For nearly 300 years, House Targaryen from Valyria ruled the continent of Westeros. From the Wall in the North to the Broken Arm of Dorne in the south, from Dragonstone in the east to the Iron Islands in the West, the Targaryens – and their dragons – extended their writ over a mix of races and cultures. People who had never been joined by a single monarch, kings whose lines extended back millennia to the Dawn Age, First Men and Andals and (eventually) Rhoynar, all bent the knee to these violet-eyed, silver-haired conquerors from another world. Thus, to understand the history of Westeros, it is critical to understand the history of this dynasty,
So I, along with MilitantPenguin and SomethingLikeaLawyer, present to you “The Three Heads of the Dragon: Kings, Pretenders, and the Ladies of Fire”. This, the first multi-author essay series for Wars and Politics of Ice and Fire, will explore the history of House Targaryen through its most notable individual members. With these essays, we hope to investigate the history of the realm during the reign of the dragonlords, focusing on these men and women’s contributions to Westerosi history.
For my part of this essay series, I will be focusing on the ladies of the dynasty. This essay series will explore those ladies born into the dynasty – the daughters, sisters, wives, and mothers of Targaryen kings – as well as the women who had a great impact on the dynasty’s history. Though little (and less) is known about many of these women, I hope to explore some of the more fascinating members of this family, in order to understand House Targaryen’s rise and fall in Westeros.
The Conqueror’s Beloved
Rhaenys Targaryen (image credit to Roman Papsuev – site here)
First among the Targaryen ladies, and ancestress of them all, is Rhaenys Targaryen, sister-queen of Aegon I Targaryen. Born around 25 BC in the citadel of Dragonstone, Rhaenys was the youngest child and second daughter of Aerion Targaryen, Lord of Dragonstone and head of the last surviving extant dragonlord family of Valyria.
Though the Targaryens were Valyrian expatriates, the family had been well established on Dragonstone for some time. 12 years before the Doom, Aenar Targaryen – led by the prophetic visions of his daughter Daenys – left Valyria forever for his family’s seat on the westernmost outpost of the Freehold, the island of Dragonstone. There the family (with their dragons) ruled as independent lords in the Narrow Sea, closely allied – and intermarried – with their fellow Valyrians, the Velaryons.
It was, in fact, a Targaryen-Velaryon match that resulted in Aegon, Visenya, and Rhaenys. Yet although Valaena Velaryon was herself half-Targaryen, her marriage to Aerion was not the Valyrian ideal:
The tradition amongst the Targaryens had always been to marry kin to kin. Wedding brother to sister was thought to be ideal. Failing that, a girl might wed an uncle, a cousin, or a nephew, a boy a cousin, aunt, or niece. (“Aenys I”, The World of Ice and Fire)
Because Aerion had no sisters – he was himself an only child, and had only two presumably childless Targaryen uncles – he was forced to look outside his immediate family for a bride. Thankfully, for Aerion and his Valyrian tradition, his Velaryon wife gave him not only a son but two daughters. Young Aegon’s marriage prospects seemed assured; he would wed Aerion’s first daughter, Visenya. Unusually, however, even for Valyrians, Aegon chose another route:
By tradition,he was expected to wed only his older sister, Visenya; the inclusion of Rhaenys as a second wife was unusual though not without precedent. It was said by some that Aegon wed Visenya out of duty and Rhaenys out of desire. (“The Reign of the Dragons: The Conquest”, The World of Ice and Fire)
That Aegon had chosen to take both his sisters to wife had certainly not been assured. Though Valyrian custom dictated the wedding of brother to sister, polygamous marriages were hardly the norm:
Some of the sorcerer princes also took more than one wife when it pleased them, though this was less common than incestuous marriage. (“Aenys I”, The World of Ice and Fire)
Why would Aegon take Rhaenys to wife? With the later observation that Aegon spent 10 nights with Rhaenys for each one he spent with Visenya, it seems likely that Aegon had married Rhaenys for love alone.
Though he was not yet a king, Aegon’s decision to wed this woman for love was repeated by kings in both Westeros and our own world. Aegon V, for example, had married Betha Blackwood, his eventual queen, for love in 220 AC:
Aegon V had married for love, taking to wife the Lady Betha Blackwood, the spirited (some say willful) daughter of the Lord of Raventree Hall … When they wed, in 220 AC, the bride was nineteen and Aegon twenty, so far down in the line of succession that the match provoked no opposition. (“Aegon V”, The World of Ice and Fire)
While a king (or even a lord) has little freedom to choose his brides, Aegon’s relatively low position in the succession allowed him this freedom unusual for a royal. Fourth in line for the throne in 221 AC, with two elder brothers who could produce heirs of their own, Aegon felt little pressure to make a great dynastic match (such as he would attempt to force on his own children); a marriage to a highborn lady of the Riverlands was a perfectly acceptable match for a fourth-son-of-a-fourth-son prince.
The love-based marriages of Edward IV and Henry VIII, however, proved less accepted than that of Aegon. Indeed, Edward IV’s marriage to the commoner Elizabeth Woodville, and subsequent preferment of the Woodville relations at court, spurred the Earl of Warwick to rebellion against the king he had helped to make. Frustrated at his inability to arrange a dynastic match for the Yorkist king, Warwick allied with Edward’s brother George, Duke of Clarence and the exiled Henry VI, even restoring the Lancastrian king to the English throne.
Similarly, Henry VIII married for love not once but four times, and each time to a commoner. Though his first marriage had been at its outset loving, the match – to Katherine of Aragon – had been primarily political, an alliance between the Spanish and English monarchies. By contrast, Henry’s long relationship with Anne Boleyn was entirely based on the king’s passion for her; his efforts to undo his marriage to Katherine and marry Anne instead broke England away from the Catholic Church and fundamentally altered English history. Moreover, even during his marriage to Anne, Henry pursued another love, Jane Seymour; his arranging for Anne’s trial and execution allowed him to take Jane for his wife. These marriages, as well as his marriages to Katherine Howard and Katherine Parr, confirmed the king’s desire to break with traditional expectations of royal marriages in favor of love-based matches.
