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, SomethingLikeaLawyer, MilitantPenguin, and I will explore the Targaryen dynasty from its rise in the Conquest to its fall in Robert’s Rebellion. My pieces, the Ladies of Fire, will analyze the queens and princesses of House Targaryen, as well as those ladies who had a substantial impact on the dynasty itself.
By 171 AC, Aegon’s campaign of sexual conquest was already 22 years old and had included four of his nine lifelong “true loves”. Yet Prince Aegon found that his boundless energy and passionate desire had limits – from his capricious self, of course, but also from his masterful father and the larger world of Westerosi politics. Predictably, these limits taught Aegon only a selfish lesson: in order to have full control over his love life, he needed to be his own master. As king, he would create his own court of beauties to serve at his pleasure – a court never seen before and never seen again in the history of the Targaryen dynasty.
Barba Bracken: Rein and Reign
Barba Bracken (image by Magali Villeneuve)
By the time Aegon returned home permanently in 171 AC, the 36 year old prince was more than ready to resume court life with renewed vigor. The septon-king Baelor had died, and Aegon’s own father Viserys had succeeded to the throne. Aegon was now Prince of Dragonstone, heir apparent to the Iron Throne, and had little doubt he would become king himself in a short time (indeed, Aegon was rumored to have poisoned his father after only a year on the throne). A new generation of Westerosi ladies had grown lovely in his absence, and Aegon was only too eager to take advantage.
Chief among these ladies was 16-year-old Barba Bracken. Daughter of the Lord of Stone Hedge, Barba had been sent (probably a few years prior, perhaps around age 12) by her father to the Red Keep to serve as a lady companion to the imprisoned princesses Daena, Rhaena, and Elaena. Barba may have been unenthusiastic about the appointment – attendance on the Targaryen ladies meant total separation from male company and days spent in prayer, embroidery, and needlework – but her father would have recognized the political importance and value of such a position. King Baelor was a difficult man to predict, his desires increasingly spiritual, but one of the few known ways to earn his pleasure was to send a maiden daughter into gilded imprisonment in the Maidenvault.
Having a daughter appointed to the household of a high-ranking woman was certainly a boon for noblemen in our own world. Sir Thomas Boleyn, courtier of Henry VIII of England, was fortunate – and influential – enough to secure two places in the household of the king’s sister Mary Tudor when she became Queen of France; each of his daughters would serve as a maid of honor to Queen Mary and her successor, Claude. The Boleyn maidens, especially Anne, benefited from service in Claude’s household, where the queen imposed on her ladies a rigid regime of prayer, chastity, and good works (such as Rhaena might have applauded); while some ladies succumbed to the licentious King Francis and his courtiers, others – like Anne – learned grace, dignity, and poise by Claude’s side. Barba’s experience in the Maidenvault, by contrast, would prepare her for the amoral course ahead of her. There, the young Bracken maiden would have observed the restless escapes and amorous escapades of Daena and her childish imitator Elaena, learning not to be pious and chaste but to use her natural vivacity and charm to her future advantage.
Aegon might have taken notice of young Barba while engaged in his affair with Daena. Certainly, Barba was a woman determined to be noticed. Pretty, vivacious, and buxom, the Maiden of Stone Hedge was the sort of woman Aegon might have desired as his first Westerosi mistress in over ten years: she had the breeding and manners of any highborn Westerosi lady (like Falena and Cassella before her), but combined with the high spirits and energy he had found in Merry Meg. Aegon was entranced with his cousins’ maid of honor (for all that she was 20 years his junior), and soon after his return to Westeros, he took young Barba as his lover. When King Viserys II died the following year, the new King Aegon IV made Barba his first official royal mistress.
