Warning: SPOILERS for Game of Thrones season 7, episode 3 ahead!
Last Sunday's episode of Game of Thrones may well have contained the most important meeting of characters to date. If you're one for symbolism, this one was a meeting of ice and fire as the King in the North traveled south to meet with the Mother of Dragons.
Jon Snow walking into the throne room of Daenerys Targaryen is a moment Game of Thrones has been building towards for seven seasons, but the relationship between their two families is hundreds of years old. And as both Jon and Daenerys made abundantly clear, that centuries old history between the Starks and the Targaryens holds great influence even today and old betrayals are not so easily forgotten.
So just why would a Stark be leery of bending the knee to the Mad King's daughter? And why does Daenerys consider it an act of open rebellion not to? Let's delve into the history between the Starks and the Targaryens to discuss when allegiances were sworn and when they were broken.
The King Who Knelt
We already briefly touched on the Targaryen invasion of Westeros when we looked at the significance of Dragonstone, but as a quick refresher: Aegon and his sister-brides, Visenya and Rhaenys, conquered the six kingdoms of Westeros (the Kingdoms of Mountain and Vale, the Isles and Rivers, the Rock, the Reach, the North, and the Storm Kingdom) forming the nation that would later become known as the Seven Kingdoms once Dorne, remaining unconquered, joined later.
Aegon's Conquest spanned roughly two years during which those who refused to accept Aegon as the ruler of all of Westeros were killed (with Meria Martell, Princess of Dorne, being the exception). This includes Harren the Black, the last King of the Isles and Rivers, who was roasted alive in his castle, Harrenhall, by Aegon's dragon, Balerion, and Mern IX Gardener, the last King of the Reach who was burned alive on the Field of Fire, ending his family's line. With the fate of those two Kings in mind, when Torrhen Stark, King in the North, met with Aegon and his forces at the Trident, he wisely chose to bend the knee and was forever known as the King Who Knelt. (There's even an inn, the Inn of the Kneeling Man, built on the very spot where Torrhen knelt.)
As a reward for swearing his allegiance to Aegon, Torrhen and his family were instated as Wardens of the North and remained (until Roose Bolton's brief tenure) the ruling lords of the northern region of the Seven Kingdoms. It was an uneasy fealty, with many of the northern lords opposing the Targaryens' rule, including Torrhen's own sons. Still, House Stark remained loyal to the Targaryens, taking Queen Rhaenyra's side during the Targaryen civil war, the Dance of the Dragons, in which they signed the Pact of Ice and Fire, and later taking part in the conquest of Dorne. (Which was, again, unsuccessful.)
This alliance lasted for centuries and through many monarchs, so it isn't at all surprising that Daenerys would recall Torrhen's vows when regarding this latest King in the North. As she states to Jon, Torrhen swore those vows in "perpetuity", even if his descendants later broke them. It would be wise of Jon to uphold those vows and again bend the knee, lest he too meet the fate of past Kings who chose not to accept Targaryen rule.