Holding the Throne: A Political Analysis of Aegon I

Aegon I Crowned by the High Septon, Artwork by Michael Komarck

In a two-plus year military campaign, Aegon I forged the single largest kingdom since Old Valyria, a feat never before equalled by a single conqueror. From the Wall to the Dornish Marches, there was one man and one throne in charge of a kingdom some four million square miles in size.

After his campaign, however, he was left in charge of a large and particularly quarrelsome kingdom, with grudges and blood feuds that went back to the Age of Heroes, and Aegon was left with the unenviable task of keeping this kingdom together. In this, he was tremendously successful: His actions propped up a dynasty that lasted for nearly three hundred years. Through war and peace, famine and plenty, the Targaryens led Westeros for 283 years. With geniuses and fools, warriors and scholars, the dynasty saw a range of colorful characters, most of whom managed to impart some part of their unique personalities onto the institution of the Iron Throne as a whole. For in-universe observers and for out-of-universe readers, each offers a lesson of leadership, even if it’s a cautionary tale of what not to do when in charge of a country.

Welcome to the first multi-author essay series for Wars and Politics of Ice and Fire, entitled: “The Three Heads of the Dragon: Kings, Pretenders, and the Ladies of Fire.” This series will take a comprehensive look at the Targaryen dynasty from inception to bloody demise, examining their strengths and weaknesses to better understand who they were, why they made the decisions they did, and the impact they had on Westeros as a whole. Militant_Penguin, Nfriel, and I will each take one aspect of the dynasty, and cast the analytical eye that War and Politics of Ice and Fire is known for upon those who fall under its critical gaze.

For my part, I will be focusing on the first head of the dragon, the actual kings who sat the Iron Throne, and specifically, the ones whose ascent to the Throne was acknowledged as legitimate (meaning that the Half-Year Queen and Trystrane Truefyre do not count, even though both sat on the Iron Throne and issued edicts as ruling monarch). Even without these colorful characters, there are still a wealth of things and characters to scrutinize. From Aegon I to Aerys II, these kings undoubtedly had widely differing politics and political philosophies, and naturally, these would shape much of what would happen in Westeros during their tenure.

The Personality of a Ruler

“Aegon Targaryen himself, strangely, was as much an enigma to his contemporaries as to us.” The World of Ice and Fire, the Conquest

Aegon ruled the kingdom for thirty-seven years. Among the Targaryen dynasty, only the Old King Jaehaerys I would sit the throne longer, and his reign was characterized by domestic peace and a good relationship between the Throne and its principal vassals. So whatever Aegon did to keep the rule together, it clearly worked well. But what type of man was this 2-year conqueror and 37-year king?

The World of Ice and Fire gives us our first overview of the type of person that Aegon I actually was, and he is an interesting case study. He was, according to the text, a skilled warrior and dragonrider, yet only seemed to partake in these activities for practical purposes. He was disinterested in chivalric tournaments or hunting, two common pastimes of nobility in his day. Neither was he known to be a musician or interested in courtly entertainments.

Indeed, he seemed to be remarkably introverted, having many followers but only one close friend, his rumored bastard half-brother Orys Baratheon. While such aloofness was seen as a detriment for monarchs like Aegon III or Aerys I, Aegon used this introverted personality to his advantage, employing his slight-removed presence to awe his subjects and keep the peace. By keeping a distance, his presence and his deeds worked to complement and amplify each other, rendering him truly larger-than-life. A unique deed and a detached personality invokes excitement and mystery, and that gave Aegon a sense of majesty to help cow his vassals into awed submission.

Of course, Aegon could – and did – act in wroth as well. He was noted to dominate his vassals when necessary, and his military campaign proved he was willing and able to use his dragon to force the issue, should the need arise. During the latter part of the First Dornish War, Aegon acted in fierce anger in what would be called the Dragon’s Wroth after the death of his sister-wife, Rhaenys, at the Hellholt. He burned every Dornish hold at least once save Sunspear, the reasons behind which are mysterious as they are myriad. His actions suggest that Aegon was not incapable of emotion or all-too-human expression, but such instances seem to have been  the exception rather than the rule. When the Wyl of Wyl took the sword-hand of his best friend Orys, for example, there was no great provocation as there was when Rhaenys was slain in Hellholt.

