Hello and welcome once again to The 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 examined the sister-queens of Aegon the Conqueror, Rhaenys and Visenya. In Part 3, we discussed Rhaenys’ granddaughter, and Jaehaerys the Conciliator’s beloved consort, Alysanne. The good queen predeceased her brother-king, yet she did live long enough to see the birth of her great-granddaughter Rhaenyra. What she did not see – and could not have imagined – were the internal, backbiting politics of her grandson’s court, and the strong-willed women in it who would drive the peaceful realm of Jaehaerys once again to the brink of destruction.
The Young King’s Queen
When the Old King died in 103 AC, he was succeeded not by one of his sons (who had all predeceased him), but by his eldest surviving male grandson, Viserys. The agreement of the First Great Council had bypassed the lineage of Jaehaerys’ eldest surviving son Aemon, preferring the son of the second son Baelon (Viserys) over the daughter of the first son (Aemon’s only child, Rhaenys). For the attendees at Harrenhal, having a male Targaryen, even from a younger branch, remained critically important to the success of the dynasty.
So when Viserys himself took the throne at the death of his grandfather, he would (or should) have been well aware of the patriarchal bias that had allowed him to ascend the twisted iron steps. Though Jaehaerys and Alysanne had had three sons who survived to adulthood, only Prince Baelon had left male issue. Viserys had his own brother, Daemon, as a potential heir, yet the new king would have understood the necessity for him to produce male heirs of his own.
In theory, nothing should have stopped the new king from fathering his own majestic branch of House Targaryen the way his grandfather had. At roughly sixteen, the then-Prince Viserys had wed a cousin, Lady Aemma Arryn. The young lady was the only surviving child of the marriage of Lord Rodrik Arryn and Princess Daella (herself a daughter of Jaehaerys and Alysanne). Though the marriage had not resulted in sons to rule the Eyrie – falcons with purple eyes and silver wings, to ensure pro-Targaryen sentiment in the Vale – Aemma was nevertheless a fair prize. Her marriage to Viserys (then second in line to the throne after his father, Baelon) would be a neat closing of ranks within the royal family. A noble lady of royal descent (she was, in fact, the prince’s only female cousin besides the already-married Rhaenys), close enough for Targaryen tradition while dynastic enough for Westerosi mores, Aemma was the perfect bride for Viserys.
The only detriment to their marriage was Aemma’s inability to bear Viserys a male heir. Instead of the multitude of Targaryen princelings filling the halls of the Red Keep as they had in the Conciliator’s day, Viserys and Aemma struggled to have a family of their own. In their 12-year marriage, the royal couple suffered a series of miscarriages, as well as the death of one son in the cradle. Only one child lived past infancy: the Princess Rhaenyra.
That Viserys would, in his second marriage, have no apparent problem fathering four healthy children in quick succession seems to indicate the problem lay with Queen Aemma. Certainly, Aemma would not be the only Targaryen queen to have difficulty providing an heir; her descendant Rhaella would likewise suffer more than twice as many miscarriages, stillbirths, and deaths in early infancy as she would have living children. Even Queen Aemma’s own mother, the Targaryen princess Daella, had died at her birth, an ominous indicator of the trouble Aemma would encounter in trying to provide an heir to the throne.
In our own world, another queen would feel the pressure to bear her king a male heir – and, like Aemma, would have only a single living daughter for her efforts. When Katherine of Aragon married her dead husband’s younger brother Henry, the bride was 23 – past the age when princesses would have been expected to start having children, and a full five years older than her spouse. With Henry as the only male-line Tudor alive, and nearly a century of bloody royal-driven civil war so recently ended, Katherine would have understood the critical need to have a son to continue the Tudor line. Unfortunately for Katherine, she failed to give Henry the son he wanted. Her only surviving son would live just 53 days; of her remaining five pregnancies, only one child lived to adulthood – the future Mary I of England.
Like Henry and Katherine, Viserys and Aemma represented one of the only male-line branches of the royal house. Though Viserys had a brother, Daemon, who would in theory be his heir should he die without male issue, Daemon showed no interest in continuing the Targaryen name; the prince openly despised his Royce wife and seemed content to keep paramours instead. The only other male-line claimant was the Princess Rhaenys, daughter of Prince Aemon, yet both the Old King and the Great Council had passed over her to rule. Should both of the sons of Baelon die without male issue, the resulting succession crisis could tear the realm apart. The Targaryens of Viserys’ day had ruled longer than the Tudors had at the time of Henry and Katherine’s marriage, yet both were houses born of conquest, aware that any major crises in the royal house could topple the house itself.
Aemma, however, did not live long enough to be put aside for a younger consort, as Katherine was. In 105 AC, after just two years of rule as queen, she died in childbirth. The newborn prince, Baelon, survived his mother by only a day. With his queen and potential heir both dead, Viserys would take a drastic step to assure that the Targaryen line would continue.
Princess of Dragonstone
Young Rhaenyra Targaryen (image credit to Magali Villanueve)
Queen Aemma was dead, but Viserys still had one living reminder of his late wife: their daughter, Rhaenyra. Charming, bright, and beautiful (so much so that Archmaester Gyldayn enthused about her youthful virtues, though as Rhaenyra’s line eventually ended up sitting the Iron Throne he may have been writing with the benefit of hindsight), the princess was dubbed the “Realm’s Delight”. Though never thought of as the heir while her mother lived (the expectation being that Aemma would give Viserys a male heir), the little girl nevertheless delighted both her parents; as the only Targaryen child at court (her cousin Laena might have drawn the same popularity, being beautiful and fiery as well, but she remained at her father’s seat of Driftmark), Rhaenyra seems to have been something of a darling, of her royal parents and the courtiers as well. Like the similarly pretty and precocious Princess Charlotte of Wales, only daughter of George IV of Great Britain, the young Rhaenyra was the family pet and delight of the court.
