The Three Heads of the Dragon: Kings, Pretenders, and the Ladies of Fire: Viserys I

Viserys I Targaryen on the Iron Throne, by Karla Ortiz

After the long and bountiful reign of King Jaehaerys the Wise, his grandson would take the throne. Validated by the Great Council of 101 AC, Viserys would continue the peaceful reign of his grandsire. There would be no conflicts with Dorne or the Faith, and aside from an ultimately forgettable war between the Kingdom of the Three Daughters and his sometime-kingly brother Daemon, there was peace and plenty for all. Many credit Viserys as good a ruler as Jaehaerys the Wise, but is that really the case? Did Viserys match up to his grandfather and continue his legacy as the shepherd of a golden age? Or was there no substance underneath the ornamentation? Was Viserys the true steel?

Viserys the Copper King

“House Targaryen was never again so powerful as it was in Viserys’s reign” -A World of Ice and Fire, Viserys I

On paper, Viserys I had the potential to be as great as his grandfather even before his ascension to king. He rode the dragon Balerion until the dragon’s death in 94 AC, even larger and stronger than he was in the time of Aegon I. The treasury was full, thanks to the infrastructure projects that Jaehaerys had completed during his reign to knit the realm together. The Targaryens had close relationships with most of the noble houses thanks to King Jaehaerys’s clever dragon diplomacy. The smallfolk too, loved the Targaryens through Good Queen Alysanne and her tireless campaign of rights and public appearances. Besides Balerion, there were many dragons grown to maturity. Even if none of the dragons were as large as Balerion, the greater number gave field commanders the ability to project force over a wider range and with greater flexibility, much as Aegon did at the Field of Fire. The dynasty on the whole had brought Westeros to a new golden age, and enjoyed great power, peace, and prosperity. Viserys also had much personal potential. He was tied by marriage to the mighty House Arryn, Lords of the Vale. He was known to be open-handed, generous, and friendly, all good traits for forming strong personal relationships with vassals. When Jaehaerys died in 103 AC, the realm would mourn, but the 26-year old Viserys would sit the Iron Throne using his most powerful trait: the collective will of the nobility.

Elective monarchies had a rich tradition in the Holy Roman Empire, but electing to the office of heir was fairly rare, often tied to blood succession rather than election. In fact, in the Byzantine Empire, the heir was often named as a co-emperor to ensure that upon the ruler’s death, the throne would pass to his chosen heir; because the throne had never been technically empty, the Imperial purple would theoretically never subject to the vague elective procedures of the Senate. This procedure would not always be perfect, of course. Flavius Iustinus, a former swineherd, was able to take advantage of the elective procedures and with the help of some hefty elector bribes and his position as comes excubitorum (the commander of the royal guard and thus, the only man with troops within the walls of Constantinople), he became Emperor Justin I. However, there is a historical analogue for the position of heir-elective in these rare Great Council moments: the Gaelic Tanistry. The Tanist was the heir-apparent to the rulership of Ireland, Scotland, and the Kingdom of Man, and was elected from those with the ability to become the righ, which could mean those male candidates with kingly blood or among the males of the sept, depending on the region and the time period. This tradition would be killed off in Scotland when Malcolm II introduced hereditary monarchy in order to pass the Scottish throne to his daughter (like early period Viserys, Malcolm had no sons), but much of the tradition remained in Ireland until the Irish were conquered and incorporated into the British state.

“By this time, Viserys I was heartily sick of being hectored over the succession, and disregarding the precedents of 92 AC and the Great Council of 101 AC, he officially declared that Rhaenyra was Princess of Dragonstone and his heir.” -A World of Ice and Fire, Viserys I

