Stannis and the Covert King

Is Mance Rayder a component of Stannis’s strategy to defeat the Boltons?


As I argue here, there is every reason to see that Stannis would fake Mance’s death to benefit his campaign. Further, there are several elements of Stannis’s larger strategy that seem haphazard and juvenile when taken at face value. These concerns are resolved if you come to the conclusion that Stannis and Mance must have been acting in concert.

This is one of several essays in a series discussing Stannis’s campaign for the north:

  1. Stannis: Less Draconian, More Utilitarian
  2. Counterintelligence: Using the Bolton Machine Against Itself
  3. Stannis and the Covert King
  4. A Strategy Emerges: Stannis and the Discourses on Livy

Melisandre’s Vision

We know that Jon pleaded for Mance’s life, citing his great value to Stannis’s campaign. This culminates with Melisandre admitting that Jon may be right, and that she would search her fires for direction:

“It may be that you are not wrong about the wildling king. I shall pray for the Lord of Light to send me guidance.”

Now we know that at some point Melisandre has her vision about the ‘girl in grey’ that she assumes is Jon’s sister and that it becomes central to the eventual release of Mance Rayder.

What’s most interesting here is that she doesn’t specify when she had the vision:

The girl. I must find the girl again, the grey girl on the dying horse. Jon Snow would expect that of her, and soon. It would not be enough to say the girl was fleeing. He would want more, he would want the when and where, and she did not have that for him. She had seen the girl only once. A girl as grey as ash, and even as I watched she crumbled and blew away.

It’s entirely possible that she had this vision well before Stannis departed Castle Black.

Indeed, since the ‘girl in grey’ appears to be the only reason Mance is alive, one could argue that the vision of this grey girl was the ‘guidance’ the Lord of Light sent her.

It’s almost humorous how straight-forward the logic is. Jon says keep him alive, Melisandre says I’ll pray that R’hllor finds an excuse to keep him alive, and voila a vision that suits appears.

The ultimate question is, did she tell Stannis? Does Stannis know?

Yes, as the remainder of this entry will show.

The Winterfell — Storm’s End similarity

First of all, let’s make some significant observations concerning how Stannis seized Storm’s End. I’m specifically looking for similarities to Stannis’s march towards Winterfell.

Stannis knew he couldn’t take the castle via conventional means, yet approached anyways.

The main observation here is that Stannis’s exterior behavior seems to display a wanton disregard for the reality of his situation. Under normal circumstances, he would have no chance to take Storm’s End in any reasonable amount of time.

However we readers know that Stannis had a wildcard in the form of Melisandre all along. Thus his apparent cavalier attitude actually concealed a well-crafted plan.

Stannis has much the same attitude during his approach to Winterfell. One could argue that I’m entirely wrong and that Stannis is quite grim by the end of A Dance with Dragons. You would be right. However, when Stannis set out for Deepwood Motte, he must have already been wondering how he would take Winterfell. He must have realized the immense challenge that lay before him and pondered the reality of his situation. How would he take that castle? What was his end-game, should he have actually marched up to the gates of Winterfell?

He does this again in Deepwood Motte when he declares that they will march against Winterfell and reclaim it or die trying. What is the sense in that, if he doesn’t have a concrete strategy for taking one of the most defensible castles in Westeros?

Once again, we readers are led to believe that Stannis is attempting something that seems ludicrous and without a strong plan to back it up.

His councilors all advised conventional tactics for taking the castle. This is despite the fact that Stannis had all but made his choice prior to the parley.

None of the lords who attend Stannis at his parley with Cortnay Penrose really offer anything of substantial value with regard to strategy. Back in the king’s pavilion, Stannis reveals that Melisandre had predicted Penrose’s death long ago, including the manner of it.

“Ser Cortnay will be dead within the day. Melisandre has seen it in the flames of the future. His death and the manner of it.”

Stannis is similarly hounded with conventional, straightforward tactics for taking Winterfell, all of which entail a long siege. Similar to the parley with Penrose, Stannis is stoic, quiet and seems rather predetermined.

He used someone with specialized, proven knowledge of how to infiltrate the castle.

