Hello and welcome once again to “Three Heads of the Dragon: Kings, Pretenders, and the Ladies of Fire”, the first multi-author series for Wars and Politics of Ice and Fire. This series will explore the Targaryen dynasty from inception to destruction, and my pieces – the “Ladies of Fire” – will focus on the ladies of the dynasty – both those born into the red-and-black and those who had a great influence on the dynasty.
In my first part of this series, we explored Rhaenys Targaryen, the younger sister and queen of Aegon I Targaryen. Yet although she was more favored by Aegon, Rhaenys was not her brother’s only wife – or only sibling. Older than both was Visenya Targaryen, who would prove to be a fearsome queen in her own right.
Dark Sister: The Character of Visenya
Visenya Targaryen (image credit to Elia Mervi – DeviantArt here)
Born around 28 BC on Dragonstone, Visenya was both the elder daughter and eldest child of Lord Aerion Targaryen and his Velaryon wife. With the very little information we have on Valyrian customs, we cannot say whether the birth of a daughter was a disappointment to Aerion and Valaena. Viserys I might have been content to have his elder daughter Rhaenyra as his heir, yet Jaehaerys I willed that his granddaughter Rhaenys should be passed over for her uncle Baelon and his sons. Certainly, Westerosi succession favored sons before daughters (although not to the extent Jaehaerys proposed, with daughters forsaken for uncles); only the Rhoynar princes (and princesses) practiced equal primogeniture.
Yet even if Visenya was not destined to inherit the seat of Dragonstone based on her sex, she would still be granted an opportunity seldom seen among highborn Westerosi ladies. For Visenya was not meant to be a mere ornament to her brother and eventual husband, Aegon. Instead, she, like Aegon, trained to be a warrior:
Visenya, eldest of the three siblings, was as much a warrior as Aegon himself, as comfortable in ringmail as in silk. She carried the Valyrian longsword Dark Sister, and was skilled in its use, having trained beside her brother since childhood. (“The Reign of the Dragons: The Conquest”, The World of Ice and Fire)
That Visenya would be trained in arms alongside her brother would certainly be unanticipated for most Westerosi houses. Among the ladies of the southron courts, only Brienne of Tarth would be formally trained by a master-at-arms. Even Brienne, as physically capable of swordplay as any of her male counterparts, had to ask the master-at-arms of Evenfall Hall to train her – a further reminder of how alien the concept of trained fighting women is to the Andal nobility of Westeros:
Brienne could not help but flinch. Every knight has battle scars, Ser Goodwin had warned her, when she asked him to teach her the sword. Is that what you want, child? (“Brienne VIII”, A Feast for Crows)
While the women of Andal nobility almost never took up arms against enemies, Visenya’s training did not totally lack for parallels in Westeros. The Mormont women of Bear Island, for example, are well-known at least among their northern brethren as fearsome fighters:
Dacey Mormont looked up at the sky. “I would sooner have water raining down on me than arrows.”
Catelyn smiled despite herself. “You are braver than I am, I fear. Are all your Bear Island women such warriors?”
“She-bears, aye,” said Lady Maege. “We have needed to be. In olden days the ironmen would come raiding in their longboats, or wildlings from the Frozen Shore. The men would be off fishing, like as not. The wives they left behind had to defend themselves and their children, or else be carried off.” (“Catelyn V”, A Storm of Swords)
Indeed, one of these Mormont ladies, Dacey, even earned a place in the personal guard of King Robb Stark:
One of his companions was even a woman: Dacey Mormont, Lady Maege’s eldest daughter and heir to Bear Island, a lanky six-footer who had been given a morningstar at an age when most girls were given dolls. (“Catelyn X”, A Game of Thrones)
Throughout Bear Island’s history, both ironborn and wildlings from beyond the Wall attempted to take the Mormont’s seat. One can hardly wonder, then, that the women of the island would learn along with their menfolk how to defend their homeland against the invaders. Yet as Catelyn noted, even some of King Robb’s fellow bannermen looked askance at Dacey’s inclusion among the king’s personal guards. Their doubt suggests that, even among northmen, the women of Bear Island are an anomaly, a holdover characteristic from historic tradition. Certainly, the attitude of the Mormonts’ old liege lord Rickard Stark stood in contrast to Dacey’s arms training:
“Lyanna might have carried a sword, if my lord father had allowed it.” (“Arya II”, A Game of Thrones)
Now two children danced across the godswood, hooting at one another as they dueled with broken branches … She slashed the boy across his thigh, so hard that his leg went out from under him and he fell into the pool and began to splash and shout. “You be quiet, stupid,” the girl said, tossing her own branch aside. “It’s just water. Do you want Old Nan to hear and run tell Father?” (“Bran III”, A Dance with Dragons)
The training of Visenya also finds some parallel with the training of Prince Oberyn’s bastard daughters. A fearsome warrior himself, Oberyn did not let the gender of his bastard children stop him from passing on his martial skills:
He tossed his spear at my feet and gave my mother the back of his hand across the face, so she began to weep. ‘Girl or boy, we fight our battles,’ he said, ‘but the gods let us choose our weapons.’ He pointed to the spear, then to my mother’s tears, and I picked up the spear. ‘I told you she was mine,’ my father said, and took me.” (“The Captain of the Guards”, A Feast for Crows)
Under his presumed tutelage, three of his elder daughters, and at least two of his younger, gained martial skills at least equal to any of their male counterparts. Both Obara and Nymeria Sand are described as deadly with spear and daggers, respectively; even young Dorea practices with a morningstar. Yet again, Oberyn’s training of his daughters does not seem to be a common practice even within Dorne. Though Dornish ladies are notable for their relative freedom and equality among their peers in the rest of the Seven Kingdoms, none besides the Sand Snakes are noted as being martially trained, including their trueborn cousin (and heiress to Dorne), Arianne.
So as demonstrated with both the ladies of Bear Island and the Sand Snakes of Dorne, the training of Westerosi ladies is an anomaly at best, a very particular and personal decision based on the special circumstances of the individuals involved. The same does not seem to have been the case with Visenya. Practicing in a yard, under the formal training of a master-at-arms, is an important step in a boy’s martial training, one to which girls are not invited. Visenya training beside her brother placed the girl on an equal level with the Targaryen heir; both were being groomed to be warriors.
As further indication that Visenya’s training was an authorized practice among her Valyrian expatriate household, at some point the Targaryen girl was given the sword Dark Sister. A Valyrian steel blade, Dark Sister was one of only two Valyrian steel swords known to belong to House Targaryen, the other being the great sword Blackfyre. Even more interestingly, George R.R. Martin himself indicated that Dark Sister, though not manufactured personally for Visenya, nevertheless lent itself well to a female warrior:
I might also add that Visenya is the most likely of the two to garb herself as a warrior, and when so garbed, she would wield the Valyrian longsword Dark Sister, whose slender blade is designed for a woman’s hand. – So Spake Martin, 24 December 2005
For a blade to be designed for a woman’s hand, the Valyrians must have understood to some extent that women would be formally trained for combat. Moreover, throughout its history, Dark Sister would be given to those Targaryens deemed “worthy” to bear it; the fearsome Prince Daemon and the illustrious Prince Aemon the Dragonknight were two of the few noted to wield it. Giving young Visenya the Valyrian steel blade entrusted that she would be groomed to be a warrior, a fit companion for her martial brother.