In this, Aegon is very similar to another Targaryen who many ascribe was among the greatest to ever emerge from that storied lineage: Rhaegar Targaryen. Both men had few close friends and were known to be quiet, withdrawn people. Aegon was an accomplished swordsman and Rhaegar was known to be very skilled with the lance, but neither seemed interested in the adrenaline that came with battle or martial sport. Both maintained aloof personalities that invoked awe and mystique from their contemporaries. Both were exceptionally driven by their fixation, almost to the point of obsession, Aegon by the unification, Rhaegar by the Prince that was Promised prophecy. Even in their mistakes, one of their principal failings was the disregard for what others thought about their place in their visions, and that led to much bloodshed and the loss of many loved ones. Aegon managed to survive the curveball thrown at him, though the stakes were much lower. The two bear lots of striking similarities, but the key difference that undoubtedly left Aegon to live to old age and Rhaegar to die young was that the former keenly understood practicality, even if he didn’t always practice it. The latter was idealistic to a fault, and his inability to compromise his circumstances with his vision cost him his life.

Speaking the Language: Assimilation and the Danger of Overreach

Heraldic banners had long been a tradition among the lords of Westeros, but such had never been used by the dragonlords of Old Valyria. When Aegon’s knights unfurled his great silken battle standard, with a red three-headed dragon breathing fire upon a black field, the lords took it for a sign that he was now truly one of them, a worthy high king for Westeros.” The World of Ice and Fire, The Conquest

Even charisma, however, can only go so far. The kingdom was composed of three major religions, four different ethnic groups, eight different historical kingdoms, and a storied history of bloodshed and conflict. Blackwoods and Brackens had fought since time immemorial, or so both claim. The Riverlands were conquered by Stormkings and Iron Kings, the Starks and the Arryns fought over the Sisters – rocky islands of little use – for generations. Any king would have great difficulty in managing the difficult tensions that would rise from these fractitious kingdoms becoming a single entity.

In this, Aegon used a curious tactic, one that was not seen very often in Westeros’s time: assimilation. Aegon, himself ethnically Valyrian and one who lived in a household who practiced Valyrian-style traditions such as sacred incestual marriages, elected not to make sweeping changes to make his new holdings in Westeros more Valyrian in nature. There would be no new revival of the now-extinguished Valyrian Freehold, as was attempted when Volantis attempted to unite Essos under its banner. Indeed, Aegon fought against Volantis’s attempts to revive the Valyrian empire by joining a coalition against the triarchs in the later part of the war.

Instead, Aegon Targaryen chose to become more Westerosi, in culture and in governmental style.  At his coronation, he elected to take a sigil for his house – a practice totally unknown in the Freehold, but highly symbolically important to the noble houses of Westeros. Governmentally as well, Aegon adopted Westerosi practice. The Freehold of Valyria was not an autocracy, but theoretically a democracy of the elite, where any landholder was given a voice in government; in practice, however, the dominant dragon-controlling families ruled the Freehold as an oligarchy. These families had the military, economic, and sorcerous powers to establish a stranglehold on the power of the Freehold.

In contrast, by establishing himself as the one king in the Westerosi fashion, Aegon ensured that he would always be the top man in his domain. The feudal model of government had one overlord and a clear top-down hierarchy that would appeal more to Aegon’s idea of ‘one realm, one king.’ There would be less rivalry, less politicking, and fewer problems that a dragon could not solve with an autocratic model of government. That he would also be the sole, uncontested ruler of Westeros would serve him well from a practical point of view as well.

Few other Targaryen rulers would need to practice this tactic, as all of the rest of the Targaryens who would hold the throne would be born in Westeros and raised Westerosi. Even if they still practiced blasphemous marriages, they were natives. However, following the dynasty’s ouster, two claimants would be exposed to an entirely foreign culture. One would assimilate well, the other would resist stubbornly and be killed for it, speaking to the merits of fitting in. When courting the Dothraki for support to retake their throne, Daenerys Targaryen would be married to the mighty Khal Drogo. In a short period of time, Daenerys would take on many characteristics of the Dothraki, including their tongue and titles, and thrive in a position of power as khaleesi. By contrast, her brother Viserys would spit upon the Dothraki as ignorant savages for what he saw as barbaric and ignorant ways. He would ride in a cart, which would be considered standard treatment by the Westerosi but worthy only of scorn by the Dothraki horselords, who always rode upon steeds. He would continue to wear fine clothing until it rotted to rags from the intense weather and constant riding. And in the end, Viserys would be killed for showing such disdain for the Dothraki traditions that he drew steel in a place held so sacred that combat among even these pugilistic people was forbidden. Daenerys’s adaptability kept her alive where Viserys died ignobly.

