Aegon, Daeron, Baelor, and Viserys, by Hubsher
“The melancholy king is not remembered fondly, and his legacy would pale before that of his sons.” -The World of Ice and Fire, Aegon III
The Broken King led his broken realm as an adult for 21 years. Despite the difficult hand he had been dealt, Aegon III did remarkably well during his tenure, keeping his realm relatively free from conflict, kept the treasury afloat, and knit the realm back together – a remarkable accomplishment in the face of grasping vassals, wealthy interlopers, and the extinction of the dragons. However, Aegon III won no love among his subjects for his distant and depressive nature. He was competent, but not inspiring the way his storied namesake had been. That Targaryen charisma would fall to his sons, two of the most colorful individuals to sit the Iron Throne.
Welcome to the next installment of The Three Heads of the Dragon, the first multi-author essay series for Wars and Politics of Ice and Fire, examining the kings, pretenders, and women of the storied Targaryen dynasty, from fiery beginnings to bloody end. For my part, I will be discussing the monarchs of the Targaryen reign, their policies, their historical analogues, and how they measure up to history.
Daeron the Young Dragon, by Arthur Bozonnet
A Dragonless Glory
“Few foresaw that Daeron, the First of His Name, would cover himself in glory as did his ancestor, Aegon the Conqueror, whose crown he wore.” -The World of Ice and Fire, Daeron I
Conventional readings by the fandom paint Daeron I as a glory-seeking blowhard, an arrogant warmonger who got his richly-deserved comeuppance after throwing thousands of people to their pointless deaths. He is held up as an example of the profound limitations of military power, and both his immediate successor and his namesake would be held up as examples of how to achieve progress through peace.
This simple portrait is more than a bit unfair, and more than a bit filtered through a modernist and presentist view. Daeron’s conquests are seen as folly because they ultimately failed, due to the Dornish smallfolk (according to conventional reports). However, his clever approach to war, his successful conquest of Dorne, and his ability to build a wide-ranging coalition eager to buy into his Dornish conquest speak to something wholly different than either Benjen Stark or the fandom believe. Daeron I inherited a realm without direction from his father, a dragonlord dynasty that had lost its last dragon, and a monarchy whose glories seemed relegated to the past . Daeron’s daring, dragonless conquest of Dorne was not simple warmongering, an unwarranted attack on a defenseless people, or an arrogant desire to be greater than Aegon I (or at least, not just that). The political and metaphysical realities of the Seven Kingdoms at this point in time speak to an entirely different strategic goal. Daeron’s Conquest of Dorne was borne out of a desire to give the Targaryen dynasty a crowning glory in the wake of the loss of the dragons. Daeron wished to prove the Iron Throne’s potency by conquering Dorne without dragons.
Young, energetic, and eager, with an oft-overlooked intellect, Daeron seemed all that could be expected of a Westerosi king. Daeron was one of the greatest generals of his time, charismatic and inspiring to his troops and a capable strategist in his own right. He was known as an excellent warrior (as he would demonstrate up to the end of his life with Blackfyre) and was one of the only kings we know to have been a writer with his Conquest of Dorne. His book shares similarities to Caesar’s Commentarii de Bello Gallico following the Gallic Wars; both books were celebrated for their simple and direct prose in their respective universes, and were considered a mainstay for the literati of their times.
“I know that tale as well, but Daeron made too much of it in that vainglorious book of his.” -A Dance with Dragons, Jon IV
Daeron’s book, however, was also a key piece of political propaganda, much as Caesar’s Commentarii. Always keen of ways to influence the proletariat, Caesar had his book translated into simple Latin to better win over the commons. Instead of translating the book (a useless endeavour for illiterate Westeros) Daeron took a different route, inflating the prestige of the conquests, ensuring that songs would be carried to the masses just as the literate read and enjoyed his book; a propaganda piece for all levels of society. This greatly-embellished book helped to further Daeron’s hero-cult persona, the cornerstone of his political platform and outlook. For that reason, Daeron over-emphasized both his own accomplishments and the scope of his enemy, to better craft him as the invincible conqueror to perform such amazing feats even without the great dragons of yore. Daeron truly was proof that the Targaryen dynasty was amazing and mighty, as described by his book (and in a poetic twist, his then-enemies would use the book as propaganda for themselves to inflate their own military strength).