Still, royal marriage remained focused on dynastic alliance between realms, in our world and in Westeros. Though the Valyrians married among themselves, Aegon would surely have been aware of the power of dynastic marriages, especially in the land he hoped to conquer. He himself was no stranger to Westeros, having visited Oldtown, the Arbor, and perhaps Lannisport; a knowledge of Westerosi customs, especially among the nobility (which he would have seen firsthand as a guest of Lord Redwyne) would have naturally followed. Any lord or petty king in Westeros would save his sister as a matrimonial prize to dangle before potential allies; Aegon, however had seized Rhaenys for himself and his own pleasure, against not only Westerosi tradition but even, somewhat, his own.
So who was this Rhaenys that Aegon was so entranced by as to make her his second wife? Maester Yandel, borrowing from his predecessor Archmaester Gyldayn, describes her thusly:
Rhaenys, youngest of the three Targaryens, was all her sister was not: playful, curious, impulsive, given to flights of fancy. No true warrior, Rhaenys loved music, dancing, and poetry, and supported many a singer, mummer, and puppeteer. Yet it was said that Rhaenys spent more time on dragonback than her brother and sister combined, for above all things she loved to fly. She once was heard to say that before she died she meant to fly Meraxes across the Sunset Sea to see what lay upon its western shores. (“The Reign of the Dragons: The Conquest”, The World of Ice and Fire)
For Aegon, a man born to be a warrior-king, Rhaenys represented a perfect complement. Unlike their sister Visenya – herself a natural warrior – Rhaenys had the levity and courtly manners that would later make her a much-loved queen. If men of noble houses married women for tradition and power and kept mistresses for affection and pleasure, Aegon seemed determined to have his cake and eat it, too. Perhaps Aegon, as his Valyrian forebears did, wanted to keep the blood of the dragon pure, unwilling to marry his beloved sister off to a petty Westerosi king. Perhaps he did not wish to shame Rhaenys by keeping her merely as his mistress, thus devaluing her dramatically as a marriage partner. Whatever the cause, Aegon had seized her for his own.
As much as Rhaenys was not a warrior, however, she would participate in the greatest military venture ever seen on the Westerosi continent: Aegon’s Conquest.
The King’s Champion: Rhaenys in the Conquest
Visenya, Aegon, and Rhaenys Targaryen (image credit to Roman Papsuev – site here)
When and where Aegon had developed the idea to claim the Seven Kingdoms for his own, no maester has ever determined. Suffice to say that he did, and that he called principally upon his two sister-wives in order to complete this mission. Certainly,Rhaenys would be invaluable to the Conquest, as she commanded a keystone of Targaryen military power: dragons. With her mount Meraxes, the second largest Targaryen dragon behind Balerion, Rhaenys could bring the awesome firepower for which Valyria had been known to the pre-Conquest kingdoms of Westeros.
Yet Rhaenys’ role in the Conquest was not immediately martial. Having landed with Aegon and their small force, Rhaenys and Visenya immediately set about securing the future Crownlands for the Targaryens:
Rosby yielded to Rhaenys and golden-eyed Meraxes without a fight. (“The Reign of the Dragons: The Conquest”, The World of Ice and Fire)
Aegon had seized the then-unclaimed mouth of the Blackwater for his own seat, yet even with the land abandoned by various kings, he could not hope to hold the three hills above the Rush without subjugating the surrounding lords. That Rosby yielded to Rhaenys without the merest semblance of a struggle speaks to the power – both literal and symbolic – of dragons in Aegon’s campaign. By taking the imposing Meraxes to Rosby, Rhaenys could strike a psychological blow to the Westerosi defenders without ever firing the figurative first shot, ensuring the smooth acquisition of one of the future Crowlander families. Not every challenge in the Conquest would prove so easy, but for the moment Rhaenys had proved herself quite useful to the war effort.
Rhaenys’ next task in the Conquest would also take a symbolic, rather than a simply martial, tone. Having won his first battles, and now counting as his bannermen the Rosbys, Stokeworths, Darklyns, and Mootons, Aegon held a small coronation in his simple Aegonfort:
When Queen Visenya placed a Valyrian steel circlet, studded with rubies, on her brother’s head and Queen Rhaenys hailed him as, “Aegon, First of His Name, King of All Westeros, and Shield of His People,” the dragons roared and the lords and knights sent up a cheer … (“The Reign of the Dragons: The Conquest”, The World of Ice and Fire)
Rhaenys enjoyed an important role in Aegon’s coronation. Visenya might have placed the actual crown on their brother’s brow, but it was Rhaenys who invested him with the royal title. There had never been a single king for the whole continent, but by calling him “King of All Westeros”, Rhaenys had given her brother more royal power than even the actual crowning did; any petty king could have a coronation, but only Aegon claimed the grand title of high king over them all.
Aegon needed that investment of royal authority. By having himself crowned relatively early in his conquest, Aegon asserted that he was not a mere invader from Essos or leader of rebels, but an equal with any of the ancient-bloodline Westerosi kings. With Rhaenys’ proclamation of his title, Aegon had taken the crucial symbolic step of underlining his right to royalty. Rhaenys herself, by her proclamation, had acted effectively as the king’s champion – the knight at a coronation banquet who challenged anyone to contest the king’s right to rule. The new queen was inviting the kings of Westeros to challenge Aegon’s right to be high king of the continent, and those petty kings would not be slow to respond.
Indeed, within days of his coronation, Aegon had dispatched his sister (and his closest friend Orys Baratheon) to take the imposing and impregnable Storm’s End, seat of the Storm King Argilac Durrendon. While Rhaenys had Meraxes with her, the conquest would not be easy. Throughout its storied history, the mighty citadel had never fallen to siege or storm by outside armies. More immediately, Orys Baratheon’s force had been devastated by the Storm King’s bannermen, with Lords Errol, Fell, and Buckler cutting down around a thousand Targaryen soldiers. These stormlords, however, had not considered the new queen or her dragon:
Lords Errol, Fell, and Buckler hid in their familiar forests until Queen Rhaenys unleashed Meraxes and a wall of fire swept through the woods, turning the trees to torches. (“The Reign of the Dragons: The Conquest”, The World of Ice and Fire)
Rhaenys used the very terrain of Westeros against the defenders. In what would later be called the kingswood, the new queen fatally trapped these lords, demonstrating how outmatched traditional Westerosi forces were against Targaryen dragonpower. Against ordinary Westerosi forces, the stormlords’ use of the familiar wooded territory could have been a great tactical advantage, yet Rhaenys turned the advantage into a grave detriment. A dragon does not need to pursue riders on the same level, or engage in the same kind of combat; from the air, Rhaenys could cook knights alive in flame. It was a three-pronged attack: Rhaenys wrought vengeance upon the attackers of Orys, robbed them of familiar territory to use in the future, and struck a healthy dose of fear into the stormlords, who warned King Argilac of the dragon and her rider.
