Tag Archives: mediaeval

Truth and (a sort of) reconciliation? Scenes from a medieval Suffolk marriage

A plea roll record of a land case from the end of the reign of Edward I gives an interesting view of medieval marriage (or one particular medieval marriage at least), gender and families of different types.

JUST 1/1323 m 77d sets out an assize case heard by Retford and Spigurnel, justices of assize in various southern counties of England, in summer 1303 (with updates until 1304). It concerned land in Suffolk, in Somersham and Nettlestead, and the question was whether Ralph Norreys and his associates had been within their rights to eject John Dunning from the land, or whether John had the better right to hold the land, so that their actions had been an unjust ‘disseisin’ (more or less ‘dispossession’).

Both men’s cases involved telling the story of dealings with the land in recent times, so as to establish their family connection and right to it. Part of this story was the tale of the marriage of Alan de Bosco and Agnes Norreys. Putting together the story they told and the facts found by the jurors, this is what happened … (and yes, usual warnings about not believing everything which appears in the record applies, but there is no obvious reason to doubt this) …

Alan was married to Agnes when he (at least) was below the age of majority (this was 14 for boys, and the jurors say, very precisely, that he was 13 years and 7 weeks old at the time). They lived together for a short period – quarter of a year – and then Alan suddenly left, going off to Cambridge for three years. While he was away, Agnes took service with Robert, parson of the church of ‘Flokton’ (Flixton?). Robert and Agnes had a child, William. Then Alan came back from Cambridge. As soon as she found that he was back in Suffolk, Agnes went to Alan’s house, with the infant William, but Alan would not let her in, and swore that William was not his son, since, so he said, he had never had sex with Agnes. Agnes then sent William back to Robert, who acknowledged him as his son. Afterwards, Agnes went straight back to Alan, who took her back in as his wife kindly (benigne) and in due course, they had a child, called Geoffrey.

The key issue for the land case was whether or not William was Alan’s son. To cut a long story short, Ralph traced his right through William while John traced his through Geoffrey. If William was not Alan’s son, Ralph would have no chance of success. Although that might seem an easy legal issue, if this story is the truth, or something like it, there were complications. The rules about legitimacy, and who was to be regarded as a man’s legitimate son, were not entirely biological. In a world which had no blood or DNA testing, a lot of reliance had to be placed on probability, reputation and presumption. The starting point was that, if a child was born during the course of a marriage, then that child was the legitimate child of the spouses (with associated property rights after the death of the parents). As the common lawyers charmlessly, and repeatedly, put it ‘Whoever bulls the cow, the calf is yours’ – meaning that, even if a wife had been impregnated by somebody else, the child would be presumed to be the husband’s legitimate issue. The presumption could be rebutted, however, if it was completely impossible for the husband to be the father – e.g. if he had been imprisoned abroad for years and came back to find a child. Thus careful questions were put to the jurors to ascertain whether Alan had come back from Cambridge during the three years, or whether Agnes might have gone to meet him somewhere. Apparently not. They were also asked about local opinion – who was reputed to be William’s father (answer: Robert and not Alan). Things would seem to have been going John’s way, on the whole, though clearly this was not as watertight an ‘impossibility’ case as the ‘husband abroad in prison’ scenario. But here the legal procedure ground to a halt, and all there is is a series of additional ‘court dates’ and an instruction to the judges to get on with it. It may be that there was some uncertainty as to whether John had managed to rebut the presumption of legitimacy. Leading common lawyers had been prepared to accept some fairly fanciful suggestions as to how an apparently distant husband might have managed to father a legitimate child, in a case from an earlier term in the same year (Seipp 1304.027rs; https://www.bu.edu/phpbin/lawyearbooks/display.php?id=1531 ) opining that he might have come to the county in which the wife lived, by night, without anyone knowing, so that John might not have been regarded as ‘home and dry’. I hope to track down more on this litigation, but it may take some time.

As interesting as the legal point, if not more so, is the ‘social’ material here. The early marriage is not particularly surprising, perhaps, nor the young husband’s departure (did he go to Cambridge University? I am put in mind of the folk song ‘The Trees They Do Grow High’ …) but what happened afterwards is less predictable. We cannot know anything about the willingness or otherwise of Agnes in relation to the sexual relationship with Robert the parson, but we can say (i) that it seems to have been well-known in the area; and (ii) that Robert was willing to acknowledge William as his son, and take him in. William would go on to have descendants of his own. The reconciliation of Agnes and Alan is fascinating: she was prepared to give up her child and he was prepared to take her back if she did so, despite the fact that all the neighbours knew him to be a ‘cuckold’. No pressure from the Church seems to have been involved. It seems to me that this story has interesting things to say about medieval men, women and communities, and the importance of engaging with initially off-putting and ‘dry’ sources like land law cases, if we want to learn all we can about medieval families and attitudes.