Daeron’s conquest of Dorne did not have much in the way of text devoted to it, but what little we have paints one of the most successful military campaigns of the Targaryen dynasty. The chief architects, Daeron himself and Alyn Velaryon, were both rightly lauded as some of the most brilliant military minds of their generation. Cognizant of the failures of Aegon I’s previous campaigns, Daeron looked to deny the Dornish their guerilla style of warfare that so troubled his ancestor. Daeron gathered a large army and divided it, allowing him greater flexibility to engage on the field and prevent the Dornish from avoiding the one large army that Aegon I preferred to field. Sending one army under Lord Lyonel Tyrell (a splendid political choice, as Tyrell was both his Warden of the South as well as a traditional Dornish enemy) to the Prince’s Pass, he forced the Dornishmen to send troops to address the issue. The Prince’s Pass is one of two traditional overland routes to Dorne and the easier and wider of the two, thus being the natural choice to funnel troops and supplies into a war with Dorne.
With Dorne distracted by Tyrell’s army, Daeron commanded Alyn Velaryon to sweep up the Greenblood and deny Dorne the use of the river to move themselves quickly (as well as the obvious advantage of having access to a river in the arid Dornish climate). Dorne, as a desert, has pockets of civilization crowded around water resources. The Dornish style of warfare was to overextend an enemy and ambush him, taking advantage of local knowledge of terrain and using maneuverable, mobile military elements. By taking the Greenblood, Oakenfist prevented the Dornish from using the river to travel to a safe haven, and severely curtailed Dornish mobility, attacking Dornish military doctrine on the fundamental level, as well as the obvious advantages of denying an enemy the use of their principal port, which for resource-starved Dorne, was critical.
“When I wish to give battle, my enemy, even though protected by high walls and deep moats, cannot help but engage me, for I attack a position he must relieve.” -Sun Tzu, The Art of War
Daeron’s campaign was largely successful because Daeron took advantage of his opponent’s strengths and weaknesses. The king himself is noted to have used a goat path to bypass the Dornish watchtowers on the Boneway to move his army in secret and attack the Dornish unawares (even if he made more of it than it truly meant). The Dornish, denied information superiority and mobility, were forced into battles that they did not wish – the mark of a successful strategy. The Taking of the Greenblood was likewise an important political and psychological element of Daeron’s campaign, one that Daeron used to tremendous effect. While the Dornish weathered worse blows in Aegon’s War of Dornish Conquest, there always existed a Dornish tradition of trickery and deceit. The Dornish prided themselves on the trapping and fooling their opponent, as House Toland did with their mad fool during Aegon’s War of Dornish Conquest. In luring their attention to the Prince’s Pass only to take the Greenblood, Daeron tricked and trapped the Dornish, using their own cultural technique against them. By appropriating their techniques, Daeron demonstrated to the Dornish that he understood them in a way no other Targaryen conqueror did, and that he would be not easy prey, but a foe to be reckoned with.
Daeron was keenly aware of the strategic limitations that he would have, without dragons, and he had recognized the Dornish strategy likely from his previous studies of Aegon’s original attempt to conquer Dorne, as well as the profound failure of the Dragon’s Wroth. Daeron understood that he had to undermine the Dornish will to fight, not merely litter the south with dead bodies. Oakenfist was keenly aware of Dornish tactics, as many of the same techniques were ones that the Ironborn (another group famous for mobile warfare and raiding) practice, adapted for the sea. Daeron’s strategy left the Dornish confused and muddled, unable to react quickly or decisively as Daeron gained victory after victory.
Thus, after not even two years of battle, Daeron I successfully took Sunspear, returning home with 14 Dornish hostages and richly acclaimed as the Conqueror of Dorne. Lord Tyrell went to work pacifying the rebels in the hinterlands, and in this, he was very successful for a year.
Mosaic of Alexander the Great, Naples National Archaeological Museum
George R. R. Martin is famously celebrated for his mix-and-match style for historical influences for both his regions and his characters. In this case, however, Martin clearly cribbed much of Daeron the Young Dragon from that famous young conqueror from Macedon who spent much of the late 3rd century BC conquering Europe, Asia, and Africa: Alexander the Great. Alexander famously never lost a battle and was a celebrated warrior, leading from the front in the style of the time period. However, Alexander was also a deeply intelligent man who understood drill and positioning – his famously disciplined troops were masters at flanking and counter-flanking. Most importantly, Alexander was incredibly perceptive and adaptive. Facing the Persians, Alexander made use of his long spears and pikes by forming phalanxes, keeping the shorter Persian scimitars at bay and using the tight formation to protect against Persian cavalry and brace the spear to counter charges. Against the Indian elephant corps, Alexander would envelop and dislodge the riders using the long sarissa, the famous six-meter spear that Alexander’s father Philip II introduced to the Macedonian military.