We all know story about how Davos saved Stannis during Robert’s Rebellion, and later how he used the same secret cove to smuggle Melisandre within the walls of Storm’s End.

It was this specialized knowledge that made Davos ideal for the task.

Similarly, Mance has specialized knowledge of how to infiltrate Winterfell incognito. Like Davos, he has done it in the past on at least one notable occasion.

The infiltrator’s actions allowed the castle to be taken without a siege.

By smuggling Melisandre into Storm’s End, Davos allows Storm’s End to be taken in a night with only a single death.

Although incapable of shadow assassins, Mance could aid in taking Winterfell without a siege. After all, Stannis himself admits that Mance is ‘clever’.

The mission was of the utmost secrecy.

The king gave a curt nod. “You will need a small boat. Not Black Betha. No one must know what you do.”

Why was the mission of the utmost secrecy? Why would Davos never be allowed to speak publicly about how Stannis captured Storm’s End?

The secrecy was required because he knew there would be political backlash had his ethically-questionable method been revealed.

This is one of the earliest signs that Stannis’s covert tactics often don’t align with his public persona, as I noted earlier when discussing his pragmatic nature.

The walls of Storm’s End were ‘enchanted’ and protected the inhabitants.

Melisandre could clearly not release her shadow spawn until she was within the walls of Storm’s End. She explains it is because powerful magical wards have been woven into the walls.

It has long been theorized that Winterfell is similarly warded, on the basis that Bran the Builder and/or the children of the forest were heavily involved in the construction of both.

This is of interest because it means that Melisandre would have to be inside the walls before she could use any of her supernatural abilities –like the shadow assassins– to kill the Boltons.

Since there are no known secret entrances to Winterfell, smuggling the red priestess inside Winterfell is unlikely. Stannis would need to rely on some other trick.

Thus, if Stannis wanted to largely re-use a strategy that worked (compare to the siege of King’s Landing), using Mance as some kind of catspaw inside Winterfell is a ready-made solution.

Cost-Benefit Analysis of Mance Rayder

In addition to how Mance can help take Winterfell, there are several other major benefits if Mance lives:

  • Mance has extensive knowledge of the north beyond the wall.

“Mance knows the haunted forest better than any ranger,” Jon had told King Stannis, in his final effort to convince His Grace that the King-Beyond-the-Wall would be of more use to them alive than dead. “He knows Tormund Giantsbane. He has fought the Others. And he had the Horn of Joramun and did not blow it. He did not bring down the Wall when he could have.” His words fell on deaf ears. Stannis had remained unmoved. The law was plain; a deserter’s life was forfeit.

He was the first ranger and a king. He spent a great deal of time exploring in search of the Horn of Joramun. His knowledge is almost second to none.

  • Val’s cooperation

Since arriving at the Wall, Stannis has conspired to marry Val to a suitable man who would assume the mantle of Lord of Winterfell; a marriage that would bind the wildlings to the northmen in perpetuity.

“Good,” King Stannis said, “for the surest way to seal a new alliance is with a marriage. I mean to wed my Lord of Winterfell to this wildling princess.”

Perhaps Jon had ridden with the free folk too long; he could not help but laugh. “Your Grace,” he said, “captive or no, if you think you can just give Val to me, I fear you have a deal to learn about wildling women. Whoever weds her had best be prepared to climb in her tower window and carry her off at swordpoint . . .”

“I would hope the truth would please you, Sire. Your men call Val a princess, but to the free folk she is only the sister of their king’s dead wife. If you force her to marry a man she does not want, she is like to slit his throat on their wedding night.”

As we can see Jon makes it quite clear that attempting to control Val like chattel will not work. This is amply demonstrated in A Dance with Dragons:

All the same, the wildling princess was not beloved of her gaolers. She scorned them all as “kneelers,” and had thrice attempted to escape. When one man-at-arms grew careless in her presence she had snatched his dagger from its sheath and stabbed him in the neck. Another inch to the left and he might have died.