The position of royal mistress was established officially to varying degrees in our own world (Frederick I, King in Prussia, was in fact so eager to follow the example set by Louis XIV of France and his maitresses-en-titre that he installed his own official mistress, despite vastly preferring his pretty, clever wife, Sophia Charlotte of Hanover). Yet Aegon IV was the only Targaryen king to create a specific place in the court hierarchy for his extramarital lovers (the only other king known to have taken a mistress, Aerys II, never paraded his mistresses in such obvious fashion). Partly, Aegon was the only king who had the right personality for such a licentious court; his fellow kings were either too content to be married, too consumed with affairs of state, or too uninterested in women at all to encourage a court of beauties installed for the king’s pleasure. Even more, Aegon was the only king who raised noblewomen to the dubious honor of official mistress, and whose mistresses became well-known in their own right (unlike Aerys II, whose mistresses were all anonymous). If the way to gain favor with King Baelor was to send daughters into maidenly seclusion in the Maidenvault, lords quickly learned that the way to win rewards from Aegon was to offer up their daughters to his more carnal desires. The role of mistress became not simply established, but actively fought over by ambitious families.
House Bracken was the first to taste the benefits of placing a daughter in the king’s bed. On his accession in 172 AC, Aegon named Barba’s father Hand of the King, the highest preferment a king could confer on one of his subjects. The role ensured that Lord Bracken would always be at court – a convenient (if easily transparent) excuse for Lady Barba to stay in the Red Keep as well. The same year, Barba gave birth to the king’s next Great Bastard, a boy called Aegor (who, in a rare example for Westerosi genetics, shared features of both his parents, having his mother’s dark hair and his father’s violet eyes). Aegor’s birth, in the Red Keep itself, was a silent testament to Barba’s high favor with the king, much as Daemon’s palatial living and education were indicators of Aegon’s fondness for his eldest bastard son (indeed, in our own world, Charles II’s mistress Barbara Palmer would choose to give birth to her first bastard son at Hampton Court, where Charles and his queen were honeymooning). With the princely upbringing Aegon was showering on Daemon, Barba and her father could have little doubted that similar favor would be shown to baby Aegor. Having the king’s heart and the king’s son, Barba was queen in all but name.
Father and daughter, however, sought an even greater prize. Just two weeks after the birth of Aegor, Queen Naerys delivered her second surviving child, Daenerys (as well as Daenerys’ stillborn twin). Already frail, Naerys was severely weakened by Daenerys’ birth, so much so that for some time she lingered close to death. Lord Bracken promptly declared his intention of wedding his daughter to her royal lover. It would have been a magnificent dynastic coup for the Lord of Stone Hedge: a daughter as a royal consort, a grandson as a prince of the blood (perhaps even as heir, if Aegon ever formally disowned Daeron), and the blood of the Brackens, once Kings of the Trident (at least in their histories), proved worthy of the dragonlords. Though Lord Bracken and Barba would not display the same amount of ruthless ambition Anne Boleyn and her faction would in our own world – they looked to Barba becoming queen only after Naerys died, not replacing her after a divorce from Aegon – both were eager to see a royal mistress daughter replace an established queen.
Unfortunately for the ambitious Brackens, Naerys survived the difficult birth. The statements made by Lord Bracken now reflected extremely poorly on the royal mistress and her father. Predicting and plotting the death of the king were acts of treason in our own world; Naerys was only a queen consort, but the suggestion that the Brackens had actively conspired against her was only slightly better received than if the king had been the target. The heir Prince Daeron and Prince Aemon the Dragonknight – Naerys’ two greatest champions, and no friends of Barba – called for the royal favorite’s removal, perceiving the threat she posed to their queen’s safety and position. Barba had not made the kind of powerful allies she would need to weather this insult from the heir to the throne and the royal Kingsguard knight. Accordingly, Aegon – never one to risk his own position for a lover – dismissed Barba, her father, and baby Aegor back to Stone Hedge.
Barba had been Aegon’s first official royal mistress, and in that role she had played her part well. Aegon IV was a king whose sole royal ambition was to enjoy the personal power and pleasures of kingship. Spirited Barba Bracken embodied the limitlessness of applying the royal whim to personal pleasure; for the first time, Aegon could have everything he wanted in a mistress – beauty, vivacity, and noble birth – without any overriding authority. As the first woman raised to this unique position, Barba would set the tone for the decadent, amoral court Aegon would enjoy. Her “reign” showed just what a royal mistress might accomplish: political power for her family, favor and honor for herself. Yet Barba and Lord Bracken had also been foolishly ambitious, grasping for ultimate power without any sort of safety net. House Bracken would try to win Aegon IV again – with even more disastrous results – but for the moment, Barba was only a favorite out of favor, with the king’s bastard son.