In both Alexander and Daeron, we see an astonishing amount of flexibility in military science that was the largest contributor to their military success. Both were able to understand their enemy’s military strategy quickly and form tactics against it. Both were able to recognize advantageous terrain to move their armies using small animal trails and goat paths. Indeed, Alexander became so famous for his unconventional movement tactics that it spawned a literature trope: the young, talented, unconventional tactician recognizes paths that others cannot, showcasing his brilliance at that most deeply boring yet unimaginably critical of the military sciences, logistics.
Alexander and Daeron both were famously inspiring and charismatic to their troops. Both had an extraordinary amount of what sociologist Max Weber termed as ‘charismatic authority.’ Both men, leading from the front, had an ability to build a wide coalition into their armies, and they used their strong, forceful personalities and warrior-hero persona to win loyalty and quell disunity that could possibly arise from the widely differing cultures. Daeron himself would win the friendship of the notoriously prickly Northmen, including Rickon Stark, son of the famous Old Man of the North Cregan Stark. Of course, charisma only goes so far, and Daeron arguably surpassed his historic inspiration by his coalition remaining together after his death (and later, the memory and idea of which would plague the rule of his namesake). Alexander’s early death would cause his empire to fracture after his death, as his charisma was what held his disparate empire together.
His young ascension, however, speaks to Charles XII of Sweden. At 15, Charles crowned himself King of the Swedish Empire in strict defiance of custom. He would be attacked in the Great Northern War by a triple alliance of Russia, Denmark-Norway (a combined kingdom that included modern-day Denmark, Norway, and Iceland), and the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth with their allies in Saxony. Charles took charge with his armies and repulsed the foreign invasions quite quickly, but he would fare less well on his march to Moscow in an attempt to force the Tsardom to surrender. His army would overextend itself and be defeated piecemeal at Poltava, with a significant contingent surrendering at Perevolochna shortly thereafter. Like Daeron, Charles was not merely a great warrior and general, he was a talented mathematician as well, credited with instituting a base-8 numeral system to better reflect the cubits of gunpowder that were shipped to the field. Daeron would die young, but Charles would live to 36. Both however, were consumed by their wars and fathered no children.
In fairness, Daeron’s detractors are correct in their view that Daeron was an incredibly arrogant human being. His charismatic leadership style fed his ego, even before his conquests (where he might have had something to feed his self-image). His war, too, was probably drawn up in his mind as something he could hold up as a shining monument to himself, to succeed where his legendary ancestor (now 130 years dead) did, and without the overwhelming superiority of dragons. The failure of Aegon’s Dornish conquest was a stark reminder of the limits of the Targaryen dynasty; the success of a new conquest would be a statement that the Targaryens had no failures, and that Daeron, only Daeron, was strong, smart, and cunning enough to rectify them. His book’s exaggeration of Dornish strength to heighten the glory of his conquest makes it plain that he was looking to glorify himself to the masses, rather than merely write prose about an important event in the history of the Seven Kingdoms. The dynasty that had just 30 years ago nearly consumed itself was fixed and healthy, the king seemed to be suggesting, and it was all because of Daeron.
Another of Daeron’s significant shortcomings was that he largely ignored any other solution than a military conquest to incorporate Dorne into the fold. While the Dornish question was an issue that would have needed to be solved by Westeros eventually, Dorne and Westeros largely did not interact on a large, governmental level. Dornishmen regularly raided the Dornish Marches, while border skirmishes and disputes from Westeros were just as likely. However, there was presumably still trade between the two nations for mutual economic interest, and Alyn Velaryon famously won the favor of Aliandra Martell when he made two diplomatic visits on his way to and from his famous anti-Dalton Greyjoy campaign. King Viserys I had toyed with the idea of marrying Rhaenyra Targaryen to House Martell to unite Westeros from the Wall to the Summer Sea. But a marriage, as Edmure Tully notes, is not glorious for a male of Westeros, and so for Daeron, it had to be war.
After Lord Tyrell died in a bed of scorpions, Daeron went back to work pacifying the Dornish smallfolk. Once again, the king succeeded by sticking to his strategy of splitting his armies and corralling Dornish movement on the field. Oberyn Martell states that the Dornish were never really pacified, much the same as the Dornish under Aegon I, but The World of Ice and Fire shares a very different outlook – namely, that much of Dorne was pacified and that attacks were persistent but isolated until Lyonel’s death. As with most differing accounts from biased sources (one of GRRM’s admittedly favorite tropes), the truth is likely somewhere in the middle. Once Daeron had made enough headway, the Dornish sued for peace, and called a conference to renew their fealty and discuss a new way forward. Unfortunately for Daeron, the Dornish plotted to murder him at the peace conference, and there, isolated and outnumbered, the Dornish murdered the Young Dragon at the tender age of 18. They took his sword, his crown, and his storied cousin Aemon the Dragonknight as prizes of their victory.
