Aegon the Unworthy, by Amok
For fifteen years, Westeros witnessed its most warlike king, its most pious king, and its most diligent king in succession. Though these three kings together would have individually short reigns, they undoubtedly left a profound effect on Westeros that reverberated long past the point where their corpses grew cold. Daeron made war on Dorne, Baelor made peace with Dorne, and Viserys ran the parts of the realm that didn’t deal with Dorne. For one short year, Viserys launched a reformation campaign aimed at legal and financial innovations meant to improve the function of the Westerosi government and increase prosperity. Unfortunately, he would die shortly after taking his throne, and the crown would fall to his son, known after his death as the ‘Unworthy’ – a distinctive negative epithet.
What made Aegon IV so unworthy? Why did he make so many horrid political decisions? What was the method behind his mannerisms? And did he have a scrap of good rule anywhere within his massive frame?
Welcome to the next installment of the first multi-author essay series of Wars and Politics of Ice and Fire, The Three Heads of the Dragon essay series, a series dedicated to exploring the kings, pretenders, and famous ladies of the storied Targaryen dynasty from fiery beginnings to bloody end. For my own part, I devote my essays to understanding the men who wore the crown and are held up by history as true kings of the dynasty. This essay now examines the 12-year reign of Aegon IV Targaryen, popularly called Aegon the Unworthy.
A Recipe for Hedonism
Without question, Aegon IV had a difficult childhood growing up. The eldest of his generation, Aegon was followed by two siblings and five cousins. Prince Aegon was not mentioned to have fostered anywhere, so his chief male role models would have naturally been his father Viserys and his uncle, King Aegon III. Viserys was a spare man, increasingly busy with running Westeros and unable to afford much time to raise his son. For his part, King Aegon III was an incredibly distant man, reluctant to show affection to members of his family, given to fits of sorrow, and able to go days without human interaction. Aegon’s mother, the beautiful Lyseni Larra Rogare, left him and his family for Lys when Aegon was just four (and as we see with Rickon Stark, this has a profound effect on a young child). Worse, Aegon was only about 13 when Larra died, leaving him without any form of closure for that emotional wound.
He would fare no better among his siblings. A young Aegon would develop into a healthy and vigorous lad, adept at sword and lance, and a fine hawker and hunter – all great talents for a royal prince in the martial Westerosi culture. As the oldest, Aegon might expect himself to establish a fine example for any male siblings that would follow him (and be a bit better). Unfortunately, those aforementioned male siblings (or, in Aegon’s case, sibling and cousins) would all develop talents to outshine him. His brother, Aemon, would blossom into one of the finest swordsmen ever to grace Westeros. His oldest cousin, Daeron, while a fine fighter in his own right, was an immensely talented general and adored by his subordinates even at a young age. Aegon III’s younger son Baelor, not as martial as any of his peers, was devoted and pious, popular among the commons and religious lords alike.
Starved of affection from his parents and recognition from his role models, coupled with being outshone by all three of his male siblings, it isn’t hard to believe that Aegon IV had a deep-seated inferiority complex. Many of his later actions, especially his appetite for women, could be seen as an attempt to drown out his perceived lack of worth from his family members. The court admired him for his wit, but as his siblings aged, each of them was known for being the best at something. Aemon was the greatest fighter, Daeron was the best general and Baelor was the best loved. What was Aegon to do?
Aegon could prove them all wrong by one simple way: demonstrating to all the he could gain the affection with women and be the envy of men. It was not a healthy coping mechanism, but it does help explain Aegon’s personality (while certainly his own predisposition to lust has a great deal with the reason why he selected this particular coping mechanism).
With his childhood firmly understood, the portrait of Aegon begins to become fuller and richer, less a caricature than a true person, albeit one who emphasized the worst aspects of both leadership and humanity in general. Aegon IV was truly a festering pit of self-loathing, turned increasingly to hedonism to drown out his self-doubt, and filling his court with sycophants who could make him believe that people loved him as much as he so desperately craved. The satisfaction of his ego seemed to be paramount in all aspects of his tenure on the Throne, yet with a little logic and understanding of human nature, we can see why he craved approval and affection so much that he would let himself go to waste.
