Brothers Apart: Oathbreakers and Turncloaks


As viewers we tend to see Theon as Robb Stark’s adopted brother, therefore we see his betrayal as an unnatural thing. When we look at Edward IV’s younger brothers, George Duke of Clarence and Richard III, we see George as the betrayer and Richard as the loyal one. Is it not natural to support one’s own brother over a cousin? Or was George’s decision a little closer to that of Theon Greyjoy’s, choosing between a father and a brother?

Theon Turncloak

“A dog who turns against his master is fit for naught but skinning.”

The Northerners never viewed Theon Greyjoy as a Stark. In reality, despite his bravado, Theon longed to be one of the Starks. Here is a young boy taken hostage by strangers, his own family disgraced and ruined. So it would be natural for Theon to desire some sort of normalcy, to want to forge a bond with young Robb Stark after his own brothers were killed in battle. Unfortunately Catelyn Stark was hardly going to be a mother figure. Catelyn, for all her admirable bravery, is a noble woman with a deep sense of her own status who treats Jon Snow with heartless contempt. Even if Theon’s memories are slightly coloured by his fears, I trust his description of the ‘cold and distant’ Lady Stark. As a boy he feared Ned Stark. Robb Stark was easily a comforting figure, a younger boy who Theon liked to think looked up to him.

His father’s war was long done, and lost. This was Theon’s hour—his plan, his glory, and in time his crown.1

We have taken a sympathetic look at Theon and the terrible choice he had to make between his father and his ‘brother’ Robb. We should take into account, however, that the decision was not made entirely without ambition, including the murder of the miller’s boys. That is Theon’s own ambition, to take what he views as his rightful place as his father’s heir and eventually the King of the Iron Islands.


Ramsay torturing Theon. © HBO.

Theon is a difficult character, an uncomfortable character. Firstly we have to live through his torture and the subsequent ruin of his mind and body. You’d like to think Theon deserves his fate for turning against Robb, but you might perhaps question what you would have done in Theon’s place. Is there something unnatural about wanting to side with your blood-relatives over the family that took you hostage in a place where you will never fit in? We can only see that Theon’s choice was wrong with the benefit of hindsight. But then Robb Stark and his army fell, betrayed by Walder Frey. Theon would have been slain along with the rest of the nobles attending the Red Wedding. And I suspect George R.R. Martin is keeping Theon with us for a reason.

So is the Northmen’s view of Theon as an oath-breaker fair? Yes, on the one hand he broke his oath to Robb Stark, his King if not his brother and he murdered two innocent children even if they were not Bran and Rickon Stark.  Robb was a usurper who did not realise his ambitions in the end, but the North remembers.  Just like Jaime Lannister, who had every good reason to kill the mad King Aerys before he razed the city to the ground, will forever be remembered as the Kingslayer. Oath-breaking was considered the most terrible of crimes and even in Robert’s reign Jaime could not shift the stain on his reputation, even after the Targaryen cause was abandoned. What we often overlook when we discuss the possible historical counterparts for Theon Greyjoy is the nature of medieval kingship and the impact of a feudal society.

False Fleeting Perjur’d Clarence

The Duke of Clarence is a puzzle we are not going to solve in the next few paragraphs. There are many difficult questions surrounding George but one of the significant questions is why we accept his death as well-deserved when the charges of treason against him were clearly fabricated. Because the Duke of Clarence is a difficult subject we are dismissive of him. We brand him as a traitor and cast him aside- he betrayed his own brother and we view this as unnatural.


It is of course unnatural in a sense. However we would have to accept that George was viewing Edward as his elder brother, and not as his King when he decided to side with his cousin and future father-in-law, the Earl of Warwick. Both Josephine Wilkinson and John Ashdown-Hill assert we’ve no evidence that George actually intended to usurp his brother. Michael Hicks thinks that George was aspiring to take the crown. It is true that Clarence may only have wanted to remove the Woodville influence from his brother’s side. While most historians agree Warwick’s intentions are less clear, Pollard points out that by winning George to his side, Warwick was showing rather more than a mere desire to rid Edward of evil council.2 Yet George was willing to abandon Warwick’s cause even after marrying his daughter Isabel Neville. Perhaps George was simply young and easily influenced, he was after all only nineteen. It was his mother who would intervene to bring George back into the fold.

