Game of Thrones, one of the most popular television shows in history (based on the book series, A Song of Ice and Fire), is coming back for its final season! To celebrate the end of an era, we’ll be looking back through some of the major players, places, and events that helped shape the history and destiny of the show’s world. Before the previous two seasons, we took an in-depth look at the land’s history, geography (twice over), and even economy.
Think of this as a final greatest hits before the series concludes! While we certainly didn’t include everything, we wanted to touch on stories from all corners of the globe and eras of history – though we do look more to the Seven Kingdoms than across the Narrow Sea. While many major players and events were left out (you can read more about some we omitted by clicking the links above), we think you’ll enjoy the variety of tales from all over the known world!
Spoiler Alert: While written just before the eighth season, this guide will detail people, places, and events in their state prior to or that occurred before the first season (and first book). It will not reveal any major plot points, however some minor spoilers may be hinted at. When it comes to differences between the books and show, we follow the show. Note that pictures don’t always relate to the subject they’re next to.
Explore the Seven Kingdoms (and Essos) Further!
Over many summers, and even longer winters, the stories of both Westeros and Essos have been written thanks to powerful individuals and houses, momentous events, and iconic locations. Join us as we explore some of the tales of triumph and tragedy within.
Whether a living legend or a shadowy figure who’s true reach is never known, sometimes it only takes one person to shape a kingdom.
Princess of the Rhoynar (and Dorne), warrior queen, witch…Nymeria has been called many things over the years. Before the Seven Kingdoms became one, the Rhoynar people flourished – a culturally rich, beautiful, and wealthy civilization thanks to the waters of the Rhoyne river and the trade that came with it. An independent and fierce nation, women here were regarded equal to men – unlike in many other places throughout the known world.
Of course, this prosperity wasn’t to last. As the great Valyrian Freehold expanded, the dragon riders set their sights on the lands of the Rhoyne. To speak of all the battles and wars would take more time than we have. We will however mention Prince Garin (the Great – as he came to be known), who fought valiantly (against the advice of our princess) and won multiple victories against the Valyrian forces. But alas, the might of the dragons could only be withstood for so long – Garin was ultimately captured and many of his warriors were killed.
Nymeria now faced a choice. She had previously warned against the folly of resisting Valyria. Taking ships (as many as ten thousand if the legends are to be believed), she fled her lands with women, children, elders, and whatever fighters she could muster. The journey was long and hard, but she eventually landed in the southern land of Dorne in Westeros. There, she met Mors Martell, the leader of one of the quarreling houses who had long been outclassed by the rival House Yronwood.
One marriage later, Nymeria and the Martells set about conquering the southern, sandy land. Though her lord husband fell in battle, Nymeria eventually achieved the submission of their rivals. From that day forth, Nymeria’s descendants (of House Nymeros Martell) have ruled Dorne.
Jaehaerys the Conciliator
When it comes to Targaryen kings and queens, there are a great many worthy of multiple volumes. Without Aegon the Conqueror forging a single kingdom, none of this would be possible. Without the Mad King, the Targaryens might yet rule. While without Baelor the Blessed, the capital would not be home to such a magnificent sept. However it is the reign of Jaehaerys I we focus on here – also known throughout his long reign as ‘the Conciliator’ or ‘the Old King’.
King for 55 years, no Targaryen ever ruled as long. While Aegon might’ve conquered (most of) Westeros, Jaehaerys finished the work he began by truly bringing the disparate lands together. It was not always easy, but with his wife (and sister) Good Queen Alysanne by his side, his long reign proved perhaps to be the apex of Targaryen power in the Seven Kingdoms.
Following his uncle, Maegor the Cruel, Jaehaerys inherited a divided and war-weary kingdom. Over the years, the king made decisions and decrees both merciful, ruthless, shrewd, and (sometimes) emotional – yet more often than not had the right of it. His many advisors did not always see eye to eye with the king (particularly a long dispute with his Hand and step-father Rogar Baratheon regarding the king’s unilateral marriage to Alysanne), but there nearly always remained a mutual respect and understanding.
Regular ‘progresses’ throughout the Seven Kingdoms helped ingratiate Jaehaerys and his Queen to the many proud houses (both major and minor). Setting off from the capital, these long marches would see the royals visit lands as far as Winterfell and the Wall.
The Conciliator is remembered for many great deeds, but his legacy is almost always one of thoughtful, wise rule. Rarely rash, Jaehaerys would always consider the paths before him before acting. Yet he was not like his father Aenys, who had tended to be indecisive and eventually lost the throne to his ruthless brother. In the end, Jaehaerys I deserves his place as one of, perhaps even the greatest Targaryen king.
Also known as the Sea Snake, Corlys Velaryon is the most legendary figure in a once great house. Lord of the Tides, husband to a Targaryen princess, Hand to a Queen, a Regent following civil war – Corlys held many titles and took part in many campaigns and adventures over his seventy-nine years. This is not just a tale of Lord Corlys, but also of a house that could once be considered second to only the Targaryens in Westeros (with whom they shared a bond to Old Valyria).
Since Aegon conquered the Seven Kingdoms, the Velaryons of Driftmark had made up the spine of the royal fleet. Keen sailors, their naval prowess and thirst for adventure brought great wealth and power to the house. Aboard his famous ship (from which his moniker comes), the Sea Snake made many voyages across the known world – sailing as far as Yi Ti, Asshai, and Qarth. These trips made him and his family very rich.
He endured much hardship during the Dance of Dragons (including a stint in the Black Cells). However he came out the other side and served on the small council and later regent for two further kings. Even his rumored bastard sons found great renown of their own, with Addam a dragonrider and Alyn Oakenfist making numerous long voyages of his own.
House Velaryon is now but a shadow of its former self. Though they still remain excellent seafarers, other – richer – powers have surpassed them on the naval front. With the death of the dragon kings, they no longer hold a favored position in the royal court. Still, while the house may slip under the tides, the legend of the Sea Snake will be told and retold for years to come.
Ser Duncan the Tall
From Flea Bottom to Lord Commander of the Kingsguard, few have experienced a rise as meteoric as Ser Duncan the Tall (or Dunk as he was known for many years) – and all while remaining true to knightly and chivalrous values. Serving as a squire for an old knight on his way to the Tourney at Ashford, his master’s death left Dunk to go it alone. Along the way he met a young boy named Egg – who he took for an orphan – and made him his squire. In these days, tourneys served as ways for lords to further their own power (through combat and diplomacy) while hedge knights, men-at-arms, and other simple solders saw it as their chance for glory or, more realistically, the offer of steady pay from those in need of a good sword.
