Being the Eldest Mattered


The Starks line up in order of precedence. All the children except Rickon, too young to be left on his own, line up beside their father in the order in which they were born. Image © HBO.

This is a minor detail, but I was kind of delighted when I saw it. The Game of Thrones crew really has amazing attention to detail. (Although I’m sure this was in the books, so George RR Martin does as well.)

At the beginning of Game of Thrones, when Robert Baratheon and his entourage arrive at Winterfell, Arya is wearing a helmet, pretending she is a soldier. She scampers off the cart she is perched on and races back to take her place in the receiving line. Her parents and their household are lined up in their finest to greet the king. Arya doesn’t just stand anywhere. She shoves Bran out of the way – “Move!” she snarls – and assumes her place between Bran and Sansa.

Arya and her siblings are lining up in their birth order. The eldest, Robb, is closest to Ned, followed by Sansa who is the next oldest and so on.

In the Middle Ages, the order in which you were born – how close you were to being the eldest – really mattered for both men and women. The effects of primogeniture (first son preference) are pretty well known. But, younger sisters had to defer to their elder sisters as well. For example, a younger sister typically had to wait to wed until her older sister married.

When it came time to divide inherited items, if there were no specific bequeathments, the elder children chose before the younger children. As Michael Hicks notes in his discussion of the division of Warwick’s estate, Isabel, the eldest daughter, would normally pick the land she wanted before her younger sister Isabel.

In the Middle Ages, status mattered and seniority in the family was yet another way to assign status.



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."

1 Comment

  • Reply June 8, 2014

    Watcher on the Couch

    I had done a post on this but I lost it so hopefully second time lucky … the UK it is still prudent to have a guide to titles and form of address such as Debrett’s among one’s reference books – though even Debrett’s is online now – if one is likely to have to deal with the upper-crust (I didn’t make the system but have to co-exist with it though to be honest I usually had to communicate with people of less exalted rank). If one were introducing the three Bloggs sisters who, say, ranked in age from Bessie the eldest, Louise the middle one and Alice the youngest, one would say “Miss Bloggs, Miss Louise Bloggs and Miss Alice Bloggs”. I noticed this in “Pride and Prejudice” where it referred to “Miss Bennett” and initially I thought “which one” but applying the principle just mentioned it would be Jane, the eldest Bennett sister. When Baroness Butler-Schloss became the first British female appeal judge the law had to be tweaked so she could be called “Lady Justice Butler-Schloss” rather than “Lord”. I watched “Engrenages” a French series last year and the female lawyer there was addressed as “Maitre”.

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