Daeron’s death through perfidy has much to do with keeping his coalition alive. As shown many times in Westerosi history, a person’s death can mean the end of their cause as well as their campaign, but Daeron was specifically killed through a violation of conventional morals of Westeros. Murdering someone under a peace banner is considered a hideous moral crime, as it explicitly violates several tenets of the famed guest right. In our own history, perfidy is punishable under the Geneva Convention, and before then, several acts of perfidy by the Japanese in the Pacific theater led to many American GI’s adopting a ‘shoot-first’ policy against any Japanese soldiers they encountered, even if wounded or surrendering.
Oddly, this killing of Daeron Targaryen by treachery is not met with the same outcry as the Red Wedding, even as it shares many similarities of that event. Some excuse the Dornish, believing that Dorne was the victim of an unprovoked war. The truth of that claim, much like the popular conception of Daeron I himself, both true and false, and very complicated in both cases. Aliandra Martell made her lords bannermen compete for their Princess’s favor by raiding the Dornish Marches, so to say that aggression was entirely the domain of the Seven Kingdoms is not true. However, it is true that Daeron started the war not as a response to a particularly devastating Dornish raid or a specific act of aggression of the Dornish, but because of a desire to subjugate the people of Dorne, and so it becomes a matter of how the Dornish question could have been resolved, and that is a question without a clear answer.
Ultimately, Daeron was many things, a talented general and an arrogant warmonger. His overwhelming desire for personal glory pushed him to a great military success, and his intelligence and insight proved useful for later military prodigies like King Robb Stark in his campaign. However, starting a large-scale war for personal glory, not using his famous coalition-building ability to win over the Dornish the way he won over his vassals, and his neglect of the other duties expected of a king paint a picture of a deeply flawed king whose weaknesses damaged the kingdom more than his strengths bolstered it. He was far from the simple picture some segments of the fandom believe, but a king who brings tens of thousands death to satisfy his ego is not a king who can be looked upon very fondly.
Baelor Walks the Boneway, by Arthur Bozonnet
Blessed and Befuddled
“Baelor proved to be the most pious king in the Targaryen dynasty, and some would say in the history of the Seven Kingdoms.” -The World of Ice and Fire, Baelor I
King Daeron I never wed during his short reign, never fathered a son, and never seemed to do much besides wage war and write books about it. So, after his death in 161 AC, the Iron Throne passed by rights to his brother, Baelor. Baelor was possessed of all the fervor and energy that drove Daeron I to conquer Dorne, yet his was a decidedly different flavor than that of his bellicose brother. Baelor was a zealous believer in the Faith of the Seven, in a way almost unseen since the Andal migration to Westeros. That zeal would influence many of his decisions, and for ten years, Westeros would be ruled by this septon-king.
His first act as king was to pardon the Dornish for murdering his brother at the fateful peace conference, making a grand show of penance and peace. This act, like many other events and decisions during Baelor’s reign, would not be done small. Baelor would walk the length of the Boneway, that long and perilous track, without shoes and clad in sackcloth, to demonstrate his commitment to peace. During his trek, he found his cousin, Aemon the Dragonknight, starved and exposed in a cage by the Wyls. Unable to secure his release, Baelor made a grand show of prayer for his health and safety, and continued to Sunspear. There he returned the fourteen hostages Daeron took years before, and made a marriage arrangement between his nephew Daeron (the only unwed male of House Targaryen at the time) and Mariah Martell (given that this did not automatically place Dorne under the purview and auspices of the Seven Kingdom, it is safe to assume that Mariah surrendered her claim as Princess of Dorne to the next person in succession as part of the marriage). This pardoning of the Dornish hostages is a gesture that is celebrated by many to be an amazing act of mercy, both in-universe and in the fandom.
In history, there have been several acts of great kings performing public acts of repentance. Theodosius I, the final ruler of the unified Roman Empire, was excommunicated from the Catholic Church after ordering the slaughter of 7,000 men in Thessalonica. Louis the Pious, son of the famous Charlemagne, made a public show of contrition when his nephew died in prison. However, he would also confess to a long list of secular crimes which many had already known about and only served to weaken his public image. Baelor’s political missteps, however, were of a far different slant.