Prettiness and precociousness, however, did not change precedent. Both the lawmaking Old King and the assembled lords of the realm at the First Great Council had declared (twenty to one in the latter case) that the male claimant should succeed over the female. If these precedents had their way, the dragon princess would be a matrimonial prize for some leal bannerman, not the queen regnant. While Queen Aemma lived, this fate would not have been unexpected; Viserys could and did expect his wife to bear him a son to take the throne, leaving his daughter free (either to marry this unborn brother or to reward some native Westerosi lord).
What should have been Rhaenyra’s fate, however did not appeal to Viserys once his wife had died. Instead, he would make a dramatic political move on his daughter’s behalf:
Disregarding the precedents set by King Jaehaerys in 92 and the Great Council in 101, King Viserys I declared his daughter Rhaenyra to be his rightful heir, and named her Princess of Dragonstone. In a lavish ceremony at King’s Landing, hundreds of lords did obeisance to Rhaenyra as she sat at her father’s feet at the base of the Iron Throne, swearing to honor and defend her right of succession. -The World of Ice and Fire, Viserys I
The obvious historical parallel here is the naming of Matilda as heiress of England by her father, Henry I. After the accidental death of her brother William Adelin, Matilda became Henry’s only surviving legitimate child. So on 1 January 1127, Henry gathered his nobility at Westminster, to swear a solemn oath to defend her right to succeed her father as Queen of England. The nobility may have complied, yet the prospect of actually being ruled by Matilda may have seemed a distant one in their minds. Henry had remarried six years prior, and soon after Matilda herself would remarry, to a powerful French noble; should either of them provide a son, England could be assured rule by a king.
In terms of pure Andal-First Men tradition, however, Viserys’ move would not have been altogether surprising. In the absence of a legitimate (or legitimated) son, a lord’s heir would be his eldest daughter, and would succeed to his seat before any of his brothers. Westeros has had no great shortage of ruling ladies in their own right; in Rhaenyra’s own lifetime, Jeyne Arryn would be hailed as the Maiden of the Vale, ruler of the Eyrie. Andals and First Men respected a woman’s right to succeed her father – provided she had no brothers.
Even in Viserys’ own Targaryen history, a number of women had played key roles. Queen Alyssa Velaryon had ruled as regent for his grandfather Jaehaerys during the king’s minority. Queen Alysanne had been the Old King’s constant companion and a powerful queen, helping to curb the Starks’ defiant ambitions and end the distasteful practice of the “first night”. Rhaenys and Visenya had conquered Westeros alongside Aegon; when the realm bowed to the dragons, the sisters had ruled as queens in their own right, with at least Rhaenys (and likely Visenya) sitting the Iron Throne to make law and dispense justice. Each of these ladies had shown that a woman could rule as well as a man, if circumstances so required, and each had proven herself worthy of the challenge.
Rhaenyra was the king’s only child, a spirited dragonrider and great-grandchild of the great Jaehaerys and the noble Alysanne on both sides of her parentage; in the king’s mind, there should be no impediment to her rule.
Whether or not the lords of Westeros would have followed Rhaenyra as their queen if Viserys had perished immediately after this declaration is debatable. More likely, a succession war would have arisen between those who supported the line of Princess Rhaenys (including the Starks and Baratheons) and those who had supported Viserys at Harrenhal and pledged support for Rhaenyra. To what extent this early Dance of the Dragons would have resulted in the bloodshed the true Dance did is unknowable, yet with fewer actual dragons involved, the destruction – both to the land and people of Westeros and the royal house – would likely not have come close to its historical comparison.
What is important to note, however, is that Rhaenyra’s induction ceremony as heir was not an empty gesture on the king’s part (or at least was not intended to be). Viserys would follow careful steps to underline Rhaenyra’s importance to him. At the age of eight (the year she was proclaimed her father’s heiress, although we cannot say whether this happened before or after the investiture ceremony), Rhaenyra was named cupbearer to her father. While apparently girls serving as cupbearers is an ordinary process in Westeros (at least according to Maester Gyldayn), we as readers know of only two other Westerosi examples (excluding Arya Stark, whose service came while she was in disguise and not as a consequence of her Stark-Tully blood). Over a century after the Dance, King Aegon V would send his daughter Rhaelle to Storm’s End, as a cupbearer for Lord Lyonel Baratheon; even later, Prince Doran Martell planned to send his daughter Arianne to Tyrosh to serve the Archon as cupbearer (though he never actually did so). Both of these terms of service were inextricably connected with marriage prospects; Rhaelle had been betrothed to Lyonel’s heir Ormund, while Arianne’s service had been engineered around meeting her secret fiancé, the exiled Targaryen pretender Viserys.
For Rhaenyra, however, her service as the king’s cupbearer had no overtone of marriage. The singular honor of serving the king in this manner had been bestowed on the princess – a sign of filial affection, perhaps, but also a way to ensure Rhaenyra’s early exposure to the practice of governance. The king’s cupbearer would be at the king’s side at all important state events, not only pouring his wine but listening to him treat with his courtiers and bannermen. This kind of close, early exposure to royal affairs could not be duplicated anywhere in Westeros, and Rhaenyra’s elevation to this position indicated how highly the king thought of his heiress daughter.
Nor would Rhaenyra limit her royal training to cupbearing service. Even after the king had sons of his own from his second marriage, Rhaenyra would continue to sit at the foot of the Iron Throne when Viserys received petitioners. The king would even invite his eldest child to meetings of the small council, and encourage her to listen carefully. Although Rhaenyra would likely not have been making actual policy (at the very least, we know nothing about what she did while attending these sessions, besides listen), the very act of attending was significant. Viserys was making a public – and very recognizable – statement that his daughter was being raised to rule.
