Aegon the Unlikely, by Amok
The death of King Maekar in the Peake Uprising left a peculiar kind of succession crisis in its wake. The Iron Throne did not lack for claimants; rather, all of the remaining claimants had their own unique imperfections. The late king’s eldest son, Daeron ‘the Drunken’, had predeceased his father, dying from a pox caught by a whore. His only legitimate child, Vaella, was sweet and good-natured, but simple-minded as well as a minor; worse still, the male-only law established by the Great Council of 101 AC and proven in the Dance of Dragons dismissed her claim immediately The heir to the Throne based on the Targaryen ‘male-only’ succession was the infant Maegor Targaryen, only legitimate son of Maekar’s second son, Aerion Brightflame (the notorious prince had also predeceased his father, drinking wildfire in a drunken attempt to prove he was a dragon). Though only a year old, the baby prince son was suspected of inheriting Aerion’s monstrous nature and insanity, and promised a long regency regardless. Maekar’s two younger sons, Aemon and Aegon, both had flaws in their claims as well. Aemon, the elder, was a chained maester, sworn in service to the Citadel and that oath forbid from holding lands or titles; the other, Aegon, spent half his life wandering Westeros in the service of a hedge knight, and was considered ill-prepared for the burdens of leadership. In the end, however, Maester Aemon refused the quiet offer of the throne, and the Great Council’s vote was made for it.
Thus Aegon Targaryen, fourth son of a fourth son, ascended the Iron Throne as Aegon the Unlikely. Chronologically, this is the first king that the readers are exposed to in-depth, showcasing his strengths, his weaknesses, and his maturation as he squires for Dunk of Flea Bottom, hedge knight and lovable dolt of Westeros. Aegon would rule for twenty-six years, until the disaster at Summerhall, and would see combat against the Blackfyres once as a prince and once as a king. His reign would be one of trouble, constantly putting down minor unrest and revolts, and marked as unpopular by the nobility. Why was the deuteragonist of Dunk and Egg so poorly received as king? Why did his reforms barely outlive him? What does Aegon V’s reign mean from a political and literary sense? And who exactly was Jaehaerys II Targaryen, the three-year king that followed after? What made Barristan Selmy respect him so much in a land that despised personal weakness in men?
Welcome to the next installment of The Three Heads of the Dragon essay series, the first multi-author essays for Wars and Politics of Ice and Fire charting the rise and fall of House Targaryen, from fiery beginnings to bloody end. This will be the penultimate essay for the kings’ portion, as there are only three kings left in Westeros. Aegon V and Jaehaerys II are the next two, and their efforts are marked by war and unrest. Yet neither the kingdom nor the dynasty would fall under their watch, and the two would guide the ship of state as best they could for almost thirty years.
Assumption by Acclaim – The Power of the Great Council
“Rather than risk another Dance of the Dragons, the King’sHand, Bloodraven, elected to call a Great Council to decide the matter.” –The World of Ice and Fire, Maekar I
The Great Council is one of the most misunderstood concepts in Westerosi legal thinking for the fandom, stemming from a misinterpretation of acclaim and popular support. The Great Council is not proof that Westerosi succession is just made up as it goes along, but rather deeply tied to claim and acclaim. For modern thinkers, both of these notions are entirely foreign concepts, but they are integral to understanding feudalism and monarchical succession.
