Skinning the Reputation of House Bolton

House-Bolton-heraldry

This article looks at one aspect of House Bolton: their fearsome reputation, which derives from flaying.

Note: This article contains some extremely violent and potentially disturbing descriptions.

In the books, Roose Bolton evokes fear. His voice is low and small. You have to get closer to hear him. His eyes are pale and lifeless. He is a man with “cold cunning.” Roose Bolton, like his son and ancestors, gives people the chills. In the books, Robb Stark is afraid of Roose. Robb tells Bran, “Lord Roose never says a word, he only looks at me, and all I can think of is that room they have in the Dreadfort, where the Boltons hang the skins of their enemies1 .”

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Members of House Bolton (R.) participate in the cruel desecration of Robb Stark’s body. © HBO.

House Bolton wants people to tremble at their name – and why not? Having a scary reputation is a great psychological warfare strategy, and House Bolton is nothing if not a master of battles in the mind. One notable example: Ramsay eating a sausage in front of Theon after his castration.

The Bolton’s family seat is the Dreadfort – even the name connotes anxiety. What is inside is even more fearsome – the skins of their enemies and the possibility that flaying still occurs in a deep chamber. Officially, the Boltons haven’t been flaying their enemies for a thousand years – since they swore fealty to House Stark. But rumors persist that the Boltons practice this atrocity in secret. Their sigil is still the hideous red flayed man, and this emblem is what House Bolton carries as their war flag or standard before them when they march into battle. Marching behind such a banner is a way of symbolically announcing to opponents, “Here we come. We’re the flayers.”

Even House Bolton’s motto carries a cruel and merciless reputation. Where the Starks lead with caution (“Winter is Coming,”) the Boltons’ words telegraph a frightening reminder: “Our blades are sharp.” To each other, the Boltons say, “A flayed man holds no secrets.”  Flaying, one of the most horrific medieval tortures or deaths, is at the heart of their fearsome reputation.

Flaying, or specifically “flaying alive,” was an ancient and medieval torture method in which the perpetrator skinned people alive with a thin or heated blade. Flaying is reputedly excruciatingly painful and most victims did not survive having all or even part of their skin removed.

Real-life Basis for Flaying

Did people in the Middle Ages practice flaying? If not, is there a historical basis for it?

flayingWhile flaying was rare in the Middle Ages, it did happen. In 1199, after a boy avenging his kin’s deaths killed Richard I – aka Richard the Lionheart, the crusading king in Robin Hood – Richard’s captain ordered the boy flayed alive. In 1314, Philip IV ordered the lovers of his daughter-in-law flayed alive, castrated, and beheaded. Their extreme sentence resulted from offending the king’s majesty (lèse majesté). A sprinkling of references to flaying occur throughout the Middle Ages – primarily in Europe and less so in England – but flaying was not the norm.

Given House Bolton’s practice of displaying the skins of their enemies, it seems more likely that George RR Martin found inspiration in the ancient Assyrians for the Bolton practice of flaying.

The Assyrians

Although they lived over three thousand years ago, the Assyrians were the “most warlike people in history” in the words of one historian and possibly one of the most vicious2 Assyria existed as an independent state from roughly 1400BC to 609 BC in what is now modern-day Northern Iraq and Southeast Turkey3 .

Once an oppressed people, the Assyrians developed into a military powerhouse as it struggled to free itself from the Hurrians and the Mitannis.4 The Assyrians went through several periods of “expansion” (aka conquering other people) as they enlarged their empire in what appears to be a blood-soaked way to honor their gods and pander to the egos of their kings.

Archeologist Erika Belibtreu implies that money, specifically the need to fund Assyrian’s grandiose building campaigns, motivated the Asyrian conquests.5 After successful sieges, the Assyrians would sack captured cities, butcher most inhabitants, resettle others, and carry off the loot.6 (Historian P.B. Kern noted that the only faintly similar contemporary equivalent might be the “home invasion.”) Assyrian kings believed they had a religious obligation to build great buildings and wage war. In fact, Assyrian King Adad-nirari claimed that the gods called him to war – a statement his successors echoed.7 Assyrian kings declared war and built buildings to prostrate themselves before the gods; this is how they showed their obedience.

 The most warlike people in history

The Assyrians were spectacularly sadistic in an age known for its cruelty. In fact, Assyrian kings promoted and publicized their reputation for brutality in the artwork and inscriptions they left behind. Assyrian king Ashurnasirpal II boastfully described himself as the “trampler of all enemies … who defeated all his enemies [and] hung the corpses of his enemies on posts.”8

Their palaces were a veritable billboard advertisement of their atrocities. Palace walls displayed reliefs (essentially embossed carvings) of the most painful deaths and torture. The Assyrians impaled, skinned, decapitated, burned, and dismembered the people they conquered. The theatricality – the spectacle they made of extreme violence – and their publicizing of it were almost certainly deliberate and for strategic ends.

