Westeros is a great continent located in the far west of the known world. It is separated from the continent of Essos by the Narrow Sea. The continent is bordered by the frozen Lands of Always Winter to the north, the Sunset Sea to the west, the Summer Sea to the south and the Shivering Sea to the north-east.
Most of the continent of Westeros is controlled by a single political entity known as the Seven Kingdoms. The terms "Seven Kingdoms" and "Westeros" are often used interchangeably. However, there is a significant amount of land in the north of Westeros, beyond the Wall, controlled by the wildlings or "Free Folk", that is not part of the Seven Kingdoms.
The continent is also known as "the sunset lands" amongst the people of Essos. The Dothraki call it Rhaesh Andahli, the land of the Andals. The Seven Kingdoms are held in disdain by many in Essos, since it is not part of the slave trade (the lifeblood of trade and mercantile activity for much of southern Essos). Despite this disregard, the Seven Kingdoms appear to form the largest nation in the known world, as they are considerably larger even than Yi Ti in the distant east.
Westeros is the primary setting for the events in the A Song of Ice and Fire novels.
The northern-most region is known colloquially as the Beyond the Wall, the territory of the wildlings. This area lies in the far north of the continent. Beyond this region is a frozen, uninhabitable wasteland known as the Lands of Always Winter. The lands beyond the Wall contain the towering mountain range known as the Frostfangs and the vast woodland known as the Haunted Forest, as well as the hazardous Frozen Shore and the remote, small mountain kingdom of Thenn. Giants and the few remaining Children of the Forest dwell in these lands as well as humans. There are no cities in these lands, with the largest settlement, Hardhome, being destroyed by an unexplained cataclysm some centuries ago. The wildlings do maintain some villages, such as Whitetree.
The Wall marks the northern edge of the Seven Kingdoms. Spanning the continent for some three hundred miles, the Wall is the largest artificial structure in the world and one of the tallest. It is held by the Sworn Brotherhood of the Night's Watch, based at Castle Black, the Shadow Tower and Eastwatch-by-the-Sea.
Immediately south of the Wall lies the region known simply as the North. This region contains all the lands between the Wall and the the Neck. It is a vast but lightly-populated region of immense forests (such as the Wolfswood), craggy shorelines, cold rivers, low mountains and hills. The only city in the North is the port of White Harbor. It is ruled from Winterfell by House Stark.
The Riverlands are located south of the Neck. They are so-named as they are dominated by numerous rivers, including the Tumblestone, the Blackwater Rush and the three great and many lesser branches of the Trident. The huge lake of Gods Eye also lies in the Riverlands. The Riverlands' central location has seen them often conquered by surrounding lands and used as battlegrounds in the numerous wars that have blighted the continent over the past several millennia. There are no major cities in the Riverlands, but several large towns including Saltpans, Stoney Sept and Lord Harroway's Town. The Riverlands are traditionally rulled from Riverrun by House Tully.
The Vale of Arryn is located to the south-east of the Neck and the north-east of the Riverlands. The Vale itself is a valley between mountains and hills running from the feet of the mountain known as the Giant's Lance all the way to the Narrow Sea. However, the name also refers to the entire region. This region is dominated by the Mountains of the Moon and several lesser ranges, with castles and villages located in the numerous valleys between them. Formidable natural defences make the Vale difficult to conquer, and it has been able to sit out several of the wars that have blighted Westeros. The Vale's only city is Gulltown, located on the coast. The Vale is ruled from the Eyrie by House Arryn.
The Iron Islands are located to the west of the Riverlands, separating Ironman's Bay from the Sunset Sea. They consist of eight large and numerous smaller islands, inhabited by a hardy folk known as the ironborn who consider themselves a race apart from the rest of Westeros, with a culture based on war and reaving. There is no major city in the Iron Islands, only small towns and ports such as Lordsport. The islands are ruled from the castle at Pyke by House Greyjoy.
The Westerlands lie south-west of the Riverlands and south of the Iron Islands, along the coast of the Sunset Sea and extending inland to hills and low mountains. These mountains are known for their rich veins of gold and silver, which provide the region and its rulers with immense wealth. The Westerlands are home to the third-largest city in Westeros, Lannisport, and are ruled from Casterly Rock by House Lannister.
