It’s fair to say that most of the Game of Thrones universe is in some form of conflict on a pretty much constant basis, probably because warfare and fighting makes for a much more exciting read than learning about “Ivan the Peasant” and how much grain he produced during the harvest or “Bob the Accountant” and how he managed to wipe away his lord’s debts (although who knows, in the right hands that could make for an interesting story…). Anyway, most of the Game of Thrones universe is embroiled in conflict and much of that fighting is either done by private armies of paid men at arms
or professional knights.
However, relying on any one of these types of soldiers for your army requires a couple of things: either a large prison population, a large treasury capable of paying and equipping a standing army, or enough land to give to a large number of knights that allow each of them to afford the training, armor, and horses according to their station. These are three things that locations such of the Free Cities don’t have (they could rely on slave armies but history and the show has proven that it is usually a bad idea) so what do they do instead? They rent armies in the form of mercenaries.
With all the petty little wars the Free Cities fight anyone who is capable of using a sword and has a band of like minded compatriots can make a fortune fighting for whatever side they choose. Groups like the Second Sons (named so because traditionally the first son in any family usually inherits everything leaving the second son to make his fortune any way he can) have been around since the Doom of Valyria, finding enough work and pay to stay together for over 400 years. Instead of being loyal to a specific lord or land these mercenary companies are simply loyal to whoever can pay them the most and once their services have been bought professional courtesy dictates that they remain loyal to the side writing their paychecks. However, while some sellswords and mercenary companies have proven to be loyal soldiers and even good friends to many of the main characters.
if they think your cause is hopeless and you don’t have a chance of victory they will leave you rather than be butchered.
Despite the notion that most of the fighting in the Medieval Ages was performed by noble knights in shining armor and a lord or king’s personal army of men at arms, Medieval and Renaissance warfare had a long and not so proud tradition of mercenaries willing to fight for the highest bidder.
This painting with the rather garishly dressed group of men carrying large poleaxes is a painting of a Condottieri company, Medieval mercenaries for hire. Like the Free Cities, the city states of Italy were not especially suited towards raising and maintaining a large standing army or large numbers of knights. As a result, wealthy cities like Milan and Venice often resorted to paying “contractors” to fight their wars for them. And like the many frequent wars between the Free Cities in the Game of Thrones books, there was plenty of business to go around.
Like the Second Sons the Condottieri held themselves to particular standards. They would maintain their loyalty to their patron, as long as their patron kept paying them. Also, quite a few mercenary captains were the distant relatives or bastards of wealthy families, people who were cut out of inheriting their family’s wealth and became soldiers of fortune to pay the bills.
Despite all the talk of honor in combat and loyalty that many of the character in Game of Thrones like to prattle on about at the end of the day the most important objective was victory over your opponent and mercenary companies provided a quick and easy way to bolster armies with experienced and skilled soldiers. The importance of mercenary Condottieri in Renaissance warfare would also lead to the decline of the feudal lord and his knights and the rise of the professional army in European history.