A Crash Course in Game of Thrones History

A whole lot happened before 'GoT' began

By AT&T Digital Media Productions editorial team 


The history of Westeros is long, overwhelming, and oft disputed by learned maesters. If you don’t feel like spending years cleaning bedpans at the Citadel, this guide is for you. Get ready to breeze through millennia of legends, battles, and kings faster than Lord Jon Mooton bent the knee to Aegon the Conqueror.


The Children of the Forest

To understand Game of Thrones history, we must begin at the, um, beginning. More than 10,000 years ago, the first residents of Westeros were the Children of the Forest, a race of elfin natives with greenish skin and catlike eyes. The Children had a special bond with the land, relying on magic rather than technology to survive. They possessed skills now lost to time, like shapeshifting and future sight, and worshipped sacred weirwood trees into which they carved primitive faces.

Eventually, the Children were all but massacred by humans, and their survivors retreated to the deepest North. Bran Stark encounters one of the surviving Children beyond the Wall, a centuries-old sylph named Leaf. While Bran trained with the Three-Eyed Raven, Leaf used her ancient magic to protect them from White Walkers.


The First Men

Humans set foot in Westeros around 10,000 years ago. The First Men crossed a narrow land bridge from Essos and poured onto the continent, bringing their bronze weapons with them. The peaceful Children of the Forest didn’t mind—until the First Men started forcing the Children from their ancestral lands and chopping down sacred weirwood trees. Then they had a problem.

The First Men and the Children of the Forest skirmished over control of Westeros for centuries, pitting the weapons of men against the Children’s forest magic. As tends to happen, the natives were outmatched by the invaders; but before the Children were totally annihilated, a common enemy forced the First Men to unite with their foes. What threat was frightening enough to cause a truce? White Walkers.


The Long Night

In a Season 6 vision, Bran Stark observed the Children of the Forest creating the White Walkers in a dark ritual as a last-gasp effort to protect their land from the First Men. The Walkers swept Westeros from the North, aided by (or perhaps causing) a sunless winter that plunged the continent into cold and darkness for years. The Long Night lasted a generation, during which the White Walkers ravaged the land and terrorized First Men and Children alike.

The forerunners of the Night’s Watch figured out that obsidian, or “dragonglass,” was the key to killing White Walkers. Armed with dragonglass blades, they defeated the Walkers in the Battle for the Dawn. Afterward, a Stark ancestor called Brandon the Builder enlisted the help of the Children to raise the Wall, a massive structure of ice reinforced by magic. The White Walkers were trapped forevermore north of the Wall, unable to reenter the Seven Kingdoms (at least until recent events).

At the end of the Long Night, the First Men and the Children of the Forest made a slightly unfair peace deal called the Pact. The First Men quit killing the Children and took control of Westeros, except for the deep forests and other wild places, which they left to the Children. This state of affairs lasted centuries, until…


The Andal Invasion

Think of the Andals like Normans. In our world, the Normans were led by William the Conqueror and landed in England in 1066, where they subjugated the native Saxons and founded the Britain we know today. In the world of Game of Thrones, the Andals came from the lands around the Free Cities of Essos. Believers in the Faith of the Seven, they landed in Westeros at least 2,000 years ago, and their steel weaponry quickly outclassed the Bronze Age tech of the First Men.

The Andals stamped their religion, culture, and seven-pointed star emblem all over Westeros. After the ravages of the Andal conquest, the few remaining Children of the Forest ceased their dealings with men completely. They disappeared from the known world, fading into folklore and legend.

But the Andals never fully consolidated their rule. The Stark Kings in the North and their liege lords resisted conquest for centuries, refusing ever to bend the knee. Even now, Northerners pride themselves on being descended from the First Men rather than the Andals, as do the Free Folk beyond the Wall. The Northmen continued to practice the religion of the First Men, praying to heart trees in weirwoods instead of worshipping the Seven.

The southernmost kingdom of Dorne also fought off the Andals. Culturally and ethnically distinct from the Andals and the First Men, the Dornish remained proud, independent, and distinctive from the Seven Kingdoms even through the Targaryen era.


Enter the Dragons

Three hundred years before the events of Game of Thrones, the Targaryens brought all Seven Kingdoms under one rule.

The Targaryens hailed from Old Valyria, an advanced civilization whose glory brings to mind ancient Rome. The empire’s success was mainly due to dragons, which the Valyrians discovered and trained to do their bidding. But Valyria was destroyed in a mysterious, probably volcanic event called the The Doom.

Only a few Targaryens, and their dragons, survived. They moved to Dragonstone, an island off the coast of Westeros, and after a few decades, set their sights on the Western continent.

Aegon Targaryen, his two sister-wives Visenya and Rhaenys, and their three dragons swept the Seven Kingdoms, incinerating all resistance. Thanks to the dragons, their conquest was swift and decisive. Aegon’s descendants were alternately crazy or genius (or crazy geniuses), but they maintained control over a continent that had never before accepted a single ruler.

The Targaryens maintained the customs of Old Valyria, including marrying brother to sister, which may have had something to do with their high rate of insanity. They tried to keep their dragons alive as well, but they lost the art of breeding the beasts, and the last dragons died a couple hundred years later.



Robert’s Rebellion

The Targaryen dynasty ended with Robert’s Rebellion. Though the Mad King Aerys II was incredibly unpopular, the real flashpoint was when his heir, Rhaegar Targaryen, “kidnapped” Lyanna Stark in a Helen of Troy-type scenario. Robert Baratheon, Lyanna’s betrothed, declared himself fed up with unbalanced Targaryen rule, and raised an army of allies (including Ned Stark) to overthrow the Mad King and regain his bride-to-be.

Robert prevailed with the help of the Starks and Lannisters. Jaime Lannister slew the Mad King, Tywin Lannister’s army took over King’s Landing, and Robert ascended to the Iron Throne. Ned Stark returned North with the body of his sister Lyanna, who died during the rebellion. A heartbroken Robert married Cersei Lannister to cement the alliance—though in his heart he never gave up his first love.

In Season 1, an older, fatter King Robert reigned unhappily over Westeros, with Queen Cersei less “at his side” than “scheming behind his back.” This uneasy state of affairs eventually led to...



The War of the Five Kings

The general chaos engulfing Westeros since late in Season 1 was dubbed “The War of the Five Kings,” because five different guys decided to call themselves King of something or another. Spoiler alert: none of them got to be King for long, if at all.

The five kings named in the conflict were: Joffrey Baratheon, King on the Iron Throne; Robb Stark, King in the North; Balon Greyjoy, King of the Iron Islands; Renly Baratheon, King of the Reach; and Stannis Baratheon, who (rightly) claimed that Joffrey’s rule was illegitimate and he, Stannis, should sit on the Iron Throne instead. Whew!

At this point in the show, none of the “original” five kings are still alive. But the civil war they pushed still rages on.


Watch the latest chapter in Westerosi history unfold 2019, only on HBO.