However, despite all of these overwhelming advantages, Viserys also had many shortcomings that prevented his ability to rule effectively. Taking after his great-grandfather Aenys, Viserys was eager to avoid conflict and made great concessions to dodge the issue. He was also known to enjoy the pleasures of courtly life even more than his pageantry-loving ancestor. As he aged, Viserys would become fat and plagued with related infirmities, to include gout and back problems so debilitating he could barely ascend the steps to the Throne. Balerion the Black Dread would die of age during his lifetime, and he would not make the attempt to tame another dragon, despite the dragons being the key source of power of the Targaryen dynasty and a powerful symbol of right to rule. These factors taken together, make it easy to see that Viserys loved to enjoy the perks of being the king to the point of decadence in strict contrast to his grandfather, who seemed to take great pains to be a busy monarch. This isn’t to say that Viserys wouldn’t take pains to assert his authority. He quarreled with his brother numerous times, naming his daughter as his heir over him (after Daemon made a joke after the death of Viserys’s newborn son in poor taste). This feud would culminate in Daemon’s banishment after he allegedly deflowered his niece, Rhaenyra. These rumors would persist to Viserys’s death, and would not be helped by Daemon visiting Rhaenyra on Dragonstone, despite his banishment. Nor was Viserys able to stop Daemon’s marraige to Laena Velaryon over his protestations. When allegations of Rhaenyra’s infidelity called the paternity of her sons (who were notably the heirs to the Iron Throne after Rhaenyra) into question, Viserys ordered that any who cast doubt on their paternity would be silenced by having their tongues torn from their mouths.

“When you tear out a man’s tongue, you are not proving him a liar, you’re only telling the world that you fear what he might say.” -A Clash of Kings, Tyrion III

These moments actually served to weaken Viserys’s authority. By naming Rhaenyra heir over Daemon in flagrant disregard for the Great Council of 101, he let it be known that he believed his will to be higher than the will of the assembled nobles or legal traditions of Westeros. His brother Daemon, who had brought a small band of men-at-arms to the Great Council, was among Viserys’s fiercest supporters and willing to fight even at diplomatic matters, and so felt the blow even more strongly. To make matters worse, the king did this over a joke, painting him as a deeply reactionary and easily provoked. With Daemon able to wed whomever he pleased despite being banished, the Rogue Prince made a mockery of the royal edicts of Westeros, and this presented Viserys as someone whose laws could be disobeyed, not a desirable trait for a monarch. He demanded that none speak about Rhaenyra’s offspring despite their being a great amount of evidence (by Westerosi standards) that Harwin Strong was the father, suggesting the king was unwilling to hear the truth or was easily deceived and manipulated. Of course, he was easily manipulated, given the very ambitious members of his court. The green and black factions would openly vie for position and authority and Viserys would make concessions rather than cow this sort of political infighting. While his grandfather could make concessions, Viserys lacked the same knack. Without authority to back his decisions, without the ability to invest his ambitious constituents in peace, Viserys just treated the symptoms without the cause, and ended up only delaying war rather than eliminating it.

The strictest comparison to Viserys during his reign is the weak-willed and eager to please Lord of Casterly Rock, Tytos Lannister. Like Viserys, he too would overindulge in food to the detriment of his health (to the point where ascending a staircase killed him). Like Viserys, Tytos was unwilling to use his authority to stop the manipulations of his vassals to his own detriment. Tytos is almost the logical extreme of Viserys’s own conflict avoidance, as Tytos refused even to enforce debt collection out of fear of conflict with his vassals. That Tytos would almost lead his dynasty into ruin does not stand as a bragging point for this fifth Targaryen monarch.

Rhaenyra, the Realm’s Delight, by Magali Villeneuve

Viserys’s Court – A Lamb Leading Sheep

One of the most interesting things, when discussing Viserys I, is how bland he is compared to the members of his court. He has neither the ruthless ambition of the Hightowers, the colorful violence of Daemon, or the complicated sexual politics of Criston Cole the Kingmaker and Rhaenyra.

“Prince Daemon improved the armaments and training of the watch and gave them the golden cloaks that led them to be known as the ‘gold cloaks’ to this day.” -A World of Ice and Fire, Viserys I

Much of Viserys problem’s with his brother Daemon we’ve discussed earlier, but as always, the Rogue Prince finds ways to become the center of discussion. Even during the reign of Jaehaerys, Daemon would cause problems. During the Great Council of 101 AC, Daemon would bring a small contingent of men-at-arms when advocating the claim of his elder brother, Viserys. As it turned out, the dramatic move wasn’t even necessary, Viserys was favored twenty-to-one, but few forgot that Prince Daemon was willing to bring fighting men into a diplomatic meeting, almost coming to blows for his brother’s claim (as well as the precedent that would name Daemon heir after Viserys until a son was born to him), an action that would not endear him to members of the Westerosi nobility. Daemon would not just be a colorful figure in court, but would make war upon the Stepstones when it seemed obvious that he would not be named the heir over Viserys’s daughter, Rhaenyra. This war, against the Kingdom of the Three Daughters, would keep the second sons and hedge knights of the realm occupied, in the hopes that more territory would fall under the purview of the Seven Kingdoms and more lordships and castles would need men to sit the lordly chair. King Viserys supported the venture, likely advised on the economic implications of a trade passageway that would not be preyed upon by pirates or opportunistic Essosi, and lent coin to the cause. Daemon achieved many great gains, but the Essosi financed a new war fleet and Dorne joined the war against the Seven Kingdoms, and the invasion was ultimately a failure.

