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Why Did the Watch Decline?


Craving Peaches
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One of the reasons I've seen posted here a lot is that since the Seven Kingdoms unified less people were sent as there were fewer prisoners of war who went due to the Kingdom to Kingdom conflict ending. However I'm not sure about this. While there were fewer wars, the scale of the wars was increased, so I think the amount of people joining the Watch after each war should have remained roughly the same - or increased. Because the population of Westeros as a whole was increasing. Supposedly it doubled under the reign of King Jaehaerys which would mean, in theory, double the amount of people going to the Watch.

Another reason people give is that fewer knights were joining because the Watch was not seen as honourable any more. The Watch as we see it is full of criminals. But it can't always have been like that. If nobles weren't joining anymore because of there being too many criminals then at some point there ratio of criminals compared to nobles going to the Watch must have changed. But that wouldn't explain why the Watch is so short of men. There are presumably more criminals than nobles in Westeros. And presumably most people would rather join the Watch than die or be castrated. And criminals always had the option of going to join the Watch. So I don't see how it would fall out of favour with the Nobles for that reason.

Now if it were the case that the Watch declined after it became clear the Others weren't coming back anytime soon, and so the Watch was relegated to just fighting Wildlings, I would understand. But this is not what happened. Just 300 years ago, when the Others had already been gone for ages, the Watch had 10,000 men. And then they lost >90% of their men in ~300 years. I do not understand why there was such a sharp decline in such a short space of time.

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All this is one thing that really bugs me about the Nights Watch. It doesn’t make sense to me that they should number more than ten times their current amount during a time when there was no feasible way that anyone should have been able to get to the Wall in the first place. Like, each kingdom was warring with the others on a near constant basis. Sure, you could sail people to Eastwatch by the Sea, but that’s not always an ideal possibility. How did anyone even get to the Wall overland? Did every kingdom respect the NW back then and just let thousands of men be shipped north ? Anyone could have taken advantage of that to invade lands through trickery. 
If anything, the numbers should have increased AFTER the conquest. Open travel through the regions, anyone could send their criminals away, plus anyone who actually wanted to go. 

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The Golden Company.

 

Crossing the Narrow Sea was always an option for exiles and men without prospects back home. And after the fall of the Valryria and the rise of the Free Companies there was even more opportunity - but it was never considered honourable.

 

But the Golden Company was formed by the exiled losers of the war who wanted to not lose themselves, and by keeping their cause alive they kept their Westerosi honour.

 

And that became the model for honourable exiles. Even up to recent times the GC has had exiled lords and castle-bred bastards. Those are the type of men that would have been the backbone of the Night Watch's office core if they had no better place to go. Because the NW didn't have those kind of men it couldn't attract common men, and gained it's reputation as a last refuge only for dishonourable criminals. 

 

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300 years is plenty of time for a  decline in anything. The 10k number may have been largely old men, the  last generation where the watch was even remotely respected.

The gradual  decline of dragons may have helped kill off any sense of there being any mystical creatures needing fighting off, if you saw something as amazing  as a dragon it might help with belief  in  scary ice demons !

 

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Peace.  Long periods of peace.  Increased prosperity also created more opportunities for young men to find gainful work.  

It takes a lot of resources and funding to maintain a large force on the wall.  The perceived threat determined the resources the kingdoms were willing to send to the wall.  The wildlings raided, raped, and did horrible things to the north.  And only the north.  The South thought they get little benefit from the wall and reduced support.  It would have slowed the economy of the whole kingdom to maintain troops in every fort on the wall.  

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9 hours ago, Buried Treasure said:

The Golden Company.

 

Crossing the Narrow Sea was always an option for exiles and men without prospects back home. And after the fall of the Valryria and the rise of the Free Companies there was even more opportunity - but it was never considered honourable.

 

But the Golden Company was formed by the exiled losers of the war who wanted to not lose themselves, and by keeping their cause alive they kept their Westerosi honour.

