In Defense of Catelyn Stark

Yes, even Catelyn Stark gets a defense.


This post will be spoilery for the first three seasons of HBO’s Game of Thrones. If you’re not up on the series WHY NOT? Go watch it, then come back. I’ll wait.

Now that they’re gone, let’s get started.

In general, people who read the books or watch the show seem to like and appreciate the Starks. Even the flawed ones. It is typical for everyone to love Arya, to like Ned (but regret his code of honor), to be okay with Robb (but wish he’d have not been so … Robb), etc.

But often people complain about Lady Catelyn Stark and her (arguably) rash decisions. I’m on board with some of that.

  • Deciding to be just a horrible person to Jon Snow? Oh Cat. (Although I can probably understand…)
  • Believing Peytr Baelish’s insinuation that Tyrion Lannister was behind the assassination attempt on Bran? Bad Cat.
  • Deciding to take Tyrion prisoner after bumping into him in the Riverlands? Bad Cat!
  • Freeing Jaime Lannister which weakened her son Robb, the King in the North? Bad Cat! Wait! I’m actually okay with that.

What? Well, I’m not super okay with the end result of his release undermining Robb’s authority and all the events that followed. But I think Catelyn’s move was rational. Hopefully you’ll hear me out and if you think this was just another of Catelyn’s bad moves, maybe I can win you over to my way of thinking.

Jaime’s Captivity

Before I get started, I do want to state that although I’m a fan of the Starks, their treatment of the Kingslayer was not all that honorable.

In Deference to Your Noble Rank, I’m Bringing You this Playful Pet. Who Might Maul You.

Apparently, Jaime’s accommodation was a wooden pen where he’d be chained all the time, out in the open, traveling along with Robb’s army. Ser Jaime is a member of the Kingsguard and the son of one of the great houses of Westeros. He’s a valuable hostage, and the Starks are responsible for his health and well being, especially since the Lannisters hold Lady Catelyn Stark’s daughter Sansa (and although Arya has escaped, the assumption is that Arya is held captive as well.)

Why Jaime is chained up like an animal, at risk of dying of exposure is beyond me.

It’s understandable why Jaime tries to escape, his captivity is somewhat uncivilized and I’m sure he had had just enough. (My complaints are informed by the very different treatment and storyline in regards to Jaime from A Clash of Kings. He eventually does end up in squalid conditions, but there are meaningful differences.)

Jaime’s Value as a Hostage

I Hope Jaime’s Clothes are Super Comfortable, Because He’s Going to be Wearing Them for a Year or So.

As soon as Jaime was captured, Catelyn hoped to exchange the Kingslayer for Ned and the girls. Unfortunately, Joffrey decided to behead Lord Eddard, which changed the equation dramatically. Robb, now elected King in the North, had little interest in handing over his prize trophy of Jaime, even for his sisters. He felt Jaime was more of a wartime asset that couldn’t be traded away.

Catelyn wanted revenge on the Lannisters for Ned’s death, but she was also a practical person. While the Lannisters held the girls, they would have power over the North. (Tywin marrying Sansa to Tyrion was proof of that.)

Regardless of how Robb and Catelyn disagreed on what role Jaime should play as their captive, either hostage or bargaining chip, Jaime’s well being and survival was important to them both.

And then Lord Karstark became a problem.

Death of a Karstark

While Robb was away from camp, accepting the surrender of a Lannister stronghold, Jaime tried to escape. During the attempt, Lord Rickard Karstark’s remaining son was killed (Jaime had killed the other son in battle during the initial capture.)


Had Catelyn not been on hand when Jaime was returned to the camp, the Karstarks would have killed him. With Jaime’s death, Robb would have lost a hostage and Catelyn would have lost her only hope to free Sansa and Arya.

Not only would she lose her hope, Jaime’s death would have put Sansa at least in grave danger. Joffrey had already had Sansa publicly beaten and humiliated.

Cat isn’t a stupid woman. With the Karstark’s blood up, with Robb away from the camp, the Kingslayer’s future could be measured in hours.

The Honor of the Kingslayer

Desperate, Cat goes to see Jaime. He seems quite prepared to die.

During their talk, she gets Jaime to talk about how impossible it is to stay true to all the oaths that are sworn, in the end one or more must be forsaken.


Jaime turns the table on Cat, stating that her honest nature could not let her do anything but hate Jon Snow, the little son that honorable Ned brought back from the war.

Cat had had a similar conversation with Jaime in Season One, where she bluntly demanded to know how Bran fell from the Old Tower, and Jaime bluntly told her that he had pushed the boy out the window.

Catelyn: Why?

Jaime: I’d hoped the fall would kill him.

This conversation about honor, oaths, and honesty drove Catelyn to make her decision. She freed Jaime, had him swear to exchange himself for Sansa and Arya, and tasked Brienne to get Jaime safely to the Lannisters for the exchange.

It was a gamble, a big gamble. But Lady Catelyn had very little options. Before the dawn, Jaime would have been dead.

Why would Catelyn think this was even a good idea? It seems releasing the Kingslayer had zero chance of success, so he was already no better than a dead man.