Indeed, as the elder daughter of the Targaryen family, Visenya would have been expected to marry her younger brother Aegon when both came of age. Yet the sister intended for Aegon was a sharp contrast to her playful, mysterious one who captured his heart:
Though possessed of the silver-gold hair and purple eyes of Valyria, hers was a harsh, austere beauty. Even those who loved her best found Visenya stern, serious, unforgiving, and some said that she played with poisons and dabbled in dark sorceries. (“The Reign of the Dragons: The Conquest”, The World of Ice and Fire)
Visenya’s austere looks contrasted greatly with the more feminine beauty of her younger sister, Rhaenys – a fact not lost on her brother Aegon, who took Rhaenys to wife as well. Doubtless Visenya would not have looked kindly on sharing her brother – and the reign over Dragonstone, as consort to its future lord – with her younger sister. The seriousness described in this passage likely extended toward her relationship with her sister; as someone consciously aware of her rank and abilities, Visenya would have had little patience for the mischievous, impetuous, unmartial, and over-preferred Rhaenys.
Perhaps even more interestingly, the above passage hints at Visenya’s interest in dark arts. Certainly, interest in magic and spells was not unknown to the Valyrians; Valyria was said to be home to sorcerers of unrivaled skills, and Maester Yandel also refers to the dragonlords as “sorcerer princes”. Where Visenya learned these skills, the maester does not deign to say; certainly neither of her siblings would ever be accused of using dark arts during their lifetimes. Yet the accusation of dark sorcery on Visenya’s part would follow her from her birthplace of Dragonstone, into her reign as queen and beyond.
The Dragon-Diplomat: Visenya in the Conquest
Visenya Targaryen (image credit to Roman Papusev – original work here)
While Visenya might have anticipated becoming Lady of Dragonstone in her youth, she would have needed a special kind of sorcery to foretell her destiny as Queen of the Seven Kingdoms. Certainly she had accompanied her brother-husband on trips to the continent, even staying with Lord Redwyne at the Arbor; yet the idea that Aegon and his sisters would assert their dominance over Westeros was not an assured fact. Nevertheless, the Conquest gave Visenya a prime stage to demonstrate her martial, as well as regal, abilities.
Indeed, Visenya would not be slow to do so. Upon landing at the mouth of the Blackwater Rush, Aegon dispatched his sisters to subjugate the surrounding lords. Rhaenys took Rosby without a fight, but Visenya found some resistance:
At Stokeworth a few crossbowmen loosed bolts at Visenya, until Vhagar’s flames set the roofs of the castle keep ablaze. Then they too submitted. (“The Reign of the Dragons: The Conquest”, The World of Ice and Fire)
Visenya may have counted herself fortunate that none of those crossbowmen managed to hit Vhagar’s eyes; such a hit, one of the few confirmed ways to take down a dragon, felled her sister’s Meraxes in Dorne years later. Yet one may wonder to what extent Visenya encouraged armed response against her. Certainly, Visenya was the more martial of the two sisters, and was the only one of the three Targaryens to be noted as injured during the Conquest, at the Field of Fire:
The Targaryens lost fewer than a hundred men. Queen Visenya took an arrow in one shoulder but soon recovered. (“The Reign of the Dragons: The Conquest”, The World of Ice and Fire)
Visenya’s eagerness for battle may have driven her to pursue more opportunities for combat – and open her up to more opportunities for wounding. Nevertheless, she had succeeded in this first mission of the Conquest.
Yet Rosby and Stokeworth were but small prizes. The Darklyns of Duskendale and the Mootons of Maidenpool both commanded wealthy port towns, and neither wanted to be subjugated to the Targaryen invaders. Aegon and his close companion Orys Baratheon made short work of the defenders and their 3000-strong force:
Aegon sent Orys Baratheon out to attack them on the march, whilst he descended on them from above with the Black Dread. Both lords were slain in the onesided battle that followed; Darklyn’s son and Mooton’s brother thereafter yielded up their castles and swore their swords to House Targaryen. (“The Reign of the Dragons: The Conquest”, The World of Ice and Fire)
Where Visenya was during this battle, Maester Gyldayn either did not know or refused to tell. Yet she could not have been far from the fighting, because she gave an important command afterward:
At that time Duskendale was the principal Westerosi port on the narrow sea and had grown fat and wealthy from the trade that passed through its harbor. Visenya Targaryen did not allow the town to be sacked, but she did not hesitate to claim its riches, greatly swelling the coffers of the conquerors. (“The Reign of the Dragons: The Conquest”, The World of Ice and Fire)
Practically, Visenya knew that a new government – and an extended military campaign – needed money, and that she could draw much from wealthy Duskendale. More importantly, though, Visenya’s command not to sack Duskendale granted her – and the Targaryens – an aura of mercy that would win them the Darklyns’ near-unending loyalty. Sacking the town would have given the Targaryens little; though the Darklyns were once petty kings, Duskendale was not nearly as great or politically important a place as, say, Oldtown, and likely most of its men had departed for the battle against Aegon and Orys. Instead, Visenya claimed what the town could offer – its wealth. She ensured that the Targaryens would be seen as both conquerors and just overlords; smallfolk and their lords would likely object to the sacking of their town, but no lord could object to paying a tax to their overlords.
Shortly after the taking (and non-sacking) of Duskendale, Aegon celebrated his coronation in his modest Aegonfort. Though the coronation itself was not a sumptuous affair, Aegon having only the loyalty of those future crownlands houses he had taken and the lords of the Narrow Sea, Visenya nevertheless played an important role:
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)
In my previous essay, I discussed how Rhaenys acted effectively as the king’s champion, calling all the lords and petty kings of Westeros to challenge Aegon’s right to be High King over them. Yet Visenya had perhaps an even more important part in the coronation service – the one who placed the physical crown on her brother-king’s brow.
Both the crown itself and the gesture carry deep symbolic meaning. With Aegon’s crown being made of Valyrian steel, the Targaryens could remind their courtiers (and those who received notice of the coronation later) of their Valyrian, dragonlord origins (as well as their power in making a crown of such a precious material as Valyrian steel). Yet Valyrian steel is primarily known for its use in weaponry; blades of Valyrian steel keep an unusually sharp and long-lasting edge and can move faster, due to the steel’s light weight. The red-and-black crown (the colors of the new royal house) served as a reminder that Aegon was a warrior, who ruled not by right of blood but by right of conquest.
Visenya’s crowning of Aegon, moreover, lent his sister-queen an authority perhaps surprising to their Westerosi onlookers. While we know little about native Westerosi coronations, in our world the individual crowning the king was ordinarily one of two persons. Under the belief that a monarch’s authority came directly from his or her god, many monarchs would be crowned by a high-ranking representative of their faith; the Archbishops of Reims, for example, held the honor of crowning the French kings. Yet some monarchs, likewise believing their authority derived from heaven (and not from any earthly source), refused to have their crowns placed upon their heads by others; the Emperors of Russia, among others, crowned themselves, a clear sign that their autocracy trumped every other earthly power.
For Aegon, then, entrusting Visenya with the act of coronation itself signified just how highly he regarded his sister-wife as a source of authority. Aegon would be blessed by the High Septon later, but in this early coronation, he commissioned his sister Visenya to crown him. The message was clear: Visenya had just as much authority as her brother-king, and all three Targaryens were meant to rule.
