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 Parts 1 and 2, we explored the lives and times of Aegon the Conqueror’s two sister-queens, Rhaenys and Visenya. By the time of Visenya’s death in 44 AC, the Iron Throne had already hosted both of Aegon’s sons, and the dynasty the Dragon had founded threatened to collapse into chaos. The realm would need a strong, capable leader to reassert the power of House Targaryen, and an equally strong queen by his side – not a warrior-queen like Visenya, or a scandal-haunted one like Rhaenys, but a clever, gracious, and virtuous woman. As it happened, the perfect pair were about to take the throne.
The King’s Daughter
Though she would be recognized as among the greatest of Westeros’ queens, Jaehaerys’ eventual consort would never have been raised with the expectation that she would wear a crown. Born in 36 AC, Alysanne was the youngest daughter of King Aenys I Targaryen and his wife, Alyssa Velaryon. Within a year of her birth, her father had ascended the throne, raising Alysanne’s rank as a daughter of the king. Still, her prospects would likely have been focused more on marriage than ascent; Alysanne would have been hard pressed to attain the crown herself, especially with three healthy older brothers.
Nevertheless, Alysanne would have likely enjoyed a comfortable existence for her first few years. A true Targaryen, Alysanne became a dragonrider, mastering a she-dragon she named Silverwing. Though no one knows or ever revealed at what age Alysanne first rode Silverwing, it seems likely that the bond would have been made early; it remained Targaryen tradition even after the last dragon had died to place an egg in the cradle of each new Targaryen prince (and likely princess). Alysanne may have looked forward to marrying one of her brothers, particularly Viserys or Jaehaerys, when she came of age, or perhaps being wed to one of her Velaryon cousins; even so, these ideas would likely have been far from the young princess’ mind.
However, in 42 AC, when Alysanne was just six years old, her father died under mysterious circumstances and her uncle Maegor seized the throne. From a position of comfort as the king’s daughter, Alysanne would have found herself a great danger to her newly crowned uncle. So long as any child of Aenys remained alive, he – or she – had a better claim to the throne than Maegor himself did – a fact not lost on the new king. Prince Aegon, Aenys’ eldest son, became the legitimist pretender; as the head of the elder branch of House Targaryen, Aegon – like the French legitimists who championed the elder branch of the Bourbons over their junior Orléans cousins – would fight for his right to the throne.
Unfortunately for Prince Aegon, Maegor had no patience whatsoever for rival claimants (especially if those claimants had a more legitimate blood claim than his own). Indeed, Maegor ruthlessly eliminated Prince Aegon in a battle over the Gods Eye in 43 AC, and had his Pentoshi wife Tyanna torture Prince Viserys to death. Alysanne herself, as well as her mother and surviving brother, remained prisoners on the island of Dragonstone, under the watchful eye of the Queen Mother, Visenya. The elder princess, Rhaena – Prince Aegon’s widow – Maegor took as his own bride, disinheriting Prince Jaehaerys while naming Prince Aegon’s elder daughter as his heir in lieu of his own issue.
That a royal princess would suffer such a reversal of fortune, especially at the hands of her uncle, should come as no surprise, historically. The same fate befell the daughters of King Edward IV, the first Yorkist King of England. When their father died in 1483, their uncle Richard was named protector of their brother, the boy-king Edward V; within two months, however, the boy-king and his younger brother had been detained in the Tower, the children of Edward IV and Dowager Queen Elizabeth Woodville declared bastards, and Richard himself proclaimed king. The queen and her daughters sought sanctuary in Westminster Abbey, although after a year the royal family was persuaded to leave, with Richard’s solemn promise not to harm them.
Maegor had not taken the legal steps Richard had to solidify his position; while he disinherited young Jaehaerys, he preserved his “black bride” Rhaena’s royal status (undoubtedly to make any offspring of their union legitimate and the “rightful” heirs to the Iron Throne). Alysanne was still very young, yet the princess had two distinct advantages over her Yorkist counterparts. First, Rhaena’s royal status being preserved meant Alysanne’s was as well; any legitimate descendant of Aenys had more of a right to the throne than Maegor. Second, and eventually more importantly for Alysanne, Prince Jaehaerys was still alive and active – a strong young dragonrider, soon to make a claim against their usurping uncle.
So when Queen Visenya – Maegor’s strongest champion and the Targaryen royals’ effective jailer – died in 44 AC, Queen Alyssa took her chance to escape with her remaining children (and Visenya’s precious Dark Sister) to Storm’s End. Alysanne, eight years old, would likely not have understood the important step her mother had taken, but Alyssa’s move was a shrewd one. In a single stroke she had distanced herself from Maegor’s seat of government, robbed him of an important piece of symbolic power, and ensconced herself in the most impregnable seat in Westeros. There, for four years, the court-in-exile presumably gathered strength, as lords from across the realm grew increasingly less tolerant of Maegor’s tyranny. In 48 AC, Jaehaerys made his own claim, and the realm – in a unique move of unification – rallied behind the last son of Aenys. With Maegor’s presumed suicide that same year, Jaehaerys was able to secure his place on the Iron Throne, and begin the longest reign in the Targaryen dynasty.
Alysanne was 12 years old when her brother became king. Though Westeros has no codified legal age for cohabitational marriage – depending instead on a girl’s “first flowering” – 12 seems to be around the age when highborn Westerosi girls would be betrothed. Catelyn Tully had been promised to Brandon Stark by her father Hoster when she was 12, Brienne of Tarth’s first betrothal occurred when she was 12, and at 12, Laena Velaryon was suggested as a new bride for her cousin King Viserys I Targaryen. Moreover, in our own world during the medieval period, 12 was the earliest legally permissible age, at least in England, for consummation of a marriage. Thus, when her brother ascended the throne, Alysanne might have expected to be betrothed; to whom would be another matter.
