In Part 1, we examined the historical and political circumstances surrounding the choice of a bride for Rhaegar Targaryen, Prince of Dragonstone. Having reached his majority without Queen Rhaella producing a viable sister for him to marry, Rhaegar needed to find a consort outside of the Targaryen line.
Yet Aerys found himself faced with doubtful or nonexistent choices on every side. The king was unwilling to ally himself with any noble Westerosi house, especially if the head of that house happened to be Tywin Lannister. His mission to the Free Cities had not only failed to provide a Valyrian-blooded bride for his son, but also cost him his friend and cousin Steffon Baratheon. With few options left to him, Aerys finally settled on Elia Martell, only daughter of the reigning Princess of Dorne.
A Dornish Bride: The Choice of Elia
Elia Martell (image credit to Duhi – DeviantArt here)
Why did Aerys choose Elia? While we cannot know the ultimate answer, we can speculate.
Maester Yandel, author of The World of Ice and Fire, believed that it was Dornish service in the War of the Ninepenny Kings which won Elia her prince:
Dorne continued to be closely allied with House Targaryen in the years that followed, with the Martells supporting the Targaryens against the Blackfyre Pretenders and sending spears to fight the Ninepenny Kings on the Stepstones. Their loyal service was rewarded when Rhaegar Targaryen, Prince of Dragonstone and heir to the Iron Throne, took to wife Princess Elia Martell of Sunspear, and sired two children by her. (“Dorne Against the Dragons”, The World of Ice and Fire)
It’s not an unreasonable answer, but it may be too simplistic. After all, Hoster Tully, who had served in the war (and whose brother had distinguished himself with his battle prowess) also had an eligible daughter, Catelyn, betrothed to Brandon Stark the year after Rhaegar gained his majority. The answer lies deeper than a simple reward of loyalty.
Dorne had been a thorn in the Targaryens’ side for the first century and a half of their rule on the continent. Fiercely independent, the principality was the one place the dragons could not conquer. Between Aegon’s Conquest and that of Daeron I there remained an uneasy peace between King’s Landing and Sunspear. When the Young Dragon invaded, however, the Dornish again resisted Targaryen invasion, ending in the betrayal and murder of the conquering Daeron.
The second Daeron, however, knew as the first did not the power of winning wars with quills and ravens. By wedding his only sister Daenerys to Maron, Prince of Dorne, Daeron ensured that Dorne would bend the knee to the Iron Throne. But it was a relaxed fealty, with Dorne keeping its reigning Prince (or Princess), its Rhoynish laws and customs, and its equal primogeniture.
These two characteristics – the Martells’ Targaryen descent and their relative independence within the realm – may answer why Aerys saw Elia as a suitable choice. A Dornish princess would have few if any allies outside of Dorne (in fact, the principality had a long and bitter history with its near neighbor the Reach). Nor was Dorne the most powerful of realms of Westeros:
“Dorne is the least populous of the Seven Kingdoms. It pleased the Young Dragon to make all our armies larger when he wrote that book of his, so as to make his conquest that much more glorious, and it has pleased us to water the seed he planted and let our foes think us more powerful than we are, but a princess ought to know the truth. Valor is a poor substitute for numbers.” – Doran Martell, to Arianne Martell (“The Princess in the Tower”, A Feast for Crows)
Unlike the wealthy and dominatingly forceful Westerlands under Tywin Lannister, unlike the North-Riverlands-Vale-Stormlands power bloc coming together during this period, Dorne had little to offer in the way of potential resistance to the Iron Throne (and its paranoid king). The Targaryen-descended Elia was therefore a suitable, if lately chosen, match for the heir to the Seven Kingdoms.
A Good and Gentle Woman: Elia, Princess of Dragonstone
So it was to the Dornish Princess Elia that Rhaegar Targaryen was wed, in 280 AC. Neither had wed for love, and it is clear that Elia inspired no passion in her princely husband:
“Princess Elia was a good woman, Your Grace. She was kind and clever,with a gentle heart and a sweet wit. I know the prince was very fond of her.”
