Dragonstone, by Philip Straub
Traditionally, the heir-apparent to the Iron Throne holds the title of Prince of Dragonstone. From Aenys I, most of the sitting kings of Westeros learned to rule from the traditional Targaryen home (Aegon II and Aegon III did not, though this was due to the complicated succession situation that the Dance of the Dragons revolved around). Yet Aerys, First of His Name, who was never an heir and never trained in rule, led the kingdom for 12 years, during some of the worst disasters Westeros had ever seen. After him, his brother Maekar, fourth son, war hero, and long-suffering in the shadow of others, would inherit the throne after multiple disasters befell his family, and rule for another 12 years. These 24 years are the next ones under the microscope.
These turbulent times gave rise to the Dunk and Egg tales, and Westeros was noted to be full of troubles. Yet despite minor troubles cropping up all over the realm, the Third Blackfyre Rebellion, the only civil war of note, was less successful than the First. Was it simply diminishing support of the Blackfyre cause, or did Aerys, Maekar, or both, have some sort of trick up their sleeves that made these two unpopular, untrained men successful rulers?
Welcome to the next installment of the Three Heads of the Dragon, the first multi-author essay series of Wars and Politics of Ice and Fire. This series looks at the kings, pretenders, and famous ladies of the storied Targaryen dynasty, from fiery beginnings to bloody end. I concern myself with the ruling kings of the dynasty; those who are acclaimed as true and proper kings in their own right. We are nearing the end of the Targaryen dynasty, but there are still five kings remaining. This essay concerns itself with the next two, Aerys I and Maekar I.
Aerys I Targaryen, by Amok
The Politics of Plague – The Great Spring Sickness and the Candidate It Left Behind
Before examining the reigns of these kings, it is important to understand the disastrous consequences which brought the first of those two men to the Iron Throne. The Great Spring Sickness was easily one of the worst natural disasters to ever befall Westeros. A large percentage of Westeros’s citizens would die from the deadly disease, and no one would be safe among highborn or low; only the Vale and Dorne, inaccessible after the closure of their mountain passes, remained immune from the disease. The High Septon and a third of the Most Devout, and nearly every silent sister (whose job it was to treat and handle corpses) perished in King’s Landing, while Lord Damon Lannister the Grey Lion succumbed in the west. More troubling for the Targaryens, of course, was that King Daeron II would succumb to the plague, as would his grandson Valarr and Valarr’s brother Matarys. Valarr was the elder son of the chivalrous Baelor Breakspear, the King’s Hand and Prince of Dragonstone since his father’s death. With Baelor’s death earlier in the Ashford Tourney, and now the royal ravages of the Great Spring Sickness, Westeros was deprived of its king and everyone in the royal line trained to rule – a political disaster by any stretch of the imagination.
“Assuming the throne in 209 AC, Daeron’s second son, Aerys, had never imagined he would be king, and was singularly ill suited to sit the Iron Throne.” –The World of Ice and Fire, Aerys I
Who the plague left in the Iron Throne was Daeron’s second son, Aerys, now Aerys I Targaryen. A bookish, quiet sort, Aerys perhaps was the member of the Targaryen dynasty who least desired to rule the Seven Kingdoms. Focused intently on ancient and esoteric lore, Aerys was known to prefer the company of books to people, and considered people and rule to be secondary matters of little interest. For the entirety of his reign, Aerys saw the acts of rule second to his personal desires, and made little effort to rule Westeros, let alone rule well.
His refusal to sire an heir on Aelinor Penrose is a surprising example of Aerys’s unique negative traits. While it seems odd to our modern sensibilities of sexual autonomy to consider refusal to engage in sexual intercourse as a character flaw, his desire not to produce an heir was yet another indicator that Aerys had no desire to rule the Seven Kingdoms. In an era where inheritance was the rule of law, not siring an heir weakens the monarchy, and after a war fought over the nature of monarchy and a devastating plague that ravaged the high and low alike, the people needed faith in the monarchy, which Aerys steadfastly refused to give.
Aerys would not only show his disinterest via not siring an heir. With the new king noted to be devoted to intellectual pursuits, and more and more of the business of running the actual kingdom was given to his bastard uncle Brynden Rivers, the new – and notorious – Hand of the King. Widely despised for his studies of the “higher mysteries”, marked as a kinslayer for his killing of Daemon Blackfyre, and feared for his physical attributes, Bloodraven had wide powers and generous sanction from his ruling nephew. He would use that wide-ranging authority in the first crisis of Aerys’s reign: stopping the Great Spring Sickness.