The Conciliator’s Consort
Maester Yandel, author of The World of Ice and Fire, gives just one sentence about how Alysanne came to wed her brother Jaehaerys:
Once in his majority, the king wed his sister Alysanne, and theirs was a fruitful marriage. (“The Targaryen Kings: Jaehaerys I”, The World of Ice and Fire)
This is the truth, but it lacks much of the planning on Jaehaerys’ – and probably Queen Alyssa’s – part which led to their union. Of course, Targaryens had wed brother to sister since Valyria had extended its writ over Essos; only failing a brother-sister union would Targaryens take other spouses, and even then the Targaryens had often made matches among their closely related Velaryon cousins (as indeed Jaehaerys and Alysanne’s father had). Jaehaerys had two surviving sisters at the time of his majority: his elder, Rhaena, then 27, and his younger, Alysanne, then 14. Rhaena, his dead brother’s widow, had borne two children by Aegon, but had also been one of Maegor’s six wives. Though Rhaena herself never delivered Maegor the stillborn abominations some of her fellow wives had, their forced marriage was almost certainly not a pleasant one (especially since Rhaena fled the moment she heard her brother was making a claim). Jaehaerys may have wanted to spare his elder sister another political marriage, and leave her and her daughters (presuming they were still alive) to a quiet, comfortable existence. Additionally, Jaehaerys may have had the need for heirs on his mind. 27 was not too late an age to bear children, yet a significantly older queen could limit both the amount of time Jaehaerys had to have children and the number of children Jaehaerys could have.
Alysanne herself made a much more tempting prize. Though we have no description of her in her youth, Alysanne was described generally as a beautiful woman, and likely displayed this beauty at the time of her marriage to Jaehaerys. Yet she was no delicate woman; Alysanne was a dragonrider who loved to fly, as well as a keen archer and hunter, someone who enjoyed physical activity (a quality that would have appealed to Jaehaerys, who was reputed to be a fine rider as well as a skilled archer and horseman). Intellectually as well, Alysanne could be a good match for Jaehaerys; Yandel calls her “keenly intelligent”, and certainly the actions she would take during her reign would demonstrate this intelligence. In terms of personality, Alysanne was charming and high-spirited, qualities that together would benefit a future queen. Perhaps most of all, Jaehaerys had shared imprisonment and exile from the court with Alysanne; though both had been young, Jaehaerys knew that Alysanne had the strength to endure these trials and still emerge a strong, charming woman.
Nor did Jaehaerys have any one great lordly ally to whom he could give Alysanne as a nuptial prize. His greatest supporter in his early reign was the Lord of Storm’s End, Robar Baratheon, whom young Jaehaerys had named Hand and Protector of the Realm upon declaring his claim. Lord Baratheon and Dowager Queen Alyssa had ruled as joint regents during the two years of Jaehaerys’ minority, yet upon his reaching his majority the two of them wed one another. While Robar might have made a worthy spouse for Princess Alysanne – being both (illegitimately) Targaryen descended and Jaehaerys’ firmest supporter – his marriage to the dowager queen removed him as a potential partner. Though the realm had risen seemingly universally in support of Jaehaerys, no one lord had done as much as Lord Baratheon (or at least, as far as we know) that would merit the awarding of a Targaryen princess.
That the Faith gave no resistance to the marriage of Jaehaerys and Alysanne demonstrates not only Jaehaerys’ genuine popularity at his accession, but also the extent to which Maegor had gutted the Faith Militant. The war between crown and Faith had lasted essentially the whole of Maegor’s reign, and the thousands of scalps Maegor collected (allegedly) from dead Swords and Stars speak to the devastation the Faith Militant had suffered at Maegor’s hand. While the powerful Faith (and its ambitious, Hightower-related High Septon) had called down worldly opprobrium on his father “King Abomination”, its much-weakened force could proclaim no such censure on the widely acclaimed king.
Certainly, Alysanne did her part to be the ideal consort for the King-Conciliator. She wore a feminine version of her husband’s crown – the slim gold band ornamented with seven differently colored gemstones. The seven stones recalled the seven-colored rainbow cloaks and of the Warrior’s Sons, the knightly branch of the Faith Militant. By including this Faith-based decoration in their crowns, Jaehaerys and Alysanne symbolically reunited crown and Faith after their division during Maegor’s war: the crown supporting the Faith, the Faith illuminating the crown.
Alysanne also made the ideal queen consort, one that the Westerosi could look to and admire. The plural marriages of Aegon to his sisters had been blatantly anti-Faith, though Aegon had taken important steps to pacify the Faith against this double Valyrian custom. Yet Maegor had not only taken multiple wives, but also forced women into marriage and produced monstrous offspring, as well as began a bloody war against the stars and swords. Alysanne’s long, monogamous, happy marriage to her brother must have seemed a refreshing contrast; her laudable personal qualities, combined with the plentiful heirs of their marriage, made Alysanne a model, if untraditional, Westerosi queen.
The (Dragon) Queen in the North
Queen Alysanne riding Silverwing at the Wall (image by Emile Denis)
Though we know but little that happened during Alysanne’s tenure as queen, the one story which is always associated with Alysanne is her travel to the North. Though even this event is pockmarked with unknowns – we do not know, for example, when this travel occurred in the more than 50 year reign of Jaehaerys – Alysanne’s experiences in the North are critically important to coming to an understanding of Alysanne as a Targaryen queen.