Fond, thought Dany. The word spoke volumes. – Barristan Selmy, to Daenerys Targaryen (“Daenerys IV”, A Dance with Dragons)
Even Daenerys can see how un-passionately Barristan describes their relationship – and this the best estimation from a noted Targaryen loyalist.
Strangely, though, Elia did manage to inspire passion in at least one man – her brother Oberyn. Though his presence is brief in A Song of Ice and Fire, Oberyn’s strongest and most constant theme is vengeance for his beloved, murdered sister. This love is prominent from the first moment we see Oberyn, when Tyrion greets him just outside the capital:
“As children Elia and I were inseparable, much like your own brother and sister.” – Oberyn Martell, to Tyrion Lannister, “Tyrion V”, A Storm of Swords
Indeed, Oberyn’s memories are laced with fond recollections of his sister and the warm relationship they had:
“After all the wonderful whispers, Lord Tywin’s Doom turned out to be just a hideous red infant with stunted legs. Elia even made the noise that young girls make at the sight of infants, I’m sure you’ve heard it. The same noise they make over cute kittens and playful puppies. I believe she wanted to nurse you herself, ugly as you were.”
“Elia found it all exciting. She was of that age, and her delicate health had never permitted her much travel. I preferred to amuse myself by mocking my sister’s suitors. There was Little Lord Lazyeye, Squire Squishlips, one I named the Whale That Walks, that sort of thing. The only one who was even halfway presentable was young Baelor Hightower. A pretty lad, and my sister was half in love with him until he had the misfortune to fart once in our presence. I promptly named him Baelor Breakwind, and after that Elia couldn’t look at him without laughing. I was a monstrous young fellow, someone should have sliced out my vile tongue.” – Oberyn Martell, to Tyrion Lannister, “Tyrion V”, A Storm of Swords
Even Doran, her elder brother, ordinarily regarded as having little passion for anything, shows a surprising amount of care for her, and shares with Oberyn a strong desire to avenge her:
“When the raven arrived with word that my mother had been brought to bed a month too soon, I was old enough to understand that meant the child would not live. Even when Lord Gargalen told me that I had a sister, I assured him that she must shortly die. Yet she lived, by the Mother’s mercy. And a year later Oberyn arrived, squalling and kicking. I was a man grown when they were playing in these pools. Yet here I sit, and they are gone.” – Doran Martell, “The Captain of the Guards”, A Feast for Crows
“You mistake patience for forbearance. I have worked at the downfall of Tywin Lannister since the day they told me of Elia and her children. It was my hope to strip him of all that he held most dear before I killed him, but it would seem his dwarf son has robbed me of that pleasure.” – Doran Martell, “The Princess in the Tower”, A Feast for Crows
“Oberyn was ever the viper. Deadly, dangerous, unpredictable. No man dared tread on him. I was the grass. Pleasant, complaisant, sweet-smelling, swaying with every breeze. Who fears to walk upon the grass? But it is the grass that hides the viper from his enemies and shelters him until he strikes. Your father and I worked more closely than you know… but now he is gone.” – Doran Martell, “The Watcher”, A Dance with Dragons
So we as readers are left with two divergent pictures of Elia: the good and gentle, but only fondly regarded, Princess of Dragonstone; and the fun-loving, more human sister held dear by two brothers, both of whom have dedicated themselves to avenging her, and one of whom sacrificed his life to do so. Why has this disconnect arisen?
