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The Grand Northern Conspiracy - Part 1


Spoilers for the entire series, A Feast For Crows and A Dance With Dragons in particular. One major spoiler for Season 3 of Game of Thrones in this part, specifically Episode 9: “The Rains of Castamere.” Kudos to the posters, especially tze, at the Westeros.org forums, who first pieced together this theory. The original threads can be read here and there.

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The North Remembers

Among ADWD’s most memorable crowning moments of awesome are the northmen expressing their undying love for and loyalty to the Starks despite the house seemingly teetering on the verge of extinction—heirs dead, missing, or in captivity; ancestral seat of Winterfell in ruins and occupied by enemies.

Ten-year-old Lyanna Mormont roundly rejects Stannis Baratheon as her king.

Bear Island knows no king but the King in the North, whose name is STARK. (Jon I, ADWD)

Wylla Manderly, a girl of no more than fifteen, finds the treacherous lies of the Freys unbearable and denounces them for all her grandfather’s court to hear.

“A thousand years before the Conquest, a promise was made, and oaths were sworn in the Wolf’s Den before the old gods and the new. When we were sore beset and friendless, hounded from our homes and in peril of our lives, the wolves took us in and nourished us and protected us against our enemies. The city is built upon the land they gave us. In return, we swore that we should always be their men. Stark men!” (Davos III, ADWD)

Northern hill clansmen brave death by winter and the sword both, hundreds making a grueling march to Winterfell, for a chance to save Ned Stark’s daughter.

“Winter is almost upon us, boy. And winter is death. I would sooner my men die fighting for the Ned’s little girl than alone and hungry in the snow, weeping tears that freeze upon their cheeks. No one sings songs of men who die like that. As for me, I am old. This will be my last winter. Let me bathe in Bolton blood before I die. I want to feel it spatter across my face when my axe bites deep into a Bolton skull. I want to lick it off my lips and die with the taste of it on my tongue.” (Asha II, The King’s Prize, ADWD)

And, of course, Wyman Manderly, who’s so bold as to bake his foes into Frey pies and serve them to the usurping Boltons at a wedding feast.

“Foes and false friends are all around me, Lord Davos. They infest my city like roaches, and at night I feel them crawling over me.” The fat man’s fingers coiled into a fist, and all his chins trembled. “My son Wendel came to the Twins a guest. He ate Lord Walder’s bread and salt, hung his sword upon the wall to feast with friends. And they murdered him. Murdered, I say, and may the Freys choke upon their fables. I drink with Jared, jape with Symond, promise Rhaegar the hand of my own beloved granddaughter… but never think that means I have forgotten. The north remembers, Lord Davos. The north remembers, and the mummer’s farce is almost done.” (Davos IV, ADWD)

It’s all terribly inspiring and, upon realization of Manderly’s deception, of just how deep hatred for the Boltons and Freys runs, some began to wonder if there isn’t more to it. Thus was born the Grand Northern Conspiracy. As the theory goes, by the end of ADWD, nearly every northern house is secretly plotting together to restore the Starks to power, playing Stannis and the Boltons against one another with the welcome bonus of killing lots and lots of Freys. What’s more, it’s speculated that the conspirators don’t merely want a Stark in Winterfell but a King in the North again. And the northmen have already agreed on whose head Robb’s crown shall grace, though they haven’t yet informed the lucky bastard.

Jon Stark, King of Winter

Let us recall that, two books and fifteen years ago, Robb likely legitimized Jon and named his half-brother King in the North should he die childless.

[Robb:] “A king must have an heir. If I should die in my next battle, the kingdom must not die with me. By law, Sansa is next in the line of succession, so Winterfell and the north would pass to her.” His mouth tightened. “To her and her lord husband. Tyrion Lannister. I cannot allow that. I willnot allow that. That dwarf must never have the north.”

“No,” Catelyn agreed. “You must name another heir, until such time as Jeyne gives you a son.” She considered a moment. “Your father’s father had no siblings, but his father had a sister who married a younger son of Lord Raymar Royce […] “

“Mother.” There was a sharpness in Robb’s tone. “You forget. My father had four sons.”

She had not forgotten; she had not wanted to look at it, yet there it was. “A Snow is not a Stark.”