Melissa Blackwood: The King’s Companion
Melissa Blackwood (image by Magali Villeneuve)
That Houses Bracken and Blackwood have never long been friends – and much longer have been bitter enemies – is one of the most basic facts of Westerosi history. The enmity between the two riverlord houses famously stretches back centuries and even millennia before the Andal Invasion, when both claim to have been petty kings over the other. Both claim to have ruled the Riverlands, and both fought against one another for dominance, even when those fights relegated both to the position of petty vassals to outsider kings. What began the blood feud, and keeps it going to this day, is unclear. While Brackens and Blackwoods have found religious (the Blackwoods being one of the very few families south of the Neck to keep the old gods) and political reasons to disagree, only the memory of the feud itself truly seems to fuel the eternal hatred between these two riverlord houses.
So when Aegon IV dismissed his Bracken lover and began his search for his next official royal mistress, the perfect poetic coincidence of the universe should have already ensured that the chosen lady would be a Blackwood. Yet Melissa Blackwood, affectionately called “Missy” by her royal lover, would earn her place not simply through her Blackwood name but for her genuine good heart. Yandel calls her the “best loved” of Aegon’s nine, and the description seems more truth than flattery. Melissa Blackwood would enjoy a long, happy relationship with Aegon, demonstrating the kind of regal, dignified companionship Aegon had yet to experience in any of his previous affairs (or would, in any to come).
Part of the reason Melissa managed to hold her position for such a long time was her respectful attitude toward the “legitimate” figures of the court: Queen Naerys, Prince Daeron, and Prince Aemon the Dragonknight. While Barba (and her father) had made no secret of their disdain for the Queen and their open desire to replace her with Barba herself, Melissa recognized the limits of her position and acted within them accordingly. With her kind, modest demeanor and generous nature, Melissa made friends even among those who should have reasonably distrusted her. Melissa may have simply been acting naturally, but her attitude was a shrewd one: having allies in the Queen, her much-respected Kingsguard brother, and the heir to the throne protected Melissa from the caprices of an easily bored king and the enmity of jealous courtiers (and rival mistresses). This was a lesson learned by two well-known mistresses of our own world, Louise de Kérouaille and Madame de Pompadour. Louise, mistress of Charles II of England (and successor of his former mistress Barbara, who had constantly feuded with the queen), always treated Queen Catherine of Braganza with respect; in return, Catherine defended Louise during the anti-Catholic hysteria of the so-called “Popish Plot” of 1678. Madame de Pompadour likewise established a cordial, deferential relationship with her lover Louis XV’s much-neglected queen, Marie Leszczyńska; the queen, appreciating the respect shown to her by her husband’s celebrated mistress, declared that if the king had to take a mistress, Madame de Pompadour was better than any other.
Melissa’s good nature would inspire the king to show her more favors – even at the expense of his old favorite, Barba. During his affair with his Bracken lover, Aegon had named the twin hills between Raventree Hall and Stone Hedge Barba’s Teats – a playful, if somewhat crude, praise of his mistress’ buxom figure (it might be noted that, in our own world, Charles II named one of his royal yachts Fubbs, meaning plump, a pet name for his then-mistress Louise). When Aegon took Melissa as his lover, Barba caustically commented that Melissa had the flat chest of a boy; in response, Aegon took possession of the hills from the Brackens and gave them to the Blackwoods. The king might have simply thought the gift a witty reply to Barba’s dismissal of Melissa, but his move showed the geopolitical and economic benefits that could come from being the king’s mistress. Any victory of Blackwood over Bracken (or vice versa) only fueled the mutual loathing between the houses; Aegon’s gift was close to a public declaration of crown support for the Blackwoods, and enriched the former at the expense of the latter – a crucial victory in their neverending feud.
Together, Melissa and Aegon had three children. Of the two girls, Mya and Gwenys, nothing is known (and, unlike the rest of the Great Bastards, they seem to have played no role in the First Blackfyre Rebellion; they may have died young, which would explain both their absence from the Rebellion and their lack of an explanation from Yandel, but this is speculation). The most important of her three children with the king, however, was undoubtedly her son Brynden. While his famous half-siblings shared the Targaryen features at least in part, Brynden was uniquely born an albino; indeed, his coloring would be so distinctive to him that his personal sigil – a white dragon with red eyes – would be a reflection of it. Melissa’s son would play a large role in the future of the Targaryen dynasty and Westeros as a whole.
