Feudalism is the the structure of society in the Seven Kingdoms, as it is largely resembles the feudal system of medieval Europe. This society is based on a rigid social structure and government consisted of kings, lords, and peasants. Nobles rule over the smallfolk within their territory through a system of fealty and sworn oaths. In this system each man owes military service to his lord in return for protection, a grant of land, and the peasants to work it.
Vassals or bannermen are those granted the use of land, in return for rendering homage, fealty, and usually military service or its equivalent to a liege lord or other superior. The liege and vassal each have responsibilities to one another; the vassal must remain loyal to the liege above any other lords, while the liege is the vassal's principal protector.
The feudal system has a rigid structure of social classes. Arya Stark and Tyrion Lannister are examples of highborn, those born into prestigious noble families. One cannot gain or lose the status; the impoverished, exiled, and powerless Daenerys Targaryen is still highborn, as is Alliser Thorne despite him having joined the Night's Watch to avoid execution. The former smuggler Davos Seaworth of Flea Bottom says that highborn do not consider him one of them despite his knighthood, land, keep, and banner.
Highborn status is desirable; Jon Snow, a bastard, dreams that his unknown mother is "beautiful, and highborn". People expect highborn to differ from others in behavior, dress, speech, given names, and even their flowering and maidenheads. Highborn bastards have special surnames, highborn lords rarely ride with hedge knights (and highborn women are unlikely to marry them), and highborn prisoners of war are held for ransom when others are killed.
Those who are not highborn are lowborn or smallfolk. Smallfolk who become members of nobility can still be considered lowborn. Despite House Seaworth's creation, most highborn scorn Ser Davos, and being lowborn embarrasses his sons. Davos hopes his sons will become knights, and his grandchildren will be highborn. Most lowborn can, however, expect to die as commoners. There are no provisions for the advancement of individuals from a lower class into the higher classes. This is not to say that it is impossible, only that it is very difficult, usually bestowed by lords to those who have done a great service to them, or knights bestow the rank and title of knighthood on any individual who has proven himself worthy.
The King of the Andals, the Rhoynar, and the First Men, also known as the Lord of the Seven Kingdoms, has the highest feudal rank; beneath him are the various lords and knights, with smallfolk at the bottom. The king sits on the Iron Throne and claims ownership of the land. Having final political authority, he holds ultimate power in all matters. Although in practice the king is constrained by political realities, and while no individual command is likely to be countermanded, he could still lose his position to intrigue if he were to offend the wrong people. Of course, as kings do not retire, this loss of position would involve his death.
In Westeros's system of nobility, above knights and below the king there are only lords, some greater and some lesser, some sworn to others, but all with the same title; the exception is the Lord of Sunspear, who still holds the title "Prince of Dorne". Nobility among the bannermen is hereditary, expressed through vassalage which connect between them the various owners of strongholds.
The lords of the great houses have the highest ranks in their regions of the Seven Kingdoms, and are vassals only to the king. Petty lords at the bottom, in contrast, might only have a village. It is the lord's responsibility to govern his lands, keep the king's peace, enforce law and justice on local matters, and ensure that taxes due to the king are collected in a timely manner.
Some lords have titles which belong only to their houses, such as House Greyjoy having "Lord Reaper of Pyke" and House Lannister using "Shield of Lannisport". Titles do not necessarily elevate a lord above others, but can demonstrate a house's history or ambition. House Manderly has several titles which relate to their origins in the Reach instead of their current home in the north, but are preserved as tradition. House Caron claim the title "Lord of the Marches", but they do not hold dominion over other marcher lords in the Dornish Marches.
Wardens are commanders who exercise military functions for the north, east, south, and west of the Seven Kingdoms. There are also wardens for smaller geographic locations, such as Wyman Manderly being Warden of the White Knife.
There appear to be roughly one thousand or so families holding lordly rank in the Seven Kingdoms. There are nine major regions or provinces in the Seven Kingdoms, each of which has about a dozen or so major vassal houses (House Umber, House Glover, etc.). Each of these major lords in turn have anywhere from two or three to about a dozen minor lords who serve as their own vassals (House Cassel, House Forrester, etc.): 9 x 12 = 108, and 108 x 10 = ~1080 (plus the nine Great Houses themselves). This seems to loosely match the only explicit number of lords ever given, for the Great Council of Harrenhal in 101 AC. It was said that almost all lords in the realm came to the council, and their number was given as roughly one thousand. The number of lordly houses is in flux, however, as over time some die out through war, or new ones are created by younger sons. Minor vassal houses, of course, have a higher turnover rate than major vassal houses.
Foreign societies also have hierarchies. A daughter of the Prince of Pentos, a sister of the Archon of Tyrosh, and highborn girls from Myr attended the Maiden's Day Cattle Show restricted to members of nobility.
Landed knights are the lowest rank of the nobility, consisting of knights given a keep and grant of land to administer. They have their own peasants and men-at-arms, and may even take sworn swords. Landed knights are sworn to fight for the lord who holds dominion over their land. Some landed knights manage more land than poorer lords, but these landed knights do not have the authority to deliver law and justice in their land. Rather, they must appeal to their liege lord.
Knighthood is culturally linked with the Faith of the Seven. Landed knight is a rare rank in the north and is almost nonexistent on the Iron Islands, since the Faith is not widely practiced in those lands.
Commoners or smallfolk are the bottom of the social structure. They do not own lands or titles, working instead the land of their lords and lacking a say in their own governing. While this may seem similar to slavery, the difference is that commoners own themselves, and can make appeals to their local lord regarding violations of the law or general disagreements between parties; they are recognized as having a right to fair and just treatment by the nobility and society in general. Most Houses have laws protecting the local population from abuse or mistreatment, even by members of the nobility. However, those laws differ and are enforced in varying degrees, mostly depending on the disposition of the local lord.
Many tradesmen and craftsmen belong to guilds, such as the Alchemists' Guild.
There is little social mobility; odds are that if someone is born a commoner, they will never rise above commoner status. There are exceptions, however. Varys was born a slave in Lys, but he rose to become master of whisperers in the Seven Kingdoms. Ser Duncan the Tall was born a commoner in Flea Bottom, yet he was able to become Lord Commander of the Kingsguard.
Homage is the duty every leal subject owes his king.
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