No Targaryen had ever visited the North. Even when Aegon the Conqueror accepted the fealty of Torrhen Stark, the King Who Knelt earned his epithet at the Red Fork of the Trident, below the marshes of the Neck. Indeed, while the North had pledged nominal fealty to the dragons of the south, independence still remained strong in the hearts of the northmen, and especially the Starks:
After the Conquest and the unification of the Seven Kingdoms, the Starks became Wardens of the North rather than kings, swearing their fealty to the Iron Throne, yet remained supreme within their own domains in all but name. Though Torrhen Stark had given up the ancient crown of the Kings of Winter, his sons were less glad of the Targaryen yoke, and some among them entertained talk of rebelling, and of raising the Stark banner whether Lord Torrhen consented or not. (“The North: The Lords of Winterfell”, The World of Ice and Fire)
Though the North was not as prosperous as the Reach or Westerlands, nor as populous as any of the southron realms (save perhaps Dorne), the sheer size of the North, combined with such fomenting thoughts of rebellion, would give Jaehaerys and Alysanne cause for concern. Should the Starks rally their bannermen to stand against the dragons, Jaehaerys faced the daunting prospect of conquering by force what his grandfather had won in peace, turning from Conciliator to Warmaker. Such a war might have pleased the newly mollified Faith, as a sort of holy crusade against the old god worshippers of the Neck and beyond. Certainly, the Faith of the fourth century AC cast the injuries against its faithful in terms of religious divergence (assisted by the political ambitions of Queen Regent Cersei Lannister):
“Septs have been despoiled, maidens and mothers raped by godless men and demon worshipers …”
“The king shall know of these atrocities,” she answered solemnly. “Tommen will share your outrage. This is the work of Stannis and his red witch, and the savage northmen who worship trees and wolves.” (“Cersei VI”, A Feast for Crows)
What might please the Faith, however, would not please Jaehaerys. The king and queen would both have known of the extended, bloody, and ultimately failed campaign of their grandparents in Dorne – a land which much resembles the North in its fierce fighters, thinly peopled lands, and strong streak of independence. The realm – and Jaehaerys’ reputation – could ill-afford another such campaign.
The Old King (no matter how old he was at the time of the visit) had used travel throughout his realm as a means of cementing his policies. On Vermithor’s back, Jaehaerys could fly quickly across his kingdom, establishing a personal rapport with his bannermen which complemented his conciliatory attitude. A mission to Winterfell, with reportedly “six dragons and half his court”, would strengthen the feudal bonds between the king and his Lord of Winterfell, as well as remind any Stark with a mind for re-independence that his liege lord commanded both most of Westeros and terrible dragons. Like Visenya’s trip to the Eyrie, Jaehaerys’ journey northward would carry a subtle warning along with an offer of peace.
Though no one left a record of the royal dragonriders who accompanied the king, Queen Alysanne herself was an obvious choice to go. As Jaehaerys’ consort, she had applied her keen intellect to assisting him in rule, and the king would doubtless desire her counsel on the vague “matters” he needed to discuss with Lord Stark. As a dragonrider herself, Alysanne (and Silverwing) would remind the northmen of what they faced should they declare independence. Yet even more so, Alysanne was a woman, like her grandmother Rhaenys, with a natural talent for winning popularity among her subjects. Where Rhaenys had failed to win the Dornish, perhaps Alysanne could use her charm and graciousness to return the rebellious northmen to the Targaryen fold.
We unfortunately know nothing of what happened at Winterfell itself. Yet what happened in the lands to the north of the Starks’ ancestral seat has been preserved in both legend and history – a testament not only to the truthfulness of what happened, but the great impression the event left on the people of Westeros, and particularly the northmen:
“A queen stayed there for a night.” Old Nan had told him the story, but Maester Luwin had confirmed most of it. “Alysanne, the wife of King Jaehaerys the Conciliator … The king had matters to discuss with his Warden of the North, and Alysanne grew bored, so she mounted her dragon Silverwing and flew north to see the Wall.” (“Jon V”, A Storm of Swords)
There seems to be some historiographical confusion on whether or not King Jaehaerys actually visited the Wall and the Night’s Watch himself. While Jon’s and Bran’s stories of the dragons’ visit to the North seem to suggest only Alysanne flew beyond Winterfell, Samwell Tarly recalls reading that Jaehaerys had come after her on his Vermithor. The king’s grandson Viserys I entertained two of his grandchildren with a story of Jaehaerys fighting a great host beyond the Wall, though none of the history supports this fantastic tale. Nevertheless, even if Jaehaerys did come, with Alysanne or afterward, it was his queen who took center stage in the story.
Before even arriving at the Wall, Alysanne took the opportunity to win the hearts of the smallfolk deep inside what would later be called the New Gift:
“This village was one of the places where she stopped. Afterward the smallfolk painted the top of their holdfast to look like the golden crown she’d worn when she spent the night among them.” (“Jon V”, A Storm of Swords)
Queenscrown might be a deserted holdfast by the present age of A Song of Ice and Fire, but during the reign of Jaehaerys it was still an active village. Alysanne’s move to stay there for a night was calculatingly populist. Instead of making a slow progress among the northern courts, being feted in the most stately holdfasts of the North (though, to be fair, Alysanne could well have visited other northern lords; we simply have no information to say), the queen had deigned to stay among the lowest and most ordinary of her subjects, in a remote village at the edge of existence. Thousands of miles stood between Queenscrown and King’s Landing, and it is doubtful whether any of these villagers had ever been beyond the confines of their village and the surrounding lands, much less to the distant capital. By staying among them, Alysanne personalized the monarchy. The Targaryens were not simply faces on coins to whom their overlords owed grudging fealty, but real people, with a willingness to form personal connections with their subjects. Lord Stark may never have come among them, but his own liege’s consort Queen Alysanne would.
Her true goal, however, was the Wall, and here again Alysanne showed herself a gracious – and keenly intelligent – queen. Having flown Silverwing presumably to Castle Black (no story ever says where exactly Alysanne stayed with the Watch, though the Night’s Watch’s primary seat seems a likely, if not solitary, choice), Alysanne took on an executive role that would have made her grandmother Rhaenys proud. The queen shrewdly recognized that the oldest Night’s Watch castle, the Nightfort, was ruinously costly to maintain, and would only grow more unsupportable as the Night’s Watch continued to lose strength. At her suggestion – and even at her direction in placement (suggesting Alysanne had flown, if not the length of the Wall, certainly at least part of it) – the Night’s Watch abandoned the Nightfort and built a new castle, Deep Lake, transferring the remaining Nightfort brothers there.
Alysanne had not simply directed the Night’s Watch where to build their new castle; she had actually funded its construction with her own jewels. The queen’s gesture, as gracious and personal as it seemed, was another intelligent decision on her part. Alysanne’s jewels symbolized the grandeur of the crown; by surrendering their use for the good of the Night’s Watch, she had symbolically turned over her and her house’s personal glory for the betterment of the realm. Like the artists’ wives of the French Revolution who dramatically (and publicly) turned over their own jewels in the Assemblée, Alysanne had made a public declaration that the realm mattered more than her her personal finery. The move made such an impression on the brothers of the Watch that they renamed the castle of Snowgate to Queensgate, a unique honor; Queensgate remains the only castle of the Night’s Watch which we know to be (re)named for a particular person.