Missy Blackwood’s reign as mistress lasted for five years; they were, perhaps, the best years of Aegon’s life. Melissa had Megette’s wifely dedication without her commonness; Cassella Vaith’s devotion without her neediness; Barba’s breeding without her raw ambition and vengeful streak. Above them all, she had the best heart (and perhaps the best sense, besides Bellegere) of any of Aegon’s mistresses. Melissa had the spirit and bearing of a queen in the body of a royal favorite. In contrast to spirited, ambitious Barba, Melissa served Aegon with the gracious devotion of a royal consort, the sort of dignified companion Aegon likely felt he deserved (and so sorely lacked, with Naerys) as king. Indeed, Melissa was much more to the king than simply his physical lover; even today, she enjoys the best reputation of any of Aegon’s mistresses. That the Blackwoods erected a statue of Melissa in their godswood – a mistress in the holy place of the old gods – should be taken as a fitting epitaph: a woman in an infamous position, yet beloved and honored by those who remember her.
Bethany Bracken: No Other Will Than Hers
Bethany Bracken (image by Magali Villeneuve)
By 177 AC, Aegon and Melissa had been together for around five years; apart from his affair with Bellegere (which was, by nature, conducted sporadically over ten years), the relationship was the longest (outside of his marriage) Aegon had ever had. How quickly Aegon would have tired of Melissa without outside influence can only be guessed, but Lord Bracken, for one, was not going to give the king the chance to test it.
Barba Bracken may have been evicted from the Red Keep, but she had lost neither her vivacity nor her desire to see her Blackwood rival undone. Visited occasionally by the king (if only to see his son Aegor), Barba nevertheless spent most of her time hidden away at Stone Hedge. She had traded her potential on the marriage market for the lofty position of king’s mistress, but her fall from favor ended all possibility of suitors; no Westerosi lord of any standing would take to wife the king’s disgraced former mistress when he could have an equally noble maiden. For a woman of Barba’s ambition and energy, it was a suffocating existence. The only way out would be for the Brackens to move back into the king’s good graces; to do that, she knew well enough, a Bracken needed to become a royal mistress again.
Aegon would never take Barba herself back; the scandal that had undone her was too great, and neither Prince Daeron nor Prince Aemon the Dragonknight would tolerate her presence at court (especially if she looked to supplant Melissa Blackwood, a mistress both personally liked). Yet another Bracken maid could move into the king’s attention: Barba’s own younger sister, Bethany.
The Lord of Stone Hedge had no qualms about shoving another daughter into the king’s bed. He knew as well as Barba did that with House Blackwood reigning supreme, House Bracken would never enjoy the kind of position and favors it desired. Instead of bemoaning the loss of another daughter’s innocence (and another potential marriage pawn), Lord Bracken joined Barba in grooming his younger daughter to displace Melissa Blackwood. Presumably, this grooming consisted of lessons from Barba’s own relationship with Aegon, as she educated her sister in the king’s preferences, personality, and desires. Bethany was a quick pupil, and by the time Aegon visited again in 177 AC, the younger Bracken was ready to win the king’s heart.
Melissa might have had grace and poise, but Bethany had youth, vivacity, and a head full of insider information about being the king’s mistress. Aegon was not the same dashing, handsome prince of his youth, but an obese, ill-tempered man. The idea of young, pretty Bethany being attracted to him would have appealed greatly to his vanity, and without a second thought Aegon put Melissa aside and took Bethany back to King’s Landing as his mistress.
Bethany’s political trajectory to this point had closely followed that of Katherine Howard in our own world. A niece of the Duke of Norfolk and first cousin to Anne Boleyn, Katherine was a barely literate but pretty and spirited teenager who caught the eye of the aging, overweight Henry VIII. Norfolk had already seen one niece rise to the consort’s seat, and he had secured a place for Katherine in Anne of Cleves’ household to return the Howards and their Catholic allies to royal favor. His efforts were rewarded when, not three weeks after Henry’s unhappy marriage to Anne had been annulled, the 49-year-old Henry married 15-year-old Katherine.