While this is certainly a great act of mercy, pardoning the Dornish and making a grand show of penance made a powerful political statement to the rest of the Seven Kingdoms: You were wrong to have followed your king. By making these grand gestures of peace, Baelor callously disregarded the tens of thousands of people who died, rubbing salt in the wounds of families mourning fathers, brothers, and sons by robbing their deaths of purpose.
This issue comes up in the main book series as well. When Rickard Karstark, Lord of Karhold, learns that two of his sons were slain by Jaime in the Whispering Wood, he is inconsolable. Catelyn observes him at the great conference hall in Riverrun, where he appears almost completely lost to grief that he neglects his own personal appearance. Yet when Greatjon Umber provides a unique political solution, by making Robb Stark the King of the North, and Robb Stark offers peace to the Lannisters to acknowledge his dominion, Rickard Karstark is a proud supporter. This changing of the political context of the rebellion has Torrhen and Eddard Karstark die for a righteous cause, and satisfies their father by assigning worth and meaning to his loss. With one grand gesture, Baelor denied his vassals that meaning, and this would be disastrous later on. By pardoning the Dornish for their perfidy, Baelor watered the seeds of the anti-Dornish cause that would constitute a major component of Daemon Blackfyre’s constituency in the First Blackfyre Rebellion.
Baelor’s peace would be celebrated initially, and Baelor would return the length of the Boneway to continue his grand declaration of peace. Prince Martell, fearing that the young king would perish on the journey and the shrewd Viserys would use that as an excuse to resume the war, commanded all houses to offer him the finest comforts and hospitality on his march back, to better bolster his strength against the rigors of his journey. Lord Wyl, in yet another cruel game, offered to release Aemon the Dragonknight, if only Baelor would cross a pit of venomous snakes to reach him. Baelor, piously believing he would survive, happily agreed and was bitten multiple times, freeing his cousin but lapsing into a coma from which he would take several months to recover (and perhaps never fully).
“(Baelor’s) first new edicts must have caused consternation among those used to Aegon III’s sober rule, Daeron’s benign neglect, and Viserys’s shrewd stewardship.” -The World of Ice and Fire, Baelor I
This action lent great credibility to the thought that Baelor was not fully sane, and his actions afterward could have been considered erratic, though most of his actions make sense when viewed in light of the holy tenets of the Faith of the Seven. Some of these acts earned much love among the populace, such as donating bread to every person in King’s Landing every day for a year (approximately 180 million loaves). Others were complete debacles, ruinous in expense and unsuccessful in implementation. He attempted to replace ravens with doves and burned copies of rare books deemed sacrilegious, earning him the enmity of the Citadel. He himself took septon’s vows, annulling his marriage to his sister-wife Daena, and demonstrating to the realm that he had no intent of furthering the family line.
His policies also had a fixation on female sexuality. During his reign, he outlawed prostitution and exiled thousands from King’s Landing, whores and their children alike, causing considerable distress among the wide range of people who fancied such appetites of the flesh. He exempted nobles who employed chastity belts among their young daughters. Most politically detrimental, Baelor locked his three sisters them within a gilded tower named the Maidenvault – to “preserve their virtue”. Many, including his Hand and the poor girls themselves, protested the move (though some lords, ambitious to please an erratic king, sent daughters into the Maidenvault with the princesses). Politically, the three women of the Maidenvault were valuable dynastic marriage partners, and with the legal precedent of strict agnatic succession, there was little threat of competing rival dynasties as had happened in the Dance of the Dragons.
In history, one of the most infamous religiously manic rulers was Maria of Portugal. Overcome with the thought that she was going to hell, she released many political opponents that had been arrested during her father’s reign, and even appointed some to positions within her own court. In some of her fits, she would use coarse, vulgar language as she believed she was constantly damned. Other times she would model court entertainments after religious ceremonies in an attempt to earn respite from eternal damnation, or just wander the halls screaming at everyone and everything.
Baelor would also use the power of his office to embarrass the realm and, though unintentionally, the religion he believed in so strongly. He forced Lord Belgrave to wash a leper’s feet, earning the nobility’s ire for insulting their status and undermining the nobility and humility of the gesture by mandating it with the power of the Throne behind him. He used royal clout and influence within the Most Devout to name a common-born man, Pate the Mason, as High Septon, because he believed that his stonework (which likely included religious iconography) was so beautiful that only the Smith himself could be capable of such wondrous artifice. While Pate was indeed a gifted stonemason, he was without learning and was incapable of internalizing the Faith’s complicated strictures and dogma, or even reciting a common prayer without error. This stonemason-turned-septon would later die after a short time, and again, Baelor used his influence to name an eight-year old boy High Septon because he believed the boy could work miracles. Like the previous appointment, this would be a political embarrassment.