The return of Alysanne from the Wall signaled the most dramatic move Alysanne would make with respect to the Night’s Watch. Both legend and fact support the same claim – namely, that Alysanne convinced her brother-king to extend the Night’s Watch’s holdings in the North to a full fifty leagues from the Wall. Yet here legend and fact differ, and the difference is notable – and ominous. Bran Stark, having been told the story of Alysanne’s journey, recounted the legend: the good queen had been so impressed by the bravery of the Night’s Watch that she interceded with her husband to give them more lands as a personal gift. While a charming story, the legend fails to describe either their historical context of the gift or the consequences faced by the North from this gesture.
For millennia – indeed, perhaps even to the founding of the Night’s Watch itself – the Watch had sustained its worldly needs with the produce of Brandon’s Gift, a twenty-five league stretch of land immediately south of the Wall. Like the Papal States of our own world, Brandon’s Gift swore its temporal allegiance and tithes to an intemporal power (the Pope and the Night’s Watch, respectively). While such an ostensibly intemporal force having real control over villages, goods, and money caused an uneasy balance of power in our own world, no maester reports any animosity between the Night’s Watch and the Lords of Winterfell. The Starks had seemingly grown accustomed to their northern neighbors paying their taxes to Castle Black, and the Night’s Watch continued to uphold its supranational mission. Indeed, the pact between the Night’s Watch and Winterfell had been rooted in the myth of that most venerable northern hero, Brandon the Builder; no King of Winter or Lord Commander would likely feel he had the authority to override it.
Then, after thousands of years of harmony, Alysanne used the previously nonexistent royal writ to seize a 25-league portion of the Starks’ own realm. This Donation of Alysanne might have pleased the Night’s Watch, but it suddenly made the supranational institution that much more of a temporal figure. The Starks, for their part suffered a double blow; not only did they lose the fealty of the New Gift’s inhabitants (and the taxes which accompanied such fealty), but now they faced an even more powerful Night’s Watch. Winterfell had always supported the Watch, yet it had not been unknown for ambitious lords commander to interfere in temporal affairs. Later historiography might paint the story as a magnanimous one on all sides – Lord Ellard graciously giving to the Night’s Watch what Queen Alysanne, in her kindness, had suggested – but the truth, as Maester Yandel notes, was quite different:
Letters from Lord Stark’s brother to the Citadel, asking the maesters to provide precedents against the forced donation of property, made it plain that the Starks were not eager to do as King Jaehaerys bid. (“The North: The Lords of Winterfell”, The World of Ice and Fire)
The Citadel, like the Watch, was one of the only pan-Westerosi institutions, and its archmaesters were the sole guardians of intellectual authority on the continent. An appeal to them from Winterfell was a clear sign that the Starks felt the Donation of Alysanne was illegal; only the Citadel, representative of the realm’s collective mind, could deliver an appropriate censure to the Targaryen royals. While Jaehaerys, the Westerosi Justinian, may have codified this royal ability in law, the Citadel would be able to justify this law in precedent, or declare it made ex nihilo. Apparently, however, the Citadel either had no support to give to the Starks or – remembering the Faith’s persecution under Maegor – did not wish to risk its own metaphorical neck by calling down censure on the dragons’ actions.
Certainly, however, what the Starks feared (at least in part) – that the New Gift, under the command of the distracted Night’s Watch, would fall into disrepair – did come to pass, as Jon Snow noted:
Brandon’s Gift had been farmed for thousands of years, but as the Watch dwindled there were fewer hands to plow the fields, tend the bees, and plant the orchards, so the wild had reclaimed many a field and hall. In the New Gift there had been villages and holdfasts whose taxes, rendered in goods and labor, helped feed and clothe the black brothers. But those were largely gone as well. (“Jon V”, A Storm of Swords)
The Donation of Alysanne had failed its ostensible long-term mission, to provide a greater source of income and support for the brave men of the Night’s Watch. Nor did the Starks ever surrender the idea of retaking the land which had for millennia been theirs (at least in some agreement with the Lord Commander on the Wall):
His lord father had once talked about raising new lords and settling them in the abandoned holdfasts as a shield against wildlings. The plan would have required the Watch to yield back a large part of the Gift, but his uncle Benjen believed the Lord Commander could be won around, so long as the new lordlings paid taxes to Castle Black rather than Winterfell. (“Jon V”, A Storm of Swords
Perhaps, however, the “sustenance and support” of the Night’s Watch had never been Alysanne’s true mission (or, at least, the greater part of her mission). Alysanne’s, and the Targaryen court’s, entire mission to the North can be read not merely as the peaceful visit of a king and queen to their bannerman, but a series of subtle warnings against the independence-minded Starks. The Targaryens had flown to Winterfell with six dragons, underlining both the fearsomeness of their overlords’ mounts and the speed with which the Targaryens could respond to potential threats. Alysanne herself had utilized her natural popularity among the smallfolk of the soon-to-be New Gift, emphasizing that the Targaryens could win the smallfolk – the backbone of any independence movement – to their side. At the Wall, she had given of her own jewels to support the Night’s Watch – a move seemingly calculated to assure the Night’s Watch would stay loyal to the Targaryens (or, at least, avoid supporting the Starks) should Winterfell declare its independence. Finally, and most dramatically of all, the Donation of Alysanne reminded the Starks that the king could take away part of their lands at any time, for the good of “the realm”. The Starks might have supported the claim of Princess Rhaenys at the Great Council in protest to the Donation, but they were no fools; only after the deaths of (nearly) all the dragons would a Stark proclaim independence for the North again.
Alysanne had done her work well in the North, but this journey would not be the only deed for which she would be remembered. Matters of law remained to be settled, and Alysanne would be at the head of this reform.