 

And that became the model for honourable exiles. Even up to recent times the GC has had exiled lords and castle-bred bastards. Those are the type of men that would have been the backbone of the Night Watch's office core if they had no better place to go. Because the NW didn't have those kind of men it couldn't attract common men, and gained it's reputation as a last refuge only for dishonourable criminals. 

 

But that would imply that the fall-off in the NW's numbers is very recent. Only five generations or so. We hear about thousands of Poor Fellows going north to the Wall, plus all the prisoners from the Dance and the Secret Siege. Even if we're talking a hundred years, that's a pretty alarming drop from thousands of years of tradition.

Edited by James Steller
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6 hours ago, James Steller said:

But that would imply that the fall-off in the NW's numbers is very recent. Only five generations or so. We hear about thousands of Poor Fellows going north to the Wall, plus all the prisoners from the Dance and the Secret Siege. Even if we're talking a hundred years, that's a pretty alarming drop from thousands of years of tradition.

Those poor fellows then revolted which would have gutted the Nights Watch, and the reason why the Starks had to put it down can only be that these poor fellows outnumbered the rest of the watch. In fact this internal strife could very well have hastened the decline of the watch.

I do not remember any great numbers being sent to the wall after the Dance, in fact i only know of the 19 men Cregan Stark sent there.

As for the secret siege there where only 42 people accused, 8 had died already, 1 was killed in trial by combat, 16 had fled, 4 recieved a alternate form of punishment (like joining the faith), so only 13 actually went to the Nights Watch.

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The decline already was in evidence by the time of Alysanne gifting her jewels to raise a new fortress so the Nightfort would be abandoned: by then it was alread considered too big for the number of NW brothers that were stationed at the Nightfort. So, we're talking less than 60 years.

  • Dragons burning whole armies had a short term cost
  • Within a decade the KG is created, outshining the NW for 2nd and 3rd sons of noblemen. There were always tourneys since the Andals, but it never led to being picked for an honorable guard position with a king. Suddenly lists and melees become a way to gain fame and glory and a lifetime position with a king for the history books, and thereofore far more attractive and noble. The only prize before that was money, and professional tourney knights were mostly hedge knights. The NW never required men to win tourneys before they got to the Wall.
  • We know there were exiles from the North who raised a sellsword company in Essos.
  • Add the religious wars against Aenys and Maegor as well as Maegor's war against Aegon and Rhaena.
  • And the Targs set a bad example: none of their 2nd or 3rd sons are sent to the Wall to serve. Nope they're kept around for incest marriages and keeping the dragons at KL and Dragonstone. Even Jaehaerys: he sends one son to be maester. That's it.
Edited by sweetsunray
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On 1/25/2023 at 8:00 PM, Craving Peaches said:

One of the reasons I've seen posted here a lot is that since the Seven Kingdoms unified less people were sent as there were fewer prisoners of war who went due to the Kingdom to Kingdom conflict ending. However I'm not sure about this. While there were fewer wars, the scale of the wars was increased, so I think the amount of people joining the Watch after each war should have remained roughly the same - or increased. Because the population of Westeros as a whole was increasing. Supposedly it doubled under the reign of King Jaehaerys which would mean, in theory, double the amount of people going to the Watch.

There is evidence whatsoever that 'the scale of the wars increased' in the aftermath of the Conquest. The longest war that we know of after the Conquest was the First Dornish War and that was limited to Dorne, and (smaller) portions of the Stormlands and the Reach - and only involved people from those regions (in addition to Targaryen levies from the Crownlands). Even an alleged huge war like the Dance only lasted for two years and only was pretty limited in its scope (no fighting in the North, the Vale, and Dorne, and large portions of the Westerlands and the Reach were also not touched by the fighting).

Before the Conquest there was constant warfare in Westeros, with the border regions of the respective kingdoms likely taking the bulk of it. And taking the black might have then be the honorable way to rid yourself of prisoners of war - and of unruly bannermen you defeated.

