Margaery Tyrell on Trial: Thoughts Concerning an Underappreciated Storyline

We’re rather surprised that so little has been written about Margaery’s upcoming trial before the Faith in The Winds of Winter. A careful search of the University archives reveals but a single post discussing this subject in detail. Steven Atwell, usually very attentive to spectacle and institutions, treats the whole thing as an afterthought that will soon be overshadowed by larger events (namely Aegon’s invasion). Sean Collins has only given it passing consideration and thinks the whole affair will devolve into yet another trial by combat (somehow). The Butterfly has written some interesting speculation about how Grand Maester Pycelle’s death might impact the trial and the politics surrounding it, but not much more than that. This is perhaps the single most overlooked storyline in the coming book.

Perhaps the drama surrounding Cersei’s trial by battle and Ser Robert Strong has just sucked up all the attention. If so this is completely backwards. It’s Cersei’s trial by battle that will be quick and utterly anticlimactic (the only unknown is who Robert Strong slaughters and how quickly – the safe answers are “it ultimately doesn’t matter” and “very quickly”). Margaery’s trial by faith on the other hand is going to be the event that Cersei’s chapters are absolutely focused upon. For Cersei, one of the most important conflicts, one of the only real conflicts, is the one between herself and the younger, more beautiful queen. Larger events, such as the advance or retreat of armies, the fall of cities, the spread of famine, and the stifling of trade will naturally be regulated to the background of Cersei’s POVs as she struggles to put an end to the little queen once and for all. And this hyper-focus will be completely deserved. The trial will be one of most climactic moments of the series, a mêlée of words and symbols involving a wide variety of characters great and small, through which Margaery will struggle not to be condemned for the sins of the realm.

Margaery’s trial before the Faith will be the social event of the season. Lady Margaery is a fashionable and popular figure, the daughter of one of the realm’s most powerful families. High and low, everyone enjoys hearing the scandals of the great, and thus everyone will desire to see the proceedings up close. Relatively few will get the chance, but the mob will be closer than is usually allowed. The trial itself will be held within the Great Sept of Baelor, where thousands can sit and thousands more will wait for news outside the door. Adding to the appeal is the event’s sheer exceptionalism. The trial of a sitting queen by the Faith of the Seven appears to be completely unprecedented (there are no mentions in the World Book); at the very least nothing like this has happened for hundreds of years. So it will have far more imaginative power than a royal tourney, coronation, wedding, victory procession or funeral. Life in the capital will revolve around discussions of the testimony, the reactions of the participants and the appearance of the judges. And it is Cersei who will have the perfect front row seat. With the help of Qyburn and Taena, Cersei will be overseeing the prosecution, weighing its impact and watching Margaery and the Tyrells like a hawk. She will go to sleep thinking about the trial and hold her breath in anticipation of pretty little Margaery losing her pretty little head. And when it is all over the Queen-Regent’s mind will either issue forth a quiet cheer or a secret scream.

Amongst all this activity there will be a real and growing suspense, for Margaery’s fate is very much in doubt, neither safe nor completely condemned. The evidence against the little queen might be weak, coerced and overtly political, but do not make the mistake of thinking that she has the advantage. Powerful people and the general climate of the capital are both against her; she is very much the underdog. First and foremost of these powerful people is the High Sparrow, who clearly believes Margaery to be guilty and appears determined to make an example of her:

“All men sin, even kings and queens. I have sinned myself, and been forgiven. Without confession, though, there can be no forgiveness. The queen will not confess.”

“Perhaps she is innocent.”

She is not. Holy septas have examined her, and testify that her maidenhead is broken. She has drunk of moon tea, to murder the fruit of her fornications in her womb. An anointed knight has sworn upon his sword to having carnal knowledge of her and two of her three cousins. Others have lain with her as well, he says, and names many names of men both great and humble.” (FfC Cersei X)