Yet rule would come after conquest; Aegon still had a number of petty kings to subjugate. To take the Kingdom of the Mountain and Vale, Aegon dispatched Visenya and their cousin Daemon Velaryon. With the powerful fleet of the Velaryons and Visenya’s imposing dragon Vhagar, conquest of this isolated kingdom may have appeared easy. If such was the case, Visenya and her forces were destined to be disappointed:
A hastily assembled Arryn fleet, augmented by a dozen Braavosi warships, met and defeated the Targaryen fleet in the waters off Gulltown. Amongst the dead was Aegon’s admiral, Daemon Velaryon. (“The Reign of the Dragons: The Conquest”, The World of Ice and Fire)
Nevertheless, Visenya managed to strike a blow against the Arryn forces:
The men of the Vale sank a third of the Targaryen ships and captured near as many, but when Queen Visenya descended upon them from the sky, their own ships burned. (“The Reign of the Dragons: The Conquest”, The World of Ice and Fire)
Visenya and Vhagar Burning the Arryn Fleet (image credit to John McCambridge – DeviantArt here)
Even with Visenya’s airstrike, however, the casualties of the Targaryen forces were significant. With only a third of the Targaryen fleet left afloat and untaken after the battle, Targaryen sea power – beforehand unquestioned, with the Velaryons as allies – was significantly crippled. Moreover, with Daemon Velaryon fallen in battle, the Targaryens had lost not only a relative, but one of their foremost military leaders, someone Aegon had trusted to be his master of ships. Visenya might have burned the Arryn ships, but Vhagar’s fire did little good for the Targaryen situation; dragons can set ships afire easily enough, but replacing those ships is not within a dragon’s power. The Arryns’ employment of Braavosi warships was a masterstroke: founded by slaves escaping the Valyrian dragonlords, Braavos had good reason to join the Kingdom of the Mountain and Vale against Visenya and her forces (and, as owner of the greatest fleet on either side of the Narrow Sea, the Braavosi represented one of the few means by which the Targaryens could have replaced their lost ships). While the declaration of independence of the Sistermen (strategically timed to take advantage of their distracted overlords, in what may be the only example of Sunderland strategic genius) may have helped undermine the Arryn cause, Visenya would need to rethink her strategy in the Vale.
After the submission of Storm’s End and the fall of Harrenhal, Aegon dispatched Visenya to take Crackclaw Point for the Targaryens. With only the loyalty of the future crownlanders, stormlanders, and the riverlords – men untested in how devoted they would be to the dragons, men who in part had actively fought against the dragons – Aegon knew he needed more men to face the “iron fist” of the combined Gardener-Lannister force. Three centuries later, a Crabb of Crackclaw Point recounted what happened:
“Aegon sent his sister up to Crackclaw, that Visenya. The lords had heard o’ Harren’s end. Being no fools, they laid their swords at her feet. The queen took them as her own men, and said they’d owe no fealty to Maidenpool, Crab Isle, or Duskendale. Don’t stop them bloody Celtigars from sending men to t’ eastern shore to collect his taxes. If he sends enough, a few come back to him . . . elsewise, we bow only to our own lords, and the king. The true king, not Robert and his ilk.” He spat. (“Brienne IV”, A Feast for Crows)
Visenya’s approach to taking Crackclaw Point played perfectly to the Point’s inhabitants’ history. While the Andals in their invasion had subjugated most of the south of Westeros, on Cracklaw Point the native First Men resisted strongly. Likewise, though a number of petty kings had tried to impose their writ on the Crackclaw Pointers, from the Darklyns to the Mootons to even the Valyrian-blooded Celtigars, the natives of the Point refused to bend the knee. Proud of their independence, the Crabbs and their fellow denizens of Crackclaw Point cherished only their local heroes.
Perhaps aware of this history, and certainly mindful of strategy, Visenya embraced the spirit of independence on Crackclaw Point. She granted them freedom from all who had tried to dominate them; from that moment forward, the Crabbs and their neighbors would bend the knee to none but the dragons themselves. In a land where a lord’s importance could be judged partly on how many liege lords stood above him, being sworn directly to the crown was a great honor. The “wild men” of Crackclaw Point had been elevated to the same status as their would-be overlords the Darklyns and the Targaryens’ closest allies (and relatives), the Velaryons.
More than simple elevation of status, Visenya had given the Crackclaw Pointers what could not be bought: acknowledgement of their native dignity. The Crackclaw Pointers actually share much in common with the northern mountain clans, as does the means by which Stannis Baratheon won their loyalty:
“Men have lived in the high valleys and mountain meadows for thousands of years, ruled by their clan chiefs. Petty lords, you would call them, though they do not use such titles amongst themselves. Clan champions fight with huge two-handed greatswords, while the common men sling stones and batter one another with staffs of mountain ash. A quarrelsome folk, it must be said. When they are not fighting one another, they tend their herds, fish the Bay of Ice, and breed the hardiest mounts you’ll ever ride.”
“And they will fight for me, you believe?”
“… It is no good sending messages. Your Grace will need to go to them yourself. Eat their bread and salt, drink their ale, listen to their pipers, praise the beauty of their daughters and the courage of their sons, and you’ll have their swords. The clans have not seen a king since Torrhen Stark bent his knee. Your coming does them honor. Command them to fight for you, and they will look at one another and say, ‘Who is this man? He is no king of mine.'” (“Jon IV”, A Dance with Dragons)
Visenya had created not merely new Crownlands lords, but houses that would stay devotedly loyal to the Targaryens throughout their reign:
“There was Crabbs and Brunes and Boggses with Prince Rhaegar on the Trident, and in the Kingsguard too. A Hardy, a Cave, a Pyne, and three Crabbs, Clement and Rupert and Clarence the Short. Six foot tall, he was, but short compared to the real Ser Clarence. We’re all good dragon men, up Crackclaw way.” (“Brienne IV”, A Feast for Crows)
Though House Darklyn could boast seven sons who served as white swords, six from Crackclaw Point – and three from one family – underlines just how strong the loyalty of the Crackclaw Point families to House Targaryen was. Even almost two decades after Robert’s Rebellion, with no apparent Targaryen heirs alive, Dick Crabb still spat at the name of the “Usurper” (and though Dick Crabb did not call Robert “the Usurper” specifically, his animosity is unique; only the last living Targaryens show such bitterness toward the Baratheon king and dynasty). Most kings can only wish for that sort of loyalty from their subjects; that Visenya earned it from the Crackclaw Point men speaks to her wisdom during the Conquest.
