BRING OUT YOUR TINFOIL!
Southron Ambitions is the name for a much touted fan theory that Rickard Stark married off his sons and daughter to southern houses for the purpose of aligning with other Great Houses. It’s pretty well accepted because it fits with the recent history of ASOIAF:
- Brandon Stark was betrothed to Catelyn Tully
- Eddard Stark was fostered at the Eyrie by Jon Arryn
- Hoster Tully was negotiating with Tywin Lannister for Lysa to marry Jaime
- Lyanna Stark was betrothed to Robert Baratheon
- Oberyn Martell reminiscences with Tyrion about Oberyn and Elia visiting Casterly Rock with their mother, who had ambitions to match off her kids to the Lannister Twins (can you imagine Cersei and Oberyn? Hilarious.)
So we know for a fact that there was a lot of marriage alliances going on between all the major houses in Westeros, except for the Tyrells, who at that point didn’t have anyone of marriageable age (remember – Loras and Margaery are only 15-17 at the time of ASOS)
But I think there was more than just plans to get to know each other at the heart of these marriage alliances. Remember, in medieval times, marrying your sons and daughters off was the best way to seal a political union.
The TLDR version is:
- Bitter Lady Dustin is correct that Rickard Stark had “southron ambitions” in arranging Southron matches for his children
- but she doesn’t know the bigger picture: the Great Houses involved in these matches were preparing to overthrow the Targaryens for ever.
- plan was massively accelerated when Lyanna ran off with Rhaegar as Aerys’ over reaction to Brandon’s behaviour, and killing Brandon and Rickard, gave the would be rebels the perfect excuse to launch their planned rebellion.
Rhaegar v Robert, as depicted in The World of Ice & Fire
HEY HO, LET’S GO…
From what we’ve seen in ASOIAF and TWOIAF, this generation’s strategic marriages are relatively unique. The idea of a politically advantageous marriage is not unique in a medieval society where women are chattels of a man’s house (ugh…. spit) but to have so many of them at once with nearly all the major Houses involved is … curious to say the least.
Lady Dustin’s rant to Theon is this:
“The day I learned that Brandon was to marry Catelyn Tully, though … there was nothing sweet about that pain. He never wanted her, I promise you that. He told me so, on our last night together … but Rickard Stark had great ambitions too. Southron ambitions that would not be served by having his heir marry the daughter of one of his own vassals.Afterward my father nursed some hope of wedding me to Brandon’s brother Eddard, but Catelyn Tully got that one as well. I was left with young Lord Dustin, until Ned Stark took him from me.”
So it’s interesting that so many Lords Paramount are so buddy-buddy and setting up strategic alliances with fostering and marriage contracts.
Nearly every major House is allied, or meant to be allied, just before the Tourney of Harrenhal. Dorne and the Reach miss out, perhaps because they had no eligible bachelors or maids, or for concerns about their loyalty.
- Tywin Lannister was frustrated in his part in these alliances when he was unable to deliver his heir Jaime as Lysa Tully’s groom, thanks to Aerys appointing 15 year old Jaime to the King’s Guard.
- Cersei is still available to be shopped around, and logically should have been betrothed to Ned Stark, but Tywin cracks the shits and storms off after Jaime goes to the Kingsguard.
- Maybe he still wanted to keep Cersei in his pocket, as a potential queen for either Rhaegar (assuming Elia and later Lyanna die) or the new King – Robert Baratheon. Which happened in the end. Good thinking Tywin.
- Technically Robert Baratheon is the head of the House, but he’s still a young teen and easily influenced by the likes of Jon Arryn and Rickard Stark. Unclear who brokered the marriage between BobbyB and Lyanna, but it’s clearly advantageous for Stark and Arryn to have the only Stark woman married off to the guy who would be King if there were no dragons.
- Brandon Stark and Catelyn Tully are also matched off very early – remember, Cat was betrothed when she was 12, years before it was intended that the marriage occur. And from Lady Dustin’s claims, it wasn’t a love match from Brandon’s end at all.
- Jon Arryn doesn’t have any marriageable heirs (does he?) but is involved in these houses with fostering Ned and BobbyB, as well as other alliances with the heads of the houses. And ultimately, he marries Lysa Tully to secure Hoster Tully’s forces.
So Storms’ End, the Eyrie, Winterfell, Riverrun and Casterly Rock were planning to be closely allied – as close politically as possible in this feudal environment. You want armies? Better marry off an heir or two. No kids? Foster someone else’s!
But what was the plan? WHY was everyone allying?
I think there’s two options:
- as per the official history in-universe, everyone wanted to get rid of Mad King Aerys
- donning my tinfoil… the Lords Paramount wanted to get rid of the Targaryen dynasty all together
So let’s look at these.
Option 1: Deposing the Mad King
The Mad King by Zgfisher, from Deviant Art
Seems the logical choice, doesn’t it?