Bathe Her and Bring Her to Me
“Dunk once heard Ser Arlan say that Aegon’s should have been, ‘Wash Her and Bring Her to My Bed’” –The Sworn Sword
The hallmark of Aegon’s reign was the large number of royal mistresses and bastards, to which point it became almost a caricature. By his own admission, he did not count his days complete unless he had taken a woman to bed, a primal fixation even greater than his gluttony or vanity. While he counts nine mistresses as those he truly loved, the women he had slept were not numbered by the finger, but by the hundred. He would sleep with highborn and commoner alike, and no lady was safe from his royal desire.
While Henry VIII does indeed have a famous reputation for being a man with an appetite for ladies, and he does share many similarities with Aegon IV when it comes to his paranoia, his vanity, and his tyrannies, there are a few key differences that make these two lustful monarchs’ most infamous deeds incongruent. While Aegon slept with nearly everything female within his reach, Henry VIII was more calculating in his choice of lovers, obsessed with fathering a son and royal heir (and a second son in case anything happened to young Prince Edward once he was born to Henry’s third wife, Jane Seymour – after all, Henry’s older brother Arthur died of illness at age fifteen). Henry was obsessed with his own twist on the chivalric aspect, adopting different knightly badges to celebrate wives and mistresses alike. Chivalry, of course, mandated not consummating the courtly love, emphasizing the valorous service to the lady as an outlet to purge the erotic lusts of the body in the context of Christianity. Henry VIII fell a bit short, but he was different from Aegon IV’s lustful pursuit of anything alive with two X chromosomes.
Augustus the Strong, King of Poland, by Louis de Silverstre
A better historical comparison would be the sometime King of Poland and Duke of Lithuania, Augustus the Strong. That epithet would indeed be because of Augustus’s massive strength – according to popular stories of the time, Augustus was capable of breaking horseshoes with his bare hands. However, that name was also given because of his exceptional virility. He would have ten mistresses as ‘chosen ones,’ including two foreigners to match up with Bellegere and Lady Vaith. Contemporary sources put his bastards in the three-hundred range, but the number is impossible to verify as befitting the imperfect recordkeeping of the time period. Fitting with GRRM’s mix-and-match style, Aegon IV is a blend of Henry VIII and Augustus the Strong, with the trademark fantasy twist of exaggeration.
Whoever the best historical comparison to Aegon might be, the court became a dangerous joke under the tenure of the Unworthy King. Many lords, especially lower lords from houses like Butterwell and Stokeworth, leapt at the opportunity to place nubile young daughters in Aegon IV’s bed in exchange for royal favor. This favor was not a small thing. Lord Butterwell received a dragon egg, once only the marker of royal princes and princesses and wildly invaluable, allegedly for offering Aegon all three of his maiden daughters. Men like Lord Bracken and Lord Lothston would become Hand of the King, the second man of Westeros, in exchange for pushing their daughters onto the increasingly obese king.
This is not an unfamiliar concept to our own time. During the Tudor era, Thomas Boleyn, after foisting Mary into the royal bedchamber, was named Viscount Rochford in 1525. Then again, after Henry VIII became enamored of Anne Boleyn, Thomas was raised to Earl of Wiltshire, with his son taking his previous county. Disgusting though it may be, Thomas used the assets he could to seize generous lands and titles much the same way Lord Butterwell did. A dragon egg is easily worth more than an earldom, but Martin’s cuts from history are far closer to reality when it comes to his characters.
While this sort of pimping might be rightly reviled as no bastion of honest appointment to high positions, the high turnover of this positions speak that some were dismissed just as easily. The Lothstons were exiled from court positions after Lady Jeyne received a pox from Aegon, and Lord Bracken would be executed after Bethany Bracken would have an affair with Ser Terrence Toyne. Aegon’s whims were incredibly mercurial, and that personality could be both rewarding and dangerous. The introduction of newer, prettier daughter could be the loss of one’s position, fortune, and status, and it’s no surprise that the larger and more powerful lords of the realm, like the Lords Paramount, stayed well away from Aegon’s court of impropriety (only Jon Hightower cracked the code, and that was at the end of Aegon’s tenure).
