History of Thrones: Winterfell and Its Greatest Threat

Explore the rich, complicated, and controversial lore of George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire — and how it connects to HBO’s Game of Thrones — in our deep dive series,  History of Thrones.


For thousands of years, Winterfell stood as the capital of the North and the seat of power of House Stark. Until Aegon the Conqueror arrived and made them Wardens of Westeros’ largest kingdom, they ruled there as the Kings of Winter. Said to have been built by the legendary figure and the family’s founder, Bran the Builder, the Starks’ home remains one of the oldest and most important castles in all of Westeros, having withstood attacks and threats from foes.

And we might soon see it fall to an enemy set on returning to the place where the army of the dead might have been defeated long ago, a place the Night King might have once called home himself.

Located near the center of the North, Winterfell is surrounded by two walls: an 80-foot outer wall and a 100-foot inner one. It’s more than just a castle, though. It’s a huge complex covering numerous acres, and among its many sections are multiple courtyards, a large underground crypt, and an ancient godswood that remains as it did 10,000 years ago.During winter, a small makeshift town becomes fully inhabited outside its walls. It’s far from a coherent complex; its haphazard design indicates it was continuously added to over thousands of years, growing in size along with House Stark’s power. Despite withstanding countless winters, it was burned down twice by the Boltons during their long power struggle. Winterfell’s oldest standing section is thought to be the First Keep, thought to have been built after the Andal Invasion, but the castle’s history goes back further than that.

Legend says the larger-than-life figure from the Age of Heroes, the possibly mythical founder of House Stark, Bran the Builder, built Winterfell after the living defeated the dead during the first Long Night. (That was believed to be roughly 8,000 years ago 2,000 years before the Andals came to the Realm. But George R.R. Martin has indicated the timeline of Westeros might be much shorter than we thought.) Whoever built Winterfell couldn’t have picked a more perfect spot in all of the North to make their home, and not just because of its central location.

Winterfell is built on top of natural hot springs, which keeps it warm during cold winter. The Great Keep stands on top of them, and hot water is piped throughout the rest of the castle’s walls. Between its location, fortifications, and natural springs, there’s no better, safer, or warmer place to be in the North when winter comes.

That is, there was no better, safer or warmer place. Something much worse than winter is headed to Winterfell, and the Night King might have vengeance on his mind.

There’s an old theory about Winterfell’s name, one that says it might be a far more apt moniker than anyone living in Westeros today realizes. Some think the famous Battle of the Dawn, when the last hero Azor Ahai defeated the White Walkers during the Long Night, happened right where Winterfell stands in the latest chapters of Game of Thrones. Literally where “winter fell.”

Its natural hot springs would have made it an ideal spot for the living to make their stand against their icy enemy. If Winterfell rests on the spot where the living conquered the dead, it also would have made for a symbolic spot for House Stark to build its home, one that showed their might and importance to not only the North but all of mankind.

But if it truly is where the White Walkers were defeated so long ago, that could also be why it’s the prime target of the Night King. What could be sweeter than returning to the place where you were defeated and emerging victorious. Especially if taking Winterfell is personal.

The exact timeline of the Long Night, Winterfell, and the Night King are shrouded in mystery (and likely will be until the Game of Thrones prequel series comes to HBO), but we do know what legend tells us. Winterfell and the Wall are thought to have been erected by Bran the Builder after the Long Night ended. The tales of the Night King tell us he was a Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch who fell in love with a pale-skinned woman with blue eyes. Is this the same Night King who leads the dead now? If so, who was he? Where did he come from? Those answers are lost to time, but one family has provided more men and leaders to the Night’s Watch than any other: House Stark.

The Night King, whose reign of terror was ended in part by a King of Winter, might have once been a Stark himself, who took the black before he took a White Walker to bed. If so, he might have been waiting thousands and thousands of years to return home and claim Winterfell, a place whose strengths and weaknesses he knows, as his own. Even with its walls and hot springs, what chance does it have against the entire army of the dead? The Wall wasn’t enough to hold them back.

Game of Thrones‘ final season promises to have the biggest battle in film or movie history, and all signs point to it taking place at Winterfell. Will the ancient home of House Stark stand when winter falls on it? Or will the spot of the living’s greatest victory become the spot of its greatest defeat, in the ultimate moment of vengeance?If so Winterfell might be an apt moniker for another reason: it would be where the Kings of Winter fell to a Stark King who rules the Night.

Images: HBO

Top Stories
Trending Topics