“Jon’s more a Stark than some lordlings from the Vale who have never so much as set eyes on Winterfell.”

“Jon is a brother of the Night’s Watch, sworn to take no wife and hold no lands. Those who take the black serve for life.”

“So do the knights of the Kingsguard. That did not stop the Lannisters from stripping the white cloaks from Ser Barristan Selmy and Ser Boros Blount when they had no more use for them. If I send the Watch a hundred men in Jon’s place, I wager they’ll find some way to release him from his vows.”

He is set on this. Catelyn knew how stubborn her son could be. “A bastard cannot inherit.”

“Not unless he’s legitimized by a royal decree,” said Robb. […]

“Have you considered your sisters? What of their rights? I agree that the north must not be permitted to pass to the Imp, but what of Arya? By law, she comes after Sansa… Your own sister, trueborn…”

“…and dead. No one has seen or heard of Arya since they cut Father’s head off. Why do you lie to yourself? Arya’s gone, the same as Bran and Rickon, and they’ll kill Sansa, too, once the dwarf gets a child from her. Jon is the only brother that remains to me. Should I die without issue, I want him to succeed me as King in the North. I had hoped you would support my choice.”

“I cannot,” she said. “In all else, Robb. In everything. But not in this… this folly. Do not ask it.”

“I don’t have to. I’m the king.” Robb turned and walked off, Grey Wind bounding down from the tomb and loping after him. (Catelyn V, ASOS)

Now, devil’s advocates have argued that Robb maybe changes his mind about naming Jon his heir after this conversation with Catelyn, who reminds him (not excerpted) of his misplaced trust in Theon, another he once considered a brother. In addition, the Lannisters hardly seem fitting as a model of how to honorably discharge one’s vows, and the North generally holds the Night’s Watch in far higher esteem than the rest of Westeros deigns to.

OTOH, I imagine the willingness of the northern lords to exempt Jon from age-old laws and traditions is directly proportional to how much they despise the thought of Sansa’s child by Tyrion, fake!Arya’s child by Ramsay, or a random Vale lordling inheriting Winterfell and their fealty. Which, I think all can agree, is with a fire hotter than the Doom of Valyria, lol. Furthermore, there’s precedent for a council of nobles to release a maester from his vows—very similar to the NW oath on the points of celibacy, political neutrality, and lifelong service—with the blessing of a recognized religious official.

[Mormont:] “Do you know that he might have been king?”

Jon was taken by surprise. “He told me his father was king, but not… I thought him perhaps a younger son.”

“So he was. […] Aemon was at his books when the eldest of his uncles, the heir apparent, was slain in a tourney mishap. He left two sons, but they followed him to the grave not long after, during the Great Spring Sickness. King Daeron was also taken, so the crown passed to Daeron’s second son, Aerys. […] Aemon took his vows and left the Citadel to serve at some lordling’s court… until his royal uncle died without issue. The Iron Throne passed to the last of King Daeron’s four sons. That was Maekar, Aemon’s father. […] Not quite a year after [Aerion Brightflame died drunk on wildfire], King Maekar died in battle against an outlaw lord.”

Jon was not entirely innocent of the history of the realm; his own maester had seen to that. “That was the year of the Great Council,” he said. “The lords passed over Prince Aerion’s infant son and Prince Daeron’s [lackwit] daughter and gave the crown to Aegon [V, the Unlikely].”

“Yes and no. First, they offered it, quietly, to Aemon. And quietly he refused. The gods meant for him to serve, not to rule, he told them. He had sworn a vow and would not break it, though the High Septon himself offered to absolve him.” (Jon I, ACOK)

Robb’s loyal bannermen could conceivably do the same for Jon as they claim the North to be an independent realm. That Jon swears his vows to the old gods is either a complication or one less obstacle to worry about. Bran and Bloodraven, who has something of a vested interest in seeing Jon crowned king, would no doubt be happy to provide the northmen a sign if that’s what they or Jon require.

All this aside, Robb’s tenor in his answers to Catelyn’s objections suggests to me that he’s already made up his mind. He will name Jon his heir no matter what his mother or anyone else has to say of it. Robb formally acknowledging Jon a true son of Eddard Stark, worthy of Winterfell, also has the advantage of finally resolving a character arc begun for Jon in ASOS when Stannis offers to legitimize him.

