This article contains spoilers for the Season 8 premiere of “Game of Thrones.”
When Cersei went shopping for a new ally, she found the biggest and best group of mercenaries she could buy with her latest loan from the Iron Bank: the Golden Company.
Now that this elite private army has been ferried over from Essos on Euron Greyjoy’s fleet, was this a good purchase on Cersei’s part? Should Daenerys Targaryen and Jon Snow be worried?
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This isn’t the first time we’ve heard about the Golden Company in Westeros. Davos originally recommended that Stannis hire the mercenaries to beef up his armed forces. He probably thought of them first because of their stellar reputation, which he must have known would be useful in persuading his reluctant king. Unlike some sellsword companies, the Golden Company is said never to have broken a contract. Their motto: “Our word is good as gold.”
And unlike some feudal armies, the Golden Company is composed of highly disciplined soldiers. What’s more, they don’t think of themselves as mercenaries: They are a brotherhood of exiles and the sons of exiles. Even if they’re based in Essos, they consider themselves (mostly) to be Westerosi. “It’s home they want, as much as gold,” as one character explains. Perhaps this is the logic Cersei relies upon to avoid the argument that she, too, is using a foreign army.
As an example of the type of men the Golden Company attracts, Jorah Mormont revealed in Season 4 that as a disgraced knight in exile, he fought with them before signing up with Viserys and Dany. The Golden Company’s captain-general is Harry Strickland, who grew up in the Company, as did his father and grandfather after his great-grandfather signed up with the original outfit.
That speaks to another distinguishing feature for this squad: They raise their sons to join them. It’s part of their heritage.
The Golden Company was founded by a legitimized Targaryen bastard — Ser Aegor Rivers, known as Bittersteel — as a fighting force to support rebellions against the Iron Throne. Bittersteel’s dad, King Aegon IV, known as Aegon the Unworthy, had a whole litter of bastards that he legitimized on his deathbed a century ago. This led to a series of succession clashes known as the Blackfyre Rebellions, in which Aegor Rivers and the Golden Company supported the Blackfyre claims. This is why some see them as anti-Targaryen.
In the books, Dany’s brother, Viserys, tried to hire them once, and got laughed off. This might not have been simply because Viserys was a Targaryen: Later, on the Company supports a separate Targaryen claim to the throne and invades Westeros after breaking a contract for the first time in order to do so.
By Season 4, when Davos recommends them, the Golden Company has 10,000 men: 8,000 infantry, 1,000 archers and 1,000 cavalry. They also have two dozen war elephants. Their infantry are phalanx-style spearmen, like the Unsullied, but with more adaptability. Their archers have a variety of weapons and styles — crossbows, recurve-bows, longbows, and mounted archers. Together, they are a much better match than a Westerosi-trained army would be against the combined forces of an all-cavalry Dothraki and an 8,000-strong all-infantry Unsullied.
Of course, they’re still susceptible to dragons.
By the time Cersei hires the Company in Season 7, she says it has 20,000 men, indicating their numbers have grown. The elephants, however, are nowhere to be seen. Cersei is annoyed — fixated, even. “I wanted those elephants,” she says after sleeping with Euron. But it isn’t clear where they went.
(Perhaps it was simple logistics: The Golden Company aren’t seamen, and they aren’t equipped to travel overseas. Euron’s hastily-built fleet does well enough at transporting the soldiers, but dozens of elephants weigh a lot. Maybe his fleet simply didn’t have the right sized ships to carry them.)
But even without those great beasts, 20,000 men more than replenishes the Lannister soldiers lost during the loot-train attack. And Cersei is able to afford them because of gold stolen from Highgarden. Which is fitting: The men of the Golden Company like to wear their plunder — hence their name. They come resplendent with inlaid armor and golden arm rings (each ring signifies a year of service), wielding jeweled swords and decorating their tents with golden cloth. And pikes topped with gilded skulls.
But Cersei should be careful: The Golden Company turns on patrons who don’t pay up on time. The Lannister promise — that they always pay their debts — won’t be enough with these guys. They once sacked the city of Qohor when a client didn’t honor a contract.
Unlike most other mercenary companies we’ve seen, the Golden Company decides whom to back based not only on payment but also on whomever it thinks has the chances of claiming the throne. This is one army that could have a mind of its own.
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