“Since the legendary victory of Tiber Septim over the “barbarian natives” in the Battle of Old Hroldan, Imperial and Nord scholarship has cast the people of the Reach as little more than savages, prone to irrational fits of violence, worshipping old, heretical gods, and fetishizing beasts and nature spirits that any civilized person would best well avoid.”
This is taken from from the the book The Madmen of the Reach: A Cultural Treatise on the Forsworn as written by Arrianus Arius.You may have heard mention of the Forsworn in the past, without really knowing it, for they go by many different names. In some accounts of Tiber Septim’s conquest they are referred to as the Witchmen of High Rock, sometimes they are the Madmen of the Reach, Reachmen, or the Forsworn. It would be their defeat at the hands of Tiber Septim that would begin a long period of exile from their lands, and the beginning of Tiber Septim’s career as a Commander and (eventually) Emperor.They are a tribal people, mostly composed of Bretons from High Rock. They primarily use primitive weapons made from stone or tusk. They wear mostly furs and pelts as armor, styling themselves after the likeness of wilderness animals. Their appearance and lifestyle often leads more civilized Nords to look on them as primitive, but they have been known to wield powerful nature magic and are masters of insurgent and guerrilla warfare.The Witchmen are a powerful force and, according to some sources, oppose all political systems in Skyrim in the Fourth Era, and wish to drive everybody from their land (Empire and Thalmor alike).
Let us continue with Arrianus Arius’ book, in which she acts as a justifier for the almost universally condemned actions of the tribal group:
“Let us begin with the Forsworn, the so-called “madmen” of the Reach. The Imperial Legion classifies them as little more than brigands, noting their constant raids and ambushes within the Hold. But none of their military reports asks the question of “why?” If they were merely a group of bandits, surely they would be focused on acquiring gold and minimizing deaths among their own. But the opposite is true in Forsworn attacks. Large sums of coin are often left behind, and their fighters easily throw away their lives rather than risk capture by Imperial soldiers.”
Traditionally, the Witchmen have a strong reverence for hagravens who are treated as societal matriarchs. The hagravens are responsible for the ritual that turns a Reachman into a Briarheart, a spirit of vengeance. In said ritual, an individual’s heart is removed and replaced with a Briar Heart, which replaces the individual’s humanity and gives them inhuman strength and resilience. You can witness, or rather interrupt, the ceremony in progress at the Lost Valley Redoubt near Markarth.According to the non-heretical look at Tiber Septim’s early life, when he was twenty years old he leads the invasion of Old Hroldan, in which he takes back the Reach from the “Witchmen of High Rock.” We are left with a bit of a mystery as to how they got there, but we can make assumptions. It is possible that the Witchmen came out of High Rock and settled the area early in Tamriel’s history. Not much has changed for them in the time that has followed, which is why they still use primitive gear. Even after Tiber Septim, however, they are never truly wiped out and, over time, begrudgingly accept the presence of Nords and the Empire. This all takes place over the course of centuries, we must keep in mind, so it’s easy to see that the Reachmen are not really open to change or negotiation. They see an opportunity arise, however, at the beginning of the Great War between the Empire and the Aldmeri Dominion.Noticing that the Empire no longer had the resources to suppress their uprising, the Witchmen revolt in 4e174 and took back the Reach, calling it the Forsworn Kingdom. Despite the violence of the insurgency, the Witchmen ruled their kingdom relatively peacefully. After two years, in fact, they were doing so well that they began the process of seeking out recognition and sovereignty from the Empire. All of this came crashing down, however, when (in that same year) the Empire signs the White-Gold Concordat.So, in 4e176, Ulfric Stormcloak leads a Nord militia against the Witchmen and deals them a fatal blow. Escaped Reachmen settle in the wilderness in any defensible place they can find, but most of the ranking Reachmen are imprisoned, namely Madanach who, after being thrown in the Cidhna Mine, is called the King in Rags.
One might look at the Uprising in two different lights. On the one hand, the Forsworn are simply trying to expel invaders from their homeland which was taken from them eras ago. They are powerful and prideful warriors who will not bend the knee if it risks their sovereignty. On the other hand, Ulfric manages to lead a relatively small militia against them and, with the help of his thu’um, obliterate the Uprising. Perhaps they are not such great warriors, after all. In addition to that, their hatred for the Nords is so great that it seems they will stoop to murdering any Nord, regardless of political affiliation, gender, or even age. The Forsworn in Skyrim tend to attack anybody nearby without provocation. Perhaps it is the dying gasp of breath of a proud and vanishing people, or perhaps they are indeed simply bandits and murderers.
Finally, I would like to close with a quote from Arrianus Arius again, in which she quotes a common Forsworn mantra:
“You want to know who the Forsworn are? We are the people who must pillage our own land. Burn our own ground. We are the scourge of the Nords. The axe that falls in the dark. The scream before the gods claim your soul. We are the true sons and daughters of the Reach. The spirits and hags have lived here from the beginning, and they are on our side. Go back. Go back and tell your Empire that we will have our own kingdom again. And on that day, we will be the ones burying your dead in a land that is no longer yours.”