Houses allying together to create a strong enough bloc within the realm to force the King to step down and let his (relatively) saner heir take over seems to fit with everything we know about the reign of the Mad King, especially with what in universe sources such as Maester Yandal who “wrote” The World of Ice and Fire tells us about Rhaegar’s plans at Harrenhal.
An alliance between the ruling houses of the North/Eyrie/Riverlands/Stormlands and the Westerlands should beat Crownlands/Dorne/the Reach. The Iron Islands remain a wildcard, as ever – the Asshole Pirates of Dickhead Islands could have been brought into this, but might not have cared enough to get involved. What does it matter if there’s a Stag or a Dragon on the Iron Throne they want to be free from?
Was Rhaegar himself supporting all these marriages and political alliances? If so, then Dorne can be added to the Alliance, thanks to his marriage with Elia, and that makes it very difficult for the Reach to maintain it’s silo status with the Crownlands under the Mad King. A pretty bloodless coup, you’d think.
If Rhaegar wasn’t supporting these alliances, why were Dorne and the Reach ignored? Even if Mace Tyrell’s kids were not old enough for marriage, which is unlikely given medieval practice of setting up betrothals years ahead of when the children could marry, then why not offer fostering of Mace’s sons or links with other key Reach families, like the Hightowers?
But is this all just a little convenient? And what is in it for these Lords Paramount if they help Prince Rhaegar?
Was the plan to make Arryn the Hand, Tywin the Master of Ships, Stark the Master of Laws, Tully the Master of Coin etc etc etc?? What was the incentive for them to ally with Rhaegar beyond just getting rid of an inconveniently crazy king with a penchant for roasting people alive?
We assume, based on the textual evidence about Rhaegar’s plans to call a Great Council and the allegations that he called the Tourney in Harrenhal to plot with the Great Houses to overthrow his father, that Rhaegar was party to and supportive of these plans.
But what if he wasn’t? Or if he was only being played as a patsy, to give the Great Houses an excuse to ally so publicly without much questioning from King’s Landing?
Option 2: “Robert’s Rebellion” was always the agenda
Great artwork, taken from here – who is the artist? Would love to credit
OK, I know this has little textual evidence and is thus by definition basically just tinfoil, but bear with me. I think that the Lords Paramount always intended to get rid of the Targaryens, and had been plotting this for some time.
Aerys II is mad, cruel and clearly unsuitable for government
Prior to him, his father only ruled for a few years. Prior to Jaehaerys, Aegon the Unlikely ruled for 33 years and in that time tried to enact law reform that benefited the smallfolk – MUCH to the displeasure of the major Houses and Lords Paramount. We aren’t given details about who exactly was so pissed off with Aegon’s reforms in TWOIAF, but we do know that Aegon was so frustrated in his attempts to change his kingdom to be a more just and equitable place that he ultimately tried to bring back dragons to have (literally!) more firepower to his efforts. We also know that Tywin Lannister as Hand of the King undid all of Aegon’s efforts quickly, thus cementing his respectability amongst the nobility.
Before that, we have the Blackfyre rebellions and contested rule of Aegon the Unworthy’s heirs and spares. Before that, we have countless examples of Targaryens who are cruel, capricious, or otherwise just outright mad.
So basically we have nearly 250 years of Targaryen rule with more crazy and cruel rulers than not. To begin with, the dragonlord Targaryens kept the Iron Throne they created by the same way they gained their empire: dragonfire.
The Targaryens kept their rule through their dragons, and then the dragons died. So it begs the question: why did Westeros keep going with the Targaryen conquerors after their dragons, who kept the kingdoms in fear, had died out?
My hypothesis is that they didn’t, entirely.
The greater purpose of Southron Ambitions was to depose the entire Targaryen regime, get rid of the incestuous mad bastards completely, and install a young Baratheon king who could be managed by the more senior Lords on his Small Council. Egg’s failure to hatch dragons showed that the Targaryens could not summon more weapons of mass dragon-struction, and as such the Targaryen’s major strength and the incentive of Westeros to be loyal to them in fear of the dragons was gone.
Southron Ambitions wasn’t just about Rickard Stark wanting some power for him and his heirs, it was more broadly about the Lords Paramount planning to oust the Targaryens.
Now Rhaegar & Lyanna both threw a spanner in the works for this plan, and gave the senior Lords Paramount (Rickard Stark, Hoster Tully, Jon Arryn – and maybe Tywin Lannister?) the perfect excuse to launch their rebellion. (Maybe?) Aerys’ reaction is clearly over the top, even for the apparent offence of Brandon calling out the Crown Prince for a dual for his sister’s honour in the streets of King’s Landing. A saner, more politically savvy king could have and should have handled that situation much better. Aerys didn’t, and in killing Brandon and Rickard so publicly and so horribly, he gave the would be rebels the perfect martyrs to justify their rebellion.
If we think of Aerys’ absolute monarchy approach in parallels to real world royalty, this is Charles I’s insistence that the Puritans cannot arrest him, or Marie Antoinette’s “let them eat cake”. It’s the moment that showed that the absolute monarch just does not understand that their behaviour has consequences, and that a crown alone is not a protective shield.