Yet if Argilac thought he could meet the dragon queen’s forces in traditional format, he was destined to be disappointed as well. Before he had even engaged the Targaryen host, Argilac was already at a disadvantage:
The Storm King’s approach was no surprise to Orys Baratheon and his men; Queen Rhaenys, flying Meraxes, had witnessed Argilac’s departure from Storm’s End and was able to give the Hand a full accounting of the enemy’s numbers and dispositions. Orys took up a strong position on the hills south of Bronzegate, and dug in there on the high ground to await the coming of the stormlanders. (“The Reign of the Dragons: The Conquest”, The World of Ice and Fire)
Here again, Rhaenys proved how crucial Meraxes was to the success of the Conquest. A dragon is not merely a fearsome weapon of war; the aerial reconnaissance that can be performed on dragonback cannot be matched by any other mount or device in Westeros. Spying from dragonback, Rhaenys could report the movements of the Storm King’s host without Argilac himself having any way to counter her scouting (as he might have with traditional ground-based scouts).
Even when Rhaenys could not actually fly Meraxes, she helped to turn the tide of battle in the Targaryens’ favor. While Orys (thanks to the information gathered on Rhaenys’ reconnaissance mission) had taken the valuable high ground, blunting the efficacy of Argilac’s heavy horse, the stormy weather had made Orys’ bowmen useless and blinded his warriors to the charges of Argilac’s men. When the Storm King’s forces broke the Targaryen center, however, they found not victory, but Rhaenys and Meraxes. Grounded by the weather, the dragon still proved formidable:
Dickon Morrigen and the Bastard of Blackhaven, commanding the vanguard, were engulfed in dragonflame, along with the knights of King Argilac’s personal guard. The warhorses panicked and fled in terror, crashing into riders behind them and turning the charge into chaos. The Storm King himself was thrown from his saddle. (“The Reign of the Dragons: The Conquest”, The World of Ice and Fire)
While a dragon’s primary advantage in battle is aerial maneuverability combined with firepower, even on the ground Meraxes proved her worth. Still armed with horns, claws, teeth, and – most importantly – fire, Meraxes could unleash a hell no Westerosi had ever faced in battle, providing both literal and psychological scarring against the forces of Storm’s End. It was also a strategic position for Rhaenys to take: the momentum of the charge against Orys’ force was turned in on itself, and any chance of the Durrendon host taking all the hills was utterly destroyed. The turned-back charge allowed Orys to meet Argilac in single combat, and when Orys defeated the last Storm King victory was assured for the Targaryens.
Despite her fundamentally unmartial nature, Rhaenys had shown herself equal to the test of Storm’s End. The next and greatest test for her during the Conquest, however, awaited the three Targaryens in the south, where the King of the Reach and the King of the Rock had joined a massive host to stop the invaders. With 55,000 armed men against his 10,000, Aegon took no chances, and summoned both his sisters for the battle. Once again, the three Targaryens defeated their challengers not by meeting them in traditional combat, but by utilizing their great advantage: the dragons. Against the three dragons, the reacher and westermen could not stand:
Rhaenys and Visenya set fires upwind of the enemy and behind them. The dry grasses and stands of wheat went up at once. The wind fanned the flames and blew the smoke into the faces of the advancing ranks of the two kings. The scent of fire sent their mounts into panic, and as the smoke thickened, horse and rider alike were blinded. Their ranks began to break as walls of fire rose on every side of them. Lord Mooton’s men, safely upwind of the conflagration, waited with their bows and spears and made short work of the burned and burning men who came staggering from the inferno. (“The Reign of the Dragons: The Conquest”, The World of Ice and Fire)
The Field of Fire ended not only the entire male line of House Gardener, but most of the western royal uprising against the Targaryen invaders. Significantly, the Field of Fire was the only battle in the Conquest where all three dragonriders fought alongside each other. Rhaenys had already demonstrated how imposing the sight of Meraxes could be at Rosby, and how deadly Merxaes could be on the ground at Storm’s End. Now, however, image and force joined together to produce Meraes at her full battle power, with no detriment of weather. As with the stormlords in the kingswood, Rhaenys took advantage of the terrain to burn her enemies and send their mounts into a fire-driven panic. Instead of three lords, however, the subjects of the firestorm here were tens of thousands of knights, hundreds of lords, and two kings. The physical and psychological impact the dragons’ attack left on the native Westerosi contenders was certainly enormous, and with the help of Meraxes House Targaryen had gained its most important victory during Aegon’s Conquest.
Yet if the Field of Fire represented the acme of the Targaryens’ – and Rhaenys’ – martial triumph in the Conquest, her subsequent mission in Dorne would be its nadir. Sent to subjugate the most southern of the Westerosi states, Rhaenys found no hosts in Dorne to meet her, save those guarding the entrance into Dorne through the mountains:
A host of Dornish spearmen guarded the Prince’s Pass, the gateway through the Red Mountains, but Rhaenys did not engage them. She flew above the pass, above the red sands and the white, and descended upon Vaith to demand its submission, only to find the castle empty and abandoned. In the town beneath its walls, only women and children and old men remained. When asked where their lords had gone, they would only say, “Away.” Rhaenys followed the river downstream to Godsgrace, seat of House Allyrion, but it too was deserted. On she flew. Where the Greenblood met the sea, Rhaenys came upon the Planky Town, where hundreds of poleboats, fishing skiffs, barges, houseboats, and hulks sat baking in the sun, joined together with ropes and chains and planks to make a floating city, yet only a few old women and small children appeared to peer up at her as Meraxes circled overhead. (“The Reign of the Dragons: The Conquest”, The World of Ice and Fire)
Until this moment, Rhaenys and Meraxes had been a force to be reckoned with in Aegon’s campaign for the continent. On the back of Meraxes, Rhaenys could not only perform swifter, aerial reconnaissance before key battles, but also use the very terrain to her advantage; wherever there were fields or forests, the silver she-dragon had ammunition, either to flush out hidden enemies or fatally trap the masses before her. In Dorne, however, Meraxes’ advantages were nullified. Burning the keeps of the Dornish would do little good when the important residents of those keeps had disappeared without a trace. Few if any targets remained for Meraxes to unleash her fire against (although Rhaenys would not give the Planky Town a reprieve when she next visited Dorne); without a Dornish host, the most Rhaenys could do was scan the empty sands below her.
