Betray or Obey? The Other Side of Theon Greyjoy and George Duke of Clarence


Two brothers? Robb Stark and Theon Greyjoy, as portrayed by Richard Madden and Alfie Allen respectively. © HBO

Olga Hughes, editor of Nerdalicious, takes another look at the Theon and Clarence. She finds the parallels between them complex and even finds Theon oddly sympathetic.

George Duke of Clarence is a serviceable villain; after all, there are not many historical figures of well-known royal houses that betrayed their own brother. Yet research on George has previously not been easily accessible, and despite a new biography being published this year, it will be some time before George Plantagenet is reassessed on a wider scale. His two biographers Michael Hicks and John Ashdown-Hill take a rather sympathetic view in regards to some of George’s actions. Other than being dragged out to be murdered, by the wrong brother, in The Tragedy of Richard III, Shakespeare’s Clarence leaves little impression. George will forever be eclipsed by his brothers. It is a melancholy legacy.

 edwardiv-face  elizabeth-woodville  Richard III
 Edward IV  Elizabeth Woodville  Richard III

The Duke of Clarence is largely dismissed as a miscreant, his actions inexplicable and unjustifiable. He betrayed his own brother. Theon Greyjoy also betrayed his “adoptive brother” Robb Stark. It is tempting then, to draw a parallel between the two, the traitor and the oath-breaker. False fleeting perjur’d Clarence and Theon Turncloak. Things are never that simple of course. The Duke of Clarence felt he was ill-used, not enjoying the influence he felt he was entitled to, his hopes for a marriage repeatedly thwarted by his brother King Edward IV, who was using him as a diplomatic pawn. His brother Edward also had, in George’s eyes, betrayed the family by marrying a commoner, Elizabeth Woodville and casting the house of York into disrepute. There was no “simple” greed in George’s actions. Just as there was no “simple” betrayal on the part of Theon Greyjoy. Theon had no plans to betray Robb Stark until his disastrous homecoming, ten years after his father surrendered to Ned Stark and gave up his last living son as a hostage.


Theon and Clarence. Image of Theon © HBO.

Early Years

…my lord father once told me that hard places breed hard men, and hard men rule the world…

The childhoods of George and Theon could not be more different. Theon was brought up on the bleak shores of Pyke on the Iron Islands. The Ironborn value the “Old Way”, raiding, warfare and the warrior. “Death is never far here, and life is mean and meager. Men spend their nights drinking ale and arguing over whose lot is worse, the fisherfolk who fight the sea or the farmers who try and scratch a crop from the poor thin soil. If truth be told, the miners have it worse than either, breaking their backs down in the dark, and for what? Iron, lead, tin, those are our treasures. Small wonder the ironmen of old turned to raiding1 .”


Pyke © HBO.

George was brought up in the privileged household of a royal Duke and Duchess, their love of fine things and the vast sums of money they spent is well-documented. The third living son of the Duke and Duchess of York, he shared a nursery with his sisters, and later his younger brother, the future King Richard III. George’s early years would be comfortable, sheltered from the hard realities that Theon faced on Pyke. Yet even George’s gentle upbringing could not save him from the horrors of war. It is war that separated both Theon and George from their fathers.

Ward or Hostage?


Richard of York’s head with a paper crown

It was Richard Duke of York’s bid for power that would bring about what we now call the Wars of the Roses. A young George’s first real taste of war would see his father’s loss at the Battle of Ludford Bridge in 1459 and his subsequent flight to Ireland. Cecily Neville would be left behind with her children. There is a romantic legend that Cecily stood in the Market Cross at Ludlow to meet her enemies as Henry VI’s army sacked the town the next day, but it is not certain that Cecily and the children were even in Ludlow.2  Cecily herself deferred to King Henry VI, who after depriving her of her estates, granted her 1000 marks annuity (no mean sum but perhaps not enough for the Duchess) and sent her to live under house arrest with her sister, Anne Neville. The family were now hostages for the Duke of York’s good behaviour. But realistically they would never have been in any physical danger. George’s real trauma would follow the Battle of Wakefield.


