To pinpoint the cause of a war is never simple. We are taught in school that WWI was cause because the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, but anyone who has done a little research could tell you that the reasons are far more complex.
In “The Song of Ice and Fire” series the story chronicles the after effects of “Robert’s Rebellion”. However, the casual fan of the TV series has no idea about what exactly the Rebellion was about. So we are going to deconstruct the causes of the war, the major players, and the battles which had a major effect on the series we love.
Prelude to War
The actual rebellion was the culmination of several escalating events, mostly related to the mad King Aerys II. Already mentally unstable from years of inbreeding amongst the Targaryens, the events of the Defiance at Duskendale pushed him over the edge
At Duskendale, Lord Denys Darklyn asked King Aerys II for certain rights for his citizens and a new town charter for Duskendale. Aerys refused, and so the Darklyns refused to pay more taxes. Aerys decided to deal with the problem himself. Normally this would be the job of his Hand, Tywin Lannister, but Tywin and King Aerys had been growing steadily apart due to the King’s mental state. Aerys went to Duskendale with several members of the Kingsguard and a small force of men, to arrest and execute Lord Denys. Instead he was imprisoned by him. The Defiance ended when Ser Barristan Selmy sneaked into the Dun Fort, the seat of House Darklyn, and rescued the King.
Aerys’ imprisonment gave way to delusions that everyone around him was conspiring against the crown. This isn’t in and of itself a terrible issue, but it became dangerous when added to the recklessness of his son, Rhaegar.
Rhargar, heir to the throne, had been married to Elia Martell, the sister of Doran Martell, ruler of Dorne. However, at the tourney of Harrenhal he revealed an infatuation with Lyanna Stark when he passed over Elia to make her the queen of love and beauty, a title granted by the winner of the tourney.
Lyanna was to be used to bring House Stark and House Baratheon together, as she was engaged to the eldest Baratheon son, Robert. Along with Brandon Stark, Lyanna’s older brother marrying Catelyn Tully,daughter of Hoster Tully, ruler of the Riverlands, The Starks were poised to have some very powerful family connections.
Shortly after the tournament at Harrenhal, Lyanna disappeared with Rhaegar. Though it is the popular opinion that Lyanna was kidnapped by Rhaegar, the real details are not known. Brandon Stark rode to King’s Landing, and demanded Rhaegar fight him. King Aerys had Brandon and his companions arrested. Shortly after, his father, Rickard Stark, was summoned to the city to answer for the crimes of his son. He was immediately arrested himself and brutally killed with his son. Rickard Stark demanded a trial by combat and Aerys had him roasted in his armor. Brandon Stark was put in a strangulation device and was forced to watch his father die, strangling himself in the process. After they were killed, Aerys demanded the heads of Robert Baratheon and Eddard Stark from their guardian, Jon Arryn who was fostering them at the Eyrie. Instead of turning them in, Jon chose to raise his banner in rebellion.
Aerys now faced three kingdoms in rebellion, The North, The Vale, and The Stormlands, and it wouldn’t be long before The Riverlands, home to House Tully joined. Eventually Robert was chosen as the figurehead of the rebellion because of his better claim to the throne through his grandmother, who was Aerys’ aunt. The pieces were in place, the movement had a figurehead, now the rebellion could begin.
Robert’s Rebellion was not a simple matter of everyone taking sides in the fight. The family alliances built up over the years, and blind loyalty to the king drew battle lines amongst the great houses of Westeros. On the side of Robert and the rebellion was the Baratheons (of course), the Starks, and the Arryns. Through the marriages of Lyssa and Catelyn, the Tullys of the Riverland were eventually brought to the rebellion. Though many of the bannermen of the Tullys and the Arryn’s sided with the king, this placed four massive armies against the Loyalist forces.
Still loyal to the Targaryens were House Martell, who were loyal due to Doran Martell’s sister Elia being married to Rhaegar. Also still loyal to the crown were the Tyrells of Highgarden. Aside from those two houses, and all of the crown lands, several smaller houses traditionally swearing fealty to The Arryns, Starks, Tullys, and Baratheons stayed loyal out of overall fealty to the king or perhaps seeking elevation when the fighting was over.
Mysteriously absent from the fighting on both sides were the Lannisters. Lord Tywin had been the hand of the king during the defiance of Duskendale, but tensions had arisen between him and the king leading to Tywin quitting his position as hand, and retreating to Casterly Rock. The Greyjoys also remained neutral. One other notable absentee from the fighting were the Freys. Controlling the Twins made them a strategic house in the fighting, but, as noted “The Late Lord Frey” decided to wait until he could determine the tide of the war and come out on the winning side.
After Aerys called for the heads of Robert and Eddard, the two managed to escape to their respective kingdoms. Eddard had a fisherman try to sneak him from the Vale to White Harbour, so he could raise his forces in the North, but due to storms the fisherman died and his daughter was only able to get him to Sweetsister. Lord Borrell of the sisters later snuck him into White Harbour, where he preceded to raise his bannermen.