Yet Crackclaw Point represented only a small part of Westeros. Aegon still needed the Eyrie, and Visenya would still be the woman to take it. The conquest did not appear easy:
Sharra Arryn had strengthened the defenses of Gulltown, moved a strong host to the Bloody Gate, and tripled the size of the garrisons in Stone, Snow, and Sky, the waycastles that guarded the approach to the Eyrie. (“The Reign of the Dragons: The Conquest”, The World of Ice and Fire)
The regent of the Vale had defended herself well. As Gulltown was the main sea passage into the Vale, the Bloody Gate was the only land entry through the Mountains of the Moon. Against a traditional host, these defenses would prove impregnable, yet Sharra Arryn did not stop there. She also fortified the route to the Eyrie – an already virtually unassailable seat – and ruled with her son from the Arryns’ high summer seat. The Arryns were untouchable – or so Sharra Arryn must have thought. Yet in a move drawn from the Arryns’ own mythology – the story of the Winged Knight, founder of the Eyrie – Visenya flew Vhagar to the peak of the Giant’s Lance:
All these defenses proved useless against Visenya Targaryen, who rode Vhagar’s leathery wings above them all and landed in the Eyrie’s inner courtyard. When the regent of the Vale rushed out to confront her, with a dozen guards at her back, she found Visenya with Ronnel Arryn seated on her knee, staring at the dragon, wonder-struck. “Mother, can I go flying with the lady?” the boy king asked. No threats were spoken, no angry words exchanged. (“The Reign of the Dragons: The Conquest”, The World of Ice and Fire)
A ride on a dragon for the Kingdom of the Vale seems as ludicrous a bargain as the “$24 for Manhattan” story of our own time. Yet just as the Manhattan story belies some important truths about the real transaction, the maester’s recounting of Visenya’s flight to the Eyrie hides the true meaning behind the queen’s action. Visenya could have waged a war of attrition on the Vale, in a likely more successful version of what her sister later tried in Dorne. Instead, she flew directly to the Vale’s source of power, and took into her possession the little boy-king Ronnel. No threats were spoken because none needed to be; the very image of Vhagar, curled around the Targaryen queen and the Arryn king, made Visenya’s message clear. With the boy in her power, Visenya could hold the King of the Mountain and Vale hostage, even kill him; by seizing him in his own “impregnable” seat, she demonstrated just how little the Arryns’ traditional defenses meant to dragons. Visenya was holding a dragonbone knife to the throat of the Vale, and forcing the regent into an unenviable Hobson’s choice.
Indeed, Visenya’s actions in the Eyrie were a more threatening version of the Aegon Doctrine – the Targaryen policy during the Conquest to confer lordly titles to their same lands on those kings that bent the knee. Visenya would not burn the Vale, the Eyrie, or its boy-king – so long as his regent mother acknowledged her and her siblings as their new overlords. Faced with her son in the lap of the dragon queen, Sharra Arryn likely knew she could offer little resistance. Instead, she accepted her invader’s terms graciously:
The two queens smiled at one another and exchanged courtesies instead. Then Lady Sharra sent for the three crowns (her own regent’s coronet, her son’s small crown, and the Falcon Crown of Mountain and Vale that the Arryn kings had worn for a thousand years), and surrendered them to Queen Visenya, along with the swords of her garrison. And it was said afterward that the little king flew thrice about the summit of the Giant’s Lance and landed to find himself a little lord. Thus did Visenya Targaryen bring the Vale of Arryn into her brother’s realm. (“The Reign of the Dragons: The Conquest”, The World of Ice and Fire)
Visenya had been diplomatic in the Vale, but it was a dragon’s sort of diplomacy. She had not fired a single metaphorical shot, but she had demonstrated her power – and her dragon – for the king and his regent to see. Between submitting to the Targaryens or seeing her son taken, her keep burned, and perhaps the Vale itself assaulted, only the most heartless of mothers would choose the former. Although eager for battle, Visenya chose the diplomatic route to win the Eyrie – though she would not let her conquered subjects forget just how absolute the dragons’ dominion would be.
The King’s Guard: Visenya and the Creation of the White Swords
With the subjugation of the entire continent (save Dorne), Aegon and his sisters were now faced with an even more daunting prospect: holding the throne. All three siblings had large and fearsome dragons, yet creating a dynasty would require more than simply instilling a draconic fear in the hearts of the Westerosi. To make House Targaryen a truly royal house, the three conquerors would need a fair amount of diplomacy and a workable peacetime strategy. Unfortunately for the Targaryens, one large thorn remained in the side of Westeros: Dorne. Unconquered by Rhaenys during the campaign, Dorne stood defiantly at the southron tip of Westeros, and in 4 AC the Targaryens again took up arms against the princely state.
While Rhaenys and Aegon brought fire on the abandoned Dornish keeps, Visenya presumably ruled from King’s Landing. The World of Ice and Fire gives no mention as to Visenya’s activities between her brother’s accession and her sister’s death, but with two of his three dragons in Dorne Aegon would have been foolish not to leave his remaining sister in his capital. In my previous essay, I discussed the power of a queen regent ruling in her husband’s absence, and Rhaenys’ claim of being a queen in her own right. Doubtless Visenya was doing the same, and if she felt any resentment toward her brother-king and her playful younger sister for tasting battle in Dorne, she may have consoled herself with managing the war effort from the still largely militaristic Aegonfort. That we hear of no troubles at home – except for those caused by the Dornish, discussed below – speaks to Visenya’s competence as an administrator in her siblings’ absence; she might not have been leading the campaign herself, but she (and Vhagar) assured that she would not need to lead a separate campaign elsewhere in their realm.
Nevertheless, the problems facing the Targaryens did not confine themselves to Dorne’s borders. Dorne’s strategy in the Targaryens’ campaign relied heavily on guerilla tactics, striking at Targaryen allies quickly before disappearing back into their sands. Nowhere was this more apparent than in the campaign of assassination which the Dornish began against the Targaryens and their supporters:
Lord Fell was smothered in a brothel, and King Aegon himself was attacked on three separate occasions. When Queen Visenya and an escort were set upon, two of her guards died before she cut down the last villain herself with Dark Sister. (“Aegon I”, The World of Ice and Fire)
By 10 AC, the Dornish had already claimed Queen Rhaenys herself, brought down with her dragon above the infamous Hellholt. One dragon and her rider, however, would not satisfy the descendants of the Rhoynar and their bannermen; instead, the Dornish sent assassins against the king and queen themselves:
On one occasion in 10 AC, Aegon and Visenya were both attacked in the streets of King’s Landing, and if not for Visenya and Dark Sister, the king might not have survived. (“Aegon I”, The World of Ice and Fire)
Attacking a king and his consort (and occasional queen regnant in her own right), in the very heart of their capital, was a bold move on the part of Dorne, and sent a dangerous message. If the rulers of Westeros could be assaulted and nearly killed in their own city, they would no longer be seen as rulers to be feared – no matter how large and imposing their dragons might seem. That Visenya reacted quickly and ably reflects well both on her early training beside her brother in the yard and her instincts as queen. Visenya may not have been the courtly queen her sister had been, but she could react to a crisis and save her brother’s life all the same. If the Dornish thought they had found easy targets in Aegon and his sister, they had been disappointed; Visenya was nothing if not a warrior and trained swords(wo)man. Nevertheless, the assassination attempt exposed an obvious flaw in Aegon’s security:
Despite this, the king still believed that his guards were sufficient to his defense; Visenya convinced him otherwise. (It is recorded that when Aegon pointed out his guardsmen, Visenya drew Dark Sister and cut his cheek before his guards could react. “Your guards are slow and lazy,” Visenya is reported to have said, and the king was forced to agree.) (“Aegon I”, The World of Ice and Fire)
How Aegon could possibly believe that his guards were still adequate to defend his person is a mystery. Perhaps, as master of the colossal and fearsome dragon Balerion, Aegon had never truly considered himself in real danger, from Balerion’s back, Aegon was impervious to all attacks, and surely no rational Westerosi would dare attack the king knowing how fierce his dragon was. Indeed, Aegon took almost two decades to construct walls around the city for this very reason:
And yet, for much of this time, it was a city without walls. It may be that Aegon and his sisters thought that no one would dare assault a city that held dragons, but in 19 AC word came of a pirate fleet sacking Tall Trees Town in the Summer Isles, carrying off thousands into slavery and a fortune in wealth. Troubled by this—and realizing that he and Visenya were not always at King’s Landing—Aegon at last commanded that walls be raised. (“Aegon I”, The World of Ice and Fire)
Moreover, as a crowned and anointed king, Aegon may have believed in the sanctity of his person. In our own world, the body of the king was considered so sacred that the English royal touch could cure scrofula, and rings that the king touched any number of other diseases. Perhaps Aegon, as the acclaimed and anointed king of all Westeros, could not accept that someone would so fundamentally undermine his royal sanctity – not in the ordinary course of battle but in the furtive, treacherous practice of assassination. For the few reckless men who would, his guards should be ample protection.
