The Battle of the Bastards is a battle late in the War of the Five Kings in which Jon Snow and Sansa Stark retake Winterfell from Lord Ramsay Bolton, the Warden of the North, and restore House Stark as the ruling house of the North.
Fought just outside of Winterfell, the Stark-led makeshift force of Free Folk and other minor Northern houses is on the verge of defeat when the knights of the Vale arrive in time to smash through the Bolton infantry on the rear. The battle ultimately culminates in Ramsay's death, the extinction of House Bolton and the restoration of House Stark as the rulers of the North, with Jon proclaimed as King by his vassals in the days after the battle. Following the deaths of Lord Harald Karstark and Lord Smalljon Umber during the battle, the Lordships of the Houses Karstark and Umber pass to Alys Karstark and Ned Umber, respectively, who are allowed to retain their lands and titles by the newly proclaimed King in the North.
With the death of King Robb Stark and most of his bannermen at the Red Wedding, House Bolton is named the new ruling Great House of the North by House Lannister. However, to cement their hold on the North following the murders of Joffrey Baratheon and Tywin Lannister, they betray the Lannisters and secure a marriage alliance through Lord Petyr Baelish between Sansa Stark (formerly the Lannisters' hostage) and Ramsay Bolton, Lord Roose Bolton's recently-legitimized bastard son. With help from the Boltons' prisoner, Theon Greyjoy, Sansa escapes her home during Stannis Baratheon's ill-fated attack on Winterfell and flees to Castle Black with Brienne of Tarth and Podrick Payne, where she reunites with her half-brother, Jon Snow, who was on the verge of leaving the Night's Watch following his death and resurrection.
Since Sansa has escaped and is being sheltered by her half-brother Jon Snow, while Roose Bolton has recently sired a son with his new wife, Walda Bolton, Ramsay's position as Roose's heir is uncertain. In order to secure his position, Ramsay murders his father in cold blood and has his stepmother and newborn half-brother mauled to death by his hounds, making him the new head of House Bolton, Lord of the Dreadfort, Lord of Winterfell and Warden of the North.
Sansa urges her brother to help her retake Winterfell from the Boltons but Jon, weary from fighting, is reluctant at first. However, Jon agrees when he receives a letter from Ramsay, in which Ramsay threatens Jon's younger brother Rickon and sister Sansa, as well as the wildlings. In the letter, Ramsay reveals he is holding Jon and Sansa's brother Rickon hostage, and demands the return of Sansa on threat of murdering the wildlings and Rickon, before having Sansa gang-raped. Jon and Sansa resolve to march on the Boltons to save their younger brother and retake Winterfell.
Raising an army
With the Karstarks and Umbers having declared for Ramsay due to their anger toward Robb and Jon respectively, Jon and Sansa are forced to recruit the meager forces of the minor Houses to aid them. They are successful in persuading the Free Folk, House Mazin, House Hornwood, and House Mormont to join them, while Robett Glover, head of House Glover, refuses to declare for them, citing both his hatred for the wildlings and his anger at Robb for having failed to protect them from Balon Greyjoy's invasion of the North. Sansa sends Brienne to the Riverlands to treat with her great-uncle, Brynden Tully, who is under siege at Riverrun. Unfortunately, Brynden refuses to leave his home and is later killed when the castle falls to House Frey and House Lannister. Brienne and Podrick are able to escape through the river.
After only being able to recruit a small number of minor houses, they are still heavily outnumbered, Jon is adamant that they attack Winterfell as soon as possible to prevent Ramsay from gathering more men or the weather turning against them, like it did for Stannis Baratheon. Sansa argues they need more men and wants to try and recruit more houses. When Jon argues there is no more time, Sansa secretly writes a letter to Littlefinger calling for help without telling Jon.
Parley and Recess
- "There's no need for a battle. Thousands of men don't need to die. Only one of us. Let's end this the old way: you against me."
- ―Jon Snow to Ramsay Bolton
On the day before the battle, the Stark leadership agrees to parley with the Boltons. Ramsay immediately offers terms for Jon's surrender, claiming that his men will not be harmed, he will be pardoned for deserting his post as Lord Commander of the Night's Watch, if Sansa is given to him and Jon bends the knee and acknowledges him as the Lord of Winterfell and Warden of the North. Jon rejects this, knowing that Ramsay has broken his own surrender terms multiple times in the past, and instead opts for a different solution to save both the armies; single combat to determine the fate of the North. This prompts Ramsay to reject Jon in turn, as he has heard of Jon's reputation as the best swordsman in the North, and that he knows that his army is more numerous and better equipped than Jon's. Jon retorts by pointing out that Ramsay's army is built on shaky loyalty, whereas his own know that their leader would live and die for them. This angers Ramsay, and prompts him to threaten to kill Rickon if Jon will not surrender. It is at this moment Sansa questions whether Ramsay really has their brother, prompting Smalljon Umber to answer by pulling out Shaggydog's severed head and throwing it at their feet. When Ramsay starts to speak again, Sansa confidently tells him that he is going to die when they meet on the battlefield the next day and to sleep well. Ramsay then threatens Jon some more before leaving.