Disease was a fact of life for all of human history, especially in the eras before modern germ theory and antibiotic technology. The Great Spring Sickness bears great similarity to the infamous Black Death of medieval Europe, which rampaged through the continent over the course of 1346-1353. This plague was no small matter, estimates theorize the plague may have reduced the world population by as much as 20%. The mortality rate for the Black Death was over 70% once contracted, and the several-day incubation period made quarantine difficult if not impossible.
The devastating loss of so many was a great boon to the peasantry, provided they survived. With the loss of so much human capital, wages greatly rose (though they would soon fall to an ever greater increase in inflation) and larger tracts of land became available. Since labor resources were in short supply, landowners needed to offer tempting wages to get the manpower to produce enough output to maintain profitability. With the loss of workers, technology was forced to improve to save on labor. Landholders lowered rents on peasants to keep them on their land, and this innovation of negotiation led to copyhold agreements that would eventually evolve into the modern landlord-tenant contracts that we know today.
In Westeros, the devastation wrought by the plague was handled by Bloodraven, who commanded bodies be burned in the unused, crumbling Dragonpit to prevent infection. From what we can gather of Westeros, Faith and Old Gods followers typically bury their dead; the ancient tombs of Winterfell and Casterly Rock, barrows of the First Men, and simple roadside graves decorated with seven-sided holy crystals seen in Arya’s wanderings all testify to that fact. Cremating the dead does not appear to be a common Westerosi practice (though it is common to the Targaryens according to Martin); and Westeros resembled medieval Europe in this way. In medieval Europe, cremation was typically used as a punishment rather than a means of burial. However, there was one notable exception which matches Brynden Rivers’s conduct: mass cremations following natural disaster. To prevent against diseases, bodies of plague victims were often burned in mass pits. Yet this practice, which denies the dead their due, served to further alienate Bloodraven from the rest of Westeros.
A Bastard with a Bloody Beak – The Chief Mistakes of Aerys and Bloodraven
While Aerys was the king, he was far from the only personality in court. Bloodraven, bastard son of Aegon IV and slayer of Daemon Blackfyre at Redgrass Field, had become Hand of the King, and while his conduct during the Great Spring Sickness was already known, his political narrative would be omnipresent during Aerys I’s reign. Like his grandfather Viserys, Bloodraven would cultivate a reputation as an effective if charmless Hand, devoted to the effective running of government. Burning the dead of plague would certainly qualify as harsh measures necessary for the good of the realm, but Bloodraven did not stop there.
Most infamously, Bloodraven would build up his ‘thousand eyes and one’ persona. He built an information network of which Varys could only turn green with envy. None knew who Bloodraven’s informants were, and any whispered word of discontent could be carried by a neighbor, friend, or lover to Bloodraven, where the speaker would be convicted and executed for treason. This spy network was certainly unpopular but undoubtedly effective, given the massive civil war that had been exacerbated by Blackfyre loyalists being able to spirit Daemon away from Bloodraven’s clutches.
The plague would ebb and wane in 210 AC, but Westeros itself would earn no reprieve. For as soon as the streets seemed safe again, another threat rose in the west, and it would be this threat that would define the character of this new ruling king.
“In Dagon’s day a weak king sat the Iron Throne, his rheumy eyes fixed across the narrow sea where bastards and exiles plotted rebellion. So forth from Pyke Lord Dagon sailed, to make the Sunset Sea his own.” –A Dance With Dragons, Victarion I
Dagon Greyjoy, Lord Reaper of Pyke, saw the weakness of the new king on the Iron Throne. Aerys, unconcerned with ruling and worried about a Blackfyre resurgence since five of Daemon’s seven sons had survived the First Blackfyre Rebellion, never had royal armies stir from their positions in the east. Sensing his opportunity, Dagon started to reave up and down the west coast of Westeros. Dagon raided the Arbor, kidnapped women from Fair Isle, and burnt Little Dosk to the ground, all while seizing the old mythos of the ‘iron price.’
To this, Aerys I Targaryen, under advice from Bloodraven, had a very curious strategy: nothing. Rather than attack the Greyjoys, Aerys kept royal forces concentrated close to King’s Landing, to prevent any inroad from Bittersteel and the Blackfyres-in-exile, and left the west coast to handle the matter on their own. For what appears to be the first time in the royal history of Westeros, Houses Stark and Lannister allied together, mustering men and ships to fight off the Ironborn.
