Every Wednesday Elio and Linda of premiere Song of Ice and Fire web portal Westeros.org present an essay focusing on an aspect of Westeros, its world, or the series. You can find them all collected on the Song of Ice and Fire Master Index. Some spoilers inherent.
Given the strong medieval inspiration behind the Seven Kingdoms, it’s interesting to consider that the process of deciding who rules or leads varies from place to place and organization and organization within Westeros. It can even vary within regions, depending on culture and customs and traditions. Even merit-based advancement can happen... although in this essay on inheritance in the Song of Ice and Fire series we’ll find that lineages can matter, even there.
Some spoilers below for events past Game of Thrones episode 5.
Broadly speaking, most nobles of Westeros practice male-preference primogeniture, much as most of Western Europe did in the Middle Ages. According to Wikipedia, the monarchs of Monaco, Spain, and Thailand apparently follow this practice, as well. It’s suggested in one of the later novels that this was predominantly an approach that the Andals brought with them from across the narrow sea, which rather implies that prior to the Andals arriving, the First Men may well have done things differently. Male-preference primogeniture means that a woman may inherit only if she has no living brothers (or descendants of those brothers), which is certainly limiting, but we do have some examples of ladies who rule in their own right in Westeros: Lady Arwyn Oakheart is prominent in the Reach, much as Anya Waynwood is in the Vale and Maege Mormont is in the North.
There’s a couple of wrinkles, however. The Dance of the Dragons was a devastating civil war fought between two siblings: Rhaenyra Targaryen and Aegon Targaryen. Their father Viserys I had been king, and Rhaenyra had been his eldest (and only) child for many years before their father finally managed to have a male son who survived the cradle. Viserys had taken to bringing Rhaenyra to his councils, and all ways preparing her and the realm to follow him as heir. Matters became more ambiguous later, after Aegon survived and prospered, but it seems very possible that Valyrian custom before the Doom was gender-blind primogeniture, and Viserys was merely keeping with the customs that the Targaryens had had before. Regardless, on his death bed, it seemed Rhaenyra was still heiress... but the Lord Commander of the Kingsguard, Ser Criston Cole, convinced Aegon to crown himself as Aegon II.
What followed as 2 years of bloody warfare—think of some of the bloodiest battlefields of the Wars of the Roses, such as Towton—with tens of thousands killed, with most of the Targaryen dragons dead in the fighting (“They were bred for war, and in war they died.”), and both Rhaenyra and her brother ultimately perished. The end result was that Rhaenyra’s son, Aegon, was crowned, and the surviving factions of House Targaryen were unified by his marriage to his uncle’s surviving eldest daughter. To prevent any more situations like that in the future, it became law—or at least custom—that from there on out, a Targaryen woman could never inherit the throne. Her male kin were always preferred. This is why such a spirited young queen such as Daena Targaryen (and both of her sisters) were passed over when Baelor the Blessed died.
On top of that, lords can pass over their offspring, if they’d like. It invites legal wrangling after their death, and potentially violence during it, but it has happened. Lord Tywin Lannister is rather infamous for refusing to ever acknowledge his son Tyrion as his heir, despite the letter of the law saying the Rock should be his. Lord Webber in the time of Daeron II left it in his will that his daughter could inherit as Lady of Coldmoat... so long as she married within a certain frame of time, or else see the lands pass to one of his cousins rather than leaving it in the hands of a woman. There’s a serious concern in the Seven Kingdoms that women (and, sometimes, children) simply aren’t capable of ruling when the times are unsettled, and at least he had the excuse of recently witnessing the first of the Blackfyre Rebellions to make him leery of leaving his daughter in charge of his castles and lands.
That certainly causes a small problem for Daenerys Targaryen, but then again, she’s the last Targaryen alive, and doubtless her ancestor Aegon the Conqueror would prefer she sit the Iron Throne than any of the alternative....
