The Great Houses are the most powerful of the noble houses of the Seven Kingdoms. They exercise immense authority and power over their vassals and territories and are answerable only to the King on the Iron Throne.
Before the Targaryen Conquest, each of the Seven Kingdoms was ruled by a powerful royal family. During the Conquest these families were either destroyed and replaced, or defeated and forced to swear allegiance to King Aegon. The Gardeners, Hoares and Storm Kings were slain and replaced by the Tyrells, Greyjoys, and Baratheons respectively, whilst the Lannisters, Arryns, and Starks surrendered peacefully and were allowed to remain in control of their lands. In addition, Aegon raised up the Tullys to rule over the Riverlands, which had been under ironborn occupation prior to his arrival. Only House Martell of Dorne resisted his armies, but was later brought into the fold through a peaceful marriage alliance some two centuries later.
Each Great House has a large number of vassal houses serving it, most of whom in turn have smaller vassals under them, extending all the way down to farmers and landed knights. Each Great House rules over its territory and is responsible for collecting taxes and, in times of war, raising troops to fight for the king. Otherwise they are largely left to operate autonomously to simplify the bureaucracy and governance of the realm.
The Great HousesEdit
- House Arryn, rulers of the Vale of Arryn from the castle at the Eyrie.
- House Baratheon, who currently hold the Iron Throne and also rule the Stormlands from Storm's End.
- House Greyjoy, rulers of the Iron Islands from the castle at Pyke.
- House Lannister, rulers of the Westerlands from the castle at Casterly Rock.
- House Martell, rulers of Dorne from the castle at Sunspear.
- House Stark, rulers of the North from the castle at Winterfell.
- House Tully, rulers of the Riverlands from the castle at Riverrun.
- House Tyrell, rulers of the Reach from the castle at Highgarden.
- House Targaryen, the former royal house, displaced during Robert's Rebellion which brought House Baratheon to power. Currently in exile.
In the booksEdit
In the A Song of Ice and Fire novels, the term "great house" or "ruling house" is used informally. Author George R.R. Martin has said that in retrospect he should have used a formal senior rank to differentiate the ruling houses from their vassals.
Keeping in mind that Martin has said that Westeros is roughly the size of the continent of South America, the realm known as "the Seven Kingdoms" spans an area on the scale of the Roman Empire. Thus in terms of their populations and the size of the armies they can raise in wartime, each of the "Great Houses" is more comparable in scale to a real-life medieval kingship like England or France than a smaller dukedom. Provinces (in this case, constiutent regions) are in effect semi-autonomous with the local people regarding the local Great House as their rulers, and the King as perhaps an abstract and distant figure who has no bearing on their day-to-day lives.
The definition of a "Great House" in general can be summarized as any noble House that is senior enough to answer only to the King on the Iron Throne. The royal family itself rules the Crownlands directly, loosely making it another Great House, though technically it ranks higher than all the others. At the start of the books this list comprises the Starks, Lannisters, Arryns, Greyjoys, Tullys, Tyrells, Baratheons of Storm's End, and Martells. This definition sometimes leads to oddities, for example, House Hightower of Oldtown commands a vastly populous city (second only to King's Landing and not by much) and an immense area of territory around it, including numerous smaller vassal houses. The Hightowers could theoretically be more powerful than the ruling Great House of less populous regions (such as the Greyjoys and perhaps even the Martells), but as they are vassals of the Tyrells, they are not counted as a Great House.
Few Great Houses have ever gone extinct. By the time the books begin, only three former Great Houses have ever been destroyed, all during the Targaryen Conquest, three hundred years before the War of the Five Kings:
- House Durrendon - rulers of the Stormlands.
- House Gardener - rulers of the Reach.
- House Hoare - rulers of the Iron Islands and (through conquest) the Riverlands.
After the Targaryen Conquest, House Baratheon replaced the Storm Kings of House Durrendon, House Tyrell replaced House Gardener, and House Greyjoy replaced House Hoare. Orys Baratheon, founder of House Baratheon, married the daughter of the last Storm King, so there was some continuity with the former House and its replacement. House Durrendon left no other known branches besides the Baratheons. House Gardener intermarried with many of the great noble families of the Reach, and House Florent is even a cadet branch of the main Gardener line. House Tyrell descends from House Gardener through the female line (much to the consternation of the Florents), so there is some continuity in the Reach as well. Thus, by the time of Robert's Rebellion, the Reach is the only region of Westeros which has noble Houses with rival claims to rule based on descent.
House Hoare, however, was completely destroyed, when Harren Hoare and all of his sons were roasted alive by Aegon the Conqueror's dragons. Therefore, Aegon had the ironborn choose one of their own Houses to rule over them (under the overall rule of the Targaryens), and they chose House Greyjoy.
The Iron Islands are actually something of an odd case, in that for many centuries their kingship was not hereditary. When a king died, the powerful noble Houses of the Iron Islands would meet in an assembly known as a Kingsmoot to select a new king to rule over all of them. Five thousand years ago, House Greyiron killed all of the representatives at the last Kingsmoot, and ruled the Iron Islands as hereditary kings for a thousand years. The Greyirons were destroyed four thousand years ago during the Andal Invasion, when they were deposed by House Hoare. Whether the Greyirons should be considered a Great House that early in history is unclear. Nonetheless, no noble House from the Iron Islands can claim a better right to rule than House Grejoy based on descent: multiple houses from the Iron Islands, including House Greyjoy, possess ancestors who were kings, but during the time of the non-hereditary kingship based on elections in the kingsmoot. Moreover, the Greyjoys were at least briefly kings during the Greyjoy Rebellion, so by the time of the War of the Five Kings, they are still held in very high esteem by the ironborn. Thus the situation in the Reach is still unique, with other noble Houses besides the current Great House possessing claims to rule based on descent, and specifically House Florent actually has a better claim than House Tyrell based on descent.
The ancient Houses of Mudd and Casterly were destroyed in ancient times. However, given at that time almost every castle in Westeros commanded a kingdom and almost every lord (great or not) called himself a king, it is unclear how many of these Houses like the Casterlys should be considered to be "Great".
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