This tactic is a good microcosm of Aerys I’s reign as a whole, and why I consider Aerys I to be the point in the Targaryen dynasty where the damage was irreparable and the fall inevitable. Aerys represented a new low in the Targaryen dynasty, as he was the first king to make intentional failure to perform his kingly duties a standing policy. Aenys I, weak-willed and indecisive, made his errors out of blunder and fear of consequences while others acted far more decisively. Maegor and Aegon II, cruel as they were, addressed matters as best they could, and went down swinging. Even Aegon III, never one to court his vassals, delegated his duties to others (chiefly his brother) under the royal portfolio, putting the resources of the kingdom at their disposal. Aerys and Bloodraven, however, consciously made the choice to abandon the west coast to the Greyjoys, leaving it to Lords Lannister and Stark to defend the people.
This was a drastic mistake. In feudalism, one of the chief obligations of the overlord is protection. Kings have large armies, and the threat of retaliation from an entire kingdom helped maintain peace. A rebellious lord, with perhaps five thousand retainers in his service, would think twice about attacking a neighbor if there was a threat of retaliation from a king with ten times the men with better equipment. Even a Lord Paramount like Dagon Greyjoy, commanding the strength of the Iron Islands, would face substantial risk if Westeros brought the full strength of the North, Westerlands, and Reach as a combined amphibious assault (as Robert Baratheon demonstrated most effectively in Balon Greyjoy’s rebellion, when he commanded the might of Westeros to crush the Iron Islands, naval advantages and difficult logistics be damned).
By refusing to fulfill his obligations, Aerys projected weakness from the top, but more importantly, by intentionally failing to fulfill them, Aerys demonstrated that he didn’t believe himself to be bound by his feudal oaths, fundamentally threatening the very foundations of feudalism. The Lords paid taxes for protection that never came, and the service that they rendered to Aerys’s father to protect him from Daemon Blackfyre was not returned. For all the disasters they faced, plagues and droughts, the one time that the king could actually do something about the troubles facing the realm, the king decided to do nothing.
The Return of the Bittersteel and Blackfyre
“Many would welcome the return of Bittersteel. Bloodraven is the root of all our woes.” -The Mystery Knight
If Brynden Rivers had desired to craft his political narrative of being effective though despised, he made a crucial error in ignoring Dagon Greyjoy. If Dagon Greyjoy was able to steal and rape with abandon across Westeros, then, royal authority would clearly not be seen to be effective. Failure to act promotes weakness, the exact opposite of what Bloodraven desired to cultivate. In focusing on the threat of Bittersteel and leaving the west to twist in the wind, Bloodraven gave Bittersteel more legitimacy than Daemon Blackfyre ever possessed on his own, for all of his ‘better man’ persona. The one thing the First Blackfyre Rebellion truly lacked was a flashpoint issue of contention, where the royal monarchy could have said to have wholly and utterly be in the wrong and the rebels the champions of justice. Robert’s Rebellion had the murder of multiple nobles without trial and the abduction of a highborn maiden by a member of the royal family, but Daemon lacked such a powerful argument. His supporters might have bristled at the overrepresentation of Dornish at court and their own systematic exclusion, but that is mere discontent, not a violation of rights.
Bloodraven’s decisions were not made in a vacuum. For Bittersteel still lurked in Essos, and the threat of Blackfyre remained strong. Many Westerosi lords followed Daemon’s sons into exile, and Bittersteel formed the Golden Company to unite them in purpose and keep them together. This mighty sellsword company would unite themselves behind a single idea and bind themselves together in shared success, keeping them a potent threat that could both fund itself and attack when it desired. While Bittersteel kept his constituency alive, Bloodraven gave them Westerosi sympathy, which would translate into local support for Bittersteel’s return and a shot at glory for Haegon Blackfyre and the Third Blackfyre Rebellion.
The Third Blackfyre Rebellion always seems like a misnomer. The Second Blackfyre Rebellion, after all, could barely be considered a rebellion given how it was pre-emptively quashed by Bloodraven before armies could even be fielded, and the chances of it having any sort of success was so low as to be laughable. Bloodraven’s police state was able to seize Daemon II Blackfyre, and he was kept imprisoned as to deny Bittersteel the chance to crown his next-of-kin, Haegon. Yet if Brynden thought that this strategy would work, he was sorely mistaken, as Haegon would be given Blackfyre and crowned king in 219 AC, 23 years after the death of Daemon I. With the Golden Company at their back, Haegon and Bittersteel landed in Westeros, intent on toppling the Targaryen dynasty.