Yet as much as she shared in Katherine’s triumph, Bethany would not learn from Katherine’s mistakes. Aegon was no easy man to live with by 177 AC. Though he was only 42, Aegon had entered the last years of his life. The handsome prince who had once been a talented jouster and swordsman had disappeared, replaced by an obese, suspicious monarch, easily provoked to anger. The only courtiers willing to tolerate the king were sycophants and flatterers; the rest of the realm either mocked him for his insatiable lust or vilified him for his greed and careless favors (such as the precious dragon egg he gave to Lord Butterwell, in return for access to his three maiden daughters). Nor was any love lost between the King and his favorites and the supporters of his heir Prince Daeron (including the Queen herself, Prince Aemon the Dragonknight, and the Prince of Dorne, Daeron’s brother-in-law). Relations grew so frayed between father and son that Aegon instigated the accusations of Naerys’ adultery brought forth by Ser Morghil Hastwyck (refuted in a trial by combat by the Dragonknight himself). The court Bethany entered, therefore, was an even more dangerous place than the one her sister had reigned over so briefly; any lady determined to rule it as the unofficial first lady of the realm needed good sense, impeccable grace, an inviolable if twisted sense of virtue, and a winning personality (qualities which had allowed Melissa Blackwood to thrive for so long).
Bethany had none of these qualities; she had been prepared for a court of beauty and pleasure, not a court of suspicion and paranoia. Compounding her contextual difficulties, however, Bethany was personally ill-suited for her suddenly lofty position. Younger than Barba (perhaps even younger than Barba had been when she was the king’s mistress) and without Barba’s political intellect or Maidenvault experience, Bethany was wholly unprepared to manage a fractious court and a very difficult lover. Katherine Howard’s personal motto might have been “No other will than his”, but Bethany had no intention of following either the will of Aegon or the ambitions of her Bracken relations. Disgusted by her aging, rotting king, Lady Bethany took another paramour: Ser Terrence Toyne, knight of the Kingsguard.
Ser Terrence might have been a convenient lover – Aegon doubtless encouraging his Kingsguard to protect his precious mistress – but Bethany should have known she was doomed from the moment the affair began. King Aegon was naturally repulsive by this time, but disgust understandable in a girl was absolutely forbidden in a royal mistress; the king expected his mistresses to be absolutely devoted to him (even as he himself took many lovers). Nor had Aegon ever been known for his mercy toward his mistresses: not only had he done nothing to intervene when his dedicated Cassella Vaith was condemned to die, but Bethany herself would have witnessed her sister’s inglorious dismissal after her failed bid for the queenship. Moreover, history and tradition should have reminded Bethany of the folly of her indiscretion. It was little more than half a century ago when the king’s grandmother Rhaenyra had attempted to seduce (or been seduced by) Ser Criston Cole of the Kingsguard; the scurrilous rumors surrounding the relationship had partially spurred Viserys I to find his daughter a suitable husband. The knights of the Kingsguard were supposed to forsake all personal feelings for duty; betrayal of their vows of chastity, as Lucamore Strong’s example might have shown Bethany, was cause for at least punishment and exile to the Wall.
Bethany had followed her sister’s example, but only on the surface. Where Barba had been driven by familial ambition, Bethany’s only apparent motivation was personal pleasure. Both sisters, however, suffered from a lack of tact; Barba’s had earned the king’s displeasure, but Bethany’s would tempt the dragon’s wroth.
King Aegon is said to have discovered his Kingsguard and his favorite abed together in 178 AC. While this detail may suggest that Aegon invented the affair in order to rid himself of his mistress, Yandel gives no indication that Aegon was bored of Bethany before this time – sufficient evidence, based on our limited knowledge of the period, that the affair did truly happen. Henry VIII had used a royal act criminalizing a consort’s inciting adultery to condemn his unfaithful wife Katherine Howard to death (whose lover, like Bethany’s, had also been a favored member of the king’s household). Bethany was not Aegon’s queen, but she had committed a peculiar form of adultery; Aegon had exalted Bethany, and in return she had betrayed him, proving herself as faithless as his own abandoning mother. This Aegon could not forgive. His vengeance against those involved in the situation would be ruthless: Ser Terrence Toyne was tortured to death, and both Lady Bethany and her overambitious father were executed.