No matter what Aegon believed, Visenya was no fool. The king’s guards could not be men who did not react to an attempt on the king’s life. She had set the example, but Visenya knew she could not always be by Aegon’s side to guard and protect him. If she herself could beat them to striking the king’s person, any man of equal or near-equal skill could as well – and no other man would stop at the king’s cheek to prove his point. The king needed a guard that would forsake all personal thoughts for service to the blood royal. Thus, in the dark days of the First Dornish War, Visenya created the first Kingsguard. As a new organization, the Kingsguard needed a structure and mission statement, and Visenya knew where to find the ideal model:
It was Visenya, not Aegon, who decided the nature of the Kingsguard. Seven champions for the Lord of the Seven Kingdoms, who would all be knights. She modeled their vows upon those of the Night’s Watch, so that they would forfeit all things save their duty to the king. (“Aegon I”, The World of Ice and Fire)
The comparison between the Kingsguard and the Night’s Watch was deliberate – and wise – on Visenya’s part. While the Night’s Watch’s power has dwindled over the centuries, at the time of the Conquest it could still boast around 10,000 men and attract knights from the highest noble families across the Seven Kingdoms. The Night’s Watch was not only one of the only pan-Westerosi institutions (besides the maesters of the Citadel and, to some extent, the Faith), but also by a large margin the oldest, with a storied history millennia old. By crafting the Kingsguard in the image of the Night’s Watch, Visenya drew upon the Night’s Watch’s long-established legitimacy and tradition. The Kingsguard would be a new kind of Night’s Watch, just as honored, just as intent on guarding the realm. The Night’s Watch protected the idea of the realm; Visenya’s Kingsguard would guard the realm’s personification: the king.
And when Aegon spoke of a grand tourney to choose the first Kingsguard, Visenya dissuaded him, saying he needed more than skill in arms to protect him; he also needed unwavering loyalty. (“Aegon I”, The World of Ice and Fire)
Visenya’s rejection of Aegon’s proposed tourney should be lauded. The queen was absolutely correct in asserting that the most important quality of a Kingsguard knight – perhaps even more so than skill at arms, although that was of course a prerequisite – was loyalty. Ultimately, a Kingsguard has to be willing to die for king and crown – to consider the king’s (and, somewhat secondarily, royal family’s) life above his own. Consider the aforementioned Prince Aemon the Dragonknight, who was brother to King Aegon IV and his sister-queen Naerys; although the prince loathed his royal brother, he nevertheless died defending the king. Visenya was wise not to trust a tourney as the ideal test of Kingsguard virtue; Jaime Lannister might have made an excellent jouster and swordsman, but when he decided the king needed to die, he did not hesitate to kill the king he had sworn to protect.
Visenya should also be praised for the sort of men she chose for the first Kingsguard:
The king entrusted Visenya with selecting the first members of the order, and history shows he was wise to do so: two died defending him, and all served to the end of their days with honor. The White Book recounts their names, as it has recorded the name and deeds of every knight who swore the vows: Ser Corlys Velaryon, the first Lord Commander; Ser Richard Roote; Ser Addison Hill, Bastard of Cornfield; Ser Gregor Goode and Ser Griffith Goode, brothers; Ser Humfrey the Mummer, a hedge knight; and Ser Robin Darklyn, called Darkrobin, the first of many Darklyns to wear the white cloak. (“Aegon I”, The World of Ice and Fire)
Highborn and low, from various corners of the realm Visenya drew her Kingsguard knights. It was a shrewd move on her part to cull a variety of individuals. The Velaryons were staunch Targaryen allies, with a powerful navy and blood ties to the royal house, so inclusion of one of their members was an obvious choice. Yet Visenya also included a bastard from the westerlands, perhaps an unexpected choice given the low status of bastards in Westeros; even the bastardborn sons of high lords are largely regarded as treacherous by nature. The inclusion of Ser Addison, then, may have been another conscious move on Visenya’s part to model the Kingsguard on the Night’s Watch, where service can give any brother honor he never would have gotten in ordinary life:
Maester Luwin said, “There is great honor in service on the Wall, my lord.”
“And even a bastard may rise high in the Night’s Watch,” Ned reflected. (“Catelyn II”, A Game of Thrones)
In another surprising move, Visenya also granted a white cloak to a hedge knight. Landless and often impoverished, hedge knights are among the lowest ranks of society in Westeros, with usually no family name and only a fellow knight’s dubbing as their credentials. Visenya’s preferment of Ser Humfrey, then, underlined her purpose in creating the Kingsguard. Her ideal Kingsguard was no club for bored young aristocrats, or mere reward for the King’s friends. Any man, if he were a capable knight and a man of proven loyalty, could earn a white cloak; though the crown had sole say in who would be given a place in the Kingsguard, Visenya’s creation borrowed some of the sense of meritocracy found in the Night’s Watch. No matter how exalted – or obscure – a man’s lineage, any knight could rise to protect the King himself, to have songs sung of his deeds for generations. The Kingsguard would remain a powerful draw for Westerosi knights long after the Dornish conflicted had ended, and indeed after the Targaryens themselves fell from power.
Mistress of the Castle: Visenya, Sole Queen in Westeros
With the end of the First Dornish War, Visenya found herself the only queen left to her brother Aegon. The Targaryens may have failed to subjugate Dorne, but the rest of the Seven Kingdoms had bent the knee for over a decade with no sign of rebellion. The royals’ concentration could now be given to ruling, and Aegon would not be slow to take advantage of the peacetime opportunity.
In my essay on Rhaenys, I emphasized how that queen successfully utilized the image of the monarchy in order to lay a strong foundation for the fledgling Targaryen dynasty. Aegon himself was also aware of the power of imagery, and one of his primary tasks in this field – and one he entrusted to Visenya – was to rebuild the Aegonfort:
The Aegonfort itself grew larger, bursting past its initial palisade to encompass more of Aegon’s High Hill, and a new wooden keep was raised, its walls fifty feet high. It stood until 35 AC, when Aegon tore it down so that the Red Keep could be raised as a castle fit for the Targaryens and their heirs. (“Aegon I”, The World of Ice and Fire)
The king had established the Aegonfort primarily as a military institution during the Conquest, a first and primary base for the Targaryens’ campaigns. The site had been chosen strategically, both for its lack of rival claimants and its position, high on the hill and at the mouth of the Blackwater. From the Aegonfort, Aegon could launch campaigns against Harrenhal and Storm’s End while staying comfortably close to his home base on Dragonstone. The crude wood and earth palisade may not have been as aesthetically pleasing as even the grotesques on Dragonstone, but the Aegonfort had served its purpose well.
