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Game of Thrones Explained: Robert’s Rebellion

Game of Thrones is a fantastic show, and part of the reason for that is its complexity. The characters have rich backgrounds, the families have long histories, and the conflicts are the result of events that are never shown onscreen. It’s more interesting than simple Good Guy Versus Bad Guy fantasy, but it can sometimes be difficult to follow. Game of Thrones Explained is here to help. Whether you’re a viewer wanting more detail than is provided by character conversations, a fan of the books wanting to brush up on the story as you watch the show, or someone just trying to keep the names straight, this recurring column will explore families, events, locations, and characters. It may reveal information that hasn’t yet been discussed on the show, but it won’t spoil plot twists or secrets.

Army on horseback

As Game of Thrones begins, Robert Baratheon is ruler of the Seven Kingdoms, and Viserys Targaryen is an exile claiming his rightful throne was stolen. Most of the older characters were somehow involved in the war that led to Robert’s coronation seventeen years ago. But what was that war about, and how was it won?

The Targaryen family had ruled the Seven Kingdoms for nearly 300 years, though the dragons they used to conquer Westeros died out long ago. Targaryens had a history of mental instability, and this reached its peak in King Aerys II, the Mad King, whose eccentricity sometimes lapsed into cruelty and vindictiveness.

Aerys’s eldest son, Rhaegar, was a dashing and accomplished knight. However, he had shown interest in Lyanna Stark (sister to Ned), who was betrothed to marry Robert Baratheon. The Starks learned that Lyanna had apparently been kidnapped by Rhaegar, and Brandon Stark (Ned’s elder brother) rode to King’s Landing to challenge him. He was captured, and soon he and his father Lord Rickard Stark were brutally killed by the Mad King for their supposed treason.

Meanwhile, Ned and Robert were wards of Jon Arryn, Lord of the Eyrie. Jon would not let King Aerys execute the young men, so the houses of Arryn, Stark, and Baratheon rose up against the crown. Robert laid claim to the throne due to an ancient family tie between Baratheon and Targaryen. House Tully soon joined the rebels when Ned and Jon Arryn married the daughters of Lord Tully, Catelyn and Lysa; Catelyn had once been betrothed to Brandon Stark. Supporting the Targaryens were the Great Houses of Tyrell and Martell, while the Lannisters remained neutral. The smaller noble houses of the realm were equally divided.

As the conflict progressed, Robert earned a reputation as one of the great warriors of the age, and Ned was an effective commander. A series of major battles were fought, culminating in the Battle of the Trident (named for a great waterway in the Riverlands). There, Robert met Prince Rhaegar and slew him with a blow from his great warhammer, scattering the rubies on Rhaegar’s armor into the river. The rebel army routed the loyalists, and the way was open to the capital of King’s Landing.

Soon after, the Lannisters joined the rebel forces. Jaime Lannister of the Kingsguard killed Aerys, forever earning the epithet of Kingslayer, and sat on the Iron Throne as Ned Stark entered the Keep. Gregor Clegane (the Mountain) and other Lannister men murdered Rhaegar’s wife and children. Only the Queen and her young son Viserys escaped, and the Queen soon died giving birth to her daughter Daenerys. The last Targaryens fled to the eastern continent.

Jaime Lannister sitting on the Iron Throne

"Yeah, I'm a badass."

After leaving King’s Landing, Ned Stark rode south to Dorne, where his sister Lyanna had been taken by Rhaegar. There, at the Tower of Joy, he and six companions faced three members of the Kingsguard, including the legendary knight Arthur Dayne. The seven Stark men killed the Kingsguard, though only Ned and his loyal bannerman Howland Reed survived. Lyanna died mysteriously soon after.

As Robert took the throne, it was necessary to reunite the houses that had so recently been feuding. He pardoned many former enemies, and the Tyrells and Martells pledged fealty to him. Because Lyanna was dead, and to ensure Lannister loyalty, Robert married Cersei Lannister. Jon Arryn became Hand of the King. Ned Stark returned to Winterfell and his young wife Catelyn, bringing a bastard son (Jon) of around the same age as his new heir Robb.

