The She-Dragons of the Dance, Part 1


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.  In this series, we are taking a comprehensive look at the Targaryen dynasty in Westeros, from its rise to power in the Conquest to its fall in Robert’s Rebellion. My pieces, the Ladies of Fire, will examine the queens and princesses of House Targaryen, as well as those ladies who had a substantial impact on the dynasty itself.

By the time of Viserys I’s death in 129 AC, the Targaryen dynasty seemed to have recovered from the instability of the Aenys-Maegor days and the succession crises that plagued the last years of the Old King’s rule; with three sons, two daughters, seven grandsons, one granddaughter, and two nieces (and dragons for nearly everyone), Viserys had admirably ensured the Targaryen line would continue.  Yet this recovery was a sham with only the thinnest veneer of believability, as two rival courts – that of his eldest daughter and officially proclaimed heir and that of his second wife and mother of his sons – both thought themselves the rightful heirs of Viserys’ crown. This simmering conflict exploded upon the king’s death, and the two female leads of each faction – Dowager Queen Alicent and the Princess Rhaenyra – committed everything – wealth, children, and dragons – to the cause of victory.  Only Alicent, Aegon, and a handful of the youngest Targaryen generation survived, but no one could be said to have won.  Indeed, the driving ambitions of both queens brought about the end of the age of the great she-dragons; never again would Targaryen ladies (or any Targaryen) take to the sky on dragonback, and never again would a Targaryen lady claim a crown in her own right (until after the dynasty had fallen).

Le Roi Est Mort, Mais Qui Gouverne Maintenant?

At King Viserys I’s death in 129 AC, he was survived by five living trueborn children: the Princess Rhaenyra, only child of his first wife, Aemma Arryn; the Prince Aegon, the eldest child of his second wife Alicent Hightower; the Princes Aemond and Daeron, Alicent’s two younger sons; and the Princess Helaena, Alicent’s daughter and Aegon’s sister-wife (and mother of his three children).  Three sons and two daughters is a solid legacy for any lord in Westeros, but for Viserys, the need to produce a multitude of Targaryen princelings was especially pressing.  Only Prince Baelon, second son of Jaehaerys the Conciliator, had left legitimate male issue – King Viserys I and his brother, Daemon. Daemon himself had no sons until he married Rhaenyra in 120 AC, and Viserys no sons until he married Alicent; the danger of the Targaryen male line dying out was quite real.

It was, in fact, this lack of male heirs which had prompted Viserys to issue his Edict of Succession in 105 AC, naming his daughter Rhaenyra as heiress to Westeros.  Such a move was legally complicated; although the Andal-First Men succession traditions of Westeros allowed a daughter to succeed to her father’s seat before an uncle, the Targaryens’ own recent history had specifically rejected female inheritance.  At the Old King’s insistence, his second son Baelon was proclaimed heir over his deceased eldest son Aemon’s only child, Rhaenys; when Baelon himself died, a Great Council of lords decided Baelon’s own son Viserys should take his father’s place as heir, over Rhaenys or her descendants.

However, the problem of succession did not abate with Viserys’ edict.  As he produced one Targaryen prince after another with his second wife, Viserys refused to consider changing the succession to allow for his trueborn sons. Nor, however, would Viserys strengthen Rhaenyra’s position as heiress by displacing his sons: while the Citadel and the Faith had already been used (on Viserys’ uncle Vaemond Targaryen and his aunts Maegelle and Saera Targaryen, respectively) as convenient sheaths on the royal family tree, Viserys would not do the same to his brood.  The two families lived (together, until a violent incident at the funeral of Laena Velaryon) in mutual antagonism, breeding and brooding, each eyeing the seven-gemstone crown on Viserys’ brow.

So when Viserys breathed his last in 129 AC, the question of who – Aegon or Rhaenyra – would seize that crown was of vital importance, and one not taken lightly by the dead king’s queen.  The servant who first observed the king’s fresh corpse took the news directly to the queen – a clear sign, as Maester Gyldayn notes, of Alicent having co-opted some of the Red Keep’s servant population for her informers. The move was a shrewd one on Alicent’s part.  For a realm mired in succession controversy, the transfer of power had to appear smooth, immediate, and legitimate.

That legitimacy – or, more precisely, that appearance of legitimacy – was the key factor. It was no coincidence in our own world, for example, that as the Byzantine emperor Alexios I Komnenos lay dying, his son John took his father’s signet ring (symbol and tool of his authority) and immediately began to rally supporters (interestingly in parallel with the Dance, to stop his sister Anna Komnena from seizing the throne with her husband).  So long as the lords of the realm did not know that Viserys had died, they could not rally to Rhaenyra (at least without not appearing treasonously rebellious to Viserys).  Alicent had used a traditional queenly right – that of overseeing the royal household and its staff – to manage the transfer of power and buy her son precious time to seize the throne.

