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In the Season 6 finale of Game of Thrones, we learn that

Jon Snow is not the bastard son of Ned Stark, but is in fact Ned's nephew, by way of his sister Lyanna.

(Okay, to be fair, we don't 100% definitely know this, but it is incredibly heavily implied. So for the purposes of this question, I assume it to be true.)

If that is the case, then why did Ned lie to his wife? Why did

Ned tell Catelyn that he had been unfaithful to her during the campaign, and that this child he brought back was the result of his infidelity?

While I understand that Ned was made to promise to

raise the baby and keep him safe from Robert's wrath, which presumably includes keeping his true parentage a secret from Robert,

what was to be gained from keeping that secret from his wife as well?

It seems that lying to his wife about the baby's parentage did nothing to protect Jon - and in fact, made Catelyn less likely to want to protect him - not to mention the damage it caused in their marriage.

Given all that it likely cost, why would Ned have lied about this to his wife?

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    If Caitlyn had acted more warmly towards the child that was advertised to the world as "Ned's Bastard," wouldn't that have been a dead giveaway to anyone who knew her? Her honest dislike was a necessary part of the lie. – gowenfawr Jun 28 '16 at 16:14
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    Is it clear that he did, in fact, lie to his wife? How do we know she wasn't keeping the secret as well? – MartianInvader Jun 28 '16 at 18:45
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    @MartianInvader From the hatred she showed towards Jon, especially in the episode when Jon is going to NW and comes to bid farewell to Bran, we know she believed him to be her Husband's bastard. There is plenty of evidence in books besides to prove she did not know – Aegon Jun 28 '16 at 20:10
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    @MartianInvader At least in the books, I believe there is a flashback in her mind to the only time she ever saw Ned truly angry with her: when she asked about Wylla, the supposed mother of Jon. If she knew the truth, she would never have asked him about Wylla. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Jun 29 '16 at 12:33
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    @MartianInvader: "When my husband brought that baby home from the war, I couldn't bear to look at him, didn't want to see those brown stranger's eyes staring at me. So I prayed to the gods "Take him away, make him die". He got the pox and I knew I was the worst woman who ever lived. A murderer. I'd condemned this poor, innocent child to a horrible death all because I was jealous of his mother, a woman he didn't even know!... – Matt Burland Jun 30 '16 at 13:27
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Because Eddard did not trust Catelyn enough at the time to tell her about a secret that could lead to murder of Jon and destruction of House Stark. Later the topic just never came up and both of them decided not to bring it up and enjoy a loving marital life. Nothing was to be gained except guaranteed security of Jon. Just a precautionary thing.

To understand this, you must first understand how Eddard Stark and Catelyn Tully got married. Since show did not cover those events, we need to rely on books instead.

Catelyn's betrothal to Brandon & Eddard's interest in Ashara Dayne

Catelyn Tully was initially betrothed to Eddard's elder brother Brandon who was heir to Winterfell (ADWD, Chapter 41, ACOK Chapter 45). Eddard himself was infatuated with Lady Ashara Dayne, sister of the legendary Ser Arthur Dayne (ASOS, Chapter 34). Ashara was considered a great beauty of her time. A very splendid depiction by Elena Maria Vacas can be seen on her page, here.

Brandon's Death and Robert's Rebellion

Fast forward, Rhaegar and Lyanna run away together when the Starks were on their way to Riverrun for wedding of Brandon and Catelyn. Brandon, hot headed and impulsive, was under the impression that Rhaegar abducted Lyanna. He rode to King's Landing with close friends and screamed for Prince Rhaegar to "Come out and die". Prince Rhaegar was not there, but mad King Aerys was. He imprisoned Brandon and summoned his father Lord Rickard Stark to King's Landing. Then he had both of them executed. Then he asked Lord Arryn to send him heads of his wards the young Lords Robert Baratheon and Eddard Stark. Jon Arryn instead called his banners because he loved those boys like his own sons and Robert's rebellion started. (AGOT Chapter 4, ACOK Chapter 55, AGOT chapter 2)

Eddard marries Catelyn

Always dutiful and responsible, Eddard set aside his own wishes for marriage and married a total stranger Catelyn Tully in place of his brother, to secure swords of House Tully for Robert's cause (AGOT, Chapter 6). He did not know her, he did not love her and he did not trust her. He did not even like her at the time, it was Ashara whom he liked.

