- Aeron Greyjoy: "The Salt Throne is not yours to swear upon, not unless the Kingsmoot chooses you."
- Yara Greyjoy: "My father would have wanted me to rule!"
- Aeron Greyjoy: "Your father does not get to choose! The law is clear!"
- — Aeron Greyjoy insists that the succession of the Iron Islands must be decided by a Kingsmoot[src]
The Kingsmoot is an ironborn custom and part of the traditions which they call the Old Way. Unlike regular lordships or the kings of the mainland, in past centuries the King of the Iron Islands was not a hereditary monarchy, but an elective kingship: all the lords and ship captains of the Iron Islands would gather at an assembly known as a Kingsmoot to hold an election for a new king from among their own numbers.
In the Iron Islands, it is believed that every ship captain is essentially a king of his boat on the open sea. If a captain is foolish or incompetent, he gets his men killed, so in ancient times the ironborn came to accept that a captain could not hold his position without the consent of his crew - and by extension, that the petty kings of each of the islands (who were "captains" in a sense, and often admirals of their fleets). These grew into "kingsmoot" elections, where all the lords and ship captains have a vote on who should be their next king, not simply letting the previous king's son inherit rule.
Among the ironborn, legend says that during the Dawn Age, after the Grey King slew the sea dragon Nagga he unified the isles, but eventually died. The Grey King's hundred sons then fought for rule until only sixteen were left, but found that their powers were too evenly matched to continue, so they agreed to arbitrate the matter by holding a vote on who should succeed as king. Given that the Grey King was a legendary figure who is said to have warred with gods and monsters, some doubt that he or his sons ever existed. But the fact remains that due to their harsh life at sea, the ironborn developed a strong tradition that their kings must achieve their office through support of most of their subordinates, by means of voting in open elections.
After King Harren the Black and his sons were killed in the War of Conquest, Aegon the Conqueror had the ironborn select a new House to rule the Iron Islands (under the overall rule of the Targaryens), according to their custom. The ironborn chose Vickon Greyjoy as Lord of the Iron Islands, and House Greyjoy continued to rule over the ironborn by hereditary right for the next three centuries.
The Greyjoys continued to have symbolic Kingsmoots ever since, but in truth it was little more than empty ceremony. After the Conquest, the Greyjoys functionally practiced the same rule-through-inheritance laws as the rest of Westeros, and these "Kingsmoots" always picked the blood heir of the last leader - nor did they rule as "kings" but a regional Lord Paramount under the Targaryen kings.
Kingsmoot upon the death of Balon Greyjoy
Euron Greyjoy, Balon Greyjoy's younger brother, shows up one stormy night, after Balon and Yara discuss their failed conquest of the North, and confronts Balon as he crosses one of the rope bridges that connects Pyke's three towers. With Euron having been away from the Iron Islands for many years, Balon is noticeably displeased to see his brother again. Tensions grow between the two brothers, with Euron demanding that Balon let him pass so that he may become the next King of the Iron Islands, and Balon refusing. Balon comes at Euron with a knife, slicing his cheek, though Euron grapples Balon and throws him off the rope bridge where the standoff occurs.
At Balon's funeral, Yara tells the priest of the Drowned Men - her uncle Aeron Greyjoy, Balon's youngest brother - that she will find the person who did this and feed them to sharks while they're still alive. She swears to do this upon the Salt Throne, but Aeron declares that the Salt Throne isn't hers yet, because the law says that the Kingsmoot chooses the next ruler. Yara argues that her father wanted her to rule, but Aeron says that this wasn't her father's decision to make.
Shortly before the Kingsmoot, Theon returns to Pyke. Following a tense reunion with his sister Yara, Theon mollifies her by pledging to support her claim to the Salt Throne.
At the Kingsmoot, Yara gives a speech saying that if she is queen, they will stop wasting men and ships in pointless attacks on the mainland, taking lands and castles they can't possible hold; instead she will pull back and focus on building a mighty fleet to defend their home islands from any possible counter-attack from the mainland. This gains her considerable support. When a delegate derides Yara for being a woman, Theon springs to her defense by pointing out that she is a proven warrior, reaver, and Ironborn. Many in the crowd call Yara to be crowned as the first queen of the ironborn.