Not everyone is quite so strict, however. In Dorne, absolute primogeniture is practiced—eldest child, regardless of gender. This is likely due to the influence of Rhoynish culture, which was introduced into Dorne when Nymeria brought the Rhoynar across the narrow sea in ten thousand ships to escape the Valyrians. Interestingly, Nymeria’s people were probably heavily represented by women and children: Garin the Great had led 250,000 men to their deaths in trying to defeat Valyria, which was probably a healthy chunk of the total population of the Rhoyne. Not all the houses of Dorne seem quite convinced of absolute primogeniture—it’s implied that the Yronwoods are against it, and they’re more strongly descended from the First Men and Andals than most.
After this, you start coming up with people and organizations that run things... differently. Among the wildlings beyond the Wall, there aren’t really any lords (excluding, one supposes, the Magnar of Thenn). A man who wants to lead other men will have to win their respect and defeat or kill his opposition. Any man who would be King-beyond-the-Wall has to do that many times over, because the wildlings call themselves the “free folk” and frown on authority unless they can respect it on a personal level. Being descended of some great hero or a past King-beyond-the-Wall is about as interesting to them as being descended from that hero’s horse.
In more civilized areas of Westeros, when nobility of blood is put in second place, merit starts to come forward. The Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch is elected by all the brothers of the Watch, the High Septon is chosen by the Most Devout (very much in the fashion of cardinals selecting the Pope), and the Grand Maester is selected by the Conclave of the archmaesters of the Citadel. In theory, merit plays a bigger role here... but it’s not the sole consideration. How else to explain the number of Starks who have been selected? Or the fact that the five youngest Lord Commanders in the long history of the Night’s Watch (long by any standard, even if it may not be quite so long as they believe) were all related to the Starks, in one fashion or another? Similarly, we see that the Citadel made a show of giving serious consideration to a number of competent-but-lowborn maesters... before turning their eyes to maesters connected by blood to some of the greatest houses in the Seven Kingdoms. One suspects the Most Devout think along similar lines, as well, when it comes to it, and when one considers the history of the medieval Church.
Curiously, election was also used by the Iron Islanders many millenia ago. Whenever a king died, the notable men and women—lords, captains, warriors of renown—would gather at a holy place on Old Wyk, Nagga’s Ribs, and they would choose among those who put their name forward. This elective monarchy seems nearly unprecedented in Westeros, and certainly the ironborn stopped using it long ago when Urron Redhand slaughtered a gathering of the kingsmoot and instituted inherited monarchy from then on out.
The closest thing to elected monarchy in more recent Westerosi history was the situation following Maekar I’s death. For various reasons, some of his potential heirs were unfit to rule (some were dead, one had a lackwit daughter, another had been a vicious madman and no one knew what his son was going to be like), so Maekar’s youngest son was ultimately elected by a great council of all the lords of the Seven Kingdoms. A young man known by his friends as Egg became Aegon V, the Unlikely. With him came a reign of peace and plenty (mostly), some beloved (but perhaps unconventional sons), and a best friend who was a tall, lowborn hedge knight who would end his days as one of the most famed Lord Commanders of the Kingsguard.
To take it all into the present of A Song of Ice and Fire, who should sit the Iron Throne? Who has the most right? Renly Baratheon expressed a theory of rule that essentially boiled down to “might makes right,” and he notes that his brother seizing the throne really did rest on that more than anything else. But that’s no way towards long-term stability, if every dead king means a fresh struggle for his throne. Considering the situation with Robert’s children, if one passes them over and sticks by primogeniture, Stannis Baratheon really does have the best claim....
But what about Daenerys? Her family was exiled, but if we suppose “might makes right” is a bad theory for the perpetuation of rule, than there may be something to her own claim... Or is it best to let the past lie? Is a Targaryen queen any likelier to encourage stability than some member of the young Baratheon dynasty?
Having met on a game (yes, on the internet), Elio crossed an ocean to join Linda in her native Sweden. Establishing their “A Song of Ice and Fire” fan page, Westeros, in 1998, they now host the largest fan forum and oversee sub-sites covering all facets of George R.R. Martin’s works, including a wiki. Westeros.org can also be found on Twitter and Facebook, where they provide official syndication of George R.R. Martin’s blog updates. They are co-authors, with Martin, of the in-progress The World of Ice and Fire, an official guide to the setting.