The king doesn’t know what his hand is doing
As I make my way through rereading the A Song of Ice and Fire books it’s becoming increasingly clear that the role of the King’s Hand is not what it was intended to be. I can’t speak for every Hand or every Hand mentioned in the books because I’m not as informed as I’d like to be on the entire history of Westeros but I do think there’s a recurring pattern with most of the Hand’s we encounter: while the Hand is always supposed to be in near perfect synchronicity with the king, what the Hand really is is someone with much of the king’s authority who acts independently of the king.
Warning, spoilers below the fold…I just finished a chapter in A Storm of Swords where King Stannis’s Hand, Alester Florent, is imprisoned for trying to treaty with Lord Tywin Lannister. Keep in mind that Florent, Stannis’s Hand, had tried to end the war for Stannis by writing a letter offering that Stannis would give up his claim to the Iron Throne in return for a pardon. Florent was caught before the letter could get to Tywin though.
Hypothetically, there’s nothing unusual about correspondence between Joffrey and Stannis through these channels. The Hand is supposed to act on the king’s behalf. But Florent is imprisoned because he decided to make the offer to Tywin without Stannis’s permission. To be fair, it’s not certain what Tywin would have done if he had received the letter. If Tywin went to King Joffrey with it Joffrey probably would have rejected the offer. That’s likely why Florent addressed it to Tywin instead, because he knows that Tywin would be much more likely to accept the offer in the face of Joffrey’s wishes. This isn’t the first time Tywin has acted without his king’s permission either. And therein lies the truth about the role of the Hand, it’s a position with great power that does not consistently use that power to enforce what the king always wants.
In this respect, Tyrion was much like his father when he was the Hand prior to Tywin. Tyrion spent a great deal of his time acting as a rogue Hand of the King —arranging marriages, appointing officers to the City Watch, arresting the High Septon, thinking up and preparing an effective defense of King’s Landing for Stannis’s attack. Tyrion wants to do justice, as he says, and he knows that he won’t be able to do that if he does exactly what the Hand is supposed to do: whatever the king wants.
To be fair, with both Tywin and Tyrion, the dynamic between the king and the King’s Hand is a little bit different. Joffrey is an irascible and idiotic teenager and everybody knows it. Nobody in his family thinks he’s capable of making decisions that are actually good for the realm. They have to follow with Joffrey’s wishes sometimes so the people continue to think Joffrey really is the king in power as well as name (read: beheading Ned Stark) but that’s just a farce. In actuality both Tyrion when he’s Hand and Tywin are the ones with the real power. Tyrion, because he’s older and is appointed by Tywin, and Tywin because he’s got the army and gold to back up his orders. The real king isn’t Joffrey, it’s Tywin.
Neither of the previous Hands to Tywin and Tyrion are an exception to this rule either. Without going into too much detail about Stark’s poor decisions that lead up to his death (which has been done to death people. Come on, let’s move on!), it’s not hard to prove that he wasn’t exactly acting in unison with King Robert. If he was, the result probably would have been very different. Investigating Jon Arryn’s murder was probably something Robert would be curious about if he had known, true, but Stark looked into it and eventually, the lineage of the rest of the royal family, without Robert’s knowledge.
One could say that Stark was doing it in the name of the realm and because he knew it would be something Robert would want him to do but that’s only theoretical. Robert never actually tells Stark to investigate Arryn’s murder and then who Joffrey’s real father is, Stark does it on his own which, again, isn’t actually that unusual for the Hand of the King. It’s a similar story with Arryn as well. Arryn doesn’t tell Robert what he’s up to when he’s investigating the king’s family. None of this is actually very unusual for the King’s Hand. They act in the name of the king but oftentimes aren’t acting by the direct wishes of the king.
Older Hands are much the same too. Lord Qarlton Chelsted didn’t agree with King Aerys’s plans to burn King’s Landing to the ground if Robert ever made it there, so he resigned. In other words, Chelsted didn’t agree with the king and didn’t act in line with his orders.
Again, I write this post with hesitation because there have been a lot of Hands of the King but in recent memory, there’s a healthy pattern of the Hand acting without direct authorization or even against the wishes of the king.