To understand how these two different views of her character developed, we need to understand Elia’s upbringing. As a Princess of Dorne, Elia would have spent much of her childhood in the Water Gardens, the paradisical palace built by the first Daenerys Targaryen. Here, children of all ages and ranks of society play together in the pools and on the beach:
A few of the older children lay facedown upon the smooth pink marble, browning in the sun. Others paddled in the sea beyond. Three were building a sand castle with a great spike that resembled the Spear Tower of the Old Palace. A score or more had gathered in the big pool, to watch the battles as smaller children rode through the waist-deep shallows on the shoulders of the larger and tried to shove each other into the water. Every time a pair went down, the splash was followed by a roar of laughter. They watched a nut-brown girl yank a towheaded boy off his brother’s shoulders to tumble him headfirst into the pool.” – “The Captain of the Guards”, A Feast for Crows
“… Ellaria and her daughters are happily ensconced at the Water Gardens. Dorea stalks about knocking oranges off the trees with her morningstar, and Elia and Obella have become the terror of the pools.” He sighed. “It has not been so long since you were playing in those pools. You used to ride the shoulders of an older girl . . . a tall girl with wispy yellow hair . . .”
“Jeyne Fowler, or her sister Jennelyn.” It had been years since Arianne had thought of that. “Oh, and Frynne, her father was a smith. Her hair was brown. Garin was my favorite, though. When I rode Garin no one could defeat us, not even Nym and that green-haired Tyroshi girl.”
“That green-haired girl was the Archon’s daughter.” – Doran Martell, to Arianne Martell, “The Princess in the Tower”, A Feast for Crows
It is a place of peace, a temperate place, a place where former residents can look back on their time there with nostalgia. As a girl of delicate health (as both Oberyn’s and Doran’s quotes above noted), Elia likely would not have been the most fearsome of the players of Westeros’ version of chicken. However, she had as her companion and virtual twin her fierce brother Oberyn, and even without the rough games Elia would have been surrounded by similarly aged children, potential friends all.
Then, from warm Dorne and the constant companionship of Oberyn (and the more distant, but still caring, Doran), Elia traveled to King’s Landing, to wed Prince Rhaegar. Having grown up literally surrounded by companions and always having her brother by her side, Elia found herself the wife of a very distant, introverted man:
“Did you know my brother Rhaegar as well?”
“It was said that no man ever knew Prince Rhaegar, truly.”
“As a young boy, the Prince of Dragonstone was bookish to a fault. He was reading so early that men said Queen Rhaella must have swallowed some books and a candle whilst he was in her womb. Rhaegar took no interest in the play of other children. The maesters were awed by his wits, but his father’s knights would jest sourly that Baelor the Blessed had been born again. – Barristan Selmy, to Daenerys Targaryen, “Daenerys I”, A Storm of Swords
Rhaegar was not without men with whom he was friendly, but the only man he seemed to have trusted as his confidante was Arthur Dayne:
“Myles Mooton was Prince Rhaegar’s squire, and Richard Lonmouth after him. When they won their spurs, he knighted them himself, and they remained his close companions. Young Lord Connington was dear to the prince as well, but his oldest friend was Arthur Dayne.” – Barristan Selmy, to Daenerys Targaryen, “Daenerys I”, A Storm of Swords
The Prince of Dragonstone had never trusted him as he had trusted Arthur Dayne. Harrenhal was proof of that. – “The Kingbreaker”, A Dance with Dragons
Yet even with this close relationship, Rhaegar was still a melancholic man:
“But I am not certain it was in Rhaegar to be happy.”
“You make him sound so sour,” Dany protested.
“Not sour, no, but . . . there was a melancholy to Prince Rhaegar, a sense . . . ” The old man hesitated again.
“Say it,” she urged. “A sense . . . ?”
” . . . of doom. He was born in grief, my queen, and that shadow hung over him all his days.” – Barristan Selmy, to Daenerys Targaryen, “Daenerys IV”, A Storm of Swords
Nor did it help their marriage that, soon after their lavish wedding, Rhaegar took his new bride to his seat of Dragonstone. The isolated, imposing castle could not have been more different from Elia’s childhood home in the warm, joyful, populous Water Gardens:
Dragonstone was grim beyond a doubt, a lonely citadel in the wet waste surrounded by storm and salt, with the smoking shadow of the mountain at its back. – Maester Cressen, “Prologue”, A Clash of Kings
There was nothing delicate about Elia’s married life: not her introverted, unhappy husband, nor her suspicious, paranoid father-in-law, nor her bleak, barren new home. That the princess had managed to make any sort of success of her marriage – such that Rhaegar grew “fond” of her and Barristan could compare their match positively with that of Aerys and Rhaella – speaks to Elia’s strength of character. The princess would need such strength for the trials ahead of her.