This is matched in conventional history in the history of the British Isles, a key source of inspiration for Martin’s Westeros. Since ancient times, the native Britons were invaded and conquered by many peoples. The Romans of the Roman Empire, the Saxons, the Vikings, the Danes, and the Normans would all be, at some point, labelled the conquerors of the Isles, but the English always seemed to incorporate traits of their conquerors while maintaining their own cultural identity. The Saxons would eventually become the Anglo-Saxons in Britain, culturally distinct from the continental European Saxons. The Norman invaders would adopt many principles of Anglo-Saxon governance, and one hundred years after William’s invasion, marriage between Norman and Anglo-Saxon households was the norm, not the exception. Aside from an infusion of French words into the English lexicon, business proceeded as usual.

“[Did Aegon Targaryen convert to the Faith as a political maneuver?]

yes” -Chat with George R.R. Martin, So Spake Martin, 27 July 2008

Aegon, much like Duke William of Normandy, was still a foreign conqueror. He was not Westerosi-born (Dragonstone did not count, being the personal seat of the Targaryens since before the Doom of Valyria) and held no familial ties to any Westerosi houses. Once again, Aegon elected to become more Westerosi, this time by adopting the predominant religion of Westeros, the Andal Faith of the Seven. Aegon was known to have a sept on Dragonstone, though this sept might have been for the sake of the residents of Dragonstone than for his own personal religious fulfillment. Martin mentioned that Aegon had converted to the Faith for political purposes, which fits in line with his greater strategy of assimilation to be more readily seen as a palatable overlord.

Religious conversion to satisfy the general public is found throughout medieval history, and one of the best examples is found in King Henry IV of France, popularly called “Good King Henry.” Raised as a Protestant, Henry IV found himself thickly embroiled in the French Wars of Religion, a Catholic-Protestant war that ravaged France for 35 years. Despite his earlier military campaigns, where he led Protestant forces against the Catholic League, Henry famously converted to Catholicism to win over the French people, a significant majority of whom were Catholic. He would later issue the Edict of Nantes, ending the religious war by promoting secular unity and granting significant rights to Protestants. Henry IV understood the powerful unifying effect of converting to a majority religion, and so did Aegon I.

Six maesters were often in his company to advise him upon the local laws and traditions of the former realms, so that he might rule in judgment at the courts he held.” -The World of Ice and Fire, Aegon I

In matters of state, Aegon deferred to local law and custom when he was issuing judgments during his royal progress. With maesters to advise him of local custom, Aegon issued judgements on matters as if his conquest never existed, honoring the laws that the previous kings of the realm had issued during their reigns. The law continued as usual, and for the smallfolk and nobility both, this was very comforting. These notions of the familiar would offer some sense of continuity and ease any tensions of dramatic legal shifts that could spell a sudden loss of fortune. It showcased a certain respect that Aegon held for Westerosi custom. Few things inspire civil revolt more than the contempt from those in power, and few things inspire civil loyalty more than when the public feels genuinely respected by the person in charge.

By including maesters in his consultation, he showed his respect for the Citadel as an institution, and the Citadel would be a vital pillar to prop up Aegon. In theory, the maesters were sworn to whomever held the castle which he was assigned. The Maester’s Oath is almost necessary given the amount of damage a disloyal maester could inflict to a House. A disloyal maester could withhold critical messages, give away vital intelligence, offer ruinous advice masked as sage council, even intentionally practice bad medicine to kill lords at their most defenseless. The Maesters were one of the only pan-Westerosi institutions predating the Conquest, and having them on his side, Aegon automatically gains a common connection with every house in Westeros rating a maester. When Aegon asked a maester for advice, he showed that he valued the intellectual elite of Westeros, and when the maester offers insight on a Westerosi custom that Aegon uses in his decision, the lords and peoples of Westeros that know and understand these customs feel valued, and it helps keep the people satisfied and content with Aegon’s overlordship.