At the Stark camp, plans are drawn up for the coming battle. Knowing that Ramsay's numbers are superior, and Tormund not wanting to be decimated by mounted soldiers as when Stannis and Davos defeated the Wildings, they will instead bait him into a "double envelopment", using his recklessness and anger against him. After Davos, Tormund, and the rest of the lords are dismissed for the evening, Sansa approaches Jon, rebukes him for not consulting her and, tells Jon he doesn't know how Ramsay's mind works, how he likes toying with people. Sansa and Jon argue with Sansa telling Jon they need more men, wanting to attack with a larger force, and Jon believing they have already recruited all the men who will fight for them. Jon vows he will protect Sansa but Sansa, jaded by years of their family being murdered, failures and disappointments, replies that no one can protect her or anyone now.
Meanwhile, Davos and Tormund take a walk out into the camp, comparing their experiences serving Stannis and Mance, respectively, and the ultimate futility of believing in kings. After some banter, Davos walks up the hill to where he sees a funeral pyre. Spotting and picking up the toy stag he gave to Shireen before Stannis' ill fated attack on the Boltons, he comes to the conclusion that Melisandre must have sacrificed Shireen to the Lord of Light.
Melisandre herself is in her tent when approached by Jon, who asks her not to resurrect him again. She replies that she has no power to do so; she can only utilize what the Lord has given her, and that he was resurrected for a reason. What that reason is, no one knows.
- "Who owns the North?!"
- ―Smalljon Umber rouses the Bolton infantry.
The battle begins with the Stark forces deployed near a treeline, to prevent themselves from being taken unawares from behind. Across the field is the much larger Bolton army, using burning flayed corpses in an effort to demoralize the Stark troops. Ramsay himself trots out on his horse to the front of the formation, bringing along a prisoner: Rickon Stark himself. Ramsay acts at first as if he will slit Rickon's throat, but instead cuts his bonds and delightfully insists that he play a game. He points at Jon and tells Rickon, "Run to your brother." Rickon immediately starts running in a straight line toward Jon, while Ramsay shoots and misses with a war bow. Just when Rickon is about to reach Jon, however, Ramsay's final shot hits Rickon in the heart, killing him almost instantly.
Enraged and maddened with grief, Jon charges full tilt at the Bolton forces, who immediately loose their arrows on him. Alarmed, Davos orders in the Stark cavalry to charge after their commander, with the infantry closely following behind. His horse shot out from underneath him, Jon prepares for his last stand by drawing Longclaw and facing the Bolton cavalry seemingly alone. He is saved by the timely arrival of the Stark cavalry, and the battle becomes a bloody storm of swords. Men fall in battle so quickly that they begin to form small hills of the dead.
Ramsay orders his own archers to fire on both the Stark forces and their own cavalry, while Davos refrains from doing the same. The arrows kill both Stark and Bolton men, and soon the small hills become a wall of the fallen. Although Ramsay loses many of his men to friendly fire, it becomes clear that they are intentionally being sacrificed as part of a sadistic plan to prevent his enemy from retreating. Davos, along with Wun Wun and Tormund, join the fray after seeing so many men die, temporarily stemming the tide. Ramsay sends forward his remaining forces, which Smalljon Umber leads into battle. The Boltons manage to surround the remaining Stark army and close them in with a shield phalanx.
The phalanx acts as a noose, tightening around the beleaguered Stark men, who by now are dying in droves. As they retreat toward the wall of dead, they trample the wounded and squeeze so tightly in the confined space that they are unable to properly move. Smalljon leads a small force over the wall of dead to ensure that none are able to escape. Jon is barely able to save himself from being crushed to death.
- "You suggested one-on-one combat, didn't you? I've reconsidered. I think that sounds like a wonderful idea."
- ―Ramsay Bolton to Jon Snow
Despite his general's concerns, Ramsay expresses confidence they can withstand the Starks since they hold Winterfell. His plan goes awry, however, when Wun Wun breaks down the main gate, allowing the Starks and Arryns to pour through. They kill any and all Bolton men remaining in the castle. Wun Wun collapses to his knees, after being hit by arrows, bolts, and javelins. Before Jon can comfort his friend, however, Ramsay puts an arrow through the giant's eye, killing him. Ramsay, refusing to surrender, taunts Jon, saying that he finally accepted his proposal of single combat, before proceeding to shoot arrows at an unarmed Jon. Jon quickly grabs a shield from a fallen Mormont soldier and while boldly advancing, blocks three of Ramsay's shots. When he reaches Ramsay, he smacks the bow out of his hands and knocks him to the ground. With Ramsay down, Jon pins him and proceeds to beat him savagely, severely disfiguring Ramsay's face. Though it seems as if he will kill Ramsay, Jon stops when he sees Sansa, realizing that she has as much right to revenge as he does. Jon orders Ramsay locked as a prisoner in the kennels, and the Flayed Man banners drop to the ground in a clattered heap while the Direwolf banner is raised above Winterfell for the first time in three years. The Boltons' rule of the North is over, and House Stark and its allies retake the North with pyrrhic victory.