These remarks were not simply made for Cersei’s benefit as the High Sparrow reeled her in. Ser Kevan later tells Cersei that the only reason the High Sparrow released Margaery and her cousins was because no-nonsense Randyll Tarly showed up at the gates with an army. Yet even when confronted with the power of the Reach the High Sparrow still refused to back down from holding a trial, and made Lord Randyll swear a holy oath to return the girls when the time came. So, despite discovering Cersei’s own crimes and despite the knowledge that all the evidence against Margaery and her cousins was provided at Cersei’s behest, the High Sparrow continued his attempts to coerce the Tyrell girls into confession through inadequate nutrition, sleep deprivation and cold. He did this despite the fact that the Tyrells are militarily powerful, essential to the provisioning of the capital and popular with the commons. Such are not the actions of a man who doubts the guilt of the accused. But then, the accused is a woman, and twice a widow besides, so of course she’s guilty:

“The wickedness of widows is well-known, and all women are wantons at heart, given to using their wiles and their beauty to work their wills on men.” (DwD Cersei I)

If Margaery is guilty of adultery then she is also guilty of treason and the High Sparrow is quite clear about what that means:

“B-but,” she sputtered, “you preach the Mother’s mercy…”

“Ser Osney shall taste of that sweet milk in the afterlife. In The Seven-Pointed Star it is written that all sins may be forgiven, but crimes must still be punished. Osney Kettleblack is guilty of treason and murder, and the wages of treason are death.” (FfC Cersei X)

So in bringing Margaery to trial, the High Sparrow fully intends to kill her, her alleged lovers, and possibly her cousins. Having the mortal avatar of the gods out to get you is no small thing. This trial is no perfunctory affair to clear the air, however much the Tyrells might want it to become so; everything about it is deadly serious.

Fortunately, Margaery’s fate won’t be left up completely to the High Sparrow. Unfortunately, she will instead be in the hands of a court selected for their piety and aesthetics rather than their impartiality:

“I have had the selfsame thought, Your Grace. Just as Maegor the Cruel once took the swords from the Faith, so Jaehaerys the Conciliator deprived us of the scales of judgment. Yet who is truly fit to judge a queen, save the Seven Above and the godsworn below? A sacred court of seven judges shall sit upon this case. Three shall be of your female sex. A maiden, a mother, and a crone. Who could be more suited to judge the wickedness of women?” (FfC Cersei X)

One judge for each of the Seven. This will not be some simple, staid, businesslike inquiry. The High Sparrow is clearly planning a showy religious spectacle to herald the return of sword and scales to the Faithful. The seven judges will be chosen for their resemblance, and their ability to channel, the Seven Aspects of the One God. For these roles the Faith will want people who are impressive, people who can create a vivid sense that for this seminal event the Seven Heavens have come down to earth. This will be an extremely demanding performance and therefore the Sparrows will not just pick anyone. They will take their time and look far afield to find the perfect candidates, and they will do so without any consideration for the traditional hierarchy.

Presumably three of the four male judges will represent the Father, the Warrior, and the Smith. The Father will probably be represented by the High Sparrow himself; he has the look, countenance and experience, as well as a direct interest in the proceedings (alternatively he will be represented by one of his trusted lieutenants). The Warrior will undoubtedly be represented by a powerful knight of the Warrior’s Sons, perhaps Ser Theodan the True, their first member and commander. The Smith might find his envoy in some random, pious, hardworking sparrow particularly skilled in the arts of smithing or masonry.

One wonders what sort of man the Faith will pick to represent the terrifying Stranger, i.e. Death, who is usually left out of songs and prayers. If the Father has a septon, the Warrior a holy knight, and the Smith a craftsmen, then it can be reasonably inferred that the Faith will select from amongst its ranks a grave digger or someone who survived a near death experience. Perhaps it will be a man who lived his life very close to death and then one day found himself on the edge, where he experienced a spiritual rebirth, and afterwards took to silently digging graves for the fallen. Who’s to say? Presumably his face will be concealed beneath a hooded mantle, same as the god, so no one will know who he is. He could be anyone, a complete unknown or a person once infamous.

The Mother will presumably have a motherly septa who runs an orphanage or had a family before joining the sparrow movement. The Crone will be spoken for by an ancient septa who still has her wits about her (it would not do for the symbol of wisdom to be represented by someone who is senile, now would it?). They might be refugees from the war, possibly even victims of physical and sexual assault.