These actions all speak to a certain amount of political realism and self-awareness in Aegon’s actions that many overlook, focusing on his (mostly) brilliant campaign and not on the 37-year reign that followed. There is an inevitable resentment simmering beneath the surface that many conquered peoples feel, especially if the conqueror is wholly foreign, with a different tongue, custom, or model of governance. By taking on many Westerosi characteristics, the reign becomes more comfortable. His dragon Balerion and his reputation as a seasoned battle commander provided an implicit threat of retaliation that could keep the vassals in line, but his skillful application of familiar trappings made the bitter pill easier to swallow.

Hand-in-Hand: Delegation and Constituency-Building

“Surround yourself with the best people you can find, delegate authority, and don’t interfere as long as the policy you’ve decided upon is being carried out.” -Ronald Reagan

Aegon’s governmental style, in contrast to his autocratic model, seemed to be founded on delegation of tasks to capable subordinates, while he, as king, would step in when he felt it necessary. This sort of ‘hands-off’ style of management seems to be at odds with the king’s grand ambitions of ‘one realm, one king.’ Reason would dictate that if he desired to be the sole ruler of Westeros would be a bit more active in ruling the kingdom, but Aegon seemed to only step in when he felt it necessary.

In many things, he put his faith in his subordinates to handle matters. Orys Baratheon, as Aegon’s closest friend and a capable military commander in his own right, would handle the difficult task of bringing infantry into Dorne during the First Dornish War via the Boneway, but Aegon did not merely leave delegation to his close friend. His sister-wives too, would have important tasks entrusted to them. Rhaenys would sit the Iron Throne and handle domestic affairs, particularly womens’ affairs. Visenya would manage the appointment of the first Kingsguard and oversaw much of the construction of the Red Keep while Aegon was away. Torrhen Stark would be tasked with putting down the Sunderland revolt with ships from Braavos, Harlan Tyrell was given command of the army after Aegon left Dorne the first time, and the list continues. What was the purpose behind such a management style? Was Aegon disinterested in rule? Or did it speak to a sound and cunning political strategy to ensure the stability of his reign? I argue that the it is most definitely the latter. Aegon’s continual pattern of delegating responsibility to his subordinates was the lynchpin for his 37-year rule.

Though he dealt harshly with rebels and traitors, he was open-handed with former foes who bent the knee.” –The World of Ice and Fire, the Conquest

One of the most overlooked concepts of Aegon I’s model of governance, and one that countless kings and modern politicians get wrong, is the idea of investing your constituents in the continued success of the political regime. Daeron II so badly botched this during his reign that it gave rise to the First Blackfyre Rebellion, Viserys I left two factions so unsatisfied that civil war – the Dance of the Dragons – followed almost immediately after his death, and Maegor lost so much support thanks to his brutality and continual war that no one came to his aid when Jaehaerys I rose in revolt against him. By contrast, Aegon I made investment into his vassals a significant portion of his governmental policy. This practice, combined with the overwhelming force he could bring to bear with Balerion, offered the perfect blend of carrot-and-stick diplomacy (a model that the Old King would later successfully emulate) that his reign and relationships with his principal vassals were largely trouble-free, despite having a long war with the Dornish and simmering resentments over being conquered.

Aegon’s principal vassals could be divided into three categories: his initial supporters from before the Rebellion, the Crownlander houses who swore fealty to him directly, and the Lords Paramount of the various regions which were either conquered or peacefully assimilated into his new nation. To those in the first category, Aegon offered high and important positions in his cabinet, his proto-Small Council. While the actual positions of the Small Council would not be formally established until Jaehaerys I as one of the Old King’s many nation-building bureaucratic reforms, Aegon relied on advisers to handle matters. By being principal advisers to the King, these men would have considerable influence over affairs of state, lending them great power and the prestige that naturally followed, and investing them in the success of the regime by making them an integral part of it.