Mother of Dragons: Elia and Her Children
Princess Elia and Prince Aegon (image credit to Elia Mervi – DeviantArt here)
Elia may have been a fair lady and an upstanding princess, but these qualities mattered little in comparison to her first duty: that of bearing Rhaegar an heir.
Marriage and childbearing go hand-in-hand in Westerosi culture, for good reason. When noble and royal succession depends on continuation of certain bloodlines (and especially having male inheritors of those bloodlines), the ability of a consort to bear her husband an heir is a primary feature to consider when selecting a bride. While evaluating her son’s new (and unapproved) bride Jeyne Westerling, Catelyn Stark partly justifies the match in her mind based on the girl’s seeming ability to bear children easily:
She was pretty, undeniably, with her chestnut curls and heart-shaped face, and that shy smile. Slender, but with good hips, Catelyn noted. She should have no trouble bearing children, at least. – “Catelyn II”, A Storm of Swords
As the sound of the rain on the roof mingled with her father’s breathing, she thought about Jeyne. The girl did seem to have a good heart, just as Robb had said. And good hips, which might be more important. – “Catelyn III”, A Storm of Swords
Nor was childhood survival guaranteed, even of noble and royal babies. Alys Arryn, sister of Lord Jon Arryn, had married Elys Waynwood and given him eight daughters before producing a son, Jasper; however, due to a childhood injury, a potential future ruler of the Vale died at the age of three. Even in our own world, during the Tudor period of English history, perhaps 14% of children would die before reaching their first birthday.
Elia would have been well aware of the need for her to give her husband an heir. As noted in Part 1, the days of having a plenitude of Targaryen princes (enough to send one, Aemon, to the Citadel, so far down in the succession was he) had disappeared by the reign of Aerys II. The entire Targaryen succession depended on Rhaegar and his younger brother, Viserys; if both of them should die, the male line of House Targaryen would come to an end (assuming Prince Maegor, son of Maekar’s second son Aerion, had already perished without legitimate male issue).
Additionally, unlike the Martells (whose male and female issue enjoyed equal succession rights), the Targaryens had never allowed females a place in the line of succession. A bloody civil war, the Dance of the Dragons, had been fought over the very issue, with the male-line Aegon II eventually triumphing over his elder half-sister (and Viserys I’s designated heir), Rhaenyra. At both of the succession-related Great Councils, the attendees had favored the male-line claimants over the female, dismissing the children of Rhaenys Targaryen (daughter of Jaehaerys I’s eldest son Aemon) in 101 AC and Vaella Targaryen (the “simple” daughter of Daeron “the Drunken”, the late king’s eldest son) in 233 AC.
Yet knowing the need for her husband to have a male heir and actually producing one would prove two very different concepts for Elia. Jon Connington coldly summarized Elia’s childbearing history:
Elia was never worthy of him. She was frail and sickly from the first, and childbirth only left her weaker. After the birth of Princess Rhaenys, her mother had been bedridden for half a year, and Prince Aegon’s birth had almost been the death of her. She would bear no more children, the maesters told Prince Rhaegar afterward. – “The Griffin Reborn”, A Dance with Dragons
There is some personal animosity here – Jon Connington, romantically interested in Rhaegar, had little sympathy for the woman who lived with Rhaegar intimately – but the facts are correct. For her near-fatal efforts, Elia had had two children: a daughter, Rhaenys, and the all-important son, Aegon.
