How do the Mormont women get away with not only being unmarried, but the fathers of their children unknown? And those children are still somehow "legitimate" with regards to succession? Granted, the North is slightly different, both culturally and religiously, and the Bear Islanders probably slightly different even from other Northerners due to their literal insularity, but the Mormont women are still extraordinary. Why and how?
Thanks for the question, tungstensmith.
A couple reasons.
Maege Mormont, for one. The woman is a force of personality: a hardened warrior whose first appearance sees her “dressed in mail like a man” and telling Robb that he “had no business giving her commands”, the sister Jeor describes as “a hoary old snark, stubborn, short-tempered, and willful”. She is hardly the sort of woman to give much thought to properly ladylike conduct; hell, she mocks Jorah’s estranged wife Lynesse Hightower as “a proper lady” whom Jorah “won in a tourney”. (Not that she is completely ignorant of dynastic politics: in AGOT she notes that she has a granddaughter she would be willing to have Robb wed, although given that her only known granddaughter would have been seven at the time, I don’t know how serious she was.) She is Lady Mormont, and she says her daughters are Mormonts, so her daughters are Mormonts. Anyone who would say they have no business ruling Bear Island as bastards would probably answer immediately to her favored spiked mace. She’s raised her daughters the same as well: Dacey (the one given a morningstar at the age when other girls are given dolls) comments that she loves the carving on Bear Island of the lady with a child in one arm and a battleaxe in the other (despite the fact that the carved woman is “no proper lady”), and Alysane denies that she is wed, claiming that “everyone knows” the women of House Mormont turn into bears to find mates. The Mormont ladies keep their own counsel when it comes to who fathered their children; all that matters is that they are Mormonts.
Of course, the status of House Mormont facilitates that sort of attitude. House Mormont is old and proud, but hardly the richest even among its fellow northern Houses, with a seat on the edge of civilization. On an island “rich in bears and trees but poor in aught else”, described by its liege as “cold and distant and poor”, there can be little time or patience for dynastic snobbery (again, why Lynesse Hightower fit in so terribly poorly). Life on Bear Island is about survival, against the elements and against the ironborn raiders who have proven the historical bane of Bear Island’s existence; a Mormont woman’s pedigree has little bearing (heh) on how well she can defend the hearth. Additionally, being trained as warriors and expected to defend the home and family while the men are away, the Mormont women enjoy (at least in part) a sort of empowerment rare for women in Westeros. Consequently, as woman are not relegated to the role of mere marriage pawns, marriage-making between noble families is given much less weight (though not totally abandoned; Jorah married a Glover first, after all).
Nor does it hurt that House Mormont doesn’t seem to have heirs outside of Maege and her descendants. Being rather poor, House Mormont likely cannot support too many cadet branches on or around Bear Island; in a real war, then, Maege Mormont and her daughters may well represent the only remaining heirs of the House. Continuing Mormont rule means accepting Maege and her children as they are - and if Maege asserts her daughters are Mormonts and Alysane does the same for her daughter and young son, then that’s the way of it.
So, while we don’t know how much this has held up historically (we know literally no named Mormonts before Jeor and Maege’s generation), the current women of House Mormont certainly put far less emphasis on needing to be married, especially to men of noble families. It’s not an attitude many noble Houses could get away with, given the strong tradition of patriarchal rule prevalent through much of Westeros (and the likewise emphasis on dynasty), but with the cultural setup of Bear Island’s female warriors, the lack of other heirs, and Maege’s own personal forcefulness (passed down to her daughters), having Maege’s daughters and Alysane’s children be virtually fatherless does not rise to the level of scandal (certainly not, at least, among their northern neighbors).
Why does Leyton Hightower marry Jorah to Lynesse? Isn't house Mormont pretty poor compared to most houses, so why would Leyton marry her to Jorah?
Thanks for the question, Anon.
Well, there’s the fairy-tale tourney reason, which is that Lord Jorah won the Tourney of Lannisport and, as the victor, could ask for and should (in chivalric theory, at least) receive any boon he desired. This aspect of chivalric culture is taken seriously - we see Renly, self-proclaimed king, holding himself to his own promise of the champion’s boon to Brienne at the melee of Bitterbridge, though he desperately wanted Barristan Selmy to wear the blue cloak - and would certainly be understood by the Old Man of Oldtown - a man whose House traces its mythic ancestry to Maris the Maid, a woman whose hand was won at Westeros’ legendary first tourney. Jorah was the champion, and he asked for the hand of Lord Hightower’s daughter as his boon - well, unless she was already betrothed or there were some other compelling reason to deny him, Lord Hightower should duly play his part and grant it. Now, I wouldn’t say that’s the only reason he said yes, of course - Lord Hightower being far too powerful to be swayed merely by the likes of romantic notions of chivalry, or a cash-poor Northern lord - but that’s definitely a factor that applies here.
What’s also going on underneath is that - for all her Hightower name - Lynesse is a youngest daughter in a large family, and unfortunately in the world of dynastic marriage, even a Hightower youngest daughter doesn’t have the best prospects. I talked about this a while ago, but it’s worth mentioning again. Someone has to marry all (or at least many of) those minor-league sons of Westeros, after all, and sometimes that someone happens to be the daughter of a very prominent House. Sure, Alerie Hightower became the Lady of Highgarden, and her sister Alysanne the wife of Lord Arthur Ambrose, but less fortunate daughters Denyse and Leyla marry a younger son of House Redwyne and Ser Jon Cupps (my - admittedly entirely personal - headcanon about his being the Knight of Vinetown would make him a vassal of a vassal, hardly a great match). We see this happen outside Oldtown as well, with Jocelyn Stark marrying a younger son of House Royce and Alys Arryn marrying a younger son of House Waynwood (and her youngest daughter marrying a knight of the Waynwood’s vassal House Hardyng). Lynesse might have been exceptionally beautiful (at least to lovestruck Jorah), but it was probably unlikely she would win a lord to wed, especially a lord sworn to a paramount House and who controlled an entire island.
It’s also worth noting the context this betrothal happened in. I mentioned before that Jorah was the champion of the Tourney of Lannisport, but he had more going for him than just being the winner. He had just been knighted, by the king himself, for exceptional valor during the siege of Pyke. He was a vassal of the king’s closest friend, Lord Eddard Stark, and with those credentials might have been expected to rise high in the latter’s, and possibly the former’s, favor. He had just beaten seasoned tourney riders and even Ser Jaime Lannister - one of the most talented knights of his generation. Jorah was the hero of the hour, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Leyton thought he had an up-and-coming tourney hero in his prospective son-in-law. Lord Jorah Mormont, military hero, favored vassal, renowned victor of the lists, with his Hightower lady fair giving him her favor - there were worse marital fates for Lynesse, Lord Leyton might have thought.
So yes, House Mormont is not wealthy, or even a particularly powerful vassal House to the Starks (they’re not the Manderlys, to be sure, unless someone gets on building Baywatch over there). But Jorah had a promising and (hopefully) growing resume - a lord in his own right, leal vassal of the king’s closest friend, a prospective tourney champion. With Lynesse unlikely to win a lord of equal standing otherwise, and the rules of chivalry pressing him to assent to the match, Lord Leyton might have thought the marriage a fair bargain, all things considered. It didn’t turn out that way, of course, but hindsight something something.