Baelor was very fond of mortification of the flesh, a religious practice that involves denial of comforts and the purposeful infliction of discomfort or pain to deny mortal gratification for spiritual. This practice had a rich tradition in medieval Catholicism, and historical practices included fasting, walking barefoot over difficult terrain, and shirts made of coarse hair called a cilce that would rub against the bare skin in a painful fashion. Baelor practiced all three of these acts, and his fasts would only become longer and more pronounced as he felt increasingly confronted by the sins of the world, especially those of his own family. When his cousin Naerys had her twins die stillborn, Baelor fasted an entire month. When Daena gave birth to Daemon Waters, he fasted for forty days and forty nights until his body was found on the 41st day, too weak to continue living.
This mysterious death would lead many to suspect that his long-suffering uncle and Hand, Prince Viserys, murdered the king via poisoning (this, in fact, would not be the first such secret murder the shrewd Hand would be accused of, as he was also suspected in the death of Pate the Mason). Like our own world, conspiracy theories abounded among the gossips almost immediately. Some believed that Viserys lusted after the Throne and despised his nephew. Others believed that it was revenge for having to deal with Baelor’s religious extremism, and some even claim that Viserys preemptively stopped Baelor from launching a religious crusade aimed at converting the North and the Iron Islands to the worship of the Faith.
When examining the Young Dragon and Baelor the Blessed, the most striking similarity between the two is how they attempted to be part of something great, and much of this stems from Aegon III’s distant and somber personality. He was likely spare with his affection, and their uncle Viserys, also cold since Larra Rogare abandoned him and his children, was increasingly busy with running the realm. This left both men without their two most significant male role models, and both sought to gain approval and surpass their absent father in different ways.
Daeron hoped to create a grand conquest, an amazing deed that all men would be forced to recognize and subsequently adore him. He also sought to make himself into an ideal king that his martially-minded Westerosi vassals might respect, earning something that his father could not and thus, surpassing him. Baelor sought to gain the approval of the Seven, an authority higher than even his royal father, in a classic transference technique from the mortal father to the metaphysical one. This would be, in its own way, Baelor surpassing Aegon. If all authority came from the Seven (since the High Septon anointed the king, and the king was Defender of the Faith), then by being more holy than his father, Baelor would be the greater king and thus, the greater man.
If history is any judge, however, the tens of thousands of corpses in Daeron’s reign and the wars inspired by Baelor’s erratic decisions argue that perhaps there is a benefit to sober rule after all.
Viserys II, by Amok
Viserys the Thankless
“It has been written that while Daeron warred and Baelor prayed, Viserys ruled.” -The World of Ice and Fire, Viserys II
Baelor’s death left the realm wondering who the successor was. Some lords, and the smallfolk, considered Daena, eldest daughter of King Aegon III, the rightful queen. Other nobles, especially those who remembered the six months of Rhaenyra’s tyranny, were not so eager to have Daena the Defiant as their leader. Perhaps they thought that she would be another bloody tyrant the way Rhaenyra was, perhaps her wilful nature and unabashed extra-marital affairs afforded her no respect among the traditionally-minded nobility, or perhaps they were privy to Viserys’s efforts to quietly preserve the realm as Hand, and wished to give him free reign to pursue other bureaucratic reforms without being checked by a king. It’s also possible that some simply wished the return of sober, temperate rule focused on diligent governance, or they believed in agnatic succession that was established by the Great Council and cemented in the wake of the Dance. Even darker, maybe some believed the rumors that Viserys poisoned Baelor for the benefit of the realm and wished to be free of an extremist king, or supported the notion of a king who did anything necessary for the good of the Realm. Whatever the case, King Viserys donned the simple crown of his deceased brother, and almost immediately went to work.
In his own way, Viserys, now King Viserys II, was just as radical as his nephews. Baelor envisioned a realm turned into a perfect reflection of the strictures of the Faith of the Seven, and Viserys envisioned a finely-tuned machine as his realm and legacy, one dedicated to shrewd and necessary reforms. If Daeron’s idea of greatness was a single shining obelisk that stood as a monument of glory, Viserys’s idea was a thousand small bricks that built together a glorious structure that would stand the test of time.