“Why should someone go to Harvard when they can get a degree from their local community college? There is great prestige in receiving your knighthood from a king, a prince, one of the Kingsguard or other celebrated, legendary knights. Getting knighted by a brother is like kissing your sister (we’ll leave Jaime Lannister and the Targaryens out of that comparison) and getting dubbed by the local hedge knight is like graduating from barber college.” -So Spake Martin, 30 July 1999

For the second group, the personal swearing of oaths to the king himself, a symbolic elevation of their position to ones equal to Lord Paramount, would be sufficient. Rosby and Stokeworth would swear their oaths just like the Arryns or Lannisters, despite their more meager holdings and humbler lineages. To keep this symbolic elevation, however, the king they swore their feudal oaths to would have to remain in his position, otherwise, they could quickly be subsumed by any of their larger, more powerful rivals. This symbolic prestige is not mere smoke and mirrors; swearing oaths to the king directly, instead of swearing to a principal vassal who themselves swore to the king, meant a great deal in a feudal society. It was the third group of Lords Paramount, however, that was Aegon’s most creative political move that he ever made.

His Lords Paramount numbered seven: Arryn, Baratheon, Greyjoy, Lannister, Stark, Tully, and Tyrell. Two of these houses had been elevated to their position during the Conquest, ensuring their loyalty. House Baratheon was founded by Aegon’s closest friend, Orys; crucially, he had married into the ancient line of the Storm Kings, House Durrendon, gaining their holdings, sigil, words, and – most importantly – a tie to the former royal bloodline. With some bloodlines thousands of years old by the time of the Conquest, Orys’ connection to the bloodline of the storm kings ensured that his rule gained the necessary appearance of legitimacy to the Westerosi.

The Greyjoys were also elevated to their position, but not by Aegon himself. Instead, in 2 AC Aegon chose to have the Ironborn elect their own senior leader, at which point Vickon Greyjoy was selected at the Lord Paramount of the Iron Islands. While this seems a small matter, the Ironborn have a cultural tradition of electing their senior leaders unlike the Andals, Rhoynish, or First Men. Though this tradition had died out with the rise of House Greyiron, Aeron Damphair proves that this tradition still smolders within the hearts of many Ironborn in A Feast for Crows. By allowing them a Lord of their own choosing, Aegon smoothed tensions with the Ironborn while neatly filling the void left by the death of every Hoare claimant. Whether Aegon was respecting the kingsmoot tradition or simply didn’t wish to be bothered with selecting a Lord Paramount for the Iron Islands isn’t clear from the text, but his handling of this matter was a political masterstroke.

This left houses Arryn, Lannister, and Stark as the three remaining houses to be won over, and all three were old, prestigious houses. Any one of these three could command tens of thousands of troops if need be, and all three of these houses wore crowns in their own right before the conquest, unlike the other four. Aegon’s solution was simple: confirm the lands they already held as kings, now as Lords Paramount, and offer them the position of Warden, one of four commanders-in-chief of the levies of Westeros. This was a singular honor in Westeros’s society, as Westeros was a martial culture who considered military command to be one of the traditional duties of nobility. By making these three Wardens of the East, North, and West, he confirmed that their honors would always be among the highest, and similarly, investing them in the continuity of the regime. The Wardenships guaranteed that there would always be glory for the Arryns, Lannisters, and Starks, always chances to seize renown as the commander-in-chief during any crisis. The position of the South would go to the Tyrells (commanders of the sizeable Reach levies) to reward them as well, leaving these four men equal in prestige (in theory) to Orys Baratheon, Aegon’s “strong right hand,” a vassal who commanded not only a region, but an important special duty as well. Through this investment of power, Aegon smoothed over some of the lingering tensions that would help ensure that as long as Aegon reigned, these Lords Paramount would not revolt.

It wouldn’t be perfect, but politics never is, especially with so many different cultural groups. But it most certainly worked well enough for Aegon to rule securely for almost two generations.

House Martell Troops in the Marches, Artwork by René Aigner

The Dornish War

If there is a fault to lay at Aegon’s feet, his failure to conquer and incorporate Dorne into his realm is most certainly it. For most of the Conquest, Aegon would prove to be most effective in utilizing his dragon to win victory on the battlefield, but his Dornish campaign was an appalling failure. He lost his favored sister-wife Rhaenys, his champion would lose his sword hand, and his Warden of the South would vanish into the desert. His holdings would suffer too, as the Dornish would attack Oldtown, Nightsong, and King’s Landing itself in stealthy raids designed to maximize damage and body count before blending into anonymity, even Visenya and Aegon coming under attack on some occasions. The fact that the royal person could be threatened in his own capital city would severely erode Aegon’s authority and power, and was a calculated PR move on Dorne’s part to highlight their power despite their numerical inferiority.