Yet as King’s Landing grew into a true royal capital, the Aegonfort needed to evolve out of its martial origins. To oversee this project, Aegon commissioned his sister Visenya:
According to the history of Archmaester Gyldayn, it was suggested at court that Aegon left Queen Visenya in charge of building the Red Keep so that he would not have to endure her presence on Dragonstone. In their later years, their relationship-never a warm one to begin with-had grown even more distant. (“Aegon I”, The World of Ice and Fire)
No matter what the distant relationship between Aegon and Visenya, the king’s authorizing his sister-queen to take over the building of the Red Keep was a sign of some trust. The Keep would not be the first Westerosi royal seat, given all the petty kings which had ruled on the continent, but it would be the first pan-continental royal seat, and the first and greatest dynastic seat for the royal House Targaryen. The castle needed to make the appropriate statement to the subjects of the realm, exalting their dragon overlords; the Targaryens were no longer conquerors in a military camp, but kings in their “ancestral” castle. Visenya was no courtly queen, but she understood well enough the power of imagery; if she had not herself designed the steel-and-ruby crown Aegon wore, she had at least held it in her hands and placed it on his brow in an act of high ceremony. As that circlet crowned Aegon’s brow, so the Reed Keep crowned Aegon’s High Hill, a visible reminder of Targaryen power and majesty.
There is also a strong parallel between the transformation of the Aegonfort into the Red Keep and the building (and rebuilding) of the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg. While Peter the Great himself adored his capital city, he had little interest in trying to rival Versailles or the other royal seats of Europe with his own great palace. His first residence in St. Petersburg, during its construction, was a small wooden cabin; even when he built the first Winter Palace, the building remained modest and small by contemporary standards. Yet when his daughter Elizabeth finally ascended to the throne, she razed the existing structure (already expanded by her predecessor Anna) to build a colossal, extravagant palace. The new Winter Palace was a worthy symbol of national prestige, a fitting gilded stage upon which the ceremonies of the Russian autocracy could be acted.
Yet the most important role for Visenya – at least in terms of traditional queenship – was the bearing of a son to Aegon. Perhaps, as the elder sister and traditionally intended bride for Aegon, Visenya believed it in her rights to bear Aegon his heir. Yet Maester Yandel, in his retelling of the Conquest and its players, makes clear that for every one night Aegon spent with Visenya, he spent tenfold with their sister. This lack of intimacy between Aegon and Visenya – suggested by the quote from Maester Gyldayn regarding the building of the Red Keep – highlights the king’s apparent disinterest in fathering any children on Visenya. Their marriage, arranged by their parents likely while both were still young, had never been a love match, yet now Aegon seemed willing to deny Visenya even the small token of acknowledgement that a child of their union would provide. In the king’s mind, he had another legitimate consort and potential mother of his children, one he much preferred to his hard, humorless arranged bride. His actions can be compared to another great fictional leader, Paul Atreides of Dune. Though forced by political circumstances to marry a daughter of the Emperor, Paul refused to give up his beloved concubine:
“I swear to you now … that you’ll need no title. That woman over there will be my wife and you but a concubine because this is a political thing and we must weld peace out of this moment, enlist the Great Houses of the Landsraad. We must obey the forms. Yet that princess shall have no more of me than my name. No child of mine nor touch nor softness of glance, nor instant of desire.”
However, with Rhaenys’ death in 10 AC, Aegon faced a potential succession crisis. Rhaenys had borne him a son, Aenys, in 7 AC, yet Aegon could not count on this small boy to guarantee the continuation of the Targaryen line. As I mentioned in my essay on Princess Elia, infant mortality was a real threat to dynasties, both in our world and in Westeros; only two children of the ten pregnancies between Anne Boleyn and Katherine of Aragon survived infancy, and Rhaenys’ own descendant Rhaella would produce only two (eventually three) surviving children of at least 11 pregnancies. Moreover, young Aenys was sickly and weak from the first; if he died, the Targaryen line would end with its founders. Aegon needed at least a “spare” to match his “heir”, and Visenya was the only woman who could provide one.
To further encourage Aegon, Visenya may have also cultivated the rumors of bastardy that had swirled around Aenys virtually since his birth. With the merry court his mother Rhaenys patronized, handsome singers and mummers floated regularly through her royal apartments – and whispers of adultery did not take long to follow. Visenya may have suspected Rhaenys had cuckolded their brother and produced a weakling son; equally likely, she, like Mary Tudor in our world, promoted rumors of Aenys’ bastardy in order to undermine his claim. If Aegon suspected his only heir was no true son of his – or, at least, that an alternate parentage was a possibility, even if an unpleasant one – he may have tried to father a son on Visenya, to provide an alternate heir to the throne.
Whatever the cause on Aegon’s part, in 12 AC Visenya finally had her first and only child – a son, Maegor. Though never regarded as a maternal woman (her taking Ronnel Arryn on her knee seems to have been the extent of Visenya’s warmth toward children), the queen would devote the remainder of her life to promoting her son’s claim to the throne. In our own world, Margaret Beaufort did much the same. Though her only child, Henry Tudor, had but a dubious claim to the English throne, Margaret never ceased to work to make her son King of England; in his exile, she arranged a marriage with the Yorkist princess Elizabeth and partially organized a rebellion in 1483, helping his invasion of England. Like Margaret, Visenya was a woman with a singular purpose in mind: to make her son king.
The problem, of course, was Aenys. No matter who his true father was, Aenys was legally Aegon’s son, and older than Maegor by five years. Nevertheless, Visenya likely helped mold Aenys into the weak king he later became. Having lost his mother at the age of only three, and sickly from the first, Aenys was in a very vulnerable position; as first lady of the court, Visenya was in a perfect position to exploit his vulnerability. We have unfortunately no information of Visenya’s regency during Aenys’ youth, but we can speculate.
Like medieval queens in our own world, Visenya would have had it in her power to appoint the ministers of her household, with Aegon’s assent; presumably, she would have stocked her court with those loyal to her and her son – and those who believed (or stated they believed) the story of Aenys’ bastardy. Aenys would have been surrounded by these individuals on a daily basis, hounded by rumors of his illicit parentage. The font of favors in any court was the monarch, so Aenys’ nervous desire to please likely arose from his attempt to keep on the good side of his cold, implacable stepmother. It would have taken a subtle manipulation to mold Aenys into the indecisive, weakling character he became, but Visenya was a woman determined.
Even as Aenys remained Aegon’s heir, however, Visenya could still take pride in her own son. Aenys might have grown up weedy and unimpressive, but young Maegor was the beau ideal of knighthood:
Maegor, on the other hand, was defeating hardened knights in the melee when he was all of three-and-ten, and quickly won renown in the royal tourney of 28 AC when he defeated three knights of the Kingsguard in succession in the lists, and went on to win the melee. He was knighted by King Aegon at six-and-ten, the youngest knight in the realm at that time. (“Maegor I”, The World of Ice and Fire)
On looks and martial abilities alone, Maegor would have seemed the obvious choice to rule Westeros after his father; a great bull of a man with a head for battle, Maegor could rule the realm with an iron fist. Yet Aegon was establishing a dynasty, and his choice of heir was clear; only Aenys, the elder son, could be counted as the lawful heir of House Targaryen. So when Aegon finally passed in 37 AC, Aenys and his Velaryon queen ascended the throne. Maegor – and Visenya – would have to bide their time.