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

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

C: Marriage

Marriage is important in Westeros, as it was in medieval Europe, for the regularisation of sexual conduct and the orderly transmission of property. In the world of Song of Ice and Fire, marriage laws and customs differ on religious, cultural and territorial lines.

In ‘the Faith’, (the ‘new’ religion of seven gods, or a seven-fold God), marriage must be between one man and one woman [World: 5058]. This also appears to be the case in those following the way of the Old Gods of the North. Not everyone has always stuck to the monogamous model, however. Some Targaryens took more than one wife [World: 1399] while the Ironborn have only one ‘rock wife’ at home, they are allowed as many ‘salt wives’ as they can capture and keep [World: 5058]. Despite attempts to outlaw the practice of taking these additional, captured, wives, [World: 5248], the Ironborn maintain it at the time of the Song cycle. The Dothraki seem to allow at least khals more than one wife, and amongst traditionalist Dothraki, the khal’s bloodriders share his wives {I:379]

Marrying close family members is regarded as wrong (‘seen as a sin by the Faith’, ‘hated by the gods’ [II:236] and ‘a monstrous sin to both old gods and new’ {II; 451]) by most in Westeros, but the Targaryens frequently married siblings or other close kin, sometimes justifying this as necessary to keep pure ‘the blood of the dragon’ [World: 1399; I:29]. The twins Cersei and Jaime Lannister also have a long term incestuous relationship, but keep it secret [I:468], though Jaime dreams of marrying Cersei, and also marrying their children to each other [III:236].

Marriage is prohibited to the Kingsguard and the Night’s Watch, [I:72, 498], to silent sisters and septons and septas [III:261]. and the maesters also are celibate [II:17]. At least for a man of the Night’s Watch, marriage could lead to capital punishment  [IV:435], though less permanent breaches of the oath of celibacy are not taken very seriously (Jon Snow notes that men of the Night’s Watch visiting prostitutes ‘was oathbreaking too, yet no one seemed to care’ [I:751], and Dareon does not regard visiting prostitutes or undertaking a one night ‘marriage’ to a prostitute as serious or dangerous breaches of his oath [IV:435].

There appear to be at least social conventions concerning the requisite age or level of maturity for completion of the marriage. Thus, when Robert Baratheon proposes that Sansa Stark and his heir, Joffrey, are betrothed, Sansa is eleven and Joffrey twelve. He says that the actual marriage ‘can wait a few years’ [I:45]. Tyrion proposes that Myrcella weds Trystane Martell of Dorne when she reaches her fourteenth year [II:289]. Menstruation rather than a set age seems to be enough to make a girl old enough for marriage. Magister Illyrio noting that Daenerys Targaryen ‘has had her blood. She is old enough for the khal’ [I:30]. One marriage which does not seem to fit this pattern is that of the baby heiress Lady Ermesande Hayford to Cersei Lannister’s thirteen-year-old cousin, Tyrek (a match motivated by a wish to obtain the child’s lands) [II:363, 896; III:48]. This appears to be regarded as a full marriage rather than a mere betrothal, despite the bride’s tender age and presumed lack of consummation. Perhaps it is technically a betrothal, or open to disavowal when she reaches majority, though practically and politically, such a disavowal would be extremely unlikely (In the event, Tyrek disappears, presumed dead, so the point is moot).

Marriage may involve two stages – the contract or betrothal, which may be revoked, though it is considered binding in honour, and the final marriage [I:45; II:479]. A royal betrothal or marriage contract is considered void, and vows are cancelled, according to the Faith if the bride’s family are involved in treason against the groom, as is alleged against the Starks by Joffrey and his supporters [II:819].  The marriage ceremony itself, in the Faith, involves the making of vows before witnesses, in the presence of a septon, and symbolic removal of a ‘maiden’s cloak’ (with her father’s sigil or colours) from the woman, and its replacement with the bride’s cloak (featuring her husband’s emblems), demonstrating her move from her father’s protection to that of her husband [III:318, 669]. Consummation is also necessary, and might be preceded by the bawdy ‘bedding’ custom, which functions as confirmation that bride and groom at least had the opportunity and capacity to consummate. There may  also be the exhibition of sheets after the wedding night, as an additional confirmation that the marriage has been consummated.