However, their uncle Euron puts forth his claim to the Salt Throne. He attacks his nephew by highlighting his defeats and emasculation while mocking his niece as a woman. When Yara accuses Euron of murdering their father, Euron openly admits to the act but claims that his actions were justified because of Balon's incompetence - saying he "paid the Iron price". In response, Theon points out that Euron was gallivanting on the high seas for several years while Yara was commanding men and ships.
Euron counters by boldly announcing he will conquer all of Westeros - by forging a marriage-alliance with Daenerys Targaryen and her three new dragons. Euron wins the Kingsmoot by telling the Ironborn that he has paid the iron price.
While Euron is baptized by his brother Aeron in the sea, Yara, Theon, and their supporters flee on the best ships in the Iron Fleet. Euron drowns but is revived on the beach. Aeron then crowns Euron with the driftwood crown. After learning that his nephew and niece have escaped, Euron orders his subjects to build the biggest fleet the world has seen. He also vows to hunt down and kill his niece and nephew.
In the books
In the A Song of Ice and Fire novels, during a Kingsmoot all captains may cast a vote to choose the new Iron King and any captain may put his name as candidate. Kingsmoots are traditionally held on Nagga's hill on Old Wyk. According to the book History of the Ironborn there hasn't been a Kingsmoot in four thousand years, but according to Questions, it has been two thousand years (the World of Ice and Fire sourcebook establishes that the maesters have used competing dating schema, and therefore differences of up to two thousand years between various sources are common). Some famous Iron Kings were chosen at a Kingsmoot: Urras Ironfoot, Sylas Flatnose, Harrag Hoare (of House Hoare), and the Old Kraken (of House Greyjoy).
Any ironborn may nominate himself, not necessarily royalty, even from a House which is regarded poorly in the eyes of the other ironborn (though the chances of a member of one of the weaker and less distinguished Houses tend to be lower). Women are not officially forbidden from participating in the Kingsmoot, but the ironborn are not likely to choose a woman to rule them. The TV series stated that no woman has ever ruled over the ironborn: this hasn't been outright confirmed in the novels but seems strongly implied, given that no female ruler was ever mentioned (even over the vassal Houses on the isles).
The nominee must give a stump speech to the assembled captains explaining why he is a better choice than the others: boast about his past accomplishments and his abilities, describe his future plans as a king (usually which parts of the world he intends to raid), and offer gifts to the crowd, the richer the better. This is not considered bribery but an expected part of the Kingsmoot: logically, the man who has accumulated the most plunder to give out must be skilled at acquiring plunder, which means he will probably be the best candidate to direct all of the ironborn's raiding activities. Gifts of riches are expected and impressive but not necessarily required: sometimes kings were selected who had little wealth but were so impressive with their skills as warriors and military commanders that this swayed votes to their favor anyway, or if they promised to avenge some grievance, etc. The wise nominees would not speak first, but wait patiently till the less worthy candidates are rejected by the voters. The vote is performed by yelling the names of the candidates; whoever has more supporters is declared the winner by the officiating Drowned Men.
Once a candidate puts himself forth, he is bound to the Kingsmoot decision. Only once in the history of the Iron Islands has the election been declared unlawful. When one king died, the king's brother called a Kingsmoot while Torgon the Latecomer, the deceased king's son, was off at sea raiding. The king's brother hoped he would be elected in the son's absence, but the Kingsmoot raised up Urragon Goodbrother, whose first act was to put all the present kin of the old king to death. Torgon returned two years later and claimed the Kingsmoot was unlawful since he, the previous king's son, was not present to put forth his candidacy as was his right. Since Urragon was bloodthirsty and his cruelty made him many enemies, the priests and ironborn denounced him and raised Torgon to be the new Iron King.
The last Kingmoot was a bloodbath and took place centuries before the Andal invasion. Urron Greyiron gathered his men and killed all the other attendees and set up the Greyiron dynasty, which lasted a thousand years until the arrival of the Andals.
Kingsmoot upon the Death of Balon Greyjoy, in the books
Following Balon Greyjoy's death, his brother Euron attempts to take over the Iron Islands. Lord Sawane Botley objects, claiming that the Seastone Chair by rights belongs to Theon, and Euron drowns him (ironborn are normally forbidden from shedding the blood of other ironborn - but drowning is another matter). Aeron Greyjoy, who loathes Euron for being a godless man (and for more personal reasons - Euron used to molest him as a child), forestalls him by announcing that Kingmoot must be held. The ironborn, who respect Aeron greatly, obey him.