George Plantagenet, Duke of Clarence

After the Duke of York’s defeat and death at Battle of Wakefield, along with his son Edmund Earl of Rutland, their heads were placed on pikes by the victorious Lancastrian armies and displayed over Micklegate Bar, the Duke of York’s wearing a paper crown. Cecily, possibly terrified and certainly sensing real danger, sent her two youngest sons George and Richard to Philip Duke of Burgundy, at Utrecht. Theon Greyjoy was also taken hostage after his father Balon’s rebellion against the crown failed and his two elder brothers were slain in battle. Theon was a frightened ten year-old boy taken prisoner by strangers and sent to a foreign land. It is in these experiences that Theon and George have the strongest connection. Yet fate would deal them very different hands.

Boys believe nothing can hurt them…Grown men know better.


Battle of Towton by Richard Woodville.

In a matter of weeks George was reunited with his mother and sisters, and his eldest brother and now King of England, Edward IV. The horrific Battle of Towton saw the defeat of King Henry VI and the rise of the house of York. In the months that followed George was named his brother’s heir and returned to his life of privileged comfort. It is small compensation for the loss of a father, but George was now one of the most important people in the kingdom. Perhaps a young boy thought that someday he too would ascend to real power.

Theon, on the other hand, would not spend his formative years as a royal prince. He was an outsider, and an unwanted outsider, in a family that were the enemies of his own family. Theon would bitterly recall:

“As if ten years in Winterfell could make a Stark. Lord Eddard had raised him among his own children, but Theon had never been one of them. The whole castle, from Lady Stark to the lowliest kitchen scullion, knew he was hostage to his father’s good behavior, and treated him accordingly. Even the bastard Jon Snow had been accorded more honor than he had. Lord Eddard had tried to play the father from time to time, but to Theon he had always remained the man who’d brought blood and fire to Pyke and taken him from his home. As a boy, he had lived in fear of Stark’s stern face and great dark sword. His wife was, if anything, even more distant and suspicious”3

George was described by his contemporaries as “seemly of person and well-visaged” as well as “right witty”. He had wealth, position, looks and charm, and a sense of entitlement to match. Despite his younger years of turmoil by the time George entered his early adult years he was an independent man. John Ashdown-Hill speculates that survival had given George a sense of invulnerability.4 It would lead him down a dangerous path.


Did Theon truly grow up as brothers with Robb and Jon?  The boys prepare for King Robert’s banquet at Winterfell. © HBO

Theon, on the other hand, is in limbo. Theon is the legal heir to his father’s lands yet unable to return to his home. Years of being a hostage must have had some effect on Theon, realistically he could never be sure his father would not decide to sacrifice him and rebel against the Iron Throne again. Theon is also often reminded how grateful he should be for his “good treatment.” Certainly Ned Stark raised Theon alongside his children and gave him privileges but did Theon really receive the same treatment as a young Richard Duke of Gloucester, ward to Richard Neville, the Earl of Warwick? Would Theon ever have been considered as a husband for the Stark’s precious eldest daughter Sansa Stark, or even their youngest Arya? The Earl of Warwick had an eye on both of King Edward’s younger brothers, George and Richard, for his daughters and heirs, Isabel and Anne Neville, and eventually those marriages would come to fruition. Theon was not so valuable. The Starks would never have considered bringing Theon into the family by marriage. Theon would never be a Stark.

Love and Marriage


An imagined depiction of Elizabeth Woodville and Edward IV’s wedding.

It was the marriage between Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville that may be the catalyst that led George down the path of betrayal. When the secret marriage was first announced a fifteen-year old George was, somewhat surprisingly, vocal in his disapproval along with many other peers. Yet George had a very firm sense of his status even at this tender age. On the one hand it must have seemed the marriage between his brother and Elizabeth Woodville threatened George’s position and security. It certainly displaced him as Edward’s heir. And on the other hand the Woodville’s were seen as commoners and upstarts, despite Jacquetta Woodville’s lofty lineage and title, after all she had married her first husband the Duke of Bedford’s chamberlain. And while the former Lancastrian Lord Rivers had proven his loyalty to Edward IV and earned a place on his council, Lord Rivers would always be seen as a man raised by marriage.

cecily-nevilleGeorge was not the only family member who disapproved of the marriage, Edward’s own mother Cecily was furious. The marriage would cause a rift between Edward and his mother and this is perhaps why there is a popular view that Cecily favoured George over Edward and encouraged his betrayal. In reality there is no evidence of this, it was Cecily who was instrumental in bringing George back into the fold. That she may have begged for his life later on is perfectly natural of course.

