Thursday, 27 January 2011

Seven kingdoms...or eight?

In A Song of Ice and Fire, much of the action takes place in the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros, which, to cause immediate confusion, is actually one nation. But there's actually nine distinct regions in the kingdom and eight ruling families. And what about the wildlings, do they count (answer: no)? What's going on? Where does the 'seven' come from?

The 7/8/9 Kingdoms of Westeros (delete by preference).

In SFF, organisations seem reluctant to change their names, often retaining the same names, designations and hierarchy unchanged for centuries or millennia. In real life these things change much more often. Remember when the G8 was the G6? Or when the Solar system had nine planets?

Of course, in Westeros the number seven is sacred, being the number of the dominant Faith of the Seven, so thus the desire to keep the number down to seven becomes more understandable. It does, of course, require some arguing to make the count accurate for all of Westeros's history. Even the producers of the TV show seemed to recently get confused over whether the real count is seven or eight and I daresay it will come up from the new fans that come aboard with the TV show.

George R.R. Martin has of course been asked about this point. His explanation is simple: when Aegon the Conqueror set out to invade Westeros, there were seven kingdoms extant on the continent. These were:

  1. The Kingdom of the North - ruled from Winterfell by House Stark.
  2. The Kingdom of the Vale - ruled from the Eyrie by House Arryn.
  3. The Kingdom of the Isles and Rivers - ruled from Harrenhal by House Hoare.
  4. The Kingdom of the Rock - ruled from Casterly Rock by House Lannister.
  5. The Kingdom of the Reach - ruled from Highgarden by House Gardner.
  6. The Kingdom of the Stormlands - ruled from Storm's End by King Argilac.
  7. The Kingdom of Dorne - ruled from Sunspear by House Martell.
So it appears that the Targaryens on Dragonstone used the term 'Seven Kingdoms' to refer to the seven nations that existed on Westeros and Aegon went off to conquer all of them. Except of course he hit a few hurdles along the way.

First off, when he invaded the Riverlands - at this time occupied by the ironborn - he was assisted by a popular uprising led by House Tully of Riverrun. Aegon burned out Harrenhal with his dragons (with King Harren Hoare still inside) and chased the ironborn pack to the Iron Isles, where the surviving lords chose Vickon Greyjoy of Pyke as their new overlord. Greyjoy swore fealty to Aegon, but Aegon also accepted an oath of fealty from Lord Edwyn Tully of Riverrun and appointed him overlord of the Riverlands. So he was already up one kingdom anyway.

The order in which the other kingdoms fell is unknown, but the North and (apparently) the Vale both signed up to the Aegon Plan (accept me as your king or I will burn you alive) enthusiastically, whilst Aegon's half-brother Orys demonstrated his badassery by taking over the Stormlands and founding a new house, the Baratheons. The Reach and the Rock both also surrendered after being defeated at the Field of Fire. During the battle the Gardners of the Reach were wiped out and Aegon raised up their stewards, the Tyrells, in their place.

At this point, possibly crucially for the numbering system, Aegon was welcomed into Oldtown and blessed by the High Septon of the Starry Sept, his mission to unite Westeros officially blessed by the Seven. Aegon went off and invaded Dorne and didn't get very far before withdrawing. It's possible that the North signed up later in the war and Aegon withdrew from Dorne to meet King Torrhen Stark on the Trident and decided not to return. It's also possible that the Dornish, who adopted guerrilla tactics in the war, simply could not be brought to a dragon-tastic decisive battle and Aegon didn't want to bleed his troops with a long march through the desert (a choice accepted by his descendant King Daeron I, with accompanying huge losses). So, for whatever reason, Aegon left Dorne untaken. He may have liked the idea of having Seven Kingdoms for the Seven Faces of God. For all we know he may have received advice from his financial advisor that having Dorne as an independent place where they could stash their money was a great idea.

King Aegon I - perhaps more of a pedantic number nut than first thought?

So, anyway, after the invasion Aegon was left in control of seven kingdoms, which now looked like this:

  1. The North - ruled by House Stark from Winterfell.
  2. The Vale - ruled by House Arryn from the Eyrie.
  3. The Iron Islands - ruled by House Greyjoy from Pyke.
  4. The Riverlands - ruled by House Tully from Riverrun.
  5. The Westerlands - ruled by House Lannister from Casterly Rock.
  6. The Stormlands - ruled by House Baratheon from Storm's End.
  7. The Reach - ruled by House Tyrell from Highgarden.
Dorne was still an independent kingdom, whilst the Crownlands, the area around the city of King's Landing that was slowly taking shape, was an independent area under the direct command of the crown (a bit like the District of Columbia not being counted as one of the fifty American States).