With the free hand that could be afforded to a king, many of Viserys’s ideas turned to increasing the finances of the realm without resorting to taxation. He looked to increase commerce with the western Free Cities, a move that not only has positive financial implications, but political ones as well. Viserys, familiar with the Free Cities thanks to his childhood, looked to strengthen ties between the two continents, bringing in fine goods while exporting Westeros’s wide range of agricultural products to an Essos always hungry for supplies during their constant wars and territorial changeovers (Braavos, in particular, is likely heavily dependent on Westerosi exports of food and wood due to their unique geography). Viserys also established a new mint to help better regulate Westeros’s currency (or perhaps the previous mint simply was in need of an upgrade), showcasing his attention to even the smallest details.
Additionally, Viserys reformed the royal household and its duties, demonstrating that he understood bureaucratic structures and took an active hand in maintaining them. He also took his quill to the legal code of Jaehaerys I, the first major revision we hear since Jaehaerys consolidated and codified the laws over one hundred years ago, another vital if deeply unsexy part of ruling and maintaining a kingdom.
From an early age, Viserys demonstrated his remarkable mental acuity. Noted to be frailer than any of his four male siblings, Viserys was known to all within Rhaenyra’s household as the most mature of her five sons. When the Gay Abandon was captured by the Kingdom of the Three Daughters, Viserys disguised himself as a cabin boy to evade capture (it didn’t work, but that’s still an impressive display of quick thinking for a six-year old). As a king, he would continue to demonstrate his mastery of the intellectual spheres of life, even more so than his grandson, Daeron II. The future Daeron the Good is mentioned as both being intelligent and keeping the company of intelligent men, but he was not noted to have made as many brilliant revisions to the Westerosi bureaucracy as his grandfather. Nor was the second Daeron noted to have touched upon as many spheres of government as the second Viserys, though Aegon IV’s corruption undoubtedly had much to do with it.
Viserys’s grasp of finance likely comes from the Rogare family of Lyseni bankers, who likely educated him while he was in their custody in the hopes of receiving a rich ransom and close ties to Westeros (Lys, like Braavos, is spread out over several small islands, thus making them a food-poor community reliant on imports that an enterprising merchant can take advantage). There might have even been an element of longing for his wife that led Viserys to reach ever eastward, hoping for some small comfort. Larra had been dead twenty-five years, however, but even the memory of Lys from Viserys’s youth might push him to try to reconnect with the land and woman that had left him so long ago.
While Viserys undoubtedly had scholars and experts to advise him on the particulars of each of these particular fields, one of the most striking things about Viserys is how many fields of study Viserys possessed at least a passing understanding. In addition to macroeconomics, Viserys was an adept legal mind and bureaucrat, and even if he grew less charming as time wore on, he had a keen understanding of how to motivate people. While many might think he was distant the way his brother was, his impressive track record of reforms during his short year at the helm of Westeros is a stark testament otherwise. It is no wonder that many believe that he could have been another Jaehaerys the Wise, as both men looked to govern through rising prosperity while maintaining strength.
Viserys’s basic understanding of many fields of rulership made him uniquely suited to be a leader in a way that no other Targaryen monarch ever exhibited except for Jaehaerys I. Indeed, both men were synthesists, able to take disparate ideas and bring them together into a coherent whole. Leadership theory abounds with discussion that quick wits are arguably more important than technical prowess or even raw intellect. By taking pieces and incorporating them into the greater whole, Viserys and Jaehaerys fostered belief among their subordinates that he understood their active sphere and its influence within its organization, and more importantly, that he valued it and relied upon it. This technique is why corporate departments and military units often receive visits from superiors to trumpet their latest accomplishments and how they fit into the corporation’s latest earnings sheet or the greater strategic mission. When it comes to morale, nothing beats feeling valued.
Peter the Great, by Paul Delaroche
Both men were able to use their key scientific understanding as a lens by which to improve the realm. Where Jaehaerys’s lens was architecture and infrastructure ala Emperor Hadrian of the Roman Empire, Viserys’s firm fixation on revenue reform and legal policy is reminiscent of the first true Russian Emperor, Peter the Great, Tsar of all the Russias. Peter inherited the Tsardom and almost immediately began implementing policies he had learned from his education in Western Europe to modernize Russia. He revolutionized the army, made strict tax reforms that closed tax loopholes and increased the treasury sixfold, and focused on increasing the economic power of Russia-based industries to curtail the economic bleeding that had characterized Russia’s trade in the previous era. Peter was not called the Great unduly, many Russian historians credit him among the most capable and beneficial Russian tsars.
