In A Clash of Kings, the second in George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire books, there’s a subplot about Lady Donella Hornwood, the recent widow of Lord Halys Hornwood, who died fighting the Lannisters in the Battle of the Green Fork. Her son Daryn is also killed fighting alongside Robb Stark at the Battle of the Whispering Wood.
It’s a sad situation, but it’s made doubly precarious because it leaves the Hornwood family without someone to inherit the Hornwood estate. Donella might be able to manage it herself for a while, but it’s not long before she has suiters lining up to try and marry her, most of whom are hoping to either produce an heir who can inherit the Hornwood lands or take them for themselves. There are other potential heirs suggested. Perhaps Halys’ nephew could inherit, or his bastard. House Hornwood has ties to Houses Karstark, Flint and Tallhart. The important thing is to have a plan in place, because otherwise it can sow division among Northerners at a time when they really need to stick together.
Unfortunately, Ramsay Snow butts his head in, captures Lady Hornwood, forcibly marries her and makes her name him as her heir, fights other northerners who try to rescue her, and then leaves her in a tower to starve to death. This subplot never made it onto HBO’s Game of Thrones, but anyone who remembers Ramsay probably won’t be surprised to hear he pulled this kind of thing.
Anyway, you might wonder why it was so difficult for Lady Hornwood and company to figure out the line of succession. For instance, Lord Halys had a sister; couldn’t she have just made the heir, particularly given that other Northern houses are ruled by women, such as House Mormont?
Back in 1999, a fan asked this question of George R.R. Martin. Westeros.org archived his answer, and it’s a very clear elucidation of why questions of inheritance are so tricky in Westeros, and in medieval England in general:
Well, the short answer is that the laws of inheritance in the Seven Kingdoms are modeled on those in real medieval history… which is to say, they were vague, uncodified, subject to varying interpretations, and often contradictory.
A man’s eldest son was his heir. After that the next eldest son. Then the next, etc. Daughters were not considered while there was a living son, except in Dorne, where females had equal right of inheritance according to age.
After the sons, most would say that the eldest daughter is next in line. But there might be an argument from the dead man’s brothers, say. Does a male sibling or a female child take precedence? Each side has a “claim.”
What if there are no children, only grandchildren and great grandchildren? Is precedence or proximity the more important principle? Do bastards have any rights? What about bastards who have been legitimized, do they go in at the end after the trueborn kids, or according to birth order? What about widows? And what about the will of the deceased? Can a lord disinherit one son, and name a younger son as heir? Or even a bastard?
There are no clear cut answers, either in Westeros or in real medieval history. Things were often decided on a case by case basis. A case might set a precedent for later cases… but as often as not, the precedents conflicted as much as the claims.
In fact, if you look at medieval history, conflicting claims were the cause of three quarters of the wars. The Hundred Years War grew out of a dispute about whether a nephew or a grandson of Philip the Fair had a better claim to the throne of France. The nephew got the decision, because the grandson’s claim passed through a daughter (and because he was the king of England too). And that mess was complicated by one of the precedents (the Salic Law) that had been invented a short time before to resolve the dispute after the death of Philip’s eldest son, where the claimants were (1) the daughter of Philip’s eldest son, who may or may not have been a bastard, her mother having been an adulteress, (2) the unborn child of the eldest son that his second wife was carrying, sex unknown, and (3) Philip’s second son, another Philip. Lawyers for (3) dug up the Salic Law to exclude (1) and possibly (2) if she was a girl, but (2) was a boy so he became king, only he died a week later, and (3) got the throne after all. But then when he died, his own children, all daughters, were excluded on the basis of the law he’s dug up, and the throne went to the youngest son instead… and meanwhile (1) had kids, one of whom eventually was the king of Navarre, Charles the Bad, who was such a scumbag in the Hundred Years War in part because he felt his claim was better than that of either Philip of Valois or Edward Plantagenet. And you know, it was. Only Navarre did not have an army as big as France or England, so no one took him seriously.
The Wars of the Roses were fought over the issue of whether the Lancastrian claim (deriving from the third son of Edward III in the direct male line) or the Yorkist claim (deriving from a combination of Edward’s second son, but through a female line, wed to descendants of his fourth son, through the male) was superior. And a whole family of legitimized bastard stock, the Beauforts, played a huge role.
And when Alexander III, King of Scots, rode over a cliff, and Margaret the Maid of Norway died en route back home, and the Scottish lords called on Edward I of England to decide who had the best claim to the throne, something like fourteen or fifteen (I’d need to look up the exact number) “competitors” came forward to present their pedigrees and documents to the court. The decision eventually boiled down to precedence (John Balliol) versus proximity (Bruce) and went to Balliol, but those other thirteen guys all had claims as well. King Eric of Norway, for instance, based his claim to the throne on his daughter, the aforementioned Maid of Norway, who had been the queen, however briefly. He seemed to believe that inheritance should run backwards. And hell, if he had been the king of France instead of the king of Norway, maybe it would have.
The medieval world was governed by men, not by laws. You could even make a case that the lords preferred the laws to be vague and contradictory, since that gave them more power. In a tangle like the Hornwood case, ultimately the lord would decide… and if some of the more powerful claimants did not like the decision, it might come down to force of arms.
The bottom line, I suppose, is that inheritance was decided as much by politics as by laws. In Westeros and in medieval Europe both.
This, to me, is what makes so many of the conflicts on A Song of Ice and Fire so interesting. The point is that there is no law governing how things should be done; often it comes down not only to who has the best technical claim, if you can even tell what that is, but how good they are are saying the right things and making the right moves (or killing the right people or attacking the right army) to press that claim. Personality, intelligence, and will all come into play in a big way, which makes it a fertile ground for character-driven storytelling.
And of course, Martin is right about most of the wars in medieval history having their roots in conflicting claims of succession. That’s how the War of the Five Kings starts on Game of Thrones: who should rule after King Robert dies? Joffrey, even though he’s a secret bastard? Renly or Stannis, the king’s brothers? And if so, which of them? Or should Daenerys Targaryen come back and just smash everyone?
HBO’s Game of Thrones prequel show, House of the Dragon, is also about a succession crisis: the plot is kicked off when the old king Viserys I Targaryen dies, leading to an embittered, prolonged conflict between his daughter Rhaenyra Targaryen, whom he’d groomed to take over the throne, and Rhaenyra Targaryen, his latter-born son by another wife. That succession crisis will result in thousands dead, including most of the Targaryen dragons, and change the face of Westeros.
In conclusion, monarchies are bad. Although it is fun to watch fictional ones fall apart. House of the Dragon, here we come.