To cut a long story very short, Egg was actually Prince Aegon Targaryen (the fourth son of a fourth son), Duncan survived combat against Aerion Targaryen (though another prince perished), and he ended up taking on Egg as squire, to pursue the life of a hedge knight in order to better educate the young princeling to the ways of the world. Together, they had a great many adventures – including involvement in a dispute between rival houses (in typical hedge knight fashion) and becoming embroiled in the Second Blackfyre Rebellion. We could spend weeks recounting the journeys of Dunk and Egg, but you can check out A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms for more on this strange duo.
Eventually, after the young Egg was named Aegon V (the fifteenth Targaryen to sit on the Iron Throne), Duncan was named to the Kingsguard – later rising to the rank of Lord Commander. He helped put down rebellions and served alongside the king he had known for many years. Sadly, they both passed during the tragedy of Summerhall. Yet the great deeds of Ser Duncan remain among the foremost examples of what knighthood should be.
Robert Baratheon (and Other Rebels)
After hundreds of years, the end of the dragons came swiftly (thought not without cause). The reign of Aerys II Targaryen (known to most as the Mad King) was as troublesome as you would expect with a moniker like that. Eventually, it was the actions of his beloved son and heir Rhaegar that precipitated the events surrounding the king’s collapse. In the end, both father and son lay dead and Robert I Baratheon took the Iron Throne – ushering in a new age for the Seven Kingdoms. But we’ve recounted the events and history of Robert’s Rebellion before. For now, we’ll take a look at some of the specific ‘rebels’ who played major roles in the struggle.
The first is, of course, Robert Baratheon himself. Robert typified the Baratheon name with a loud, boisterous personality, fondness for drink (and women), long black hair and beard, and renown as a fearsome warrior. In love, or at the very least infatuated with Lyanna Stark – he was betrothed to be married to her. However she was stolen away by Rhaegar. After demanding she be returned, Stark’s eldest brother and father were burned alive by the Mad King. When the king then ordered the heads of Robert himself (and the remaining Stark) brought to him, the rebellion began in earnest.
Robert was deemed the face of the rebellion thanks to his position as leader of his house and the Baratheon’s historical links by marriage to the Targaryens. He fought with fierce abandon, only losing one battle. After killing Rhaegar in single combat at the Trident, victory was all but assured.
The untimely death of Lyanna however hit Robert hard, and he entered a politically arranged marriage with Cersei Lannister instead – a union that was never happy. Since winning the Iron Throne, Robert takes solace in drinking, feasting, and women – with little interest in ruling the Seven Kingdoms he fought so hard for.
Of course it wasn’t just Robert who brought about the Mad King’s end. At his side was Eddard Stark, the newly minted Lord of Winterfell following the death of his father and elder brother. Boyhood best-friends, the two were raised together in the Vale under the foster-ship of Jon Arryn. Eddard, or Ned to his friends and family, had saved Robert and his forces during the Battle of the Bells before the royalists could capture him. Though they briefly fell out over the brutality of the ensuing sack of King’s Landing, they were reunited in grief upon Lyanna’s death. After this, ‘Ned’ returned to the North and took up his seat in Winterfell. Jon Arryn on the other hand remained in the capital to serve Robert as Hand of the King. He served diligently and wisely for many years, though his recent passing calls into question what will be next for the crown.
We’d be remiss if we didn’t mention Stannis Baratheon as well. Robert’s younger (and middle) brother, Lord Stannis’ deeds during the Rebellion are not as well known – though no less important. Left to hold the seat of House Baratheon – Storm’s End – Stannis was besieged throughout most of the campaign. Left without aid, he, his family, and his garrison were close to starvation until a lone smuggler slipped through the blockade with onions (among other food, as he is keen to mention). It is understandable why the tales focus on the glamor of battle and single combat, but had the Baratheons lost their home the result may have been very different. Following the rebellion, Stannis served as Master of Ships. During the Greyjoy’s rebellion, he smashed the Iron Fleet – paving the way for the land invasion of the Iron Islands. While he has proved himself an excellent military commander and just lord, his serious personality and rigid code have limited his popularity with both other nobles and the general populace.
And last but not least, we have Tywin Lannister. While the other rebels toiled in battlefields or under siege, the wealthy and pragmatic Lord Tywin remained at Casterly Rock – ignoring summons from both Robert and King Aerys. He had previously served as Hand of the King until a falling out, while his eldest son was currently a member of the Kingsguard – sworn to defend the Targaryen dynasty. When victory looked certain for Robert after the Trident, Tywin finally acted. Riding to King’s Landing with his army, he professed loyalty to the crown. Once the gates were opened to him, his men sacked the city and killed Rhaegar’s wife and children (the boy was currently heir to the throne). His son, Ser Jaime, turned on his king and stabbed him in the back. Tywin then held the city until the other rebels arrived. Since Robert took the throne, the Lannisters have only grown in prominence – due to his daughters position as queen and the crown’s ever increasing debt to his family.
Master of Whisperers
The last of our famous individuals is not an individual at all, but rather a title held by many throughout the history of the Seven Kingdoms. As one of the members of the small council (responsible for advising the king), the master of whisperers is the most enigmatic and mysterious. The crown’s spymaster, this person is responsible for keeping the king or queen informed about going ons both at court and throughout the kingdom as a whole. Often mistrusted by other lords (especially if the position is held by one of low birth), the master of whisperers nevertheless usually proves to be the most adaptable, cunning, and dangerous of the kings advisors.
There have been many that served in this position throughout the years, so we will only mention a few. Two of the more well known come to us from the tumultuous Dance of the Dragons (the Targaryen civil war). Lady Misery (true name: Mysaria) served as spymaster for the blacks during their short lived rule over the capital. A dancer from Lys, also known as ‘the White Worm’, perhaps her most infamous move was hiring the assassins Blood and Cheese. At the behest of Prince Daemon, this butcher and rat-catcher killed Prince Jaehaerys Targaryen.
