Night gathers, and now my watch begins. It shall not end until my death. I shall take no wife, hold no lands, father no children. I shall wear no crowns and win no glory. I shall live and die at my post. I am the sword in the darkness. I am the watcher on the walls. I am the shield that guards the realms of men. I pledge my life and honor to the Night's Watch, for this night and all the nights to come.
―The Night's Watch oat
The Night's Watch is a military order which holds and guards the Wall, the immense ice structure which separates the northern border of the Seven Kingdoms from the lands beyond. The order was led by Lord Commander Jon Snow from the stronghold of Castle Black up until his death by mutineers, and before Jon it was led by Lord Commander Jeor Mormont, who also was killed in a mutiny. The current Lord Commander is still to be decided. Until then, the acting Lord Commander is Eddison Tollett.
The Night's Watch is organized in three departments: the Rangers, who fight, defend the Wall and patrol the Haunted Forest; the Builders, who maintain the Wall and the castles; and the Stewards, who support and feed the members of the Watch.
According to legend, the Night's Watch was founded 8,000 years ago. They now protect the Seven Kingdoms from threats beyond their northern border, such as White Walkers, wildlings and giants. They man a vast structure known as the Wall, a 700 foot tall and 300 mile long barrier which separates the Seven Kingdoms from the lands to the north. It is formed mostly from ice with small trenches and wooden fortifications covering the top. The Watch have built nineteen castles along the southern edge of the Wall to house their men, however, over the years many were abandoned. They also control a region south of the Wall known as the Gift, from which they obtain supplies and provisions. The region was donated to them by House Stark, the Kings in the North, at the time.
Members of the Night's Watch swear an oath of duty that prohibits marriage, family, and land ownership. Recruits renounce all past allegiances and birthrights. Joining the Watch provides absolution for past crimes and immunity from further punishment. Brothers start with a clean slate and can rise within the ranks whatever their origins. However, even though the Night's Watch vows are meant to be for life, it is possible for one to leave the organization without execution, so long as it is with the ruling monarch's approval. For instance, Stannis Baratheon, a claimant to the Iron Throne and the King in the Narrow Sea, offers Jon Snow a chance to leave the Night's Watch and serve him in exchange for legitimization, though this may partially be due to the fact that the Night's Watch is not taken as seriously by most as it once was, and Stannis was desperate enough to turn to Jon Snow for aid.
They describe one another as "sworn brothers" because of the oath. Men of the Watch dress entirely in black, giving rise to the nickname "crows" - which is what the Free Folk commonly call them - or "black brothers." Members of the Night's Watch are not specifically forbidden from seeing their families, but they cannot leave the Wall without permission. Desertion is punishable by death. First Ranger Benjen Stark would often visit his family at Winterfell while representing the Night's Watch.
The Watch was once highly regarded and their ranks were filled with volunteers from noble houses, as serving was a sign of selfless devotion to the protection of the realm. However, most recruits are now criminals avoiding punishment, nobles avoiding scandal, orphans and other social outcasts. Men known as wandering crows, such as Yoren, travel around the Seven Kingdoms gathering recruits for the Watch, offering them escape on the Wall. For the highborn, the Wall is a convenient place to exile embarrassing or disgraced family members. Samwell Tarly was disowned by his own father and ordered to join the Watch on threat of death, while Tywin Lannister had plans to exile his own son Tyrion to the Wall so as to avoid executing him for allegedly murdering King Joffrey Baratheon.
By the reign of King Robert Baratheon, the institution has fallen into disrepute and is largely ignored by the throne. It is severely undermanned; dwindling numbers have led to all but three of the Wall's nineteen castles being abandoned. The Night's Watch is now led from its stronghold at Castle Black. The Shadow Tower and Eastwatch-by-the-Sea are the only other castles that are still manned. Meanwhile, trouble is stirring beyond the Wall. A large wildling army under a new King Beyond the Wall, Mance Rayder, is advancing south, and there are rumors that the White Walkers, long since thought to be extinct, have returned. The leader of the Night's Watch when Jon Snow arrives at the Wall is Lord Commander Jeor Mormont.