No reader of A Song of Ice and Fire should be surprised that the two births nearly took Princess Elia’s life. Death in childbirth is a fact of life in Westeros, an unfortunate occasional consequence of the “woman’s war”:
“Knights die in battle,” Catelyn reminded her.
Brienne looked at her with those blue and beautiful eyes. “As ladies die in childbed. No one sings songs about them.”
“Children are a battle of a different sort.” Catelyn started across the yard. “A battle without banners or warhorns, but no less fierce. Carrying a child, bringing it into the world . . . your mother will have told you of the pain . . .” – Catelyn Stark, to Brienne of Tarth, “Catelyn VI”, A Clash of Kings
Nor does the reader lack examples of this unfortunate fact. Joanna Lannister, who had previously given birth to healthy twins, died at the birth of her second son, Tyrion. Minisa Whent, wife of Hoster Tully, gave birth to four sons (as well as two daughters), but the last of these cost her her life (and only one other, Edmure, survived infancy). Queen Rhaella herself had produced only two (eventually three) surviving children of at least 11 pregnancies; this last pregnancy was Rhaella’s last, as she died shortly after Daenerys’ birth.
Childbirth was a dangerous business, no less so in our world than in Westeros. Medieval mothers would be advised to confess their sins before their confinement, and would be expected to make provisions for her child in the event she should not survive the birth. Nor had a mother passed all the dangers of birth once the child was born; the general lack of hygiene which plagued medical practice in the medieval and early modern period could prove fatal. Jane Seymour, third wife of Henry VIII, gave birth to Edward VI, but died not a fortnight later from a wound she received during birth becoming infected. Even if a mother survived the birth, she might be scarred for life. Lady Margaret Beaufort, mother of Henry VII of England, had her son when she just 13 years old; she and the child survived, but the birth was so physically traumatic on her still-developing frame that Lady Margaret never had another child, even with two further husbands.
For Elia, then – almost uniformly described as a “delicate” woman – childbirth would have been regarded with considerable discomfort, if not outright alarm. Nor was the reality more comforting. The birth of her eldest child, Princess Rhaenys, had been very physically difficult, and compounding the physical trauma, Elia may may well have suffered a sense of dynastic failure; as a girl, Rhaenys was ineligible to inherit. Luckily for Elia (and Rhaegar), not only did she survive her next birth, but she at last produced the much-needed son, Aegon.
Bearer of Prophecy: Elia and the Prince that was Promised
Aegon, as it proved, was more than simply the newest scion of House Targaryen and heir to his father Rhaegar. Rhaegar had come to believe that his newborn son was in fact the long-foretold prince that was promised.
You will remember from Part 1 that the woods witch who came to court with Jenny of Oldstones prophesied that the prince that was promised would be born from the line of Aerys and Rhaella. Rhaegar had initially believed himself to be the prince that was promised, but according to Maester Aemon (with whom Rhaegar was in communication), a certain sign convinced him otherwise:
“Rhaegar, I thought … the smoke was from the fire that devoured Summerhall on the day of his birth, the salt from the tears shed for those who died. He shared my belief when he was young, but later he became persuaded that it was his own son who fulfilled the prophecy, for a comet had been seen above King’s Landing on the night Aegon was conceived, and Rhaegar was certain the bleeding star had to be a comet.” – Maester Aemon, to Samwell Tarly, “Samwell IV”, A Feast for Crows
How Rhaegar justified the rest of the prophecy – namely, being born amidst smoke and salt – we are not told. Yet it is clear that Rhaegar believed his son was the fulfillment of this prophecy, if one of Daenerys’ visions from the House of the Undying in Qarth is taken as a factual representation of events:
Viserys, was her first thought the next time she paused, but a second glance told her otherwise. The man had her brother’s hair, but he was taller, and his eyes were a dark indigo rather than lilac. “Aegon,” he said to a woman nursing a newbown babe in a great wooden bed. “What better name for a king?”
“Will you make a song for him?” the woman asked.