The virtuous Maiden will be represented by a fresh young septa, one who physically embodies the goddess’ chastity and innocence, or at least appears to. Given that the court will be sitting in judgment over the chastity and innocence of a maiden, the voice of the maiden-judge will presumably have the most symbolic force. And as it happens there is a certain blonde-haired, blue-eyed young septa on her way to Kings Landing who seems absolutely perfect for the role:

She was sitting cross-legged on a pillow beneath the raised dais where the high seats stood, but she rose as they entered, dressed in a clinging gown of pale blue samite with sleeves of Myrish lace that made her look as innocent as the Maid herself. In one hand was a piece of embroidery she had been working on, in the other a pair of golden needles. Her hair was gold as well, and her eyes were deep blue pools…

Lady Tyene’s voice was gentle, and she looked as sweet as summer strawberries. Her mother had been a septa, and Tyene had an air of almost otherworldy innocence about her. (FfC Hotah)

[It says in The Seven Pointed Star that] The Maid brought him forth a girl as supple as a willow with eyes like deep blue pools and Hugor declared that he would have her for his bride. (DwD, Tyrion II)

“Was his dying long and hard, Ser Balon?” asked Tyene Sand, in the tone a maiden might use to ask if her gown was pretty.

Lady Tyene smiled at that. Her gown was cream and green, with long lace sleeves, so modest and so innocent that any man who looked at her might think her the most chaste of maids.

“Ser Gregor does look lonely,” said Tyene, in her sweet septa’s voice. “He would like some company, I’m certain.”

Tyene, blue-eyed and blond, a child-woman with her soft hands and little giggles.

And what of me?” asked Tyene.

“Your mother was a septa. Oberyn once told me that she read to you in the cradle from the Seven-Pointed Star. I want you in King’s Landing too, but on the other hill. The Swords and the Stars have been re-formed, and this new High Septon is not the puppet that the others were. Try and get close to him.

“Why not? White suits my coloring. I look so … pure.” (DwD Hotah)

Oyez, oyez, now all rise for the most pure, most innocent, and most merciful judge Tyene Sand.

The Warrior’s Son might retain enough chivalry to be sympathetic towards a high born lady, while the views of the Stranger’s mystery man will be appropriately mysterious. Tyene and the High Sparrow will naturally have it in for Margaery. But what of the judges speaking for the Smith, Mother, and Crone? There will probably be little sympathy from them. Although ostensibly the charges against Lady Margaery are about her personal conduct, the whole case is really about the War of Five Kings, over which illicit, violent, impious sex looms from beginning to end. The rebellion against the Mad King was set in motion when Prince Rhaegar ran off with Lyanna Stark. Victorious over the Targaryens, King Robert wasted away his golden reign in the arms of whores, fathering black-haired bastards who were later slaughtered by order of his Queen. The corrupt counselor Littlefinger, who did so much to instigate the war, acquired his wealth and influence through an empire of brothels and an emotional affair with Lysa Arryn. Lysa Arryn’s emotional vulnerability was due to an out of wedlock pregnancy and an unwanted, badly botched abortion. The War of Five Kings itself sprouted from Queen Cersei’s decision to commit treason with her brother Ser Jaime, and pass off their bastards as legitimate. The war began with Tywin Lannister using rape to terrorize the people of the Riverlands. Renly’s treason may have been first and foremost driven by personal ambition, but it went hand in hand with his secret relationship with Ser Loras Tyrell. The assassination of Renly was brought about through a clandestine union between his brother King Stannis and the sorceress Melisandre. To discredit King Stannis and obscure the illegitimacy of Cersei’s children, the Lannisters spread false reports of an affair between Queen Selyse and her fool Patchface. When Tyrion ruled King’s Landing, he spent considerable time and coin maintaining Shae and keeping her secret, even murdering a singer to do so. Later of course Shae publically swore Tyrion had coerced her into being his concubine, Tyrion’s father took her to his bed, and Tyrion murdered them both in a fit of rage. The justification for the Red Wedding that destroyed the Northern rebels was a broken marriage vow caused by a moment of passion. Cersei Lannister used sexual favors to bind men to her cause.