Aegon’s failing in this is not his warmongering, but his tactical and strategic inflexibility. After all, if simply bringing war and death was unequivocally a fault, then his entire conquest save the acquiescence of the North and the second half of the Vale campaign would be the only commendable parts of it. However, Aegon was left baffled by a foe who utilized a completely different rules of engagement. The Dornish tactics left Aegon with no targets for his dragon, and their effective use of their native terrain to launch ambushes and to use as cover crippled the offensive power of the Westerosi army.

Much of warfare is developing tactics and strategy to defeat opponents. When one side fields a new and effective technique, formation, or piece of equipment, the opponent must develop new techniques, formations, or equipment to counter the advantage their enemy has over them. In that sense, warfare is also waged in the cerebral spheres of generals and field commanders, even down to the individual unit leader. This warfare is a battle of ideas turned into action, and versatility and the ability to adapt to rapidly changing circumstances are considered one of the finest traits that a military leader can offer his side in war. Here, Aegon demonstrated a failure that many established and veteran leaders find themselves caught in, a refusal to admit that their established tactics were not working on the fundamental level, acknowledging their failure, and changing their plan of approach.

As discussed in my previous essay, the Dornish used Fabian tactics to delay Aegon, allowing him to burn what he wished, crown himself as he wished, and waited until his royal duties drew him elsewhere before striking in dramatic fashion, eliminating Aegon’s appointed officers in surgical strikes before disappearing from view again. The similarities between the Second Punic war do not end there. During the Dragon’s Wroth, Aegon burnt holdings that he found except for the Martells, and the Dornish Marches sent letters to the Dornish lords declaring that the Martells sold out the rest of Dorne to spare Sunspear the dragon’s flame. This tactic was attempted by Hannibal, who constantly being stymied by Rome’s Fabian tactics, burnt holdings he found except ones that belonged to Fabius, hoping to make Roman landholders believe Fabius cut a deal with Hannibal to spare his own fortune while using him to diminish the power of his political rivals. It didn’t work for Hannibal, and it didn’t work for the Marcher lords either.

Both sides continued to escalate the war, neither side wanting to give any ground in what became a competing battle to see which side couldn’t stomach an even greater atrocity against innocents. It was a negative feedback loop. One side would commit an act of butchery, the other side would escalate as both vengeance for the previous act and desire to prove their willingness to sustain the war. This would harden the first side, and the process would repeat itself ad infinitum. That Aegon was unwilling to change his tactics, to accept that he needed a new strategy, cemented his defeat at the hands of the Dornish. The letter that the Martells sent demanding peace was merely the final chapter of a novel whose ending was telegraphed since the beginning.

Charles V of France enters Paris, by Jean Fouquet

I’m Still Here: The Use of the Royal Progress

“…he worked together to knit the realm with his presence…” –The World of Ice and Fire, Aegon I

When Aegon concluded the First Dornish War, he was known to devote half of his time to the royal progress. During these, he would tour the countryside with a glittering train and entourage. He would visit principal vassals in their keeps, but he would also stay under the roofs of lesser lords, landed knights, and even common tavern and innkeepers, honoring them all with his royal presence.

It is true that a royal procession was an occasion of much pomp and circumstance, but it is foolish to dismiss the event as mere ceremony. When a king in the Middle Ages traveled, he brought many things with him to ensure continuity of rule wherever he was. Steven Attewell illustrates several of the duties that a traveling court would be expected to perform and why it is such a large beast. Outside of the realm of official duties, however, the royal progress was a chance for the king to demonstrate his wealth and power for his vassals to see. Frequent progresses with large and splendid trains meant the realm was doing well and that the king was still in strength and prosperity. Knowing this could renew bonds of loyalty and quell any thoughts of revolt by unruly bannermen.