Do What Thou Wilt Shall be the Whole of the Law – Cruelty and Caprice
“But to those who dared enter his circle, he was too mercurial, too greedy, and too cruel to be anything but dangerous.” -The World of Ice and Fire, Aegon IV
Aegon did not limit his willfulness to his pursuit of mistresses; indeed, he seemed to treat his entire time at court as a means of satisfying his own royal whim. From the initial stages of his reign, Aegon made it clear that he would not continue the just traditions of his father and uncle. Almost as soon as he came into power, Aegon filled his court with flatterers to quiet his insecurities. He would take from one to give to another (or to himself), showing utter contempt and disregard for the law, based entirely on how well they could appeal to his vanity.
Part of the problem was connected to his lovers: many fathers of royal mistresses – and, subsequently, holders of court positions – earned high favor, and then lost it just as quickly when Aegon grew bored or displeased with their daughters. That the government had such significant turnover meant that very little bureaucratic work was done, especially in the field of long-term projects. Aegon, never one to be diligent when there were base desires to be fulfilled, wasn’t known for many royal accomplishments the way his father was. Even Aegon’s attempts at active rule ended up being half-hearted disasters, largely because of Aegon’s inability to commit to anything beyond his fleeting fancies. This sort of ineffective governance was actually a danger to those lords who wished to make a name for themselves in the royal court, and not just the ones who threw their daughters at Aegon. At any moment, the power of government could fall into a different set of hands, whose owner’s only necessary qualification was possession of a pretty female relative to tempt the bored king..
Not all, of course, supported this slapdash approach to government. Aegon’s chief opponent was his son, Crown Prince Daeron, born shortly after he wed his sister in 153 AC. As Crown Prince, Daeron would doubtlessly have much political power and influence as court, and obstructing his father’s whims would be one that occupied a majority of his time. While Daeron’s philosophies will be covered in his own essay, Aegon would undoubtedly have been enraged to see his son defying him. Already despising Daeron for his closeness to his hated wife, Naerys, Daeron would be seen not only as a reminder of an unhappy ball-and-chain, but an active political threat capable of denying the King his royal whim.
In monarchical history, there have been many famous examples of kings and sons fighting each other politically (and militarily, in many circumstances). Aside from the family’s predilections for royal mistresses, the House of Hanover was famous for its legendary feuds between kings and princes. George II would find that his eldest son Frederick was one of the strongest supporters of his parliamentary opponents, which led to George removing Frederick from the infamous South Seas Company and installing himself after a particular vitriolic disagreement. George IV made a grand show of pomp and lavishness even during the Napoleonic Wars, draining the treasury and running his government into the ground (which was largely poached from his father in the first place), much to the consternation of his younger brother William, popularly called the Sailor King for his time spent in the Royal Navy.
As mentioned before, of course, Aegon’s tenure on the throne was not completely actionless. Fixated on what he perceived as the humiliating peace agreement made by Baelor with Dorne and seeing the Dornish as an unwelcome part of Crown Prince Daeron’s coalition, Aegon grew obsessed with subjugating Dorne. It isn’t far-fetched to believe that Aegon believed Daeron might have been turned against his father by his Dornish wife; wifely scapegoats are common enough to explain treachery, after all. Serala Darklyn, the Lace Serpent, was popularly thought of among the commons of Duskendale to have instigated her husband, Denys Darklyn, to rebel against Aerys II. Both Meriah Martell and Serala of Myr were foreigners at the time of the their marriage, and if one could bear the brunt and blame of an action, why not a second?
The attempts to conquer Dorne were naturally unmitigated failures. His first attempt was blocked politically by Daeron, but his second and third attempts were pure military disasters. Aegon raised a fleet, probably hoping to reinvent the heroic Oakenfist’s success, but the fleet was wrecked by a storm before ever reaching the Dornish coast. This failure would sadly, not deter him, as he entered into an alliance with Tyrosh for access to another fleet by arranging a marriage between his adored bastard son Daemon and Rohanne of Tyrosh. His third attempt, however, would be the epitome of folly.