This was the happily logical situation for about two centuries. However, in 195-196 After the Landing the realm was torn apart by a bloody civil war, the Blackfyre Rebellion. After a lengthy struggle and the mighty Battle of the Redgrass Field, King Daeron II managed to secure his rule and chased off the Blackfyre Pretenders to the eastern continent. In the wake of this war, which had been won with the help of the Dornish, Prince Maron Martell of Sunspear married Daeron's sister, Princess Daenerys (not the one from the novels, who was around a century later, but possibly the person whom she was named for). Since King Daeron had already married a Dornish princess, this tied Dorne to the Seven Kingdoms and it was formally absorbed into the realm.

Of course, this gave Daeron a headache, since it now meant he ruled eight kingdoms. Possibly for religious reasons he didn't want to rename the kingdom, so he had to demote one of the existing kingdoms. Checking them over, there was an obvious candidate: House Greyjoy of the Iron Islands. They'd been pretty much independent anyway, rarely interacting with the politics of the mainland, and at the time of the war had happily taken advantage of the chaos to raid and reave along the coastline, which was basically not cool.

King Daeron II. Couldn't leave well enough alone and screwed up the count again.

So the Greyjoys were demoted and the Martells promoted. This left the count as:

  1. The North.
  2. The Vale.
  3. The Riverlands.
  4. The Westerlands.
  5. The Stormlands.
  6. The Reach.
  7. Dorne.

This is the count at the time that A Game of Thrones begins. The Iron Islands are out of the count and don't seem to particularly care very much (although in one memorable scene, Joffrey does propose reinstating them for kicking the arse out of one of the other kingdoms) and that sorts that out.

Next time: were there always seven crewmembers in Blake's 7? What is up with SFF and the number 7 anyway?


great_o'rety said...

That issue somehow never seemed right. It does now, I guess. Glad you've taken the time to put it together in such a coherent and comprehensible way.

But there are others. What about the timeline, for starters? For one thing only 3 centuries of Targaryen rule seem underwhelming. They do seem a fixture in the setting and even though Robb becomes a king, the royal tradition of former ruling houses seems almost non-existent or at least soundly forgotten. On the other hand we've got the blatantly over the top issue of Jon Snow being 99887th Commander of the Night Watch. Which really only adds insult to the those petty Targaryen 300.

Curious what your take on ironing this one out would be.

Kevin S. said...

So the Seven Kingdoms are like the Big Ten college athletic conference, which has had 11 members since the early 90s and will have 12 starting next year.

Anatole said...

I feel like I just got Incepted. Epic analysis.

Marko said...

Two things, first a clarification: when the Iron Isles get demoted, are they administratively adjoined to the North? That is, are the Starks their overlords, at least on paper?

Second, I am happy to keep it simple when it comes to the number of kingdoms - only the original 7 at the time of conquest were really kingdoms. Their combined territory then gets rearranged and cut into various administrative regions over time, which don't have the status of kingdoms anymore anyway.

Thanks for this great historical treatise ;) it was a pleasure reading it.

Adam Whitehead said...

I think it's clear that the dates are suspect. GRRM has said that dates are pretty accurate up to 1,000-2,000 years ago and before that the margin of error gets bigger and bigger (presumably not helped by the whacked-out seasons meaning that keeping track of the years is problematic). At one point I think Sam even says he can't find evidence for more than 600 predecessors for Jon Snow, suggesting an error margin of around 50% for older dates.

The Iron Islands are still under their own authority and are not adjuncts to the North or Riverlands or anyone else. There probably isn't a formal system for saying an area is one of the Seven Kingdoms or not, it's just an informal thing which probably vexes maesters and students and few others. In ASoS we know that things that show the seven sigils of the Seven Kingdoms leave off the Greyjoy symbol (Joffrey suggests reinstating it after their successful military campaign, maybe in place of the Starks).

great_o'rety said...

