New Acquisitions: Elective Monarchy and the Future of Westeros

Fair warning: this post will contain spoilers for all of Game of Thrones and likely for all of A Song of Ice and Fire (assuming they share an ending). Proceed at your own risk.

This post is now available in audio format here.

So the Game of Thrones is supposedly over, with the major Lords of Westeros deciding to shift to an elective monarchy and electing Bran Stark as king. For all sorts of story reasons, this ending has fans puzzled, but what I want to talk about is this: given the historical precedents for this kind of system, what are the chances of Bran and this new elective monarchy experiencing success?

Bran has 99 Problems, and Legitimacy is at least half of them.

Succession Problems

Let’s start with the basics: the idea of a system of elective monarchy is, in and of itself, not implausible or a-historical. Elective monarchies existed in the Holy Roman Empire, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, the Kingdom of Bohemia (to 1618 – we’ll come back to this), and a few others. Roman Emperors could even be selected by the Senate when there were no other options (this happened only a couple of times in several centuries, however).

If sanctioned by longstanding tradition and legitimacy, elective monarchy could be fairly stable. Polish-Lithuanian elective monarchy lasted a little over two centuries (from 1572 to 1791, the period of ‘free election’ – the monarchy was actually elective in a more limited sense even longer), and the Holy Roman Empire’s elective system for six centuries (1202 to 1803 in a formal and established form).

But the elective monarchy Bran has been given – and given here is a key word – is not sanctioned by longstanding tradition and deep legitimacy. It is new and exists in a world completely lacking in elective traditions – Westeros has no functioning Republics, no ancient memory of kings selected by acclamation, or by a Senate or Nordic althing (a Scandinavian form of assembly). What it has is a tradition of male-preference father-to-son inheritance of titles that goes back, unbroken, since before the start of recorded history.

The crown worn by Aegon, the first King of the Seven Kingdoms

And this is where Bran’s problems begin: there are already better claims on his throne than he or his new elective system have. Gendry Baratheon has been legitimized, now holds Storm’s End (and thus can raise an army) and has a direct from-my-father claim to the throne – a claim which, in Westerosi tradition, will be inherited by his sons and their sons. Tyrion is now presumably Lord of Casterly Rock, and seems to have claim through his sister, something acknowledged by the electors, and while Tyrion is seen as unfit, there is no way of knowing if his sons, should he have any (we may assume he will) or other future Lannisters will be so unfit.

Finally, of course, there is Jon Snow, who is marching off into the wilderness. Speaking as a historian, the chance of a usurper King Beyond the Wall raising an army claiming descent from Jon Snow – whatever the Night’s Watch may say – and looking to press a claim on the throne in King’s Landing (whatever it is called) is very high.

We can look to the Roman example to see what happens when dynastic and elective traditions collide. In 96 AD, the Roman Emperor Domitian died without an heir and to avoid civil war (hm, that sounds familiar) the Senate selected one of its own, Nerva, to be emperor. Nerva survived in no small part by immediately selecting a powerful military commander as his heir, ensuring that this elective tradition would last only a single reign (but also preventing an immanent military coup). The Senate tried this trick again in 238, selecting the fantastically named Pupienus (pronounced exactly like you are worried it is) and Balbinus as co-emperors during a period of crisis – but the dynastic principle was too strong. The crowds of Rome rioted, insisting that Gordian III – supposedly the descendant of previous emperors – be made ruler as well. In both cases, as soon as there was a viable dynastic heir, the dynastic principle reasserted itself. It is hard to break that kind of tradition and one does not do it by accident.

In the Six Kingdoms, this problem is made acutely worse because the dynastic principle remains the succession system for literally everything except the rule of the Six Kingdoms itself. In places like the HRE or the Dutch Republic (whose Stadholder was essentially an elected monarch), there were other offices or traditional positions with non-dynastic systems of selection (the HRE had cities run like republics, some rulers were bishops selected by the Church, others were hereditary). This base of familiarity does not exist in the Six Kingdoms – when Bran dies, the subsequent election will be the only election almost anyone alive in the Six Kingdoms has lived through (Bran is young and will outlive most people alive at his election) and only the second in all of the history of the kingdom. Also, unlike in the HRE, this system is not sanctioned by religious authority. This bodes poorly for strong elective norms.

Bran thus has a real problem with the continued existence of three family lines that might produce a dynastic heir to the throne. To many Westerosi, their claims – the sort of claims that hold sway in literally everything else will seem far more legitimate than the opinion of some electors. He has another problem: himself. Bran’s own election is a terrible precedent, because it establishes that any member of any noble house is a valid claimant to the throne. In particular – we’ll come back to this – it is a disaster to have elected a subject of the Kingdom of the North and a Stark as the very first elected King.

But let’s assume, for now, that this elective tradition holds. Tyrion and Gendry’s heirs don’t opt to knock over a monarch with no military experience who has no personal army of his own but are instead good sports about everything. What future can we expect for Westeros?

Westeros Between Austria and Poland

I mentioned the Holy Roman Empire (HRE) and the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth (PLC) before. These provide some of our best historical precedents for how elective monarchy in Westeros might develop. Importantly, like the Six Kingdoms, both the HRE and PLC were composite realms: the HRE consisted of dozens upon dozens of independent states (most of them very small), while the PLC was the product of a personal union between the Kingdom of Poland and the Duchy of Lithuania (a personal union is when two countries have the same monarch).

