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

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

Part II

Substantive Law

B: Succession

Medieval common law (and other medieval legal systems) had somewhat different rules for succession to the throne from those prevailing in relation to land (and different rules again for succession to personal property). There is, likewise, some suggestion of a distinction in the laws of Westeros at the time of the Song cycle between rules for inheritance of land and rules for succession to royal and noble titles, but the matter is not always clearly differentiated. In both sorts of succession, the model which seems to be predominant is male primogeniture, for legitimate children only. The eldest son is regarded as heir to family land, titles and also to such personal property as Valyrian steel swords {I:259 – Tarly family]. There are, however, ways to alter the succession, some local differences, and some disputed issues.

There are signs that there was, in the time before the Song cycle, a less absolute tendency to male primogeniture in Westeros. It is noted, for example that there had been some question of female succession in the Riverlands, though this was rejected [World: 4395], and that Alysanne, sister and wife of Jaehaerys I Targaryen argued with her brother/husband over succession, taking the position that males did not always have to be preferred to females – so that the granddaughter of an eldest son should succeed to Dragonstone in preference to the second son’s heir apparent [World:1637].

At a Great Council held in the year 101 AC (After the Conquest), however, there was a decision that, with regard to succession to the Iron Throne, women were to be excluded. Not only were men to be preferred to women, but women simply were not to be allowed to take the throne, and, furthermore, nor could a woman transmit a claim to the Iron Throne to her descendants [World: 1673, 1703]. This, of course, looks somewhat like the ‘Salic Law’ insisted upon by the French from the fourteenth century, to exclude the descendants of Isabella, wife of Edward II of England. Not everyone accepted this as an ‘iron precedent’, however, and King Viserys I Targaryen declared his daughter his heir, and continued to take this view even when he had a male child with a subsequent wife. Clearly seeing that this might be opposed, this king, like Henry I of England, had tried to ensure that his settlement would be respected by demanding the promises of his nobles, many of whom did homage to the nominated heiress [World: 1797]. As in Henry I’s case, however, such promises did not prevent a civil war over the issue [World: 1823]. The strong ‘no women’ rule seems to have gone by the time of the Song cycle, since it is assumed that Myrcella has a chance of succeeding, and even the pedantic Stannis Baratheon assumes that his daughter Shireen will inherit the Iron Throne which he takes to be his, if he and his wife do not produce male heirs [III:410].

By the time of the Song cycle, it is clear that descendants trump collaterals – so a maester in White Harbor tells Davos that a son must come before a brother (in terms of royal succession: ‘the laws of succession are clear in such a case.’ [V:246]), so that Tommen beats Stannis as heir to the Iron Throne after Robert I Baratheon, assumed father of Tommen, and definitely brother of Stannis, though not, of course if Tommen was shown to be a bastard. The law also provides that the child of the first son took priority over the second son [II:470], and that girls are not barred from succession – just postponed to males of the same rank. Thus Alys Karstark notes that a daughter comes before an uncle [V:591]. As with many actual medieval realms, the existence of agreed inheritance customs or laws does not necessarily stop those with tenuous claims having a go – thus Renly, Robert’s younger brother also tries for the crown. Renly accepts that Stannis has the better claim in law, but calls it ‘a fool’s law’, asking ‘Why the oldest son and not the best fitted?’ [II:435]. He rejects Catelyn Stark’s suggestion for a Great Council to decide who should reign, considering that the outcome should rest on strength, not talk [II:454]. He argues that Robert did not really have a right either, though various arguments based on past marriages to the Targaryens  were made. He argues from strength of numbers {II:320].

A major counter-current to the hegemony of male primogeniture can be seen in the law and customs of Dorne. Under Dornish rules, it is the eldest child who inherits, whether male or female [World: 6893]. Thus, by Dornish law, Myrcella should succeed to the Iron Throne before Tommen [III: 747; IV:48].The Dornish rule that females should be equal to males in inheritance terms is attributed by one Archmaester to a decree of the reign of Gaemon Palehair (allegedly prompted by a lesbian prostitute) [World: 6916], and, more generally, to the influence of the ideas of the ancient people of the Rhoyne, who settled in Dorne, amongst whom women were ‘regarded as the equals of men’ [World: 621, 760]. In Westeros, Cersei Lannister is unhappy with women’s exclusion from power [III:748].