Of course the judges would only know about a few of these events, and of those only a little beyond rumor, story, and the odd confession, but it must be admitted that a sudden concern for sexual propriety is not that far off base. For a religious person it would not be hard to believe that the war was a consequence of widespread corruption, the punishment of the Seven Heavens for the South’s impiety, falseness and sin. In this sinful war the men and women who later became Sparrows suffered horrifically:

“Most have lost their homes. Suffering is everywhere… and grief, and death. Before coming to King’s Landing, I tended to half a hundred little villages too small to have a septon of their own. I walked from each one to the next, performing marriages, absolving sinners of their sins, naming newborn children. Those villages are no more, Your Grace. Weeds and thorns grow where gardens once flourished, and bones litter the roadsides.”

“Some of my sparrows speak of bands of lions who despoiled them… and of the Hound, who was your own sworn man. At Saltpans he slew an aged septon and despoiled a girl of twelve, an innocent child promised to the Faith. He wore his armor as he raped her and her tender flesh was torn and crushed by his iron mail. When he was done he gave her to his men, who cut off her nose and nipples.”

“Yet everywhere septs are burned and looted. Even silent sisters have been raped, crying their anguish to the sky. Your Grace has seen the bones and skulls of our holy dead?” (FfC Cersei VI)

And now here comes pretty, privileged little Margaery Tyrell, born to be queen, one of the lucky few who have never wanted for anything in their lives, who dallied and played while thousands of lesser birth were massacred and raped. The sparrow-judges will not see her as an innocent; they will see her as an embodiment of the corrupt ruling class that collectively destroyed their lives. What would be more natural than a willingness to believe the worst about her? What would be more natural than a desire to take symbolic revenge?

Let us move from the court to the “witnesses” who will speak for the prosecution. All of the witnesses are accused of being Margaery’s lovers. Save for Ser Osney Kettleblack, all were formerly members of Lady Margaery’s little court. They are: Ser Osney Kettleblack, Queen Cersei’s hired sword and assassin; Ser Tallad the Tall, an ambitious former hedge knight turned sworn sword for the Iron Throne; Prince Jalabhar Xho, an unscrupulous exile from the Summer Islands turned professional courtier; Ser Hugh Clifton, a Westerman knight who was a member of Lady Margaery’s personal guard; Ser Mark Mullendore, a popular Reacher knight who was courting Lady Megga Tyrell; Ser Bayard Norcross, a Reacher knight sworn to the Iron Throne; Ser Lambert Turnberry, a Westermen knight also sworn to the Iron Throne; and of course the Blue Bard, Lady Margaery’s favorite singer.

So many knights and a dashing young bard, one would think from such a line-up that chivalry and courtly love were themselves on trial, which of course they are. The world that the High Sparrow is building has no need for such vanities and First Men legacies. The first knights in Westeros, the True Knights who carved out kingdoms and spread the Faith with fire and steel, were holy savages who had the seven pointed star carved into their flesh. What are the knights of the present compared to them? The South is being prepared for a great cultural simplification, a boiling of the world down to its essentials.

