Laws of Ice and Fire: George R.R. Martin, Song of Ice and Fire cycle from a legal historian’s perspective Part I

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Laws of Ice and Fire: George R.R. Martin, Song of Ice and Fire cycle from a legal historian’s perspective

Part I

George R.R. Martin’s (unfinished) Song of Ice and Fire series, also, as Game of Thrones, a massively successful T.V. series, is set in a quasi-medieval fantasy world. There is also quite a bit of legal content: references to trials, laws, lawmakers. So naturally I have been making notes on the legal or legal-historical ideas present in the series. Because of the incomplete nature of the Song, it is not possible to draw a definitive picture of the prevailing legal system(s), but there are several points of interest, which I will begin to note here. This first part will deal with the legal system(s) seen in Martin’s created world, and the second part will look at substantive law.


1. Law-making

Sources of law appear to include custom (which varies according to territory and lordship) and deliberate law-making. Kings of old had not necessarily wished to impose one set of laws on the Seven Kingdoms, King Aegon leaving matters to ‘the vagaries of local tradition and custom’, but King Jaehaerys, his grandson, ‘created the first unified code, so that from the North to the Dornish Marches, the realm shared a single rule of law’ [World:1644]. ‘Top-down’ provision of laws was, thus, possible and accepted. Such laws survive their maker, but may be unmade. Thus, laws of King Maegor had prohibited the Faith from bearing arms, but Cersei suggested ‘undoing’ these three-hundred year old laws,  allowing the ‘Sparrows’ to defend themselves [IV:474]. Similarly, Princess Arianne of Dorne argues that rules barring kingsguards from marriage. made by Aegon the Dragon, could be revoked – ‘what one king does another can undo or change’, backing up this proposition with the argument that Joffrey had changed the rules regarding the Kingsguard, in that they had formerly served for life, but he had dismissed Ser Barristan Selmy [IV:219].

A slightly more participatory process of law-making can be seen in the attempt to fix the rules of succession to the Iron Throne, in the Great Council held in 101 AC [World: 1703], though how binding such determinations were appears to have been contested: certainly, a subsequent king, Viserys I, did not consider himself bound by the rules of that body [World: 1797], though others fought a civil war to enforce it.

Monarchs vary in their enthusiasm for law-making. Daenerys Targaryen has an interventionist instinct. Some of her efforts to change practice with regard to personal freedom will be considered in Part II. She also wished to change the dress code in Meereen, banning the extremely impractical (and status-emphasising) tokar, but is dissuaded from this course of action because it would be extremely unpopular [V:35]. She shows a desire to use law to improve her people’s morals, though this is tinged with awareness that she cannot go too far too fast without endangering her achievements. Of her partial victory with regard to the fighting pits of Meereen (see Part II) she says ‘Perhaps I cannot make my people good,… but I should at least try to make them a little less bad’ [V:693]. She has, it would seem, made a study of the laws prevailing in Meereen, and decided that few of them are good, though she is keen to continue those few good laws from the previous regime which she finds (e.g. the rule that dead arena beasts are to be used for stew for poor] [V:693]).

2. Lands without lawyers?

A striking feature of Westeros is the complete absence of a legal profession: we see no trial lawyers and no professional judges or draftsmen. Although there are individuals who devote themselves to learning – the maesters in Oldtown [World: 6227] – and accepted legal procedures, individuals do not have legal representation, and nor is there any sign of specialised scholars of jurisprudence, though there is mention of what might be a legal historical work: Justice and Injustice in the North: Judgments of Three Stark Lords, by Maester Egbert [World:3852]. Unsurprisingly, given the lack of a legal profession, there does not seem to be anything approaching a ‘writ system’, and legal matters are brought before kings by petition [I:450].

Kings have the right and obligation to pass laws, though some had little enthusiasm for the role. Robert Baratheon complained that ‘Laws are a tedious business’ (though at least he found them preferable to ‘counting coppers’ [I:43]). The king’s second-in-command, the Hand of the King, is involved in drafting laws [I:44]. In the brief reign of Joffrey, the king at times made decrees and the Small Council gave their assent [I:598], though it is unclear whether they were more than a rubber stamp, and whether an un-approved decree would be valid.

Kings on the Iron Throne have an official called the ‘master of laws’ (e.g. Ser Kevan Lannister is noted as master of laws in King Tommen’s small council: [IV:782], and Aegon the Conqueror had a ‘master of laws’ [World: 988]), but these are noble ‘civil servants’ rather than trained jurists, and their duties are unclear. Of the official called the justiciar, we know little (and less), other than that during Cersei’s regency, it is held by Lord Merryweather. [IV:654]. The official called the King’s Justice (Ser Ilyn Payne) is simply an executioner [I:456], with additional charge of the dungeons and gaolers there [IV:444].