After openly opposing his brother’s marriage, the marriage that displaced him as heir, George began to crave more power, more influence and more wealth. Edward, however, refused to give it to him. George’s increasing dissatisfaction with his position and his marriage-less state led him to an allegiance with his uncle, Richard Neville, “Warwick the Kingmaker”. George would side with the Earl of Warwick over his own brother, and marry Warwick’s daughter Isabel Neville against Edward’s wishes and without his permission. In the end Warwick’s rebellion would fail. Yet George would again emerge unscathed.


George’s betrayal was easily forgiven and Edward welcomed him and his new wife back into the family. In the matter of George and Richard’s marriages to the Neville sisters he would even pass an extremely dubious act declaring their still-living mother legally dead so George and Richard could help themselves to their mother-in-law’s vast fortune.

Theon, on the other hand, had no support from his family. In fact when Theon set out for Pike, on his way home with high hopes of securing a treaty between Robb Stark and Balon Greyjoy, he would come home to find his inheritance had been given to his sister.


“Asha” Greyjoy (also known as Yara on the series) as portrayed by Gemma Whelan. Image: © HBO.

Robb wanted to offer Balon Greyjoy a kingship over the Iron Islands if he ravaged the Lannisters’ coast with his longships. Balon’s uprising against the Iron Throne nine years prior to the events of Game of Thrones ended in disaster. Balon tried to secure independence for the Iron Islands and restore their traditions of old, lost almost three hundred years before, during the War of Conquest. The rebellion was crushed and Balon was forced to surrender. Obviously the treaty would restore Balon’s power and glory, but Theon had his own inheritance on his mind.

“His father’s war was long done, and lost. This was Theon’s hour—his plan, his glory, and in time his crown5 .”

Theon’s hopes would never be realised. The first person he is reunited with on Pike is his uncle Aeron, suspicious and unwelcoming. Aeron insists on baptising Theon before he takes him to meet his father. Theon is expecting to come home to his inheritance, to be reunited with his family and restore them to glory. When Theon, reasonably, attempts to persuade Balon to ally with Robb Stark, Balon refuses, lashing out at his son.


Balon Greyjoy, as portrayed by Patrick Malahide. © HBO

“It is as I feared. The green lands have made you soft, and the Starks have made you theirs.”6 There is no emotional reunion for Theon, no glorious welcome back into the family. To Balon, Theon is a reminder of his crushing defeat, the death of his sons and everything he has lost. If Theon was hoping to fare better with his sister, his hopes are dashed after Asha – who Theon does not recognise – tricks him into flirting with (and fondling) her, making him look and feel like a fool. To Asha, Theon represents a threat, one that must be vanquished.

“Theon took the empty seat beside Asha. Leaning close, he hissed in her ear, “You’re in my place.”

She turned to him with innocent eyes. “Brother, surely you are mistaken. Your place is at Winterfell.” Her smile cut. “And where are all your pretty clothes? I heard you fancied silk and velvet against your skin7 .”

As Theon thinks soon after, when Asha has succeeded in humiliating him by spilling his dinner over him and making a spectacle of him in front of the whole hall: “Half my life I have waited to come home, and for what? Mockery and disregard?8


Theon takes Winterfell. Copyright HBO.

Theon’s attempt to finally have what he considers his proper place in his family is futile. In place of the respect he craved he received humiliation. Even after Theon readily obeys his father in moving against the North, clearly desperate to win his approval, Balon insists on disgracing Theon further by sending Asha to take Deepwood Motte and Theon to raid fishing villages on the Stony Shore. One might think that even had Theon proved himself he would never have won Balon’s approval. Would any deed have been enough?
Theon has ‘betrayed’ his family only by being taken hostage after their defeat. He was the living reminder of a bitter and broken Balon’s failures. But did Theon Greyjoy truly betray his “brother” Robb?

Betray or Obey?