Even at Sunspear, Rhaenys found the castle abandoned, and her interview with the Princess of Dorne frustrating:
“I will not fight you,” Princess Meria told Rhaenys, “nor will I kneel to you. Dorne has no king. Tell your brother that.”
“I shall,” Rhaenys replied, “but we will come again, princess, and the next time we shall come with fire and blood.”
“Your words,” said Princess Meria. “Ours are Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken. You may burn us, my lady . . . but you will not bend us, break us, or make us bow. This is Dorne. You are not wanted here. Return at your peril.”
Thus queen and princess parted, and Dorne remained unconquered. (“The Reign of the Dragons: The Conquest”, The World of Ice and Fire)
Meria Martell Meets Rhaenys Targaryen (image by Magali Villenueve – portfolio here)
Curiously, The World of Ice and Fire makes no more mention of Rhaenys’ progress in Dorne, and one must assume she returned to her siblings shortly after her meeting with the Princess of Dorne. Why? The Dornish had learned (or perhaps remembered from their Rhoynar past) how to nullify dragons’ advantages. By not forming themselves into a solid force, the Dornish robbed Rhaenys of a target onto which she could inflict Meraxes’ considerable firepower. That Aegon, on the colossal Balerion, assisted Rhaenys during the First Dornish War beginning in 4 AC also likely speaks to why Rhaenys did not continue the assault. Perhaps the queen decided that Dorne was a battle she would pick when Aegon was not distracted with winning the rest of Westeros, and could bring even more fire and blood onto the defiant Dornishmen.
Consort and Regent: Rhaenys as Queen
With Aegon’s coronation and the start of his reign, Rhaenys became co-Queen of the Seven Kingdoms. Their conquest of the Westerosi states (save Dorne) had proven successful, but if Aegon and his sister-wives wished to found a dynasty, they would need to do more than merely subjugate the peoples of Westeros. More comfortable as a queen than as a warrior, Rhaenys dedicated herself to aiding the nascent Targaryen regime. In particular, Rhaenys focused on winning the allegiance of the people of Westeros, particularly the smallfolk:
As the city and its prosperity grew, so did that of the realm. This was in part due to the Conqueror’s efforts to win the respect of his vassals and that of the smallfolk. In this, he was often aided by Queen Rhaenys (whilst she lived), for whom the smallfolk were of special concern. (“Aegon I”, The World of Ice and Fire)
Rhaenys may have simply had a generous personality, yet she was also a woman who understood the importance and image of royal power. Indeed, Rhaenys herself had proclaimed Aegon king, inventing a title for him that had never existed in Westeros. More likely, then, Rhaenys cultivated positive opinion among the smallfolk as another step in her campaign to promote the fledgling Targaryen dynasty.
The role of benefactress of the smallfolk is an attractive position for any queen of Westeros, or even medieval queens in our own world. A lord or king must appear strong, the very image of martial power and justice, in order to inspire respect in his people – not for nothing are two of the three male aspects of the Seven the Father and the Warrior. Yet even as these aspects represent the ideal of a lord, another aspect of the Seven represents the expected role of the lord’s lady – the Mother. The Mother is praised as the “font of mercy”; it is entirely fitting for the wife of a lord or king to beg mercy for those accused, and for her husband to grant this “boon” as a gallant gesture. Thus, in the orchestrated trial of Eddard Stark, his daughter Sansa is cast as the vector through which to deliver mercy:
“As it please Your Grace, I ask mercy for my father, Lord Eddard Stark, who was the Hand of the King.”
“Do you have any more to say?” he asked her.
“Only . . . that as you love me, you do me this kindness, my prince,” Sansa said.
King Joffrey looked her up and down. “Your sweet words have moved me,” he said gallantly, nodding, as if to say all would be well. (“Sansa V”, A Game of Thrones)
“My mother bids me let Lord Eddard take the black, and Lady Sansa has begged mercy for her father.” (“Arya V”, A Game of Thrones)
Likewise, in 1517, Katherine of Aragon demonstrated how a queen could beg for mercy from her lord husband. On May Day of that year, riots had broken out in London, with mobs of apprentices attacking the foreigners settled in the city and looting their homes. The arrested apprentices were brought before the king at Westminster, who condemned them to hang. When these apprentices wives and mothers wept on hearing the news, however, Katherine rose, knelt before her husband, and begged him to spare them. Henry – as conscious of good public relations as his role as the gallant king – accordingly pardoned the apprentices.
Margaery Tyrell also knew the value of good public relations and garnering the support of the smallfolk:
Wherever she went, the smallfolk fawned on her, and Lady Margaery did all she could to fan their ardor. She was forever giving alms to beggars, buying hot pies off bakers’ carts, and reining up to speak to common tradesmen. (“Cersei VI”, A Feast for Crows)
Maid Margery was no fool. A queen who built up a good rapport with the public could count on these same men and women to support her if – and when – she found herself in a dire situation:
I had not considered how the smallfolk might react to this. Margaery has been their little pet. “How many?”
“A hundred or so. They’re shouting for the High Septon to release the little queen. We can send them running, if you like.” (“Cersei X”, A Feast for Crows)
Cersei might have cultivated what she thought was the perfect scheme to remove Margaery from power, but she had schemed without considering public opinion. While Cersei’s public image was largely controlled by highly unfavorable (and true) rumors, Margaery had ensured that the smallfolk saw her as she wanted to be presented, a model gracious queen. Unlike Cersei, then – belittled and humiliated in her public penance – Margaery could count on the smallfolk to rally behind her in her incarceration.