3. Jurisdiction

Kings on the Iron Throne do justice (‘criminal’ and ‘civil’) though others (particularly the Hand of the King) might do this when the king is unavailable or unwilling [I:44]. Eddard Stark takes a very royalist view of the constitution, stating that ‘all justice flows from the king’ [I:196]. Those aspiring to a royal role are expected to do justice to their people. Daenerys Targaryen devotes considerable time to providing decisions on petitions – including legal matters – brought to her by the people of Meereen [V:214]. In her view, ‘Justice … [is] what kings are for.’[III:310].

The usual legal business dealt with by Ned Stark as Hand is described as ‘hearing petitions, settling disputes between rival holdfasts, and adjudicating the placement of boundary stones’, but he also heard complaints concerning a knight’s attacks on various holdfasts] [I:450]. The Hand’s judgments might be overruled by the king, thus when Tywin Lannister adjudicated a border dispute between two houses over a mill, Aerys II overruled him and awarded the property to the side which lost at first instance [World: 3358].

Lords appear to have jurisdiction both as lords, with respect to their own rights, and as representatives of royal justice. For example, we see Lord Randyll Tarly sitting in judgment in the fishmarket at Maidenpool, presumably as royal representative, with Lord Mooton, the territorial lord [IV:232]. Some claim rights of summary execution, as can be seen in Roose Bolton’s hanging of a miller who married without Bolton’s permission or knowledge [V:429].

An exchange between Maester Pycelle and Ned Stark shows disagreement as to the relationship between the jurisdiction of royal and lordly authorities. A complaint of the rampages of Ser Gregor Clegane having been made to the Iron Throne, Pycelle says that the appropriate recipient of the complaint is not the king but Clegane’s liege lord: ‘These crimes are no concern of the throne. Let them seek Lord Tywin’s justice’. Ned Stark sees things differently, however, stating that ‘It is all the King’’s justice …North, south, east or west, all we do we do in Robert’s name.’[I:452].

There were some disputes about jurisdictional issues between the Iron Throne and the Faith in the time of King Jaehaerys, but these were brought to an end by the king swearing that the Iron Throne would always defend the Faith [World: 1666]. It is not clear, however, exactly how the two jurisdictions were seen to relate thereafter.The High Septon during Cersei’s regency says that Jaehaerys the Conciliator ‘deprived [the Faith] of the scales of judgment’ [IV:738]. He claims jurisdiction over adultery and sexual offences, and homicide (or deicide – see Part II) of the previous High Septon [IV:731], and treason [IV:743], and accepts that the Faith does not have the right to impose capital punishment [IV:740, 743]. Where there is overlapping jurisdiction, the accused seems to be able to elect the forum. Thus, Cersei is afforded the option of letting the Faith sit in judgment on her or having a trial by battle according to royal justice [V:848].

Prior to the Conquest, individual territories had their own processes of law-making and administration, aspects of which continued to echo during the post-Conquest period, though there is little information on this. We know, for example, that in the past, each of the Iron Islands had a ‘rock king’ who dispensed justice, made laws and settled disputes [World: 5096], and that decrees altering the law were made in Dorne [World: 6916]. As will be explored in Part II, at least some territories are allowed to retain their laws or customs in some particular areas of law.

Some groups purport to try criminals, though their right so to do would no doubt be disputed by the Iron Throne. For example, Beric Dondarrion’s brotherhood try the Hound, Sandor Clegane, for crimes including murder [III: 384 ff], and had tried the Brave Companions/Bloody Mummers for various killings and rapes, and Septon Utt for killing boys he molested [III:441].

Some areas do not accept the idea of law at all (or are thought not to do so). Samwell Tarly notes that ‘There are no laws beyond the Wall’ [III:368] and is horrified that Craster is said to ‘obey no laws but those he makes himself’ [II:323].  Jon is not surprised that the people of Westeros consider the wildings ‘scarcely human’, explicitly because of their lack of laws. He notes that ‘They have no laws, no honor, not even simple decency. They steal endlessly from each other, breed like beasts, prefer rape to marriage, and fill the world with baseborn children’ , but he grew fond of them, and even respected some of them and some of their views [III:176]. The wildings saw their lack of respect for authority and law as a positive thing, and contrasted themselves – the ‘free folk’ with the ‘kneelers’ of Westeros.


4. Form of trial

Litigation is not the only method of dealing with legal disputes: mediation is mentioned, in a property case (dispute over possession of a cavern), in the Dawn Age [World: 226].  Also, lords had the power to sentence without trial those caught red-handed, as in the case of Will, a poacher who had taken the black after being caught by Mallister freeriders skinning a deer in the Mallisters’ own woods, rather than having his hand removed [I:2]. Nevertheless, court proceedings are noted on several occasions, allowing us to see something of ideas of procedure and proof in different jurisdictions.

