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.
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?
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.
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.
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
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.
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.