He could not have married Ashara instead because:

  1. House Dayne was a minor House with less power as compared to House Tully. Rebels faced combined might of The Reach, Dorne and Crownlands. There was no telling which side Lannisters would go but seeing as Tywin was a childhood friend of Aerys II, He may have joined on side of Aerys too. So They sorely needed swords of the Lord Paramount of Riverlands to wage the war. Daynes used to be kings once, but those days were far gone.
  2. House Dayne was vassal of House Martell, who had already declared for King Aerys due to marriage between Princess Elia of Dorne and Prince Rhaegar Targaryen. Thus they were honor bound to follow their liege lord Prince Doran in the war, making them unable to help the rebels.
  3. Help from House Dayne would have been very little, if any. Had they joined forces with Rebels, they would be trapped between the loyalist forces of Tyrells and Martells who would at once move to fight the Daynes. That itself would put Ashara and her kin in great danger. Lord Dayne would have to be an utter idiot to agree to such an alliance.

After wedding and bedding Catelyn, Eddard went to war.

Battle of Bells happened where combined Forces of Eddard and his father in law saved the trapped Robert Baratheon.

Prince Rhaegar returned from South and died at Trident.

Since Robert was wounded in the battle, Eddard lead a quick charge towards King's Landing, only to find it had been conquered for Robert by the Lannisters. Eddard and Robert had a quarrel regarding the murders of Rhaegar's children but Robert only called them Dragonspawn. A fuming Eddard lead his men further south to fight rest of battles alone. He ended Siege of Storm's End first and then moved further south to Dorne where entire episode of Tower of Joy happened.

Eddard's return from ToJ

When Eddard got back with Jon, he knew he could not trust anyone especially after he saw Robert's reaction to murder of Rhaegar's children(AGOT, Chapter 12). He knew Robert would kill Jon as well if he so much got a whiff of who he was. So he decided to keep it a secret. His friend Lord Howland Reed did the same.

When Eddard got home, his lady wife arrived soon after, the woman he barely knew and thus did not trust enough to divulge such an important secret which would mean death of his sister's only son if the wrong people learned of it. Therefore, Eddard told her before returning to Winterfell that the babe was his bastard child. A lot of men fathered bastard children and such matters are private so no one was likely to pry into it especially when it's bastard of a man like Eddard who was known to be very private, shy and quiet.

Danger of being spied on

With time, Eddard came to love and trust Catelyn but he never divulged that info to her. He probably thought it best to let it be instead of bringing it up again. You never know who is listening in the castles especially with Varys in service of Robert. We know it was wise because Varys had spies in Winterfell and he learnt about the assassination attempt on Bran by Joff's catspaw despite Catelyn trying to keep it a secret.

Catelyn's attempts to learn the truth

Catelyn tried to get the information but Eddard was adamant. There were rumors that Ashara Dayne was the mother of the child so Catelyn decided to confront Eddard. Eddard got very stern with her and told her "Jon is my blood, that's all you need to know". Catelyn got scared of Ned for first and last time in their married life. After that Catelyn never brought up the topic again and Eddard did not either. (AGOT chapter 6)

Ashara Dayne Factor

It is also worth noting that after killing Arthur Dayne at Tower of Joy, Eddard went to Castle of Starfall first, seat of house Dayne. There he gave the ancestral Sword of House Dayne, named Dawn and carried by Ser Arthur Dayne at ToJ, to his(Eddard's, not Arthur's) apparent lover Ashara Dayne and gave her the news of her Brother's death. Mad with grief for her brother (and allegedly losing a child) and the fact that It was Eddard who killed Arthur, Ashara jumped from a tower into the sea and died. So it would make sense that Ned would do anything to avoid mention of Ashara Dayne as it brought back memories that he did not wish to recall ever again.