Yet the smallfolk could also play a crucial role against a monarch as well. Aerys and the Targaryens would learn this lesson to their sorrow during the Battle of the Bells in Robert’s Rebellion:
And so he swept down on Stoney Sept, closed off the town, and began a search. His knights went house to house, smashed in every door, peered into every cellar. He had even sent men crawling through the sewers, yet somehow Robert still eluded him. The townsfolk were hiding him. They moved him from one secret bolt-hole to the next, always one step ahead of the king’s men. The whole town was a nest of traitors. At the end they had the usurper hidden in a brothel. What sort of king was that, who would hide behind the skirts of women? Yet whilst the search dragged on, Eddard Stark and Hoster Tully came down upon the town with a rebel army. (“The Griffin Reborn, A Dance with Dragons)
The young, vigorous, and gregarious rebel lord Robert Baratheon had won the Stoney Sept smallfolk to his cause, and the people of the town risked their own lives to ensure that he survived against Jon Connington’s invasion. Against the mad king Aerys, hidden for years in the Red Keep and devolved into a monstrous, paranoid figure, the heroic Robert was able to inspire crucial loyalty in these common people; his victory at Stoney Sept was one of the rebels’ key victories during Robert’s Rebellion.
As someone who knew the power of public image and delicacy of any newly founded regime, Rhaenys would have understood the value of keeping the smallfolk on the side of the dragonlords. Indeed, not only did she seem to care for the smallfolk personally, but ensured that smallfolk across the realm would understand the glory of Targaryen rule:
She was likewise a patron to singers and bards—something her sister Queen Visenya thought a waste, but those singers made songs of praise for the Targaryens and carried them throughout the realm. And if those songs also contained bold lies that made Aegon and his sisters seem all more the glorious, the queen did not rue it . . . although the maesters might. (“Aegon I”, The World of Ice and Fire)
Queen Visenya might have dismissed the importance of singers, but Rhaenys understood the subtle way singers can transmit important political messages. Three centuries after the Conquest, Petyr Baelish would teach Sansa Stark the same lesson on the value of singers:
“I also planted the notion of Ser Loras taking the white. Not that I suggested it, that would have been too crude. But men in my party … slipped a few silvers to Lord Tyrell’s army of singers to sing of Ryam Redwyne, Serwyn of the Mirror Shield, and Prince Aemon the Dragonknight. A harp can be as dangerous as a sword, in the right hands. (Petyr Baelish, to Sansa Stark, “Sansa VI”, A Storm of Swords)
In a land without any kind of mass media, where literacy is confined to the wealthy and elites, singers and bards remain one of the only means by which the common people learn about the history and legends of the Seven Kingdoms. By patronizing singers and ensuring their production of paeans to the Targaryen regime, Rhaenys further guaranteed that the smallfolk would remain firmly behind House Targaryen, now and in the future.
Yet the queen was not merely the beloved of the smallfolk. Rhaenys also helped to win the nobility to the Targaryens’ side:
The queen also did much to bring the realm together through the marriages she arranged between far-flung houses. (“Aegon I”, The World of Ice and Fire)
Though we unfortunately have just one example of the marriages Rhaenys arranged – a betrothal between the former King of the Mountain and Vale, Ronnel Arryn, and a daughter of Torrhen Stark – her very participation in this sort of arranging is notable. It is a point bordering on the banal that in Westeros, marriages between noble houses forge and seal alliances; examples of this conclusion are too numerous to mention.
For Rhaenys, however, such matchmaking took on an even more important cast. Arranging marriages for the nobility at the start of a new dynasty would help establish a ruling pro-Targaryen aristocracy. Consider the arranged betrothal between Sansa Stark and Joffrey Baratheon: a marriage between these two individuals would have resulted in an heir to the throne who was equal parts Stark, Tully, Baratheon, and Lannister – the very houses (save House Arryn) which had formed the backbone of Robert’s Rebellion. Similarly, in our own world, George and Martha Washington arranged a number of marriages among the notable members of the early American republic, most notably that between the Philadelphia widow Dolley Todd and the Virginia congressman James Madison. By arranging a match between the Lord of the Eyrie and a daughter of Winterfell, Rhaenys demonstrated that those who had bent the knee peaceably to the Targaryens would in turn be supported by them; a marriage between two former royals would strengthen both houses greatly, and the spouses’ gratefulness to Rhaenys would – hopefully – be pressed upon their children.
Yet Rhaenys was not merely Aegon’s queen consort. Instead, she ruled for her brother-king while Aegon traveled his new-won realm, delivering judgment to petitioners. In at least one instance, Rhaenys even made an addition to the vaguely defined common law of Westeros:
The “rule of six,” now part of the common law, was established by Rhaenys as she sat the Iron Throne while the king was upon one of his progresses … After deliberating with the maesters and septons, Rhaenys declared that, whilst the gods made women to be dutiful to their husbands and so could be lawfully beaten, only six blows might ever be struck—one for each of the Seven, save the Stranger, who was death. (“Aegon I”, The World of Ice and Fire)
That Rhaenys would be trusted as Aegon’s regent while he traveled around Westeros is not surprising. In both our world and in Westeros, queens have ruled in the names of husbands gone to war or sons too young to rule on their own. Cersei, for example, has ruled twice over as regent – first for her son Joffrey, and second for her son Tommen. In both instances, Cersei received petitioners on the king’s behalf:
Cersei shifted in her seat as he went on, wondering how long she must endure his hectoring. Behind her loomed the Iron Throne, its barbs and blades throwing twisted shadows across the floor.Only the king or his Hand could sit upon the throne itself. Cersei sat by its foot, in a seat of gilded wood piled with crimson cushions. (“Cersei V”, A Feast for Crows)
In our own world, the naming of a queen as regent while her consort traveled outside his realm was a sign of special trust from the king. In 1513, for example, Henry VIII named his wife Katherine of Aragon as his regent while he campaigned in France; Katherine proved her worth, overseeing the English response to the invasion of the Scots and their defeat at the Battle of Flodden Field. Moreover, in 1544, as he again prepared to invade France, Henry invested his wife Katherine Parr with the regency.
For whomever holds the executive power in Westeros – king, Hand, or regent – a primary task is receiving petitioners and doling out justice. It is an ancient concept of justice, where the king (or lord) himself receives his people and plays both judge and jury to their pleas. Every lord is expected to hear the complaints of his bannermen and smallfolk, and every heir is expected to sit at his father’s right hand to learn the art of governance:
He must play the prince in his father’s solar. “Listen, and it may be that you will learn something of what lordship is all about,” Maester Luwin had said. … [I]t was his duty. “You are your brother’s heir and the Stark in Winterfell,” Ser Rodrik said, reminding him of how Robb used to sit with their lord father when his bannermen came to see him. (“Bran II”, A Clash of Kings)
Just as her great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-granddaughter Daenerys did during her tenure as queen in Meereen, Rhaenys received the petitioners to the throne and exercised justice where she saw fit. Yet unlike a queen regent – and like her conquering last descendant – Rhaenys heard their pleas not in her solar, or at the foot of the Iron Throne, but on the barbed throne itself.