This succession management took on a political dimension as well. Upon learning of the king’s death, Alicent summoned the entire small council for an emergency session. The very act of calling the small council demonstrated Alicent’s confidence in her own position; only a king, his Hand, or his regent – the three individuals vested with supreme executive power in Westeros – could preside over the small council.  Confident in her own authority, Dowager Queen Alicent was not going to suffer a similar situation to that of Robert Baratheon’s death, with multiple high lords scrambling for the vacant regnal power within the capital itself.  The Hand, her father, could be counted on to support his grandson, as could the Lord Commander of the Kingsguard (whose personal loathing of Rhaenyra ensured his green loyalty), but the rest seem to have had no declared sympathy for either party before this fateful meeting. By drawing the most powerful men in the capital immediately into a meeting, Alicent ensured that no powerful voices of dissension which could raise a challenge to Aegon’s right to rule remained in the city.  If both the council and the Kingsguard (that first and last shield of royal authority) were seen to stand behind Aegon, the legality of the power transfer would be assured. (Strangely, however, Alicent seems not to have summoned her brother Ser Gwayne Hightower, captain of the gold cloaks. Perhaps Alicent considered that Gwayne’s loyalty as her brother Hightower would be unquestioned, and did not wish to lose precious time summoning him to the Red Keep.)

Nor did Alicent merely organize this meeting.  As acting queen regent, Alicent vehemently argued for the rights of her son Aegon over those of her step-daughter, Rhaenyra.  While Lord Jasper Wylde cited the legal precedent for a son succeeding over a daughter of the same generation (as befit his position as Master of Laws), Alicent played to the popular notion of Rhaenyra as a selfish, wanton princess with a cruel consort and illegitimate heirs to follow her.  By emphasizing the identity of Rhaenyra’s Velaryon sons as bastards (almost certainly true), Alicent played to the inborn prejudice of Westerosi lords against bastards; though men may dote on their personal bastard offspring, popular Westerosi opinion categorizes these children as naturally devious, treacherous, and untrustworthy.  A queen who would, for her own pleasure, have three bastards and then loftily insist on their being Targaryen heirs assumed a dictatorial power unforgivable in a king, much less a woman.  Alicent’s own son Aegon would be found with a paramour the following day, and had already fathered two bastards during his marriage, yet the patriarchal society of Westeros largely excused such actions for men (especially when, as Aegon had done, those children were left illegitimate and largely ignored).  Forgiving women who did the same, however, would be unthinkable to all but the (still independent) Dornish; it is no mistake that the most beloved Targaryen queen was the virtuous, upstanding Alysanne.  Indeed, Rhaenyra’s granddaughter Daena would be momentarily considered for queenship by a handful of lords and commoners after the deaths of her brothers, but her wild, uncontrollable nature (having very publicly birthed the bastard Daemon, later Blackfyre) ultimately made her ineligible to inherit.

Having secured the small council, thanks to the (probably) unplanned murder of Lord Beesbury by Criston Cole, Alicent further moved to solidify the green position.  Gyldayn writes that she soon began sending a host of ravens across the country, writing to Lords Tyrell, Tully, Hightower, Lannister, and others viewed sympathetic to the green cause; no such letters flew to the Starks, Arryns, or Manderlys, whom Queen Alicent would have supposed to be blacks through and through. The action suggests Stannis Baratheon’s later campaign for the throne, sending scores of ravens to various keeps proclaiming the bastardy of the “Baratheons” in King’s Landing and his own claim to royal power, and in both instances the move was a wise one. Indeed, Robb Stark may well have joined the legitimist Baratheon cause had he received such a letter from Stannis before his northern bannermen and riverlord allies declared him a king in his own right.

Once again, Alicent recognized the need for quick action to secure her son’s claim.  The dowager queen’s letter-writing campaign preempted any move Rhaenyra would make, allowing Alicent to reaffirm known alliances and sway those uncertain of whom to support.  Indeed, some of these lords, though judged sympathetic, may well have supported the black cause; eligible young men from Houses Lannister, Tyrell, and Tully had all paid court to the princess when she had been seeking a husband. To dispel the fond memories these lords might have held of Rhaenyra – and the less rosy, but still important, memories of swearing allegiance to the princess in 105 AC – Alicent had to remind them of her son’s male-line claim (a succession method these lords held, which would be threatened by Rhaenyra’s becoming queen) and Rhaenyra’s own personal ineligibility for the crown.