Viserys’s quote that Daemon could keep being the King of the Stepstones if that “kept him out of trouble” offers a historical comparison. In the waning days of the Sengoku Jidai, the Warring States period, the regent of Japan, Hideyoshi Toyotomi, had done much to end the ceaseless wars between regional daimyo, but he still ran the problem of having a large number of heavily-armed veterans with long-standing grudges and little non-violent skills whose agitations could shake the nascent unified Japan. His solution was simple: export them to a foreign war where they could channel themselves against a foreign foe. In this case, Hideyoshi began a conquest of Korea, with the eventual goal of conquering China. Much like Daemon’s War in the Stepstones, the Japanese achieved great gains in territory initially, pushing forward and capturing Hanseong. However, the Korean naval capability and their “righteous forces” of militia troops skilled in guerilla warfare were able to hammer at Japanese weakpoints and completely arrest their offensive. With reinforcements from the Ming dynasty, the Japanese found themselves stalled out and defeated. Their supply lines were too long, their home bases too far for the foreign invasion to work. Much like Hideyoshi, Daemon would find his campaign falter, and the Rogue Prince would abandon Bloodstone in 115 AC. Others would make claim to Daemon’s proto-kingdom, but such dreams of ambition were not to last.

The Hightowers too, are noted to be particularly ambitious during the reign of Viserys. Otto Hightower, Jaehaerys’s final Hand of the King, brought his young daughter Alicent to court to tend to the aging king in his final years. Viserys wed Alicent Hightower in 106 AC, five years after the death of the Old King, amidst scurrilous rumors that Prince Daemon had deflowered her while she was at court, and others that suggested that she took to Viserys’s bed before Queen Aemma Arryn had passed. Before the Hightower-Targaryen marriage, there was talk of wedding Laena Velaryon, daughter of the Sea Snake and the Queen-Who-Never-Was, in the hopes of reconciling the rifts of the Great Council of 101 AC by bringing the Velaryons into the family. A son that resulted from that union could possibly be the end of royal factionalism, but such was not to be. Viserys wed Alicent, and gave rise to the greens party when Prince Aegon, later Aegon II, would grow to manhood. The seeds of the Dance of Dragons would not be long in sprouting.

The bizarre case of Criston Cole certainly helped exacerbate the tensions within the court, especially with Rhaenyra. A handsome and gallant knight, Rhaenyra was enamored of the young Kingsguard appointee, and asked him to be named her sworn sword, which the king granted. Ser Cole would wear Rhaenyra’s favor at tournaments, though this was hardly scandalous behavior. That a Kingsguard would wear the favor of a maid of the royal family was standard practice, and with Criston Cole explicitly charged with defending Rhaenyra, it was a perfect expression of the courtly love that could be reasonably expected of the Kingsguard. What became strange was the falling out between the two. Rhaenyra, betrothed to her homosexual cousin Laenor Velaryon in the hopes of reconciling with the family of the Sea Snake, and Criston, sworn to celibacy as befits a Kingsguard, had something happen that permanently soured the two on each other. Septon Eustace believes Cole suggested they elope to the Free Cities and Rhaenyra spurned such a life as beneath her, while Mushroom suggests that Cole was horrified when Rhaenyra attempted to seduce him and she took solace with Harwin Strong. Whatever the truth, this would emerge as a bitter feud, with Criston Cole severely beating both Harwin Strong and Laenor Velaryon’s favored Joffrey Lonmouth, the latter of whom would die of his injuries in a tourney melee. The reality was clear, no person could be counted on as being a friend to Criston Cole and Rhaenyra Targaryen both, meaning that the Lord Commander of the Kingsguard and heir-apparent would eventually have a conflict. One of the two would eventually give way, and the realm would bleed for it.