His Westerosi lords would have understood well the significance of Viserys’ action. Part of an heir’s training to succeed his father or current lord is “shadowing”, watching the actual business of rule. Like the process of fostering, shadowing allows a glimpse for a young heir or noble into the daily workings of lordly governance, and both are heavily practiced in Westeros. Samwell Tarly, trained for years to succeed to Horn Hill, emphasized the importance of this training at his father’s right hand:
“When I was little, my father used to insist that I attend him in the audience chamber whenever he held court. When he rode to Highgarden to bend his knee to Lord Tyrell, he made me come. Later, though, he started to take Dickon and leave me at home, and he no longer cared whether I sat through his audiences, so long as Dickon was there. He wanted his heir at his side, don’t you see? To watch and listen and learn from all he did.” ( “Jon VI”, A Game of Thrones
In our own world, another would-be heiress would receive royal training at her father’s command. Princess Mary Tudor, eldest child of Henry VIII and the only surviving issue of his marriage to Katherine of Aragon, was partly raised as her father’s heiress. As such, in 1525 the nine year old princess was sent to live at Ludlow Castle on the Welsh marches. Edward IV had named Ludlow the seat of the Council of Wales and the Marches, an administrative body governing the principality of Wales, and sent his own ill-fated son Edward there; in 1501, Henry VIII’s elder brother Arthur also went to Ludlow to learn the art of governance. Though Mary had not been formally acclaimed Princess of Wales, her 19 month residence at Ludlow and overseeing the Council indicated her special royal status. The princess was not simply a king’s daughter, bred for advantageous marriage; she was a king’s heir, trained to rule.
No matter how well she would be trained for rule, Rhaenyra had only a brief time to enjoy her status as the sole acclaimed heiress of the Iron Throne. Viserys would soon take another wife – one more fertile than his first.
A New Queen
That King Viserys would marry again seemed assured to all in the realm – save perhaps Viserys himself. Only 28 when Queen Aemma died, Viserys was most certainly young enough to father more children. While their marriage had not been openly unhappy (at least so far as the record indicates), the relationship between king and queen had not been the tight, dedicated partnership the pair’s grandfather and grandmother had enjoyed. Alysanne’s passing might have devastated the old Jaehaerys, reducing him to a death-awaiting shell, but Viserys was still young, still vigorous, and still without a male heir. If that last point did not bother the king, it certainly piqued his courtiers, particularly Grand Maester Runciter (who was perhaps in the best position to know, historically, just how dangerous an unclear succession could be).
The maester himself had the seemingly ideal candidate for the vacant queenship: Lady Laena Velaryon. Like Queen Aemma, Laena was the king’s cousin, though the latter enjoyed kinship with him on (almost certainly) both sides of her lineage (Laena’s father was Corlys Velaryon, Lord of the Tides; the Velaryons had closely intermarried with the Targaryens before and after the Conquest); once again, the king’s marriage would be a union of Targaryen familiar relations and Westerosi dynastic expectations. A match with Laena, however, would hold even more political import than that with Aemma Arryn had. Laena’s mother was the Princess Rhaenys, only child of the Old King’s eldest surviving son Aemon; though both king and council had passed over the dragon princess to succeed her grandfather, Rhaenys remained known among some smallfolk to the end of her life as the “Queen Who Never Was”, the rightful heiress of the Iron Throne. Laena had likewise been a candidate for rule at the Great Council (alongside her younger brother Laenor), and while the eight-year-old lady had likely been too young to care about her denied destiny as heiress of Westeros, she and her family represented a dangerous potential focus for rebellion (not mitigated either by the wealth and naval power of the Velaryons or the legitimacy of Rhaenys’ bloodline and the dragons at her line’s command). By marrying Laena, Viserys could bind the two potentially rival branches of House Targaryen back together (much like the marriage of Henry Tudor to the potential Yorkist heir Elizabeth).
The king, however, demonstrated a willfulness in his marital prospects that would be repeated more than once in his descendants. Instead of seizing the politically advantageous Laena, Viserys had followed his heart, and in 106 AC took to wife Alicent Hightower, daughter of the Hand of the King, Ser Otto Hightower.
On face, no one could object to the match. House Hightower, though not a paramount house in its own right, is nevertheless one of the most powerful houses in Westeros, with wealth perhaps equal to that of House Lannister and a greater number of sworn swords than any other reacher house can boast (save perhaps the Tyrells themselves). Nor were the Hightowers unfamiliar with royal ambition. Lord Manfred Hightower had offered his youngest daughter to Aegon the Conqueror as a gesture of fealty, though the Dragon had refused, unwilling to offend either of his sister-queens. Through the political machinations of the Hightower-related High Septon, the then-Prince Maegor had wed Lady Ceryse Hightower in 25 AC, and she became queen when he took the throne (though Ceryse may well have been murdered by her royal husband shortly thereafter, having failed to produce an heir). If Alicent was not a Targaryen descendant, she was nevertheless highborn enough to be considered for a crown, and she (and her family) were more than ambitious enough to take it.
Alicent herself was not unfamiliar with the royal court. When her father had been named Hand of the King to Jaehaerys, she had accompanied him to the Red Keep, even sitting by the king’s bedside and reading to him as he died. Fifteen at the Old King’s death, clever and lovely, Alicent was in a perfect position to make a brilliant match with any of the leading nobles at court. Yet at her marriage to the king, Gyldayn notes some resentment among courtiers that Ser Otto had planned such a match from the beginning of his tenure. Certainly, such a strategy would be tried in the future, with the Hand Tywin Lannister bringing his lovely maiden daughter Cersei to court to arrange a betrothal between the Lannister lady and Prince Rhaegar (though with less successful results). Curiously, however, the new king had been married for 10 years at the time of his accession; Ser Otto could not have foreseen Queen Aemma dying, and would likely not have wagered his daughter’s future on such an unpredictable outcome.