So why would George been so dissatisfied with his lot if not simply for greed? The marriage between Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville was certainly a factor. It displaced him as heir, and while George could not have imagined his brother would never marry and have children, Edward IV named his first child Elizabeth of York as his heir after her birth. George may have seen this as a slight, after all a son had not been born, and he would not be alone in thinking the male heir was more important than the female. Hicks takes a relatively simple line with George, stating it is not actually difficult to understand his reasons for opposing his brother. He did not enjoy the influence he felt he was entitled to as Edward’s heir, he considered he was being kept short of money, he was excluded in a significant say in the government by the rise of Edward’s favourites and his desire to marry was repeatedly thwarted by Edward who was using George as a diplomatic pawn.3 When we consider all of those factors George’s feelings towards his brother become a little more complex.

Perhaps George viewed Warwick as a father figure. The earl of Warwick was Richard III’s guardian and Richard had lived with him for a time. Yet George had been named Edward’s heir at age eleven, and was never sent to another household where he may have enjoyed the positive influence of a male guardian rather than his subjects. Both Richard and George were deprived of their father at a tender age. Perhaps they chose their sides accordingly.

Loyaulte me lie


Richard III

There is almost no middle ground when it comes to opinion on Richard III, and both the overly positive and negative views of Richard do him a disservice. We need not take a hard line with Richard either way, Richard was not a particularly unconventional man of his time. While his motto is espoused as embracing his deeply loyal nature we should probably remember that Henry VIII also called himself ‘Sir Loyal Heart’ before he abandoned his wife of twenty years, Katherine of Aragon. Loyalty is used as a chivalric notion in a time when the legends of King Arthur captured the imagination. His piety was also not especially unusual, arguably when he took the throne it was his responsibility to set an example for his subjects – and Richard did take his responsibilities as King seriously. No more should we consider that any ruthless actions Richard took in his lifetime were anything outside of the norm when it came to societal structure, the acquisition of wealth and eventually, medieval kingship.

When we compare Richard with Clarence, it is of course easy to surmise Richard was the loyal brother. A sixteen year-old Richard of Gloucester would side with his brother Edward against his brother Clarence and the earl of Warwick, and indeed why not? There’s no reason to think that this was a case of Richard’s hero-worship of Edward, or equally that this was a calculated move on Richard’s part for his own benefit. Richard was young, and despite their blood relationship, he was Edward’s subject. Perhaps the thought of siding with Clarence didn’t even cross his mind.

Richard would flee with Edward IV into exile. Again with the benefit of hindsight we can say Richard made the right decision, just as we surmise Theon made the wrong one. Edward would defeat Warwick and go on to reign relatively peacefully until his death. Richard would reap the benefits from his generous older brother, but both Richard and Edward would have known how close a call it was. A.J. Pollard points out that Warwick’s rebellion only failed on a military level. Popular opinion had leaned towards Warwick during the Readeption.4. Had Edward not defeated Warwick all three brothers – as George had come back to the fold – may have been slain on the field.

Nature Nurture

The despotic nature of the eldest York brother, Edward IV, is often glossed over, as is the case with many medieval monarchs. Edward fulfils an ideal of a successful military king, in a time when kings who lost battles gained the reputation of cowardice rather than being unsuccessful. The Anglo-Saxon King Æthelred II, who is best known for his terrible losses in the second coming of the Vikings is dubbed Æthelred ‘The Unready’, yet this is a mistranslation of the original Old English unræd, which actually means ‘ill-advised’. King John, forever in the shadow of his brother Richard I “The Lionheart’, is easily more maligned than Richard III himself, and much of his cowardly reputation again comes from military losses. Even now the great military kings are championed, the innocent casualties of those wars disregarded.

Edward IV

Edward IV

So perhaps we overlook the impact that Richard’s environment have had on him, as Charles Ross puts it “the mental climate that dominated his upbringing… his father had unsuccessfully claimed the throne of England against an accepted and  consecrated king, backed by the threat of force…his brother had used force more effectively to seize the throne…his guardian the earl of Warwick had been even more ruthless in eliminating his political rivals – especially the Woodvilles, without due process of law and incidentally demonstrated the power of a great northern connection in national politics”5 . With Edward IV’s successful claim for the throne came the eventual murder of the deposed King Henry VI. Henry VI’s own grandfather Henry IV had also deposed and murdered an anointed King, Richard II. Richard’s deposition of his nephews is still seen as shocking, but perhaps it is really not that unnatural at all. After all his predecessor had taken the throne by force, his successor would do the same. And, of course, George Duke of Clarence shared these experiences with Richard.