The Perils of Lazy Rule

It is said that Viserys ruled well and maintained the peace and prosperity that characterized his grandsire’s rule, but there is the question of how much Viserys actually did to maintain that peace. Was he a good king, or was he simply lucky enough to rule after Jaehaerys’s long and prosperous peace that he rode the coattails as long as they would go? After all, Jaehaerys’s great innovations and infrastructure projects were undoubtedly as much a factor to keeping the peace as his careful dragon diplomacy, but we don’t see much in the way of Viserys producing anything for King’s Landing or Westeros as a whole the way Jaehaerys did. Prince Daemon, during 104 AC, would overhaul the City Watch by improving and standardizing their equipment, but this seemed to be a personal initiative of his own and merely rubber-stamped by his brother, much as the War in the Stepstones was.

Roman Legionnaire, Post-Marian Reforms, by PredatoryApe

Standardizing and financing equipment through the state, however, is a great boon to any police or military force. Gaius Marius changed the Roman legions to tremendous effect, making Rome one of the most powerful military engines of its time. Previously, Roman armies were self-equipped and grouped by age, relative equipment, and experience. Marius arranged for the state to furnish equipment and standardize training, transforming Roman military doctrine dramatically by having a standing army. A standing army allows arms doctrine and policy to be regulated and continuously taught and drilled. The Watch wasn’t as strong as the Roman empire, but with a unified training doctrine, Daemon could ensure a relative level of quality. He also furnished the typical equipment for a Watchmen: consisting of a cudgel for delivering punitive beatings and subduing unruly citizenry, dirks, and the occasional longsword for the violent criminal.

“Peace. Peace is sweet, my lady … but on what terms? It is no good hammering your sword into a plowshare if you must forge it again on the morrow.” -A Game of Thrones, Catelyn XI

Indeed, it’s hard to find any accomplishment that can be attributed to Viserys. From an objective viewpoint, he simply maintained the status quo and badly mismanaged two factions that would come to blows before his corpse would grow cold. It is here that we see the point in the previous essay and possibly my most controversial point to date: peace is not inherently superior to war. Peace is a great achievement, of that there is no mistake, but peace requires constant vigilance and support. A good peace is not simply an absence of war but a bustling of internal activity. A busy, productive peace is a great thing, a golden age for a nation that can provide many great advances in science, technology, and art, and that is what Jaehaerys established during his long reign on the Throne. Viserys only kept the surface elements, and gradually, the attention to the realm that Jaehaerys fostered became attention to the royalty, and decadence grew as a result. With decadence came ego, and with ego came civil war, and all a result of Viserys’s lazy peace. With so much self-gratification, where Viserys would grow obese, ignoring blatant infidelity in a land where bloodlines dominated the political philosophy, ignoring the very precedent that placed him over his cousin-in-law on the Throne itself, and ignoring the toxic manipulations of two factions determined to have their own way, collapse was all but inevitable. This head-in-the-sand style management does not suit the ruler of a fractitious kingdom with two factions looking for a reason to come to blows. While no one person can be counted singly responsible for the Dance of Dragons, if all the fault were laid upon the persons responsible like weights on a scale, the pans would likely tip in favor of Viserys over any other person, even the Rogue Prince.


Of course, Viserys should deserve some credit for maintaining the peace that Jaehaerys labored so hard to build. By continuing many of the policies that Jaehaerys put into place, he kept the kingdom from fraying earlier than it did, and the treasury continued to expand thanks to the increased trade and tax revenue that a long peace can provide. Thus, he avoids the scathing condemnation of being equal to Aegon the Unworthy or Aerys the Mad and saves himself from being listed as among the worst of the Targaryen dynasty.

However, Viserys doesn’t deserve any laurels for his lazy and self-indulgent rule. Had he not followed Jaehaerys, it is likely that he would have gone down as an absentee king much like Robert Baratheon, without any of Robert’s qualities of personal charisma or military acumen. For all his faults, Robert could plan a successful campaign and forge large coalitions. Viserys had none of these traits. In the end, Viserys is an ultimately forgettable ruler with an unearned reputation as a good king, largely because of his storied grandfather. As a king, Viserys preserved without progressing. He was damned lucky that he never faced a foreign incursion, devastating plague, or internal rebellion, so we never saw Viserys’s mettle truly tested. Viserys was steamrolled by Rhaenyra, Daemon, and the Hightowers, and his feeble efforts to preserve peace only stalled civil war until his death. History was kind to Viserys due to the peace during his life, but his inaction brought a devastating war, and he doesn’t deserve to be thought of as fondly anymore.