Every morning [Jon and Robb] had trained together, since they were big enough to walk; Snow and Stark, spinning and slashing about the wards of Winterfell, shouting and laughing, sometimes crying when there was no one else to see. They were not little boys when they fought but knights and mighty heroes. “I’m Prince Aemon the Dragonknight,” Jon would call out, and Robb would shout back, “Well, I’m Florian the Fool!” Or Robb would say, “I’m the Young Dragon,” and Jon would reply, “I’m Ser Ryam Redwyne.”

That morning, he called it first. “I’m Lord of Winterfell!” he cried, as he had a hundred times before. Only this time, this time, Robb had answered, “You can’t be Lord of Winterfell. You’re bastard born. My lady mother says you can’t ever be the Lord of Winterfell.”

I thought I had forgotten that. (Jon XII, ASOS)

Neither Jon’s desire for Winterfell nor his shame and guilt for wishing ill, however obliquely, upon his beloved siblings has abated in ADWD.

That night, he dreamt […]

Jon was armored in black ice, but his blade burned red in his fist. As the dead men reached the top of the Wall, he sent them down to die again. He slew a greybeard and a beardless boy, a giant, a gaunt man with filed teeth, a girl with thick red hair. Too late he recognized Ygritte. She was gone as quick as she’d appeared.

The world dissolved into a red mist. Jon stabbed and slashed and cut. He hacked down Donal Noye and gutted Deaf Dick Follard. Qhorin Halfhand stumbled to his knees, trying in vain to staunch the flow of blood from his neck. “I am the Lord of Winterfell!” Jon screamed. It was Robb before him now, his hair wet with melting snow. Longclaw took his head off. (Jon XII, ADWD)

Though, not unlike Theon, what Jon truly seeks is an affirmation that he is a Stark despite his bastard birth, IMO. Robb’s last wish being for Jon to succeed him as King in the North would fulfill this need, even if Jon ultimately refuses as he does Stannis, while setting up an heir to Winterfell storyline that ought to draw in Davos and Rickon as well as Sansa and Littlefinger, consolidating a great many subplots.

Only two factors can effectively nullify Jon’s claim on Winterfell, IMO: 1) Jeyne Westerling is pregnant with Robb’s child and heir. 2) Those who witnessed Robb’s decree are dead or otherwise barred from spreading the news.

For a time, the former was a theory of some repute, based on a discrepancy in Catelyn and Jaime’s appraisals of Jeyne’s childbearing hips. The Blackfish then supposedly smuggles Jeyne out of Riverrun, helped by Eleyna Westerling, who pretends to be her sister. A slightly apocryphal fan report has since had GRRM admitting the differing descriptions are simply a mistake. Perhaps even more damning, however, is created-for-TV Talisa’s pregnancy and subsequent death at the Red Wedding. While Talisa isn’t Jeyne, the similar role her marriage to Robb plays notwithstanding, David Benioff and D.B. Weiss have shown that they’re aware of popular fan theories and not above teasing readers of the novels, such as with Cersei’s line in “Valar Dohaeris” (GOT 3.01) about rumors of Tyrion losing his nose. Talisa’s violent demise—stabbed repeatedly in the baby, so to speak—may very well be D&D’s way of killing future speculation about Jeyne and is often taken as such.

I never much liked the Jeyne Westerling theory, frankly. Any child of Jeyne’s could be nothing more than a puppet king, unable to rule in his or her own right for years, and would make Rickon so superfluous that everyone should probably just stop bothering to remember that he’s a Stark, too. Hence I’ve no compunctions about treating Jeyne as a plot device for GRRM to off Robb and dismissing her from further discussions of the North’s political outlook.

As for the latter, the lords present to witness Robb’s decree are as follows: Greatjon Umber, Galbart Glover, Maege Mormont, Edmure Tully, and Jason Mallister (Catelyn V, ASOS). All still live, but the Greatjon’s a hostage of the Freys and Lannisters for the good behavior of his kin, and Mallister’s a prisoner in his own keep courtesy of Black Walder (Jaime VI, AFFC). Lord Galbart and Lady Maege? Edmure? Well, what interesting things they’ve been up to since ASOS will be the topic of the next few posts.

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Next Time: On the Brotherhood Without Banners!

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