Alicent had done all she could (besides having her son crowned, which would come shortly) to ensure that the transition of power from her late husband to her eldest child was smooth, direct, and unchallenged.  The city was hers, three of the five major ports were held by her or her sympathizers, her children’s dragons were all of fighting size, and the most powerful lords in the realm would soon be rallying to her son’s golden dragon banner. All Alicent needed was for Rhaenyra to surrender publicly – or, better yet, die in her upcoming childbirth – and the rule would be the greens’ with virtually no blood shed.

This last wish, however, would not come true. Rhaenyra would not die, and she would not kneel, but she would be willing to shed blood to claim the Iron Throne.

The Queen Across the Water: The Black Court Responds to the Green Challenge

With the Red Keep on informational lockdown after the death of the king, the isolated island-fortress of Dragonstone had no way to learn – or counter – the momentous political actions happening within Maegor’s blood-red walls. Even without the drama of the king’s death, however, the court on Dragonstone was turned inward rather than outward to the mainland.  Within the first seat of the Targaryens, Princess Rhaenyra gave birth for the sixth time. Confounding the hopes of Dowager Queen Alicent, the “whore on Dragonstone” did not die in the process, yet Alicent might have taken some small comfort anyway; Rhaenyra’s child – a girl – was stillborn.

Archmaester Gyldayn, in a memorable passage from “The Princess and the Queen”, highlights the supposed monstrous appearance of Rhaenyra’s baby daughter:

When the babe at least came forth, she proved indeed a monster: a stillborn girl, twisted and malformed, with a hole in her chest where her heart should have been and a stubby, scaled tail. (“The Princess and the Queen”)

It is a vivid recount – but was the Princess Visenya as draconically malformed as Gyldayn reports her to have been? Certainly, stillborn Targaryen babies with monstrous appearances are not unknown.  No fewer than three of Maegor the Cruel’s six brides gave birth to deformed babies during their marriages to him: Alys Harroway to an “eyeless and twisted” monstrosity, Elinor Costayne to a similarly eyeless child with small wings, and Jeyne Westerling to a premature stillborn monster.  Two of these ladies – Elinor and Jeyne – had specifically given birth to healthy babies prior to their royal marriages; when married to Maegor, however, all six proved not merely incapable of bearing living children, but more than capable of bearing horrific monstrosities.

Yet it seems more likely that Rhaenyra’s supposedly “monstrous” stillbirth was the work of rumor (perhaps at the suggestion of the highly pro-Aegon historian Septon Eustace) – an additional, invented detail to underline Rhaenyra’s Maegor-like unfitness for the Iron Throne.  Indeed, Rhaenyra – like Maegor – would later be reported to cut herself repeatedly on the Throne’s twisted barbs during her short formal reign.  That Rhaenyra had delivered her other children, from two different fathers, safely on Dragonstone suggests that it was not the mysterious island itself which caused Visenya’s supposed malformation.  Certainly, Gyldayn does not report anyone commenting on the horrific looking child; Rhaenyra merely noted that “they” – that is, the green party and their shocking usurpation of her rights as heiress – “murdered my daughter”.  Had Visenya truly been a monster, someone among the blacks – not the least of whom Rhaenyra herself – would have commented that the greens had committed such a great atrocity, turning the would-be princess into a stillborn monster.

With the baby princess dead, the court on Dragonstone could turn to the far more pressing issue – the coronation of Aegon as Lord of the Seven Kingdoms. The blacks had lost crucial time – and lacked a number of crucial advantages – while Aegon took his namesake’s crown in the Dragonpit.  From the moment the septon blessed Aegon with the holy oils, the king transcended his ordinary state; he was not simply a man anymore, but an anointed king, whose body was now sacrosanct.  The Faith and the Citadel (in the person of the Archmaester) – two of the three pan-Westerosi, pre-Targaryen institutions – had appeared to have thrown their influential support behind him, and four of the seven Kingsguard had attended him. His crown was that of the Conqueror, as was his sword and his throne; Aegon (or more likely Queen Alicent) had done everything in his power to ensure that he was seen as truly a second Aegon the Dragon, not simply in regnal number but in appearance and legitimacy.

To be a king, it might well be said, one must be recognized as a king, and the same is true of queens. In 1553, for example, the last Tudor King of England, Edward VI, died, leaving the succession ambiguous; by the terms of his father’s will, his successor was his half-sister Mary, but by the terms of Edward’s own “Device for the Succession”, his heir was his cousin Jane Grey. Lady Jane was immediately proclaimed Queen of England upon her cousin’s death, yet few knew her or supported her claim; the King of Spain, upon being informed Lady Jane was now Queen, even asked for a lineage of the Kings of England to understand how Jane (great-granddaughter of Henry VII through the female line) could succeed. Mary, meanwhile, having fled to her own estates as her brother died, assembled a force of thousands and rode to London on a wave of popular support, particularly among English Catholics disfavored in Edward’s reign.