Robert managed to return to the Storm’s End and called his bannermen, in rebellion against the King. Three of Robert’s bannermen, Fell, Cafferson, and Grandison, decided to remain loyal to the king and were going to join forces at Summerhall, march on Storm’s End, and end the rebellion quickly. Summerhall was a significant location as a fire that broke out in the castle in 259 which resulted in the death of King Aegon V. Robert, being made aware of the advance by the three lords, moved the forces loyal to him to intercept each of the lords forces before they could consolidate. His victories were impressive as he managed to kill or capture each of the three lords. Through his victory Robert consolidated his power in the Stormlands, winning the support of the rest of the lords, which allowed him to march without having an enemy in his rear.
Robert’s next move was to secure his western flank against the Tyrells, who posed the greatest military threat to Robert. It is unclear whether Robert chose the location or was forced there by his opponents, but the battle took place at Ashford, a castle loyal to the Tyrells. The battle occurred when the vanguard of the Tyrell army under command of Lord Randyll Tarly (Samwell’s father) ran into Robert’s forces. Tarly’s vanguard overran Robert’s army, and Robert was forced to withdraw from the field before the main force of the Tyrell host had joined the battle. Though technically a defeat, Westerosi historians see Robert’s actions as a tactical retreat. Robert’s forces were left mostly intact, and he was still a threat to the kingdom.
The result of he battle had two significant consequences. The first was that Robert had to link up with his allies in the north, which left the Stormlands empty. This left Storm’s End, which was under the command of Stannis, subject to a siege by Mace Tyrell and Randyll Tarly.
Seeing the weakness in his strategy, after Ashford, Robert moved to unite his army in the south with his allies in the north. During his move north, Robert was wounded in an unknown skirmish. He was recovering/hiding at Stoney Sept when the town was occupied by loyalist forces led by the then Hand of the King, Jon Connington. Connington ordered every house in the town to be searched to find Robert. Luckily Robert was able evade capture long enough for the Stark/Tully army to reach the town and engage Connington’s forces. With the armies engaged, Robert emerged and led his forces in a counter attack causing Connington to retreat. Though Connington’s forces remained relatively intact because of his actual withdrawal, King Aerys was not impressed and had Connington exiled. History called this engagement “The Battle of the Bells” due to the bells of the sept warning the townspeople to stay inside their houses.
This battle showed Robert’s threat to the realm was greater than imagined, and set the scene for the final showdown at the Trident.
In warfare, battles occur where the losses are so great that it sounds the death knell of whole empires. Like Waterloo or Hastings, battles can change the course of history.
After Stony Sept, a battle like this occurred, and it changed the course of the seven kingdoms.
The Mad King Aerys had finally realized that Robert and his Rebellion were a major threat. With his forces combined at Stony Sept, Robert had at his hand the united host of the Stormlands, The Vale, The Riverlands, and the North. Now assembled they were within striking distance of King’s Landing. A total of 35,000 battle hardened veterans took south to cross the trident at the Green Fork.
This map contains conjecture as to troop movements in both forces. The movement of Robert's troops account for Robert moving north to Riverrun after winning Stoney Sept, to cross the Red Fork, then moving to Fairmarket to Cross the Blue Fork. The Author figures this was a gamble to make it to the Kingsroad inside rebel territory without crossing into Loyalist Lands.
It was here that the battle for the crown of Westeros would take place. Meeting the rebel forces at the Trident would be a loyalist host of 40,000 troops led by the Crown Prince Rhaegar. Rhaegar had recently reappeared after his abduction of Lyanna at the start of the war. His army was represented by not only his troops from the Crownlands but the remaining troops of Connington’s failed assault at Stony Sept whom Ser Barristan Selmy and Ser Jonothon Darry rallied. Also representing a quarter of the force was 10,000 Dornish levies under the command of Lewyn Martel of the Kingsguard. After the loss of the Crown, it became a common thought that Dorne was only loyal because of the princess Elia being held hostage by the crown, however it is worth noting that the crown had an arrangement with Dorne regarding the queen ship of the Martels.
Absent from the fighting were the forces of the Reach under Mace Tyrell. Those forces were laying siege to Storm’s End at the time.
During the battle the Donishmen moved against the left flank of Robert’s army. Ser Lyn Corbray of The Vale, led a countercharge. Using his wounded father’s sword Corbray defeated Prince Lewyn in single combat, slaying him and effectively breaking the Dornish flank. It is worth noting that Lewyn was already wounded in prior fighting.
