Warning: This article contains Spoilers for Seasons 1-3 of Game of Thrones
Robb Stark was a boy who never asked for anything. Like most noble firstborn sons, he was groomed to lead. As the heir to Winterfell he would eventually become Lord and Warden of the North, ruling land equal to the size of the other six kingdoms combined. He never asked to rule Winterfell, but he was given that honor when his father, Eddard Stark, went south to become Robert Baratheon’s Hand. He never asked to become Lord of Winterfell, that honor was thrust on him when his father died a traitor’s death. He never asked to be King in the North, that was an honor his bannermen gave him. He never asked to be engaged to a Frey, his mother saw to that for him. In fact the only thing Robb Stark ever did for himself was fall in love.
Robb Stark is a cautionary tale of how one can win every battle, but still end up losing the war.
It began when Robb called his bannermen to march south under the pretext of freeing his father, but it was also to alleviate the raids on the Riverlands. Robb traveled South with 18,000 men. Though the numbers are difficult to pin down, Tywin’s host had nearly 20,000 if not more.
Robb’s plan was two part, the first was to alleviate the siege of Riverrun, the seat of House Tully, and the heart of the Riverlands, the second was to box in Tywin’s forces and crush the Lannister host. Both goals were difficult for several reasons.
Riverrun was held by a siege army at the command of Jaime Lannister the father uncle of King Joffrey. Jaime had won easy victories against the Riverlords and had been hunting them down whilst holding the castle under seige. Tywin had a larger host hosted near the Green Fork of the Trident.
First even getting to Riverrun would be difficult. Robb’s forces were on the opposite side of the Trident, a massive river running through the heart of the Riverlands. He could only cross at 2 locations, the Ruby Ford, a crossing to the south which could be cut off by Tywin, or the Twins. The Twins were a massive castle that spanned the Trident under the watch of Walder Frey, the Lord of the Crossing. Though technically loyal to the Tullys, Walder Frey was a shrewd tactician, and stayed neutral until he could gain the most from either side.
Walder Frey was derisively known as “The Late Lord Frey”, because he sided with Robert Baratheon after he won the abattle of the Trident. Frey was an opportunist, his idea of loyalty comes to whomever provides him with the greatest reward. Robb was warned about this, yet he knew he had to gamble, or he could lose .
By this time, Robb’s forces were joined by his mother Catelyn. Catelyn, Frey’s liege lord’s daughter, negotiated with Walder Frey and won the Twins for Robb. However the cost was very high. Lord Walder secured a marriage for one of his daughters with Robb Stark. Also, Arya Stark, Robb’s youngest sister would wed a Frey when the fighting was done. Catelyn would take two Freys as wards and Robb would take yet another as his squire.
Robb was able to defeat Tywin and Jaimie Lannister with his gamble. Robb was an excellent tactician. He was able to delegate his plans to quality leaders. If anything the main differences between the two armies was that Robb chose his leaders based on skill and reputation, but Tywin Lannister’s army was filled with nepotism.
After his victory at Riverrun, Robb is presented with the news of his fathers’ execution by Joffrey Baratheon. It is here that his bannermen and the Riverlords declare independence from the Seven Kingdoms, and proclaim Robb the King in the North.
After being crowned two important events happen. The first is that the Riverlords reclaim their lands from the Lannisters. The second is that Robb sends out two envoys to find common cause with the other High Lords. Catelyn is sent to Bitterbridge in hopes of allying with Renly Baratheon, Joffrey’s uncle who has also declared himself king. Unfortunately Renly is killed shortly after agreeing to terms that would have allied the North and Riverlands to The Reach and Stormlands creating the largest force in Westeros. Robb sends his childhood friend and ward of his father, Theon Greyjoy to work out an alliance with His father Balon. Balon controlled the Iron Islands, and had rebelled against the Iron Throne before. His failed rebellion was the reason Theon had been kept as ward by Robb’s father. Hoping to gain Balon’s fleet, Theon went to Pyke. Unfortunately Theon betrayed Robb and the Iron Islands attacked The North instead. Theon himself took Winterfell.
Robb was now torn between taking back the north from the Greyjoys, or fighting the Lannisters. The biggest issue was that because the Greyjoys took Moat Cailin, access to the North was restricted.
Robb continued to harry the Lannisters at the Battle of Oxcross. and ravaged the West. Meanwhile Tywin Lannister moved his army out of Harrenhal where he had been staying to reclaim the attacked Westerlands from Robb’s bannermen. Seizing an opportunity, Edmure Tully attacked Tywin at the Battle of the Fords forcing him to retreat to King’s Landing.
This is one of the most disastrous things to happen to Robb’s plans. Edmure’s rash action in his attack foiled Robb’s plot to trap Tywin in the Westerlands. His retreat to King’s Landing actually helped Stannis Baratheon’s attack on capital to fail.
With his plan foiled, Robb continued his campaign in the Westerlands. Moving west, he took the Westerling castle the Crag. During the storming of the Crag, Robb took a minor wound and needed some time to recover. Here he found out about the supposed death of his brothers at the hands of Theon. He took comfort in the arms of Jeyne Westerling. Robb marries her the next day. Consequently Lord Walder Frey’s forces withdrew their support of Robb in protest and left.
Arguably the most disastrous decision he could have made, Robb lost a good chunk of his forces. With a weakened force, and the loss of a chunk of the North, Robb abandoned his attack on the West and goes back to Riverrun.
At Riverrun, Catelyn in a last ditch effort to save her daughters still held captive by the Lannisters frees the captive Jamie Lannister hoping to trade his life for her daughters. In retaliation, Rickard Karstark, one of Robb’s most trusted bannermen, killed two Lannister hostages. Because of this treason Robb executed Rickard.
Here, Robb lost another large chunk of his army as the Karstarks withdrew their support.
Luckily, good news came to Robb, as the Iron Men had left The North as Balon Greyjoy had died.
Seizing the opportunity Robb moved north to retake his seat. On the way North, Robb received word that Lord Walder Frey would reconcile on the condition that he apologized in person and Edmure marry one of his daughters at the Twins. Robb is rejoined by Roose Bolton and his remaining men at the Twins.
Unknown to him, the wedding feast was a trap. The Frey and Bolton men turned on Robb and his men, killing him, his mother Catelyn, a large number of his noble allies, and virtually annihilating the Northern armies.
For his part in the slaughter, Roose Bolton was appointed Warden of the North by the Iron Throne. Walder Frey gained a considerable reputation amongst the nobles of Westeros. His prodigious seed is spread across the continent, but even those loyal to Joffrey looked down on his family for their betrayal of guest rights.
In the end Young Wolf was killed, and the head of his direwolf was sown to his chest. Also killed at what was now dubbed “The Red Wedding” was Catelyn Stark. The biggest casualty however was the North itself. With their king dead, and the majority of their armies and effective generals, the remaining Northern Lords had little choice other than to bend the knee to Roose Bolton.
Robb’s defeat came about because of poor internal policy decisions. He was an effective tactician and military leader, but he made poor decisions in regards to moral. Most importantly was his initial betrayal of Walder Frey. It is very important to remember that marriage was not done for love. Marriage was a system of gaining alliances and protecting property. Robb’s decision to marry out of love was a slap in the face to Walder Frey who put a lot on the line to help the King in the North.
Now, Joffrey and Tywin Lannister were able to secure the North and the Riverlands, essentially ending the War of the Five Kings.
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