The Woman’s Champion
Queen Alysanne shared much in common with her grandmother Rhaenys (except the latter’s association – correctly founded or otherwise – with scandal). Rhaenys’ sole executive decision while passing judgment from the iron throne (that we know of) concerned the rights of women in their marriages, and like her grandmother Alysanne would take up the woman’s cause at least twice in her life: in abolishing the “first night” tradition and in championing her granddaughter Rhaenys’ right to the throne.
From long before the Targaryens settled in Westeros – though no maester has ever estimated when the practice began – lords on the continent had practiced the “right to the first night”. The tradition decreed that when a woman married, the “right” to bed her first belonged not to her new husband, but – should he attend the wedding – the new couple’s governing lord or king. This “right” largely applied only to the marriages of smallfolk. While kings could in theory bed their bannermen’s ladies, few chose to do so; smallfolk could not muster armies to rebel against a king who had shamed them, but injured noblemen might.
Whether a similar tradition was ever practiced in Valyria, no one can say. As the Targaryens became a permanent fixture on Dragonstone, however, they adopted the custom of their new Westerosi home. Indeed, Maester Gyldayn – in curiously highly supportive language – reported how enthusiastically the Targaryens applied this tradition to the smallfolk of Dragonstone:
Though this custom was greatly resented elsewhere in the Seven Kingdoms, by men of a jealous temperament who did not grasp the honor being conferred upon them, such feelings were muted upon Dragonstone, where Targaryens were rightly regarded as being closer to gods than the common run of men. Here, brides thus blessed upon their wedding nights were envied, and the children born of such unions were esteemed above all others, for the Lords of Dragonstone oft celebrated the birth of such with lavish gifts of gold and silk and land to the mother. (“The Princess and the Queen”)
In theory, then, the Targaryens’ adoption of the first night tradition was one of the few characteristics they shared with their new Westerosi subjects. Though no Targaryen king was ever reported to have engaged in the practice – indeed, the only individuals we know by name did were Gorgon the Guest and, to some extent, Roose Bolton – none had attempted to exterminate it, either. Their failure to stamp out the custom may have resulted less from encouragement of the tradition – again, apart from the Lords of Dragonstone mentioned above (and possibly Maegor the Cruel, if Silver Denys’ tale can be believed), none of the royal Targaryens ever practiced it – and more from the more pressing trials of the first century of Targaryen rule. Aegon the Dragon had busied himself fighting an ultimately unsuccessful war in Dorne, as well as establishing a strong monarchy at home. Aenys was a consummate man of inaction, incapable of responding to actual threats against his crown, much less taking executive action against ingrained Westerosi traditions; his brother Maegor focused completely on eliminating the Faith Militant and fathering an heir. For the Targaryens, then, the “right to the first night” was likely seen as a mostly harmless native Westerosi custom, left to local lords to keep the peace in the realm.
So if the Westerosi had held dear to the first night tradition for centuries (likely millennia), and the Targaryens themselves had participated in it, why did Alysanne encourage her brother-king to abolish this custom? Well, as a woman herself Alysanne may have sympathized with the smallfolk women forced to endure this ritual. Bedding ceremonies are ordinarily terrifying enough for the maidens involved, an organized custom of good-natured shaming and public advertising of what was normally very private:
The men would carry her up to her wedding bed, undressing her on the way and making rude jokes about the fate that awaited her between the sheets, while the women did Tyrion the same honors. Only after they had been bundled naked into bed would they be left alone, and even then the guests would stand outside the bridal chamber, shouting ribald suggestions through the door. The bedding had seemed wonderfully wicked and exciting when Sansa was a girl, but now that the moment was upon her she felt only dread. She did not think she could bear for them to rip off her clothes, and she was certain she would burst into tears at the first randy jape. (“Sansa III”, A Storm of Swords)
Adding in the prospect of a lord – a man probably unknown to the bride – climbing into bed first, Queen Alysanne could likely imagine the terror and humiliation a bride would face at the assertion of this “right”. So the queen – always reported to be gracious and kindhearted – may have sought the end of this tradition as one empathetic woman to another.
In trying to eliminate what she may have perceived as a barbaric custom, Alysanne may have also thought along the same lines as her great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great granddaughter Daenerys. While Queen in Meereen, Daenerys had adamantly refused to reopen the fighting pits, where men, women, and children fought animals (and one another) to the death for the amusement of the Meereenese people. Though eventually persuaded to reopen the pits, Daenerys ensured certain concessions to lessen the barbaric nature of the games
“No children die today in Daznak’s, as my gentle queen in her wisdom has decreed.”
Another small victory. Perhaps I cannot make my people good, she told herself, but I should at least try to make them a little less bad. Daenerys would have prohibited contests between women as well, but Barsena Blackhair protested that she had as much right to risk her life as any man. (“Daenerys IX”, A Dance with Dragons)
Daenerys drew upon language of morality to justify these concessions. Fighting children and women may have been entertaining, but were morally wrong; by limiting the fights to those adults who freely chose to enter (including, unfortunately for Daenerys, women), Daenerys was determined to make her people, if not morally good, at least farther away from immorality. Likewise, Alysanne – the most virtuous Targaryen queen yet – could well have had morality on the mind in seeking the abolishment of the first night practice.
Yet Alysanne tread on dangerous ground by campaigning for the tradition’s elimination. Maester Yandel asserts that many lords still jealously guarded the privilege at the time of its abolition – the very lords who had been Jaehaerys’ strongest supporters against his tyrannical uncle. Alysanne was a clever woman, and would have known that the crown would need to gain something significant to combat the probable loss of favor with these traditionalist lords.
So Alysanne might have argued for abolishing the right with a mind to the smallfolk – not out of simple empathy, but out of a calculated acknowledgement of the smallfolk’s support. The Faith Militant, both in its Maegor-era incarnation and revitalized in the fourth century AC, was a predominantly smallfolk-led uprising; though anointed knights had formed the Warrior’s Sons, the bulk of the Faith Militant were the commoner Poor Fellows. Jaehaerys and the Faith might have agreed to peace and disarmament, but Alysanne’s championing of this smallfolk right would help ensure that the smallfolk would not lead a similar uprising against the crown. These populists moves were something that the Targaryens would again resort to in order to bolster their own popularity at the expense of Westerosi nobility. Aegon V would make a similar decision around two centuries later, enacting “numerous reforms” to ensure the smallfolk enjoyed previously unthinkable rights and protections – though unlike Alysanne, Aegon would find resistance to his reforms almost immediately.
