HBO’s Game of Thrones is a dense series with a huge weight of history behind its story, so in practically every episode, something happens that could use a little explanation. So every week, The Verge will be diving into a scene or event from the latest installment of the series and explain how we got here. Whether you’re basically a Game of Thrones maester or you need a little reminder about previous events, we’ll try to help you keep your history straight.
Game of Thrones is back, and this week’s season premiere did a whole lot of place-setting for the season to come. And one of the key pieces of setup was re-establishing the major players of the various houses in the North, which have seen some shifts in allegiances since we’ve last checked in. With that in mind, let’s take a look at the current state of Northern politics before things start to heat up.
Spoilers ahead for Game of Thrones season 8, episode 1, “Winterfell.”
Starks and friends
Obviously, the most important folks in town in the North are House Stark — if you’ve made it this far in the show, I probably don’t need to explain who those folks are. But while the Starks are traditionally the rulers of Winterfell and Wardens of the North, there are plenty of other players in the North, working with or against House Stark. Before Aegon the Conqueror (Aegon I) claimed the Seven Kingdoms, the Starks were Kings in the North and ruled over a variety of other houses. Even in the current chaotic state of affairs, those minor houses still owe allegiance to House Stark.
This week’s episode, “Winterfell,” has the story crossing paths with several of those houses: House Mormont, House Glover, House Karstark, and House Umber.
Led by the fiery, fan-favorite young girl Lyanna Mormont, House Mormont hails from Bear Island. It isn’t one of the larger houses of the North, but it has become particularly significant politically in the last few seasons. Despite being just 10 years old, Lady Mormont famously refused to recognize Stannis Baratheon as king, declaring in a letter that Bear Island knows no king but the King in the North, whose name is “Stark.” Lady Mormont was also instrumental in declaring Jon Snow as King in the North, calling out House Manderly, House Glover, and House Cerwyn as failing to serve when called to fight. She was the first to declare Jon as king.
“Winterfell” sees the relationship between Jon and Lyanna strained, though — Jon has abandoned his crown as king to serve Daenerys Targaryen, and Lyanna calls him out on it. But it seems House Mormont still intends to serve, with the army of the dead bearing down on Winterfell posing a greater threat than Jon’s betrayal of the title he was given.
The same can’t be said of House Glover, though. The House has had a complicated history over the course of the series: its seat, Deepwood Mott, was seized by the Greyjoys during the War of the Five Kings, and while the Glovers later retook their lands, Lord Robert Glover continued to bear a grudge against the Starks for not coming to their aid during that earlier war, because they were tied up fighting House Lannister. Back in season 6, when Jon and Sansa are trying to rally support in the North against the Boltons, Lord Glover refuses to help.
That said, Lord Glover eventually came around following the Battle of the Bastards, with the declaration, “I did not fight beside you on the field, and I will regret that until my dying day… There will be more fights to come. House Glover will stand behind House Stark, as we have for a thousand years. And I will stand behind Jon Snow!” Lord Glover went on to declare Jon King in the North, following in the wake of House Mormont and House Manderly.
But in this week’s episode, tensions over Jon abandoning that title seem to have reawakened the grudge between House Glover and House Stark. Lord Glover will indeed stand behind House Stark, but it seems he’s taking that sentiment literally, with House Glover holing up in Deepwood Mott and refusing to come to Jon’s aid for the pending battle at Winterfell against the army of the dead.
House Karstark is an interesting house — an offshoot of the main Stark line, the Karstarks were once among the most loyal of House Stark’s bannerman. But during the War of the Five Kings in season 3 of Game of Thrones, Lord Rickard Karstark goes against the orders of his liege lord, Robb Stark (declared at that point as the autonomous King in the North) and murders two Lannisters (Martyn and Willem Lannister). In return, Robb has Rickard Karstark executed, which causes the Karstarks to abandon Robb’s army entirely.
In season 6, when Roose Bolton makes his bid for the North, Harald Karstark, son of the executed Rickard, supports Roose’s cause due to his anger at House Stark for killing his father. Harald and the rest of House Karstark continue to serve the Boltons in their war against House Stark, including fighting on the side of Ramsay Bolton during the Battle of the Bastards, during which Harald dies.
After Harald’s death, Alys Karstark (his daughter, and Rickard’s granddaughter) is made head of House Karstark. Alys swears fealty once again to Jon Snow, and, as seen in this week’s episode, with Karstark bannermen joining the armies at Winterfell, this divide seems to have been mended.
House Umber’s story is similar to that of House Karstark: the Umbers are some of House Stark’s most loyal followers, with the (now dead) head of the house, Greatjon Umber, being the first to declare Robb Stark as the new King in the North all the way back in season 1 of the series.
After Greatjon’s death in the War of the Five Kings, his son, Smalljon Umber, becomes head of House Umber. Smalljon betrays the Starks to the Boltons because he hates the Wildings, and feels Jon Snow betrayed the North by allying with them and allowing them to pass south of the Wall. Smalljon went on to give Rickon Stark (who the Umbers had sheltered) over to Ramsay Bolton, who killed Rickon publicly.
During the Battle of the Bastards, though, Smalljon was killed by Tormund Giantsbane, which put House Umber in the hands of his young son, Ned Umber. Ned, like Alys Karstark, swore allegiance to House Stark.
In “Winterfell,” Ned Umber is working to bring his forces from the Last Hearth — the seat of House Umber, and the northernmost castle in the North — to Winterfell to join Jon Snow’s forces. But while returning home to gather his men, he falls victim to the Night King’s encroaching army, and is found as a resurrected wight by Berric Dondarion, Tormund, and the remainder of the Night’s Watch. Presumably, the rest of the murdered House Umber is still on its way to Winterfell — although as reinforcements for the Night King’s army, instead of the living.