Bethany Bracken’s death firmly ended the Brackens’ ambitions for royal power and influence. Spurred by a brief resurgence of passion, Aegon forsook the dignified companionship of Melissa for the youthful charms and spirited imitation of his first royal lover. Yet while the king had shown himself susceptible to the charms of a lovely young maiden, he had also proven to be ill-tempered and utterly merciless when crossed. Her execution was a warning to those who hoped to secure that most coveted place in Aegon’s affections: the rewards open to a royal mistress were potentially great, but the consequences of light behavior could – and would – be fatal.
Jeyne Lothston: The Poor Pretty Pawn
Jeyne Lothston (image by Magali Villeneuve)
By 178 AC, Aegon had enjoyed – and subsequently dismissed (or lost) – seven once-beloved mistresses and any number of temporary lovers. Though he would live another six years, the king was slowly dying of a mysterious disease, a prisoner of his own rotting body. Few ladies would have personally looked forward to earning the king’s favor, yet the rewards of that favor were such that women still strove to attain the title of the king’s official mistress.
Aegon’s first mistress, Lady Falena Lothston, née Stokeworth, had not forgotten either the king or her decades-old affair with him. Though she herself had been mistress of Harrenhal for 27 years, Falena had kept up some communication with her former lover. Aegon had visited Harrenhal frequently in the two years after his father had ended their affair; given Aegon’s many sojourns into the riverlands for his Bracken and Blackwood lovers, one may suppose Aegon still paid visits to Lady Falena into his royal years. Becoming the prince’s lover had earned Falena the greatest castle in all of Westeros; the Lady of Harrenhal would use that lesson to her advantage.
Aegon had been entranced with the youthful Bethany Bracken; a resumption of his boyhood relations with the 55-year-old Lady Falena was a far-fetched scheme. Lady Falena was not dismayed, however: she had her own beautiful maiden, in the person of her 14-year-old daughter Jeyne. Yandel seems to believe Jeyne was Aegon’s own daughter: not only does he state that Jeyne was either the daughter of Lord Lucas Lothston or the king himself, but he also notes that Falena had no “acknowledged” bastards by Aegon (a qualifier he gives to no other mistress). Jeyne’s birth, around 164 AC, would have been at the same time Aegon was in Braavos; nevertheless, as has already been shown, Aegon probably made several trips home in the 10 years of his affair with Bellegere. That Aegon fathered Jeyne is not impossible, yet the evidence is so thin that no definitive statement can be made either way.
With her pretty young daughter in hand, Lady Falena presented Jeyne at court. Her timing was shrewd: Aegon, doubtless disheartened over the Bethany Bracken affair, may have been glad to see not only his first mistress again. With Aegon now obese and suffering from many health infirmities, Falena’s presence would remind him of his happier days as a young, dashing prince in full health and vigor. To further recall those halcyon, “innocent” days of his youth (and play on Aegon’s vanity in being able to attract younger girls, so recently slighted with Bethany), Falena would bring him another young beautiful maiden: her own daughter Jeyne.
Aegon’s next mistress would need to be a woman he could trust; he would not take a chance again with another politically ambitious family. Falena was inherently trustworthy, owing her current existence to Aegon’s father and uncle; neither her husband’s presumably insignificant relations nor her own politically unimportant Stokeworth family were great threats to Aegon. Personally as well, Falena had been the king’s first lover, separated from him only by the machinations of his father; Aegon may have held a nostalgia for Falena which would extend nicely to her pretty daughter. With the only scandals of the Lothstons’ past attached to Aegon himself (which he could easily justify), Aegon likely saw young Jeyne as an ideal next mistress.