Aeron was also personally opposed to the idea of Balon's daughter Asha (called Yara in the TV series) directly inheriting rule from her father, because he felt it was ungodly for the ironborn to be ruled by a woman. Nonetheless he respects the tradition of the Kingsmoot enough that he will not outright deny Asha the right to put forward her candidacy, he just hopes she won't win. Maester Murenmure, who serves House Goodbrother, tells Aeron that according to the law, the Seastone Chair belongs to Theon, or to Asha if Theon is dead. Aeron states scornfully that "Green land law" does not apply to the ironborn.
At the time the Kingsmoot is held, Theon is still imprisoned at Dreadfort. He has no idea about it, nor about his father's death. Most assume he is dead, and many ironborn, including Aeron, don't care to confirm if he is alive as they consider him "hopeless, a boy of sulks and smiles", because he lived too long on the Green land, and put himself to shame by killing (allegedly) a cripple and a babe. Sawane Botley and and Maester Murenmure were the only ironborn who ever mentioned him as a claimant.
In Season 6's "Home", Aeron implies that the succession law of the revived kingdom of the Iron Islands is clear that a Kingsmoot must be held. Actually, the kingship had become hereditary centuries before the Targaryen Conquest, and upon Balon's death there is an open question of who should rule - Asha/Yara or one of her uncles, because the inheritance laws for their new kingdom hadn't been clearly established (though in private Balon indeed wanted Asha to rule after him). Of course, there isn't necessarily a discrepancy: just because TV-Aeron says "the law is clear" doesn't mean it actually is, this could be his opinion that he is forcing on everyone else as a powerful clergyman. That is, in the novels, Aeron similarly says that they "must" have a Kingsmoot and the ancient traditions are clear on this, even though they actually aren't - he really wants to hold a Kingsmoot in the hope that neither Asha nor Euron will win it.
There are seven major islands in the Iron Isles: Great Wyk is the largest; Harlaw the second largest but richest and most populous; Orkmont in the middle of the chain is still fairly abundant in mineral resources; Pyke actually isn't as wealthy or populous as the first three but benefited from being the ruling seat of the isles under the Greyjoys for three centuries and is fairly prosperous; Old Wyk is not wealthy but as the first settled of the islands it is considered the holiest and most prestigious; the final two of the isles, Saltcliffe and Blacktyde, are the smallest and least notable.
In the lead up to the Kingsmoot, Asha's main base of support is Harlaw, where here maternal uncle dominates as the head of House Harlaw. Euron, meanwhile, seized power over Pyke directly, using his plunder from across the world to bribe off various local Houses, often giving great largesse to weaker Houses or second sons to encourage them to usurp power over local Houses and take his side. Soon Orkmont was also swayed to Euron's side. Blacktyde also sided with Asha, favoring her pro-diplomacy platform and sharing her fear of provoking the mainland too far, but House Blacktyde is the only noble family from that tiny island. The Houses from the remaining three islands - Old Wyk, Great Wyk, and Saltcliffe - remain undecided and waver between openly declaring their support for one or the other.
Aeron Damphair calls the Kingsmoot in part to avoid a civil war between Euron on Pyke and Asha at Harlaw - though given that any ironborn can put himself forward as a candidate at the Kingsmoot, this encourages several Houses such as the Drumms of Old Wyk to support neither of them and put forward their own candidate. Victarion was cut from the TV show, though when he returns to the Iron Islands in the books for the Kingsmoot, many who were wary of either Euron or Asha see him as a respectable compromise candidate. Aeron himself gives his support to Victarion. Asha becomes so afraid of Euron that prior to the Kingsmoot, with candidates multiplying, she approaches Victarion and says that she will throw her supporters behind him, if he promises to make her his Hand of the King, to at least stop Euron from taking the throne. Victarion declines the offer, given that this office is a tradition of the mainlanders which the ironborn kings never used, and having a female advisor might make him be seen as weak.
Asha half-sarcastically, half-insistently refers to the upcoming kingsmoot as "my queensmoot".