As we’ll see, neither system is truly successful in the long-term, but the HRE’s elections fail in a way that produces a fairly stable set of transitions of power, whereas the PLC’s system fails in such a way as to ensure the destruction of the PLC. So which one is more like the Six Kingdoms?

In the HRE, the election was controlled by the Prince Electors – seven key princes among the dozens of princes in the empire – who got a vote. At first this seems similar to election by the Six Kingdoms, but all sorts of lesser nobles (Brienne, Davos, etc) seem to have had votes for electing Bran. Importantly, while technically any ruler could be eligible to be elected (the Kings of France sometimes tried to bribe electors), all of the elected Holy Roman Emperors were princes of the empire (meaning they held a title within it) when elected. Clearly, this rule or custom is not in place in the Six Kingdoms, since Bran is: not a prince of any kind (he isn’t a ruler) and thus not a prince in the six kingdoms and moreover isn’t actually a subject of the six kingdoms, because he’s a Stark and thus a subject of the now independent Kingdom of the North. We must conclude then that anyone is eligible to be elected, unlike in the HRE.

Of course, the other key feature of the HRE’s election system was how it was eventually captured by one family: the Austrian Habsburgs. By the 1400s, Austria was the strongest state in the empire and thus the ruling family of Austria (the Habsburgs) were able to use that power to dominate the elections, ensuring an unbroken string of Habsburg emperors from 1415 to 1806 and the abolition of the empire.

Thus if we are looking for factors that made the HRE’s system stable, one of the first such factors has to be that the process was dominated by strong states within the empire – both the electors (who tended to be some of the most powerful princes) and the Habsburgs themselves. Because the emperor had no territory of his own, the power of the emperor was essentially a product of his own personal holdings (read: Austria) and his alliances.

Bran has none of these advantages. He comes to the throne with no territories of his own (although he may take over the now devastated Crownlands, for what good it will do him) and no army of his own. He also has no pre-existing alliances, and no ability to form new ones by marriage. As we see in the Small Council scene, he is, in fact, entirely dependent on Tyrion’s alliances (with Bronn, now controlling Highgarden – an absurdity I have no doubt I’ll return to in a future post – and others), which is a real problem given that Tyrion’s heirs are one of the primary dynastic threats to the elective monarchy.

What about the PLC?

I’ll not bury the lede: I think this new Six Kingdoms has a lot in common with the PLC, and almost all of it is bad for Bran and his successors. To offer a much simplified version of the very complex story of how the PLC failed, one of the main factors was that the nobility sought to improve their political position by weakening the king such that the kingdom was consumed by a sort of paralysis that rendered it deeply vulnerable to outside interference.

Let’s start with the obvious: the rulers of the Six constituent kingdoms of Westeros (plus the Iron Islands) are naturally going to want to limit the power of the central monarch. After all, any time Yara or Gendry disagree with Bran – and they will disagree, that’s human – they’re going to want to assert a degree of local independence and their own prerogative as rulers. Bran – and more importantly, generations of Bran’s successors – need to be able to push back to maintain a united realm.

The Six Kingdoms, with the Crownlands in Brown (from the wiki).

And therein lies the problem: push back with what? We’ve seen quite clearly that the Crownlands simply do not afford the necessary resources to compel the rest of the kingdom to do anything. In the actual military confrontations (not counting assassinations) in the series, the holder of the Crownlands has, in fact, always lost, save against Stannis Baratheon. Success has always required merging the power of the Crownlands with at least two of the constituent realms of the kingdom. Bran, of course, has no other territory (save for his sister in the North, to be discussed in just a moment).

Note on Conflicts:

Robert against the Crownlands (Robert’s Rebellion): victory to Robert Baratheon

The Westerlands and Crownlands (Tywin + Joffery) against the North: military victory was going to Robb before his assassination.

The Westerlands, Crownlands and the Reach against Stannis: victory to the coalition, but only with two allied regions.

The Crownlands (Cersei) against the North and Dany: victory for the coalition.

We can thus expect the constituent realms of the Six Kingdoms to be largely successful in asserting a degree of autonomy. The more autonomous they become, of course, the weaker Bran (and his successors) becomes. Now, this may seem alright to you – why is it a problem if the new central monarch is relatively weak? After all having a strong monarch like Dany or Joffery was a disaster, wouldn’t a weak one be better? No, because…

Winter is Coming

The Real Winner of the Council in the Dragonpit

Bran’s first act as King was also his most foolish – he accepted the North’s petition to become independent, creating a powerful, unitary state directly to his North. Unlike the Six Kingdoms, in the North, there is no question who rules: We Know No King but the King in the North Whose Name is Stark. Inside of the Kingdom of the North, House Stark controls the largest center (Winterfell), has a firm grasp on the local military power, and a deep and abiding legitimacy among the nobility – deep enough to have survived centuries of Targaryen rule and yet to have reemerged almost immediately when an opportunity arose.

Moreover, Bran’s very election shows that it is possible for a Stark to be elected King of the Six Kingdoms, functionally ensuring that House Stark will campaign and contest every election in the Six Kingdoms from now until forever. A political system open to outside rival powers was one of the real weaknesses in the PLC. Unlike the HRE, the PLC did occasionally elect true outsiders to the throne – as a result, the PLC’s own local rivals could attempt to bribe and campaign to place junior members of their own dynasties on the throne of Poland-Lithuania. The creeping influence of Russia, Austria and Prussia in the Sejm – the noble parliament of the PLC – allowed them to paralyze decision-making in the country, eventually opening the kingdom up to partition and destruction.