It’s because there was a small chance of success. Catelyn had established that although she probably couldn’t trust Jaime too far, in his way he was honest and honorable.

Catelyn is Preparing to Play Rock Paper Scissors With Jaime, But She Only Has Rock, He Only Has Skull

In Season One, he had admitted to pushing Bran off the tower. He had no reason to tell the truth, in fact it was very dangerous for him to do so. Catelyn had already clubbed him with a rock. Jaime, for all of his dishonorable repute, disliked lies. He was an honest man. (Maybe too honest at times.)

When Catelyn went in to see Jaime with the Starks and Karstarks nearly at sword point, she had to evaluate if he would fulfill a sworn oath to her.

She was smart enough going in not to tip her hand.

Catelyn: Hey, if you swear to exchange yourself for my daughters, I’ll totally let you go. But you have to swear!

Jaime: Lady Catelyn, I’m happy to swear anything you want me to if it gets me out of this pen and away from Karstark swords.

That actually wouldn’t work out. Jaime swearing an oath under fear of death (because if he doesn’t swear and she doesn’t release him, he’ll be dead) is pretty much a non-binding oath.

Instead, Catelyn started the ball-rolling by insinuating that he had no honor. And instead of laughing and spitting on honor and whatever, he kind of defended himself. How he’d tried to be true to his oaths but it’s a paradox. How he was true to his devotion to only one woman. That he was at least as honorable in his own way as Ned, and was as honest as Catelyn’s hate for Jon Snow.

This got him on the track of being invested in carrying out any oath that he might swear.

Catelyn didn’t get him to swear not to try to escape, she wasn’t releasing him on his own recognizance. Brienne was there to get him to his people. In exchange, if he was an honorable man, he’d do the right thing.

The mere fact that Jaime is trying to escape at times underscores this. Why bother trying to escape if Brienne is literally bringing him home? Unless he’d be honor-bound to fulfill the oath?

Alternative possibilities

Considering the damage that was to come when Robb returned and Jaime was gone, wouldn’t it have been better to just write off Sansa and Arya?

It’s highly likely that when Robb returned and found that Lord Karstark had murdered Jaime Lannister, Robb would have to behead Karstark like he does later for the murders of the Lannister squires at Riverrun. Otherwise Sansa and Arya (who they believed captive) would be at risk.


Couldn’t Brienne just squirrel Jaime away for a day, until Robb returned and made sure that Jaime was safe?

I don’t think that would have worked out either. For that to work, she’d have to rat out Lord Karstark. Something that she doesn’t do to justify her actions.

Catelyn has a really good defense for her action when Robb questions her. “Lord Karstark was going to kill Jaime and that’d be The Worst.” But she doesn’t say that.

She just says she did it “for the girls.”

Accusing Lord Karstark of planning on killing Jaime Lannister would only bring a wedge between Karstark and Robb, and possibly cause the Karstarks to leave earlier. Lord Karstark was angry that Jaime was gone, but he stuck with the northern alliance until he had his chance to kill the squires. (Something that no one realized would happen, regrettably.)


Had Catelyn accused Lord Karstark either with Jaime on his way to King’s Landing with Brienne, or with Jaime in hiding, it would have caused serious issues to be exposed, like a raw nerve. And Jaime back in the camp would be even more of a problem.

It was in Robb’s interest to recapture Jaime, to have as a hostage, but also in his interest for Brienne to get Jaime to the Lannisters. Either the hostage exchange would be made, or the Lannisters would owe the Starks for returning Jaime unharmed.

And the Lannisters always pay their debts.

Ser Jaime and Keeping Oaths

Regardless of the dangers of releasing the Kingslayer and Jaime’s questionable honor (something only Catelyn could see instinctually) Jaime’s journey with Brienne was a positive stroke in making the hope of freeing the girls a reality.

After Jaime and Brienne were captured and abused by the Bolton goons, Roose Bolton felt it in his best interests to send the Kingslayer alone to King’s Landing, rather than risk Tywin’s wrath. (There were other reasons…)

On parting from Brienne, she reminded Jaime of the oath that he swore to Catelyn.


Choked up at being respectfully addressed by Brienne, Jaime agreed to honor his promise. I’d be happy to enter the boxing ring against anyone who says Jaime didn’t mean it.

After a short ride, a discussion about morals with ex-Maester Qyburn, and a fight with a bear, Jaime fetches Brienne and together they return to King’s Landing.

At Least Brienne Isn’t Wearing that Awful Dress

It’s highly unlikely that Jaime would bring Brienne along if he didn’t intend to honor his promise. She’d kick his ass. It is known.


If we focus on Catelyn’s primary ambition of freeing her daughters, her action to safeguard the Kingslayer and release him makes sense. Boom.

Season Four will inform us if the gamble pays off. (I know, I know, oh oh oh.)

Images from HBO\\™s Game of Thrones, obviously.

I make no claim to the artwork, but some claims to the text here, so there.

(For more stuff like this, as well as articles on things not related to Game of Thrones, feel free to check out my blog over at

(Originally published February 18th, 2014 at

© Patrick Sponaugle 2014 Some Rights Reserved