That Aegon would travel to many different lords would show a distribution of royal favor which, when used wisely, suggested impartiality to his vassals. In a feudal government, houses competed fiercely for royal favor to lend themselves and their houses prestige, but when one house was seen to gain too much influence, it often stoked resentment from other houses. In Westeros, where the Lords Paramount hold far more territory than the crown’s direct administration, striking a balance could mean the difference between seven relatively satisfied great lords and a coalition of angry nobles seeking to get their own. It’s no surprise that a dynasty which won wars against seven kingdoms, the Faith Militant, and the Blackfyre dynasty would lose a war after alienating half of the Great Houses of Westeros, almost 250 years after Aegon’s death.


Aegon the Conqueror is rightly lauded for his conquest to unite Westeros, but in a 39-year political career, the Conquest lasted only two years. While it had great effect on the social fabric of Westeros, the notion of Westeros as a single entity would have sputtered out without Aegon’s brilliant politics to keep it together, like what would almost happen under Maegor the Cruel. With his dragon, Aegon could instill fear and loyalty, but by seeking out councilors and entrusting them with pieces of rulership, he made those charges desire to keep the realm together. By taking charge only sparingly, he struck a happy medium between meddler and absentee king. By spreading royal favor widely and evenly, he ensured that no bannerman become overmighty and upended the careful balance that kept his kingdom together. He wasn’t perfect, of course. Just like how his conquest had setbacks and failures, his rulership was marked with mistakes both slight and major, but for the most part, Aegon was one of the most successful politicians to ever sit the Iron Throne he built.

Aegon the Conqueror was a conqueror, there is no question. But after the Conquest came the rule, and Aegon was a ruler as much as a conqueror.


Filed under ASOIAF Analysis, ASOIAF Character Analysis, ASOIAF Military Analysis, ASOIAF Political Analysis, The Three Heads of the Dragon

23 responses to “Holding the Throne: A Political Analysis of Aegon I

  1. Megalo

    Daeron II was not the guy responsible for the Blackfyre uprising, that was his dad.

    • Sam

      Some people have suggested certain measures that Daeron II failed to take, that could have prevented the rebellion or given it less support. Historical processes are not caused by single actions or people but a combination of factors. While Aegon IV might hold the largest responsibility Daeron II also had a part in it.

    • somethinglikealawyer

      Aegon IV gave them the claimant. Daeron II gave them the constituency.

      • Megalo

        What measures should Daeron II have taken and what do you think he did wrong?

      • somethinglikealawyer

        He did wrong by stacking the court full of Dornishmen while giving them a tremendous amount of rights that the other kingdoms didn’t enjoy.

        He would have benefited by spreading the love a little bit when it came to royal positions. Perhaps if he had offered the rest of the kingdoms one of the same concessions he offered the Dornish, it would have placated the nobles and symbolically let the nobles know that Daeron honored them.

      • Megalo

        For some reason I can’t reply to your 8:33 AM reply, so i’ll do it here.

        I don’t think your measures would have worked or made sense and here’s why.

        I really doubt Daeron just decided to give Dorne all that freedom without reason, I believe Daeron did it because he knew there was no other way Dorne would join the Seven Kingdoms otherwise. They had fough the Targaryens 3 times already, 4 if you count the Rhoynar and the old dragonlords of Valyria.

        There was no reason for Daeron to give the other kingdoms any similar concessions, they had sworn loyalty 200 years ago to Aegon. None of them had been the pain in the ass that Dorne was and they had benefited from the unity that the Targaryens provided during that time (a couple of bad kings notwithstanding).

        Also, how is Daeron stacking the court with Dornishmen any different than what Tywin did when he hooked up with the Tyrells? There were 4 Reachmen on the small council, the new queen was a Tyrell and Loras was a kingsguard.

      • somethinglikealawyer

        If you can’t respond to a comment directly, try looking at it in your WordPress drop-down box (should be on your top-right when you log in). It should give you the ability to reply directly to comments addressed to you.

        It’s mentioned in the World of Ice and Fire that a lot of vassals resented the large number of concessions that Dorne received as well as his stacking of the court.

        60,000 people died in Daeron’s war. Daeron was murdered under a parlay flag. The hero Aemon the Dragonknight was starved and exposed to the elements in a cage. Baelor the Blessed was bitten by snake after snake at the hands of Lord Wyl. To give Dorne so much political power was taken as an insult to all the other families. Those are a lot of wounds that Daeron is carelessly rubbing salt in with his careless distribution of political power.