How long Jeyne “reigned” as mistress is unspecified. As he had done with the Brackens, Aegon made Lucas Lothston Hand of the King – a further insurance that the Lothston household would stay close to him. Unlike the Bracken situation, however, Aegon enjoyed a double benefit at Lucas’ nomination, with both Jeyne and Falena forced to remain in his sight. Rumors even persisted that Aegon took both Lady Lothston and her daughter into bed together, though Yandel emphasizes that they were never proven (not that he acknowledges who would have or could have “proven” them anyway). Enjoying the favors of both mother and daughter gave Aegon everything he wanted in a relationship. He could have Jeyne, the embodiment of youthful beauty he had found – and suddenly lost – in Bethany, while also having Falena, the nostalgic, trustworthy influence of his own princely years. This arrangement may rightly appear shockingly repulsive to our eyes, yet Aegon IV was not named “the Unworthy” without cause; he had never been one to care about the appropriateness of his behavior, and was not about to start in the agonizing last years of his life.
Jeyne was not, however, destined to remain so favored for long. The king soon gave Jeyne an unspecified pox, contracted during his visits to King’s Landing’s brothels after Bethany’s execution. Though the king himself was grossly overweight and closer to a corpse than the dashing prince of his youth, he was apparently too disgusted by the newly diseased Jeyne to continue their affair (a cruel move, yet not one without a real-world basis; Archduchess Maria Elisabeth, for example, was considered as a potential Queen of France until smallpox hideously scarred her face and made her ineligible for any dynastic marriage). Stripping Lucas Lothston of his chain of office, Aegon banished the Lothstons back to Harrenhal.
Jeyne, unlike Falena, had gotten nothing out of her affair with the king; through no fault of her own, this pawn of her mother had displeased the king and lost her coveted place. The court of Aegon IV could be merciless, and its victims did not always need to be grasping schemers; anyone who dared disrupt the King’s pleasure, in any way, courted banishment, even death. The young and pretty Lady Jeyne was simply one of the more unfortunate victims, her story an example of the dangerous caprices of the Unworthy King.
Serenei of Lys: Lys the Lovely, Lys the Last
Serenei of Lys (image by Magali Villeneuve)
The affairs with Bethany Bracken and Jeyne Lothston had given the king his last semblance of youth, and for a time, he could pretend he was still the handsome prince of years past. Yet Bethany had reminded him of female treachery, and Jeyne of transient female beauty (for all that he had been the cause of her downfall); both had been the pawns of ambitious older female relations. His last mistress would be no blushing young Westerosi maiden, but a supremely beautiful woman, tied not to his realm but to his mother’s homeland.
Serenei of Lys was reported to be the most beautiful of Aegon’s nine, for good reason. Seven of Aegon’s nine had been Westerosi natives, and even Bellegere had had mixed Braavosi-Summer Islander ancestry. Serenei, by contrast, hailed from an ancient family of Valyrian nobility. Aegon’s mother Larra had been Lysene as well, but where her family’s fame and title came through its banking prowess, Serenei’s family more closely recalls the Old Blood of Volantis, families of pure Valyrian ancestry who alone can reside within the Black Walls. The Lysene nobility valuing purity of blood above all other characteristics, doubtless Serenei had as near as exalted – and at least as inbred – a lineage as the Targaryen dragonkings themselves.
That exalted lineage allowed Serenei to survive in a court where her Lysene predecessor Larra had failed. To her fellow courtiers, Serenei was cold and haughty from the first. Alone in the royal court, far from her Lysene allies and in a naturally unstable position, Serenei played the one good card in her hand: her rarefied lineage. Westeros respected the outworlder Targaryens and their descent from the mighty Valyrian Freehold; Larra Rogare might have been only a banker’s daughter, but Serenei would let no one forget her impeccable Valyrian pedigree. She could trace her line, as she may have reminded her courtiers frequently, directly back to Old Valyria; her ancestors had led the greatest civilization the world had ever known while the “barbarian” Westerosi had eked out an existence in petty kingdoms not one-tenth the size of the mighty Freehold.