Well, 600 is still quite a lot to say the least. How many years would that be? If you take a medium duration of even 5 years on the post it still gives 3 millenia. Then you could say that 3k years is not that much in terms of our timeline - it's about the same time that passed since Iliad. But then you have to compare it to those 300yrs of Targaryen.

What I'm saying here is I know that it's a conscious exaggeration on GRRM part. But still maybe a little over the top, don't you think?

ethelred said...

I don't think it's quite so unreasonable as you're suggesting, Great. If you think about it comparable to real world history, the Norman conquest was around 1050 and the Wars of the Roses (which were, of course, a pretty heavy influence on A Song of Ice and Fire) took place around 1400. That's, what, a 350 time year span? Reasonably comparable to what you see in terms of the Targaryen rule. But the Targaryens established themselves as a pretty firm institution in that timeframe, just as the Normans did.

And yeah, there are a lot more Lords Commander of the Night Watch and institutionally that order's history goes back way, way further. But I don't think it's that different from plenty of other pre-Norman institutions that existed in Britain, and their existence was aided, I'm sure, by the fact that they strove (most of the time) to be pretty explicitly apolitical and they served a noble purpose that all the nobility could rally around (getting rid of potentially troublesome second sons as well as rapists and criminals).

Blackfish said...

Three hundred years is a respectable track record for a ruling dynasty - various Chinese dynasties had similar timespans, and many prominent European dynasties have less.

Alex said...

I posted this to the discussion thread on the recap of "A Golden Crown" over at, but I don't think you're reading that thread any more, and it fits better here anyway.

While it’s true that the Seven Kingdoms that existed when Aegon launched his war of conquest had not existed in their then-present forms for the entire post-Andal-invasion history of Westeros, it’s not accurate to say that “there were just seven kingdoms by chance” at that point, either. Each of those seven kingdoms had a long history as a unified realm, albeit with slightly different borders at different times in history, and most of them had been ruled by the same family for hundreds or thousands of years.

We know that the Starks, Lannisters, Arryns, Gardeners, and the unnamed line of Storm Kings ruled their respective fortresses and large areas of land around them for millenia, gradually consolidating their rule by annexing their smaller, weaker neighbors. Dorne had existed as a kingdom since the Rhoynar colonized it about 700 years before Aegon’s conquest. The Iron Islands had been unified as a distinct culture since at least the Andal invasion, and for much of that time were ruled by a single king (at least nominally — “every captain a king” on his own longship, and which captain got to wear the crown was probably contested pretty frequently, given the Ironmen’s might-makes-right worldview).

Of the lesser kingdoms you mention, Duskendale and Crackclaw point are both in what became the Crownlands, not part of any one of the original Seven Kingdoms. The Boltons bent the knee to the Starks about the same time the Rhoynar unified Dorne, and they weren't really a separate kingdom anyway -- rather, they were contenders against the Starks for the title of King in the North, and the rule of that entire region.

The Riverlands, however, were a special case; while they were sometimes unified under a single River King, it’s strongly implied that there were at other times several claimants to that title (in particular, the Brackens probably never accepted the sovereignty of a Blackwood River King, and vice versa). At the time of Aegon's conquest, House Hoare of the Iron Islands had ruled the Riverlands since Black Harren’s grandfather took them from the Storm King, who had conquered them some time earlier. There's no basis for assuming that they were always independent and ruled by one River King for their entire history previous to that conquest, and some of the exposition during Arya's wandering through the Riverlands in the second and third books gives us good reason to believe otherwise.

So, to sum up, there were Seven Kingdoms with more or less stable borders, capitals, and ruling dynasties for centuries before Aegon’s conquest — the Kingdom of Winter, the Kingdom of Mountain and Vale, the Kingdom of the Iron Islands, the Kingdom of the Rock, the Kingdom of the Reach, the Kingdom of the Storm King, and the Kingdom (or Princedom, if you want to quibble) of Dorne. Then there were the Riverlands (quite possibly including the present-day Crownlands, which after all were another river valley, that of the Blackwater Rush, adjacent to the valley of the Trident).

(continued due to word count limit)

Alex said...