Brothers Apart

“Seen with hindsight, Richard’s coup was a series of decisive, brilliantly executed manoeuvres which completely wrong-footed his sometimes bewildered opponents”, writes David Baldwin “Perhaps they ought to have been more astute, more politically alive to the danger; but they knew him as a colleague – even as a friend in some cases – and assumed that he would do his duty by his juvenile nephew. They either forgot that his old mentor Warwick had deposed a king and executed several royal favourites in 1469–70, or did not think him capable of the same ruthlessness6 .”

It is clear Richard’s opponents underestimated him, but what about his peers? Were they truly expecting Richard to assume the role of the loyal uncle only to see his influence wane after Edward V reached his majority? Perhaps they were thinking of the oath Richard had sworn to protect his brother’s son. Oaths were after all considered sacred. As for Richard’s peers, they had probably sworn their own oaths to three Kings by that time. Of course no one can accuse the nobility of being free of hypocrisy, the Woodvilles were notoriously unpopular even after almost two decades of a happy marriage and Elizabeth Woodville providing twelve princes and princesses for the realm. There seems to have been little complaint over Edward V being snatched from his Woodville relatives. Many of the nobility had abandoned Edward’s cause easily enough during the Readeption, only to welcome him back after his decisive return and overlook the murder of King Henry VI. But then a feudal society had little choice when it came to obeying the supreme authority in the land.

Richard may have believed the pre-contract story he used against his nephews, he may have used it as a convenient excuse. In either case and in all likelihood Richard would have thought that he was acting for the good of the realm. George Duke of Clarence may have thought that even as a younger brother he was better suited to the crown after Edward betrayed his peers by marrying a commoner. It is not the first time a royal family was torn asunder from within, nor would it be the last. The fact is that Edward IV was guilty of usurpation, he was guilty of regicide and of fratricide, judicial or no, and he was guilty of war crimes. What makes the Duke of Clarence and King Richard III any more guilty than their brother the King?

  1. Theon A Clash of Kings pg 213 []
  2. Pollard, A.J. Warwick the Kingmaker, Hambledon Continuum 2007, p66 []
  3. Hicks, Michael, False, Fleeting Perjur’d Clarence, Headstart 1992 p176 []
  4. Pollard, A.J. Warwick the Kingmaker, Hambledon Continuum 2007, p73 []
  5. Ross, Charles, Richard III, Yale University Press 1999 p23 []
  6. Baldwin, David, Richard III, Amberley Publishing 2013, p104 []
Olga Hughes

Olga runs the online magazine Nerdalicious with her partner C.S. Hughes. Nerdalicious is the best source of Game of Thrones and other pop culture news, including books, film, sci-fi and medieval history.


  • Reply July 17, 2014


    Reading this illuminating article, I am yet again struck by how difficult it is to put ourselves in the shoes of historical figures and imagine why they had to do what they did. It would require us to temporarily forget the “future”, which the historical characters did not have knowledge of. So much of what we latecomers view as right or wrong, good or bad is built upon the knowledge of the “future.” This is why history is so plagued with revisionists. We all are, even when it comes to our own personal history. Somehow, the human mind is born to be revisionist and utterly unreliable. Without ASOIAF I would never have realized this limitation.

    • Olga Hughes
      Reply July 18, 2014

      Olga Hughes

      I think the beauty of George’s fictional feudal society is the vast outlook we get from the different characters. Often when we read a history book it is concentrating on the one historical figure, but when we read a history book on a particular period we lose a little of the human perspective on it. Engaging in a period through the eyes of many actually gives you a better understanding and it places all of the characters in their correct context.

