15

It is well known that Cotter Pyke is illiterate, and has to seek the help of his Maester to write and read letters:

The note was sealed with a dot of hard black wax. Eastwatch, Jon knew, even before he broke the seal. The letter had been written by Maester Harmune; Cotter Pyke could neither read nor write.

A Dance with Dragons - Jon X

This can be explained by the fact that the Night's Watch allows small folk to rise in hierarchy, so anyone which is, to summarize, a bastard that wields a sword well enough can become a commander:

"You are," Sam agreed, "but Cotter Pyke might serve. It's said he has oft proved himself in battle." He did not mean to offend Ser Denys by praising his rival, but how else could he convince him to withdraw?

"Many of my brothers have proved themselves in battle. It is not enough. Some matters cannot be settled with a battleaxe. Maester Aemon will understand that, though Cotter Pyke does not. The Lord Commander of the Night's Watch is a lord, first and foremost. He must be able to treat with other lords . . . and with kings as well. He must be a man worthy of respect." Ser Denys leaned forward. "We are the sons of great lords, you and I. We know the importance of birth, blood, and that early training that can ne'er be replaced. I was a squire at twelve, a knight at eighteen, a champion at two-and-twenty. I have been the commander at the Shadow Tower for thirty-three years. Blood, birth, and training have fitted me to deal with kings. Pyke . . . well, did you hear him this morning, asking if His Grace would wipe his bottom? Samwell, it is not my habit to speak unkindly of my brothers, but let us be frank . . . the ironborn are a race of pirates and thieves, and Cotter Pyke was raping and murdering when he was still half a boy. Maester Harmune reads and writes his letters, and has for years. No, loath as I am to disappoint Maester Aemon, I could not in honor stand aside for Pyke of Eastwatch."

A Storm of Swords - Samwell V

However, the fact that a commander, ruling a castle is illiterate seems quite odd. Are there any other cases where a Night's Watch commander or any other Lord of the Seven Kingdoms couldn't write/read or is Cotter Pyke's case unique?

24

TL;DR: Those mentioned in my answer are:

  • Davos Seaworth
  • Bronn
  • Amory Lorch
  • Dunk

However, it's likely most lowborn people who come to a higher position later in life are likely illiterate.


As for members of the Night's Watch I couldn't find any explicit case but it wouldn't be surprising to know if they have had an illiterate member in the higher ranks.

"You do it. They have parchment and ink at the Citadel, as well as longbows. I will expect you to continue with your practice. Sam, the Night's Watch has hundreds of men who can loose an arrow, but only a handful who can read or write. I need you to become my new maester."
A Dance with Dragons, Jon II

If we consider First Rangers and Wandering Crows as higher ups/commanders in the Night's Watch then there's probably been a good few among them who were illiterate. Assuming from the known names that if someone has a surname, and so a House, they likely had a Maester's teaching then we have no known illiterate First Ranger but we have a few Wandering Crows who have no House: Conwy, Dareon, Gueren and Yoren.

Opening this up to any Lord we have the case of Lord Davos Seaworth who could not read or write.

Obediently, he selected a paper at random. "It looks handsome enough, Your Grace, but I fear I cannot read the words." Davos could decipher maps and charts as well as any, but letters and other writings were beyond his powers. But my Devan has learned his letters, and young Steffon and Stannis as well.
A Clash of Kings, Davos I

"I am lowborn," Davos reminded him. "An upjumped smuggler. Your lords will never obey me."
"Then we will make new lords."
"But... I cannot read... nor write..."
A Storm of Swords, Davos IV

Davos' case is of course different to most Lords as he was lowborn and rose to be a knight and a lord later on in life so never got a Maester's teachings early on. As this story is likely similar to other people we could probably safely assume Ser Bronn of the Blackwater is also illiterate as mentioned in @dna's answer.

Bronn grinned. "My knightly sigil. A flaming chain, green, on a smoke-grey field. By your lord father's command, I'm Ser Bronn of the Blackwater now, Imp. See you don't forget it."
A Storm of Swords, Tyrion I

Bronn later marries into House Stokeworth and becomes their Lord.

"Bronn put a dagger in his eye, and told me I had best be gone from Stokeworth before the sun went down or I'd get the same. He said he'd pass me around to the g-g-garrison, if any of them would have me. When I ordered Bronn seized, one of his knights had the insolence to say that I should do as Lord Stokeworth said. He called him Lord Stokeworth!" Lady Falyse clutched at the queen's hand. "Your Grace must give me knights. A hundred knights! And crossbowmen, to take my castle back. Stokeworth is mine! They would not even permit me to gather up my clothes! Bronn said they were his wife's clothes now, all my s-silks and velvets."
A Feast for Crows, Cersei VII

In fact it is explicitly stated by Tyrion that Bronn could not read.

That night, when the Red Keep was dark, Bronn arrived to find him sealing a letter. "Take this to Ser Jacelyn Bywater." The dwarf dribbled hot golden wax down onto the parchment.
"What does it say?" Bronn could not read, so he asked impudent questions.
A Clash of Kings, Tyrion X

In the show we also have Ser Amory Lorch who accidentally sent a letter to House Dormand instead of House Marbrand because he could not read it.