- Ramsay Bolton: "You can't kill me. I'm part of you now."
- Sansa Stark: "Your words will disappear. Your house will disappear. Your name will disappear. All memory of you will disappear."
- — Sansa Stark and Ramsay Bolton.[src]
The victory, while a decisive one for the Starks, was not without great cost, even if it marked the restoration of House Stark as the Great House of the North and the entry of House Arryn into the War of Five Kings on their side. Out of Jon's original force of 2,400 men, perhaps only 800 survived, and now no Northern house has a true force to stand against Littlefinger, the Night King, the Iron Throne, or even Daenerys Targaryen, should one of them decide to conquer the North, save for those who sat out of the conflict, such as the Manderlys, the Cerwyns, and the Glovers. What is worse, the heir apparent to Winterfell, Rickon, is now dead, leaving the newly restored Great House in the hands of an illegitimate son and an eldest daughter. Jon orders Rickon to be buried next to their father, while Sansa decides to visit Ramsay in the kennels, ironically the same place he kept Theon Greyjoy over the course of a year.
Upon seeing Sansa, he tries to goad her one last time, telling her that he will always be a part of her now. She throws back the insult by pointing out that very soon, the legacy of himself and his house will be forever erased from history. Ramsay soon notices his hounds coming closer to him, the kennel doors having been left open. Scoffing, the former Lord of Winterfell tells his wife that his hounds are loyal to him, to which she reminds him that he starved them for seven days and that they were loyal, but now they are starving. As if to prove her point, his alpha hound does not respond to his command to heel, instead hungrily sniffing and licking his bloody face. Overcome by hunger, the hound proceeds to savagely maul his face and the others follow suit. As Ramsay Bolton is devoured alive by his own dogs, Sansa turns and walks away, savoring the sounds of her husband's demise as she smiles.
With Ramsay's death, the Starks finally avenge the role that House Bolton played in the Red Wedding by leaving the Bane of the North completely extinct, as well as bringing a permanent end to the ancient feud between the Starks and the Boltons. With the North no longer divided between Houses loyal to the Starks and Boltons, Jon is named the new King in the North by the Northern Lords, and turns his attention to finding potential allies to counter the Night King and his coming army of the dead.
Tormund Giantsbane, a chieftain in the Free Folk army, has told Jon Snow that he commands 2,000 fighting wildlings. Furthermore, the Starks have gathered 62 Mormont soldiers, 200 Hornwoods and 143 Mazins. This brings Jon's total host to an army of around 2,400 men, as well as a giant, Wun Wun. Most of the soldiers are infantry, creating a disadvantage against the Bolton forces. Only an estimated sixth of the original force survives the battle.
Ramsay Bolton is rumored to command some 5,000 Bolton men, although possibly weakened after the Battle of Winterfell against King Stannis. However, the Boltons most likely replaced the light losses taken against Stannis with more men. When the Karstarks abandoned Robb Stark after he executed Rickard Karstark, it was stated that Robb lost half of his army, implying that the Karstarks had around 3,000 men. Smalljon Umber states that House Umber barely had enough men to deal with wildings raids, meaning the Umbers had less men than the Karstarks and Boltons.
At the parley one day before the battle, Lord Ramsay states that he's got 6,000 men. 5,000 of these men can be confirmed to be Bolton soldiers; however, which part consists of Umber and Karstark forces is unknown. During the battle, Ramsay sacrifices at least half his forces in order to trap the Stark infantry, and the rest is annihilated by the Arryn cavalry late in the battle.
A token force remains holding Winterfell, most of which are killed when remnants of the Stark army take the castle.
Earlier in the series, we learn that the Arryn forces are approximately equal to the Stark and Tully forces, which means that Lord Petyr Baelish commands an army of 20,000 men or maybe more. Due to the altitude in the Vale, these men are trained to fight in winter conditions, a huge advantage in the North. The expeditionary force consists of 2,000 men, still leaving the pro-Stark forces at a nummerical disadvantage. However, by the time they arrive, the Northern armies have nearly wiped each other out, with the Bolton forces having clearly suffered much higher casualties than the Stark forces. The all-cavalry Arryn force also has a clear qualitative advantage, and is able to wipe out the remaining Boltons and rescue what remains of the Stark force with ease.
In the books
In the A Song of Ice and Fire novels, no such battle has taken place yet. The fifth and most recent novel, A Dance with Dragons, ends with Stannis Baratheon still marching against Winterfell and Jon's death. Given that season six onward is based on an outline of what will happen in future novels, the battle, or a different version of it, rather, may serve as the climax of The Winds of Winter.