For Rhaenyra, though, popular support was not likely to be coming, at least not to the extent she would require. True, a few had shouted “Long live our queen” when Aegon was proclaimed king, yet Aegon had invited tens of thousands to the Dragonpit to witness his coronation, and flew thrice around the city on his magnificent dragon to let thousands more observe him in his triumph.  Alicent herself – in a clever public relations move – crowned her daughter with her own crown and was the first to do her homage – a personal moment which highlighted the popular elder queen’s foremost loyalty to the Aegon regime. The entire coronation of Aegon had been cleverly stage-managed to win uncertain opinions to the green camp; for the undecided, seeing the entire production – the many symbols of Targaryen legitimacy, the thousands of attendees and supporters, the wondrous dragons, and at the center the male claimant – would have been a powerful argument for supporting Aegon.

Rhaenyra, by contrast, had been living in comfortable unofficial exile on Dragonstone since 120 AC. In one way, her seat played to her advantage: Dragonstone was not only the ancestral seat of the Targaryens in Westeros – the westernmost outpost of the Freehold, their refuge from the prophesied Doom – but the seat of the heir-apparent for a century. So long as Rhaenyra retained the title Princess of Dragonstone, she could make a strong claim to being the rightful heiress of the Seven Kingdoms. Nevertheless, by remaining on her island seat, Rhaenyra had not taken advantage, as her great-grandparents Jaehaerys and Alysanne had, of traveling through the realm on dragonback to make herself known to her future bannermen. While many lords had sworn to defend her rights in 105 AC, some 20 years later few if any of these lords were still in power. Only on her betrothal progress had Rhaenyra traveled, entertaining suits from the country’s most eligible bachelors, yet not since then had the lords of the land been visited by the woman who now claimed to be their overlord (or, rather, overlady).

Alicent and Rhaenyra were once again playing a game of appearances, and for the moment Alicent’s faction was winning handily. Rhaenyra – center of multiple sexual scandals, mother of three widely presumed bastard sons, wife to Prince Daemon of dark reputation, a woman grown stout after six pregnancies, a hidden figure on Dragonstone – could not compete with the pretty dowager queen, her undoubtedly legitimate royal children and grandchildren, the invaluable male claimant, or their carefully constructed public coronation spectacle. It was a long time since a beautiful young princess had dressed in Targaryen colors to show up her green-clad stepmother and underline her own right to the throne.

Politically as well, the greens triumphed over the blacks. Though Houses Lannister and Tyrell (as well as Hightower, which though not a great house had the strength of one) had thrown their lots with Aegon II, not one of the other great houses of Westeros had yet rallied to Rhaenyra’s cause. The lords of the Narrow Sea had gathered at their liege seat of Dragonstone, yet in number and strength they fell far short of the wester and reacher lords. Rhaenyra’s one great ally was Corlys Velaryon, Lord of the Tides, and his wife, the Princess Rhaenys. With the largest fleet in Westeros, Corlys was invaluable militarily, and with the vast fortune he acquired through his travels, Corlys was the only lord capable of matching the wealth of the green Lannisters and Hightowers.  More symbolically importantly, with an arguably better right to the throne than either Rhaenyra or Aegon, the Princess Rhaenys gave priceless legitimacy to Rhaenyra’s claim by backing her. The only other great player on Dragonstone was Rhaenyra’s husband, Prince Daemon, younger brother of the late king, a dragonrider and warrior of renown (and sometime King in the Narrow Sea). Other than these, the court-in-exile had precious little to recommend it.

Rhaenyra would not yet concede defeat, however; there was more she could do to assert her rights as Queen of the Andals and First Men. The most important symbolic step – as Aegon had taken – was to be crowned.  Unlike Aegon, Rhaenyra had none but her traditional bannermen, the lords of the Narrow Sea, to witness this supreme moment. Instead of the Grand Maester, she had only her own household maester; instead of the High Septon’s legate, she had only whatever septons resided on Dragonstone.  In response (and perhaps only a little desperation), Rhaenyra shunned a religious anointing, preferring instead to have her consort Daemon crown her.  The move was not entirely surprising: as an “anointed” king in his own right, and as the oldest and most experienced male Targaryen alive, Daemon had perhaps the most authority of anyone in Westeros to crown his niece and wife.  Aegon might have the Faith and the symbols of rule, Rhaenyra’s coronation suggested, but the real Targaryen authority lay with their dragons, both beastly (how much older and fiercer were the Dragonstone dragons than their “green” counterparts, save Vhagar and Dreamfyre) and human, and these Rhaenyra could boast.