There are accounts of lords doing justice. For example, we see Lord Randyll Tarly sitting in judgment in the fishmarket at Maidenpool, with Lord Mooton, the territorial lord [IV:232]. He is described sitting on a specially erected platform, near a long gallows, with ropes at the ready, which could accommodate twenty men. Mutilatory and capital sentences are passed and carried out immediately, and some corpses are left hanging for some time [IV:232]. Offences included theft from a sept, food adulteration, passing on sexually transmitted diseases and assault with a knife [IV:233]. The cases are to be tried over more than one day, and those accused of crimes are kept in a dungeon pending trial [ibid.]

There is a form of ‘ecclesiastical court’, at least for those who follow ‘the Faith’ of the seven gods. At times, there is a jurisdictional overlap between royal justice and ‘ecclesiastical’ justice, as where Cersei and Margaery are accused of offences which are contrary to secular and religious law (sexual treason, and, in Cersei’s case, homicide of sacred individuals – the High Septon and the King). Cersei has the option of letting the Faith sit in judgment on her or having a (secular) trial by battle. She decides to opt for the latter, as she has few friends among the Faith.[V:848]. Margaery, however, chooses to be tried by the Faith.

‘Royal’ trials are held in public. At least in treason trials, there are three judges, and there is some religious participation – so that, in Tyrion’s trial for the regicide poisoning of Joffrey, the proceedings commence with a prayer by the High Septon, asking the Father to guide them to justice [III:740]. The accused is asked whether he is guilty [III:740]. The judges ask questions of the accused. [III:749]. Witnesses for the prosecution were heard first, then those for the defence, if available. The accused was not to speak without leave of the court, and does not seem to have been able to cross-examine witnesses against him [III:741].Trial by battle is a possible mode of proof, at the election of the accused [and Tyrion selects this proof – III:791. The accused may (or must? this is not clear) have a champion rather than fighting in person, thus in the case concerning Tyrion’s alleged killing of Joffrey, Oberyn of Dorne fights for him [III:791]. A champion is also assigned to fight ‘for the deceased’ – in this case, Gregor Clegane fights ‘for Joffrey’ [III 791] (demonstrating, incidentally, that these proceedings are understood as more of an appeal or private prosecution than a ‘state’ prosecution). Tyrion had previously insisted on trial by combat, ‘judgment by the gods’, again with a champion, when accused of the attempted murder of Brandon Stark [I:408]. Certain individuals are constrained in their choice of champion. Queens must be defended by a sworn knight of the Kingsguard: which may be inconvenient {IV:744].

Joffrey insists on a trial by combat, to the death, in a land dispute between two knights (the fight being ordered to be in n person rather than with champions. Such a mode of trial in a land case seems to be illegitimate [I:720] – though it is an echo of the early use of trial by battle in the writ of right in common law.

Ideas of ‘due process’ may be seen in Tyrion’s objection to being in the Eyrie without trial, and insisted on a trial according to the king’s justice [I:406]. We see little of ‘pre-trial procedure’, or detection, though torture is not entirely unknown. Thus, after terrorist murders in Meereen, Daenerys approves ‘sharp’ questioning of suspects (i.e. torture) [V:149]. Cersei Lannister goes further, and has her sadistic assistant, torture ‘The Blue Bard’ to obtain a (false) confession of having had sex with Queen Margaery [IV:656], also lying and saying that if the confession is made, the bard will be allowed to take the black.

Less obviously showing ideas of due process is the fact that not all ‘royal’ judgments were preceded by a trial. Thus, Ned Stark sentences Gregor Clegane to death for deaths, rapes and destruction on the basis of accusations, with no trial, also stripping him of rank, titles, lands, incomes and holdings [I:453]. Likewise questionable from this perspective is the fact that there does not seem to be an age-qualification for judges: thus, it is suggested that Tyrion should be tried before Robert Arryn, a pettish and unstable young boy [I:408]. Nor is there, apparently, an objection to a judge on the ground that he is related to the accused, for, when Tyrion is tried for the killing of Joffrey by poison, the judges are Oberyn of Dorne, Mace Tyrell and Tyrion’s own father, Tywin Lannister [III:735].

