poll, Bruce) then thank you very much. I’m committed to writing a post every week until the show starts up, just like in previous years.

(Comments are always welcome. Super welcome! But if you want to talk spoilery Game of Thrones talk with me (also welcome) I’d invite you to visit my Safe Spoilers page on my backup blog. That way my non-book-reading friends won’t be shocked with foreknowledge.)

Images from HBO’s Game of Thrones (obviously.)

I make no claim to the images, but some claims to the text. So there.

If you liked this article, thank you! I have all of my Game of Thrones related articles on my handy-dandy Game of Thrones page should you want to read more but don’t want to navigate around my site.

© Patrick Sponaugle 2017 Some Rights Reserved

  1. writingjems says:

    The question of who should be ruling the North is an interesting one. By laws of succession, it should be Bran Stark. But even if most people are now aware that he’s alive – or, at least, that he wasn’t killed by Theon; there’s nothing to say he isn’t dead somewhere north of the Wall – I think the Northern lords aren’t looking to fight for a king ruling in absentia. Jon and Sansa are the two known choices, and it makes sense to pick from those two.

    Personally, I think Sansa should have been made Queen in the North. However, I can see the hesitation on the part of the Northern houses. Having been gone for years and been married off to both the Lannisters and Boltons, it’s hard to say exactly where her loyalties lie. And by all accounts, her name is officially Sansa Bolton, even if she has personally thrown off the name. I wonder if it’s possible to get her marriage to Ramsay’s corpse annulled.

    Jon, on the other hand, is true Northern stock. He has Ned’s grim, Northern disposition, and it’s hard not to rally for him when he was just covered in gore from a Bolton-Wildling mosh pit. I think that’s the kind of thing people like Lyanna and the others admire. Jon has just enough genetics to be a viable candidate, and strikes a much more impressive figure. And I think legitimizing his name is easier than annulling Sansa’s marriage into the Boltons.

    I don’t necessarily agree with the decision – after all Sansa’s been through, I think she’s being massively disrespected – but I can see why it went that way. Hopefully, Baelish won’t use that slight to break the fledgling relationship between Jon and Sansa. The North is only just getting back on its legs!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Great feedback, as always. In regards to Sansa throwing off the Bolton name, I am still unsure if Sansa won’t just insist that Ramsay abducted her. But I don’t think she’ll want to be known as Sansa Lannister.

      Interestingly enough, if she and Tyrion had conceived a child (they hadn’t, I am not implying they had) with so many Lannisters blowing up in King’s Landing, this hypothetical child would have a claim on Casterly Rock…

      Liked by 1 person

      • writingjems says:

        I guess she could say that. There were witnesses for the wedding, but I doubt any of them would be eager to defend the deceased and dog-digested Ramsay over Sansa. And it would be true that she was compelled to do it, so I do sympathize with her point of view that it’s not a legitimate marriage.

        That’s true, although with Tyrion and Sansa as enemies of the Crown, I doubt they would be able to make good on that claim while Cersei is still planted on the Iron Throne. Although one must wonder at this point how far her jurisdiction extends outside King’s Landing. I think even the Lannisters of Casterly Rock can’t be too thrilled with her. She did blow up Kevan and Lancel Lannister as well, the ruling force of Casterly Rock with Tywin gone and his only heir.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Great read. I’m voting for Sansa even though I would also enjoy seeing Jon on the throne, and I have no idea where Sansa is headed morally right now…

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Haylee says:

    Mormont! Just because she is absolutely mint!! But I understand the issues with Sansa – she’s always had that ‘better than you’ attitude that as a ‘real life’ northerner, we just don’t like.

    On a different note, how do you retain all this info?! I know you’ve said it’s been more challenging with the later start date but seriously, hats off to you. Even with a subject that I might know inside out, being able to grab relevant quotes and remember fine details without an immense amount of research would be beyond me!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Lady Mormont is certainly mint. Thanks for bringing the proper northerner perspective as feedback, miss.

      Thanks for the compliment on my info retention, but I assume that I cheat. At the beginning of the year, I wrote down all the topics, so I had some time to think about this, and sketch things out. The “Forgive Me/Nothing to Forgive” notion kind of bubbled up, and I got the long quote about Ned and Gendry but using and searching on “forgive” and “forgiveness” – I assumed there might be something with Ned, and there kind of was.

      (I’m giving away my secrets, I think.)

      Liked by 1 person

      • Haylee says:

        You are divulging your secrets! But it still takes a lot of effort to put it all together so the compliment still stands. (It was the comment you mentioned on Twitter from Reddit that made me think just how much you do put into these posts. I’m guilty of enjoying them without always thinking of the writing process involved for you.)

        Liked by 2 people

  4. I think the north has legitimation in mind for Jon, and thats the reason they made him King. Why not Sansa, well because there must always be a Stark at Winterfell. This wont be the case in the next generation if Sansa is declare queen. She´ll marry and her children wont have the Stark name. (I know Im being too literal but at least Im not falling in misinterpretation like Melisandre)

    Liked by 1 person

    • You bring up a good point about Sansa’s children. Dany has a similar problem in regards to her name, unless she plans on the children carrying her name.

      I need to see what was done in regards to Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip, as a reference.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. erinb9 says:

    I feel like this show is so complex and has been off so long that I may HAVE to watch the whole thing over again just to remember everything that’s happened. 🙂

    Great post, as always. I’m just gonna say I don’t want Sansa to end up ruling everything because I feel like it would be a pity vote. I do feel bad for her, but she’s also made many bad choices and there are more skilled options available.

    Liked by 1 person

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