Aemma’s death, however, afforded Alicent – and the Hightowers – a chance for advancement. Having already been rumored to have shared both the King’s bed and that of his brother Daemon, Alicent had certainly attracted the king’s attention by the time Queen Aemma died. Maester Yandel notes that the queen’s father “encouraged” the match between the newly widower king and his maiden daughter. What Ser Otto did to encourage his royal patron is unclear. Most likely, he (like Hoster Tully would centuries later, when considering a match between his daughter Lysa and Jaime Lannister) ensured Alicent and Viserys would be together at every possible opportunity. Shoving eligible daughters into the king’s attention (and occasionally into the king’s bed) as a means of advancement was not unknown in our own world; Thomas Howard did so with two of his nieces for Henry VIII. With Alicent, Ser Otto had a likely very willing pawn. Alicent had already once extended her sweet charm to the Old King in his grieving, lonely end; Viserys – likewise grieving, likewise lonely, but much younger – made an even more pliable target.
The Princess and the Queen
Nothing (besides perhaps the unsubstantiated rumors of her affairs with the royal brothers) would have indicated that Alicent would make a poor queen or wife for Viserys. The ambitious Hightowers would doubtless have been pleased at her marriage; with a Hightower in the consort’s seat, doubtless the new queen would ensure lucrative positions for her Hightower relations (as indeed, Cersei Lannister would for her Lannister relatives during her tenure as queen). Being just eighteen, the young queen also provided the realm hope that Viserys would be succeeded by a male heir of his own line. Even Princess Rhaenyra seemed pleased by the match; having grown up with Alicent at court, Rhaenyra was relatively close to the Hand’s daughter, nine years her senior, and welcoming to her new stepmother.
So the births of two Targaryen princes in quick succession (as well as one princess) should naturally have delighted the new queen. Whatever her personal feelings toward motherhood, Alicent would have known that she could wield considerable influence as the mother of Viserys’ sons. In our own world, Maria Carolina of Austria, Queen of Naples, received a seat on the privy council after giving birth to her first son in 1775. Queen Alicent would not receive a formal council seat, but the position of mother of the heir was nevertheless a potentially powerful one. As Queen Alyssa had demonstrated, a queen could rule for a son to young to hold power himself; as Queen Visenya had shown, even the mother of a mature king could be his strong champion and influence his actions.
Yet no matter how many Targaryen royals Alicent produced, Viserys adamantly refused to change the succession. Though he would later threaten to remove Rhaenyra from the succession if she did not accept Laenor Velaryon for her husband, Viserys remained obstinate in most of his decisions. What once the king had decided, he would not change – either his marriage to Alicent or his declaration of the succession. Perhaps this attitude stemmed from the chronic indecisiveness of his great-grandfather, Aenys; to avoid his ancestor’s fatal weakness, Viserys might have tried to take his decisionmaking to the other extreme. Additionally, Viserys was a generally affable man, one who naturally hated conflict; having such an obstinate attitude about the succession would (he might have imagined) silenced debate, and kept the court in (uneasy) peace.
His attitude was not one to please his queen, however. Aegon and Aemond were Viserys and Alicent’s trueborn sons, yet they (and their daughter) were little better than legitimized royal bastards – acknowledged by their royal father, yet relegated to the end of the succession, behind the proclaimed heir (or heiress, in this case). This state of affairs would have shocked and humiliated Queen Alicent, and – perhaps unsurprisingly – she and Rhaenyra’s relationship quickly deteriorated. Both ladies thought themselves supreme – Rhaenyra for her unique and exalted place as heiress, Alicent for her traditionally powerful role as mother of the king’s sons – and neither would give the other any quarter. Alicent, for her part, ensured that her eldest son would be named Aegon, explicitly after his great-great-great-grandfather; this prince, the queen’s choice suggested, though younger than his (half) sister, would like his exalted ancestor be destined to rule.
The war of appearances did not end there. In 111 AC, Viserys hosted a tourney to celebrate the fifth anniversary of his marriage to Queen Alicent. Viserys had inherited a generous treasury from his grandfather, and like Henry VIII in our own world, the genial king was determine to spend it on courtly pleasures and entertainments. Yet if the king had motivation to host his rounds of tourneys – including this one – besides his own pleasure, both his wife and daughter recognized their potential to convey important political messages.
That both would use the tourney to their own ends should not come as a surprise. Tourneys by their nature are designed to demonstrate the wealth and power of their hosts; drawing competitors from across the Seven Kingdoms means providing lavish feasts and lucrative prizes, and only wealthy lords can afford to host such great events. Additionally, great tourneys – with their gathering of usually geographically distant lords – provide a fertile ground for political machinations. Some – like the tourney of Lannisport in 276 AC – are designed around political goals; others – like the Whitewalls tourney of 212 AC – are mere covers for actual political conspiracy. It is no mistake that the legendary first tourney of Westeros centered around the betrothal of Maris the Maid; only the most foolish lord would not use the expense and power of a tourney to his advantage.
Viserys might have been such a man, but his wife and daughter were not. At the tourney, Alicent wore a beautiful green gown, the better to highlight her own beauty (much to Rhaenyra’s later chagrin, Alicent kept her trim, pretty figure even after four pregnancies). Alicent had also ensured that three Hightower relations – two cousins and the queen’s own brother, Gwayne Hightower – took part in the joust as her own champions. It was a show of Hightower strength: the beautiful Hightower queen, mother of the king’s half-Hightower sons, at the acme of her attractiveness, surrounded by Hightower relations.