On 1/25/2023 at 8:00 PM, Craving Peaches said:

Another reason people give is that fewer knights were joining because the Watch was not seen as honourable any more. The Watch as we see it is full of criminals. But it can't always have been like that. If nobles weren't joining anymore because of there being too many criminals then at some point there ratio of criminals compared to nobles going to the Watch must have changed. But that wouldn't explain why the Watch is so short of men. There are presumably more criminals than nobles in Westeros. And presumably most people would rather join the Watch than die or be castrated. And criminals always had the option of going to join the Watch. So I don't see how it would fall out of favour with the Nobles for that reason.

For common criminals taking the black would have always been an option - highborn criminals often could choose between exile and the Wall. Keep in mind that joining the Watch was always a choice. You cannot sentence somebody to take the black, you can just give them a choice between a proper punishment and remember them that they are always free to take the black if they want to avoid that punishment.

I'm kind of inclined to believe that by the time of the Conquest the Westerosi were already mainly sending criminals to the Wall. The Targaryens wouldn't have increased that trend ... but the fact that there were no longer any proper wars between independent kingdoms (and far less feuds among the various noble houses in the Seven Kingdoms) there would have been fewer 'honorable criminals' (i.e. lords and knights and men-at-arms who just fought on the wrong side and lost a war/strife), leaving only the scum that makes up most of the Watch during the main series.

On 1/25/2023 at 8:00 PM, Craving Peaches said:

Now if it were the case that the Watch declined after it became clear the Others weren't coming back anytime soon, and so the Watch was relegated to just fighting Wildlings, I would understand. But this is not what happened. Just 300 years ago, when the Others had already been gone for ages, the Watch had 10,000 men. And then they lost >90% of their men in ~300 years. I do not understand why there was such a sharp decline in such a short space of time.

I'd imagine the 10,000 men then were already a Watch in decline. I imagine that during its height the Watch could field tens of thousands of men and was the largest fighting force in all of Westeros. But even if you were to view the 10,000 men as particularly powerful NW then this might have been due to the political situation at this particular time. Just think of the century-long Ironborn tyranny in the Riverlands. The three Hoare kings alone would have sent hundreds or thousands of men to the Wall. And one imagines that Harren's brother may have ended up there not because he wanted to take the black ... but because his royal brother left him no choice.

Also, you have to keep in mind that bad winters would kill a lot of men of the Watch. Especially bad winters combined with plagues (Shivers, Winter Fever) combined with war in Westeros (after the Dance). The Watch can easily stand strong in summer and lose a third or half its men in a cruel and long winter.

On 1/25/2023 at 8:24 PM, Floki of the Ironborn said:

All this is one thing that really bugs me about the Nights Watch. It doesn’t make sense to me that they should number more than ten times their current amount during a time when there was no feasible way that anyone should have been able to get to the Wall in the first place. Like, each kingdom was warring with the others on a near constant basis. Sure, you could sail people to Eastwatch by the Sea, but that’s not always an ideal possibility. How did anyone even get to the Wall overland? Did every kingdom respect the NW back then and just let thousands of men be shipped north ? Anyone could have taken advantage of that to invade lands through trickery. 
If anything, the numbers should have increased AFTER the conquest. Open travel through the regions, anyone could send their criminals away, plus anyone who actually wanted to go. 

That is an interesting question - one imagines ships were indeed used most of the time to move (highborn) criminals up there. But you would also have had wandering crows - originally many more - escort them up there. The way Yoren insists on believing in the sanctity of the NW indicates that even at the time of the main series the NW were rarely attacked or turned away while on the road.

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1 hour ago, Lord Varys said:

The way Yoren insists on believing in the sanctity of the NW indicates that even at the time of the main series the NW were rarely attacked or turned away while on the road.

That makes for a really weird image. Thousands of years' worth of wars happening, with armies marching back and forth across ever shifting borders, each one possibly being followed by a black brother trying to persuade people to come north instead.

Also, that would also confirm that the NW is respected even by the isolated crannogmen. They might have also guided black brothers through the Neck before the kingsroad.

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13 minutes ago, James Steller said:

That makes for a really weird image. Thousands of years' worth of wars happening, with armies marching back and forth across ever shifting borders, each one possibly being followed by a black brother trying to persuade people to come north instead.