Thus this is no idle threat, Stannis must find a way to render Val suitable for marriage in order for his marriage pact to have lasting effect. Val actually presents him with his solution:

“Is it Mance? Val begged the king to spare him. She said she’d let some kneeler marry her and never slit his throat if only Mance could live. That Lord o’Bones, he’s to be spared.”

So we see that Val has promised to be a cooperative hostage and willingly submit to marriage, provided Mance is not executed.

  • Only Mance can unite the wildlings.

“Even if she accepts her husband, that does not mean the wildlings will follow him, or you. The only man who can bind them to your cause is Mance Rayder.”

While Val might be a way to secure some sort of peacetime alliance between the wildlings and the north, Jon makes it clear that the only way to make use of the wildlings as a unified force is if their are rallied behind Mance; not some lord married to Val.

There are only two real drawbacks to keeping Mance alive:

  • It would show weakness.

Stannis needs to execute Mance to show that his reign is one of law and justice. Failing to do so raise questions about his ability to make the hard decisions required of a king.

  • It would be an insult to the northmen.

Many of the northerners have been repeatedly raided by the wildlings. The execution of Mance Rayder is symbolically important to them. Pardoning Mance breaks faith with the laws of the kingdom and could sow dissent among his newly acquired bannermen.

As we can see, there are a lot of reasons to keep Mance around, many of them of vital interest to Stannis’s larger campaign to secure the north. The two principal reasons to execute him are entirely political, about showing strength and adherence to the rule of law and principle.

Stannis’s Involvement

Let’s suppose that Stannis knows everything suggested in this essay, that he has knowledge of Melisandre’s vision, has a full idea of how Mance can help any effort to take Winterfell, and that he fully understands the benefits and drawbacks of Mance’s execution.

Given the choice of live, or die; how would Stannis decide Mance’s fate?

Here Stannis is compelled by his role as king. He must choose to execute Mance or risk undermining his authority. He himself says this many times.

It should be noted in particular that Stannis is specifically focused on how his choices affect further adherence to the law and much less so on punishing the criminal:

“Even if he were to renounce his kingship, though, the man remains an oathbreaker. Suffer one deserter to live, and you encourage others to desert.”

The distilled point here is that the execution is not needed because the criminal must be punished. If that was the case then why did he pardon all those treasonous lords who originally sided with Renly and later joined his cause? Because he needed them.

The execution is needed because he needs the northern lords, and to reaffirm his kingship. Pardoning Mance undermines too many of his relationships.

However… what if the question was different…

Given the choice of live, die, or fake the execution; how would Stannis decide Mance’s fate?

If Mance’s death could be faked, Stannis stands to reap all the benefits of the execution, plus the benefits of having an extremely resourceful agent at his disposal; especially true if Stannis knows about the forthcoming wedding predicted in Melisandre’s vision.

This is ultimately a question of whether or not Stannis is a rigid adherent to the law or more pragmatic. As I showed earlier in this series, Stannis is fully capable of taking less-than-honorable approaches when it helps advance his campaign for the throne.

Further, given the hypothetical/theoretical nature of this series of essays, I don’t intend to prove that Stannis made this choice (indeed I can’t), but rather I want to show you that it makes the most sense.

But why would Stannis take this choice? Couldn’t Melisandre just do it all behind his back?

In the next section of the series I lay out an initial outline of Stannis’s plan as he departs for Deepwood Motte. In this plan I will explain how Melisandre would not be capable of coordinating and executing events without Stannis’s complicity.


So it would seem there is plenty of motive and opportunity for Stannis to have knowingly been involved in Mance’s faked execution.

In the next essay in the series I assemble the various oddments discussed thus far and show Stannis’s initial strategy.

Final Thoughts

Is there any circumstantial evidence to support the allegation that Stannis knows?

First, notice that Val is subsequently subdued. The woman who stabbed a guard in the neck, has since Mance’s ‘execution’ become a comparatively docile creature. Sure, she many be rambunctious but she is no longer insolent and violent. Given the promise we know she made to Stannis, one has to wonder if she knows.

Second, Stannis himself assigns Rattleshirt to Jon. He already knew Jon’s opinions on the man and gave the order anyways. It’s incredibly suspicious.

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