That Rhaenys had the authority to seat herself upon the Iron Throne and decide matters of law speaks to her unique position among queens in Westeros. As Cersei’s quote above noted, only a King or the Hand of the King – the two most powerful executives in Westeros – could sit on the throne itself. The Iron Throne was the Conqueror’s seat, the symbol of his martial domination of Westeros and the fealty owed him by his bannermen; by seating herself on it, Rhaenys was claiming not merely the traditional female executive power of a regency, but equal authority with her brother-king. She was, in fact, claiming to be a queen in her own right.
In one way, it is unsurprising that Rhaenys would seize such authority for herself. After all, Rhaenys (and Meraxes) had been instrumental in winning the Seven Kingdoms for the Targaryens. She was a master of a dragon as well, and even if Meraxes was not as terribly large or fearsome as Balerion the Black Dread, the silver-scaled dragon had been invaluable at Storm’s End and during the Field of Fire. Now, as queen, Rhaenys had claimed not merely the ceremonial position of consort, but the power position of ruler. The combination, of warrior and ruler, was fundamental to medieval kingship in our own world; Henry II’s Great Seal, for example, depicted the king on one side a mounted warrior bearing a sword, and on the other as the enthroned judge of the realm. Rhaenys had played the warrior, winning the throne for herself and her siblings; now, she, along with Aegon, would rule it.
Keeper of a Merry Court: Aenys and the Issue of Succession
Rhaenys’ most important mission as Aegon’s queen, however, was to bear him an heir. In this, Rhaenys had somewhat less pressure on her than medieval queens in our own time (or even most queens in Westeros), as Aegon also had Queen Visenya as a potential mother of the next king. Yet it seems clear that Aegon desired Rhaenys to be the mother of his heir, if for no other reason than the comparatively great amount of time the king spent with his younger sister:
Yet despite these rumors, observers at court could not fail to note that the king spent ten nights with Rhaenys for every night with Visenya. (“The Reign of the Dragons: The Conquest”, The World of Ice and Fire)
Rhaenys did indeed succeed in giving Aegon the son he desired: Aenys, born in 7 AC. Yet while the queen had performed her primary duty to her brother husband, all was not well with the young heir to the Iron Throne. Unlike her martial sister, Rhaenys enjoyed being queen and kept a lively court. As part of this fostering of courtly life, and in the manner of many a royal of our own time, she styled herself as a patron of arts. However, this patronage came with a price:
Whilst no one ever questioned Visenya’s fidelity to her brother/husband, Rhaenys surrounded herself with comely young men, and (it was whispered) even entertained some in her bedchambers on the nights when Aegon was with her elder sister. (“The Reign of the Dragons: The Conquest”, The World of Ice and Fire)
It is perhaps unsurprising that, in a newly formed court with two potential rival queens, rumors should fly about the legitimacy of one heir over another. Visenya could never hope to remove Rhaenys from Aegon’s affections or from her position as queen; to cement the authority of the new Targaryen regime, Visenya could not afford to suggest that one Targaryen sister-queen was somehow less regal – or worse, less legitimate – than the other (especially since, as the lesser-loved sister-wife, Visenya would be the one more likely to be removed from power by Aegon, should her suggestion backfire). Yet suggesting a queen’s own infidelity was a tempting strategy, both in Westeros and in our own world. Cersei Lannister, for example, sought to oust her own rival queen, Margaery Tyrell, by claiming that Margaery’s “lively court” was a cover for the queen’s extramarital affairs:
“Margaery does keep a lively court,” Lady Merryweather was saying. “We have jugglers, mummers, poets, puppets . . .”
“Singers?” prompted Cersei.
“Many and more, Your Grace. Hamish the Harper plays for her once a fortnight, and sometimes Alaric of Eysen will entertain us of an evening, but the Blue Bard is her favorite.”
Cersei recalled the bard from Tommen’s wedding. Young, and fair to look upon. Could there be something there? (“Cersei VI”, A Feast for Crows)
When Queen Margaery is formally accused, moreover, one of the men charged with “violating the king’s companion” (the medieval name for the crime) was the so-called Blue Bard, Margaery’s favorite singer. With her lord husband so young, any child borne by Margaery would have undoubtedly been that of a lover. Aegon and his two queens, however, were all adults, and rumors of Aenys’ bastardy could easily persist without developing into a full scandal.
Similarly, in our own world, the trial of Anne Boleyn relied partly on the queen’s supposed relationship with a musician of her court. While most of the men accused of adultery with her were young noblemen of the court, one was a lower-born musician, Mark Smeaton. In fact, although Anne’s accusers hoped that the public would be most reviled by the accusation of an incestuous relationship between Anne and her brother George, her brother’s eloquence in his defense dispelled that hope; instead, the public seized on Anne’s alleged relationship with this member of her household. The idea that a queen would stoop so far below her station simply for her own pleasure was deeply shocking, and although the affair almost certainly never happened – Anne Boleyn having only once been recorded as speaking to Smeaton, and then to censure him for addressing her as though he were her equal – the rumor remained. Mary Tudor herself believed (or stated she believed) the low-ranking musician was the real father of the future Elizabeth I.
So the production of a Targaryen son and heir in the person of Aenys only helped to fuel rumors that the boy was no product of Rhaenys’ marital union, but an affair between her and one of the attendees of her court. Nor was this rumor weakened by the boy’s sickly nature:
He had begun life as a weak and sickly infant and remained so throughout his earliest years. Rumors abounded that this could be no true son of Aegon the Conqueror, who had been a warrior without peer. In fact, it was well-known that Queen Rhaenys delighted in handsome singers and witty mummers; perhaps one of these might have fathered the child. (“Aenys I”, The World of Ice and Fire)
Indeed, even as Aenys grew up he retained some of the weakness of his infancy. He resembled his father in height, but little else; while Aegon was a warrior who handled the bastard sword Blackfyre with skill, Aenys was slender and dreamy, more concerned with rich dress than martial prowess. Presumably, Aenys’ unease and nervous desire to please came less from any illegitimate status of his than from the early death of his mother (when he was just 3) and subsequent upbringing in a court ruled by his jealous stepmother (and mother of the potential alternate heir, Maegor), Visenya.