That wasn't my image. Rather that the various armies and such leaving men clad in black bent for the Wall in peace ... and vice versa, of course. The idea would be that more wandering crows were there taking recruits and volunteers to the Wall.

Now, of course, why the hell people didn't just pledge to take the black in, say, Oldtown only to then, you know, murder their wandering crow, get rid of their silly black clothes in, say, the Riverlands to marry some woman there and live a happy family life there really makes no sense. Even if we say that the pledge to take the black was treated as deadly serious in every kingdom - and that clearly is the case - people would have to know you and that you did pledge to take the black to punish you for desertion/not fulfilling your vow ... and that would just not be the case for a traveller on the road, not in the old Seven Kingdoms and less so in the Hundred Kingdoms of ages past.

Deserters from the Watch who had already arrived at the Wall would be another matter, of course. Those would be turned away and/or hunted down because the Lord Commander would informs the authorities in the Seven Kingdoms.

13 minutes ago, James Steller said:

Also, that would also confirm that the NW is respected even by the isolated crannogmen. They might have also guided black brothers through the Neck before the kingsroad.

We can expect that to happen. And, of course, there would have been roads through the Neck before the Kingsroad. One imagines that the Kingsroad there is just the best older way through the Neck.

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Because of all the Seven Worshippers. Their vows, like their gods, are false. How can you expect someone who made their vows before a false deity to remain true to those vows? You can’t lie before a good tree whereas the seven is itself a lie.

There are many good people among them, but it doesn’t change the fact that their vows are invalid even if they uphold it. They must be made to vow before the Weirwoods.

Edited by Corvo the Crow
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12 hours ago, Corvo the Crow said:

Because of all the Seven Worshippers. Their vows, like their gods, are false. How can you expect someone who made their vows before a false deity to remain true to those vows? You can’t lie before a good tree whereas the seven is itself a lie.

There are many good people among them, but it doesn’t change the fact that their vows are invalid even if they uphold it. They must be made to vow before the Weirwoods.

Not sure where you get the notion that the Seven are are a lie. They might very well exist. There is the scene where Davos thinks he heard the voice of the Mother, for instance. What we know about the ancient stories in the Seven-pointed Star could also indicate that the Seven once did manifest as avatars in ancient Andalos where they interact with the early Andals.

The notion that the so-called 'old gods' are actually deities is pretty much nonsense, though. The greenseers are people, not gods, and the weirwoods themselves are just trees.

In its core form the religion of the First Men and Children seems to be more some kind of nature-worshipping, with there being no gods but rather certain natural powers. But that's not how the religion is practiced by the Starks and Northmen - they actually think some divine beings watch them through the trees and care for them. Which is just nonsense. There might be greenseers watching them - but they are not gods nor do they have to be their friends and benefactors.

Sure enough, the arrival of the Andals may have contributed to the fact that the Westerosi started to believe less and less into the Others as a real threat. But they don't seem to have undermined the NW considering they arrived thousands of years before the Targaryen Conquest and the Watch still exists.

We also see no big difference between the way the Northmen dismiss the Others as a threat and the way the people south of the Neck do. The Northmen do honor the NW more because they are their neighbors and they help to keep the wildlings out of their lands ... but they don't actually believe the NW protects them from ancient ice demons and their zombie hordes.

Edited by Lord Varys
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52 minutes ago, Lord Varys said:

They might very well exist. There is the scene where Davos thinks he heard the voice of the Mother, for instance. What we know about the ancient stories in the Seven-pointed Star could also indicate that the Seven once did manifest as avatars in ancient Andalos where they interact with the early Andals.

Catelyn's prayers in ACoK also come true, as do Arianne's:

Quote

As a young girl, Arianne was pudgy and flat-chested, and she would pray to the Seven nightly, hoping that she would be given beauty when she was older.[3] Now a woman in her early twenties, Arianne is buxom and beautiful, with olive skin, large dark eyes and long, thick black hair that falls in ringlets to the middle of her back.

 

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