Ashara was a known alleged lover of Eddard1 who was also pregnant and gave birth to a child2 before her death, rumors started that Ashara Dayne was mother of Jon and she killed herself when Eddard took Jon away from her. Eddard did not deny or confirm these rumors but moved to quell them, especially in his own household. Eddard's weird reaction made many people believe that Ashara was Jon's mother. Apparently Eddard thought it best to give people the impression that Ashara must have been the mother.

Ashara's nephew Lord Edric Dayne met Arya and confirmed that Ashara was not the mother of Jon but he also confirmed that She and Eddard loved each other. (ASOS Chapter 39). Exact quote added because I loved that conversation:

“My father was Ser Arthur’s elder brother. Lady Ashara was my aunt. I never knew her, though. She threw herself into the sea from atop the Palestone Sword before I was born.”

“Why would she do that?” said Arya, startled.

Ned looked wary. Maybe he was afraid that she was going to throw something at him. “Your lord father never spoke of her?” he said. “The Lady Ashara Dayne, of Starfall?”

“No. Did he know her?”

“Before Robert was king. She met your father and his brothers at Harrenhal, during the year of the false spring.”

“Oh.” Arya did not know what else to say. “Why did she jump in the sea, though?”

“Her heart was broken.”

Sansa would have sighed and shed a tear for true love, but Arya just thought it was stupid. She couldn’t say that to Ned, though, not about his own aunt. “Did someone break it?”

He hesitated. “Perhaps it’s not my place...”

“Tell me.”

He looked at her uncomfortably. “My aunt Allyria says Lady Ashara and your father fell in love at Harrenhal -”

Catelyn's resentment

Catelyn was not a bad woman but it is too much to ask of a woman to endure a walking, talking reminder of her husband's infidelity, especially if you know that it wasn't a mere one night fling, the other woman was loved very much by your husband. She knew about Ashara Dayne, even though not for certainty, whom she saw as a ghost who was her rival for Eddard's love. She hated that Ashara's alleged son looked more Stark than her own Son Robb who looked like a Tully. She hated that Eddard loved Jon's mother so much that he would not abandon her son despite Cat's constant pleadings.

Thus she treated Jon with contempt and hatred as any medieval step mother would. As suggested by Gowenfawr, if Ned had told Catelyn, she would have been kind to Jon and everyone would have wondered what was actually at play there even if Varys did not manage to report the conversation in the first place.

Conclusion

Eddard took his vows very seriously and he promised his sister to keep Jon safe. He endured Jeering, mocking and confrontations with his wife but he never put Jon's security at risk by telling his true identity to anyone. Some things are better left buried.

EDIT: I was doing a re-read of AGOT today and found something which I had never thought of much importance until now. In AGOT Chapter 33 Eddard VIII, Eddard thinks this:

Lord Stannis shared the secret Jon Arryn had died for, he was certain of it. The truth he sought might very well be waiting for him on the ancient island fortress of House Targaryen. And when you have it, what then? Some secrets are safer kept hidden. Some secrets are too dangerous to share, even with those you love and trust.

It appears this is hinting towards why Eddard kept Catelyn in dark about Jon's parentage even after he came to love and trust her. This is why I love ASOIAF, on every re-read, you discover something new.