Larys Strong, also known as ‘Clubfoot’, served on the other side of the war as spymaster for the greens. A quiet man who preferred to listen, he spoke only when necessary though his words and plans always carried great weight. He disappeared for much of the civil war – and only afterwards did the true breadth of his plans come to light. When the blacks were about to take King’s Landing, he arranged for the escape of King Aegon II and his two remaining children. Clubfoot however, remained in the capital. Thought it cannot be proven, many suspect he had a hand in the unrest that troubled, and eventually exiled, Queen Rhaenyra. After the war he continued his plots, including involvement in the poisoning of King Aegon II. Once the conspirators were tried, he chose to die rather than be sent to the Wall – and thus ended his story.
Bloodraven (true name: Brynden Rivers) was instrumental in defeating multiple Blackfyre Rebellions (himself being a Great Bastard that remained loyal to the crown). A mysterious and dangerous individual, he was eventually sent to the Wall where we served as Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch.
Finally, this brings us to Lord Varys (known by many as the Spider). A eunuch from Essos, he has served as master of whisperers for both the Mad King and Robert. With a network of spies throughout the Seven Kingdoms (and beyond), the Spider likely knows what you’re having for breakfast before you do.
The Houses, Groups, and Other Powers
Houses may fall, orders may be disgraced, and empires may vanish into nothing, but their impact remains for centuries to come.
Children of the Forest
We start in ages past, with the enigmatic children. Resembling young humans, the children of the forest are clearly a completely different race – in many ways representing nature come to life. Before men ever stepped foot on Westeros, the children called it home – living in clans throughout the forests and weirwoods of the old world.
Eventually the First Men arrived, and their subsequent destruction of the forests drew the ire of the children – leading to war for thousands of years. Finally, upon the Isle of Faces, a Pact was drawn up and peace was achieved. The two races fought back the White Walkers during the Long Night and thrived together during the fabled Age of Heroes.
But men would come again to Westeros – this time the Andals. While the First Men and children fought together, the Andals conquered much of the continent (save the North). With fewer weirwood trees than ever before, the children of the forest began to slip away – first from the lands of the south, then from the north, and then from all memory.
A once legendary order, the Night’s Watch was founded after the Long Night with one aim – to safeguard the realms of men. From the towering Wall across the northern border of the Seven Kingdoms, they have persisted in this aim for thousands of years. Though the White Walkers and otherworldly beasts are long gone (if they even existed in the first place), the order have long busied themselves fighting against the tribal wildlings who live north of the Wall. Once considered an honorable order, many of those who ‘take the black’ these days are criminals choosing a lifetime of servitude over execution or maiming. Though some are second or third (or bastard) sons of lords, some in the Watch have rightly cultivated a less than savory reputation in recent years. Once garrisoning nineteen castles across the Wall, the dwindling order can now only man three – Eastwatch-by-the-Sea, the Shadow Tower, and Castle Black – its headquarters.
The Night’s Watch is divided into three orders – all under the purview of the elected Lord Commander (currently Jeor Mormont). The builders are responsible, as you might expect, for maintaining both the Wall and the remaining castles. The stewards hold a wide range of different responsibilities – largely to help keep the Night’s Watch functioning day to day. Within the stewards you’ll find those who cook, farm, smith, tailor clothes, assist officers (such as the maester or even Lord Commander himself), and more. Without the builders and the stewards, the Watch would have long collapsed upon itself – or with the Wall and ruined castles on top of them.
Finally, there are the rangers. They are the main fighting force of the Night’s Watch. Led by the First Ranger, these men defend the Wall from atop and below. Many also range to the north into the haunted forest and beyond. Here they fight wildlings and survive in the snows for months on end. As the strength of the Watch wanes however, these patrols are fewer and fewer.
Old Empire of Ghis
Changing gears, we find ourselves far to the east in Essos – in what is now known as Slaver’s Bay. Currently home to the three main slave cities, it was once the heart of the Old Empire of Ghis. Known by its harpy emblem, the empire was perhaps the preeminent power in the known world at its zenith. From the capital of Old Ghis, the Ghiscari constructed great pyramids, boasted powerful legions of soldiers, and conquered lands as far as the Basilisk Isles and parts of Sothoryos.
No empire lasts forever though – and the reign of the Ghiscari ended in much the same way other powers in our stories did…dragons. Once the Valyrians discovered these beasts, the Freehold rose quickly to rival Ghis. Though they fought hard, their legions were no match for dragonfire and the empire was no more. Today, the cities of Astapor, Yunkai, and Mereen are all that remains of Old Ghis – wealthy, but a shadow of what once was.
We come now to one of the most legendary orders in the Seven Kingdoms. Consisting of seven men, the Kingsguard are responsible for the safety of the king (or queen) and royal family. Founded by Aegon the Conqueror ten years after the conquest, its members are often among both the best fighters and examples of chivalric or knightly virtue throughout the kingdoms. In short, the Kingsguard is the apex of what any knight can achieve in Westeros. Known by their white cloaks, brothers of the Kingsguard serve for life, are forbidden from holding lands, taking a wife, or having children – much like their brothers in black. For a complete history of the lives and glories of Kingsguard members, I suggest you consult the White Book held in the orders headquarters – White Sword Tower. We will however, explore the deeds of a few storied members.
First up, there is Corlys Velaryon. Name sound familiar? The first Lord Commander of the Kingsguard was the famed Sea Snake’s great-great-uncle and namesake. Then, there was the hedge knight Dunk or – as we know him now – Ser Duncan the Tall. You can read more about his life above.
Going back a bit, to the Dance of Dragons, we come to Ser Criston Cole. Once a favorite of Rhaenyra Targaryen before the civil war, a falling out led to him aligning with the greens and prospective king Aegon II. Once King Viserys died, the small council met to determine who would take the Iron Throne next (you can read more about the Dance of Dragons below). When the old master of coin Lyman Beesbury spoke in favor of Rhaenyra, Ser Criston opened his throat where he sat. He later put the crown on Aegon’s head himself – thus earning the moniker ‘the Kingmaker’. He later died during the bloody battle called the ‘Butcher’s Ball’.