It’s unknown the course of the war, but from what hints we are given in The World of Ice and Fire, the Third Blackfyre Rebellion was a series of battles, with local support from Westerosi lords playing a key role. The Yronwoods of Dorne (who had backed Daemon Blackfyre against their traditional Martell enemies) supported Haegon, as did several other Westerosi houses (though sadly, Martin is keeping the details of the Third Blackfyre Rebellion under wraps for a Dunk and Egg tale). Had dreaming Daemon II not squandered Blackfyre sympathies in his abortive Second Rebellion, Haegon may have won over the Freys and other houses in attendance at Whitewalls, and may have even come as close as Daemon I did a generation ago, or even further.
Long-suffering Prince Maekar Targaryen, however, would prove to be the decisive force in the Third Blackfyre Rebellion. Oft-overlooked by historians in favor of his more popular brother Baelor or the more intimidating Bloodraven, Maekar again proved decisive battlefield leadership both for himself and for his children. As Prince of Dragonstone and heir apparent, Maekar had everything King Aerys lacked. He already had four sons, proved willing and able to field troops against royal enemies, and did not suffer from Bloodraven’s mysticism and rule-through-fear mentality. Two of his sons, Aerion and Aegon, were willing to fight as expected of royal princes, and thus Maekar became the anvil that he was famous for on Redgrass Field, providing stability and rationality to the bleeding Targaryen dynasty.
Maekar – King of Lemons
“And my father…he never thought the throne would pass to him, and yet it did. He used to say that was his punishment for the blow that slew his brother. I pray he found the peace in death that he never knew in life.” –A Feast For Crows, Samwell III
Maekar Targaryen is one of the kings about whom we have learned the least. From a purely meta-perspective, this makes sense: many of the later Dunk and Egg Tales will presumably take place during Maekar’s 12-year tenure as king and the events of Maekar’s reign will undoubtedly have a great effect on Dunk, Egg, and the setting that they explore. We know more about Viserys II and Aegon II, men who ruled for barely a fraction of Maekar’s reign, then we do about the long-suffering Maekar. So from an analytical perspective, Maekar is frustrating to dissect.
Maekar, more than any other Targaryen king, seems to be the king who changed the most over the course of the series, almost to the point of seeming contradictory. The nobles of Westeros anticipated a conflict between Maekar and Bloodraven, with the latter having enjoyed powers uncommon even among strong Hands. Yet this speculative conflict never materialized, and Bloodraven was the Hand at Maekar’s death (though it is likely that he was not Hand for the entirety of Maekar’s reign). Maekar was brusque and traditionalist, concerned overly with status and prestige, yet he permitted Aegon to wander the lands while squiring under the hedge knight Duncan the Tall. Either Maekar is of two minds, or he changed significantly thanks to his life experiences. The Maekar the reader sees never sees the result of Aegon’s wanderings with Duncan, nor is he the man demonstrating the spectacular leadership Westeros required for the Third Blackfyre Rebellion; the leadership that Aerys refused to give. Aegon’s unique perspective and the respect, if not regard, of his men during war perhaps mellowed Maekar.
Maekar was not a perfect man. Noted to be rather stern and sullen, he did not win friends or affection easily. When Bloodraven was appointed Hand over him, he withdrew to Summerhall, the holding built by his father, Daeron II. There, Maekar sulked in his palatial seat as drought parched the throat of the Seven Kingdoms and Dagon Greyjoy reaved up and down the west coast.
Yet Maekar seems almost the only human in a dynasty dominated by superhuman figures. Maekar put forth as much effort as any of his titanic ancestors, yet his accomplishments were constantly overshadowed. He had the harder task of the famous “Hammer and Anvil” maneuver in the Battle of the Redgrass Field, yet Baelor seemed to be the more famous of the two brothers because of his personal charm and chivalric reputation. He was bypassed by the sorcerous Bloodraven to be named Hand of the King, like as not because of the personality difference between himself and Aerys I. These events would become a sore point with Maekar; to him, he was denied recognition simply because of his personality.
It did not help, of course, that, Maekar accidentally killed his brother Baelor at the Ashford Tourney Trial by Seven. Maekar was likely furious at Baelor for supporting Duncan, who had allegedly beaten one of his sons and kidnapped another, and was forced to engage Baelor in combat since the three Kingsguard were forbidden to strike a prince of the blood. Kinslaying in Westeros was, however, one of the worst possible crimes in the culture, nearly equal with the betrayal of guest right and regicide. If Maekar was winning little love because of his stern, humorless personality, he would lose what little affection he could have to the cultural stigma of causing his brother’s death.