Like Rhaenys before her, Alysanne knew the value of being seen as the benefactress of the smallfolk. She had played perfectly to the traditional Westerosi (and medieval) queenly role as the vector of mercy – interceding with her lord husband to spare the innocent smallfolk women, with the expectation that the just king would be moved by his love for her to do so. If some of those same smallfolk had taken up arms for the Faith against the crown, they may well have admired a queen who seemingly so loved the Seven that she would move her king to protect marriage as the Father and Mother had intended it. Whether or not Alysanne had had the Seven in mind, we cannot say; certainly, she would not have rued the love and popularity she gained among the smallfolk from her deed.
Still, Alysanne did not find herself completely successful. The tradition was abolished, and no lord seemed to complain at the time, but old habits die hard. Roose Bolton, for one, refused to relinquish his lordly “right” when a miller on his land married without his permission:
The maesters will tell you that King Jaehaerys abolished the lord’s right to the first night to appease his shrewish queen, but where the old gods rule, old customs linger. The Umbers keep the first night too, deny it as they may. Certain of the mountain clans as well, and on Skagos … well, only heart trees ever see half of what they do on Skagos. (“Reek III”, A Dance with Dragons)
To be fair to the good queen, Roose Bolton is certainly not known as the most honest or trustworthy character in the series. We must take him at his word that these northern families still practice the first night tradition, while no evidence has shown one way or another. The only other man who is noted to have complained of its abolition was King Aerys II, and that while drunk; it seems more likely that Aerys was expressing his obsession with Lady Joanna Lannister than actually complaining about the first right being abolished.
The success Alysanne found with ending the first night tradition, however, would not be replicated in the matter of her granddaughter’s succession rights. In 92 AC, the king and queen’s eldest surviving son, Aemon, died while fighting Myrish pirates off the coast of Tarth. Aemon had left only one surviving child: a daughter, Rhaenys. By Andal (and First Men) custom, Rhaenys should have become the new heiress of the Iron Throne. Instead, Jaehaerys made a different choice:
The Second Quarrel, however, is of note, as it was due to Jaehaerys’s decision to pass over his granddaughter Rhaenys —the daughter of his deceased eldest son and heir, Prince Aemon— in favor of bestowing Dragonstone and the place of heir apparent on his next eldest son, Baelon the Brave. (“The Targaryen Kings: Jaehaerys I”, The World of Ice and Fire)
The move incensed Alysanne, and for the second (and last) time in their near 50-year marriage, Westeros’ most happily married royal couple quarreled:
Alysanne saw no reason why a man should be favored over a woman . . . and if Jaehaerys thought women of less use, then he would have no need of her. They reconciled in time, but the Old King outlived his beloved queen, and in his last years it was said that the grief of their parting hung over his court like a pall. (“The Targaryen Kings: Jaehaerys I”, The World of Ice and Fire)
Jaehaerys may have had good reason for choosing Baelon over Rhaenys. The princess was just 17 or 18 at the time of her father’s death, while Baelon was at least in his 30s. Baelon had two sons by his sister-wife Alyssa, while Rhaenys had just one daughter, Laena. In short, Baelon would ensure that the Targaryen line continued, while Rhaenys’ accession would mark the end of the Targaryen line and the beginning of the (Targaryen-descended) Velaryon royal line. Should Rhaenys not produce a son, the throne would then pass to Laena, and the realm ruled by the house to which Laena’s consort belonged. For a king whose byline was stability and peace, the potential for multiple changes of rule after his death would have evoked no kind feelings.
Indeed, power was very much patriarchal in Westeros (save Rhoynish Dorne). Women might be accorded a place in the succession, but only if they lacked any surviving brothers; should a new brother appear, they would immediately be demoted. No lord could count himself a great one without an ancestral greatsword (the lack of which severely bothered Tywin Lannister, for example), and though few if any would use them in battle, the lords’ very ability to swing these swords was an important facet of their ability to rule. It is no mistake that two of the male aspects of the Seven are the Father (symbol of justice) and the Warrior (symbol of martial power), while the woman’s ideal is the Mother (and the Crone, in late age). Even in non-physical ways, power was still the mostly exclusive domain of men; Queen Alicent, for example, was excused from the blood oath taken among the “green” council’s members “on account of her womanhood”. Jaehaerys may have personally liked his granddaughter, but simply affection would not be enough to hold a kingdom (especially one which had so recently seemed on the brink of collapse); the next ruler would need to be respected by the great lords, and respect would come more easily to a king than a queen.
Alysanne, however, had little sympathy for Jaehaerys’ arguments. Her criticism of Jaehaerys’ plan, at least as cited by Yandel – that women were “of less use” – was a damningly personal blow. Everyone, but especially Jaehaerys, would have known how much Rhaenys and Visenya had done to win Aegon his kingdom, and how both had ruled as regents in their king’s absence (and how Rhaenys had ever sacrificed her life in her brother’s war). It had been the royal pair’s own mother, Alyssa, who had taken the dramatic and necessary action of fleeing to Storm’s End which had saved both Jaehaerys’ life and his claim; in her son’s youth, it had been Alyssa who ruled as his regent. Jaehaerys’ elder sister, Rhaena, had made a daring and brave escape from King’s Landing on dragonback, and had stolen for her brother the great sword Blackfyre, that potent symbol of Targaryen kingship. Queen Alysanne herself had been not just a consort but a vital part of his mechanism of government. She had not only borne him nine surviving children – her primary duty as his consort – but had also helped arrange their marriages and careers for the best benefit of the kingdom. She had not merely accompanied him as a decoration to the North; she had actively befriended the smallfolk, publicly aided the Night’s Watch, and generally sent a subtle warning to the rebellious Starks of Winterfell.