Next we have perhaps one of the most famous men ever to wear a white cloak, at least in recent times. Ser Arthur Dayne (the Sword of the Morning) served under the Mad King – a cruel and unstable ruler, yet the Kingsguard must always remain loyal. He was the closest friend of well-loved Prince Rhaegar and viewed by friend and foe alike as the finest fighter and knight in all the kingdoms. With his famous family sword ‘Dawn’ (and a second blade if some accounts are true), he earned his renown time and time again. Sadly he fell near the end of Robert’s Rebellion. Facing off alongside Ser Gerold Hightower against Ned Stark and five companions who had come to retrieve Stark’s sister, both Kingsguard fell in battle – with only Eddard Stark and Howland Reed surviving.
Finally, we come to two knights who remain on the Kingsguard to this day. Ser Barristan Selmy (also known as Barristan the Bold) is the current Lord Commander – having served under three kings – Jaehaerys II, Aerys II (the Mad King), and – after being granted a pardon – Robert Baratheon. His accomplishments are many, with his slaying of Maelys Blackfyre in single combat the stroke that ended the last rebellion and ushered Barristan into the ranks of the Kingsguard. After being wounded on the Trident, Robert’s respect for his opposing warrior was so great he commanded his own maester to heal Selmy before granting a pardon and naming him to his Kingsguard after the war.
The most infamous member of the Kingsguard, perhaps in all known history, is none other than Ser Jaime Lannister – otherwise known as the Kingslayer. The youngest Kingsguard member in history at his induction (fifteen years), Jaime was and is considered among the best fighters alive. Though some whisper his rise was a move by the king to spite his Hand, Tywin Lannister (as members lose all rights to titles and land), there was no doubting the boy’s skill and courage. However when the days of the dragons looked to be over and Lannister forces sacked King’s Landing, Jaime did not remain true to his vows. He slew the king he was sworn to protect – something no Kingsguard has ever done before. He remained in the order following Robert’s rise, though throughout the Seven Kingdoms both nobles and smallfolk always whisper ‘Kingslayer’ behind his back.
The Golden Company (and Other Sellswords)
While those in the Kingsguard generally exemplify knightly values, fighting for a purpose greater than themselves, there are those who would rather use their talents for coin. Sellswords, mercenaries…whatever you call them, these soldiers of fortune are common throughout the known world. Some work alone, taking contracts where they can from lords high and low. Others however decide to join up with one of the many ‘free companies’, mostly found in Essos across the Narrow Sea.
Essos is a big place, and with everyone from the Free Cities to the powers of Slaver’s Bay jockeying for position, conflict is commonplace. Many cities have grown rich off the back of trade or other, non-martial, pursuits and wish to protect or expand their interests. Though they often have their own garrison or soldiers, these household or city guards are not enough to wage war – especially when divided between the many magisters of Pentos or nobles of Lys. Instead, rich cities hire the services of mercenary companies – to fight over everything from the Disputed Lands between Lys, Myr, and Tyrosh or to resolve family squabbles. There is no shortage of opportunity for blood and profit – thus the number of companies is too many to list here.
A couple worth mentioning however are the Second Sons and the Brave Companions. The Second Sons are one of the more powerful and well known companies. Though not infallible, they have won some great victories (while also having fled the field in the past). The Brave Companions however are known by their cruel and ruthless reputation. Little better than brigands, they are sometimes called upon for particularly heinous acts those hiring them would rather not be directly associated with.
One group however stands above the rest, and they are the Golden Company. Founded by Aegor Rivers (a Great Bastard of Blackfyre fame, better known as ‘Bittersteel’), the Golden Company are large, expensive, and, unlike most other companies, trustworthy. Claiming to have never broken a contract, they have turned the tide in many a battle throughout the years. Though they cannot win every fight (the aforementioned slaying of Maelys by Barristan Selmy being a prime example), there is little doubt that the Golden Company are the best and most disciplined free company in the known world.
Speaking of Aegor Rivers, we find ourselves on the topic of bastards. Also known as natural sons or daughters, these are children whose parents are not married. Many high-lords (and even kings) have bastard children. Looked down upon in all the Seven Kingdoms (except for Dorne), bastard children are not afforded the same rights as trueborn issue – though they can be legitimized and granted a ‘true’ name. Bastard children are given a different last name depending on the kingdom of their birth. In the North they are named ‘Snow’, the Riverlands – ‘Rivers’, the Vale – ‘Stone’, the Iron Islands – ‘Pyke’, the Crownlands – ‘Waters’, the Stormlands – ‘Storm’, the Westerlands – ‘Hill’, the Reach – ‘Flowers’, and in Dorne – ‘Sand’.
Despite Westerosi society looking down them, many bastard children have gone on to be remembered – for deeds both extraordinary and, in some cases, heinous. We won’t even touch on the many ‘Great Bastards’ that tell the story of the Blackfyre Rebellions (which you can read about below), but there are many others to mention. During the Dance of Dragons and beyond, the rumored bastard sons of the Sea Snake (Corlys Velaryon) earned great renown. Addam was a dragonrider before he perished in combat, and remained true to the oaths he swore during the war. His brother Alyn became almost as renowned a seafarer as his purported father Corlys. On the other hand, the Two Betrayers (Ulf the Sot and Hugh Hammer), were infamous dragonriders who betrayed the blacks during the war and became well known and hated for their cruelty in Tumbletown.
There are many others worth mentioning (even noble lords like Eddard Stark have a bastard child, while Robert Baratheon is rumored to have several). However we’ll end with Orys Baratheon. Thought to be the half brother of Aegon the Conqueror, he defeated the last Storm King in combat, and by taking the fallen king’s daughter to wife became the founder of House Baratheon of Storm’s End. He served Aegon as the first Hand of the King (and most trusted advisor), fighting for many more years in the wars against Dorne.
Whether the heartbeat of a nation or uncharted lands, the continents of Westeros and Essos have no shortage of famous locations.
Beyond the Wall
While secret places remain throughout the Seven Kingdoms, it’s safe that say that the geography of the land has been rather well catalogued by the maesters of the Citadel. There is however one region of Westeros beyond the kingdoms that remains a mystery to many…the lands beyond the Wall. Cut off from the North by the three hundred mile ice structure, this is a savage and unforgiving region – home to tribal folk and (perhaps) worse.
The wildlings (or free folk as they like to call themselves) are the main denizens of the region. They live in disparate tribes that hate each other almost as much as those of the Seven Kingdom. Only coming together once in a few generations when a ‘King-Beyond-the-Wall’ rises to power – they inevitably fall to forces to the south. Though they often make their way over or around the Wall to pillage farms and villages in the North, these incursions are pushed back without too many losses. The wildlings survive by hunting or fishing what they can, wearing furs to keep themselves warm.