The Crownlands lie south-east of the Riverlands, along the coast of the Narrow Sea and Blackwater Bay and extending inland to Gods Eye. They also included some offshore islands, most notably Dragonstone and Driftmark. The Crownlands include notable towns such as Duskendale and Rosby, but are dominated by King's Landing, the capital city of the Seven Kingdoms and the largest city on the continent. King's Landing sits at the mouth of the Blackwater Rush and is the site of the Red Keep and the Iron Throne. House Baratheon currently holds the city and the surrounding lands.
The Stormlands lie south of the Crownlands, along the Narrow Sea and Shipbreaker Bay. They are named for the violent storms that frequently batter the coast. There is no major city in the Stormlands, but they do include several rich offshore islands, most notably Tarth and Estermont. The Stormlands are ruled from Storm's End by House Baratheon.
The Reach lies in the central-southern area of Westeros and is the second-largest region on the continent. It is bordered by the Westerlands to the north-west, the Riverlands in the north and the Stormlands in the east. To the south it is bordered by the Red Mountains. The Reach is rich and extremely fertile, with hundreds of miles of countryside fed by the immense Mander and its tributaries. The region also includes the offshore Shield Islands and the large island known as the Arbor, which is home to many famous wines. The second-largest city in Westeros, Oldtown, is located on the south-western coast. The Reach is ruled from Highgarden by House Tyrell.
Dorne is the southern-most region of Westeros. It is located along a desert peninsula south of the Sea of Dorne, which separates it from the Stormlands. The Red Mountains present a formidable natural border with the Reach to the north and west. The Dornish are noted for their fierce independence, and were the last part of Westeros to swear fealty to the Iron Throne, almost two centuries after the Conquest. Dorne has no major cities and is ruled from the castle of Sunspear by House Martell.
Climate and seasons
Like the rest of the world, Westeros is affected by the long, unpredictably variable seasons. Summers may last four or five years followed by an autumn of six months and winter of six years, or almost any other length that can be imagined. At present, Westeros is entering winter after a summer of nine years and an autumn of less than two years. However, as Westeros is located further north than Essos, it is much more harshly impacted by the longest and worst winters.
In terms of climate, the far north of Westeros beyond the Wall is a subarctic, freezing wasteland, whilst Dorne along the continent's south coast is home to burning deserts. Most of central Westeros, from the North down to the Reach, is temperate in climate.
Measuring distances in Westeros is an inexact science, but very roughly the distance from the Wall to the Sunset Sea seems to be in the region of 1,000 leagues (3,000 miles). The continent is approximately 900 miles wide at its widest point, but due to the heavy indentations of both coasts is frequently much less than that.
The population of the Seven Kingdoms has never been measured. The populations of the major cities have been estimated:
- King's Landing: 500,000.
- Oldtown: 500,000.
- Lannisport: 300,000.
- Gulltown & White Harbor: several tens of thousands.
Most of the houses can also raise combined armies (from all of their vassals) in the tens of thousands, with a combined army from the Stormlands and the Reach exceeding 100,000 in size. From these sizes, the total population of Westeros has been estimated in the millions at least, if not the low tens of millions.
The Seven Kingdoms are ruled by a single King from the city of King's Landing, advised by his small council. However, Westeros is too vast to be ruled directly by one ruler. Instead, the King passes authority down to the ruling Great Houses of the realm, namely Arryn, Baratheon, Greyjoy, Lannister, Martell, Stark, Tully and Tyrell. Each house rules its own region with absolute authority, beholden only to the Iron Throne.
Each Great House has vassal houses sworn to it. Some of these vassals, such as the Hightowers of the Reach or the Freys of the Riverlands, are powerful enough to have vassals of their own, stretching down to landholders and individual farmers.
The wildlings beyond the Wall have a more fractious and ad hoc method of ruling, which each tribe or clan following their own organisation, even during the times when they are unified under a King-beyond-the-Wall.
Westeros does not have a standing army, such as several of the Free Cities maintain. The only permanent military formations are the Kingsguard, the Night's Watch, the City Watch of King's Landing and Oldtown and individual lords' own bodyguards and watchmen. Instead, armies are raised only when needed. These levy armies tend to be ill-trained and under-equipped, although the Lannisters and Tyrells are rich enough to be able to outfit even their standard men-at-arms quite well.
More formidable are knights. Knights fulfill both a social and military function in the realm, with knights usually having their own arms and armor and attend to their own training, showing their prowess at tournaments. Knights are usually sworn to the service of lords. During times of war, knights will usually serve as heavy cavalry formations.
Westerosi military forces usually consist of a screen of skirmishers in front of pike or spearmen formations backed up by archers or crossbowmen (the crossbow is more commonly employed in Essos beyond the Narrow Sea, but some Westerosi favor it), with cavalry on the flanks.