1 There is an alternate theory propelled by Barristan Selmy's memoirs of Harrenhal that it is possible that It was Brandon Stark, elder brother of Eddard, who "dishonored" Ashara Dayne and had the Harrenhal fling with her. It is, in any case, unproven as of now because Selmy uses the word Stark instead of recalling Ashara's lover by his name. Brandon Stark was however that sort of person, a playboy aristocrat. He had an alleged affair with Barbary Dustin as well despite his betrothal so it won't be beyond him to trick Ashara into sleeping with him by lying to her about his intents/feelings and then abandoning her. It is very uncharacteristic of Eddard Stark to "dishonor" a woman and then abandon her. As Robb does most things like Eddard Stark would do, we know he chose to risk his Kingdom and crown instead of "dishonoring" Jeyne Westerling, it may be an indication but as stated already, this is a theory. Canon sources still suggest that It was Eddard, not Brandon.

2. According to Barristan Selmy, Ashara's Child was a daughter who was dead at birth

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    The fact that it was initially a love-less marriage and that the marriage happened so close to when Ned returned with the baby were two factors I had not realized from only watching the show. That definitely makes more sense now. – Paul L Jun 28 '16 at 18:06
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    In hindsight I think Jon being part Targaryen (thus being a potential target of Robert's wrath) was part of the reason Ned tried so hard to get Robert to stop trying to kill Dany and her brother -- if he could convince Robert to stop killing the Targaryens because they were no threat he could, perhaps some day, tell at least some people his secret without putting Jon in as much danger. – Captain Man Jun 28 '16 at 22:16
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    @CaptainMan He did intend to tell Jon the truth someday. As he said to Jon on departure from Winterfell, "When I see you again, we will talk about your mother". So yes apparently he did not mean to keep it a secret any longer. – Aegon Jun 29 '16 at 4:52
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    I think the reason why Eddard must have decided to tell Jon the truth was because Jon had taken the Black. Once you take the black, you abandon all claims to your name, house, and everything else. He just wanted Jon to pledge to NW before the truth comes into the open. But before that could happen, Eddard lost his head. And before that, was perhaps way too busy with unveiling lies of Lannisters. – Sorrel Vesper Jun 29 '16 at 8:40
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    @SorrelVesper That is plausible because if Jon joined NW, Robert would not be able touch him just like he did not seek out Aemon Targaryen. But then we have to consider that Ned was not initially ready to let Jon join the NW, it was his Maester and lady wife who pressured him into accepting it. – Aegon Jun 29 '16 at 8:50
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Eddard too, believed that Lyanna had been abducted by Rhaegar. When he realized the truth, that she had willingly eloped with Rhaegar, and that Jon was the true born son of Rhaegar Targaryen and Lyanna Stark, he was in shock. He vowed to his sister, on her death bed, to protect Jon (Targaryen), and Eddard took all oaths very seriously. The best way for him to protect Jon, from even his friend Robert Baratheon who had asked for the death's of all Targaryen's, was to perpetrate the lie that Jon was his own bastard son. In his mind, telling anyone, even his wife Catelyn whom he did eventually grow to love, would put Jon's life at risk, as well as whomever he confided in, which would break his vow to protect Jon's life. He did intend to tell Jon, but never felt that it was safe to tell even him, and ran out of time.

  • "When he realized the truth, that she had willingly eloped with Rhaegar". Out of curiosity could you explain where this is revealed? – camden_kid Jul 1 '16 at 10:26
  • Wonder what Bobby's grandmother would say about his hatred of Targaryens lol. And if the rumors of Orys Baratheon being a bastard brother of Aegon the conqueror are true, it's even more hilarious. – Aegon Jul 1 '16 at 13:10
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Another point is it's much easier to keep a lie like that if the other party is always pissed at you for it.

If Catelyn knew she would understand and care for Jon, which is very bad for Jon Snow in the end.

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My theory is that, in the books, when this scene will be revealed, a dying Lyanna will ask her brother to make a vow to protect her child and to not tell it's true nature to anyone until the correct time comes, if it do so.

Ned is a character bound to his honor. So bound to his honor to die by it. So he creates the lie of the bastard and hide the truth from everyone, even it's most close relatives, because he swear to do so.

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