Cold and snowy, even during the summer months, the lands beyond the Wall nevertheless do offer some variety. Directly north of the Wall is the aptly named ‘Haunted Forest’. Here, rangers of the Night’s Watch often come into conflict with small wildling parties. Forced to camp out for months on end, their only solace is the small ‘keep’ of a reprehensible wildling named Craster – who allows rangers to stay in return for gifts.
Beyond the forest, we find the Frostfangs to the west. A vast mountain range, some of the hardiest wildlings make their home here. Largely barren, there is however the hidden valley of Thenn somewhere in the region. To the east of the forest, the town of Hardhome can be found. The only recognized population center north of the Wall, this fishing village sits on the end of Storrold’s Point.
Lastly, we come to the Lands of Always Winter beyond both mountains and forest. An uncharted frozen wasteland, we know next to nothing about the horrors that lurk here. In ages past, it is said the White Walkers came from these lands – though of course there is no way to know if this is truth or simply a tale told to frighten children.
Returning to the Seven Kingdoms, we find ourselves in the North. Like with Dorne and the Iron Islands, the North is somewhat independent in culture (and location) from the kingdoms of central Westeros. Vast and sparsely populated, some say it is as large as the other six kingdoms put together (though this is an exaggeration). It is huge however, stretching from the Wall to the Neck (on the border of the Riverlands).
Besides the famous Wall (of which we have already talked about plenty), the North is home to famous locations such as Winterfell (the seat of power for House Stark), White Harbor (the region’s only city), as well as numerous castles such as the Dreadfort, Moat Cailin, and Last Hearth. The lords who call the North home are proud and loyal, placing great emphasis on hardiness, family, combat, and belief in the Old Gods.
Speaking of the Old Gods, the North is unique in the Seven Kingdoms in keeping to these beliefs. Most of what few weirwood trees remain are found here, and most northern lords, ladies, and smallfolk alike pray here as their ancestors did before them. Descended from the First Men as opposed to the Andals, the religious beliefs of the North are the most evident example of this heritage.
Currently ruled by Eddard Stark (Lord of Winterfell and Warden of the North), the North has experienced peace and calm during most of King Robert’s reign. Far removed from the politics and backstabbing of the south, the people of the land simply look to store what food and drink they can before the first snows fall. As the Starks say, “winter is coming” – and one must always be ready.
Before we continue making our way south through the Seven Kingdoms, let us look at a lagoon across the Narrow Sea – where we find the most famous, enigmatic, and (arguably) powerful of the nine Free Cities. We can trace its origins to the apex of the Valyrian Freehold. Unlike the other city-states (which were all colonies of the Freehold), Braavos was founded by escaped slaves. Remaining a secret for over a century (and hidden for even longer), by the time Braavos announced itself to the world, it was ready to make its mark.
The wealth and power of Braavos is not based off military might, but finance. Located closer to the Seven Kingdoms than most cities in Essos, trade is the city’s lifeblood. Ships from King’s Landing, White Harbor, Gulltown, other Free Cities, Qarth, and beyond can be found throughout the vast docks and harbors of Braavos. A melting pot home to visitors and residents from across the world, you can find nearly anything you want in the markets, shops, and taverns of the bastard daughter of Valyria (as the city is sometimes known).
Braavos is ruled by a Sealord – who is chosen by other power-brokers in the city. However, the true power in Braavos isn’t a person – but a bank…the Iron Bank to be exact. Lending money to cities, kings, pretenders, and more, the Iron Bank is one of the wealthiest institutions in the entire known world. But where they offer opportunity or in some cases a crown, failure to pay back what you owe will only end badly. “The Iron Bank will have its due” is a common saying…for good reason.
Braavos is also home to the Faceless Men, a mysterious and (dare we say) cultish society of assassins. Using ancient and forgotten magics, the Faceless Men nearly always get their target. While they may cost a fortune to hire, no target is off limits – for all men must die.
The largest castle in the Seven Kingdoms, a bleak ruin, and the site of some of the country’s most momentous events – all these describe Harrenhal in equal measure. Located in the Riverlands, Harrenhal is at the center of the center of Westeros. Commissioned by Harren the Black (King of the Isles and the Rivers), his great creation was meant to put all other castles in Westeros to shame – and it did, for a couple weeks at least. Unfortunately for Harren, the castle was completed the day Aegon the Conqueror landed to the south. Convinced the massive walls would protect him from assault, Harren and his sons remained in the castle. While it’s true Aegon’s army couldn’t hope to breach the defenses, he didn’t need them to. Aegon flew his great beast Balerion the Dread high in the sky and unleashed dragonfire upon the castle. Harren and his entire line roasted alive, and Harrenhal has stood since as a half destroyed and charred ruin.
The lands it governs remain rich and plentiful, yet the ruined castle is simply too large to effectively garrison. Of the five great towers, most sit empty. Add in the rumors of a curse on Harrenhal (all houses that hold the castle soon fall to ruin), and what should be the jewel of the Seven Kingdoms is a haunted white elephant most prefer to avoid.
That’s not to say nothing has happened at Harrenhal over the years – a famous battle between two dragons and their riders being a prime example. You can read more on that later however, for now we will turn to more recent history – to the spark that started a rebellion.
In the year before Robert’s Rebellion, a great tourney was held at Harrenhal. Larger than any for a generation, ‘Lord Whent’s great tournament’ saw nearly every major (and minor) lord flock to the Riverlands. Even King Aerys II (by then already earning his ‘Mad King’ moniker) and his beloved son and heir Rhaegar were there. Rumors persist to this day that Rhaegar was behind the formation of the tournament – perhaps so he could discuss the removal of his unpopular father from the Iron Throne. If this was the reason, it would explain why the Mad King was quick to travel himself – to stave off any talk of abdication.
For ten days, the nobles of Westeros feasted, drank, and fought with sword and lance. A mystery fighter going by the name the ‘Knight of the Laughing Tree’ won renown by defeating three lords who’s squires had bullied one Howland Reed – a crannogman and lord from the North. Believing the mystery knight to be Jaime Lannister (whom he had ordered back to the capital), Aerys wished him unmasked – but the Knight of the Laughing Tree disappeared, leaving only a shield behind. As the festivities continued, many a lord fell under the spell of Lady Ashara Dayne – a great beauty from Dorne, sister to Ser Arthur Dayne of the Kingsguard, and handmaiden to Princess Elia (Rhaegar’s wife).