These Targaryen ladies had demonstrated intelligence, bravery, and understanding of royal authority on par with any king (and greater than some). To disqualify Rhaenys (named after her famous ruling great-grandmother) as eligible to follow in rule simply on the basis of her sex dismissed not merely Alysanne, but all these dragon ladies.
Ultimately, the royal pair eventually reconciled, although Alysanne lost the succession battle; Baelon became Prince of Dragonstone, and when he died the first Great Council elected his son Viserys to be heir in his place. Yandel tells us that their daughter Maegelle helped reconcile the two, though he does not divulge the details. Yet Maegelle was well equipped to act as a mediator between her parents. Not only was the princess naturally gentle and sweet, but she had been given to the Faith at an early age to be trained as a septa – a move engineered by her mother.
Mother of a Dynasty
Queen Alysanne (image by Roman Papusev)
As with the Targaryen queens before her, though, and all those that followed, the most important role for Alysanne was that of bearing an heir for Jaehaerys. This role was especially important for Alysanne: with Maegor and Jaehaerys’ brothers dead without surviving male issue, theirs was the only male-line branch of House Targaryen left. Failure to produce an heir would spell the end of the royal Targaryens, or at the very least a likely bloody succession crisis.
Thankfully, for both the royal couple and the realm, theirs was both a long and fruitful marriage:
For forty-six years, the Old King and Good Queen Alysanne were wed, and for the most part it was a happy marriage, with children and grandchildren aplenty. (“The Targaryen Kings: Jaehaerys I”, The World of Ice and Fire)
Together, the king and queen had thirteen children – an impressively large family branch which would never be repeated in the Targaryen line. Even so, the royal family was not immune to tragedy; of their children, four – including their firstborn son Aegon – would die before reaching adulthood. While unfortunate, such an outcome might have been well expected in Westeros. Three of Minisa Whent’s six children died as babies, and four of Quellon Greyjoy’s nine sons died in infancy or childhood. Eight of Queen Alysanne’s own descendant Rhaella Targaryen’s 11 pregnancies ended in miscarriage, stillbirth, or infant death. Even in our own world, during the Tudor period of English history, perhaps 14% of children would die before reaching their first birthdays.
Still, Alysanne might have thanked the Seven for her luck. Not only had a majority of her children lived into adulthood, but she herself survived each pregnancy and childbirth and died at a very advanced age for Westeros. Her Westerosi peers were not always so lucky. High birth did not save two of the ladies previously mentioned – Minisa Whent and Rhaella Targaryen – from dying in their “bloody beds”. Maegor might have had difficulty producing a viable heir – not assisted by the dark arts of his Pentoshi bride Tyanna – but Alysanne had done her part to ensure the Targaryen line would continue.
With nine sons and daughters surviving into adulthood, the question of their “careers” (for lack of a better term) became highly important. While Targaryens in the past (recent as that past was) had largely confined themselves to wedding their siblings or Velaryon cousins, Jaehaerys and Alysanne planned a number of cross-continental matches for their children. True, Prince Baelon, their second son, would wed his sister Alyssa but none of the rest would follow this Valyrian tradition. Indeed, Jaehaerys and Alysanne, like their descendant Aegon V, seemed desirous to continue their work of conciliation, like their Westerosi subjects, through marriage alliances. Valyrian tradition would be respected, but only with the prince not destined to sit the throne.
Instead, their heir Aemon would wed his Baratheon aunt, Jocelyn – a reaffirmation not merely of the Baratheons’ blood ties to the Targaryen regime (Jocelyn’s mother being Dowager Queen Alyssa), but also the invaluable service Lord Baratheon had provided in Jaehaerys’ successful bid for the throne and his early rule. Another child, Princess Daella, would make a similar match, wedding Rodrik Arryn, Lord of the Eyrie. It was a brilliant match: Jaehaerys and Alysanne honored the loyal Arryns (and perhaps gave consolation for King Aenys’ inaction at the death of Ronnel Arryn), while setting up their daughter to rule, a virtual queen in the rich, largely independent Vale.
The match of Princess Viserra, however, may have carried a darker undertone. The tenth-born princess was slated to marry Lord Manderly, before her untimely death in the capital. Though it may seem strange to wed a princess of the blood to a Stark bannerman, rather than a Stark lord, Jaehaerys and Alysanne may have had good reason for doing so. House Manderly was the most “southron” of the noble houses in the North, a holdover from their days as mighty lords by the Mander in the Reach. Princess Viserra would certainly find White Harbor, the North’s only true city and the center of Seven worship beyond the Neck, more comfortable than any other seat in the North, including Winterfell. Moreover, Lord Manderly was a powerful lord in his own right, at least relatively in the North. Nearly three centuries later, his (presumable) descendant Wyman Manderly enumerated House Manderly’s strengths:
“Even with the losses I have suffered, I still command more heavy horse than any other lord north of the Neck. My walls are strong, and my vaults are full of silver. Oldcastle and Widow’s Watch will take their lead from me. My bannermen include a dozen petty lords and a hundred landed knights. I can deliver King Stannis the allegiance of all the lands east of the White Knife, from Widow’s Watch and Ramsgate to the Sheepshead Hills and the headwaters of the Broken Branch.” (“Davos IV”, A Dance with Dragons)
All these characteristics may have been on Jaehaerys’ and Alysanne’s minds when crafting their match. Recall that the Starks were less than pleased at the Donation of Alysanne. The Starks had been kings not a century before, and commanded the fierce loyalty of (most) of their bannermen; should they declare independence, the Targaryens could look forward to a Dornish-like guerrilla war. By wedding a princess to Lord Manderly, Jaehaerys could ensure the powerful Manderlys (and White Harbor, the North’s only outlet by sea) would stay loyal to the Targaryens, as well as remind the Starks of the dragons’ power even far from King’s Landing. Robert Baratheon (probably on the suggestion of Jon Arryn) would play the same tactic by wedding his brother Stannis to Selyse Florent – a none-too-subtle message to the recently Targaryen loyalist Tyrells that they could be replaced by a more loyal family. The loyal Arryns and Baratheons had been rewarded with Targaryen marriages; the defiant Starks had been warned with another.