The ironborn gather at the Grey King’s Hall. Aeron thunders "Who shall sit in Balon’s place? Who shall rule these holy isles? Is he here among us now?”. Several ironborn put themselves forward as a possible candidate:
- Lord Gylbert Farwynd comes first as a candidate, with his three sons Gyles,Ygon and Yohn as his champions, promising the ironborn that if he becomes king he will lead them to a new bountiful land across the Sunset Sea, as Nymeria did with her ten thousand ships. His gifts are whale bone, sealskins and bronze. The captains look at the miserable gifts and turn away, leaving lesser men to help themselves. Soon enough the cries of “Gylbert! Gylbert King!” fade away to silence.
- Erik Inronmaker, called the Anvil-breaker, comes next carried on a palanquin by three of his grandsons Dagon, Thormor and Urek. His gifts are silver, bronze and a few steel daggers and blades. Aeron muses that sixty years ago, Erik could well have won the favor of the moot, but his hour is long past. Asha humiliates him by asking him to stand on his own two feet. Angrily, Erik does his best to stand, but is unable to do. Euron bursts into laughing.
- Lord Dunstan Drumm comes next. His champions are Andrik the Unsmiling and Drumm's sons Donnel and Denys. Dunstan's speech starts well, but he talks too long and soon loses the interest of the crowd. His gifts of bronze do not win them back to him.
- Aeron feels it is time for Victarion to make his claim. He cries “Who shall be king over us? Nine sons were born from the loins of Quellon Greyjoy. One was mightier than all the rest, and knew no fear.” Victarion nods and comes next with Nute the Barber, Ralf the Limper and Red Ralf Stonehouse as his champions. He says: "You all know me. If you want sweet words, look elsewhere. I have no singer’s tongue. I have an axe, and I have these.” He raises his huge mailed hands up to show them. “I was a loyal brother. When Balon was wed, it was me he sent to Harlaw to bring him back his bride. I led his longships into many a battle, and never lost but one. The first time Balon took a crown, it was me sailed into Lannisport to singe the lion's tail. The second time, it was me he sent to skin the Young Wolf should he come howling home. All you’ll get from me is more of what you got from Balon. That’s all I have to say". He is well received and his gifts of gold, silver and gems add to his supporters.
- Asha comes next with Qarl the Maid, Tristifer Botley and Ser Harras Harlawas her champions. Her uncles Victarion and Rodrik "the Reader" Harlaw try to dissuade her, but she does not listen to them. First she states that her claim is better than Victarion and Euron. She does better than anyone expected: unlike the rest, her gifts are cobblestones, pinecones and turnips. She shows the ironborn these gifts to demonstrate that this is what they have won so far by fighting the North, losing fathers and sons for these "treasures". She addresses to some of the people at the crowd, reminding them of the kin they lost because of her father's poor plan of invasion. Some ironborn taunt her, but she does not care. She offers the ironborn a chance for land, peace and victory. She wins much support, but many more support Victarion and it looks like there is about to be a riot between their followers. Suddenly, the sound of a horn splits the air, silencing everyone.
- Euron has one of his men, Cragorn, blow the dragon horn, which silences the crowd. Euron then steps forward and claims the horn they heard can bind dragons to his will, and that he knows where to locate three of the creatures. He promises to use them so the ironborn can conquer all of Westeros. Asha mocks him "A horn to bind goats to your will would be of more use, Crow’s Eye. There are no more dragons", but he announces "There are three, and I know where to find them. Surely that is worth a driftwood crown". His men then pour forward his gifts, a wealth of treasure. Euron is elected the new Iron King. Aeron is shocked, feeling deep terror. As a thousand voices shout out his brother’s name, all he can hear is the scream of a rusted iron hinge.
Following the kingsmoot, Aeron is furious that his hateful brother was crowned. He speculates that Euron's sorcerers sent some spell among the ironborn and this is the reason they chose Euron. Aeron tries to persuade Victarion, whom he sees fit to be the king, to overthrow Euron, but fails: as much as Victarion hates Euron, the habit of obedience is rooted deep in him, and he accpets Euron as his lawful king. Aeron is not willing to give up: he says that he will go to the simple folk and turn them against Euron. He disappears the next day, his fate is unknown. Asha fears that Euron might have murdered him. Victarion and others believe that he is somewhere on the Iron Islands, preaching against the Crow’s Eye and his rule in hope to raise the ironborn against him, and will soon come forth to call down the wrath of the Drowned God on Euron and his minions. Erik Ironmaker, whom Euron assigns to rule the Iron Islands in his absence, captures some of the Drowned Men and interrogates them about Aeron's whereabouts, but to no avail.