Rhaenyra would also use her appearance at the tourney to demonstrate her agenda – not as the head of a house faction, but as the rightful heiress of her father’s throne. The princess dressed for the occasion in dramatic black, with accents of red. The reasoning behind her choice of colors would have been obvious to all observers: red and black are the house colors of the Targaryens, echoed in the Valyrian-steel-and-ruby crown of Aegon the Conqueror and visible in the dragon banners which likely surrounded the tourney field. For her champion, Rhaenyra selected Ser Criston Cole, a young but commendable knight of the Kingsguard. Whatever the princess’ girlish crush on Ser Criston (and that likely played into her choice of champion), the choice was a clever one; who better than a knight of the Kingsguard – the body specifically created to defend the king and royal family – to bear the favor of the royal heiress? Alicent, the princess seemed to be suggesting, had portrayed herself as a Hightower, reveling in her personal glory: Rhaenyra, by contrast, would let no one forget to what house she belonged – and to which she stood as heiress.
Yet although the newly named “blacks” and”greens” divided the court into factions, Rhaenyra knew she could not take control of her supportive party until she had a court of her own. To do that, she needed to marry. The question was who.
The Princess Bride
From likely her earliest years – and certainly after she became her father’s heiress – the question of Rhaenyra’s marriage had been an important one to answer. While her mother lived, Rhaenyra might have been expected to marry the brother Viserys and Aemma hoped to provide her. Yet after her mother’s death, Rhaenyra’s eventual marriage would have again come into question. Elizabeth Tudor might have avoided the problems of jure uxoris rule by never marrying, but Rhaenyra would have been expected to continue the Targaryen line. For that, she needed a consort.
Certainly, any lord would consider the princess the fairest prize in Westeros for his son to win. A marriage to Princess Rhaenyra would guarantee not merely access to the wealth and privilege of the royal family, but an opportunity to rule alongside his royal spouse when she took the Iron Throne. If he were ambitious enough, the princess’ spouse could claim princely and even kingly rank (a 1554 Act of Parliament designated Philip, the Spanish husband of Queen Mary Tudor, King of England as a joint monarch to his wife, for as long as their marriage lasted) upon his wife’s succession, and could direct the affairs of the realm. Most importantly, his bloodline would sit the Iron Throne after his wife’s death, and no lord would turn down the honor of his grandchildren being of the blood royal, and his eldest grandson sitting the Iron Throne in the future.
One can little wonder, then, that wherever Rhaenyra traveled in the realm, the sons of the highest lords paid court to her. Jason and Tyland Lannister vied for her attention at Casterly Rock, as did the ever querulous Bracken and Blackwood lordlings; the sons of Lords Tyrell, Tarly, Tully, Oakheart, and Strong also paid (less violent) court to the princess. Intriguingly, Archmaester Gyldayn mentions Rhaenyra visiting the Trident in 112 AC as the context of the Bracken-Blackwood duel; she was likely present as well at the Casterly Rock feast where Jason and Tyland fought for her, and with the number of reacher sons paying court, probably visited the Reach as well. These visits were not simply for her own entertainment, though she would have been lavishly feted by lords hopeful for their sons’ suits. Instead, these visits would have served an important dual political purpose: not only entertaining the courtly advances of high lords’ eligible sons, but also putting Rhaenyra’s courtly education to a field test. As cupbearer and shadow-pupil to her father Viserys, Rhaenyra had likely watched him entertain courtiers and navigate political decisions with their input. Now she herself would represent the crown to some of the realms’ most powerful lords, hopefully demonstrating the graciousness, tact, and manners that she would need to rule. Jaehaerys and Alysanne had relied on their travels through the realm to establish a personal rapport with their bannermen and further unite the Seven Kingdoms; her betrothal progress would be Rhaenyra’s first opportunity to do the same.
Queen Alicent had proposed her own candidate to the king: their eldest son, Prince Aegon. For Alicent, the move might even have seemed conciliatory. If the elder princess and the eldest prince wed, no one could question who had the better claim to the throne; their eventual children would bind House Targaryen back together, ensuring a clear succession after the king’s death. In a rare move of forceful will, however, Viserys refused to consider his two eldest children’s marriage. The decision was in part practical: Rhaenyra was sixteen when she wed, but would need to wait at least another seven years before she could contemplate having children if Aegon was her spouse. The longer Rhaenyra waited, the more difficulty she could potentially experience having children, and the less time she would have to have them (the same problem Katherine of Aragon faced; married to a king five years her junior, Katherine found herself unable to have further children even while the still-vigorous Henry pursued other women). Personally, neither prince nor princess had ever liked one another; in a curious move of personal affection, Viserys seemed unwilling to force his children into a mutually loathing marriage. There is also some indication in the historical record that Viserys was aware of Alicent’s Hightower ambitions, and unwilling to sacrifice his eldest child to them, no matter how neat the match might have been.
The final choice, however, was not any of these mainland bachelors (or the Prince of Dorne, though the idea raises an intriguing line of alternate history to which we can only speculate) but rather the princess’ second cousin, Laenor Velaryon. As heir to Driftmark after his father, the Sea Snake Lord Corlys Velaryon, Laenor was certainly of equal standing with any of the young men who had paid court to the princess; the Velaryons were never wealthier or more influential than they were during the reign of Viserys I. Even more than simply wealth and title, however, Laenor possessed a blood lineage that made him the ideal candidate for the royal heiress. His mother was the Princess Rhaenys, only child of Jaehaerys’ eldest surviving son Aemon. Laenor had been a candidate at the Great Council of 101, though he (like his mother and elder sister Laena) had been passed over for Viserys himself. Nevertheless, should the Princess Rhaenys have so chosen, her son might have made a powerful focus for anti-Viserys sentiment (even more so than his sister Laena, who had similarly been considered for a royal marriage; Laenor had the distinctly Westerosi advantage of being a male claimant). Indeed, the boy emphasized his Targaryen lineage by becoming a dragonrider, his gray dragon Seasmoke being his “pride and passion”. With his wealthy and imposing Velaryon father, his fierce and dynastically powerful Targaryen mother, and his own Valyrian appearance and dragonriding ability, Laenor could have seriously threatened the established Targaryen regime.