But it is the joust we must conclude with. Many knights and lords won renown, but it was the popular Prince Rhaegar himself who stole the show. Defeating Brandon Stark, Arthur Dayne, and (in the final tilt) Barristan Selmy, the heir to the Iron Throne was the ultimate victor. He then did something no one would ever forget. Given the honor of bestowing a crown of blue roses upon his chosen queen of love and beauty, Rhaegar rode past his wife Elia and gave the crown to Lyanna Stark – then already betrothed to Robert Baratheon. A year later, and Rhaegar had purportedly kidnapped Lyanna – leading to the beginning of the end for the Targaryen dynasty. The seeds were sown however at Harrenhal – at the moment when he placed the crown in Lyanna’s lap and “all smiles died”.
The capital and beating heart of the Seven Kingdoms, King’s Landing is all at once opulent, messy, bustling, impressive, and dangerous. Founded by Aegon at the site of his original landing, the city has grown from a small fort to the most populous in all the Seven Kingdoms. Growing exponentially over the years, it’s safe to say the capital was not planned as such – with the mazy streets and unregulated sprawl very different than other, organized cities such as Oldtown.
Throughout the capital, one comes across famous sites like the Great Sept of Baelor where the High Septon leads the followers of the Faith of the Seven. The ruined Dragonpit once held the ‘pets’ the Targaryen’s were famous for. On the other hand, Flea Bottom is a convoluted slum where cutthroats, smugglers, and other disreputable individuals can be found alongside brothels and dingy taverns.
Just down the street, yet a world away, we find the Red Keep atop Aegon’s Hill. The massive castle is home to secret passages only the spiders know, numerous stately rooms for the various lords and advisors, Maegor’s Holdfast (a protected castle within a castle that includes the royal apartments), and, of course, the Iron Throne.
Situated in the Great Hall, the Iron Throne is made of the swords of Aegon’s enemies. From it, the King of the Andals, the Rhoynar, and the First Men and Protector of the Realm rules the Seven Kingdoms. An uncomfortable chair, the desire to sit the Iron Throne has nonetheless brought about more conflict, death, and glory than anything else since the Seven Kingdoms became one.
We end our tour with something a little different. A far cry from the bustle of King’s Landing or Braavos, the castle of Castamere in the Westerlands is now just a ruin – and without even a token garrison like at Harrenhal. How did this come to pass you ask?
House Reyne built Castamere after mining of gold and silver made them rich – almost as rich as House Lannister (the lords of the Westerlands). Under the leadership of Tytos Lannister – an amiable yet weak-willed man, the Reyne’s had little reason to fear their liege lords. Alongside the Tarbecks and others, the Reyne’s borrowed great sums of money from the Lannisters (knowing Tytos wouldn’t demand it back) as well as attempting to secure de facto lordship over Casterly Rock through marriage. The Reynes and Tarbecks grew in power while Tytos and the Lannisters strength waned.
After the final Blackfyre Rebellion had been put down, Tytos’ eldest son and heir (Tywin Lannister) had had enough. He demanded repayment of the loans while those unable to pay would send hostages to Casterly Rock. The Reynes and Tarbecks scoffed at this. Alas, Tywin was not his father.
Tarbeck Hall and its inhabitants fell first, and when the Reynes arrived to relieve their brethren, their army was beaten back to Castamere. Believing himself safe barricaded in the mine under the castle, Lord Reynard Reyne offered a conditional surrender to Tywin that included Lannister hostages being handed over. Instead, the Lannisters sealed the entrances and diverted a stream into the mine. After one night, there was silence – and no one ever came out again. The castle was set aflame and both Castamere and Tarbeck Hall remain as warnings to those who would defy the lion. The Lannisters were resurgent and Tywin himself was now a lord to be feared.
The events are best encapsulated in the song ‘The Rains of Castamere’, a haunting melody ending with the refrain “Yes now the rains weep o’er his hall, and not a soul to hear.”
Rebellion and conquest, victory and defeat – the tales of this world are written in heroism, blood, and betrayal.
A period of darkness of which little is known, the Long Night occurred during the Age of Heroes – a time following the pact between the children of the forest and the First Men. An era of myth and legend, it is hard to separate fact from fiction. What tales we do have go like this…
From the far north, in the Lands of Always Winter, there emerged the monstrous White Walkers. Raising the dead to fight for them, they swept southward driving all from their path. Tales tell of a ‘last hero’ who eventually got the assistance of the children in defeating the great evil. This, combined with the realization that the substance known as ‘dragonglass’ could harm the Walkers, resulted in the threat being vanquished. In the east, they talk of a great hero called Azor Ahai – who wielded a flaming blade known as Lightbringer to defeat the darkness. Whether this is a different version of the same tale or something completely unrelated is unknown.
What we do know happened however is that Bran the Builder helped construct the Wall and infused it with ancient magic. Cutting off the lands beyond from the rest of Westeros, it stands tall, always manned by the Night’s Watch. Though the vigil continues to this day, the ancient threat of the White Walkers and their undead servants would appear to be long past.
Doom of Valyria
We turn now back to the east, to the legendary Valyrian Freehold. After conquering the Old Empire of Ghis, the Valyrians and their dragons had pushed westward – founding what are now eight of the nine Free Cities as well as the citadel of Dragonstone, just off the coast of Westeros. They built roads throughout the continent, forged masterpieces of weaponry and architecture, and practiced powerful magics. Truly, it is doubtful we will ever see such an empire once again. And yet, it would all be gone in an instant.
While details are sketchy, we have a pretty good idea what destroyed the Valyrians. Situated upon the Fourteen Flames (a vast range of volcanic mountains), the fires were responsible for the rise of the Freehold (giving them dragons and allowing them to create weapons of Valyrian steel). What caused the mountains and earth to react so violently is unknown. Some say it was the gods punishing the Valyrians for pushing too far into magics that should’ve been forgotten or digging too deep into the seven hells – while others blame infighting and spells gone awry. Regardless, all the Fourteen Flames spewed molten rock into the sky while earthquakes decimated the peninsula upon which their great city sat.