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

13 responses to “The Three Heads of the Dragon: Kings, Pretenders, and the Ladies of Fire: Viserys I

  1. Very well said. I don’t have a lot to add but good analysis here.

  2. KrimzonStriker

    To be fair to Daemon about the men he gathered during the 101 campaign he could claim it was a defensive move to PROTECT the Council because of the rumors that the Sea Snake was gathering a fleet to press Laenor’s claim

    • somethinglikealawyer

      The Great Council of 101 was at Harrenhal, though. Having a fleet would cause some problems for the realm, but not a problem that would necessitate an armed group of men at the Great Council itself.

      • Feldespato Carroñeras

        Maybe yes. Probably Daemon thought “Corlys is a faraway menace for the choice of the electors, well, I’ll be another menace… here”.

      • KrimzonStriker

        We actually don’t know WHERE Daemon gathered the men though according to WoIAF, if I were to speculate the most likely threat would have been to King’ s Landing given Corys proximity from Driftmark which would have been especially vulnerable prior to Daemons reforms of the City Watch. In fact, the wording of WoIAF says Daemon was Viserys most brashest supporter PRIOR to the Great Council, suggesting that Corys and Daemon’ s standoff occurred before Harrenhall took place, and Jaeharys partly called the Council as a response to avoid conflict between the two groups.

      • somethinglikealawyer

        I’m not so sure. Attacking Kings Landing with a fleet would have just been begging for everyone to rise against the Velaryons, and the Sea Snake is savvy enough to know that. Given how opinion went against Daemon, and we don’t hear of the same against Corlys, I’m guessing it was just a rumor that Daemon used as an excuse.

      • KrimzonStriker

        Jahearys only died two years after the great council of 101, with his health failing and the succession issue still raw and possibly in dispute if the confrontation with Daemon and Corys was prior to when Jaeharys called everyone together to resolve the issue, I could see the appeal on Corys part to seize the Iron Throne right after Jaeharys passed away to quickly establish his son’s right to rule amid the confusion and essentially hope a quick coup might pressure everyone to capitulate, especially if he were to capture Viserys and Daemon. But that’s only speculation on my part so I’ll let it lie.

        I will say though that Daemon did a lot of things to turn people off besides the men he gathered to face Corys, chief among them was the quarrel with Viserys, all while lacking the wealth and resources Corys lordship afforded him (which Daemon had badly wanted but never got) to curry the other lords’ favor. This is all the more evident when Corys joined forces with Daemon, both as an ally and later as his father-in-law with no repercussions despite the latter’s pariah status at the time.

  3. KrimzonStriker

    I think a greater mention of Viserys financing of tourneys and balls/state dinners would have helped bolster the decadence argument regarding his reign. Like Robert Baratheon this would help make Viserys popular but he did little else to make the realm any better it seems.

  4. Roger

    Interesting essay, but I digress.

    I don’t think Viserys I can be described as lazy. He wasn’t a warrior, right. He wasn’t as tireless as his father, right. But don’t forget good reforms need continuation to survive, and that’s probably what Viserys did. Also he become king of a pacified country. Not a ravaged one (like his father had had).

    You can’t keep the peace by simply sitting at the Throne (specialy at the Iron Throne!) and let the Kingdom rule itself. You need to administrate, judge, order, tax, etc. Robert Baratheon was lazy and self-indulgent and the treasury suffered. Aegon the Unworthy was even more self-indulgent, and his people suffered. Aenys I was weak and he lost the crown.

    Viserys was perhaps one of the most normal Targaryens. Only Daeronthe Good was so plain (in the good sense). Compared to his crazy brother, his quarrelsome daughter and his scheming wife, he seems very ordinary. He loved his sons and grandsons. He kept his brother at bay (not small feat: he was a real Oberyn) and her daughter Rhaenyra as heir. Despite all the Kingdom wanting a male heir.

    Viserys only defect was not preventing the future war. But I’m not sure he could have predicted it. Even Aegon II believed his sister should be the queen, after his father dead. Just give the blame to the ones who deserved it (Daemon, Rhaenyra, the Hightowers).

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