To make matters even worse, the new Queen of the North may already think she has a claim on key lands in the Six Kingdoms. See, while the Six Kingdoms have had bad experiences with Queens, the Kingdom of the North just confirmed that a woman could inherit ahead of men (namely, Bran). By that inheritance standard – where the line may move through a woman even with younger a male heir available, the true rule of the Riverlands passed from Brynden Tully to his eldest child, Catelyn Stark nee Tully, and to her eldest living child, Sansa Stark, Queen of the North – to be inherited by all of Sansa’s children.

This is, I may note, precisely the kind of disputed inheritance (where one kingdom allows inheritance through women and another does not) which provided the justification for the Hundred Years War between England and France.

This would not be so much of a problem if the North was weak, but it clearly isn’t. The North is massive (albeit thinly populated) and has shown itself militarily quite potent. Robb Stark was able to hold off the shifting alliances of the south quite handily and was only defeated by subterfuge. Moreover, Sansa (and her heirs) now has a strong relationship with her northern neighbors (Jon Snow is basically the King Beyond the Wall now?) and through Jon, effective control over the Night’s Watch, a professional standing military force, now without a purpose. A united Six Kingdoms would be more than a match for the North, but we’ve just established that a truly united six kingdoms is unlikely – Sansa (or her heirs) only has to peel away a couple of the lords of the south in order to render her claim on the Riverlands militarily enforceable.

Now, one might argue that Sansa and Bran and all of the rest – they are good people and wouldn’t do these things. But we’ve seen good people in Game of Thrones before and they have always bent to the demands of their culture and norms. Westeros remains a place where kings are warriors first and statesmen second and we have seen Bran make no move to do anything about that (the fact that veteran statesman Tyrion is apparently excluded from a history of the wars suggests that – more than ever – the warrior-king is the norm). If royal legitimacy for all of these rulers derives from success on the battlefield, they are going to need to find someone to fight.

And the obvious conflict will be between an increasingly centralized, effective and dangerous Kingdom of the North and the increasingly divided, ineffective and decentralized Six Kingdoms (or between the lords of the Six Kingdoms and their king). And this is another insurmountable problem for Bran, because he is Brandon Stark – as it becomes more clear, in his waning years, that the real threat is the North, how will that impact the legitimacy of Bran and his elective kingship? Perhaps the concerned lords of the realm might look to a native born ruler to combat this threat – my bet is on Robert II, son of Gendry I, for what it is worth.

Other Problems

All of this assumes that the Six Kingdoms don’t decompose before this, which is by no means certain. The Iron Islands didn’t want to be part of the Seven Kingdoms and it is hard to imagine they will long remain with the Six – especially when the terms of remaining involve uprooting the Ironborn’s longstanding culture of raiding.

There are more problems: Bran is already reliant on the generosity and loans from his constituent kingdoms to remain solvent (though the idea that Bronn – a jumped up sellsword with no support – could extract any meaningful revenue from the Reach this quickly is laughable) and he has no army of his own. This is an incredibly weak basis of power – no matter how wise a ruler Bran is, if he has no leverage to enforce his decisions, he will not be successful.

Moreover, it is not at all clear how Bran will be able to navigate the job of being King, which traditionally involves a lot of symbolic rituals aimed at securing legitimacy in the eyes of the nobility. How will Bran carry out the rituals of the dominant religion in the South, given that he himself is a strange foreign mystic? What about the expected military role of the king? I suspect the Westerosi nobility could make do with a king who could not himself fight, so long as he was still a capable military leader, but Bran has no military experience whatsoever and no apparent interest in gaining any.

Bedeviled by legitimacy problems and without his own army or powerbase, Bran is likely to be a weak an ineffective monarch at the very time the Six Kingdoms will need a strong and unifying one. All the wisdom in the world is useless without tools with which to govern. Ironically, the council would have been better off selecting the much maligned Edmure Tully – he has a power-base (albeit a somewhat weak one) and a clear interest in keeping Sansa in the north, since it is his title she will think to claim.

If this new Six Kingdoms look a touch too much like the PLC, then we might compare the North to the PLC’s neighbor to the west: Prussia. The North – like Prussia – is not particularly rich or densely peopled, but it does have a relatively strong and centralized government. The real economic and population centers in the Holy Roman Empire were on the Rhine, but fractured into dozens of tiny states which were in turn dominated by the larger states of the eastern part of the empire, Austria and Prussia – or (for a time) by another, even less populated, but even better administrated state outside of the empire, Sweden. A strongly unified state can often punch well above its weight.

The Wheel Restored

What then does the future hold for the Six Kingdoms? I see a few paths:

First: and I think most likely, the Austria/Prussia solution: the Starks continue to interfere in the elections, dividing the Six Kingdoms, while slowly chipping away at them. At some point, the Stark claim on the Riverlands is pressed successfully, decisively shifting the balance between the two kingdoms. At some point, the Starks use their vote (as Lord of the Riverlands) to get another Stark made king, and then another and then another, until the Six Kingdoms are subsumed into the North in a personal union. Unlike weak king Bran, the future ruler of the North (let’s call her Queen Arya II) already has a strong base of power outside of the Six Kingdoms and the Crownlands, much like the Austrians and the Prussians, which she can use to rip away the autonomy of the constituent kingdoms. The wheel breaks at last, beneath the boot of an Empire of the North.