Lachish_wall_relief_British_Museum

The Assyrian soldiers are flaying the captives. The Assyrians often performed such atrocities in sight of the victim’s families. Image: Lachish wall relief. Courtesy of the British Museum.

Although the Assyrians might have been so vicious to their conquests because their own society was merciless, the Assyrian’s end goal was an easy victory. Ancient armies captured other cities primarily through siege warfare – basically hacking through a city’s walls or climbing over them. Sieges, however, took months and were dangerous, difficult work. (Think: boiling oil poured on the heads of men attempting to scale the wall.) Far better to have cities surrender before the Assyrians even had to fight.

The Assyrian legend for savagery was so great that cities would quake and tremble at their approach. Some cities would just surrender rather than submitting to an Assyrian siege and its aftermath. A king of Urartu stabbed himself through his heart with an iron dagger when threatened by Assyrian armies.

If a city resisted and lost, it cost them dearly. One Assyrian king recorded, “The nobles [and] elders of the city came out to me to save their lives. They seized my feet and said: ‘If it pleases you, kill! If it pleases you, spare! If it pleases you, do what you will!’”9 Their fear was so great of the Assyrian king’s wrath that these city elders didn’t even dare beg for mercy.

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An example of an Assyrian siege from one of their wall reliefs. Assyrian soldiers shoot arrows from behind a shield wall. In front of the soldiers is a battering ram and siege ramp. In the back left corner are the impaled bodies of some enemy soldiers.

And, such lack of resistance is precisely what the Assyrian kings wanted. The more difficult the siege or greater the resistance, the more likely the inhabitants would be treated harshly. In other words, the angrier the king got, the harsher the punishment once the Assyrians captured the city. Assyrian King Ashurnasirpal boasted about his punishment of one city who resisted: “I flayed as many nobles as had rebelled against me [and] draped their skins over the pile [of corpses]; some I spread out within the pile, some I erected on stakes upon the pile … I flayed many right through my land [and] draped their skins over the walls.”10 As archeologist Belibtreu notes, the king likely recorded this episode not only for bragging rights but also to further the Assyrian legend and frighten cities who might even consider resisting.

Here’s another shocking example of what happened to those who resisted and lost – in the words of two Assyrian kings:

“I felled 50 of their fighting men with the sword, burnt 200 captives from them, [and] defeated in a battle on the plain 332 troops. … With their blood I dyed the mountain red like red wool, [and] the rest of them the ravines [and] torrents of the mountain swallowed. I carried off captives [and] possessions from them. I cut off the heads of their fighters [and] built [therewith] a tower before their city. I burnt their adolescent boys [and] girls11 .”

And, another…

“In strife and conflict I besieged [and] conquered the city. I felled 3,000 of their fighting men with the sword … I captured many troops alive: I cut off of some their arms [and] hands; I cut off of others their noses, ears, [and] extremities. I gouged out the eyes of many troops. I made one pile of the living [and] one of heads. I hung their heads on trees around the city12 .”

67795-Game-of-Thrones-sausage-gif-Ra-0Kxq

Humorous, but not to Theon, psychological warfare. Source: PandaWhale © HBO.

The point of all of this, if you’re still reading this gruesome article, is that the Assyrians like House Bolton waged war through fear as much as blades. House Bolton thrives on its reputation for extreme cruelty. Yes, Ramsay is a sadist, but his father cautions him against going too far. This isn’t to say that there isn’t truth to House Bolton’s rumored flayings. Rather, historically at least, the family doesn’t commit atrocities solely for his its own pleasure. Still, if the rumors of the secret room with ancient Stark skins are true, House Bolton takes pride in its macabre war trophies.

By

  1. Game of Thrones, Kindle edition, p. 556 []
  2. “Assyrian Attitude Towards Captive Enemies: A 2700-year-old Paleo-forensic Study” by H. Cohen et al in the International Journal of Osteoarcheology Oct 2012 p.1 []
  3. See http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/39555/Assyria []
  4. THE RISE OF ASSYRIA” in Encyclopedia Brittanica. []
  5. “Grisly Assyrian Record of Torture and Death” by Erika Belibtreu in the Biblical Archaeology Review 17:01 (Jan/Feb 1991). []
  6. The Assyrians appear to have been after land and not necessarily people – there wasn’t a big market for slaves at that time in that region. After they invaded a city, the people they didn’t kill or mutilate, they resettled in a distant place and/or subjected them to forced labor. See P.B. Kerns Ancient Siege Warfare p. 70. []
  7. King Adad-nirari lived (c. 1295–c. 1264). For the statement, see “THE RISE OF ASSYRIA” in Encyclopedia Brittanica. []
  8. “Grisly Assyrian Record of Torture and Death” by Erika Belibtreu in the Biblical Archaeology Review 17:01 (Jan/Feb 1991). []
  9. The Assyrian king’s ego demanded complete submission. This statement clearly pleased one Assyrian king enough that he recorded it for posterity. “Grisly Assyrian Record of Torture and Death” by Erika Belibtreu in the Biblical Archaeology Review 17:01 (Jan/Feb 1991). []
  10. “Grisly Assyrian Record of Torture and Death” by Erika Belibtreu in the Biblical Archaeology Review 17:01 (Jan/Feb 1991). []
  11. “Grisly Assyrian Record of Torture and Death” by Erika Belibtreu in the Biblical Archaeology Review 17:01 (Jan/Feb 1991). []
  12. “Grisly Assyrian Record of Torture and Death” by Erika Belibtreu in the Biblical Archaeology Review 17:01 (Jan/Feb 1991). []