Aegon built ‘wooden dragons,’ mobile siege engines equipped with wildfire, to bring Dorne to heel. His “dragons” were ponderous and unwieldy things, not practical by any stretch of the word, and a clear attempt to link Aegon to the power of the dracocracy of yore. Moving the wooden dragons up the Boneway, the more treacherous and steep of the two major Dornish thoroughfares with large quantities of the incredibly volatile wildfire, was no surprise that the venture failed before even reaching Dorne, setting the Rainwood ablaze. Poorly planned and poorly executed, with disastrous results, this debacle is the perfect characterization of Aegon’s foolish reign and attitude toward government.
While he may have been attempting to punish the Dornish, Aegon was likely just as consumed with defeating Dorne to find a way to surpass his cousin Daeron the Young Dragon and feed his own vanity. His glorious debacle of wildfire dragons speaks to his desire to be seen as the greatest of his generation. All of his actions in Dorne appear to be a grand gesture not merely to one-up Daeron, but to wholly and utterly surpass him; crafting dragons to spray wildfire speaks of a desire to ‘build’ dragons, to bring them back to the world and give himself a crowning glory that would make him greater than Daeron or even Aegon I. After all, Aegon I failed to conquer Dorne with dragons, but if Aegon IV created new dragons and successfully conquered Dorne with them, what could that be but the surpassing of the greatest military achievement of the Targaryen dynasty?
With an ineffective and corrupt government behind him, Aegon IV led a reign as lazy as that of Viserys I, only punctuated with a few outright blunders. Like Viserys I, another corpulent, self-interested king, Aegon was devoted to ignoring the rising problems facing the nation. Fortunately for Aegon, he had come to power after Viserys II, who for years had been finding ways to keep Westeros afloat financially and more importantly, establishing bureaucracy and incentives to have it done at all levels, just as Viserys had the fortune to follow Jaehaerys I. With a faction dedicated to the continuity of government led by Daeron, Viserys’s systems stayed intact and thus, Viserys helped to preserve the kingdom long after his death.
Daeron and Daemon – By Blood and By Word
“Aegon the Fourth legitimized all his bastards on his deathbed. And how much pain, grief, war, and murder grew from that?” -A Storm of Swords, Catelyn V
Daeron may have been Aegon’s only legitimate son, but he was far from Aegon’s only male issue. While Aegor Rivers would find himself exiled as a baby to his mother’s home of Stone Hedge, his Blackwood half-brother Brynden Rivers would be acknowledged from an early age and raised at court. The baseborn noble boys of Aegon IV would, one and all, have profound impact on Westeros for generations, and even until the book series’s timeline. Bloodraven himself is about to pass on his legacy to Brandon Stark, and across the Narrow Sea, the legacy of Bittersteel still looms large.
However, Aegon’s most infamous bastard, birthed from Daena the Defiant, was Daemon Waters – a boy who would later trouble the realm as Daemon Blackfyre. It was no secret that upon Daemon Waters’s acknowledgement in 182 AC, he became the darling of Aegon IV, the king’s bequeathal of the Targaryen kingly sword Blackfyre to Daemon was only a further confirmation of that fact. While it was true that Crown Prince Daeron didn’t exhibit many of the traditional male Westerosi virtues – even his most faithful supporters acknowledged that he was no warrior – a far better explanation for the gift is that Crown Prince Daeron had long been an open opponent of his father, using his great political clout to block many of his father’s arbitrary moves.
Aegon could not reward such a disloyal son with this great sign of Targaryen kingship. In bequeathing Blackfyre to Daemon, the king instead looked to make a new grand knight of Westeros – his own Aemon the Dragonknight, but – unlike Aemon – loyal to him personally. Daemon, as a bastard, had no claim to lands, titles, or incomes, so he would be entirely dependent on the royal largesse to make his way in the world. Perhaps Aegon looked to symbolically kill Aemon by making Daemon the new Aemon, putting Aegon the creator (and progenitor in the more physical sense) above the Dragonkinght. This same reason would be why Aegon did not mourn Aemon’s death and attempted to accuse him of infidelity (despite Aemon’s sacrifice coming in protecting his own royal brother), anything to diminish the prestige of this old Aemon so his new Daemon could surpass him.