Even more interestingly, several of the children were destined not to continue the Targaryen line at all. The couple’s fifth (and third surviving) son, Prince Vaegon, was given to the Citadel at an early age, to study as a maester. Vaegon’s ominous epithet may have played into this role; as “the Dragonless”, Vaegon could not impose the fearsome Targaryen writ the way his dragonrider father and likely dragonrider brothers could. Should some unfortunate fate make him king, the lords and smallfolk of Westeros would be expected to respect a man with whom they were at least evenly matched in battle – a dangerous prospect indeed. Far better to have the young prince be sent to the Citadel, not only to extend Targaryen power into the exclusive club of knowledge and intellectual authority, but also to eliminate excessive branches of Targaryen heirs. Around a century later, a young Prince Aemon would be sent to the Citadel for the same reason:
“My own father raised the same objections when I chose a life of service,” the old man said. “It was his father who sent me to the Citadel. King Daeron had sired four sons, and three had sons of their own. Too many dragons are as dangerous as too few, I heard His Grace tell my lord father, the day they sent me off.” (“Samwell I”, A Feast for Crows)
Queen Philippa of Hainault, wife of King Edward III – a woman with whom Alysanne shares much in common – provides a similar historical example. Philippa, like Alysanne, had nine children who lived to adulthood; her five sons likewise all had children of their own. Though Philippa had done her part to ensure the Plantagenet line would continue, this abundance of male Plantagenet heirs proved to be as much as curse as a blessing. Henry, the ambitious heir of the third of these sons, John of Gaunt, usurped the crown from his cousin Richard, son of the eldest son Edward; later, Henry’s own Lancastrian line was ousted by another Edward, who claimed descent from both the second and fourth sons of Edward and Philippa. These dynastic struggles, the Wars of the Roses, tore apart crown and realm as ambitious royals fought for a crown to which all had part of a claim.
In a similar way, though he had been the legitimist claimant to the throne, Jaehaerys knew that his accession had been a tempestuous one. The king – and Alysanne – would have remembered the family infighting of their youths, with the usurpation of Maegor. A multitude of Targaryen princes meant any younger son could nurse dangerous ambitions for power, potentially tearing House Targaryen apart.
Two of Vaegon’s sisters would also find themselves excluded from marriage. Princesses Saera and Maegelle were promised from an early age to the Faith, to be trained as septas. For princesses to take religious vows was not unknown in our own world, though the choice was usually the princess’ own; Princess Bridget of York, one of the daughters of Edward IV mentioned above, became a nun after her sister’s accession as queen. While her taking the veil conveniently removed a potential Yorkist heir from fomenting rebellion, the choice seems to have been a personal one on Bridget’s part.
It seems likely, however, that the Targaryen girls’ religious fate was a part of Jaehaerys and Alysanne’s continued program of reconciliation with the Faith, rather than a choice made by the princesses themselves. By signing over two of their own daughters to the Faith, Jaehaerys and Alysanne made a personal sacrifice for public visibility of their pro-Faith-conciliation policies. They would practice what they preached; instead of personally benefiting from betrothing their daughters to high lords (or, blasphemously, their own siblings), they would set the model for crown respect and protection of the Faith (and, as a bonus, remove more excess branches of the Targaryen line).
In short, Jaehaerys and Alysanne had crafted the model of the ideal Westerosi family. Jaehaerys, a wise and strong king, could be an example for any lord to follow; Alysanne herself – gracious, kindhearted, charitable, and, above all, fertile – was the ideal Westerosi lady. Their children, amenable to their parents’ wishes, would serve their family and the realm; like the ancient commanders of the Night’s Watch who left the Wall higher than it was under their predecessors, the Targaryen princes and princesses would, in their roles, further Targaryen interests and leave the realm in an altogether better condition than it had been under Aenys and Maegor. The Old King and the Good Queen were, like Edward and Philippa or Victoria and Albert, the embodiments of the ideals of their age, the true first family of Westeros.
Unfortunately for Alysanne, her plans for some of her children turned out less well than she might have hoped. Indeed, Princesses Viserra and Saera rebelled against the ideal family so carefully crafted by their parents; Viserra, a “high-spirited” girl, died while drunkenly racing her horse through the streets of the capital, and Saera escaped to Essos, where she became the proprietor of a famous brothel. Like the children of Aegon V, who spurned their father’s carefully crafted matches to choose their own partners (or lack thereof), Saera and Viserra had chosen willfulness over obedience, and personal pleasure over the “good of the realm”. Unlike Aegon V, we do not know to what extent Jaehaerys and Alysanne suffered publically as a result of their children’s decisions. The death of William Adelin, heir to Henry I of England, in a similar drunken accident was one of the causes of the Dance-like succession crisis known as the Anarchy, though Viserra was never the heiress the way William was. Certainly, no maester’s text ever notes any public repercussions suffered as a result of the girls’ actions.
This is not to so say, however, that the failure of their model family system did not haunt Jaehaerys and Alysanne. Indeed, Jaehaerys was so moved by Saera’s escape across the Narrow Sea that, toward the end of his life, he became convinced his last Hand’s daughter, Alicent Hightower, was Saera herself. Alysanne never came to this point, yet tragedy would follow her to her end as well. When her last daughter, the simple-minded but sweet Princess Gael, became pregnant and subsequently committed suicide in 99 AC, the queen was heartbroken; less than a year later, the queen was dead, the cause of death ascribed to her grief (though at 63, Alysanne had lived a comparatively long life for a Westerosi, and any number of natural causes could have spelled her end).
Thus ended the life of Good Queen Alysanne. Though not intended from her birth to wear a crown, Alysanne proved she could not simply adapt to her queenly position, but thrive in it. She never asserted her royal power in her own right, the way her conquering grandmother and great-aunt had; nevertheless, her intellect and decision-making power were just as apparent as with these first Targaryen queens. She had been exactly what Jaehaerys needed as a king: a strong, gracious, virtuous queen, able to reestablish the Targaryen monarchy when it had looked ready to collapse. It should be little wondered, then, that Alysanne alone of Targaryen queens would earn the epithet the “Good Queen”.