Increased wildling activity beyond the Wall leads the Watch to send out several patrols to investigate. Some do not return. A three man scouting party consisting of Ser Waymar Royce, Gared, and Will is one of those sent out, but only Will returns - then frantically tries to desert the Watch by running south but was caught. He rambles that the legendary White Walkers killed his companions, but he is disbelieved as a madman and beheaded by Lord Eddard Stark for desertion.
When Tyrion Lannister, younger brother of Queen Cersei, makes a visit to the Wall while traveling to Winterfell, he is met at Castle Black by Lord Commander Jeor Mormont and Maester Aemon. They implore him to bring news to the king that the Night's Watch is severely undermanned and undersupported: they are down to under a thousand members, and barely have the resources to feed and support the few men they still have. Mormont warns Tyrion about disturbing rumors coming from beyond the Wall, about missing scouting parties, and the one man who did survive an attack say it was the White Walkers finally returning, just before he was executed. Aemon warns that they have had a very long summer lasting for years, and that the coming winter may be also be long and bitter - and only the gods can help them if they do not do more to prepare for what's coming.
Jeor Mormont's Great Ranging travels far beyond the Wall, and sets up a base camp at the Fist of the First Men. Meanwhile, back in Winterfell, Maester Luwin advises a besieged Theon Greyjoy to flee to the Wall and join the Night's Watch so that he might save his life and redeem himself for his betrayal. Though Theon acknowledges his sins, he ultimately declines the suggestion partly out of fear that Jon Snow will try to kill him.
The Night's Watch engages in the first open conflict between men and White Walkers in eight millennia when their position is assaulted in the Battle of the Fist of the First Men. They suffer heavy casualties, though a few dozen men led by Mormont manage to fight their way out, and retreat southwards. Mormont himself is then killed by his own men when they mutiny at Craster's Keep.
In response to the Night's Watch's calls for help, Tywin Lannister suggests that they allow the wildlings to destroy the Watch and settle in the North, hoping to use Mance Rayder as an ally to help them fight Robb Stark and Balon Greyjoy.
Alliser Thorne temporarily succeeds Mormont as acting Commander. Their strength now reduced to about 100 men, the remainder of the Watch manage to fend off a wildling attack on Castle Black. Stannis Baratheon then unexpectedly arrives to relieve them, and defeats the wildling army.
Following the defeat of the wildling army and the execution of Mance Rayder, the Night's Watch elects Jon Snow as its new Lord Commander, who attempts to rebuild the Watch and pay more attention to the growing threat of the White Walkers. In order to strengthen their forces, Jon opts to make peace between the Night's Watch and the wildlings to avoid them falling into the White Walker army, having come to feel sympathy for them after learning that they were once subjects of Westeros but were merely on the wrong side of the kingdom when the Wall was built. After the wildlings essentially refuse to join Stannis's army, Jon attempts to bring them south of the Wall, either as subjects of Westeros again or even induct them into the Night's Watch, though this decision is met with harsh criticism by most of the black brothers, including Alliser Thorne, Othell Yarwyck and Bowen Marsh. Jon is later stabbed by his own brothers in a mutiny and left for dead.
The mutiny against Jon Snow creates further tension between Jon's loyalists and the mutineers. Following a brief scuffle, Eddison Tollett summons the wildlings back to Castle Black and with their support places the mutineers under arrest for their betrayal. Jon is later revived from the dead by Melisandre, and after publicly executing the mutineers, Jon leaves the Night's Watch, giving the command to Edd Tollett, as his death, though temporary, marked the end of his watch (although Edd tries to argue otherwise).
Sansa Stark, Jon's half-sister, escapes from Ramsay Bolton and finds refuge as Castle Black. A letter from Ramsay demands her return to Winterfell, threatening to massacre every wildling at Castle Black, let his men rape Sansa and feed Jon and Rickon Stark to the dogs if he should refuse. Tormund claims the Free Folk have 2,000 fighters south of the wall, not enough to face House Boltons 5,000 soldiers alone. Sansa convinces Jon to try to unite the houses of the North behind him, as he is the son of a legitimate Warden of the North. Although the odds are against them, with no other option Jon reluctantly agrees. At this point, they are unaware that Petyr Baelish, Lord Protector of The Vale, plans to have House Arryn's knights march north to aid the Starks, significantly altering the power balance in their favor.