Maester Yandel asserts that the rumors of Aenys’ bastardy largely subsided when Aenys mastered a dragon of his own:
But the rumors dampened and eventually died when the sickly child was given a young hatchling who was named Quicksilver. And as the dragon grew, so too did Aenys. (“Aenys I”, The World of Ice and Fire)
This may have been the case, yet young Aenys’ mastery of his hatchling should not be taken as proof of his legitimacy. Rhaenyra (a queen I will focus on more in a later piece for this series) had five sons, and rumors of bastardy – almost certainly true – swirled around her eldest three. Yet Jacaerys, Lucerys, and Joffrey Velaryon all mastered and rode dragons placed in their cradles as eggs. Conversely, Rhaenyra’s youngest son, the eventual Viserys II, despite having two Targaryen parents, was given an egg that never hatched.
Ultimately, Aenys’ parentage remains a question of unsolvable debate. Unfortunately, the only one who would know the truth of the matter – Rhaenys herself – would not live long enough to support her son against the rumors.
A Dornish Sacrifice
The Death of Meraxes (image by Chase Stone – site here)
Though Rhaenys had flown against Dorne during the Conquest, she and her dragon had failed to bring Dorne under the Targaryens’ heel. So in 4 AC, Aegon began what would later be named the First Dornish War, invading together with Rhaenys and his half-brother Orys Baratheon. The invasion proved highly anticlimactic; although Orys found himself captured by the Wyls and ransomed (minus a swordhand), Rhaenys and Aegon faced empty castles and vanished lords. Still, Rhaenys did not hesitate to unleash Meraxes against Dorne:
Queen Rhaenys led the first assault on Dorne, burning the Planky Town on Meraxes, and moving swiftly to seize Dornish seats as she approached Sunspear … (“Dorne: Dorne Against the Dragons”, The World of Ice and Fire)
As during the Conquest, the Dornish strategy was directly designed to counter the cornerstone of Targaryen military power: the dragons. Aegon and Rhaenys might be able to flush out enemies hidden in woods, but in the sands and rocks of Dorne provided the Dornishmen cover the dragons could not burn. The reconnaissance power of the dragons also provided little assistance to the invaders; when the Dornish refused to form into neat regiments or assemble in any large quantity, the most Aegon and his sister could do was scan the empty Dornish deserts for foes who would not face them.
While Rhaenys did exercise her dragon power on the one target she could be sure would burn – the trading town known as the Planky Town – she and her brother Aegon found themselves frustrated for greater targets. According to Maester Yandel, the king and queen seemed to consider their conquest a victory by default; they had taken the capital, but with no resistance – or reaction – at all:
The same was the case when the Targaryens at last came to Sunspear, where Princess Meria … had herself vanished into the sands. There Queen Rhaenys and King Aegon gathered what courtiers and functionaries remained and declared themselves the victors, placing Dorne under the rule of the Iron Throne. (“Dorne: Dorne Against the Dragons”, The World of Ice and Fire)
It was at that moment, however, that the Targaryen royals made a fatal mistake:
Leaving Lord Rosby to hold Sunspear and Lord Tyrell in charge of a host to put down any revolts, the Targaryens returned to King’s Landing on the backs of their dragons. Yet they had hardly set foot in the royal city than Dorne rebelled against them and did so with shocking rapidity. (“Dorne: Dorne Against the Dragons”, The World of Ice and Fire)
Rhaenys had been wise to burn the Planky Town, Dorne’s closest approximation of a city and seemingly the only port the Dornish have. Yet both she and Aegon had been foolish to think that a land that had so pointedly and publicly dismissed the Targaryens not quite a decade before would show no resistance now. With the two largest dragons in Westeros stationed in Dorne, the Dornish would not form regular armies to contest Targaryen rule; however, Aegon and Rhaenys’ decision to leave Dorne in part in the hands of a Tyrell – mortal enemies of the Dornishmen – doomed their “conquest”. Without the threat of dragons to retaliate (at least not immediately), the Dornishmen quickly assembled the troops the Targaryen forces could not find. Before Aegon and Rhaenys could respond with fire and blood, the Dornishmen had struck several publicly humiliating blows against their “conquerors”: Harlan Tyrell and his forces utterly annihilated in the deep sands, the king’s castellan Rosby thrown to his death by the Princess of Dorne herself from the Spear Tower, and the king’s own Hand and close friend Orys losing his sword hand even after he had been ransomed.