Though the fighting was intense on both sides, what destroyed the loyalist moral and won the day for the rebels was when Robert met Rhaegar in single combat. Though there is not much factual detail of the two’s actual combat, several things are true. Much in the fashion of his prior battles, Robert wielded his two-handed warhammer. Rhaegar wore his armor encrusted with rubies. Though it is unknown if they were mounted or on foot, Robert wielded his hammer and smashed Rhaegar’s armor with such force that it shattered his armor scattering the rubies across the Green Fork. Later the battle site would be known as The Ruby Ford. Unknown if it was that blow or another, but Rhaegar was killed by Robert during their combat. With Rhaegar dead, the Loyalist army broke and scattered. The Targaryen reign over Westeros was finished.
With Rhaegar’s host scattered the road to King’s Landing was unobstructed. However King Aerys prepared for this eventuality by lining the capitol city with wildfire caches ready to explode and burn the city to ground at his command. Luckily two things prevented this. The first was the ultimate appearance of Tywin Lannister and the Lannister forces who approached the city in the name of friendship. Varys, Aerys master of spies, warned against letting in the formerly neutral force, but Aerys opened the gates on advice from Grand Maester Pycelle. The 12,000 man army sacked the city. During the sack of the city Aerys ordered his new Hand, The Pyromancer Rossart to ignite the wildfire. Luckily before he could give the order, Rossart was killed by Jaime Lannister who in his role as kingsguard was stationed in King’s Landing. Jaime the turned his blade on Aerys earning him the title “Kingslayer”.
As the city was assaulted, Gregor Clegane and Amory Lorch scaled Maegor’s Holdfast and murdered the rest of the royal family. Princess Elia herself was raped and murdered by Clegane. By the time Ned Stark arrived from the Trident, he discovered Jaime Lannister seated on the Iron Throne. Robert was presented with the murdered bodies of the Targaryens wrapped in red cloaks as a sign of fealty to the new king. This drew a rift between Ned and Robert, as Ned saw the slaughter as unnecessarily brutal. He left by himself to lift the siege at Storm’s End and find Lyanna. The city had been secured, and Robert sat on the Iron Throne.
Though the Iron Throne had been secured by Robert, The war was not completely over. Loyalist strongholds at Dragonstone remained, along with Stannis still being under siege at Storm’s End.
Mace Tyrell and Randyl Tarly sat outside Storm’s End with the army of the Reach, and Lord Paxter Redwyne blockaded Shipbreaker Bay to all trade. The siege continued for a year, with the besieged having to eat their horses, their dogs and cats, and were pushed to eat their own dead. Luckily for Stannis, Davos Seaworth, a smuggler, slipped through the blockade. he managed to enter Storm’s End with a ship loaded with onions and salt fish for the starving garrison. Davos’ cargo allowed the garrison to survive long enough for Ned Stark to arrive and lift the siege. There was no battle as soon as Stark arrived, Tyrell surrendered.
Freed from the siege, Stannis was able to take command of the fleet and take Dragonstone, the last Targaryen stronghold. The majority of the Reach’s lords and knights were later pardoned by Robert for their part in the , and the Redwine fleet set sail for Dragonstone. There was to be no battle there since the entire fleet of Targaryen ships anchored there had been destroyed by a massive storm. Queen Rhaella, who was pregnant, and Prince Viserys had been sent to the island with Ser Willem Darry. Rhaella died giving birth to her last child Daenerys, named Stormborn.
Sensing the oncoming host, Ser Willem and a handful of men smuggled Viserys, Daenerys, and her wet nurse from the nursery and sailed for Braavos, evading the wrath of Robert Baratheon.
Meanwhile after freeing Storm’s End, Ned Stark went to the Tower of Joy, the place where his sister lay dying. Located in the Prince’s Path in the mountains of Dorne, it was a hideout of Prince Rhaegar. At the end of the War, Eddard Stark found his sister there, dying. He and six of his companions (Howland Reed, Lord Willam Dustin, Ethan Glover, Martyn Cassel, Theo Wull, and Ser Mark Ryswell) approached the tower, and found it guarded by three members of the Kingsguard: Ser Arthur Dayne, Ser Oswell Whent, and Lord Commander Gerold Hightower. The battle was epic as the three Kingsguard protected Lyanna from the seven.
In the end only Ned and Howland Reed survived. Lyanna had died, and Eddard pulled stones from the tower to make cairns for the dead. He took his sister’s body back North with him so she could be buried with her brother Brandon and her father Rickard whose death started the Rebellion. It was Lyanna’s death which reunited Ned and Robert over their shared grief. Robert was quickly married to Cersei Lannister to secure their support in his new regime.
Now Westeros was whole again united under the banner of the crowned stag of Baratheon. Most of the loyalist houses were pardoned, and few of them were diminished or outright exterminated. Westeros had not changed nearly as much as such a change would have suggested. However there were still clear and present dangers to the new crown including many secret loyalists, other houses vying for power, and of course two remaining Targaryens in Braavos.