Rhaenyra (image credit to Amok)

Her coronation might have been hasty and more modest than her half-brother’s affair, yet Rhaenyra nevertheless enjoyed a surprising symbolic advantage. Though none of her court could have predicted it, Ser Steffon Darklyn of the Kingsguard had fled the capital the day prior to Aegon’s coronation, bringing to the black court the crown of Jaehaerys I. The move was doubly important for Rhaenyra’s party. Steffon Darklyn had been part of Viserys I’s Kingsguard; his defection to Rhaenyra’s service lent a crucial sense of legitimacy to her rule.  If one of Viserys’ Kingsguard – that force created by Queen Visenya herself, men hand-picked by the crown for their loyalty and dedication to the king’s service – served the would-be Queen Rhaenyra, doubt could arise as to the legitimacy of Aegon’s claim to be “the true king”.  (Ser Steffon, it may be worth noting, was probably only the second Darklyn to serve in the Kingsguard, after Ser Robin Darklyn, one of the first Kingsguard; nevertheless, that the Darklyn Kingsguard – from a family known for their loyal service to the crown – would defect even further underlines the blow to Aegon’s rule.)  Any artificial Kingsguard naturally invites criticism to the authority of the creator’s rule (probably the reason Stannis Baratheon refuses to invent his own Kingsguard); a “true” Kingsguard knight in a claimant’s service grants invaluable legitimacy (like Ser Barristan Selmy, who upon forced resignation fled instead to the would-be Queen Daenerys Targaryen’s service).

Even the story of Ser Steffon’s theft of the crown played well into Rhaenyra’s nascent political mythology.  The tale recalled the daring, heroic exploits of King Jaehaerys’ mother and sister during the reign of Maegor; both ladies had stolen away important symbols of Targaryen rule (the swords Dark Sister and Blackfyre, respectively) while fleeing Maegor’s grasp. Soon after, when Jaehaerys made his formal bid for the throne, two of Maegor’s Kingsguard knights abandoned him to serve the young pretender in his court at Storm’s End.  These defections hastened Maegor’s end, and shaped the historiography of Jaehaerys’ reign: his was not simply a political accession, but a heroic tale of courage in which the symbols of legitimate power fell away from the unworthy villain Maegor.

Now the same story played again, and the new players worked perfectly to Rhaenyra’s advantage. Aegon was a usurping king, seizing the throne over the acknowledged heir(ess), wearing the steel-and-ruby crown (last worn by Maegor) as a symbol that he ruled – like Visenya’s son – by conquest and brute strength.  The would-be king, Rhaenyra might have suggested, could rule only by force, lacking the legitimacy she possessed as acknowledged heiress.  The crown she would wear (stolen away by a loyal defecting Kingsguard) was the crown of her father and great-grandfather, a statesman and conciliator’s crown.  Only a true heir – or heiress – could claim such a potent symbol of Targaryen rule – the crown made not for a warrior-lord winning a throne in blood, but a true royal heir keeping the throne through just rule.

So as the two courts, black and green, prepared for the first phase of the war, each played to its advantages. Alicent, with all the flair of a great producer, had managed not only to gain a crucial time advantage for her son, but had shown him – and the rest of the green party – off in magnificent style in the capital, underlining the many symbols of his legitimacy. Rhaenyra, exiled on Dragonstone, showed herself to the best she could: surrounded by all the remaining non-Hightower-Targaryens and Targaryen relations, bearing the crown of the great Jaehaerys and the late Viserys, a woman willing and prepared to pursue the rights she believed hers.

Dark Wings, Dark Words: The War of Quills and Ravens

Of course, before either side was going to wage war, a more delicate series of negotiations would happen.  This was not a matter of courtesy; Alicent and Rhaenyra, the rival queens, openly loathed one another, and various members of their respective parties were willing and even eager to see the rival party’s members destroyed.  Instead, neither side wished to wage war unless war was the last option simply for the amount of resources a war would swallow.  Dragons are highly destructive beasts by nature; involving multiple dragons on opposite sides of a war would devastate both the land and resources of the country, forcing the eventual winner to inherit a near-empty treasury and a blackened countryside (even as winter approached).  The war of “quills and ravens” would need to be fought first, to see if either side would surrender peacefully before battle would decide the victor.