Aeron seeks solace at the sea. He sends away those who follow him, wishing no company but his god. He enters the seas and prays. Then he hears a voice "Aeron, my good and faithful servant, you must tell the Ironborn that the Crow’s Eye is no true king, that the Seastone Chair by rights belongs to… to… to…". Aeron knows it is neither Victarion nor Asha. He has an idea: Victarion will wed Asha, and they will rule together. He makes it back to the shore, confident that he can bring Euron down, not by force but by the power of his faith. It is then that some of Euron's mutes grab and knock him unconscious. Aeron is held captive and tortured By Euron, not only to prevent him from acting against his brother: Euron says he keeps Aeron alive because he needs his blood, but does not reveal for what purpose.
Lord Baelor Blacktyde, who supported Asha, also refuses to accept Euron as his liege. His statement "Balon was mad, Aeron is madder, and Euron is maddest of them all" - has become a common saying among the ironborn. He tries to sail home after the kingsmoot, but the Iron Fleet has closed the bay. Lord Blacktyde is seized and delivered to the king in chains. At Euron’s order, he is cut into seven parts, to feed the seven green land gods he worshipped. Other than him, no one dares to defy Euron openly.
Asha's uncle "the Reader" Harlaw begs her, as he did before the kingsmoot, to flee because Euron will either kill her or marry her to one of his supporters; he indeed marries her shortly later to Erik Ironmaker in her absence, and soon she hears about that. She does as the Reader advises, returns to Deepwood Motte, where she considers her options: go to Torrhen's Square, which is still held by Dagmer; make new life as a trader; settle at Sea Dragon Point; return to the Iron Islands and try to raise the ironborn against their new-crowned king. Tristifer Botley, who wishes to marry Asha, tells her about Torgon. The fact that in the past a Kingsmoot was ruled unlawful gives Asha an idea, but before she has a chance to think it over, Stannis attacks Deepwood Motte, destroying nearly all Asha's troops and taking her captive. Asha believes that now she has no hope to claim the Seastone Chair: the ironborn are not a forgiving people, and she has been defeated twice - by Euron at the kingsmoot and by Stannis.
Since Theon has not participated the kingsmoot, he - unlike his sister and the other candidates - is not bound by its outcome. Therefore, there is an opening for disqualifying Euron as the rightful king, as was done once before by Torgon Greyiron (perhaps that was Asha's unrealized idea). However, even if Theon somehow avoids being executed by Stannis and returns to the Iron Islands, it is highly unlikely that anyone will see him fit to be a king: he is a wreck, physically and mentally, and is considered as an outcast among the ironborn for the reasons Aeron specified above.
Behind the scenes
In the novels, the Kingsmoot is traditionally held on Old Wyk island, not Pyke, at Nagga's Bones - held to be the ancient ruins of the Grey King's hall, built from the ribs of Nagga the Sea dragon. They are indeed the fossilized ribs of some ancient, massive animal, though no one can truly confirm if they came from a now-mythical sea dragon.
In the final aired version of Season 6, this detail was cut for time, and there is no indication that the Kingsmoot is held on a separate island from Pyke - they just gather on a an unidentified shore. Concept art for Season 6, however, does include sketches of Nagga's Bones - indicating that they originally did plan to include this detail from the novels, but it was ultimately cut for time and concision.
In the long lead-up to the United States 2016 presidential election, during the party primary elections in May 2016, the news channel CNN released a parody sketch in which their main anchors discussed not the state by state results of the various presidential candidates, but a serious analysis of the ongoing Kingsmoot election between Yara and Euron Greyjoy in Game of Thrones. They released the sketch online after episode 6.3 - between when the election was introduced in episode 6.2 and when it actually occurred in episode 6.5.
In their analysis of the two candidates, the CNN anchors weighed in that it was "A two-person race between Balon's daughter Yara who's ruthless, and his estranged brother Euron who is, frankly, murderous." Describing the two candidates' chances in the Kingsmoot, they accurately surmised: "Now, the Iron Islands have never had a female leader before, so it's unclear whether or not they'd be willing to embrace her. But on the other hand, Euron is something of a carpetbagger, they haven't seen him in years." The sketch is available for free online.