Daemon represented all the things Aegon desired: martial prowess, charm, charisma, handsomeness, and loyalty. Daemon’s vigor and masculinity reflected well upon Aegon’s own virility (as at this point, Aegon had become increasingly feeble in his obesity) and appealed to his vanity. Even in martial societies like Westeros, with age comes the passing of the torch, and older men serve as wizened veterans, architects of success for this new generation of young and talented swordsmen. No longer able to wield Blackfyre effectively, he could direct Daemon to do it for him, still satisfying his own whims with the result .
“Despite all his threats and calumnies and tasteless japes, Aegon never formally disowned his son.” -The World of Ice and Fire, Aegon IV
Daemon continued to receive glories and honors from Aegon, but he never received that ultimate elevation over his half-brother: the displacement of Daeron and the naming of himself as heir. While Kings Maegor, Jaehaerys I, and Viserys I proved that the king has the power to name an heir, the civil wars and pretender claimants show that naming an heir outside of the traditional succession is an invitation to a long and brutal war. Daeron had a large constituency supporting his actions, many of whom were powerful lords in their own right. Certainly the Dornish supported him, but so did many traditionalists and people appalled by Aegon’s conduct on the Throne.
Aegon, certainly clever, knew that he would need to erode Daeron’s legitimacy, or face a war that he possibly could not win. The allegations of Aemon and Naerys’s infidelity, while certainly an attempt to sully Aemon the Dragonknight’s illustrious reputation, also served as a powerful way to illegitimize Daeron to a watching Westerosi nobility. Daeron would be a bastard the same as Daemon, but Daemon would have the blood of the sitting king, while Daeron would merely that of a queen consort and an unfaithful Kingsguard. Even Aegor and Brynden Rivers would have better claims that Daeron if that was the truth; they could both count King Aegon as their father, and had noble mothers besides. The Unworthy’s first attempt, however failed, as Aemon forced Ser Morgil Hastwyck to answer his words with his blade, and Morgil found himself quickly slain.
So, without a means to prove it, Aegon looked to build a coalition of martial-minded people in the event so that Daemon would have the greater military force backing his claim. Daeron might have had powerful lords and allies, but if the greatest military troops and commanders were behind Daemon, Daeron might not have a chance if it came to open war. In a few years, Aegon might have had all the clout he needed to make Daemon the heir to the Iron Throne.
However, Aegon by this time was riddled with disease and parasites, and his health would suffer as a result. His deathbed legitimization of his bastards, like nearly every other action in his reign, was selfish, arbitrary, and likely made at the spur of the moment, fearing his own death. He had built Daemon’s alliance, but he hadn’t the time to finish his grand move to disinherit Daeron, and as such, even his cruellest gesture was, for the moment, empty and toothless. What it started however, was the greatest succession crisis Westeros would ever see.
Aegon the Unworthy is rightly regarded as one of the worst kings of the Targaryen monarchy. His selfishness, his petty cruelty, and his arbitrariness made him a beast of a monarch, almost willingly destroying everything his ancestors had worked to build. However, there’s a sense of such great self-loathing in Aegon that his actions follow a twisted form of logic, the actions of a man who could never be satisfied; a man who constantly needed new affection to drown out the hatred he had for himself.
Still , these excuses do not themselves excuse the damage he did to the realm, or the pain he inflicted on others – particularly his brother, wife, and son – for the sake of his amusement. Aegon is called the Unworthy, and he truly was. In a dynasty filled with weak kings with faults and excuses, Aegon’s are some of the least-defensible. Aerys II might have been certifiably insane, and even Maegor and Baelor might have had brain damage from the time spent in their respective comas. Aegon, however, has no saving grace, no justifiable reason for acting the way he did. While he may not have killed many in his reign, the wars he started would leave thousands dead – all for his own whims.
Thanks for reading! If you’re excited for more Aegon IV Targaryen, check out History of Westeros’s Aegon IV episode that kicked off their Blackfyre Rebellions series.