Though the newly crowned Aegon II had little patience for the defiance of his half-sister, Dowager Queen Alicent urged him to send terms of honorable surrender to Rhaenyra’s camp.  Again, Alicent was thinking less of any motherly affection she held toward Rhaenyra (which was none), but fear of what Rhaenyra could – and did – represent as a rival claimant to the throne.  Accordingly, Alicent supported generous terms; though we cannot know to what extent Alicent actually crafted the peace terms delivered by her brother and Grand Maester Orwyle to the princess, the level of involvement she had taken thus far in her son’s bid for power suggests Alicent at least assisted in the drafting of the terms.  The men who had sworn allegiance to Rhaenyra would be pardoned – a move which would ensure the king’s appearance as a merciful ruler.  Rhaenyra would be confirmed in the permanent possession of Dragonstone as her own seat, with her eldest son Jacaerys succeeding her (itself a significant move, given Dragonstone’s status as the seat of the heir to the throne). The terms also stipulated that Prince Lucerys would inherit his (legal) grandfather’s seat of Driftmark after Lord Corlys’ death – a concession which played directly to Rhaenyra’s open denial of her sons’ bastardy.  The two Velaryon boys would not simply be handed their respective isles as gifts, however; these dynastic holdings would ensure that they would not seek that greater possession – the whole of Westeros – in the future.  (No provision was made for Rhaenyra’s youngest Velaryon son, Joffrey, though as a boy of 12 he doubtless did not concern the Dowager Queen enough to think of him.  She may have thought eventually to marry him to an heiress of his own, or – more safely – to groom him for an eventual place in the Kingsguard, Faith, or Citadel, where he would pose no threat to her line.)

Even in these generous terms, however, Alicent made sure to preserve some measure of safety against Rhaenyra’s future defiance.  The terms decreed that the two youngest sons of Rhaenyra, Aegon and Viserys, would be given “places of honor” at court, as royal squire and royal page, respectively. Honorable as these places appeared on paper, however, the result would be a hostage situation.  King Maegor had seized his young nephew Viserys, his own royal squire, and had had him tortured and executed by his Pentoshi lover Tyanna; Daenerys Targaryen would later explicitly frame her taking of hostages from noble Meereenese families in the context of page and cupbearer service in her royal court. Alicent and Aegon would keep good watch over the youngest “black” Targaryens, ensuring they – and, more importantly, their mother – did not try any ambitious moves to take the throne.

Like Napoleon on Elba, Rhaenyra would under Alicent’s terms live out her days as a sovereign princess in her island exile, safely removed from the mainland succession but given just enough to be content (while ensuring that none of her line actually made a bid for the throne).

Rhaenyra, however, like the sometime French emperor, was not going to surrender her rights so easily.  Interestingly, though, she offered no terms herself to her half-brother’s court.  Indeed, her very first act following her coronation was to declare her stepmother Alicent and her father’s last Hand Otto Hightower traitors – for which, of course, the price was death. Her half-siblings, she openly declared, would be pardoned after bending the knee, at which point Rhaenyra would “take them back into [her] heart”.  That Rhaenyra had never had them “in her heart” to begin with – rejecting young Aegon as a suitor for mutual dislike and loathing Aemond for the fight he had had with her sons at Laena Velaryon’s funeral – does not bode well for what Rhaenyra would have done to the Hightower-Targaryens had they followed her plan.  Certainly, however, her failure to offer any sort of honorable terms beyond mere non-execution of the seven Targaryen royals did not help Rhaenyra win the war of appearances.  As a queen, Rhaenyra could draw on a gendered cultural precedent of mercy; as a mother, Rhaenyra could take as her model the Mother Above, the so-called “Font of Mercy”.  Instead, Rhaenyra allowed herself to be painted as cruel and heartless, a woman perfectly fitted to the Dowager Queen’s prophecies of mass executions and tyrannical domination.

With neither party openly surrendering, the war would be taken to the next level, with the great houses. Both the blacks and the greens would court several of the great houses before true bloodletting began, and while both would enjoy successes, this level of negotiation would prove to be the last.  In fact, in the courting of House Baratheon, the Dance of the Dragons would truly (and literally) begin.

Rhaenyra had already decided which great houses to pursue before her coronation.  As the black council had agreed, Houses Lannister (with its son Tyland on the small council and a quarter of the Targaryen gold in its vaults) and Tyrell (ruled by an infant, and dominated by its Hightower bannermen) were firmly in the pocket of the greens.  Dalton Greyjoy, later called the Red Kraken, was courted by both blacks and greens for his seapower (he would eventually support the blacks, though probably less out of real belief in Rhaenyra’s cause and more out of desire to harry the Lannister shore in the west). Other great lords under the rule of the Iron Throne – Houses Stark, Arryn, and Baratheon – could yet be won, however, and the blacks would use dragon diplomacy to do so.  Instead of sending ravens, Rhaenyra’s eldest son Prince Jacaerys proposed using himself and his brother Lucerys as envoys, riding their dragons Vermax and Arrax to these seats. The princes’ great-great-grandfather Jaehaerys would have approved: by visiting Lord Stark with six dragons and half the court (as well as Alysanne taking an “unauthorized” field trip to the Night’s Watch), Jaehaerys had subtly but firmly reminded the wolves of Winterfell that the dragons were not a force to be threatened lightly or vacant overlords to be quit at their pleasure.