The people of Westeros adhere to different religions, and marriage rites vary. Generally, there do not seem to be arguments as to whether a marriage conducted according to one rite is regarded as valid by the adherents of other religions. Some may choose to make sure that there will be no problem by holding a double ceremony, in both godswood (for the Old Gods) and sept (for the Seven or New Gods)  [II:474]. There may be problems of ‘conflict of laws’ with regard to more foreign traditions, however. Thus, a Westeosi rite marriage would not be recognised in Meereen – unless Daenerys Targaryen marries Hizdahr according to the rites prevailing in Meereen, they will not be regarded as being lawfully married, so that any children they have will be illegitimate [V:478]. Since Daenerys more or less complies with this, one must conclude that she assumes this ‘foreign’ marriage would be seen as valid in Westeros.

Marriage may be arranged, and strong pressure may be brought to bear, but some form of consent is necessary. Daenerys does not want to marry Drogo, initially, but her brother Viserys orders her that she will. [I:35]. She ‘consents’ to sex (and therefore ‘completes’ the marriage) with Drogo on their wedding night (it is presented in this way, though there is so much mention of fear that one must presume that a low threshold was being employed] [I:103]. Similarly, even a marriage forced upon a vulnerable woman, with the threat of violence and mistreatment, might be regarded as not sufficiently outrageous as to be impossible to maintain Thus, ‘the Bastard of Bolton’ forced Lady Hornwood to say her vows to him in appropriate form, in order to acquire her land, later starving her to death. A maester pronounced that ‘Vows made at swordpoint are not valid’, but it is thought that the Boltons would be unlikely to accept the invalidity of this marriage which brought them valuable lands [II:474]. The wildings’ custom of bride-stealing [World: 571] was not seen as excluding consent. The stealing was, rather, a way of showing stealth and bravery, such as a wilding woman might be thought to admire.

At least in the upper echelons of Westeros society, lords have a role and a responsibility with regard to female tenants. A liege lord has a duty to find a suitable husband for widowed female tenants [II:229]. This right or responsibility may be politically useful. Theon Greyjoy, for example, speaks of making a marriage alliance using his sister, Asha [II:350]. The right may be used vindictively, as when Joffrey and Cersei arrange a marriage between Tyrion and Sansa Stark. Joffrey has this right because Sansa is a royal ward, and her brother – who would otherwise have the right – has been attainted a traitor  [III:317]. The right is not available to those below the rank of lord: thus a castellan cannot make marriage pacts [V:653].

As was the case in medieval Europe, marriages can, on certain, restricted, grounds, be ‘undone’ (which seems to mean that, as with divorce a vinculo matrimonii, it was as if it had never happened). The marriage of Tyrion Lannister and the peasant girl or ‘whore’, Tysha, for example, was ‘undone’ at the behest of his father Tywin, (perhaps on the ground that it had been entered into through deception) [II:581], and a marriage not consummated – such as Tyrion’s marriage to Sansa Stark – can be set aside ‘by the High Septon or a Council of Faith’ [III: 364].

Once married, Westerosi husbands have considerable control over their wives’ person and property. They can chastise an adulterous wife [World: 90]. Again, though, this was not uncontested. Dorne, influenced by the rules of the Rhoynar, did not allow husbands to chastise wives in this way [World: 90] According to a decree from the reign of Gaemon Palehair, ‘husbands who beat their wives should themselves be beaten, irrespective of what the wives had done to warrant such chastisement’ [World: 6916].

Even in mainstream Westeros, there are limits. In particular, the chastising husband was restricted in that he must use ‘a rod no thicker than a thumb’ [World:1313] – an echo of the post-medieval distortion of common law spousal chastisement limitations known as the ‘rule of thumb’. And Queen Rhaenys Targaryen, doing justice in the absence of King Aegon, whilst accepting that ‘the gods make women to be dutiful to their husbands’, so that it was lawful for them to be beaten, decided that the number of blows should be limited to six (representing each of the gods, save the Stranger, who was Death) [World: 1313]. In a case in which a man had beaten his wife to death, she judged that the blows exceeding six had been unlawful, so that the brothers of the dead woman could ‘match those blows upon the husband’ [World: 1313].

It appears that the law in Westeros includes something along the lines of common law coverture, since Daenerys notes (implicitly as a difference’ that ‘in Qarth man and woman each retain their own property after they are wed’’[II:528]. She discovers, however that they also have a ‘custom that on the day of union, a wife may ask a token of love from her husband and the husband from the wife’ – these ‘requests’ not being amenable to denial [ibid.] Also suggesting the husband’s power over property brought to the marriage by the wife is the description of the Boltons using a (forced) marriage as a way of acquiring immediate rights in the wife’s lands [II:474].



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


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

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

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 are litigated: 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, though 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.