The Faith of the Seven is the dominant faith in Westeros. It holds sway in almost all the lands south of the Neck and amongst some individual houses of the North. The Andals brought the Faith of the Seven to Westeros with them. This religion preaches that there is but one god divided into seven aspects, namely the Father, the Mother, the Warrior, the Maiden, the Crone, the Smith and the Stranger (who represents death). Priests and priestesses of the Seven are known as septons and septas. Their temples are seven-sided structures known as septs (for the common people) and septries for monastic orders.
The Old Gods of the Forest are worshipped beyond the Wall, in the North and, in a few isolated cases, a few houses of the south. This was the ancient religion of the Children of the Forest before their disappearance south of the Wall, which they passed onto the First Men. Compared to the structured, hierarchical organisation of the Faith, this religion is notably lacking in priests or organisation. Instead, followers of the Old Gods pray before heart trees (large weirwood trees with faces carved into the bark) in quiet woodlands of contemplation known as godswoods.
The Drowned God is a deity worshipped on the Iron Islands. The Drowned God is a heartless and ruthless deity who demands that the ironborn conquer in its name. Followers of the Drowned God are consecrated with seawater. Extremely devout followers and priests are actually drowned and then resuscitated. Those that survive the process are called Drowned Men and are respected for their devotion. The Drowned God is said to war continuously with a rival deity called the Storm God. This religion does not have much traction beyond the Iron Islands.
Some of the Rhoynar-descended people of Dorne continue the beliefs of their ancestors. This group worships the Rhoyne as a goddess, with her 'daughters' (tributaries) as lesser deities. In Dorne the Greenblood river stands in for the Rhoyne, with the followers of this religion naming themselves the Orphans of the Greenblood. The degree to which this is a religious or a merely cultural group is debatable.
The eastern deity of R'hllor, the Lord of Light, has recently made some inroads in Westeros with the conversion of Stannis Baratheon, claimant to the Iron Throne, to the religion. The followers of R'hllor claim that the Lord of Light is the world's only hope in the struggle against the Great Other, the god of darkness and cold, in the war that is to come. R'hllor has centres of worship throughout Essos, particularly in Braavos, Volantis, Lys and Asshai, but as yet no permanent center of faith in Westeros.
The people of Westeros are divided between several distinct ethnic groups, although intermarriage over centuries or millennia has diluted these differences in many regions.
The First Men were the original human settlers of Westeros. According to tradition, they crossed the Narrow Sea more than twelve thousand years ago with weapons of bronze and fire. They warred with the Children of the Forest before making peace with them and, later, fighting alongside them against the Others in the War for the Dawn. The blood of the First Men remains strongest in the North and beyond the Wall, but even here it has been diluted by marriages with other groups.
The Andals invaded Westeros some six thousand years ago (according to popular myth) and overthrew the rule of the First Men in all the lands below the Neck. The native First Men were wiped out or conquered, and subsumed into the Andals over the course of millennia. The Andals are regarded as the dominant ethnic group in Westeros today.
The Rhoynar were the dominant people of the River Rhoyne and its many tributaries in western Essos. They fled from a Valyrian invasion more than a thousand years ago by sea, landing in Dorne and overrunning the peninsula. They intermarried with the native Andals. The modern Dornish have a lot of Rhoynish blood in their veins.
The ironborn are a mixture of the original First Men settlers of the Iron Islands and the Andals who came later. They reject any label other than "ironborn" and consider themselves a people apart from the "green lands", the inhabitants of whom they consider to be feeble and weak.
The wildlings are a mixture of First Men and (through criminals sent to the Wall over the course of millennia) Andal and Rhoynish blood. The inhabitants of the remote Thenn valley in the remote north claim to have the purest strain of First Men blood on the continent.
It is known that several non-human races also exist on the continent of Westeros, though in vanishingly small numbers. Giants dwell amongst the mountains of the distant north and have made alliances with the wildlings. The Children of the Forest, believed extinct for more than six thousand years, also still remain in tiny numbers in the depths of the Haunted Forest.
More enigmatic are the Others, also called "white walkers", creatures of ice and cold who invaded southern Westros during the Long Night some eight millennia ago before being defeated in the War for the Dawn. Recently the Others have returned and begun moving south in substantial numbers. Their goals remain unknown.
For a more detailed history of the Seven Kingdoms, see the timeline of Westerosi history.