Dragons and Valyrians alike burned alive, while the city was destroyed and the peninsula fractured into smaller islands – the waters that resulted named the Smoking Sea for obvious reasons. After the Doom, the rest of Essos also erupted – this time into a mad struggle for power and position. The Free Cities, now independent, jockeyed for influence and wealth. Volantis especially considered itself the heir to the Freehold, though the others did not share this opinion. Dothraki rode further and further into lands that had once been Valyrian, while most of those dragonlords that did survive were soon killed in conflicts that resulted from ill-advised attempts to regain power throughout Essos.
Today, Old Valyria is a ruin best avoided. The destroyed city remains as a reminder of what once was, while rumors of stone men and much worse keep most sailors and adventurers away.
The Valyrian Freehold was gone…but not all who shared its blood had perished yet. After a prophecy warned them of the impending Doom, a single house took all they owned (including dragons) and settled on the outpost of Dragonstone. There they would wait for over one hundred years…until eventually all the west would know the name ‘Targaryen’.
The following is an excerpt from ‘History and Culture of the Seven Kingdoms’
Having escaped the fires of the Doom by settling on Dragonstone, the last remaining Valyrian family kept to themselves for nearly 100 years. Their house was led by Aegon Targaryen, who had the support of his sister-wives (Visenya and Rhaenys), a small amount of men (about 1,600)…and three fully grown dragons ridden by the three Targaryens. While it was expected he might attempt to go back east and reclaim some of the lost greatness of Valyria, Aegon instead turned his gaze to the west. Here was a large land, divided amongst seven different rulers. Seeing an opportunity, he took his forces to the mouth of Blackwater Rush in 2 BC (before conquest) and made landfall – beginning his invasion of Westeros.
With the support of a few nearby houses, Aegon and his forces quickly defeated many of the lords in what are now the Crownlands. He then sent his armies further afield, to stake his claim on Westeros. His fleet was defeated near Gulltown (in the Vale), however Visenya later burned the Arryn’s ships (rulers of the Vale) with her dragon, Vhagar.
Perhaps one of the most well known events of the Conquest occurred at Harren the Black’s massive castle of Harrenhal, which had just been completed. Scoffing at Aegon’s forces, Harren remained in his castle, content to watch the Targaryen army smash itself on the strong walls. After sending a final warning, Aegon (atop his dragon, Balerion) took to the skies and let loose the mighty power of dragonfire on Harrenhal. The stone melted while Harren and all his sons burned alive within the walls he had built. With House Hoare gone and the support of many of the riverlords (including House Tully of Riverrun, who would be named Lords Paramount), the Riverlands now belonged to Aegon.
In the Stormlands, Aegon’s general (Orys Baratheon) defeated the last Storm King, Argilac the Arrogant. Baratheon took Argilac’s daughter as his wife and claimed his castle (the fabled Storm’s End) for himself. Aegon later named Baratheon Lord Paramount of the Stormlands.
Perhaps the biggest turning point in the Conquest occurred at what would forever be named the Field of Fire. The King of the Reach (Mern Gardener) and the King of the Rock (Loren Lannister) combined their forces and with about 55,000 men set off to take down this newcomer. As their army began to turn the tide against the Targaryens, Aegon and both his sisters mounted their dragons, decimating the army with fire and killing King Mern and his entire line. The Lannisters bent the knee and kept dominion over the Westerlands, while the Reach was given to the stewards of Highgarden – House Tyrell.
Only three kingdoms remained – the North, the Vale, and Dorne. Torrhen Stark marched his army south, planning to fight to preserve his kingdom’s independence. Wanting to avoid another Field of Fire however, he decided against it and yielded the North to Aegon – earning Torrhen Stark the moniker ‘the King Who Knelt’. In the Vale, the Arryn’s remained inside their tall and impregnable castle high in the mountains; the Eyrie. So Visenya flew her dragon straight up to the castle’s courtyard. The boy king, Ronnel Arryn, yielded to her in return for a ride on the dragon – a request that was granted. Dorne however, proved difficult. The Dornish disappeared into the harsh environment, abandoning castles, and refusing to meet the Targaryens in open battle. Despite strong words from Rhaenys, Meria Martell (the princess of Dorne) refused to back down – and Dorne remained independent for the time being.
Aegon’s Conquest ended on the beginning of the year 1 AC in Oldtown (then the largest city in Westeros) and the home of the Faith of the Seven. After considering what would happen if he opposed the Targaryens, the High Septon blessed Aegon in the light of the Seven and proclaimed him Aegon of House Targaryen, the First of His Name, King of the Andals, the Rhoynar, and the First Men, Lord of the Seven Kingdoms, and Protector of the Realm.
Dance of the Dragons
The following is an excerpt from ‘History and Culture of the Seven Kingdoms’
In 129 AC, a dying king left orders for his first daughter (Rhaenyra, who he had named heir years prior) to be given the crown – despite having a son from a later marriage. When he died however, the small council (the king’s advisors) decided to give the crown to his son, Prince Aegon. When one spoke out against this, Ser Criston Cole of the Kingsguard killed him. Aegon II was soon crowned, while on Dragonstone Rhaenyra plotted with her own council. And so began the Dance of the Dragons.
Both sides (the blacks led by Rhaenyra and the greens led by Aegon) had dragons and knew they had to use them. The first dragon casualty occurred over Shipbreaker Bay when Rhaenyra’s son Lucerys and his dragon were killed by the large Vhagar (Visenya’s dragon from the conquest over a century ago). In response, two men known today only as Blood and Cheese broke into the Red Keep and killed Prince Jaehaerys (Aegon’s son) in front of his mother.
The war spiraled out of control, with brothers killing brothers and dragons killing dragons. Significantly, Aegon II (the green’s king) was wounded and thought delirious and near death. Then, in one of the most well-known moments of the war, Vhagar and his rider (the one eyed) Aemond met their end at the hand of Rhaenyra’s husband, Daemon near the ruined castle of Harrenhal. The Battle Above the Gods Eye it was known, Prince Daemon leapt from his dragon and drove his sword through Aemond’s one good eye. A split second later, dragons and riders smashed into the water. Both dragons were dead, with Aemond’s corpse still attached to the saddle – while Daemon was never found (though he surely perished). There was to be further harm to the Targaryen’s stock of dragons later in the war, as angry citizens of King’s Landing stormed the Dragonpit, killing many of the beasts.