At a lower level, trials may be brief or non-existent. In the judicial session of Lord Randyll Tarly, at Maidenpool [IV:232], trials or disposals are very brief. Some, such as a prostitute accused of spreading ‘the pox’ seem simply to be accusations, without argument. In other cases, the lord’s common sense or feeling for the guilt or innocence of those before him seems to be the decisive factor [see IV:233, case of the sailor and archer]

‘Ecclesiastical’ courts, in the Faith, use a court of seven judges. There are three women, representing the maiden, mother and crone, and presumably four men representing the other gods or aspects of God [IV:743]. The Faith may torture potential witnesses, e.g. by whipping Osney Kettleblack to ‘find the truth’ of accusations of sexual misconduct against Queen Margaery when the High Septon was suspicious of his (made-up) confession of involvement [IV:740]. It may also attempt to coerce a confession from a suspect by harsh imprisonment, as in the case of Queen Cersei, accused of adultery, fornication and arranging the murder of a High Septon: she was taken, imprisoned in the sept, and ‘encouraged to confess by hourly visits of a septa’ [IV:743].

Even some outside the law employ a degree of formal procedure. Beric Dondarrion demonstrates that he is not a bandit and is not engaged in lynching by his insistence on trying those accused of crimes, rather than simply killing them [III:190]. He and his brotherhood try the Hound, Sandor Clegane, for crimes including murder [III: 384 ff]. The trial has elements of informality, with several people, including a young girl and an old woman, bringing accusations and the Hound answering back, defending himself. [III:385, 386]. Beric will not make a summary judgment, saying that ‘You stand accused of murder, but no one here knows the truth or falsehood of the charge, so it is not for us to judge you’. He says that judgment must be by ‘the Lord of Light’ and so there must be a trial by battle.’ [III:386]. In this case, however, there is no champion – the Hound fights in person (unlike Tyrion, he is well-equipped to do so]. Beric is his opponent. The combat is unarmoured, the Hound being allowed his shield and a sword, while Beric has a shield and a flaming sword. The priest Thoros leads those present in prayer to the Lord of Light before the battle, asking him ‘to show the truth or falseness of this man’ [III:388]. When the Hound wins, the result is respected, and he is allowed to go.

5. Kings, queens and the law

There is no Magna Carta or other document or principle explicitly holding monarchs to the law. Varys notes that one view of kingly power is that it derives from the law, but that there are other views – that it comes from the gods, or from the (possibly malleable) belief of the people [II:119]. It is certainly the case that some monarchs flouted the rules which applied to others. As Catelyn Stark notes in the context of incest, an offence ‘hated by gods and men’, ‘Like their dragons, the Targaryens answered to neither gods nor men’ [II:451]. It is arguable that this breaking of the rules enhanced the reputation of house Targaryen as special, set apart for kingship or even semi-divine. Jaime Lannister dreams of wedding Cersei and marrying Joffrey to Myrcella, showing everyone that  ‘the Lannisters are above their laws, like gods and Targaryens’ [III:236]. Less image-enhancing, at least after his demise, was the conduct of ‘Mad’ Aerys Targaryen who ignored all rules of due process, killing and torturing many subjects.

Conclusion (for now)

The Seven Kingdoms and the Iron Throne clearly demonstrate the existence of ideas of law and justice, though there is little explicit discussion of the content of these ideas. A difference is made by Ned Stark, as Hand, between justice and vengeance [I:453], and, as we have seen, there are some safeguards for accused persons, though torture is seen, and there are cases of condemnation without trial. Daenerys Targaryen is particularly keen to ‘do justice’, and examines her own conduct to ensure that it has been just – for example, questioning herself about the display of punishment and exhibition of the dead in Meereen after it is captured, comparing herself to the slavers of Astapor, but concluding that , unlike them, she had imposed punishment on those who ‘deserved it’, and telling herself that ‘Harsh justice is still justice.’ [III:806]. Stannis Baratheon takes a less questioning approach, content to take a literal and strict view of law: His harsh and unyielding view of law is shown in his statement that ‘Laws should be made of iron, not of pudding’ [V:54] and his treatment of Davos (later Ser Davos Seaworth)- mutilating his hand for smuggling despite ‘the Onion Knight’ having saved his life [II:11.]. His brother, Robert I Baratheon, however, had been known for mercy contrary to the strict letter of the law [I:466]. The delightful Joffrey portrays mercy as a feminine weakness, and vows that during his reign, the full punishment would always be exacted (at least for treason) [I:702]. This echoes the religious idea of the faith that justice is for the Father and mercy for the Mother {III:291].

Gwen Seabourne




I:          George R.R. Martin, A Game of Thrones

II:        George R.R. Martin, A Clash of Kings

III:       George R.R. Martin: A Storm of Swords

IV:       George R.R. Martin, A Feast for Crows

V:        George R.R. Martin, A Dance with Dragons

World: George R.R. Martin, E M Garcia Jr, L. Antonsson, The World of Ice and Fire: the untold history of Westeros and the Game of Thrones

Number references refer to pages in I – V, but to Kindle locations for World.