The North is traditionally ruled from the castle of Winterfell by House Stark, the oldest of the Great Houses. During the War of the Five Kings the Starks were betrayed and supplanted by their own bannermen, the Boltons, who now rule the North from their own stronghold of the Dreadfort. However, the other northmen have not unanimously accepted this result and the inhabitants of the North have become divided between old Stark loyalists, forces loyal to the Boltons, supporters of the recently-arrived King Stannis Baratheon and those adopting a wait-and-see approach.
Bastards born in the North are given the surname "Snow". Inhabitants of the North are known as Northmen or Northerners. They are sometimes referred to as "wolves", due to the sigil of House Stark.
The North, along with the rest of Westeros, used to be inhabited by the Children of the Forest, a dimunitive race who lived in harmony with nature. Twelve thousand years ago the First Men invaded Westeros via the Arm of Dorne and overran the southern half of the continent. The Children twice used powerful magic to halt the invasion, shattering the Arm of Dorne and flooding the Neck. The ferocity of the Children's resistance encouraged the First Men to negotiate a truce known as the Pact, which gave the First Men all of the open fields and lands of the south and allowed the Children to retain the forests of the north.
Four thousand years after the signing of the Pact, Westeros was invaded by a race of unknown origin called the Others. The Others overran much of the North, but were halted by an alliance of the Children and the First Men. In the War for the Dawn the Others were defeated and driven back into the Lands of Always Winter. Bran the Builder, a mighty leader of the First Men, raised the Wall to bar their return (with the help of the Children) and established a stronghold at Winterfell. He was acclaimed as the first King in the North. Over the next two thousand years, the Children retreated from regular contact with men.
The North is the largest of the regions of Westeros, almost as large as the other eight combined. Its northern border is held to be the Wall. Its southern border is the Neck, specifically the southern edge of the swamps and marshes of that area. It stretches from the Sunset Sea in the west to the Shivering Sea in the east.
The North is covered by open plains in the south (most notably in the region known as the Barrowlands), lakes in the west (in the area known as the Rills) and dense forest in the north, most notably the huge Wolfswood in the north-west. There are significant chains of hills and low mountains in several areas of the North, with a more extensive chain of mountains located in the north-west. This chain is the southern part of the Frostfangs range, but is divided from them by the Milkwater and the Gorge.
The North's main river is the White Knife, which flows from the Long Lake down to the sea. The North's only major city, White Harbor, is located on the mouth of the White Knife. Other notable rivers of the North include the Weeping Water and the Broken Branch.
As well as White Harbor, the North only holds one settlement large enough to be a town, Barrowton. Most settlements in the North tend to be castles (often with an accompanying village), small villages and hamlets or farming communities.
The North is sparsely populated due to the long winters, which can be devastating. Because of this, the North only has a population - and a military - comparable to the Vale the Riverlands, despite being considerably larger.
The North's total military potential is estimated at around 45,000 troops. However, because of the North's vast size gathering such a force would take many months. In addition, during the winter the amount of manpower required to keep the castles and towns fed and warmed reduces this amount considerably. At the outset of the War of the Five Kings, Robb Stark was only able to muster 20,000 troops in a hurry. During the War of Conquest, King Torrhen Stark was only able to raise 30,000 troops despite having several months to do so.
The North has very few knights, due to the majority of the population not following the Faith of the Seven. However, it does have a strong cavalry tradition, with northern heavy cavalry reckoned to be the equal of any southern knight. The ratio of foot to horse in the North's armies is usually about four to one.
Before the outbreak of the war, the North only had a very small fleet based at White Harbor. The North has lacked any strength at sea since Brandon the Burner, a former King in the North, scuttled the North's fleet several centuries prior to Aegon's invasion. However, during the War of the Five Kings Bran Stark granted Lord Wyman Manderly's request to construct a new, more powerful fleet. This fleet is nearing completion at White Harbor, augmenting the North's ships by several dozen brand-new large galleys and warships.
The North follows the religion of the Old Gods of the Forest.