Jamie Adair is the editor of History Behind Game of Thrones, a website about the history behind George RR Martin's "A Song of Ice and Fire" novels and the hit TV show, "Game of Thrones."

15 Comments

  • Reply February 6, 2014

    BoredMe

    There’s a strong current of online fan feeling(strong enough that TVTropes iists it), that the Boltons are based off of the Vlad the Impaler/Dracula…with Roose representing history and Ramsay representing the dark legend. Flaying is, more or less, the substitute for impalement that, among other things, makes the inspiration not overly obvious.

    • Reply February 6, 2014

      Jaime Adair

      That’s very interesting and cool – thanks. I just went on TV Tropes and found a great explanation but then lost the page and can’t find quite the right one again. Is the idea that Ramsay is the monster Vlad becomes after he “dies” and becomes immortal?
      I’m a big fan of Dracula and the vampire genre in general. The Vlad Tempes legend is so gruesome. When you actually read about how impaling worked, it is even more horrifying than it sounds initially. I was stunned. (Not that that part is a good thing! But it is worth reading about for anyone with a strong stomach.)

      I found this out after I wrote the article, but in the Hundred Years’ War period in France there were bands of marauding soldiers called the “skinners” – I can’t remember the French word off-hand. (Eschorcheurs or something maybe?)

      But I’m a huge Dracula fan and the Dracula idea is really intriguing. Has GRRM commented on it at all?

      • Reply June 22, 2016

        Costin

        Vlad Țepeș not Tempes. Țeapă means pale / spike in Romanian.
        Great article, by the way.

        I am Romanian and yes, I see the resemblances clearly. And fear works really well.

        • Reply June 22, 2016

          Jamie Adair

          Thanks! I found the research for this very interesting. Thanks for sharing this: Țeapă means pale / spike in Romanian. Very intriguing

    • Reply March 6, 2014

      Jaime Adair

      Hey BoredMe, I wrote an article about the Vlad/Ramsay theory here: http://history-behind-game-of-thrones.com/ancienthistory/skinning-house-bolton Thanks for the suggestion!

  • Reply February 9, 2014

    Hugh Dickinson

    This wouldn’t be quite so gory, but I would like to suggest an article looking at the parallels between Volantis and the Aristotle’s view of the perfect Polis – I think Volantene society is almost exactly what Aristoltle envisaged to be the perfect society.

    • Reply February 11, 2014

      Jaime Adair

      Hi Hugh,
      This is a very interesting idea. It has been years since I’ve read Aristotle, so this may take a while. But, given the flaws in Volantis, your idea is very intriguing. Thanks for the suggestion and thank for reading!

      Jamie

  • Reply August 7, 2014

    Antony Charnock

    Hi Jaime,
    Here’s some more info about flaying in Britain during the wars with Scotland. Its pretty obvious George knows his British history, so could also be an influence as well as the european slant you mentioned in the article: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hugh_de_Cressingham

    • Reply August 7, 2014

      Jamie Adair

      Thank you, Antony! That’s awesome – very interesting especially given George RR Martin’s interest in medieval Scottish history. I’m pretty sure I’ve read he’s a fan of Braveheart, so he likely knows that Hugh de Cressingham flayed Scottish POWs. Thank you again!

  • Reply September 5, 2014

    Anonymous

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peter_the_Great#mediaviewer/File:Peter_der-Grosse_1838.jpg

    Peter 1 wears an emblem similar to the Bolton’s. I do not believe that the emblem signifies flaying, but I found it interesting.

  • Reply April 4, 2015

    Calacala

    A possible inspiration for the Boltons comes from the Saxon Kingdom of Essex. The myth here goes that we were being assailed by constant Viking raids, the people – whipped into a frenzy of outrage – took what prisoners they could, flayed them as they lived and nailed the pelts to every church door throughout the Kingdom – as macabre charms against the Viking invaders.
    It’s said that several church doors still have splotches of old blood, and even fragments of dead skin from all those centuries ago.

  • Reply October 6, 2015

    Sara G

    It looks like there’s a touch of the Bloody Mummers in there too.

  • […] In a word: yes. It wouldn’t be a major Game of Thrones battle without someone we know and love being killed. The manner in which they die may be a little more gruesome. The Bolton sigil, after all, is an upside-down flayed man. […]

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