The Night's Watch is a military order dedicated to holding the Wall, the immense fortification on the northern border of the Seven Kingdoms, defending the realms of men from what lies beyond the Wall. The order's foundation dates back to the Age of Heroes, at the time when the Others were pushed back. The men of Night's Watch wear only black, and they are known as black brothers. Recruits who join the Watch are said to take the black. Though the Great Houses and their vassals play the eternal Game of Thrones, there are some who do not. The men of the Night's Watch guard the immense and icy Wall, built in the ancient days of Westeros to hold back the terrible things of the Long Night. The Night's Watch raised nineteen castles to guard the hundred leagues of the Wall, although they have never manned more than seventeen at one time. The castles themselves are closer to garrisons, composed mostly of barracks, stables, storehouses, towers and out-buildings, as they have no walls of their own (other than the Wall itself). They were purposefully built this way so the Watch could man only the Wall itself and focus on threats from the north. The Night's Watch feared no attack from the south because of their vow not to take part in the wars of the Seven Kingdoms. The Night's Watch is one of the oldest orders in the Seven Kingdoms, as it survived the fall of the kingdoms of the First Men, the Andal invasion, and the War of Conquest.
It was founded over 8,000 years ago, at the end of the Long Night. Under cover of an endless night that lasted for a generation, the Others invaded from the Lands of Always Winter, laying waste to much of Westeros, until the Others were finally defeated by the Night's Watch at the Battle for the Dawn. After having pushed back the threat, the Wall was allegedly built by Bran the Builder in order to protect the Seven Kingdoms, should the Others ever return. During the Age of Heroes it was also recorded that the children of the forest gave the Night's Watch a hundred obsidian daggers every year.
Other than the corrupting of the thirteenth Lord Commander, the "Night's King," further attacks by the Others never came, however. Instead, the most frequent attacks came from the wildlings, sometimes led by their Kings-Beyond-the-Wall, and their constant attempts at raiding in the north.
The Lord Commander of the Night's Watch is the final authority and oversees the entire order. Any man of the Night's Watch can be nominated to be the Lord Commander. A Lord Commander serves in office until the day he dies, when a new Lord Commander is elected by the men of the Watch.
The majority of the officers and leadership of the Watch are pulled from the upper crust of Westerosi society. A noble or knighted man is almost guaranteed a position as an officer in the Watch, but there are several powerful and influential brothers that are of common blood. The Watch, as a meritocracy, is one of the few places in feudal Westeros where a common man can rise high and even gain command over knights and lords, rising as far as Lord Commander of the Night's Watch.
Once, serving on the Wall was honor and a sign of selfless devotion to duty, with many knights, honorable men, and nobles taking the black voluntarily. The Night's Watch is now often seen only as a way to avoid punishment, suitable less for knights than for the dregs of Westeros. These men are salvaged from dungeons by traveling recruiters known as wandering crows. Disgraced nobles, bastards, and even the unwanted legitimate offspring of nobles are “encouraged” to take the black, making many of today’s Watch a surly and dissatisfied lot.
Those who come voluntarily are free to leave during any time of their training, but no man may leave after he has said vows. Any deserters are sentenced to death. After taking the vows, the men of the Watch cannot own any land, marry, or father children. Men are also encouraged to sever any ties left with their families, if they are lucky enough to have one.
Men of the Night's Watch are garbed all in black, a tradition that earned them the nickname "crows," particularly among the wildlings, who often call them "black crows." While some use this name derogatorily, many in the Night's Watch have adopted the term for their own use. They are also called "the black brothers," and in song they have been called the "black knights of the Wall."
When the recruits are considered ready to take the black, they say their vows either in a sept or before a heart tree. The vows are as follows:
“Night gathers, and now my watch begins. It shall not end until my death. I shall take no wife, hold no lands, father no children. I shall wear no crowns and win no glory. I shall live and die at my post. I am the sword in the darkness. I am the watcher on the walls. I am the fire that burns against the cold, the light that brings the dawn, the horn that wakes the sleepers, the shield that guards the realms of men. I pledge my life and honor to the Night's Watch, for this night and all the nights to come.”
It is customary to finish a black brother's eulogy with the words, "And now his watch is ended."
The Night's Watch consists of three orders: rangers, builders, and stewards. All are subject to the Lord Commander of the Night's Watch, and each of the three orders is led by its own officer, the First Ranger, the First Builder, and the Lord Steward, respectively. These officers are appointed by the Lord Commander.
Rangers: Although all brothers of the Watch stand watch on the Wall, the rangers are the main fighting force, adept at surviving in the wilderness and tasked with scouting and patrolling the haunted forest beyond the Wall. They actively defend the Wall and ride out to face the Watch's enemies, including the lawless wildlings as well as the mysterious, inhuman Others. One blast of a sentry's horn represents returning brothers, while two blasts are used for wildlings and three blasts for Others.
Builders: The builders are responsible for maintaining the Wall, the castles, and the equipment. They provide masons, carpenters, miners, and woodsmen.
Stewards: The stewards are the largest of the three orders. The stewards are responsible for an assortment of critical functions, providing vital day-to-day services. They hunt and farm, tend horses, gather firewood, cook meals, make clothing, maintain weapons, and conduct trade with the south, bringing back to the Wall all of the supplies needed by the Night's Watch. Like other members of the Watch, the stewards must be ready to fight at a moment's notice, and all have received at least basic combat training. Among the stewards, those with skill in sums or reading or writing might be given specialized tasks as well. Few enough are literate, but the Watch has a purpose for every man. Stewards also serve as attendants and squires for the high officers of the Watch, such as the Lord Commander. In short, the administration of the Night's Watch is in the hands of the stewards.