        Some concessions were necessary to bring Dorne into the fold (treaties are built on compromise), but by giving them so much, then over-representing them at court, and having a Dornish marriage to begin with? The Dornish had far and away the most political power of any kingdom within the Seven Kingdoms. Other vassals could rightly fear questions like ‘would I be represented fairly in the court in a border dispute between myself and the Dornish?’ ‘will policies be put in place that enrich the Dornish at my expense?’

        By having years of high Dornish influence at court, he eroded his power base and gave rise to Daemon Blackfyre’s rebellion.

        As for what makes Tywin and the Tyrell appointments different? It was done during a war. Lannister strength had been nearly spent. They needed the reach to keep their troop counts up and ensure food through the coming winter. The Reach were the only region to come to the rescue, so they get rewarded. For Daeron to do the same in a time of peace? The other lords could easily perceive that as Daeron telling them to get stuffed.

      • Megalo

        I wonder though, how many Dornishmen did Daeron bring to court? I ask because the Maester in The World of Ice and Fire seems quite biased towards the Dornish to begin with. I wouldn’t be surprised if there really weren’t that many Dornish at court to begin with, but the Maester just FELT there were too many.

      • somethinglikealawyer

        It doesn’t give a number, but then again, we don’t have a number for exactly how many royal positions there are. We should take the words as truth though, in absence of any evidence to the contrary.

        After all, Maester Yandel is pro-Lannister, and the Lannisters were on the side of Daeron II.

  2. Do we know any random information that was actually contained in the letter Aegon received at Dorne, finally convincing him to end his attempts to win the region? Besides the World of Ice and Fire, I dont remember hearing anything about this mystery letter…

  3. Very nice, good analysis based what limited canon information we have.

    I would add one observation: it can be more acceptable to be ruled by an outsider then by a neighbor. I don’t understand the psychology of it entirely but people will swallow actions by a stranger that they won’t accept from a rival of their level. Witness the succession of the House of Hanover or King Canute of Denmark and England.

    Later kings were assimilated ‘natives’ and lost much of the awe and supposed impartiality of an outsider, which also have have contributed to later unrest.

    • somethinglikealawyer

      That effect certainly helps explain why the Targs kept getting away with incest.

    • Stargaryen

      well not to hard to figure out. You don’t know the bad and crazy parts of a stranger. They still have the potential to be a perfect being. But you know all the bad things and crazy tendencies of your neighbor. Even if those things are not outrageous.

  4. Somethinglikealawyer, perhaps Aegon I had heard of Churchill’s admonition that he would rather have someone inside the tent pissing out than someone outside the tent pissing in. Also, by delegating so much he turned fearful enemies into those with a stake in the success of kingdom and helped support Aegon’s reign. A very wise move…

  5. Ser Friendzone

    Great piece! This is why I come to WAPOIAF. I went back & reread “Taking the Throne” as a precursor. It’s good to think about all the other aspects to Aegon besides the conquering, since he himself didn’t seem to love the “song of steel” like say Jaime Lannister or Robert Baratheon.

    Ever consider a piece on the disputed Targaryen successions? I think the Great Councils that chose Prince Baelon, Viserys I & Aegon V would be an interesting area to explore.

    I believe Kevin Brown’s line about tent peeing is LBJ, not Churchill. Sir Winston was more refined than that.

    • somethinglikealawyer

      Thanks, I’m glad you enjoyed the piece.

      If you’re excited about more Targaryen moments, I can say that further pieces will be coming for later in the dynasty. I will be talking about Great Councils in the times they come up (and in my next piece on Aenys and Maegor). I can say with confidence that the first two are matters I intend to discuss at length. As for Aegon V, that piece is little more than an outline at present, but I’m fairly sure that there’s enough for me to discuss.

      As for Winston Churchill being more refined, I am assuming you are speaking in relative terms? Churchill had some zingers that could hardly have been called ‘polite company.’

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  9. Now that I can listen to it, I massively enjoyed this. What I love about this essay in specific and this site in general is that you take the drier non-PoV books and make them more interesting and listenable. The PoV style Martin uses in ASOIAF and D&E is so sublime that it’s ruined me for most other approaches to fiction, but the “historian” style of the other novellas and the world book is just so dry. The overall style of this site corrects the problem, as well as adding a depth of historical and political analysis that goes well beyond the source. So … more audio (and more essays) please!!

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