The Restless Dowager: Visenya in the Reign of Aenys I
At the Conqueror’s death in 37 AC, his possible-son Aenys took the Iron Throne as Aenys I. Though she almost certainly attended the grand coronation – as queen dowager, Visenya was the second-highest ranking woman in Westeros, just behind the new Queen Alyssa – Visenya was doubtless displeased by the ordeal. Aenys, weak and vacillating, was not the man his father had been, and as master of a young dragon, he could not command the respect Aegon could with Balerion. The realm was ripe for rebellion, and Visenya was already plotting.
Her plotting had begun even before Aenys ascended the throne. Mindful of Targaryen tradition (and likely aware that the chances of having another child by Aegon were slim), Visenya hoped to acquire a Targaryen bride for her only son. In Rhaena, the eldest daughter of Aenys and Alyssa Velaryon, Visenya thought she found the perfect candidate; the first daughter of a king was a great matrimonial prize for any man, and with such a marriage Visenya could underline her son’s Targaryen heritage. Yet Visenya had schemed without considering the powerful Faith and its ambitious High Septon:
It had long been the Valyrian custom to marry within the family, thus preserving the royal bloodlines. Yet this was not a custom native to Westeros, and was viewed as an abomination by the Faith. The Dragon and his sisters had been accepted without comment, and the issue had not arisen when Prince Aenys was wed in 22 AC to Alyssa Velaryon, the daughter of the king’s master of ships and lord admiral; though she was a Targaryen upon her mother’s side, this made her only a cousin. But when the tradition looked to continue yet again, matters came to a sudden head. Queen Visenya proposed that Maegor be wed to Aenys’s first child, Rhaena, but the High Septon mounted a vigorous protest, and Maegor was wed instead to the High Septon’s own niece, Lady Ceryse of House Hightower. (“Aenys I”, The World of Ice and Fire)
Maester Yandel (and perhaps the historiography of this period) might view the proposed marriage of Rhaena and Maegor in terms of the Valyrian incestuous marriage tradition, yet such a view seems strange. No Westerosi balks at the idea of first cousin marriages (Tywin Lannister and Rickard Stark marrying a first cousin and a first cousin once removed, respectively), and likewise in our own world the marrying of cousins was looked on favorably by noble and royal houses. Yet unlike the Westerosi tradition, uncle-niece marriages were likewise authorized in our own world; Charles II of Spain (himself highly inbred) counted three uncle-niece marriages in his ancestry. Instead, the High Septon’s objection seems to have stemmed from political, rather than religious, grounds. The Hightowers are well known as one of the most powerful families in the Reach, and likely in all Westeros:
“My father always said [Lord Leyton Hightower] was as wealthy as the Lannisters, and could command thrice as many swords as any of Highgarden’s other bannermen.” (”Samwell V”, A Feast for Crows)
Nor are the Hightowers unknown for seeking to advance their relations through advantageous marriages. The High Septon likely raised his objection because he had this available niece, and with the power of the Faith in King’s Landing, could manipulate the crown into placing his daughter into a high position. That Maegor indeed married Lady Ceryse seems to indicate that the High Septon had desired a royal marriage for his niece all along.
Whatever the cause of the High Septon’s protest, Maegor had lost his Targaryen bride, and Visenya had been publicly humiliated. It may be overstatement to suggest that the root of Maegor’s later clash with the Faith began at this moment – he himself was only 13, and it would be many years, and the reign of an entirely different king, before Maegor began his war against the Faith. Nevertheless, the Faith had already shown itself as no friend to Maegor, or his mother. Visenya wanted nothing more than to see her son crowned king, but she was likely not a woman to forget such a slight against her.
His Faith-arranged marriage notwithstanding, Maegor would have done his mother proud during the early days of his half-brother’s reign. Named Hand after his swift and merciless execution of justice against the rebellious Jonos Arryn, Maegor had ascended to the second-highest executive position in Westeros. Aenys had vacillated during the rebellions of his accession, while Maegor had taken decisive action to protect the realm; Visenya could not have asked for a more perfect public relations headline to promote her son’s claim.
Yet while Maegor held the executive power, Aenys still bore the crown; more troublingly, while Aenys’ Velaryon queen bore five surviving children, including three sons, Maegor’s Hightower marriage had yet to produce a child. No matter how attractive Maegor might appear as an alternate king, his lack of an heir would severely undermine his campaign; if Maegor failed to produce a son – or even any child – the very new Targaryen dynasty would be thrown into question. It was at this moment that Visenya took a drastic step in her campaign for her son:
Perhaps envious, after two years as Hand—and the birth to his brother of yet another daughter, Vaella, who died as an infant—Maegor shocked the realm in 39 AC by announcing that he had taken a second wife—Alys of House Harroway—in secret. He had wed her in a Valyrian ceremony officiated by Queen Visenya for want of a septon willing to wed them. The public outcry was such that Aenys was finally forced to exile his brother. (“Aenys I”, The World of Ice and Fire)
With Maegor as the master of Balerion and would-be savior of the realm, Visenya likely thought that no one would dare question a second marriage; after all, Aegon the Dragon had taken two wives – his own sisters – as queens without backlash from the Faith. But Aegon had been married before his conquest, and had taken important steps of conciliation toward his new subjects – including converting to the Faith and being anointed by the High Septon. With their public humiliation by the Faith in the matter of Maegor’s marriage, Visenya and her son had done little to curry the powerful Faith’s favor; now, having orchestrated a marriage under heathen gods, Visenya had cemented her son’s – and her own – separation from the Faith. She had gambled wrong, and the cost was banishment for her champion.
Yet even as Maegor brooded across the Narrow Sea, Aenys found himself in difficulty. Having married his eldest son and daughter to one another, Aenys had also courted the Faith’s ire. Condemned by the Starry Sept as an abomination, Aenys faced rebellion in his realm, and fled to the traditional seat of Targaryen power, Dragonstone. There he found Dowager Queen Visenya, with ready advice:
Visenya counseled him to take his dragons and bring fire and blood to both the Starry Sept and the Sept of Remembrance. Instead, the king, who was incapable of making a firm decision, fell ill, with painful cramps wracking his stomach and loose bowels … Though Aenys was only five-and-thirty, it was said that he looked more like a man of sixty, and Grand Maester Gawen despaired of improving his condition. (“Aenys I”, The World of Ice and Fire)
As she had likely done in his childhood, Visenya again manipulated Aenys to her own ends. Perhaps she wanted to use Aenys to torch the most important outlets of the Faith, thereby completing her vengeance against the Faith without implicating her herself. Perhaps Visenya knew that the unmartial Aenys, on his relatively young and small Quicksilver, would be more likely to be brought down in battle against the hosts of the faithful. Perhaps the queen believed that by taking such drastic, draconic action against the centers of the Faith, Aenys would doom his cause, and the people of Westeros would look to the onetime savior of the realm (who had no incestuous marriage of his own) to take the crown. Whatever the queen’s reasoning, Aenys was in no position to take it. Weak in health from the first, Aenys found himself now crippled by stress. Interestingly, however, Queen Visenya moved to care for the weakened king:
The dowager Queen Visenya took over his care, and for a time he improved. And then, quite suddenly, he suffered a collapse when he learned that his son and daughter were besieged in Crakehall Castle, where they had taken refuge when their yearly progress was interrupted by the uprising against the throne. He died three days later, and like his father before him, was burned on Dragonstone, after the fashion of the Valyrians of old. (“Aenys I”, The World of Ice and Fire)
What happened between Aenys and Visenya remains a mystery. Yet Maester Yandel is clear that dark rumors still swirl around the second Targaryen king’s last days:
In later days, after Visenya’s death, it was suggested that King Aenys’s sudden demise was Visenya’s doing, and some spoke of her as a kinslayer and kingslayer. Did she not prefer Maegor over Aenys in all things? Did she not have the ambition that her son should rule? Why, then, did she tend to her stepson and nephew when she seemed disgusted with him? Visenya was many things, but a woman capable of pity never seemed to be one of them. It is a question that cannot be readily dismissed . . . nor readily answered. (“Aenys I”, The World of Ice and Fire)
As noted previously, Visenya was never a traditionally maternal woman. From her early years on Dragonstone, the queen had been noted for her interest in poisons and the dark arts. Now she found herself with the king and his family completely in her power. Aenys’ regime was tumbling rapidly, and the only man who could impose order on Westeros seemed to be Maegor. Poisoning the king certainly would be an attractive option, simultaneously opening the way for Maegor to be king and avenging the years of Rhaenys’ preferment by Aegon. Nor would anyone likely dare (at least in her lifetime) to question the morality of the queen, especially if she had been seen tending to the king in his final illness. The “woman’s weapon” could be a silent killer, smoothly removing the legitimate king and opening the way for her infinitely preferred prince.