“He has a song,” the man replied. He is the prince that was promised, and his is the song of ice and fire.” – “Daenerys IV” A Clash of Kings
Naturally, we cannot know for certain whether this event – Rhaegar revealing to Elia that their new heir was also the heir to a millennia-old hero prophecy – actually took place, or at least to the extent that it is depicted here. Nevertheless, that Maester Aemon knew of Rhaegar’s changed decision, from himself to his son as the prince, speaks to at least some somewhat-public declaration from the Prince of Dragonstone. Rhaegar may not have told Elia at the moment of Aegon’s birth, or however long after Targaryen parents name their child, but as the mother of the foretold savior of the Targaryens and humanity, it would seem that Rhaegar would have accorded at least some respect to his consort.
Recall from Part 1 the deep trust Targaryens historically placed on prophecy, and the action they would take to ensure that prophecies were fulfilled. Rhaegar made a strong statement in his belief in his son being the prince that was promised when deciding on his name:
“There was a woman in bed with a babe at her breast. My brother said the babe was the prince that was promised and told her to name him Aegon.”
“Prince Aegon was Rhaegar’s heir by Elia of Dorne,” Ser Jorah said. “But if he was this prince that was promised, the promise was broken along with his skull when the Lannisters dashed his head against a wall.”
“I remember,” Dany said sadly. “They murdered Rhaegar’s daughter as well, the little princess. Rhaenys, she was named, like Aegon’s sister. There was no Visenya, but he said the dragon has three heads.” Daenerys Targaryen, to Jorah Mormont, “Daenerys V”, A Clash of Kings
“Aegon” was not simply the most common regal name of Targaryen kings. Rhaegar was explicitly naming his son after not just any Aegon, but the Conqueror himself. The prince that was promised was meant to be a warrior; the individual born to be him, though only an infant, would take as his model the greatest king, with the fiercest dragon, of any in the Targaryen line. Aegon the Conqueror had forged a new nation where one had not been before; his descendant, namesake, and prophesied scion would defend that nation, and all nations, in a glorious war for humanity itself.
Yet if Elia hoped to take pride in the fact that her blood ran through the veins of a prophesied savior, she was to be disappointed. Daenerys made note, both in the House of the Undying and after, of Rhaegar’s strange disquiet even at his son’s naming:
He looked up when he said it and his eyes met Dany, and it seemed as if he saw her standing there beyond the door. “There must be one more,” he said, though whether he was speaking to her or the woman in bed she could not say. “The dragon has three heads.”
Rhaegar’s insistence that “there must be one more” seems to indicate his belief that his children would be a reborn version of Aegon and his sisters (the three of them being the origin of the Targaryens three-headed dragon sigil). To what extent Rhaegar had also dreamed of a dragon with three heads is mere speculation. You will recall from Part 1 that Targaryens had been afflicted with dreams of dragons – usually representing living Targaryen individuals – since at least the time of the Blackfyres, and likely before. Rhaegar could well have dreamed such a dream, this one with a three-headed dragon; certainly, by the time of his daughter Rhaenys’ birth, Rhaegar seems to have decided on naming his children to fit his predetermined destinies for them, as a new and greater Conquest generation.
Yet one sticking point remained: Elia, near death after the birth of Aegon, could not risk another pregnancy without it likely being fatal. Rhaegar had his heir, the Targaryen succession was secured … but the dragon had only two heads, not three. To complete his vision, Rhaegar would need to father a child on another woman; however, so long as Elia remained alive, she remained the only means for Rhaegar to get legitimate offspring.
Rhaegar was faced with a decision of duty. There was his duty as a prince, to remain faithful to his princess and the mother of the next heir to the throne. Contrasting this was what Rhaegar saw as his duty as one burdened with prophecy, to fulfill his vision of the dragon with three heads. Like his grandfather and great-uncles, he would have to make a choice, and like their choices, his would end in love and tragedy.
In Part 3, we’ll investigate Lyanna Stark and her part in her father’s “southron ambitions”.