So Jacaerys, as the elder of the two boys, took the “dangerous” mission northward.  His stops were carefully and shrewdly planned.  The lords of Sisterton, Borrell and Sunderland, had been known to use false lights to drive ships onto their rocks, and the blacks could not risk losing their advantage in seapower with the Velaryon fleet.  Jeyne Arryn, Lady of the Eyrie, controlled the fertile and highly defensible Vale, and would be naturally inclined to defend a woman’s right to succeed; backing Aegon II would give tacit agreement to the notion that a male relative should succeed over a female, and she could not risk her own seat doing so.  House Manderly, though not paramount in its own right, was by far the richest house in the North, with the ability to field more men than any of its northern neighbors; capturing White Harbor, additionally, would give the blacks at least one great port city (two, if Lady Jeyne lent Gulltown’s support to the cause) to combat the greens’ three. The Starks, of course, as rulers of the vast North, could field the levies Rhaenyra needed to augment her seapower and dragonpower (and, incidentally, provide – along with the Vale – a basically impregnable asylum should the war go badly for the blacks). Each stop proved a rousing success; though we are given few details (beyond the vague but tantalizing “Pact of Ice and Fire”, a marriage treaty between the Targaryens and Starks, allegedly made after the young prince fell in love with a bastard Stark maiden), we can understand that Jacaerys inherited the Targaryen charisma of his grandfather and great-great-grandfather.

Unfortunately for the blacks, Lord Baratheon would not prove so amenable.  In fairness to Rhaenyra’s party, their strategy to sway Lord Borros to the side of the blacks failed in large part due to timing. Rhaenyra could not have known it, but across Blackwater Bay Dowager Queen Alicent had been herself plotting how to court the great houses.  As with Rhaenyra’s faction, the greens determined the most important to win (apart from those already sworn to them) was House Baratheon of Storm’s End.

Alicent and her father were right to consider Baratheon support carefully. Since the time of the Conquest, the Baratheons and the Targaryens had been closely allied. Orys Baratheon, founder of the dynasty, was Aegon the Conqueror’s rumored bastard brother and assured closest friend and first Hand.  Queen Alyssa Velaryon had fled to Storm’s End with young Jaehaerys after the death of their jailer Queen Visenya, and Lord Robar Baratheon served as Jaehaerys’ regent and first Hand (and stepfather, after he married the dowager queen).  Prince Aemon Targaryen, Jaehaerys’ eldest surviving son, had married his Baratheon half-aunt Jocelyn, further underlining the connection between stag and dragon; their only child, the Princess Rhaenys, the so-called “Queen Who Never Was”, had herself been a claimant to the throne until passed over by her grandfather and the Great Council (although House Baratheon had vehemently pressed for Rhaenys’ claim). With Robar’s grandson (and the Velaryon princes’ first cousin twice removed) Borros on the ancient seat of the storm kings, the probability that House Baratheon would throw its support behind the “legitimate” line of Rhaenyra (and her legally partly Baratheon offspring) was strong.

Alicent’s response to the Baratheon problem was typically shrewd.  Borros Baratheon had only four daughters, with no apparent son (at least in Gyldayn’s record).  Conveniently, her second son Aemond was unmarried, and was unlikely to be needed for rule in King’s Landing (being behind Aegon’s sons Jaehaerys and Maelor in the line of succession).  The same strategy of wedding bachelor princes to heiresses was not unknown, either in Westeros or in our own world.  Aemond’s uncle Daemon had been first wed to Rhea Royce, the Lady of Runestone, although their marriage had proved highly unsuccessful and childless. More happily, Queen Victoria had wed her first cousin Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha; with an older brother to inherit the family land and title, Albert could remain in Britain serving as the prince consort (though in a twist of fate, Prince Ernest’s childlessness would mean Albert’s line would inherit the family duchy after all).  For Alicent, this strategy seemed particularly appealing; a royal was a more than fair catch for any heiress, and with the possibility of a half-Targaryen (of the green faction) grandchild to inherit his seat, Borros would likely pause before supporting the black party.

Alicent, then, was also trying dragon diplomacy, but with a simultaneously sweeter and more threatening message.  A marriage pact was a standard article of alliance for lords and princes of our world and Westeros alike; while Jaehaerys and Alysanne had used the betrothal of their daughter Viserra to remind the Starks of their subtle threat, Alicent was using the betrothal of her son to give Lord Baratheon an extra incentive to support her cause.  Yet Prince Aemond was also master of the dragon Vhagar, nearly 200 years old and almost as large as the Black Dread had been; such a dragon could likely threaten even the “impregnable” seat of Storm’s End.  A visit from the prince, then, would present Lord Borros with a choice of reward or death: a glorious future as part of the Targaryen dynasty, or utter destruction.