A marriage between the Princess of Dragonstone and Laenor Velaryon, then, would bind together the lines in dispute at Harrenhal. The supporters of the Princess Rhaenys would have their legitimist claimant by the throne (if not upon it), with his sons following their mother as kings. The match would ensure that the occasionally fractious Lord Corlys would support the Iron Throne (especially after Viserys had publicly snubbed the house by refusing a marriage with Laena in 105 AC).
The only detriment to this politically ideal union were the bride and groom themselves. Laenor, at nineteen, had never shown an interest in women – a problem sufficiently important enough to be discussed by the king’s council. The matter was not merely personal; Laenor’s first duty as prince consort would be to father heirs on Rhaenyra. Non-consummation was, in our own world, one of the few reasons a marriage could be legally dissolved (as Henry VIII demonstrated in his divorce from Anne of Cleves); the alliance between the king and the Sea Snake could never be complete until and unless Rhaenyra and Laenor consummated their union and produced a child. Moreover, if the marriage failed to result in children, the same succession questions would arise; Queen Alicent would have an even stronger incentive to push for Aegon being the heir to the throne, and Viserys, for all his love for his wife, had little desire to see the ambitions of the Hightowers succeed.
Nevertheless, Laenor’s blood lineage won out over his seeming disinterest in the fairer sex. In 113 AC, Princess Rhaenyra sailed to Driftmark and her Velaryon betrothed. In her retinue was her personal sworn shield – a man who would haunt the legacy of Rhaenyra long after he himself had died.
A Royal Affair
It might be unsurprising that Rhaenyra would show willfulness in her marriage and intimate affairs. After all, her own father Viserys had dismissed the politically advantageous match of Laena Velaryon for a love match with Alicent Hightower; it was, in fact, this aborted marriage that partly compelled Rhaenyra to take Laenor Velaryon to husband. Her descendant Aegon V would marry for love (while he was still a minor prince), as would two of his sons; the affairs of Aegon IV are too numerous and infamously known to merit discussion here. Rhaenyra had grown up with the constant reminder that she was of the noblest blood in Westeros, and since eight had been lauded as “the Realm’s Delight”, sole heiress to the great expanse of the Seven Kingdoms. It would have been a heady, spoiling experience for any girl, and Rhaenyra was no exception. Nevertheless, Rhaenyra’s affairs would severely undermine her reputation, and help make the Dance of the Dragons not merely a possibility, but a certainty.
Her first rumored affair centered on the the Kingsguard knight Ser Criston Cole. From an early age, the princess had shown much interest in Ser Criston. Though born of modest means, Ser Criston had risen through his martial prowess to the white cloak in 105 AC. Archmaester Gyldayn notes that the handsome young Ser Criston was a great favorite of all the ladies at court, and Princess Rhaenyra was no exception. The indulged princess had received every attention from her royal father and the amused courtiers; now, seeing the newest white sword rise quickly in popularity, she seemed determined to have him as well. Viserys – always one to indulge where indulgence could avoid conflict – named Criston Cole his daughter’s sworn shield; day and night, the steward’s son would be by the princess’ side – to protect her.
Rhaenyra’s affection might have been forgivable as a girlish fancy, but what resulted from it was most certainly not. Queen Alicent remarked pointedly that while the white knight protected the princess from her enemies, no one protected the princess from the knight himself. Such commentary may simple have stemmed from Alicent’s own bitterness toward the princess and ambition for her own son to succeed; if the queen could cast enough aspersions upon the princess’ honor, fewer courtiers would be willing to follow her claim to the throne after Viserys’ death. Nevertheless, these barbed comments would be echoed by two different members of the court, staining Rhaenyra’s reputation with scurrilous tales.
Both Septon Eustace and the court fool Mushroom insisted that Rhaenyra and Ser Criston Cole shared some desire for intimacy. Eustace wrote that Criston deeply desired the princess, and even presented the idea of elopement to her (though Rhaenyra turned him down, hardening his heart to her thereafter). Mushroom’s tale involved a twisted series of lessons on the part of Rhaenyra’s uncle Daemon, teaching the princess how to seduce her white knight (who spurned her advances anyway). That Prince Daemon was involved in a sexual manner with his niece is a belief shared by both Mushroom and Eustace; the former asserted that Daemon asked his brother for his daughter’s hand after revealing the extent of her “training”, while the latter insisted Daemon actually took Rhaenyra’s maidenhood.
To what extent we can trust either of these sources, of course, is highly speculative. Septon Eustace was a vehement Aegon supporter during the Dance, even anointing him with holy oils at his coronation; it would not have been surprising, therefore, for the septon to write a harsh, if exaggerated, criticism of Rhaenyra during her maiden years at court. Mushroom himself thrived on exaggeration; though Maester Yandel notes that Mushroom heard much (courtiers refusing to censor their speech around the supposedly lackwit dwarf), his Testimony of Mushroom is an explicit, debauched chronicle of life at Viserys’ court. Even so, the fact that both stories share a number of features – sexual intimacy with Daemon Targaryen, romantic interest from princess to knight or vice versa, and the deflowering of Rhaenyra long before her marriage – seems to indicate that both held at least part of the truth. Perhaps more importantly, Maester Yandel’s citing of these two sources indicates the sentiment at court around the issue. Whether or not Rhaenyra had engaged in illicit affairs before her marriage, certain factions of the court certainly believed that she had – and that belief would not help her later bid for the throne.