  • Reply July 18, 2014

    Watcher on the Couch

    Is this Olga’s article? I agree with Jun about the point regarding “how difficult it is to put ourselves in the shoes of historical figures and imagine why they had to do what they did”. I had an exchange (though not nastily) with somebody on another site about Talisa (who is one of my least favourite changes from the books). The other person said something to the effect that Talisa was more modern than Jeyne and that Jeyne was a bit one-note. Obviously Talisa was supposed to be medieval not modern and in those days people just would not have spoken angrily to a king the way Talisa did when she first spoke to Robb (well if they did there would be consequences). I can understand why some changes are made but the show-runners seemed to want to change book Jeyne because she was not “bad-ass” but was a relatively uncomplicated, loving wife (which is not a bad thing to be). To me at least it was an unnecessary change and considering GRRM has expressed a desire to go against “tropes” the love story of Robb and Talisa struck me as being very slushy.

    My first paragraph is rather off-topic for Theon though. I hated Theon after the farmer’s boys (or miller’s boys) were killed but as the story developed I started to feel sorry for him because I would not wish the Ramsay treatment on my worst enemy. The article is food for thought (Theon, sort of being a foster-brother to Robb even if not a blood relation). In the middle ages a country needed a powerful king so a weak one, as noted in the article, was sometimes replaced. When I lived on the outskirts of London (in Ilford) the next station down the line on the overground train was called “Seven Kings”, supposedly from when the Anglo-Saxon kings used to have a “moot” to choose a ruler, but by the time George, Duke of Clarence and his brothers were living, the English monarchy had of course become hereditary (allegedly), though in reality it kind of depended on who had the biggest batte-axe!. I know somebody who takes a mischievous pleasure in teasing ardent monarchists (in the UK obviously) by saying the wealth of the monarchy is based on the proceeds of crime……

    • Olga Hughes
      Reply July 18, 2014

      Olga Hughes

      Yes that’s me Watcher, I’ve one or two more in this series yet. Considering all the fuss people make now about who was the usurper during the WOTR I think that the actual feelings at the time get glossed over. The Duke of York may have had support in his rebellion against Henry VI but when he actually tried to claim the crown the reaction was negative. The support for Warwick’s rebellion would have stemmed from those who felt that Edward was a usurper – hence Warwick placing Henry VI back on the throne rather than making George king. Of course once Henry VI was murdered any Lancastrian loyalists had little to rally around and had to make the best of what they had.

      Go off-topic all you please, I’m actually working on something on some of the female characters at the moment and I’ve been thinking about Talisa. I agree she’s not a terribly good representation but the difficulty with the Jeyne Westerling character is that she’s not actually all that popular with a lot of book fans. The problem there is it wasn’t a case of love at first, Robb simply slept with her and then married her to protect her honour. So fans can resent her for inadvertently being the cause of his death. If you tried to translate that to screen I suspect viewers would hate her even more, she’s not a major character and we don’t get to know her. It is a pretty tired trope, the ‘feisty commoner who captured a king’s hear’ but I think viewers could invest in Talisa’s character more.
      I am not fond of the character either but I understand how it worked better for the television series. I would still question her stabbing at the Red Wedding though, especially going after her first. I’m not 100% sure even a Frey would murder a heavily pregnant woman. I could be wrong of course.

      • Reply July 19, 2014


        I can sympathize with fans’ hatred for Jeyne Westerling, but unfortunately that is a far more realistic medieval situation than Talisa. The virginity of a noble woman is a very big deal. The pressure on Robb to marry her is difficult for the modern audience or reader to understand. She was not his vassal or subject. To bed her without marrying her could be considered rape (not unlike a version of the Lyanna-Rhaegar incident), which could do Robb real harm. In fact, we don’t know whether Robb loves her but from the few glimpses in the books it seems that she really loves Robb (Who doesn’t?). We have to remember that the somewhat unflattering view of Jeyne W. came from Catelyn, hardly an impartial observer. Maybe Robb is madly in love with her, with the help of her mother’s potions.

        I can understand the TV series’ changes in this and most cases (though not all cases) to make the story more accessible and relate-able to modern audience. Can you imagine the public’s outrage over a prolonged debate about and the horrible consequences of protecting a woman’s virginity? Even though it hurts the historical authenticity of Martin’s books, I can see why this makes Robb more likable to the audience. Despite my gripes, I have to remember that Dave and Dan have broken some TV rating records, which allows the TV series to go on for a couple more season and potentially spoil the ending for everyone … (It hurts my brain to think about it.)