A claim is a prospective royal’s right to rule, through whatever legal philosophy they wish to follow. Aegon II, for example, claimed the Iron Throne by right of being the eldest trueborn male descendant of Viserys I, citing agnatic succession as his philosophy (supported by a large majority of Westerosi nobles, as evidenced in the Great Council of 101 AC). Princess Rhaenyra of Dragonstone, by contrast, pressed a claim of succession by being the appointed heir of Viserys I and his eldest legitimate offspring. Acclaim, however, is a different sort of beast entirely. Acclaim is the collected will of the vassals who will serve the future monarch, a sort of show of support that the collected nobility wishes for their chosen claimant to become their overlord. As a king has the power to raise up and cast down the nobility, and is charged with the defense of all of his subordinates. With these great powers, the nobility have a vested interest in a monarch that will respect the high office. A Great Council is a chance for acclaim to be measured and verified, securing popular buy-in before a coronation and/or possible civil war. When acclaim is difficult to determine in Westeros (either because of unclear legal precedent or because of the less than stellar candidacy of the varying claimants), the Great Council has served to establish a consensus of the Westerosi nobility before and in place of armed conflict. While Westeros is a martial society and emphasizes combat prowess, a Great Council gathers the Westerosi zeitgeist in a peaceful setting and looks to establishing a more unified nation. In essence, a Great Council asks of Westeros what matters in a king, and who would earn the support of the various powerful families. The winner enjoys (in theory) a stabler ascension to the Throne, and the realm (again, in theory) gets spared a bloody succession crisis.
Great Councils also offer a chance for the assembled nobility to look at the laws of succession – even when those laws seem to have been clarified by previous precedent. All claims are apparently valid at a Great Council, as we see with the consideration of Vaella Targaryen, the “sweet but simple-minded” daughter of Daeron the Drunken. Under Andal succession, daughters of firstborn inherit a holding before sons of secondborn, but the Great Council of 101 AC established that the Iron Throne could only pass to a male claimant. If that logic held over in Great Councils, then surely Vaella would have had no claim at all and could not even be considered. Similarly, Aenys Blackfyre, fifth son of infamous traitor Daemon Blackfyre, was willing to put forward his own claim, suggesting that any with a valid claim could be reasonably heard at a Great Council. The procedure and philosophy decided on in the Great Councils seems to become standing law, so the Great Council is a sort of proto-democracy of the nobility, where nobles decide on the succession, giving them buy-in and allowing the law to evolve with the times.
Dunk, Egg, and Sweetfoot at Ashford Tourney, by Ted Nasmith
The Common Touch: How Egg Influenced Aegon
“Daeron never slept in a ditch, I’ll wager,” Dunk said, very quietly, “and all the beef that Aerion ever ate was thick and rare and bloody, like as not.” –The Hedge Knight
Aegon was born into the Targaryen dynasty at its largest point. Daeron II had seven grandsons: two from his firstborn Baelor, one from mad and gentle Rhaegel, and four from his fourthborn Maekar. While Valarr Targaryen would eventually be the heir, and ‘gentle’ Matarys would likely have found a high court position to compliment his more martial brother, Maekar’s children would have decidedly less auspicious prospects; as Baelor’s and Rhaegel’s children had heirs of their own, the sons of Prince Maekar would have seen their chances at inheritance dwindle to almost nothing. Thirdborn son Aemon had been sent to the Citadel at a young age to help prune the Targaryen family tree, and his younger brother Aegon would have seen no better prospects for his own adult career.
The Tourney at Ashford Meadow, however, would change Aegon’s life. There, Baelor, Prince of Dragonstone, was accidentally killed during a trial by combat in the defense of Duncan the Tall. Though a terrible tragedy and eventual dynastic disaster for the realm (once the Great Spring Sickness carried off Baelor’s sons and raised Aerys I to the Iron Throne), Baelor’s death had a silver lining on young Aegon himself. His father Maekar, haunted by the knowledge that he had dealt his brother the fatal blow, allowed Egg to wander the realm as squire to the hedge knight Ser Duncan. Faced with the failings of his older sons, Maekar was persuaded to let Aegon receive a lesson in humility, so that his fourthborn would not grow into the disappointment his first son was, or the monster his secondborn had become.