This is essentially what happened to the elective monarchy of Bohemia. One of the largest states of the Holy Roman Empire, Bohemia was also a kingdom and had an elected king. In the 1520s, they elected the Austrian Archduke Ferdinand to the kingship, and afterwards the Austrians Habsburgs, with their greater power and wealth were able to ensure the election of a succession of Habsburgs to the throne. In 1620, the Bohemians (many now Protestant) decided they had had enough of the Habsburgs (who were quite Catholic), but it was too late – an effort to elect a non-Habsburg triggered an invasion of Bohemia, cementing hereditary Habsburg control of the kingdom.

Second: Bran is too weak, militarily, to hold the Six Kingdoms together, and they dissolve into their constituent elements. Recognizing the danger of the North, this probably creates a shifting set of alliances to both jockey for power in the South and try to keep the North out, creating a system of interstate anarchy in which (to borrow Kenneth Waltz), “war is normal.” Nothing changes, the wheel turns again and again and again.

Third: The Lords of the Six Kingdoms, recognizing the grim futures available to them (and probably under pressure from the North), pull together behind a single dynastic claimant to the throne – probably a Baratheon (because the memory of Robert’s long summer will, over time, imbue his rule with a sort of friendly glow) descendant of Gendry. The new Baratheon monarchs will be endlessly troubled by Lannisters and Starks with competing claims to the throne and with the North – if a Targaryen claim can survive in exile, why not others? The wheel turns.

In short, I have no expectation that this new elective system in the Six Kingdoms will endure long. Ironically, almost anyone at the meeting in the Dragonpit, probably including Grey Worm, would have been a better choice for first elected monarch, over Bran.

The fundamental problem here is that Westeros’ problems arise out of its culture and norms, not from who sits on the Throne. Varys was always, in a way, wrong – the fate of millions never depended on who sat on the throne, it depended on the nature of that rule. We saw no evidence of any steps taken to change that. If anything, Lord Bronn will provide the sterling example of conquering lords and military adventurers for centuries to come, as House Blackwater became potentially the strongest House in the Six Kingdoms through pure violence, unfettered by loyalty or honor. So long as that kind of rule – personal rule through military performance – remains the gold standard of kingship, the violence will not stop here.

Our heroes, alas, have spun the wheel, not broken it, because they are a product of it and thus could not see beyond it. It is a very human failing, but not, perhaps, a very uplifting one.

42 thoughts on “New Acquisitions: Elective Monarchy and the Future of Westeros

  1. The three-eyed raven has anticipated this. During the small council meeting, Bran exited to see if he could find Drogon. After he finds him and wargs into him, the “weak military” problem will be solved at a stroke. Better still if Drogon found a female dragon off in the wild wherever he flew after Dany died.

    1. Alas, no such luck. Bran’s powers as the Three-Eyed-Raven are deeply tied to the Weirwood trees and there are none left in the South. Even if he could warg into Drogon, we’ve been told that he cannot stay warged to any one thing for long, lest he lose himself. Simply moving Drogon to the capital is no good – dragons do not take orders from Starks.

      1. It’s only tied to the trees in the books, not in the show (otherwise, he wouldn’t be able to show the audience John Snow’s birth).

  2. Nitpick: Westeros has traditionally had one elected lordship, namely the Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch. That said, it seems to have been treated as an irrelevancy by most, except (based off the books) when the Starks use their external power to get some ten year old elected as Lord Commander.

    1. It’s a good nitpick and I wasn’t aware of that. That said, I wonder if it isn’t an accident that it is specifically the Night’s Watch, up against the wall, that has this tradition. Unlike the South, the North crowns kings by acclamation, which is precisely the sort of symbolic ritual that can evolve into an elective system with decently strong norms. The other place that does this are the Iron Island – who, of course, I suspect will be out of the door of the new Six Kingdoms as quickly as possible.

      The irony then is that some of the necessary foundational norms exist in the only places not likely to actually be part of the eventual Six Kingdoms of Westeros.

      1. The Iron Islands actually had a detailed tradition of elective monarchy up until one powerful king changed that by force of arms.
        It was in fact even more democratic than Brann’s election. Every noble *and* every ship captain got a vote.

        1. It is interesting to note that both the elective forms of rule are outliers in Westeros.
          The Night’s Watch is a (now obsolete) military penal colony established by First Men tradition, tightly linked to the Old Gods.
          The Iron Islands – which had an assembly to elect Euron king in the last two seasons of the tv-show – have a different economic base, a different material culture, a different god and a different religion respect to the rest of the continent. They are also phisically separated, and socially different, with form of slavery that are religious taboo for the Andal followers of the Seven – and for the Old Gods and their First Men followers too. In the show, it can be seen in Jorah ending up exiled (and his father forced into the Night’s Watch for the shame of that) for selling slaves. In the book we have extensive traditions of fighting the slavers going up to Jon Stark (“the Hungry Wolf” iirc) that hung the skins of the slavers to the trees in White Harbor.
          Also, nitpicking a bit as it is why we are here, the Iron Islands characters are the only one to act due to religious mindsets in the whole tv show (someone does, an exception to the principle stated in another good post in ths interesting blog). Yara refuses to help Theon in Winterfell due to it being too far from the sea. She says to him: “don’t die away from the sea”, although it could be argued that, in that phase, Yara was still fearing Theon could be able to sway the assembly against her, and that could be a reason to leave him exposed as a fool. Running to save him while besieged in Winterfell would have been a personal risk and would have made him the war-winner (and possible heir presumptive).
          Back to the point: the elective institutions in Westeros are a penal colony founded by FIrst Men and a strange custom lived by people that are seen and see themselves as cultural aliens in Westeros, to the point of the King being the “King of the Roynar, the Andals and the First Men” and not mentioning the Ironborn. In the show they don’t name the Roynar either, but that’s another story and we will tell it another time.