The Riverlands did not have a long history leading up to that moment as a single, unified realm — they were, at various times, divided up into various petty kingdoms, conquered by one of the Seven Kingdoms (or perhaps split between more than one), or ruled for a relatively brief period by a River King from one of the various houses that pursued that title. The problem with trying to forge and maintain a kingdom in the Riverlands is that they share borders with five of the mainland kingdoms, and have a coastline within easy striking distance of the Iron Islands (the shore of Ironman's Bay where Seagard stands) — the only major kingdom that isn’t in a position to try invading the Riverlands is Dorne. None of those borders are especially defensible, so any lord of Winterfell, the Eyrie, Casterly Rock, the Iron Islands, Highgarden, or Storm’s End who wanted to expand his kingdom would probably find it easiest and most profitable to bite off a chunk of the Riverlands (nice, fertile riparian plains with a pleasantly temperate climate!), rather than fight one of his rivals to shift the border between his kingdom and one of the other well-established kingdoms.

As to the etymology “Seven Kingdoms” in regard to what Aegon actually conquered, it’s pretty clear that it pre-dated the Targaryen conquest, and that the Targaryens continued to use it because they never gave up claiming sovereignty over Dorne — they just found it inconvenient to enforce. There’s plenty of historical precedence for this; several generations of English kings styled themselves “King of England, Ireland, Scotland and France” even though only one of them (Henry V) ever actually conquered France and they didn’t always control Scotland and Ireland, either.

The Targaryen kings probably styled themselves “King of the Andals and the Rhoynar and the First Men” from Aegon I on, despite the fact that the Rhoynar didn’t accept their rulership until the reign of Daeron II, and referred to their realm as "The Seven Kingdoms" (a term that probably predated the conquest by several centuries), meaning North, Mountain and Vale, Iron Islands, Rock, Reach, Stormlands, and Dorne, which they officially regarded as a temporarily independent renegade province with an illegitimate ruler.* The Riverlands, Crownlands, and Dragonstone all constituted separate administrative regions, with their local lords sworn to Riverrun, Dragonstone and King's Landing rather than to one of the original fortresses of the Great Houses, but none of them counted as one of the Seven Kingdoms, because that term dated from when they had actual kings.

*Daeron I ascended to the throne at such a young age that he might have had trouble grasping the realpolitik, polite-fiction nature of the Targaryen claim to rulership of Dorne, and thus expended forty thousand lives, ultimately including his own, in conquering and then failing to hold the southern-most of the Seven Kingdoms. However, the cost of that war to the Dornish probably played some role in Prince Maron Martell's decision to accept Daeron II's reciprocal marriage alliance and bend the knee to the Targaryens, with the proviso that the Martells retain the title "Prince" and maintain Rhoynar customs like equal primogeniture within their demesne.

Anonymous said...

The Iron Islands were never "demoted" into not being considered a Kingdom anymore - what?

Rather, the Riverlands were never considered one of "the Seven Kingdoms" - much as certain medieval English Kings claimed to be "King of Ireland" or "King of Wales", the Targaryens continued to style themselves "Kings of the Andals, Rhoynar, and First Men" for the first two centuries of their rule - the reality just didn't match the title. Dorne was always counted as the "Seventh Kingdom".

--The Dragon Demands

Adam Whitehead said...

" The Iron Islands were never "demoted" into not being considered a Kingdom anymore - what? "

It certainly wasn't formally, and the regional administration thing has always been the same for all NINE of the regions, regardless of the naming conventions.

However, in ASoS Joffrey indicates that in the count, the Greyjoys currently don't count and he should use them to replace the Starks (using his goblet to illustrate). Colloquially and casually, there seems to be an acceptance that the Greyjoys 'didn't count' in some fashion.

"Rather, the Riverlands were never considered one of "the Seven Kingdoms" - much as certain medieval English Kings claimed to be "King of Ireland" or "King of Wales", the Targaryens continued to style themselves "Kings of the Andals, Rhoynar, and First Men" for the first two centuries of their rule - the reality just didn't match the title. Dorne was always counted as the "Seventh Kingdom". "

Revelations from the WORLD OF ICE AND FIRE previews seem to be making this more and more untenable (the latest info suggests that the Dornish may have successfully KILLED one of Aegon's sisters and her dragon and Aegon failed to avenge her, making any Targaryen claim laughable). Also, it's rather an insult to the Riverlands. They weren't a kingdom at the time of the Conquest or for a couple of centuries prior, but they had at one time been a large and relatively powerful nation in their own right.

It should be noted that this article was written about the books, not the TV show. The TV show indeed has been more explicit in saying that the Riverlands don't count. But that has no bearing on the book situation, which is much more murky.