Worse was to come for the Targaryen princess. Having been spurned by Ser Criston Cole and deflowered by Ser Harwin Strong (according to Mushroom), Rhaenyra was not about to surrender her personal pleasure for a loveless arranged marriage. In traveling to Driftmark, Rhaenyra included in her household both Ser Harwin Strong’s sisters (as her handmaids) and Ser Harwin himself, now replacing Ser Criston as her sworn shield. While we cannot know who arranged Rhaenyra’s household (a king nominally had final say on who constituted a royal household, yet the permissive Viserys probably allowed Rhaenyra to have her way with whomever she chose), the choices could not have made a more obvious political message. The Strongs were Lords of Harrenhal, wealthy and powerful, with Lord Lyonel serving as the King’s Hand. Rhaenyra’s household was a warning to the green faction: Alicent might have had Viserys’ sons, but Rhaenyra had his Hand, a powerful lord in his own right to ensure her rights would be protected.
The rumor that Rhaenyra had taken Harwin as a lover was not dispelled by Rhaenyra’s conduct at her wedding celebrations. At the start of the melee, Rhaenyra removed her garter and presented it to Ser Harwin to wear as her favor; her amused new husband, observing this presentation, handed his own favor to his likely lover, Ser Joffrey Lonmouth. Yet while Laenor might have taken Rhaenyra’s move in good humor – this was a political, rather than a love, match for him as well – the assembled courtiers would not have been so amused. In chivalric society, the granting of a favor to a champion often (though not always) carried some romantic overtones; it is no coincidence that the disguised Sansa Stark would use the granting of her favor to spur the affections of her fiancé, Harry Hardyng.
He grinned. “I will hold you to that promise, my lady. Until that day, may I wear your favor in the tourney?”
“You may not. It is promised to… another.” She was not sure who as yet, but she knew she would find someone. (“Alayne I”, The Winds of Winter)
Without a husband or family member fighting in the melee, Rhaenyra would have lacked for a socially suitable recipient, and in this context her favoring her sworn shield would not be altogether surprising. Yet with the rumors of her illicit affair with Harwin so fresh, Rhaenyra had been foolish to favor him so publicly. Even Aegon IV was reviled for wishing to honor his mistress over his wife with the crown of the Queen of Love and Beauty; Rhaenyra, as a married woman, had even less ability to do so. (Laenor’s response also did not help: by granting his own favor to Ser Joffrey in amusement, Laenor effectively equated Ser Harwin and Ser Joffrey.)
In effect, the roles of the 111 AC tourney had reversed. Now it was Alicent, a queen of unassailable virtue, who had a Kingsguard knight (and the Lord Commander, no less) to bear her favor and represent her as an upright Targaryen queen, while Rhaenyra indulged her personal desires by showing favor to her probable lover. The war of appearances had turned in Alicent’s favor, and would continue to turn away from Rhaenyra in subsequent years.
Taking a paramour was scandalous enough behavior for a princess, even more so given that princess was heiress to her father’s throne, yet Rhaenyra would not stop at simple pleasure. At the birth of her first child, Jacaerys, in 114 AC, the full extent of Rhaenyra’s sham marriage and private affair became known. While both Rhaenyra and Laenor boasted the silver hair, purple eyes, and aquiline features of their Valyrian antecedents, baby Jace had brown hair, brown eyes, and a pug nose.
Westerosi genetics, as demonstrated throughout A Song of Ice and Fire, are largely oversimplified; children generally inherit the “look” of either their father’s or their mother’s family (a notable exception being Bittersteel, Aegon IV’s son by Barba Bracken, who had his mother’s dark hair and his father’s violet eyes). That a child’s appearance would be taken as proof of that child’s parentage has already been demonstrated; indeed, a great amount of the action of the main series is driven by the realization (based on their obviously Lannister appearance) that the children of Cersei Lannister were not fathered by Robert Baratheon. Two Valyrian-looking parents, then, should rightfully have produced a Valyrian-looking child. The truth was obvious: Ser Laenor was not the father of Rhaenyra’s children, and the next heir to the Iron Throne was a bastard. (Interestingly, neither Archmaester Gyldayn nor his sources ever describe Ser Harwin Strong. Though we can presume Ser Harwin was the father of Rhaenyra’s children, since he is the only man in any of the primary sources mentioned as being close to Rhaenyra at this time – he, like Jaime Lannister (another father of royal bastards), insisted on being with Rhaenyra at the delivery of the princess’ second child Lucerys – the genetic record is unfortunately unavailable.)
Two more sons would be born of Rhaenyra and Laenor’s “union”, and both would share their brother’s brown hair, brown eyes, and common features. Yet even as their illicit parentage was plain to read, Rhaenyra insisted on her sons being accepted as trueborn and rightful Targaryen heirs after herself: each was given a dragon egg in the cradle, each was styled as “Prince”, and raised at the Red Keep with their royal uncles (until getting into a violent quarrel with Prince Aemond). Viserys was willing to entertain this conspiracy, not only forbidding anyone to call his grandsons “Strongs” (and removing the tongues of those who did so), but also acknowledging Jacaerys as his future heir (and potentially arranging the murder of Harwin Strong, to eliminate anyone who knew for certain the paternity of his grandsons). The hubris of the princess – that the court would accept, even in the face of overwhelming visual evidence, that these were her trueborn sons because she said so – was matched only by the hardened campaign of her stepmother, who took every opportunity to dismiss her step-grandchildren as bastards (and probably encouraged her own children to do the same- Aegon and Aemond learned their slights somewhere).
As a final personally motivated (and publicly foolish) gesture, not six months after either of their spouses had died, Princess Rhaenyra and her uncle Daemon married. If any one move could have assured the absolute break between the blacks and greens, this was that move; Alicent and her party had no kind thoughts for Rhaenyra, but they absolutely loathed Prince Daemon. Even without their hatred, however, Rhaenyra had been foolish; the social mores of Westeros crown upon widows and widowers (but especially the former) who show insufficient respect for their deceased spouses. Daemon had more than once been rumored as Rhaenyra’s lover; now, with Daemon himself rumored to have had Laenor murdered (and with his first child with Rhaenyra conceived not even two months after Laena’s death), Rhaenyra had once again sacrificed her reputation for her personal pleasure. The whole realm was united in outrage at the royal pair; Daemon, the devious and dangerous rogue prince, and Rhaenyra, the selfish cuckolding princess with a brood of bastards, made a poor future ruling pair.