So when Prince Lucerys arrived at a suitably storm-swept Storm’s End to be greeted by Aemond, his mission was already hopeless.  Young Arrax was probably somewhere between 8 and 14 years old, no more than that, and could not appear nearly as imposing next to the largest dragon in existence.  Nor could Lucerys offer anything in return for Borros’ fidelity, being himself betrothed since the age of three.  Had the Princess Rhaenys made the journey, on her great red dragon Meleys, the blacks might have had more success; Rhaenys was Borros’ first cousin, a fearless half-Baratheon would-be queen who was as experienced in battle as Aemond was not.  None had anticipated Borros’ belligerency, however, and even an experienced diplomat would have had a challenge convincing the lord otherwise.


The Death of Lucerys and Arrax (image credit to Chase Stone)

Nevertheless, with the failure of the Storm’s End mission and the death of Prince Lucerys (similarly likely avoidable had Princess Rhaenys gone in his stead; Aemond had long waited to avenge himself on the cousin who had taken his eye nine years prior, but would have had little cause to strike at the well-grown Meleys and her battle-ready rider), the war of quills and ravens had ended.  As though players in some enormous game of cyvasse, Rhaenyra and Alicent had formed their boards and set their pieces; the divider removed, it remained to be seen who would win.

Thanks for reading! This is the end of Part 1 of The She-Dragons of the Dance; Part 2 will be coming in the not-too-distant future. Questions? Comments? Find me on Twitter, and follow the blog while you’re there! Remember you can also find the blog on Facebook and Tumblr as well!


Filed under ASOIAF Analysis, ASOIAF Character Analysis, ASOIAF History, ASOIAF Meta, Ladies of Fire, The Three Heads of the Dragon

13 responses to “The She-Dragons of the Dance, Part 1

  1. Sir Theodred of Pennytree

    Great essay, what do you think happened with canibal? did he died on dragonstone or left, do you think its possibel that other dragons exist somewhere in the world?

  2. Good overview of the history again.

  3. Besides Queen/Empress Matilda, Rhaenyra reminds me of Isabella of France – not a queen regnant, but a powerful woman whose bad reputation stemmed largely from her personal life. (Incidentally she was nicknamed “The She-Wolf of France.) Alison Weir has written a biography of Isabella, and she maintains that Isabella didn’t deserve her awful reputation (and that Edward II was not murdered with a red-hot poker where the sun don’t shine). Isabella’s adultery and living openly with her lover made people believe she was capable of any depravity.

    If Rhaenyra had not made that ill-advised second marriage or had children of dubious paternity, things would probably have turned out differently, as it was Rhaneyra’s *lax morals* that gave Alicent the chance to turn so many nobles against her and gain power. There probably would have been some sort of succession crisis anyway at some point, due to male primogeniture being the Andal and First Men custom, but it would have been less bloody.

  4. KrimzonStriker

    Good essay all around but if Rhaneys rights to succession continue to be brought up I feel obligated to keep making the point that same argument would invalidate her claim anyway since it would cast her grandfather Jahearys as having usurped the throne from his nieces by his older brother Crown Prince Aegon.

    • somethinglikealawyer

      That argument doesn’t take the coalition’s acclaim of Jaehaerys into account.

      • KrimzonStriker

        Yet he proclaimed himself King before that occurred, while the coalition helped him ascend to the throne Jahearys had already staked his claim and clearly put it ahead of his nieces on his own authority/power first, and then the lords rallied to his cause.

      • somethinglikealawyer

        World of Ice and Fire states that Jaehaerys’s claim was “unifying” suggesting that the myriad factions fell behind Jaehaerys, not the other way around.

      • KrimzonStriker

        That’s essentially what I said wasnt it? My point was that JAEHEARYS unified the realm with his claim, thus he already staked out his position, clearly over his niece, on his own authority, before being acknowledged and accepted by the other lords. There were other avenue but for better of for worse he chose that one and set the precedent that a Targayean male claimant supersceded a female ones despite a more direct bloodlne

      • somethinglikealawyer

        No, I was saying the opposite of that. The lords propped up Jaehaerys as their claimant, not that he said he was king and the other lords accepted it.

      • KrimzonStriker

        That wasn’t how I read the order of events, which ultimately this revolves around in a chicken and egg like discussion. Did Jahearys declare before getting universal consensus or not in the end? If it’s before I don’t see why this wouldn’t mean he used his own authority first.

  5. Pingback: The Three Heads of the Dragon: Kings, Pretenders, and Ladies of Fire: Aegon II and the Greens | Wars and Politics of Ice and Fire

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