This isn’t to say that Viserys II didn’t make any mistakes. Like so many other leaders in history, Viserys had a blind spot when it came to family. His marriage of Aegon to Naerys, an ill-advised move borne likely out of adherence to tradition, was very unsuitable now that the rumored ‘blood of the dragon’ no longer had any dragons to tame. He was unable to curtail the wilful defiance of his niece Daena, whose shocking behavior and multiple affairs caused the court much political scandal. Even worse, his own son became shockingly unmanageable, ruled by his gross excesses for women, alcohol, and indulgent food. While Viserys was likely busy running the kingdom, he was unable to even reign in the future-Aegon the Unworthy for political purposes. This again would mirror Peter the Great, as he was too busy ruling Russia to actively raise his son, Alexis.
The astonishing speed with which Viserys pushed through his reforms speak to a large coalition of like-minded bureaucrats and public officials, many of whom likely established a working relationship with Viserys during his tenure as Hand. Since he was managing the Seven Kingdoms during his Handship for nigh-on 30 years, it’s no surprise that once he became king, he exploded into a flurry of activity. Likely, he had been thinking for many long years what to do when he finally took office, and when Baelor took septon’s vows and ensured Viserys would ascend to the Iron Throne (though only if he outlived his much-younger nephew), Viserys’s mind was abuzz with possibilities.
Of course, Viserys would suddenly die a little over a year after he took office, and his early death is mourned as a tragedy by the maesters and other learned men as the loss of a brilliant man and reformer long before his time. Others, however, especially smallfolk who were not as likely to see direct benefits from Viserys’s shrewd rule when compared to his much more famous nephews, looked upon him as sly and distrustful, ruthless in pursuit of his own power. Like his brother Aegon, Viserys neglected the PR of his rule, though this is largely because he died so quickly in office, and the common man of Westeros does not view Viserys favorably because of it.
The World of Ice and Fire speculates that Aegon the Unworthy, either 36 or 37 at the time, hastened his ascension to the Throne by poisoning his father (an amusing coincidence, as his own father was suspected of having a deft hand at poison as well). The maesters use his reign as evidence of his capacity for wickedness, and suggest that murder would not be out of the ordinary for a man who sought to take whatever woman he wanted, whatever treasures he wanted, and whatever suited his fancies. He might have even done the deed purely on whim, befitting his capricious personality. After all, while Viserys was known be of slim frame, he was never described as sickly or weak the way Aenys I or Jaehaerys II (other kings in the monarchy who died of illness) were explicitly noted to be, nor did he have any health problems or lingering injuries of note in the text that might have strained him. His sudden onset of illness and death mirror Jon Arryn, another diligent Hand, and Arryn was decades older (78 at the youngest) than Viserys (50 at his death). That Arryn would be hale and hearty despite suffering much of the same calamities as Viserys, and his mysterious death truly was a poisoning, makes some fans wonder if Viserys’s end was truly natural.
However, Viserys also led a deeply stressful life. He had the misfortune of losing many members of his family, including two nephews and his beloved brother, to say nothing of the war that obliterated nearly every member of his family older than he. His wife, the victim of a political scheme almost from her arrival in Westeros, grew lonely and abandoned Viserys for Lys and died shortly thereafter. He was constantly forced to find new and creative means of keeping the kingdom financially solvent and managing the disasters of his predecessors. He was forced with constant frustration in fighting his nephews during their reigns, and in his continuing inability to manage Daena and his son Aegon. He was despised by his smallfolk despite his best efforts. All of these things individually are taxing on an individual’s mental well-being, but his life is an almost-endless litany of frustration after indignity after misfortune. That sort of high-stress lifestyle can lead to health problems that can quickly complicate themselves thanks to the poor state of Westerosi healthcare, so Viserys’s death could easily have been natural after all.
It’s hard not to have sympathy for Viserys as an outside observer. Viserys labored tirelessly for Westeros, a king arguably more dedicated and more devoted to his country than even the Old King or Aegon the Conqueror. In terms of efficiency of reign, no other Targaryen monarch comes close to Viserys the Thankless, and in terms of effectiveness, few Hands weathered so many pitfalls as adeptly as the long-suffering Viserys. In a series filled with tragedies, Viserys’s life story was one of the greatest of all. A man who started with such promise, never stopping despite many hardships, never succumbing to the excesses easily available to him despite so much pain. Viserys labored for his country relentlessly, and his reward was to die alone and bitter. Though the histories may condemn him, Viserys’s legacy is that of a great and effective leader, battered by time, but possessing the personal fortitude and great vision that characterizes the best leaders of all time.