Complicating matters further, Rhaenyra had two more sons with Daemon. These boys were Targaryen-looking, and most likely trueborn which only served to confuse the succession issue. On their mother’s side, the new boys would come after their half-brothers and before their uncle-cousins; on their father’s side, the boys would come after Alicent’s sons. Yet if their half-brothers were bastards, then Aegon and Viserys would be next in line after their mother – presuming her rights remained. As had become characteristic of her, Rhaenyra had given no thought to the future; her royal affairs might please her for now, but the consequences would damn her later.
Conclusion: Taking Two Girls to the Same Dance
The reign of Viserys I, which had begun with such promise, ended with the realm poised for civil war. In just over 25 years, Viserys had fundamentally undermined the peace and stability so carefully engineered by Jaehaerys and ensured that the very succession crisis he had hoped to avoid would come to pass. What had gone wrong?
Much of the blame must be focused on Viserys himself. The king knew (or had reason to know) just how patriarchally biased the lords of Westeros were, and how much more difficult it would be for a woman to impose her authority with surviving male relations. A daughter will never succeed in Westeros (excluding Dorne) while a trueborn son of her generation lives. Had he truly desired to make Rhaenyra his heir, he should have never remarried after Queen Aemma’s death, but stayed firm in his training Rhaenyra to rule. By fathering trueborn sons on Alicent Hightower, Viserys grossly complicated the issue. He expected his lords, purely on the basis of his own (rather weak) will, to refute centuries and even millennia of legal tradition – an unfair expectation of any overlord, and a dangerous refutation of their own agnatic succession rights.
Viserys can also be faulted for his failure to check the power of the “green” faction at court. He had every reason to expect that Ser Otto would be vehement in his support of his grandsons’ claims, yet he specifcally recalled Ser Otto as Hand when he himself was at the end of his life. Had Viserys made clear that Rhaenyra was of a specifically higher rank that Aegon, Aemond, or Daeron – by giving them to the Faith, sending them to the Citadel, training them for the Kingsguard, or marrying them to Westerosi heiresses to serve as prince consorts – the green faction would not have had so powerful a footing at the time of the Dance. Instead, the genial Viserys allowed Aegon and Helaena to marry – a move which in the eyes of the Westerosi would have made them “true Targaryens”. Always seeking the course of least reaction, Viserys guaranteed a violent reaction by the time he died.
Yet Rhaenyra herself also merits blame. A female monarch can rule and be accepted by her bannermen, but only if they view her as a true leader. Instead, Rhaenyra allowed herself to be attached to scandal with three different men, both before and after her marriage; at least one of these rumored relationships – that with Harwin Strong – is almost guaranteed to have been true. Few if any lords would happily follow a boy whose bastardy was common knowledge, especially knowing that trueborn male-line descendants of the king existed. No lord, even if he doted upon his bastards, would dare try to place the products of his extramarital affairs on his own high seat, unless he totally lacked for trueborn descendants.
Like her father – but even more impossibly – Rhaenyra expected the lords of Westeros to acknowledge her sons as true Targaryen heirs purely on the basis of her own will – to subjugate their power to her pleasure. She was, in effect, claiming more male privilege than an ordinary king – not only the right to take a paramour and have bastards (something no queen would ever be permitted, for fear of disrupting the succession), but the right to solemnize these bastards as her own royal heirs. Such a course of action would be dangerous for a king; for a queen regnant, it would be absolutely fatal.
Rhaenyra did not lack for proper examples of queenship. Had she steered a middle course between Alysanne and Visenya – having the former’s cleverness, graciousness, unquestionable morality and subtle working of power with the latter’s ability to rule in her own right and look to the safety of the crown (but without the latter’s vengeful streak and cruelty) – she might well have won the hearts of her future bannermen. Jaehaerys and Alysanne (and Aegon the Dragon) had traveled extensively throughout their realm, forging personal relationships with their bannermen (as well as reminding some, like the Starks, who truly ruled). Rhaenyra was pleased to be feted by the realm’s most eligible bachelors during her maidenhood, but after her marriages was never reported to have traveled beyond King’s Landing, Dragonstone, and Driftmark. She thus lost a crucial chance to win her future bannermen to her side – to give them more than a mere legal reason to support her when Viserys died. She might have also done the same with the marriages of her sons; instead of wedding them to their Targaryen-Velaryon cousins (an unnecessary reaffirmation of the Targaryen-Velaryon alliance), she might have arranged matches with daughters of the great lords of Westeros, to bind them to her cause.
To what extent Queen Alicent was merely the tool of her father Otto’s ambitions is impossible to say. Even without her father’s ambitions, however, Iit would not have been an unreasonable conclusion that the woman who marries the king and has his sons should expect to see the eldest of those sons inherit the throne after his father. No law of Westeros prefers daughters over trueborn sons simply for the daughter being the product of the first marriage. Nevertheless, Alicent made what could have been an easy transition of power from Viserys to Rhaenyra violent, complicated, and ultimately destructive. Instead of respecting the precedent Viserys was attempting to create (as indefensible as it might have been, from a legal standpoint), she allowed her Hightower ambition to override concern for the stability of the kingdom.
The Dance of the Dragons was not any one party’s fault, yet all parties were at fault for thinking of themselves instead of the stability of the realm (to which all were ostensibly dedicated). Alicent began the war, Rhaenyra responded to the challenge, and both queens would gamble – and lose – everything to prove themselves right.