Jon Snow has seemingly given up on the whole constitution of the Night's Watch, as the lords of the Vale and the North have declared him King in the North, although Jon's primary focus is the coming White Walker invasion, hinting that he fully intends to rally as much of Westeros as he can to aid the Night's Watch in the imminent battle.
Acting Commander Eddison Tollett and several other watchmen allow Meera Reed and Bran Stark through the Wall and into Castle Black, after proving their identities through Bran's knowledge on Edd's whereabouts beyond the Wall.
Men of the Night's Watch are divided between three different orders: the Rangers, the Builders, and the Stewards. Each order is led by its own officer, each appointed by the Lord Commander of the Night's Watch: the First Ranger, First Builder, and First Steward.
Rangers - the true warriors of the Night's Watch. While all black brothers are expected to have some basic arms training and to take up a sword in defense of the Wall itself, the Rangers are the ones who are sent on dangerous scouting expeditions beyond the Wall, to track wildlings movements. When the Watch was more numerous in past centuries they formed the core fighting group sent to destroy large wildling warbands who attempted to pass south of the Wall.
Builders - who physically maintain the structures of the Night's Watch, and repair the Wall itself.
Stewards - who provide for the day-to-day needs of the Watch: gathering, cooking, and serving food, repairing clothes and equipment, tending to the horses and messenger-ravens, and gathering firewood. By far the largest of the three orders.
Each castle of the Night's Watch also has a maester assigned to it. These maesters take the oath of the Night's Watch and are considered full black brothers, but are not considered part of the three orders. Given that there were never more than nineteen castles along the Wall, there were never more than nineteen maesters in the Night's Watch at any one time. Since there are only three active castles on the Wall in modern times, there are now only three maesters in the Night's Watch at a time.
The leader of the Night's Watch is the Lord Commander. Each Lord Commander serves for life, and a new Lord Commander is democratically elected by other members of the Night's Watch in a Choosing.
It is unknown if there is any formal procedure to depose a Lord Commander and elect a new one, in cases where the current Lord Commander violates his oaths or is deemed medically unfit to lead, etc.
"Raper, raper, horse thief, ninth-born son, raper, thief, thief AND raper..."
―An officer at Castle Black reviewing a line of new recruits who are joining the Night's Watch.
Recruiters commonly known as "Wandering Crows" travel to the cities of southern Westeros to gather up new recruits to join the Night's Watch. In recent years, most of these tend to be criminals, murderers, rapers, and thieves taken from the dungeons of major cities and towns. A few also join because they are desperately poor and have no other better options. Once in a great while a younger son or bastard son of a major noble House will decide to join the Night's Watch, but they can often afford to travel to the Night's Watch on their own initiative - such as Jon Snow (a bastard) and Waymar Royce (a third-born son).
Recruiters are few in number, and they are not considered a separate order in the Night's Watch. Instead, they are drawn from trusted members of the three orders, often those who can no longer fight well due to injuries but who can still travel.
Late in the reign of King Robert Baratheon, the Night's Watch had dwindled to under one thousand members - many of them composed of old men, untrained boys, and convicted felons. While there are nineteen castles along the Wall, the Watch only has enough men to continue to man three of them: their headquarters Castle Black in the middle, the Shadow Tower at the western end, and their port Eastwatch-by-the-Sea at the eastern end.
The Watch took severe losses in Jeor Mormont's disastrous expedition beyond the Wall, losing nearly 300 men as a result. Combined with heavy losses during the Battle of Castle Black, as well as losses from other wildling attacks, by the time that King Stannis Baratheon arrives at the Wall the entire organization consists of only around 600 members left.
Castles along the Wall
There are nineteen castles spread out along the southern face of the Wall as bases for the Night's Watch. Patrols from these castles would travel along the top of the Wall watching for threats from the north, or repairing damage to the Wall. Each castle also contained a tunnel cut under the Wall, through which scouting parties would travel to the north to track wildling movements.