Tywin Lannister: Can you read? My lord? Can you read? This letter detailing our infantry movements was meant for Lord Damon of House Marbrand. It was sent to Lord Marlyn of House Dormand.
Armory Lorch: My apologies, my lord.
Game of Thrones, Season 2 Episode 6, "The Old Gods and the New"

As @DariM points out later in the same episode Tywin tells Arya of Jaime struggling to read and so Tywin taught him himself. It also appears from the below that Jaime is dyslexic.

Tywin Lannister: Who taught you to read?
Arya Stark: My father, my lord.
Tywin Lannister: Hmm. I taught my son Jaime to read. The maester came to me one day, told me he wasn't learning. He couldn't make sense of the letters. He reversed them in his head. The maester said he'd heard tell of this affliction and that we simply must accept it. Ha! After that, I sat Jaime down for four hours every day until he learned. He hated me for it, for a time. For a long time. But he learned.
ibid

From this we can infer that low or high born in Westeros not everyone will be able to read even if they have access to a maester's teachings. Jaime can only read now because Tywin did not give up when the maesters had already done so.

In the Dunk and Egg stories we also learn that Dunk, later Lord Commander of the Kingsguard, is illiterate.

The old man had ridden with some of these knights; others Dunk knew from tales told in common rooms and round campfires. Though he had never learned the magic of reading or writing, the old man had been relentless when it came to teaching him heraldry, often drilling him as they rode.
The Hedge Knight

Dunk the lunk, thick as a castle wall. He felt his cheeks reddening again. Gingerly he took the parchment from the maester and scowled at the writing. Not a word of it was intelligible to him, but he knew the wax seal beneath the ornate signature; the three-headed dragon of House Targaryen. The king's seal. He was looking at a royal decree of some sort. Dunk moved his head from side to side so they would think that he was reading. "There's a word here I can't make out," he muttered, after a moment. "Egg, come have a look, you have sharper eyes than me."
The Sworn Sword

  • I don't see how your quotes show Bronn is illiterate. This video offers no conclusive evidence, however makes me think he is not: youtube.com/watch?v=TZGcZ3lT4jY – C.Koca Apr 12 '18 at 9:05
  • Man, you make me ashamed of my laconic answer now... – dna Apr 12 '18 at 9:06
  • 1
    Davos, Bronn, Dunk... There might be some common point here, but I fail to see it ;) – dna Apr 12 '18 at 9:19
  • 1
    At least based on the quoted dialogue, the Amory Lorch example doesn’t seem as convincing as the rest — it sounds more like Tywin sarcastically upbraiding Ser Amory for a stupid mistake, than genuinely questioning his literacy. Does context give more reason to take Tywin literally? – PLL Apr 12 '18 at 16:39
  • 1
    One thing which isn't an actual example is the story Tywin tells Arya in the show - about Jaime Lannister having a reading impairment. Something like that is a very plausible reason for a highborn person (not born to Tywin Lannister who finds it unacceptable) to be unable to read. – DariM Apr 12 '18 at 22:06
9

Our Esteemed members have already mentioned the illiterate characters of lowborn or newly-noble background.

I will therefore stick just to the high lords. House Baratheon is one of most prestigious houses in the Seven Kingdom as Lords Paramounts of Stormlands and heirs to the legacy of House Durrandon and Storm Kings. It might surprise you, one of the Baratheon Lords was illiterate and relied on his Maesters to read him all state documents and correspondence.

That Lord was Borros Baratheon, Grandson to Lady Alyssa Velaryon who was mother to King Jaehaerys I Targaryen from her first marriage. So it is curious that a person descended from the highest and noblest houses of the realm (Baratheon, Durrandon, Velaryon, Targaryen) never learned to read and write at all.

Yet all the witnesses agree on what Lord Borros said and did. Never a man of letters, he handed the queen’s letter to his maester, who cracked the seal and whispered the message into his lordship’s ear. A frown stole across Lord Borros’s face.
The Princess and the Queen

7

Well the most famous is probably Ser Davos Seaworth.
There are multiple scenes/passages describing him learning his letters (to read). Meaning he didn't know how to read at the start of the first book/season.

Of course, this is related to how he earned his rank.

I wouldn't be surprised if Ser Bronn of the Blackwater is illiterate too, for exactly the same reasons.

5

Apparently, it is not that uncommon. We can tell that from the following monologue of Lady Dustin about maesters:

If I were queen, the first thing I would do would be to kill all those grey rats. They scurry everywhere, living on the leavings of the lords, chittering to one another, whispering in the ears of their masters. But who are the masters and who are the servants, truly? Every great lord has his maester, every lesser lord aspires to one. If you do not have a maester, it is taken to mean that you are of little consequence. The grey rats read and write our letters, even for such lords as cannot read themselves, and who can say for a certainty that they are not twisting the words for their own ends? What good are they, I ask you?

A Dance with Dragons, The Prince of Winterfell

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