Twelve thousand years ago, Westeros was inhabited by the diminutive Children of the Forest, a nonhuman race who lived in peace and harmony with nature, worshipping the Old Gods of the Forest. The First Men, a human ethnic group, invaded Westeros across the Arm of Dorne, armed with weapons of bronze. In a significant military conflict, in which the Children allegedly destroyed the Arm of Dorne with magic (resulting in the creation of the Stepstones) and flooded the Neck, the two sides fought to a standstill and made a pact of friendship and alliance. The First Men adopted the worship of the old gods at this time.
Four thousand years later, Westeros was invaded by the Others during a winter that lasted for a generation, the Long Night. In the War for the Dawn they were defeated by an alliance of the First Men and the Children, though only at grievous cost. The Children disappeared from Westeros at this time. Brandon Stark, Bran the Builder, raised the Wall to bar the Others from returning and founded the Night's Watch to guard it. He also built the castle of Winterfell and established House Stark as the ruling house of the Kingdom of the North. Two thousand years later, the Andals invaded Westeros from across the Narrow Sea, landing in the Vale and sweeping across the continent. The Andals conquered the southern half of the continent but failed to seize the North, being thrown back several times at the defensive chokepoint of Moat Cailin. A patchwork of numerous small Andal kingdoms took shape across the south, eventually coalescing into several larger nations.
A thousand years ago, the Rhoynar, the warrior-people of the upper Rhoyne (a river network on Essos), fell into warfare with the mighty Valyrian Freehold. The Valyrians destroyed the Rhoynar cities using dragons. Nymeria, warrior-queen of the Rhoynar, led her people across the Summer Sea in ten thousand ships to land in Dorne. Making alliance with Prince Mors Martell of Sunspear, Nymeria conquered the myriad small kingdoms and lordships of Dorne to establish a powerful, proud and independent kingdom.
Four centuries ago, Valyria was destroyed in a volcanic cataclysm, the Doom. A century later, the scions of House Targaryen, who ruled the Valyrian trading outpost on the island of Dragonstone, invaded Westeros with a small army and three dragons. Aegon the Conqueror accepted the fealty of six kingdoms, whilst several generations later his descendants were able to bring Dorne into the union through peaceful alliance, hence the term "Seven Kingdoms".
Westeros suffered from several civil wars, such as the Faith Militant Uprising, the Dance of Dragons and the five Blackfyre Rebellions, but the Targaryens were able to hold the Iron Throne for 283 years. At the end of this period, the actions of the Mad King, Aerys II Targaryen, triggered a massive uprising against him by no less than four of the Great Houses. Led by Robert Baratheon, this coalition destroyed Aerys's loyal armies and saw him slain and his two surviving children forced into exile in the Free Cities. Robert took the throne and ruled for fifteen years until he was mortally wounded in a boar hunt.
Upon Robert's death, the Iron Throne was disputed between his son Joffrey and Robert's brothers Renly and Stannis. At the same time, Robb Stark declared himself King in the North and Balon Greyjoy claimed independence for the Iron Islands. The result was the War of the Five Kings. Joffrey, Robb, Balon and Renly all died during this conflict, which eventually culminated in the defeat of Stannis at the Battle of the Blackwater and his subsequent flight to the Wall. Joffrey's younger brother Tommen was proclaimed King.
However, no sooner was the war (apparently) concluded than a mercenary army of Essos, the Golden Company invaded Westeros under the banner of House Targaryen. At their head was a young man claiming to be Aegon VI Targaryen, the presumed-slain grandson of the Mad King. It was also known by this time that Daenerys Targaryen, the Mad King's daughter, had conquered parts of Slaver's Bay and bore the only three living dragons in all the world. With a series of assassinations in King's Landing plunging the alliance between the houses Tyrell and Lannister into doubt, the future of the Seven Kingdoms remains uncertain.
George R.R. Martin has said that the maps in the books are not entirely to scale, and that measurements are uncertain and distances are inexact. He likes to leave distances and travel times vague so as to not create inconsistencies or plot holes. However, he has said that he imagines Westeros to be roughly the length of South America (about 4,000 miles), including the lands north of the Wall. At one time Martin cautioned against using the Wall as a scale bar, but when it later appeared that doing so did not introduce any major continuity issues, he later suggested you could do so to at least get a rough idea of distances in the books.
Indeed, using the 300-mile-long Wall as a scale bar, Westeros south from the Wall appears to be about 3,000 miles in length, with the North roughly covering an area equal to Scandinavia and the Reach an area comparable to France.