The deaths of Rickard and Brandon was just the trigger that Jon Arryn had been waiting for. Unfortunately for Jon, with Hoster Tully getting cold feet and Tywin Lannister fuming in silence, he could not launch the planned Rebellion with as much firepower as he would haved liked, and was the original plan.
Had Tywin’s plans for Jaime not been frustrated, Tywin and the Westerlands’ armies would have been behind the Rebellion from the start – as it was, he felt better off waiting to see what happened before throwing his weight in, particularly with his dearly beloved golden heir being publicly held captive (effectively) by the Mad King during the Rebellion.
Given what we know about Tywin’s plans in ASOS that he still considered Jaime his lawful heir, despite Jaime having foresworn all of Casterly Rock when taking his kingsguard vows, consider this explanation for Tywin’s motivations pre and during the Rebellion:
- personal bitterness about his many slights from Aerys
- concerns about the potential of Rhaegar to be a new Egg, imposing changes to the way Westeros was run
- a chance for a new king to excuse Jaime from the Kingsguard so that Tywin could have his proper heir back
- the opportunity for power with marriage alliances, military alliances and support for the new king
But against that:
- the rebellion was launched too early, and was too small to be sure of victory, so Tywin holds the Westerlands forces back until he can be sure of victory – he never intended to support the royal forces, but he also didn’t want to go into battle against them unless he knew he was on the winning side
- Jaime is effectively captive in King’s Landing. Aerys explicitly keeps Jaime as his personal king’s guard during the rebellion to ensure his father’s loyalty, much like Elia and her children were kept to ensure Dorne wouldn’t back the rebels.
It’s still not clear why the Reach and Dorne weren’t included if this was the case, although I think we can assume that Dorne would be suspected to be too closely allied to the Targaryens through Elia Martell’s marriage to Rhaegar. (Remember: Aerys explicitly kept Elia and her children in King’s Landing as hostages to Dorne supporting the royal forces in the Rebellion. They didn’t have a choice!)
Also there are signs that efforts were made to reach out to Dorne – remember Oberyn’s story of visiting Casterly Rock planning to work out marriage contracts for him and Elia with the twins, undone by Joanna’s untimely death in childbirth? Tywin’s grief and selfishness caused the would-be rebels to be short a few marriageable prospects. And then by the time the rebellion was launched, why would the brother of the Crown Princess who has just been spurned by Rhaegar for a northern wolf want to team up?!
The Tyrells are interesting. Perhaps they were approached quietly and Olenna made it clear it wouldn’t be happening. Or maybe it was assumed that with the Tyrells effectively owing their Great House status to the Targaryens (as TWOIAF makes it clear that the Hightowers have equally as good a claim to Great Lord status in the Reach, and the Tyrells were only elevated after the extinguishment of House Gardener by royal decree after surrendering on behalf of the Reach to the Targaryens)
I said above that the rebellion was launched too early. What do I mean by this?
Simple: they didn’t have all the Great Houses on side yet.
- House Lannister was not confirming one way or the other until success looked certain.
- House Tyrell was backing the Targaryens.
- Dorne was staying out of it as Elia was a hostage.
- The North had lost both its senior leaders, and were to be led by a young Ned.
- Jon Arryn had lost his heirs and with it, his security over his own regime.
- Hoster Tully got cold feet – hence Lysa being the brideprice to get the Riverlands armies.
It succeeded in the end, but it wasn’t as certain as it could have been. While Rickard and Brandon Stark’s deaths were the perfect excuse to launch a long planned rebellion, the Great Lords Paramount did not have as much certainty as they hoped to have prior to the Tourney at Harrenhal.
Ultimately, the Rebellion succeeded: the Targaryens were deposed. Robert Baratheon took care of Rhaegar on the field of battle. Jaime Lannister took care of Aerys, saving Robert from having to behead the previous king. Tywin Lannister’s dogs of war took care of young Aegon (future blog post alert: I plan to assess Tywin’s culpability as a war criminal). The Lannisters were rewarded with a pardon for Jaime and a crown for Cersei. The two remaining Targaryens, child Viserys and baby Daenerys were taken out of Westeros by Ser William Darry, the last of the Kingsguard loyal to Aerys’ orders. And, if the assumption fuelled by R+L=J is correct, the remaining Kingsguard who were loyal to Rhaegar’s claim and guarding baby Jon and Lyanna at the Tower of Joy, well Ned finished them off too.
The Dragons were dead. Long live the Stags….
Conclusion: Possible v Probable
Is it possible that Robert’s Rebellion was being planned by senior Lords Paramount for years before Rhaegar and Lyanna ran off? Yes.
Is it probable? I think so. Feel free to disagree with me. I have no issues with that. This theory is pretty tinfoily. I don’t have a great deal of textual evidence to support it, it’s more of a hunch, trying to explain why “Southron Ambitions” matters for more than just Lady Dustin’s bitterness.