Spending the greater part of his childhood traveling across the Seven Kingdoms, seeing the struggles of the smallfolk and the rigors of daily living for the common people, had a deep impact on Aegon. The prince in disguise saw firsthand the smallfolk’s helplessness against the caprices and squabbles of the highborn, when Aerion Brightflame beat Tanselle-Too-Tall, and when the men of Standfast were levied to fight against the Webbers. The fear in the common people’s eyes reminded him of his own fear, when Aerion would bully and assault his person. He himself would eat the terrible tasting salt rations and sleep under leaky rooves. Aegon was perhaps the only king to develop an understanding of the actual social inequalities between the noble caste and the smallfolk. Even kings like Jaehaerys I or Stannis, who included commoners and sons of commoners as councilors, would not receive the same hands-on experience. While many of Jaehaerys’s actions, especially improving the sewers of King’s Landing, benefitted the smallfolk in appreciable ways, the king himself would have been insulated from the horror and sudden violence that the smallfolk encounter in their daily lives. Jaehaerys would approach the problem in an institutional fashion (which is not a bad thing), but Aegon’s notions were grounded in a practical understanding of the daily lives of the commoners. These experiences would shape his ideas for policy and reform of government for his long reign.
“Let us hope so,” said Petyr. “When their granaries are empty, they will need every scrap of that silver to buy sustenance from us.” –The Winds of Winter, Alayne Sample Chapter
This same compassion for his smallfolk caused him, at the start of his reign, to send massive shipments of food to the North during a long, brutal winter. Shipping food during winter is a costly and demanding process, and since winters are irregular, Aegon risked people everywhere starving if he ran out of supplies before the winter eneded and brought another growing season. Any food sold would be price-gouged as much as possible, especially if it came from Essos (where the bully pulpit power of the Iron Throne is much weaker than it would be against his own vassals). Still, that Aegon would commit to feeding the poor is admirable, and the text does not suggest that Aegon’s food relief efforts bankrupted the realm (as Baelor the Blessed’s efforts did 70 years prior).
Aegon did not forget, however, one of his strict father’s best lessons: remember your duty. Maekar, no matter how much he might sulk at Summerhall that big brother Aerys picked Bloodraven over him as Hand, was quick to answer the call when Bittersteel and Haegon Blackfyre landed on the Westerosi continent to begin the Third Blackfyre Rebellion. Egg had experienced the abortive Second Blackfyre Rebellion at Whitewalls, but if he was expecting Bittersteel to be as short-sighted as Daemon II, he was in for disappointment. The Third Blackfyre Rebellion would be a full-length campaign, with Maekar acting as senior field commander. Aegon was noted to have demonstrated “courage” on the battlefield at only nineteen years of age (emulating his father, who was about that age when he became the anvil on Redgrass Field). This action, in-line with the expectation for Westerosi nobles and royals to act as military officers, won him support from the nobility, critical to have for any prince, and doubly so when the Great Council would be convened after Maekar’s death.
Egg the Monarch – Folk Tales and Reality
Aegon’s ascension to the Throne was nothing short of a folk tale come true. The world-wise man, compassionate to his fellows no matter their comparative rank, was able to take the throne by the combined weight of his virtues; the unexpected but worthy prince takes the day. His compassion for the smallfolk was born out of a life with the commons, his martial virtue won over the nobility, and thus Egg became Aegon the Unlikely, Fifth of His Name, reigning over years of twenty-six of peace.
Don’t believe it.
Aegon’s reign was mired in controversy, starting from the Great Council that named him king. While he was certainly a contender meriting serious consideration, his “half a peasant” nature caused many in the nobility to distrust him – so much so that his older brother Aemon, a sworn maester of the Citadel, was asked if would exchange his chain for the crown. Aemon, however, would not abandon his maester’s oath, and even went so far as to join the Night’s Watch to spare his brother any further succession crisis.