As Robert declined from a great warrior into a drunken reveler, his Rebellion retained a powerful hold on the memories of the people of Westeros. The Targaryens and their loyalists, however, would name the conflict the War of the Usurper. Now Ned is investigating the death (and perhaps murder) of Jon Arryn, the Targaryens have made Dothraki allies, and the peace between the Lannisters and Starks seems shaky.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Brian May 16, 2011, 11:50 am

    Just found this website looking for some reviews of the show. Not having read the books (yet, I should now say), this was really helpful and I think the episode reviews will help me un-confuse myself the background of the Small Council guys, which I think I sort of missed. Thanks!

  • Eric May 16, 2011, 1:32 pm

    Thanks Brian. We’ll try to keep you up to speed and I know that Skyler has some more great stuff planned that goes a little deeper into the background of the story, which will hopefully help you get more out of the series on HBO.

  • Skyler May 16, 2011, 1:48 pm

    Hey Brian, thanks for reading! If you find any particular areas of the show to be confusing, let me know in the comments and I can either offer up a brief explanation, or I’ll consider working it into an article. Let me know if you’re still confused by the small council after checking out the reviews.

  • Paul May 17, 2011, 3:06 am

    Thank you. Big fan of the series so far, but must admit to feeling a little lost at times. Your piece has really helped understand, and I don’t feel so dim now!!

    Is it too late to start reading the books? Is the series loyal to them, as sometimes you don’t enjoy either one or the other depending on the portrayal? Again many thanks for the synopsis…

  • Skyler May 17, 2011, 2:57 pm

    Glad to hear it Paul! The series has been quite loyal to the books so far. There are some small changes (Ned Stark in the books doesn’t come across as much of a swordfighter compared to Jaime, a couple of more minor characters are consolidated, some scenes that are just implied in the books are shown onscreen, etc.) but for the most part the stories are the same, with the book just having more space to flesh things out (things like the history of Robert’s Rebellion I discussed here).

    It’s hard to say whether someone who started with the show will enjoy the books as much, but I love the books and am enjoying the show so far. So I’d say jump into A Game of Thrones (the first novel) if you’re excited about the setting now, or another good option is to read the books in between seasons 1 and 2.

    Thanks for the comment! There should be more content in the next couple days explaining things for viewers.

  • Brian May 18, 2011, 9:15 am

    I’m feeling a little better about the Small Council after reading some reviews and recaps — I think I just missed what the various roles were as they were introduced. Part of what makes the show infuriating, but also really, really exceptional in my opinion, is just like Ned, we the viewers have no idea who is trustworthy. So far, it seems like every major adult character except for (maybe) Ned and Jon Snow have some hidden agenda or scheme going on.

    I enjoy the nuances of character — like “LOST”, even the bad guys have shades of gray and the heroes are not without flaws.

    Since I started with the show, I think I’ll read each book after or along with each season (as long as people say they do parallel pretty closely). I think I can read the book and enjoy it very much as more detail than what’s able to be shown in the show, but if I read the book first and know what’s coming, I might not enjoy the show as much.

    Thanks again!

  • Skyler May 18, 2011, 2:21 pm

    That sounds like a good idea Brian. I’m not 100% sure whether the show and book are close enough to be read alongside each other, because the book is structured with each chapter having a point-of-view character, so it doesn’t jump around as much. But you could give it a try and let me know how it goes, or else read it after. Have fun!

  • Rita June 6, 2011, 12:17 am

    Great great reviews! Thanks for all the explanations!

  • Skyler June 6, 2011, 2:54 am

    Glad to help, Rita! Thanks for posting.

  • Ian June 10, 2011, 6:24 am

    hey Skyler thanks for the great back story, really helping put the show in context!

  • Lauren July 13, 2011, 10:27 pm

    I’m amazed by the details here. So concrete! I just finished Season 1 and when I read the post above, I was like ‘ohh’ and ‘ahh’. Thanks guys for sharing this. I’m from the Philippines and HBO Asia will air this next month i think. I’m still gonna watch it.

  • Sarah July 13, 2011, 10:27 pm

    Wow, it all makes sense now. Thanks, Skyler! :)