As the Night's Watch dwindled over the centuries, however, most of these castles were abandoned, and their tunnels sealed with ice. By the end of the reign of King Robert Baratheon, only three major castles along the Wall are still manned: Castle Black, the Shadow Tower, and Eastwatch-by-the-Sea. In Season 3 also appears the ruin of was was once the Nightfort.
The Gift is a region to the south of the Wall under the direct control of the Night's Watch. It lies at the northern edge of the region known as the North. It was donated to the Night's Watch by House Stark when the order was founded thousands of years ago, in order to support the Night's Watch with food and provisions. The Gift is officially not subject to the authority of Winterfell, and is technically not part of "The North", but is a special administrative zone directly ruled by the Night's Watch.
The Gift is sparsely populated by only a handful of smallfolk, as most have relocated to the south over the generations while the Night's Watch dwindled and wildling raiding parties over or around the Wall increased in frequency. The northern areas closer to the Wall are almost completely empty. The closest significant settlement near the Wall is Mole's Town, located a few miles down the Kingsroad from Castle Black.
Recent Lords Commander
Past Lords Commander
Based at Castle Black
Based at the Shadow Tower
Based at Eastwatch
Yoren, a "wandering crow" in charge of finding new recruits. Killed in the Riverlands by Ser Amory Lorch.
When joining the Night's Watch, all members must swear the following oath, either in a sept if they are of the Faith of the Seven, or before a heart tree if they follow the Old Gods of the Forest.
Hear my words and bear witness to my vow. Night gathers, and now my watch begins. It shall not end until my death. I shall take no wife, hold no lands, father no children. I shall wear no crowns and win no glory. I shall live and die at my post. I am the sword in the darkness. I am the watcher on the walls. I am the shield that guards the realms of men. I pledge my life and honor to the Night's Watch, for this night and all the nights to come.
In the books
In the A Song of Ice and Fire novels, the First Ranger is Benjen Stark, while the Lord Commander is Jeor Mormont, the father of Jorah Mormont. The Night's Watch is grievously under-strength by the beginning of the book series, having fallen from 10,000 when Aegon the Conqueror invaded to less than 1,000, divided into three garrisons at Castle Black (600 soldiers), the Shadow Tower (200 soldiers) and Eastwatch-by-the-Sea (less than 200 soldiers).
Of these 1,000 men, almost 300 are killed in the Great Ranging, due to the disastrous Battle of the Fist of the First Men and subsequent Mutiny at Craster's Keep. This further reduced the Night's Watches ranks to only 700 men, and perhaps worse, killed off most of their senior officers and best warriors, including Lord Commander Jeor Mormont himself. The expedition force consisted of one hundred men from the Shadow Tower and two hundred men from Castle Black.
After the Battle of Castle Black, the Night's Watch takes a headcount: their entire manpower (including the garrisons at Eastwatch and the Shadow Tower) has been reduced to 589 brothers. Most of the losses are taken at the Battle of the Fist of the First Men, and more at the following Battle of the Bridge of Skulls and the Battle of Castle Black.
The oath used in the show leaves out one line from the oath in the books.
Night gathers, and now my watch begins. It shall not end until my death. I shall take no wife, hold no lands, father no children. I shall wear no crowns and win no glory. I shall live and die at my post. I am the sword in the darkness. I am the watcher on the walls. I am the fire that burns against the cold, the light that brings the dawn, the horn that wakes the sleepers, the shield that guards the realms of men. I pledge my life and honor to the Night's Watch, for this night and all the nights to come.
The Night's Watch has no heraldic symbol, to emphasize its sworn duty to be removed from petty politics of one lordly House or another, but to defend the lands of men as a whole. Thus, the Night's Watch uses solid black on its banner and shields, which symbolize the erasure of any allegiance to noble Houses. Even the "uniform" of the Night's Watch is to wear solid black clothing; members from wealthier families often buy all-black clothing before leaving for the Wall, while poor conscripts have their clothing simply dyed black when they reach the Wall (clothing which isn't always well-suited for cold weather). Solid black specifically denotes the rejection of heraldry, and is therefore strictly speaking not a "symbol" in and of itself, but the absence of a symbol.
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