Yet would Visenya do so? Kinslaying is one of the blackest crimes in Westeros, and one of the few that extends across all Westerosi cultures; her simultaneous alleged crime of kingslaying is only slightly less ill-regarded. Visenya had never been described as a pious woman, but she was certainly practical enough to understand the damage such an unremovable sin would do to her reputation should it come to light. Nor would poisoning be the last of the hard decisions Visenya would need to make (or at least authorize) if her son was to claim and keep the crown; with three living sons of his own, Aenys had left the succession legally clear for his own line.
Whatever the truth behind what happened on Dragonstone, Visenya took decisive action. Immediately after the king’s death, Visenya flew to Pentos to recall her son from his exile. The reign of Maegor had begun.
Queen Mother: Visenya in the Reign of Maegor I
Maegor was not slow to take advantage of the loss of Westeros’ king. Indeed, he seems to have desired the crown almost as much as his mother did for him:
Maegor flew back across the narrow sea with Balerion, staying at Dragonstone for long enough to be crowned with his father’s Valyrian steel crown instead of his brother’s more ornate one. (“Maegor I”, The World of Ice and Fire)
We cannot say how much Visenya directed Maegor’s coronation, but Visenya had placed the Aegon crown on her brother-king’s head over four decades earlier. She was at least aware of the symbolic meaning of that crown. The steel-and-ruby circlet was the crown of the Conqueror, a clear sign that its wearer was a warrior who ruled by right of conquest. Maegor had no legal backing to the crown; instead, in the absence of a strong claimant, he, like his father, had claimed the crown of Westeros for himself.
Visenya’s role did not end with the retrieval of her son. The legitimist claimant Aegon, along with his sister-wife, remained alive and protected in the westerlands, but the remainder of Aenys’ family (including his two other sons) remained in her possession on Dragonstone. Visenya and Vhagar ensured that Queen Alyssa and her children would not leave their island prison to rally support for their son and brother’s claim. (Indeed, there is almost a touch of the cruel in Visenya regarding her treatment of the dead king’s family. With the coronation held on Dragonstone, rather than in the half-finished Red Keep, Visenya forced these Targaryens to witness their own ousting from power. Yet the move was also shrewd on Visenya’s part; though they had no choice in the matter, the now Dowager Queen Alyssa’s and her children’s presence at Maegor’s coronation seemed to give their assent to the illegal transfer of power.)
Though he had been duly crowned, Maegor knew he faced much opposition before he could truly be king. So mother and son moved to take King’s Landing, Maegor calling men to his dragon banner and Visenya acting as his champion:
But Maegor flew straight into the city, fearless upon Balerion, and raised the red dragon of House Targaryen on Visenya’s Hill to rally men to him. Thousands joined him.
Visenya then challenged any who denied Maegor’s right to rule to prove themselves, and the captain of the Warrior’s Sons accepted the challenge. (“Maegor I”, The World of Ice and Fire)
Unfortunately for Maegor, although he won his trial by combat, the effort left him in a comatose state. Doubtless concerned for her only son, especially given how long Maegor’s coma lasted, Visenya turned over his care to his Pentoshi lover Tyanna. Reported to practice sorcery (just as Visenya had been rumored to), Tyanna managed to draw Maegor out of his coma. His return to consciousness would also mark the final dark turn of the king’s personality; on the very day he awoke, Maegor unleashed Balerion’s fires on the Sept of Remembrance.
To what extent Visenya encouraged or directed this action is unknown; she was Maegor’s staunchest supporter, but it is unclear how much influence she had over her son. Visenya could see well enough that the Faith would never support Maegor; while thousands had rallied to his banner, the Faith had been the sole challenger to his open declaration of rule. With such staunch enemies, total destruction may have been seen by the queen as the only option. The move may have also pleased Visenya personally: the Sept of Remembrance had been erected in memory of Queen Rhaenys, and the jealousy Visenya felt toward Rhaenys had likely never fully evaporated. Nothing would remain of Rhaenys, if Visenya had her way, neither her sept nor her bloodline.
Visenya would not live long enough to see her son’s full war against the Faith, however. Two years after his accession, Visenya passed, seemingly peacefully:
The death of the Dowager Queen Visenya in 44 AC was a notable event although Maegor seemed to take it in his stride. She had been his greatest ally and supporter from birth, seeking his advancement over his elder brother Aenys, and doing what she could to secure his legacy. In the confusion after her death, Aenys’s widow, Queen Alyssa, slipped away from Dragonstone with her children, as well as with Dark Sister, Visenya’s Valyrian steel sword. (“Maegor I”, The World of Ice and Fire)
Though Maegor may not have realized it, the death of Visenya was a crippling, even fatal blow to his regime. While Visenya lived, Maegor could count on the second greatest dragon in Westeros supporting him, and the fearsome reputation of its regal, conquering rider. Losing Visenya meant that all the Targaryen dragons save Balerion – man and beast alike – were turned against the king. With the queen’s precious sword gone as well, Maegor lost a crucial symbolic instrument in securing the legitimacy of his reign. Hemorrhaging supporters daily, Maegor found himself alone, his reign ending in ignominious suicide.
Visenya’s death marked the end of the Conquest generation. She had been the eldest of the three siblings, and the longest-lived, the last Targaryen to earn her crown through conquest alone. She was also one of the only Targaryen ladies to fight in battle; only Princess Rhaenys, Queen Rhaenys’ great-great-granddaughter, would bring fire and blood on her enemies as Queen Visenya once had. Though unloved by her brother-husband, Visenya cared deeply for their son, and set her life with the singular purpose of seeing him wear Aegon’s steel crown. Yet all of her efforts were proved in vain; despite his six wives, Maegor died without surviving issue, and the line of Aegon and his fierce sister-queen ended on the barbs of the Iron Throne they themselves had forged.