Maekar was not all gloom and brooding fits, though. During the Third Blackfyre Rebellion, Prince Maekar took command of the Westerosi forces, decisively ending the threat of Haegon Blackfyre and coming the closest any Targaryen would come to taking out Bittersteel, the ever-present thorn in the dynasty’s side. Maekar’s son Aegon would also prove his valor and level-headedness in combat, finally proving to Westeros that there were Targaryen royals who remembered their duties in the wake of Aerys’s neglectful reign. When Aerys would die in 221, Maekar found himself the new, unhappy king.
Maekar I’s new crown, by Arthur Bozonnet
Much of a Targaryen king’s personality can be told by his crown. Aegon I had a Valyrian steel crown to signify war and his Valyrian ancestry, and the warlike kings of the dynasty would seek to wear the same. Jaehaerys I and Alysanne wore seven-gemmed crowns to signify the new positive relationship between the Crown and the Faith of the Seven. Aegon III kept a simple crown befitting his disinterest in flash and ornamentation that his brother Viserys II would share. Aerys I had worn the crown of his father and grandfather, and notes given in the fan-art book suggest that Aerys I thought as little of the crown as he did about his rule. Three kings had worn the heavy, overwrought dragon-crown of Aegon IV. One corpulent cronyist, and two men who neglected the martial aspects of rule. Maekar would not attach himself to such a checkered legacy, so he sought to break from the backslide that had characterized the Targaryen reign since the rise of his negligent, monstrous grandfather. His crown was pointed and warlike, reminding the realm of the strength of the Iron Throne. That aspect of rule might have lapsed under Aerys, but Maekar would not make the same mistake. He was a warlike prince, a veteran and war hero of two Blackfyre Rebellions, and he would not abandon Westeros as his brother had.
Sadly for Maekar, even this bold statement seemed to amount to little. Most of Westeros was peaceful, likely grateful for Maekar’s active hand even if the Westerosi chafed at his sternness. A warlike man found himself running an era of peace, an amusing contradiction that nonetheless served to make Maekar bitter. In his life, the only times he seemed to get even the barest modicum of recognition was in martial service to the realm, and yet as king, he would not get the chance to eliminate the Blackfyre pretenders still thriving in Essos, solidifying the victory of the Red over the Black forevermore.
Loyalists to the Blackfyre cause still remained on Westerosi soil, however, most notably with the powerful Peake family, which began a small revolt in 233. Maekar had mustered troops to handle the Peake Uprising, but his hopes of yet another war victory would be dashed as he would be crushed by a stone hurled from the Starpike battlements. Thus the warlike king would reign over peace and die in war, a mirror image of Queen Rhaenys who worked for peace and yet died storming a castle.
Neither Aerys I nor Maekar I were very popular kings; their personalities did not appeal to the Westerosi public. Aerys was an absentee bookworm, devoted to the pursuit of prophecy and mystic knowledge than managing his kingdom, and Maekar was simply an unpleasant person, despite being a much-celebrated war hero. Kingship is not a popularity contest, but feudalism depends a great deal on the relationship between a king and his vassals. A king who does not fulfil his duties is a poor king, and one who never even tries is twice so, so Aerys goes down in history as one of the worst. Only the loss of so many people to the Great Spring Sickness prevented Aerys I from losing his throne and his head to a civil revolt, either to install Haegon or even Maekar himself as an alternate to this absentee king. If Daeron lucked out in posterity by following one of the worst, Aerys I lucked out by following the worst natural disaster in Westeros’s history.
Maekar, however, is a curious case. Unlike every other king (save possibly Aegon V), we see Maekar experience great change. The stuffy, angry Maekar of The Hedge Knight seems to have had some of his hangups vanish by the time he took up his crown, enough to keep on Bloodraven as Hand. The broody Prince of Summerhall seems to have taken to the field readily when called against Haegon Blackfyre and Bittersteel. Maekar might have been willing to fight his brother over the honor of his sons, but once he saw the truth, he was decisive enough to exile Aerion to the Free Cities for his misdeeds. Much like Viserys II, Maekar seemed to have had the running of his government as a high priority. He took the defense of his people very seriously, enough to lead the attack at Starpike personally. All of these attitudes were commendable in a dynasty that seemed increasingly feeble following the death of the dragons. Maekar did his best to staunch the tide, doing more than most to act as a good ruling king. In the end, he could not undo the damage that had been wrought by his predecessors. Thus Maekar died bitter and unfulfilled, a tragic ending to a underrated king.