A Beginner’s Guide to Westeros: The Small Council
The Game of Thrones is now showing on HBO. The production and promotion of this series has been fantastic, but not everyone tuning in may be familiar with the series of books upon which it is based. A Song of Ice and Fire, currently spanning four expansive novels, introduced us to the world of Westros and provides a plethora of extensive information. Presented here is a bit of that information to help newcomers to this lush and living world get and keep their bearings. All information is presented free of spoilers and describe the circumstances at the beginning of the series…
The man seated upon the Iron Throne cannot be everywhere at once. Even for a responsible monarch, administrating the Seven Kingdoms is a monumental task. And a man like Robert Baratheon simply cannot be bothered, most days, with things like “counting coppers” and other tedious (but necessary) affairs of state. Thus it falls to the small council to deal with such tasks. These are the men and women who truly rule Westeros.
The Hand of the King
For all intents and purposes, while the king is absent from the council, the Hand is the king. He is meant to be the strongest voice of advice to the royal ear, and firm in his decisions when the king is not present. The Hand is even known to sit upon the Iron Throne during such times. The Hand is commander of the royal armies, executor of the king’s will and dispenser of justice. It is a position of high prestige and higher pressures, and few men have been up to the task.
Jon Arryn was named Hand of the King by Robert Baratheon when he took the throne. Robert knew he would need a strong Hand while he was amusing himself, someone who could manage the kingdom he now ruled. Jon Arryn was a mentor to Robert, even after his bloody ascension. When he died, Robert sought his best friend and most noble peer, Eddard Stark.
From the Citadel of Oldtown, the maesters travel to many noble houses and castles to serve as advisors and healers. They are the scientists and scholars of Westeros, and while some occasionally dabble in occult studies, most keep their concerns in the realms of the tangible, to better serve their chosen lords in the here and now. Each maester is known only by title and first name, as earning a maester’s chain takes one away from family and holdings. The links of a maester’s chain are different metals, each representing an area of study mastered after long years of study.
Grand Maester Pycelle was chosen by the Citadel to serve on the small council of King Aegon Targaryen, Fifth of his name. He has served every king since, a station of almost forty years by the time Eddard Stark arrives at King’s Landing to begin his duties as Hand.
Lord Commander of the Kingsguard
The king is never far from at least one member of the Kingsguard. An elite, hand-picked force of the bravest and most capable knights in the Seven Kingdoms, the White Cloaks are traditionally seen but not heard. They are unmistakable in their white cloaks and plain white shields, acting as bodyguards to the king. A sworn knight invited to the Kingsguard must swear an additional oath to never hold lands, sire children or have any allegiance save to the monarch on the Iron Throne. They serve until death.
Ser Barristan Selmy was elevated to the position of Lord Commander following the death of Mad King Aerys during Robert’s Rebellion. He served Aerys as he does Robert, along with fellow Kingsguard member Ser Jaime Lannister. Jaime bears a different honor. Instead of holding a position of high honor, he is regarded with a mix of fear and revulsion for stabbing Aerys in the back during the sack of King’s Landing that was the culmination of the rebellion. Instead of ‘Lord Commander’ or even calling him by name, the Seven Kingdoms know Jaime Lannister as the Kingslayer.
Master of Coin
Troops, equipment, tournaments, feasts, ships and keeps – running a kingdom costs money. It is the job of the Master of Coin to find this money and spend it on behalf of the crown. Most of the royal revenue comes from the taxes levied on the Seven Kingdoms, but sometimes the coffers come up short. In those cases, the Master of Coin arranges loans with wealthy great houses, such as the Lannisters, and Free Cities such as Braavos or Pentos.
Petyr Baelish holds the strings of the royal purse on Robert’s small council. A former ward of House Tully and nicknamed ‘Littlefinger’ by Edmure Tully for the size of his holdings, Petyr is not only an intelligent accountant but a charming courtier and a cunning political figure. His shifting allegiances and secretive nature cause Eddard Stark to mistrust him – that, and the fact that Littlefinger is still in love with his wife, Catelyn.
Master of Ships
Threats come from within and without the Seven Kingdoms, from the Iron Islands of the tempestuous House Greyjoy to the distant Free Cities across the Narrow Sea. It is vital for the king to maintain both merchant vessels and ships of war. The responsibility for the construction of these naval vessels and the dispensation of their crews falls to the Master of Ships.
Stannis Baratheon, Robert’s older brother, holds the castle of Dragonstone off the eastern coast of the Storm Lands in Blackwater Bay. It was ceded to him following the Rebellion while the Baratheon seat of Storm’s End passed to the younger brother, Renly. Stannis knows quite well the value of sea power, as it was a smuggler-turned-knight under his employ who allowed him to survive the siege of Storm’s End until it was broken by Eddard Stark. Stannis is a rather dour, honor-bound individual, and has little patience for his brothers’ antics.
Master of Whisperers
In both war and peace, accurate and timely intelligence is crucial. Spies must be everywhere to be effective, and the reports of these operatives must be collected and prioritized when presented to those in power. This monumental task of gathering intelligence is the bastion of the Master of Whisperers.
Varys serves as Robert’s spymaster. A eunuch with a mysterious past, he dresses in fashionable gowns and acts with an effeminate, mewling manner. He likes to remind the small council – and anyone who will listen, really – that he and his ‘little birds’ are invaluable to the Seven Kingdoms. As despicable as many find him, he is seen as a necessary evil. His allegiance is to the Seven Kingdoms first, the Iron Throne second.
Master of Laws
Rounding out the small council is the position responsible for interpretation of laws and the writing of new ones. As the Seven Kingdoms incorporate people from disparate climates, histories and perspectives, the Master of Laws must seek the path of compromise to ensure justice is done while not being unfair to either side of an argument. It may not be the most prestigious position on the small council, but it’s just as vital to the administration to the kingdom as any of the others.
Renly Baratheon is younger brother of both Stannis and Robert, and of the three his is arguably the most charming and adventurous. While Stannis is stoic and brooding, and Robert a bit of a fat lout, Renly tends to win friends easily with both his words and his swordplay, but there are those who would call him frivolous. Still, he is now the Lord of Storm’s End, the seat of House Baratheon, while his older brothers hold Dragonstone and the Red Keep of King’s Landing, respectively. His new lordship is a gift from Robert, while Stannis glowers at the richer lands and larger holding of Storm’s End from the rocky shores of Dragonstone. It is not a slight the elder Baratheon is likely to forget.
If you would like to know more, please consult the official HBO viewer’s guide or the Wiki of Ice and Fire (beware of spoilers). Also, if you find anything amiss or incorrect in these guides, please inform me.