The sparrow movement is often perceived as a group of religious levelers, but that is not correct. All souls might be equal before the Seven after the Stranger comes, but the tenets of the Faith provide little leeway for restructuring the living world in a more equalitarian direction. The Seven Pointed Star lays out a social system that reflects the divine order, a world composed of three patriarchal estates: rulers, warriors, and laborers; and three subordinate supporting classes of women: maidens, mothers, and crones. This is closer to Plato’s Republic than the four Gospels, and the Republic was inspired by Sparta. As Westerosi class and gender divisions reflect this divine order, it is not a question of changing this system but changing the values of the people within it so that they better reflect the virtues of their divine archetype. Kings, lords, and family patriarchs should be stern, strong, and dispense justice. Warriors should be strong, brave, and provide protection. Smiths, masons, farmers, carpenters, cobblers, and other craftsmen should work hard, honestly, and skillfully. Maidens should be chaste and innocent; mothers, fertile and caring; and crones, wise providers of guidance. Just as the Seven are seven aspects of One God, the virtues of the three estates, the three models of womanhood, and death find unified expression in the Faith, the all-encompassing institution and heavenly gateway. Of course the mortal world can never truly match the perfection of the Seven Heavens, but if the people can be made to look beyond the temporal vanities and temptations which distract and blind, then they would see and embrace the divine good that emanates from their God. Then the world would work as it was promised to. Septons like Meribald and the Elder Brother try to open people’s eyes by peaceful persuasion and personal example, ever respectful of human failings and flaws. But there are always those who believe that, if people refuse to see the light peacefully, then they must be compelled to by force. Vanities must be coerced away and those who give into temptation punished so as not to lead others astray. In times of peace and plenty, such ideas had little traction, but desperate times call for desperate measures. All of Westeros is collapsing. The kings and lords are either weak or deal out injustice. The knights rob, rape, burn, and murder those they are sworn to protect. The works of the craftsmen are pillaged and destroyed. Maidens are raped, whole families slaughtered, and wisdom disregarded. And all this violence finds its coalescence in the ravaging of the lands, septs, and servants of the Faith. When the sinful world literally wages war upon your home and your God then you wage war right back. In the wake of Ser Amory Lorch, Ser Gregor Clegane and “Lord” Vargo Hoat, the peasants and priests of the Riverlands searched for answers and the High Sparrow said unto them “take up arms and follow me!” And they did, for what else could they have done? That is why the Faith that the Sparrows are reforming requires armies and courts of inquisition. That is why Margaery Tyrell is on trial.

There might seem to be something of a glimmer of hope for Margaery in that all of Cersei’s witnesses, save for the thoroughly broken and half-mad Blue Bard, have recanted their earlier confessions, but this is again deceptive. This state of affairs is extremely temporary:

“Osney Kettleblack and the Blue Bard are here, beneath the sept. The Redwyne twins have been declared innocent, and Hamish the Harper has died. The rest are in the dungeons under the Red Keep, in the charge of your man Qyburn.

Qyburn, thought Cersei. That was good, one straw at least that she could clutch. Lord Qyburn had them, and Lord Qyburn could do wonders. And horrors. He can do horrors as well. (DwD Cersei II)

When Queen Cersei fell, Qyburn no longer had the leeway to torture them into maintaining their confessions. When Kevan took over as regent his understanding with the Tyrells implicitly involved helping Margaery get off. But with Kevan’s death, Cersei is back in charge of the Red Keep’s dungeons. By the time the trial rolls around, all the witnesses in Qyburn’s care (and hence under Cersei’s control) will be singing the same sweet little song against Margaery and her cousins. There can be no doubt about that. It might detract from the prosecution’s credibility if the witnesses are all as cut up as the Blue Bard, but Qyburn, given enough time, could certainly avoid these subpar displays by coming up with excruciating tortures that leave no obvious mark. The Blue Bard was after all a rushed job done on very short notice to meet the window provided by Margaery’s Maiden Day visit to the Great Sept of Baelor. So, in the worst case scenario for Margaery, there would be five anointed knights and a foreign prince “freely” confessing to intercourse with her.

Of all Cersei’s witnesses, it is Prince Jalabhar Xho who has the potential to do Margaery Tyrell the most harm. He has but to testify that Margaery and her cousins partook with him an orgy (or many orgies) in worship of the Summer Gods:

“All you Westerosi make a shame of loving. There is no shame in loving. If your septons say there is, your seven gods must be demons. In the isles we know better. Our gods gave us legs to run with, noses to smell with, hands to touch and feel. What mad cruel god would give a man eyes and tell him he must forever keep them shut, and never look at all the beauty in the world? Only a monster god, a demon of the darkness.” Kojja put her hand between Sam’s legs. “The gods gave you this for a reason too, for… what is your Westerosi word?” (FfC Sam IV)

Though a score of gods both great and small are honored on the Summer Isles, a special reverence is shown to the god and goddess of love, beauty, and fertility. The union of male and female is sacred to these deities; by joining together in the act of worship, the islanders believe, men and women give honor to the gods who made them. Be they rich or poor, male or female, of high birth or low, all Summer Islanders are expected to dwell for a time in the temples of love that dot the island, sharing their bodies with any who might desire them. (World Book 281)

Such a sensational story would push every conceivable prejudice the judges might possess, to say nothing of its impact upon the commons. Margaery’s alleged conduct would slide from simple adultery and treason to apostasy and blasphemy. Jalabhar Xho is a black foreigner, so it would also bring forth xenophobia and racial feeling (which definitely exists against the Summer Islanders, one need only remember Lazy Leo’s “Your mother was a monkey from the Summer Isles” — FfC Prologue).