Besides, Serenei did have (unlike Larra) a powerful Westerosi protector. The Lysene lady had been brought to court by Lord Jon Hightower, the new Hand of the King. The reasons for his doing so are unclear; perhaps Lord Jon, unwilling to sacrifice one of his own maiden relations to the king’s pleasure, was nevertheless entranced by the idea of sponsoring the king’s mistress (and the subsequent favors he himself would receive). Serenei might have been exquisitely noble, but her house was also impoverished. Wealthy Lord Hightower had more than sufficient funds to support beautiful Serenei – as long as she complied with his scheme. Though the haughty Serenei would likely never have come simply to be the king’s mistress, she may have accepted Hightower’s offer if she thought Aegon would make her his queen. Naerys was in failing health, possibly already dead, and Aegon’s mother had been a Lysene noble; the confidently patrician Serenei perhaps leapt at the opportunity presented by Lord Hightower.
For his part, Aegon apparently loved his new mistress, fondly nicknaming her “Sweet Serenei”. How “sweet” she was is open to debate. Rumors circulated that the king’s sweetheart was in fact much older than her lover, kept young and beautiful by her use of dark sorceries. It was perhaps a natural reaction to Serenei’s haughtiness: unable to undermine her lineage (as some had likely done with Larra) or her appearance (too inhumanly beautiful), her detractors instead connected Serenei to her much-boasted-of forbears, the “sorcerer princes” of Valyria. Similar accusations attached themselves to Queen Visenya after her death, when rumors attributed King Aenys’ death to poisoning at the dowager queen’s hands. In this instance, however, rumor alone cannot substantiate the claim. More likely, those enemies of Serenei – any lord who wished to advance his own relation as the king’s mistress – looked to the most damning accusation available to unseat the Lysene favorite.
As it happened, Sweet Serenei’s own reign was not to last long – not through damning rumors but through simple ill luck. She had managed to conceive a child with Aegon (no mean feat, considering Aegon’s own gross figure and failing health); hers would be the last of the Great Bastards born to the Unworthy King. Serenei gave birth to a daughter, Shiera, who in time would be called Shiera Seastar; the baby had her parents’ Valyrian coloring but mismatched eyes, blue and green. The king’s mistress never got a chance to meet her baby daughter, however, as Sernei died in the birth.
Aegon had lost another mistress; there would be no other women to take the coveted place. Serenei was a fitting bookend to Aegon’s life of women. Supremely beautiful, Serenei had nevertheless proven another victim of Aegon’s hedonistic court. As he had begun with a Lysene beauty in his mother, so he ended with Sweet Serenei.
Conclusion: Alumni of the School of Corruption
By the time King Aegon IV died, a literal victim of his own gluttony and excesses, the king had become a legend in his own time. Aegon “the Unworthy” may well be regarded as the worst of the Targaryen kings, but no one could doubt he had made a lasting reputation for himself. Far more than for any of his political deeds, Aegon would be remembered for his many colorful love affairs, for the ladies who consumed his life,for the Great Bastards several bore him, and the strife they wrought.
The position of official royal mistress never became an established or lucrative one in Westeros; only under Aegon IV would the king’s mistresses earn the same fame and rewards as their real-world counterparts. Nevertheless, the 12 years of Aegon’s reign (as well as his equally lascivious princely years) were a golden time for the role of royal mistress. The ladies who won the dubious honor would be remembered beyond mere gossip, and their children would have enormous impacts on the future of their father’s House.
It may have been expected that such a court would come to pass. Not only was Aegon IV just the right sort of king to cultivate such an atmosphere, but House Targaryen itself was evolving into a more Westerosi-like dynasty. The royal court might have maintained the Valyrian coloring and incestual coupling which recalled the rulers’ dragonlord origins, but the dragons themselves – only human ones left – were becoming indistinguishable from their bannermen. With only a pious, retiring queen as the first lady of the realm, the way was open for ladies of great personality and ambitious families to slip into the king’s bed and exert the kind of courtly influence with which native Westerosi lords would have been familiar.
Of course, the lustful age of Aegon IV was not simply the amusing anecdotes of these well-remembered ladies. The baseborn children of the king – those children of tavern wenches, merchant’s daughters, and mummer’s maidens – knew nothing of their royal father, but the Great Bastards were raised fully conscious of their exalted lineage. Born of the intertwining of personal relationships and political intrigue, their open royal descent legitimated by royal decree, these children would grow up with a dangerously strong sense of self and worth. Their squabbles turned from the personal arguments of jealous half-siblings into a true civil war which nearly destroyed the dynasty for the second time in the century.