We can see that for various reasons George Duke of Clarence set out to betray his brother, his own flesh and blood. The idea that Robb Stark is Theon’s “spiritual” brother stems from the fact that they were raised alongside each other. But it is clear that, while Robb is not at fault, Theon was never truly treated as part of the Stark family, and that Theon did not set out to betray Robb. Theon was terribly torn between the family he had been raised in and his own flesh and blood. Theon wanted to bring his two families together. But for Theon to truly find what he craved most of all, his place in the world, he would have to side with the family he was born into. Not the family that kept him hostage for a decade.

With the benefit of hindsight we can of course see that Theon made the wrong decision. But who is Theon a traitor to? The North that tore his family asunder? Should Theon not have tried to prove his loyalty to his own father? This is the greatest disparity between George Duke of Clarence and Theon Greyjoy, for one sought more power over his own brother, and the other obeyed his father.




By 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.





  1. Theon A Clash of Kings Chapter 11 []
  2. Licence, Amy, Cecily Neville Mother of Kings, Amberley Publishing 2013, p128 []
  3. Theon A Clash of Kings pg 219 []
  4. Ashdown-Hill, John. The Third Plantagenet, History Press 2014, p56 []
  5. Theon A Clash of Kings pg 213 []
  6. Balon Greyjoy to Theon A Clash of Kings pg 227 []
  7. Asha to Theon A Clash of Kings p468 []
  8. Theon A Clash of Kings pg 470 []
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 June 25, 2014


    One would have to go through every line of the books, but in the show at least Robb makes it clear that he does consider Theon to be his brother in everything except blood. Westeros has a strong tradition of loyalty to the family, which would have been a major thought in Theon’s mind, but if so then Robb made a great gesture as well in extending the sense of emotionally extending his family to include Theon.

    So no matter what happened, Theon was in a bad position. If he warned the guy he called king and considered a brother, he would betray his father and extended Greyjoy family. If he sailed for the Greyjoys (as he did) he’d betray his king and emotional brother. Either way, it’s basically a betrayal of family.

    But honestly, I would treat Theon’s comparison of his life to Jon’s with some suspicion. The two of them probably focused on the insults and exclusion they felt and, as humans do, found it hard to see much of the other’s problems.

  • Olga Hughes
    Reply June 25, 2014

    Olga Hughes

    That’s interesting you picked up on Jon and Theon’s relationship there Grant, good point. They certainly didn’t like each other and Theon always thought Jon was beneath him. In the next paragraph after that quote Theon says Jon was “jealous of Theon’s high birth and Robb’s regard for him” Theon would have been using his arrogance there to mask some of his insecurities of course.

    We never get a chapter from Robb’s point of view and by the time we get Theon’s point of view he is on his way to Pyke. But Theon tells Balon that Robb considers him an older brother (which enrages Balon further). Again we only have Theon’s point of view but I think we can easily say Robb trusted him, had affection for him and considered him an equal, not a hostage. The Stark children were all good-hearted, and even a little sheltered, so I suppose none of them took the time to consider what Theon being a hostage meant, nor even Jon’s status in the long run.

  • Reply June 26, 2014


    Very, very interesting about George Plantagenet. We don’t know a lot about his mindset before and after his betrayal of Edward, but it is not difficult to imagine the tension and conflicts between royal brothers. Contrast George with his younger brother Richard — Richard was steadfast in his support of Edward and seized the crown only after Edward’s death, while George could not wait for his turn. No wonder Shakespeare cast Richard as the cunning one and George the patsy. I wonder about the effect of Uncle Richard Neville, the Kingmaker, in the brotherly feud. He might have whispered some irresistible words in George’s ears to pull him away from Edward.

    • Olga Hughes
      Reply June 27, 2014

      Olga Hughes

      Considering George was young and inexperienced I would say Warwick was very influential Jun, he may have taken advantage of a dissatisfied younger brother. It’s difficult to say why Edward didn’t give George more power, we can only speculate. From what I have been reading about George lately I think his personality was very different to that of Edward and Richard, Richard looked up to Edward and George clearly did not. They were not close, and I think George may have not respected Edward.
      And in the end it was Edward’s lifestyle that Richard was able to use against Edward’s sons and Woodville family.

  • Reply March 27, 2015


    You didn’t mention the rumours that Edward IV was bastard, which George used – and may have believed (and which may even have been true).

    • Reply March 28, 2015

      Jamie Adair

      Have you seen the documentary about Edward IV’s legitimacy? It is quite interesting actually. I think it is called “The Real King of England” or something.

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