      2. I think the key difference about the Night’s Watch elections is that the Watch is considered outside of the 7 kingdoms. The Lord Commanser is a military leader. He doesn’t own the Wall and is expressly prohibited from having children who could press a claim to inherit. The wording of the NW oath for apparently a thousand years as been worded to make it a unique institution that has not been replicated elsewhere in Westeros. The Faith and Maesters have some similarities, but key differences.

        Kings may send people to the Wall as punishment & the Watch may request supplies, etc. from lords based on a history that the Watch is serving the realms of men thus providing something in exchange for supplies. It mainly functions as a useful penal colony so jails don’t get overcrowded.

        Men of the NW are effectively no longer considered citizens or subjects of the realm and not even the Lord Commander would not be eligible to vote for the king/queen of any region, just as you point out the North now doesn’t. They are sworn to not be involved in any way with actions south of the Wall. The oath clearly marks them as casting aside any other loyalty or obligation. A king cannot call upon the Watch as a standing army, as expressly seen with Stannis Baratheon or Robb Stark. Less likely Westerosi lords would use the Watch as a model.

        I wonder if, even with a monarchy, the North would soon be reabsorbed into the 6 kingdoms or at least Stark reign would end based on the conditions you so well laid out re Bran. The North isn’t changing to an electoral system, but Northern lords chose Robb and Jon as kings, but they had no vote whether to support Sansa over Bran or remain part of thr 7 kingdoms as only the Starks were at the Dragonpit. Do you think this denial of choice by any Northern lords after recent history at the start of a new monarch’s reign will result in it being unstable and open to attacks from other houses?

        How much would Westerosi prejudice towards male leaders who demonstrate the ability to fight in the field or lead armies impact the likelihood of a continued reign by a queen who doesn’t have it and lacks a large force to call to arms without the approval of other lords? After the recent wars, Sansa said the other houses had the superior numbers of fighting men and, similarly to Bran, she lacks men from her lands to call to service. The lords previously rejected the idea of Sansa ruling in favor of a son of Ned, even with the prejudice against bastards. I wonder how the North could be impacted when, unlike in the 6 kingdoms, the North’s last chosen monarch, also with Stark blood, is alive and geographically close by. Would Jon and his possible heirs potentially be a contender to take the Northern throne or case major division in Sansa’s support base?

  3. Minor nitpick: Catelyn’s father was Hoster Tully, not Brynden (Black Fish, her uncle).

  4. Interesting! Starks meddling in future elections is an amusing image.

    In the books, there’s precedent for Great Councils occasionally electing kings in the past. Choosing among Targaryens, but still. There are other ‘democratic’ things too, but none in mainstream Westerosi culture. (Ironborn moots, Vale hill tribes, free folk, Valyrian traditions in Volantis. Enough that a strong coalition of Dany/Jon/Tyrion could impose changes on the kingdoms if they wanted to, based on their vision and idealism, but that’s not what we got.)

    I don’t think Bran’s visionary are limited to the presence of weirwoods, and his warg powers certainly aren’t; book Arya is warging in Braavos. Like Bloodraven as Hand in the past, he may be able to use his powers to be a strong if terrifying king.

    I think the most likely outcome is dissolution. The kingdoms existed for thousands of years, unified only by someone on flying dragons. The dynasty lasted on inertia for a while after that, but I think centripetal nobility would outweigh any cohesive forces, especially with the North as precedent. And especially if we take the geography seriously.

  5. Love this as it coincided exactly with my take when I watched the finale.

    One nitpick: there is a tradition of elective Kingship in the Iron Islands, but they are at best inconsistent with it, so me pointing it out is largely me nerding and you would be wise to ignore it.

    I cannot for the life of me understand how Yara and the Prince of Dorne watched Sansa declare independence and didn’t say “You know what? Us too”. Dorne was the last of the Seven Kingdoms brought in, and only by marriage. They fought off Aegon the Conqueror, and they’re going to submit to Bran the Broken? I think not.

    1. Hypothesis: they’re biding their time.

      Westeros is a mess. A lot of the Iron Islands’ ships were, as I recall, lost in the various wars of the last few seasons, and Yara may still have work to do consolidating her rule. Whichever surviving Martell has taken over Dorne may have similar problems. Sure, the rest of Westeros may be no better off, but anyone savvy enough to recognize the political dynamics at work here and read the situation the same way Dr. Devereaux has will know that the kingship of Bran the Broken probably won’t be very hard to break away from… as long as Bran doesn’t have the support of the component Kingdoms in bringing rebels back under control, the way Robert I did in the Greyjoy Rebellion.