A degree of dissent from the mainstream Westerosi pattern of succession may also be seen in the evidence concerning the Iron Islands. While Theon Greyjoy asserts the rule which would favour his own case, that a woman may inherit [lordship] only if there is no male heir in the direct line’ [II:160], and so tells his sister he is the lawful prince, Asha replies that this may be so by ‘the laws of the green lands’, but ‘we make our own laws here…’ [II:356]. A third view is that of Aeron Damphair, who sees any such fixed succession as ‘green land law’, and demanding (and obtainint) an election, according to The Old Way, rather than a succession to the Seastone Chair [IV:25, 31].

In most of Westeros, legitimacy depends on wedlock, and those born outside wedlock have ‘no name of their own’, [I:17]. Particular simple and nature-based surnames are by custom given to bastards: in the North, for example, they are called Snow [I:17], they are called Rivers in the Frey/Tully lands [I:285], Stone in the Vale, Flowers in Highgarden [I:357], Storm at Storm’s End [II:146].

Proof of bastardy seems similar to the rules of the medieval common law, in that, if there is a marriage, there is a presumption of legitimacy for offspring born to the wife. Thus, Tywin tells Tyrion ‘Men’s laws give you the right to bear my name and display my colours, since I cannot prove that you are not mine.’ [III:52].

As well as the absence of inheritance rights [I:309]. bastards are regarded as in some sense tainted. Thus, seating Jon Snow at table with the royal family might, thinks Lady Stark, be seen as an insult [I:50], and, presumably because of such slights, Jon Snow swears that he will never father a bastard, which is part of his reason for volunteering for the (celibate by oath) Night’s Watch [I:51]. Bastards can, however, be declared legitimate by royal order, as can be seen from the order for legitimation of Ramsay Snow, bastard of Roose Bolton, which was signed by Tommen [III:819]. There is also a suggestion that the Starks have a less rigid view on bastardy than many in Westeros, at least in some respects. Though Eddard Stark’s bastard was given a ‘bastard name’ – Jon Snow – they were ‘not like other men’ in the way in which they treated such children, and Eddard Stark ‘brought his bastard home with him, and called him “son” for all the north to see’ and brought him up at Winterfell with his legitimate children [I:62].

Dorne and the Iron Islands are again somewhat out of line with mainstream Westerosi law on this issue. What is described as a Dornish custom dictates that illegitimacy does not necessarily bar a child from succession [World: 6893, 6916], though Dorne does differentiate the legitimate and illegitimate to the extent that it has the customary name Sand for bastards [III:431].Also less rigid were the rules of the Iron Islands. In the law of the Ironborn, although the children of subsidiary ‘salt wives’ cannot inherit before the children of the principal wife (the ‘rock wife’), they are not wholly excluded, and can inherit in the absence of salt sons (or perhaps children) [World: 5065].

It is not clear to what extent lords may withold an inheritance from the person designated heir apparent by the general law. Tywin Lannister purports to do this, refusing to name Tyrion as heir to Casterly Rock, even though he does seem to be the rightful heir, since  his elder brother, Jaime, is a kingsguard. and his other sibling, Cersei, is postponed to him as she is female. Tywin justifies this refusal on the grounds of Tyrion’s conduct with ‘whores’ [III:52]. Wills of land appear to be allowed [II:474], so that it is presumably possible to escape the strict rules of primogeniture in this context to some extent (and there is no need for devices such as the use, employed in late medieval England for this purpose, and to avoid feudal dues), though exactly how this relates to succession to lordships rather than simply land, is not clear.

If an heir joins the Night’s Watch, or the Kingsguard, he will lose his place in succession [I:260] so this can be used to alter the succession in order to have lands and other property descend to a preferable candidate, as was done by Samwell Tarly’s father, Lord Randyll [ibid.].


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.


Gwen Seabourne 27/12/2014