After Orys Baratheon’s release, Rhaenys and Aegon returned to Dorne in force. Aegon was set on vengeance, yet while he burned the rebel seats time and again, the Dornish refused to bend. Indeed, it was on such a dragon-based mission against a Dornish castle that Aegon lost his beloved queen:
It was at the Hellholt where the Dornish had their greatest success against the Targaryens. A bolt from a scorpion pierced the eye of Meraxes, and the great dragon and the queen who rode upon it fell from the sky. In her death throes, the dragon destroyed the castle’s highest tower and part of the curtain wall. Queen Rhaenys’ body was never returned to King’s Landing. (“Dorne: Dorne Against the Dragons”, The World of Ice and Fire)
Now that the Dornish had chosen to give battle to the dragons, rather than hide from them, they likely drew upon their Rhoynar tradition. The larger a dragon grows, the more invincible the beast becomes, and Meraxes was second only to Balerion in size. Yet dragons can be defeated, as the Rhoynar themselves proved: at Volon Therys, the Rhoynish Prince Garin and his forces defeated three dragonriders, his archers felling two of the beasts during the battle itself. The eyes of a dragon are one of the very few places where a keen archer or crossbowman can score a kill:
The eyes were where a dragon was most vulnerable. The eyes, and the brain behind them. Not the underbelly, as certain old tales would have it. The scales there were just as tough as those along a dragon’s back and flanks. And not down the gullet either. That was madness. These would-be dragonslayers might as well try to quench a fire with a spear thrust. “Death comes out of the dragon’s mouth,” Septon Barth had written in his Unnatural History, “but death does not go in that way.” (“Tyrion XI”, A Dance with Dragons)
Yet while Meraxes is confirmed to have died on the sands of the Hellholt, what happened to Rhaenys is a matter of debate. Maester Yandel presents several theories concerning the queen’s fate:
Whether Rhaenys Targaryen outlived her dragon remains a matter of dispute. Some say that she lost her seat and fell to her death, others that she was crushed beneath Meraxes in the castle yard. A few accounts claim the queen survived her dragon’s fall, only to die a slow death by torment in the dungeons of the Ullers. The true circumstances of her demise will likely never be known, but Rhaenys Targaryen, sister and wife to King Aegon I, perished at the Hellholt in Dorne in the tenth year After the Conquest. (“Dorne: Dorne Against the Dragons”, The World of Ice and Fire)
Rhaenys may well have simply perished during the battle, but this simple ending seems incongruous with what happened later in the First Dornish War. For two years after Rhaenys’ death, Aegon and Visenya carried out what was known as the Dragon’s Wroth – the burning of every keep in Dorne, save Sunspear and its shadow city. After Princess Meria’s death in 13 AC, however, Prince Nymor sued for peace, sending his daughter Deria with an offer. What happened next adds a new wrinkle to the story of Rhaenys’ fate:
Swayed by such considerations, it is said, King Aegon was determined to refuse the offer until Princess Deria placed in his hands a private letter from her father, Prince Nymor. Aegon read it upon the Iron Throne, and men say that when he rose, his hand was bleeding, so hard had he clenched it. He burned the letter and departed immediately on Balerion’s back for Dragonstone. When he returned the next morning, it was done. He had agreed to the peace and signed a treaty to that effect. (“Dorne: Dorne Against the Dragons”, The World of Ice and Fire)
What was in that letter that so disturbed Aegon? If the Dornish had already killed Rhaenys, Aegon would have had no cause to cease his war of attrition against Dorne. More likely, then, the Dornish held Rhaenys in the bowels of the Hellholt. Yet while Orys Baratheon had been a prisoner of war, ransomed for gold and released (minus a sword hand), Rhaenys was likely suffering a much more horrible fate, as an object of torture.
That Rhaenys was being tortured seems very likely, given the dark personalities of her captives, the Ullers. Three centuries later, Arianne Martell recognized the danger of the Ullers, a characteristic apparently well-known in Dorne:
Half of the Ullers are half-mad, the saying went, and the other half are worse
That would have made Lord Harmen wroth, and the Ullers were dangerous when wroth. (“The Princess in the Tower”, A Feast for Crows)
What makes the Ullers so mad and dangerous? The first Ullers were Andals who had settled in Dorne, but had chosen for their seat a place no First Men family had tried to settle:
Others established themselves in places where no man had gone before them. Amongst those were the Ullers and the Qorgyles; the former raised a grim, stinking seat beside the sulfurous yellow waters of the Brimstone … (“Dorne: The Andals Arrive”, The World of Ice and Fire)
The Brimstone is a far more placid stream, but its cloudy yellow waters stink of sulfur, and the plants that grow along its banks are strange and stunted things. (And of the men who live along those selfsame banks, we shall not speak). (“Dorne: The Breaking”, The World of Ice and Fire)
It would take at least a half-mad personality to settle in such an inhospitable environment. Moreover, if the Brimstone is so poisonous to the plant life on its banks, it should hardly come as a surprise that generations of people living along the stream (and likely using it as their main water source) would suffer negative effects from its waters.
Whether the madness of the Ullers is natural or not, however, the family had already earned a dark reputation by the time of the Targaryen conquest; their sigil, red flames on yellow, recalls when the Ullers invited rivals into the Hellholt, locked them inside, and burned them to death. Nor had this sinister reputation abated during the First Dornish War, with the Ullers primarily responsible for the complete destruction of the Tyrell forces:
Setting out with his garrison at Hellholt to conquer Vaith and retake Sunspear, Lord Harlan Tyrell and his entire army vanished in the sands, never to be heard from again. The reports of travelers in the area claim that occasionally the winds shift the sands to reveal bones and pieces of armor, but the sandy Dornishmen who wander the deep desert say that the sands are the burial grounds of thousands of years of battles, and the bones might be from any time. (“Dorne: Dorne Against the Dragons”, The World of Ice and Fire)
Nor had torture likely been unseen in the First Dornish War. The infamous Wyl of Wyl, who had captured and maimed Orys Baratheon, had also committed atrocities against reacher and marcher lords so horrific even Maester Yandel would not retell them:
Worse occurred at the hands of the Wyl of Wyl, whose deeds we need not recount; they are infamous enough and still remembered, especially in Fawnton and Old Oak. (“Dorne: Dorne Against the Dragons”, The World of Ice and Fire)
So at the time of Rhaenys’ death or capture, the Ullers had seen their seat burned at least once by dragonflame. Already enjoying a reputation for madness, and with their Dornish neighbors committing their own atrocities against pro-Targaryen forces, the Ullers found themselves in possession of the woman partly responsible for the horrors the Dornish had suffered (and who had already dared to try to conquer Dorne once). Torture of the Targaryen queen may naturally have followed.
What was in the letter, then? Most likely, an offer from the Prince of Dorne to instruct the Ullers to put Rhaenys out of her misery. A sesquicentury later, when the Dornish had the Dragonknight captured, King Baelor had to ask the Prince of Dorne to command the Wyls to release his cousin; likewise, only the Prince, as liege lord of the Ullers, could command them to end the queen’s suffering. Alternately – and perhaps this made Aegon renounce his Dornish invasion completely – the offer might have carried an implicit threat. If Aegon refused, the Ullers could advertise Rhaenys’ broken, tortured state to the rest of Dorne. The damage such advertising would have on the fledgling Targaryen dynasty could have severely undermined the dragonlords’ hold on the rest of the Seven Kingdoms; if the Dornish could seize and torture the queen herself, the Targaryens would seem much less of a house to fear.
So the end for Rhaenys was a far cry either from her beginning or from the acme of her power as queen. Born into Targaryen power on the stormy isle of Dragonstone, she ended life in the dry, unforgiving sands of Dorne, deep in the heart of Dornish resistance. A conquering Targaryen dedicated to flying, she likely died not on dragonback or in battle but – her dragon killed from under her – in the dungeons of the Hellholt. A gracious and largely unmartial queen, beloved of nobility and smallfolk alike, she fell in battle and was tortured by the half-mad Ullers, with the end of her suffering used as a bargaining chip by the Dornish. It was a brutal, ignominious end for this matriarch of the Targaryen dynasty.