      So why NOT wait a few years, consolidate one’s control and rebuild the military of one’s own kingdom, and then declare independence at a convenient moment after one’s had time to feel out the new geopolitical balance? Bran’s not realistically going to be able to get any meaningful taxes or concessions out of them as it is. So publicly acknowledging his sovereignty costs very little and buys time to figure out whether (for instance) his sister will mobilize Northern troops to prop up his control, or whether (say) Tyrion Lannister would or would not bother to expend significant resources fighting to block Dornish independence.

      1. I object that Dorne and the Iron Islands are biding their time. In both cases it is worse than that.
        I argue the Dorne will try to do the same to the Kingdoms the author attributes to Sansa – Dorne didn’t see fighting on his territory and has the army with the least casualties in the recent wars – even if everybody (in world) overestimates it, and will not be hit by a winter. Dorne will insist to be in.
        I argue that Yara is not biding her time to leave the Kingdoms: she actually fought against the Iron Islands and for the Kingdom in the recent war. She would fall quickly if she wasn’t for the external support (Tyrion should understand being an outsider in the ruling family). Yara is the face of the humiliation of the Iron Islands and their way of life that Euron embodied.

      2. Alternate hypothesis: D&D don’t care about Dorne and don’t know much of anything about how it was portrayed in the books. Evidence: No Arianne Martell, and the Sand Snakes being so very different than their book counterparts (source).

        And as for the books…if this happens there, Doran or whoever is Prince of Dorne when the dust settles won’t be seceding immediately because they will have almost certainly have just lost a war against the Iron Throne and/or its claimants. (Or possibly won one, but that would also make them uninterested in fighting again.) Arianne and Doran are plotting something, something which was left out of the show because one of the participants was murdered and the other 404’d.

    2. If Yara resembled her book counterpart more, it’d make sense. Asha’s a reformer, she wants to find a new way for the Ironborn and she knows she needs support from the mainlands to do it. Claiming her own Crown would alienate the mainland allies she needs and leave her at the mercy of more traditionalist elements within the Iron Islands.

      But Yara isn’t a reformer. Her pitch at the kingsmoot is just continuing what her father was doing. Where Asha seemed to recognize the Old Way as broken, Yara doesn’t. She would absolutely be saying ‘yeah, us too’.

  6. I think you overrate Robb’s military success. He outmaneuvered Tywin operationally and Jaime tactically but his strategic gains were effectively nil, while meanwhile the Lannisters were making progress on their other fronts by allying with the Reach and defeating Stannis. Half the reason Bolton defected was that he didn’t think Robb could win in the long run.

    1. Eh…I’d argue that the Starks did decently well on the strategic front. Robb definitely (and literally) fucked up the North’s diplomacy, but on the military front he made decisions that would achieve his strategic goals.

      In judge Robb a surprisingly good general, and identify his failings as grand-strategic rather than strategic. Splitting hairs, I guess.

    2. The Red Wedding would not have happened had Robb not been doing so well in the field; in simplified terms, they staged a political assassination of him because a martial defeat looked unlikely – or more simply still, they killed him at the dinner table cos they couldn’t beat him in battle.

      This indicates that Robb’s enemies looked upon his military successes as so formidable – and potentially ongoing – that they couldn’t see any other way of “beating” him than murdering him

  7. I think Bran is more of “sacred king” image like when people of Yathrib / Medina elect Muhammad to lead them. which is example of successful elected king.

    1. …or – to cross-pollinate from yet another pop-culture IP – when the Klingons elected the Kahless clone as Emperor.

  8. I realize this is an old article by now, but isn’t Bran supposed to live an extraordinarily long time? I didn’t watch the show so I’m really here more for the historical analogues, but I wonder if expecting his reign to last 500-1000 years would change Bran’s apparent vulnerabilities?

    1. Interesting premise. I feel like there’s three basic outcomes there.

      1) He gets deposed quickly, and his lifespan avails him nought.

      2) He never gains much power and turns into a figurehead, vaguely Elizabeth II style. (This one doesn’t seem to fit Westerosi culture, though)

      3) He gets real power, outlives competing claims, and solidifies. Then things go full God-Emperor of Dune in a thousand years as people try to figure out what the hell to do without him.

  9. A few points I’d like to bring up, in descending order of importance:

    1. It should be fairly obvious that the final seasons of the show deviate heavily from Martin’s plans. The show was slowly veering off course starting in the first seasons, but with the Martell plotline being butchered and Faegon being completely absent, there are too many pieces missing for the show’s ending to work for the book.
    It’s possible that an elected monarchy is the end result of the books, but if so, I’m guessing that it would be more nuanced than what the show gave us. D&D tended to simplify, screw up, or omit some of the more intricate politics in the Seven Kingdoms…

    2. Bran’s supernatural abilities throw a wrench into historical analysis. For as long as he reigns, he will be able to see everything in the Seven Kingdoms. If he stays vigilant and creates a good network of agents and catspaws (or if he develops his skinchanger powers enough to possess random animals near his target), he could, in principle, stop any opposition in its tracks.
    The monarchy is still effed as soon as he leaves office, of course.

    3. Robb and the North weren’t completely alone fighting the Lannisters; they had the Riverlands (possibly excluding the Freys, depending on where in Robb’s life you’re counting). The analysis stands up otherwise, though; it’s just a technicality.

