History of Thrones: The War Between the Starks and the Boltons

History of Thrones is our series that examines important historical events and people from the complex and controversial past of Westeros. Now that HBO has announced their first Game of Thrones spin-off pilot will take place thousands of years earlier, during the Age of Heroes, we’re turning our third raven eye to that mythical that began to shape the Seven Kingdoms into what we know it as today. If you think legends reveal too much about the truth, you might consider them spoilers.


When the First Men stopped fighting with the Children of the Forest they began warring with one another, and during the Age of Heroes small clans and factions became small kingdoms. Many rose, and almost as many fell, as certain houses gained more and more power as others swore fealty to them. The Starks eventually came to rule the North as the Kings of Winter for thousands and thousands of years, but only after defeating (or marrying with) their many rivals, including their greatest and deadliest foe who stood against them, House Bolton. However as Robb Stark learned in his final moments, some enemies never truly relent, they simply wait for the right moment to strike. But just because Sansa and Jon Snow made it so the Boltons would never again stand against their family, it doesn’t mean the Starks don’t have one last Bolton king to defeat. And he might rule over the army of the dead.

House Stark’s founder is the legendary Bran the Builder, who is said to have built both Winterfell and The Wall after the first Long Night, which is considered the end of the Age of Heroes. If true, then the Starks only built their kingdom by defeating their enemies after the White Walkers were defeated. But the actual timeline of when all of these events took place, which happened entirely before recorded history in Westeros began, is more guesswork than fact, and the more you try to piece the time period together with what happened before, during, and after the Age of Heroes, the more it all looks more compressed than the old stories would have us believe.

The battle for ultimate supremacy following the signing of the Pact led to numerous kingdoms all descended from the First Men. The Starks, who became known as the Kings of Winter after defeating many other Houses, ultimately unseated the Barrow Kings of the barrowlands to their south. The Barrow Kings were said to descend directly from the First King of the First Men, and legend says it took the Starks 1,000 years to defeat the Barrow Kings. However the few remaining runes from the era indicate the war lasted only 200 years.

The Starks fight against the Red Kings of House Bolton to their east definitely lasted a lot longer.

The Red Kings might not have been the only challengers to House Starks’s rule, but they were the most notorious since no other enemy was said to flay Stark lords and wear their skins as cloaks. (Surely just a Bolton tall tale to strike fear in their enemies. Surely.) Two Bolton kings, Royce II and Royce IV, are said to have burned down Winterfell, and for (supposedly) nearly four thousands years, until right before the Andal Invasion when the last Red King Rogar the Huntsman finally bent the knee and swore fealty to the Starks, the Boltons were the greatest threat to the Kings of Winter.

That capitulation wasn’t the end of their battles though. At least twice House Bolton rose up in rebellion against Winterfell. Once they aligned with House Greystark, a branch of the Starks themselves. The Greystarks were completely wiped out for their role in the uprising, yet the Boltons were allowed to bend the knee again. It didn’t last, and the Boltons were forced to again swear fealty after the Starks stopped another rebellion.

Anyone who suffered through the Red Wedding knows the Boltons–who some say never truly gave up flaying their enemies and merely hid their ancient practice deep in the bowels of the Dreadfort away from the Starks’ eyes–never stopped fighting their war for Northern supremacy, they simply waited for the right moment to attack. That opportunity seemingly came when Lord Roose Bolton sent Robb Stark the Lannisters’ regards.

Jon Snow and Sansa Stark exacted total and complete revenge on their greatest threats on Game of Thrones (the Boltons still rule Winterfell in the books…for now), seemingly the final chapter in a war that lasted millennia, but House Stark might not realize the greatest fight with a Bolton still lies ahead of them, because when they look out on the army of the dead the Night King might also be the last Red King.

We don’t know the actual timeline of the Age of Heroes, so we don’t definitively know who defeated the army of the dead or when they did it. We don’t even know the truth about who the original Night King was–or is. One infamous legend says the “Night’s King” was the 13th Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch who fell in love with a female White Walker and ruled from the Nightfort on the Wall before being defeated. Is the real story of the Long Night a single story blurring different events into one, or vice versa? Who led the White Walkers during their invasion? Was it the “Night’s King” who history erroneously places years after the Great War ended? Is that who leads them now against Jon Snow? Is it that very same Lord Commander?

And if it is, what does it have to do with House Bolton?

The identity of that infamous leader of the Night’s Watch is lost to time, but some believe he was a member of House Bolton itself. Of course some say it was a member of House Stark so we don’t know, but there is another legend those ever skeptical maesters also dismiss that we can’t so easily brush away, because in Westeros old legends have a habit of proving true.

They say when the 13th Lord Commander looked out beyond the Wall, he saw a woman with blue eyes and white skin as cold as ice, and he gave her both his seed and his soul. Who was she though? A female White Walker? A pale wildling woman who the myths have turned into a beautiful monster? Or was she a corpse raised by a White Walker?

Or, as some say, was she a daughter of a Barrow King, the other great kingdom the Starks defeated to rule the North. Is the very same Night King Jon Snow must stop now the son born of the “Night’s King” and his bride? A child of death birthed from the unholy union of the Starks greatest enemies who never truly gave up the fight?

House Bolton might be gone, but they might still have one last descendant who traded the crown of the Red Kings for one made of ice.

What do you think? Is the greatest enemy of the living a member of the House who have always been the Starks greatest enemy? Share your best theories in the comments below.

You can find all other History of Thrones entries here, including the event that started the Age of Heroes, The Pact between the First Men and the Children of the Forest, as well as the war with the army of the dead that ended it, the first Long Night.

Images: HBO

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