An additional witness for the prosecution could be Taena Merryweather, who Cersei plans on inviting back to King’s Landing. She of course played a very damaging role in Tyrion’s trial. It’s notable that when Taena transferred from Margaery’s service to Cersei’s, Margaery claimed that “[s]he will be a sister to you, as she’s been to me” (FfC Jaime II). For Margaery’s sake she had better have been exaggerating, because Taena, with her vicious memory and willingness to commit perjury, is now wholly committed to bringing down the Tyrells. Lastly, there are the many people who were in the court when the late Grand Maester Pycelle “admitted” to supplying Lady Margaery with moon tea, any of whom might be called to remind the judges of that supposedly damning detail.

Things are a bit murkier when it comes to Margaery’s defense. As Ser Osney recanted his accusations under torture by the Faith, and is notably not in Qyburn’s care, he could serve as a powerful witness for the defense, giving testimony concerning Queen Cersei’s plot to set up Margaery (should he live, that is; on which we have more to say below). Presumably the Tyrells will call a number of well-born witnesses to testify to Margaery’s good character, reputation and works, as House Tyrell has the resources and political capital to produce many favorable testimonials. Margaery’s defense will likely be a who’s who of prominent Reachers and Crownlanders. There will also be character witnesses from the Tyrell household. Septa Nysterica will come forth from her penitent cell to testify to her charge’s innocence, and hence her own. A learned maester might be called to explain that maidenheads can be broken by horseback riding and many other things. and shouldn’t be taken as evidence of promiscuity.

The one thing Margaery has out and out going for her is the presence of her father’s army. But as we’ve pointed out elsewhere, this army might not be around for much longer. A fanatic he may be, but the High Sparrow is also a canny operator, and probably anticipated Tyrell resistance when he arrested the little queen. During the debt standoff with Cersei, the High Sparrow avoided blessing Tommen by fasting and praying, so with Margaery’s trial his likely strategy will be to try and wait the Tyrells out. The trial will take some time to get underway, so there’s already going to be a delay. Once it’s begun the High Sparrow could consciously slow-walk its progress (“let us all pray to the Crone for wisdom, so that she might light the way for us with her lantern” — “the Crone has sent us a sign that we should think long and hard about the matter at hand and pray to the Father so that he might help us judge” — “it is written in the Seven Point Star that the Father…”) and hold back the verdict until the Tyrell’s military position has sufficiently weakened relative to that of the Swords and Stars. Then, if the judges believe Margaery to be guilty, the Faith can call Mace Tyrell’s bluff.

Then there are the machinations of Varys to consider. The Spider would want to see Margaery convicted, as this would drive a fatal wedge between the Lions and the Roses. If necessary, he’d seek to influence the proceedings to bring about such an end. He might, for example, eliminate the compromising Ser Osney, much as he eliminated Kevan and Pycelle. He could also potentially forge damning documents incriminating Margaery and the Tyrells. And, of course, he could (if he hasn’t already) see that the High Sparrow is informed of Aegon’s piety and credentials, letting the leader of the Faith know that there is a clear alternative to the tottering Lannister regime — besides King Stannis and his red demon. Such information would vindicate the High Sparrow’s decision to go all out and render Lady Margaery’s life completely expendable.

Thus conclude our thoughts. On the whole we think there is good reason to be pessimistic about Margaery’s fate. When everything is laid out, the odds against the little queen being found innocent seem overwhelming. The leader of the Faith is hostile, the majority of his judges unsympathetic or out for blood, the prosecution’s witnesses formidable, and the political situation worsening. But the girl is not dead yet, and the trial that threatens her could also be what summons forth her eventual salvation. There is a man digging graves that has already tried and failed to protect three innocent girls. While the chivalry of Westeros looks on helplessly, perhaps he will find it within himself to be the hero he’s always wanted to be.

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