    4. I put five golden dragons on the Dornish declaring independence before the Kingdoms fall apart or are consolidated under Stark rule.

    1. it would be interesting to see what the impact on society is, if, for a century or more, every potential oponent to the crown died after falling from an unexpectedly panicky horse.

  10. As a Malaysian I’m slightly disappointed you didn’t mention us. We’re a modern state with a weird system where the kingship of the whole country rotates every 5 years among the kings of states which were historical Malay kingdoms. The ending of Game of Thrones was quite hilarious to us because it was recognisable, not entirely preposterous.

    Obviously this is a very different situation than the ending of GoT as we’re also a parliamentary democracy, but the king does actually have some significant powers like dissolving Parliament and selecting a Prime Minister, which are more than ceremonial. States that do not have kings (Penang, Sabah, Sarawak, and Malacca which used to be a kingdom before it fell to the Portuguese in 1511) don’t get any chance with this unfortunately.

  11. I find it completely bizarre and against Westerosi cynicism that the show ended with Bran if all people as elected king. The much more visually appealing end would be the iron throne a molten twisted mess, mass exodus by Kings Landing’s surviving population. The end of the united 7 kingdoms.

    Of course viewers want to see some hope and uplifting moments, but this will be tempered by the quick factor of old fashioned mores. Maybe Sansa and Jon married and ruling the North. Bran putting himself out of the succession by taking the black or becoming a measter. With the burnt grannies and ruined farms the only glimmer of hope will be a short winter and the return of the spring within a few shirt months. The season should end on this note, despite all the destruction, the brutality and selfishness of the aristocracy, they are saved ultimately by farmers putting seeds in the soil and nurturing the earth back to life.

  12. One of the more surprising elective monarchies (in light of later absolutism), was France at the time of Hugo Capet. Thus the exchange between him and Adelbert, Count of La Marche and Périgord, where the king reprimanded him with saying “Who made you Count?” and Adelbert replied “And you, who made you King?”
    Of course afterwards, the Capetian Kings made sure to have their sons elected (co-)Monarch during their own lifetimes.

  13. it seems that the kingdom of north in the show is brewing its own succession crisis. sansa’s coronation opens the gate for jon snow’s descendants (real or not) to claim the northern throne. after all, if one lady stark (sansa) and her descendants could claim the throne, why not another lady stark’s (lyanna)?

    1. and their claim could bear more legitimacy in some northern lords’ perception. afterall, jon snow got the charisma, and his tenure as king in the north is brief but glorious. not to mention any claimant for beyond the wall would possess certain martial prowess and military power.

      furthermore, the northern succession situation could be messier. by the famous Tarly’s Interpretation of Night’s Watch Oath (“the oath never specifically forbid certain intimate relations with women”) and Littlefinger’s Law (“if you sleep with enough women, some of them will bear gifts”) and well-known precedent (Ygritte), there bound to be plenty pretenders from beyond the wall claim jon snow sired them, and wage succession wars with a wildling army.

      yes, jon snow is a decent guy without unhealthy political ambition. he won’t make a play for his sister-cousin’s crown. but human nature dictates there certainly would be ample power-hunger wildings machiavellian enough to make the kingdom of north never get rid of the problem

  14. My head canon is that the “Three Eyed Raven” will rule Westeros eternally – shifting from host king to host king, whomever they may be, through a similar ritual that Bran went through.

  15. IMHO, the North would be a very weak entity. It has suffered massive losses in the wars. It has a long coastline but no navy, and famine is an issue. The Northern lords proved treacherous towards the Starks, and no doubt some would be pushing their luck, with a woman sitting the throne. I think there’s every chance the North would break up into a number of petty kingdoms.

    Down South, I agree that prospects don’t look good. Bran doesn’t seem to have any of the qualifications for kingship – unless, his powers are such that he can create a kind of magical police state.

  16. Very late to the party, but:

    > In 1620, the Bohemians (many now Protestant) decided they had had enough of the Habsburgs (who were quite Catholic), but it was too late – an effort to elect a non-Habsburg triggered an invasion of Bohemia, cementing hereditary Habsburg control of the kingdom.

    This sentence brought to you by the “in 1914, pro-Yugoslav assassins killed the Austro-Hungarian heir, successfully precipitating the end of the Hapsburg monarchy and the unification of the Bosnians, Croats, and Slovenes under the Serbian monarchy” school of ignoring big wars when writing.

    1. I didn’t think getting into the Thirty Years War was really relevant here – the story was about an elective monarchy and its failure.

      At some point you have to be selective when discussing history or you’ll end up discussing EVERYTHING.

      1. Fair enough. I forgot to add a winky emoji – I very much enjoy your blog (got here via EU4 and Vicky 2) and am enjoying reading through the back archives 🙂

  17. One of the biggest issues I see is that they’ve glossed over who the six kingdoms are- the ironborn aren’t one, they’re stark bannermen, so whilst Yara might have been given a position on the elector council due to her position as military commander, she’s possibly not actually a resident of the six kingdoms, if Sansa ever pushes her claim. Which seems likely, given the Iron Islands are the last remaining enemy of the Starks.