The war eventually ended on Dragonstone when Rhaenyra was betrayed and captured. Coming face to face with a hurt but still very much alive Aegon, the king had her burned alive while her son watched. However, Aegon II soon died himself and it was Rhaenyra’s son that would be crowned – known as Aegon III. Perhaps the most enduring legacy of the Dance was the loss of most of the family’s dragons. While they continued to breed them for a few years, the dragons got smaller and weaker. Eventually, in the year 153 AC, the last dragon died – now forever gone from this world.
The following is an excerpt from ‘History and Culture of the Seven Kingdoms’
It wasn’t long before war gripped the Seven Kingdoms again. On his deathbed, King Aegon IV decided to legitimize all his bastard sons – which unsurprisingly muddied the waters when it came to succession. After a tense few years, rebellion broke out in 196 AC. Known as the Blackfyre Rebellion, it was named for the legendary sword, which had been given to Daemon Waters (the king’s bastard son and claimant to the Iron Throne – now known as Daemon I Blackfyre).
The entire country was wrapped up in the conflict, while the many bastard sons fought across both sides; some supporting Daemon, while others remained loyal to the king, Daeron II. The rebellion was ended at the Battle of the Redgrass Field. Daemon Blackfyre fought bravely, however it was another bastard that ended his claim. An arrow, fired by Brynden Rivers (known as Bloodraven), found its way to Daemon. Aegor Rivers (called Bittersteel) escaped to Essos, founding the Golden Company (a mercenary group) and keeping the seeds of rebellion alive.
Further Blackfyre rebellions took place over the years. The second ended before it even began, when Daemon II Blackfyre was unmasked after donning a ‘fiddler’ disguise during a tourney (an event the famous knight Ser Duncan the Tall could tell you more about). Bittersteel launched the third rebellion himself. Though he was captured and sent to the Wall, the Golden Company promptly rescued him en route. He tried again later, this time with Daemon III in tow. Ser Duncan slew the pretender and Bittersteel once more retreated across the sea with his company. A year before the last rebellion, King Aegon V, his son, and many of his supporters (including Ser Duncan) were killed during a great fire at Summerhall – a family tragedy that would affect the Targaryens for years to come. Moving on with a heavy heart, it all ended in 260 AC during the War of the Ninepenny Kings. In it, Ser Barristan Selmy single handedly killed Maelys the Monstrous – ending the Blackfyre line once and for all.
If you enjoyed the tales of Aegon’s Conquest, the Dance of Dragons, and the Blackfyre Rebellions, you can read more about the history and culture of the Seven Kingdoms HERE.
Our final tale comes to us from the reign of Robert Baratheon. After taking the Iron Throne and ending the Targaryen dynasty (you can read about the famous rebels involved above), the Seven Kingdoms knew peace for a time. Yet six years after his ascension, the new king and his allies faced a threat from within.
We haven’t spoken much of the Iron Islands. After the fall of Harren the Black, the Ironborn were forced to abandon ideas of conquest on the mainland. Swearing fealty to the Targaryens, the denizens of these barren rocks (led now by House Greyjoy) contented themselves with occasionally reaving and pirating the coastal cities and trading ships along the western coast of the continent. No longer kings, their power had waned significantly over the centuries.
Yet with Robert, Balon Greyjoy (head of his house) saw an opportunity. He believed the Seven Kingdoms to be divided, and if it came to it, Robert would not have the full support of the great lords (many of whom fought for the Mad King). The Greyjoys had taken no part in the Rebellion (thus losing no men or ships) and had recently taken to strengthening their Iron Fleet. For whatever else the Iron Islanders are, it cannot be denied that they are among the best seafaring warriors in the known world. So Balon had a crown of driftwood placed upon his head – and was named ‘King of the Iron Islands’.
The first salvo came at Lannisport in the shadow of Casterly Rock. Planned by Balon’s brother Euron, the Greyjoys burned the Lannister fleet at anchor – including the flagship of Lord Tywin himself (though he was not on it at the time). The next attack was at Seagard – though in this instance the Greyjoys fared much worse and Balon lost one of his three sons. Despite this, the Ironborn remained confident in their strength at sea and lack of support for Robert.
In this however, Balon had miscalculated. Stannis Baratheon, Robert’s middle brother who served as Master of Ships and Lord of Dragonstone, rallied the royal fleet and sailed it to meet up with the Redwynes (a powerful house in the Reach who commanded one of the largest single navies in the Seven Kingdoms). It appeared, in the end, that Robert’s rule and power was more secure than Balon thought. With this force, Stannis smashed the Iron Fleet – paving the way for a land invasion of the islands themselves.
Stannis took Great Wyk, Barristan Selmy took Old Wyk, while Eddard Stark and Robert himself landed on Pyke – home of the Greyjoys. As royal forces breached the wall of the eponymous castle, Balon lost his second son. Led by Thoros of Myr wielding his flaming sword, with Jorah Mormont close behind (and others such as Ser Jaime Lannister following), the army rushed through the breach and overpowered the Ironborn defenders.
Balon was forced to swear allegiance to Robert, while his one surviving son Theon was taken to be raised as a ward (or hostage, depending on your point of view) by Lord Stark. The Seven Kingdoms were again at peace. Now, nine years have passed and King Robert still reigns.
An End to Our Tale
Now, once and for all, we have reached the end of our journey. From ages long passed into legend to the triumphs and tribulations of those who helped shape Westeros – and beyond – there has been no shortage of stories to tell.
Perhaps it was tales of kings and princesses like Aegon or Nymeria that stay with you. Or maybe it was the sad stories of Harrenhal you remember. For some, we understand the secret machinations of Larys the Clubfoot and others of his ilk hold a certain appeal. Whatever captures your imagination, we hope you enjoyed the adventure.
Our ‘Game of Thrones’ Travel Guide covers the real world filming locations used to create the series.
Sources: ‘The World of Ice & Fire’, ‘A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms’, ‘Fire & Blood’’, as well as ‘A Wiki of Ice and Fire’ and the ‘A World of Ice and Fire‘ mobile app. And, of course, ‘Game of Thrones’ and ‘A Song of Ice and Fire’.
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