  • Reply July 19, 2014

    Starfall Fan

    If Theon Greyjoy had not betrayed the Starks and if he had stayed with Robb Stark, I don’t think he would have died in the Red Wedding. In fact, it’s likely that the Red Wedding wouldn’t have happened. See, when Theon killed those miller’s boys and claimed it’s Bran and Rickon, the news plunged Robb into grief and grief drove him into him the arms of Jeyne Westerling (Talisa in the show), thus forgetting his vow to marry one of Walder Frey’s daughters. Since Robb would still be betrothed to one of the Frey girls, Lord Walder wouldn’t plot to betray Robb because he was eager to have a daughter be the wife of a king.

    Even if Robb still dies somehow, Bran Stark would become the Lord of Winterfell and the King in the North. That means Bran wouldn’t have the chance or motive to run off to beyond the Wall, and therefore he might not be as instrumental in the future war against the White Walkers, whatever form of help he might take. If Bran still runs off and realize his destiny, his little brother, Rickon would become the lord and king. Being such a young boy, he’s very liable to becoming a puppet of some powerful lord like Roose Bolton or someone else.

    So, Theon’s betrayal was instrumental to the story advancing the way it did and had ripples through Westerosi history.

    • Reply July 19, 2014

      Jamie Adair

      Excellent analysis. Wow I like this. I think you are right about Robb’s grief as well – I hadn’t thought of it from that perspective before. Thanks!

    • Olga Hughes
      Reply July 19, 2014

      Olga Hughes

      I fully agree Theon’s betrayal is integral to the events, and with your point on Bran. There is an incident in later books I would love to discuss but can’t (spoilers)
      However I think Robb would have married Jeyne regardless. He was not at the Westerlings seat because of what happened to Bran and Rickon. We would have to accept Robb’s excuse to a stern mother that he only slept with her because he was grieving – let’s be realistic here, they were both willing. Considering Jeyne’s mother’s later scheming I would not be at all surprised if she has purposely pushed Jeyne into Robb’s path – not that Jeyne would have been privy to any schemes. And it is rather convenient that Jeyne was able to nurse him unchaperoned.

      • Reply July 22, 2014

        Starfall Fan

        That’s possible. Robb also admitted that he married Jeyne after sleeping with her because he felt honor-bound to preserve her honor. Furthermore, he did it because he didn’t want to create bastards and he was influenced by the way Jon Snow was treated back at Winterfell. In this light, his marriage with Jeyne was also Catelyn’s fault for being so cold and mean-spirited to Jon. In a tangential way, the Red Wedding could be linked to Catelyn. Well, one of the main lessons (themes?) of ASOIAF is that every action has consequences, both foreseen and unforeseen, both good and terrible.

        Robb might be attracted to Jeyne before sleeping together. However, he tried hard to follow his father’s footsteps in being honorable and in keeping promises (even if that was damagingly incompatible with the realities of Westerosi politics). His vow to marry one of the Frey girls would be at the forefront of his mind. Grief from hearing of Bran’s and Rickon’s death might be the final straw that broke his vow.

  • Reply July 24, 2014

    Watcher on the Couch

    It probably seems strange to young people now – but actually not being a virgin for a female (not fair if the male of the species was not judged so harshly in the same circumstances) was something of an issue still even in my youth. It all rather changed in the “swinging sixties”. Of course I’m not saying everybody was a virgin when they got married back then (though probably more were than are nowadays) but an unmarried mother would probably would be pressurised to give the baby for adoption or marry the father. Films like “Philomena” and “Magdalen Sisters” give something of the idea of how things were – though that was in Ireland, I don’t think it was quite as bad in the UK. Somebody I used to be quite friendly with never told me that she had a baby when she was a teenager that her parents made her have adopted (majority didn’t come in till 21 then) though I did know about (and know) her other children. I just hope the friend had not thought I was so prim and proper that I would have judged her. Having said that, a heck of a lot of medieval kings seem to have fathered illegitimate children. I don’t think it was such an issue in the old dukedom of Normandy (William II {2nd} “The Conqueror”) King of England from 1066 inherited the dukedom despite his parents not being married (maybe Normandy was like Dorne in that respect – without the warm weather). He was also known as “William the Bastard”.

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