    Plus Bran has no legitimate claim on Dragonstone, which, whilst ‘a bit remote’ and ‘slightly volcanic’, is actually the 8th proper kingdom (the seven kingdoms being those of the westerosi mainland, which was then conquered by Dragonstone- even with the impact of Aegon’s Dragons, it can clearly put out a large enough army to hold the lands he took). There’s a decent chance that someone turns up with a dubious-ish Targaryan claim, and just steals Dragonstone away from Bran, because, like the Iron Islands. It’s a culturally distinct region (having more in common with Valyria than westeros, given it was in Valyria prior to it exploding), and has seen recent religious conversion to the Lord of Light (and, given the description of Aegon’s political acceptance of the Seven religion, may never have had the mainland religion embedded).

    There’s also the fact that Dany transported her entire Khallassar to Westeros- though we see the fighting dothraki much depleted, the rest of them (i.e. the women, old men and children, and therfore their ability to entirely replenish their losses in a decade or two) are, as far as we can tell, entirely unharmed. Whilst some might follow Drogon back west, without the iron born fleet (that’s been entirely sunk at this point), most of them are just sort of hanging out in the centre of Westeros for the foreseeable future. And the Dothraki explicitly follow a leader that they choose for themselves, if by way of just joining whatever they think is the best army, rather than formal elections. Honestly, the laughing at the idea of democratic elections in the council scene is probably one of the dumbest bits of writing in the show, given that Dany’s pre-eminent military force is almost entirely democratic in one way or another. Had Grey Worm not been seemingly written out of actually representing his constituents (again, he’s an elected official), they’d likely have laughed, then slowly stop and calm the right down when a hundred unsullied surrounded them and declared that the next person to talk about kings would be politely escorted to the Dothraki encamptment, given the description ‘this man says he is Khal’, and left to fight to the death with anyone who decided they’d rather be Khal. I mean, the Khalassar is pretty primed for some sort of democracy, given they understand the concept of following the most popular leader, not some crippled kid.

  18. I just discovered your blog after hearing you on the Dispatch podcasts. For what it’s worth, I am a middle school history teacher-focused on Rome for my B.A.
    Martin says that his inspiration for Game of Thrones started with the War of the Roses (Lannister sounds a lot like Lancaster vs single syllable house: Stark and York), so my prediction for the end of the books is the same solution: a marriage between warring houses. And in GOT it already happened. Sansa and Tyrion are already married. Tyrion is the only surviving Lannister (thus heir to Casterly Rock) and is related by blood to the last king; Sansa is the only surviving legitimate Stark who can have children (while the North may have legitimized Jon Snow, there is no reason to assume that the other kingdoms would recognize this and, of course, Bran knows he is not a Stark). It also seems they would likely accept reintegration into the 7 Kingdoms if their future kings were descendants of Starks.

  19. With regards to the wars between the Crown and the rest of Westeros, we have some really interesting examples as well from general Westerosi history during the Targaryen era (prior to Robert’s Rebellion). Aegon’s Conquest doesn’t count because that was an invasion with three fully grown and powerfully controlled dragons and Aegon, Visenya, and Rhaenyra (and Orys Baratheon) were all expert commanders and diplomats who used every trick in the book to win in addition to burning everyone who resisted and used the divisions in the pre-united Westeros to their advantage (such as getting the riverlords to rebel against Harren the Black and his Ironborn). So we now move 100 years ahead to the Dance of Dragons, a war that is interesting because the Crownlands were more of a battlefield for that war (along with the Riverlands and Reach) than a site of troops and control of King’s Landing more symbolic than anything. Rhaenyra had the North (who took a long time mustering their armies due to their size but when they showed up immediately terrified everyone into giving up), the Riverlands (with the Tullys, Freys, and Blackwoods in particular being the MVPs for her faction), the Vale, the Narrow Sea houses (with the powerful Velaryon fleet in particular), and half of the Reach solidly on her side while Aegon II had the Westerlands, Stormlands, and the other half of the Reach. Result: Nobody really wins except the Riverlands and North who come out militarily and politically the strongest for a bit. That was a war with dragons on both sides but ultimately it was the greater unity of Rhaenyra’s faction that came out on top in the end (even if she was executed by Aegon II before she could see her final victory) and the following peace time was based on restoring some semblance of order to the land now that the Targaryens had just lost basically all their dragons in an ultimately pointless war. Then we move forward again almost another 100 years to the Blackfyre Rebellions, which also heavily split the realm. Here is it is important that the North just fully stayed out of the conflict (with the exception of the final Blackfyre Rebellion aka the War of the Ninepenny Kings) but other than that, NOT A SINGLE RULING HOUSE SUPPORTED THE BLACKFYRES. All of the Warden Houses (Tyrell, Martell, Baratheon, Lannister, Tully, Arryn) supported the Crown while the Blackfyres mostly relied on second and third tier houses (like the Brackens, Peakes and Reynes) for their biggest support in addition to lots of mercenaries, and the Blackfyres lost every single time. So in all these cases, it goes to reinforce the fact that the Iron Throne can only survive with the unity of many or all the houses in order to keep in power. The most interesting exception is Aegon V (aka Egg) who tried to modernize and reform Westerosi society to be more equitable and make the crown stronger to protect the common folk from the nobility…and all his reforms went up in flames along with him during the tragedy of Summerhall and Tywin and Aerys II’s undoing of all Aegon’s reforms. Part of Aegon’s tragedy was that he knew he needed power to enforce his reforms, such as a standing army, but failed to implement that and seems to have died trying to bring back the dragons at Summerhall (allegedly).

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