Yet the Great Council would cause him another headache. Aenys Blackfyre, fifth (and eldest surviving) son of Daemon Blackfyre, was promised by Bloodraven that he could make his claim in person and have it considered by the assembled Westerosi nobility. Yet no sooner did Aenys arrive in King’s Landing than Bloodraven captured and had him beheaded, presenting the dead Blackfyre as a warning to any noble who might still harbor sympathies for the Blackfyre cause. Aegon was barely king, and already Bloodraven had tainted the royal credibility. Even a Blackfyre, a thorn in the realm’s side no fewer than three times, could not be murdered by the Throne after promising safe passage; any candidate had the right to be heard at a Great Council. Aegon, reluctantly, condemned Bloodraven to death, but permitted him the chance to take the black and serve the Night’s Watch. Still, Aegon could not remove the taint of blood which now dripped from the blades of the Iron Throne whenever he sat it; his ascension, which had occurred with so much promise, was already marked by an inauspicious murder. This was similar to Katherine of Aragon, whose marriage was arranged only on the condition that the Earl of Warwick, the sole surviving male-line Plantagenet, was eliminated. Henry Tudor conveniently discovered that he was conspiring with Perkin Warbeck and executed, and Katherine would note that her marriage was made in blood, just as Aegon would find his ascension birthed in blood.
The rest of his reign fared little better. The meek and indecisive Tytos Lannister, Lord of Casterly Rock, couldn’t quell dissent amongst his bannermen, and Aegon was forced to step in at least three times to pacify the Westerlands. Bittersteel and the Golden Company landed again, this time with Haegon’s eldest son Daemon III wielding the great Valyrian sword of Targaryen kings. In these matters, Aegon would prove active, but a near-constant stream of problems and conflicts, eroding faith in the central monarchy for lasting peace.
Even his sons proved a trial to this good-hearted king when they might have been a strength. –The World of Ice and Fire, Aegon V
His troubles followed him with his children. Aegon looked to build a large coalition of support among the Westerosi nobility, and in the model of Jaehaerys the Old King and Daeron II, sought to his use children to that end. Egg’s wanderings had showed him first-hand what havoc the large coalition behind Daemon could wreak upon Westeros, and Aegon – veteran of one campaign against the Blackfyres – could not risk the realm falling apart as such again. In addition, Aegon came to the throne with a clear desire to better the lives of the smallfolk, and wished to enact sweeping reforms – reforms which would inherently remove at least some of the ancient privileges of the lords who ruled them. A sequence of royal marriages, however, could give him the broad support he needed from great lordly families to establish the reforms he wanted.
Accordingly, Aegon arranged great matches for four of his five children, with some of the most important families of Westeros. His eldest son and and heir, Duncan, would be wed to a daughter of Lord Lyonel Baratheon; not only would the match affirm the traditional closeness between the Targaryens and their bastard-line cousins, but Lyonel had volunteered to help Ser Duncan win his trial by seven at Ashford Meadow (and like as not knew Duncan’s secret shame of not actually being a knight). His secondborn son Jaehaerys was betrothed to Celia Tully, and his elder daughter Shaera to Luthor Tyrell, ensuring that the riverlords and reach lords who controlled the breadbaskets of Westeros would not balk at the reforms for their numerous smallfolk. Finally, his third son Daeron was betrothed to Olenna Redwyne, keeping the powerful Redwyne Fleet on the side of the monarchy no matter what radical changes Aegon enacted.
These visions, however, were destined to be dashed before they could ever come to fruition. Prince Duncan fell in love with a commoner girl named Jenny of Oldstones, and despite the pleadings of his father and High Septon, Duncan refused to dismiss her, surrendering instead his claim to the Iron Throne. His secondborn son, Jaehaerys, eloped with his sister to wed in the traditional Targaryen fashion. Prince Daeron (whose preference of men was an open court secret) simply refused to marry Lady Olenna Redwyne. Each refusal severely undermined Aegon’s rule, painting Aegon as an overindulgent father and weak executive; if a man could not control his own children, how was he supposed to stand as father to the whole of the kingdom?
Lyonel Baratheon expressing his dissatisfaction to Ser Duncan, by Chase Stone
Indeed, instead of pacifying his vassals with attractive marriages, Aegon actually insulted and enraged them. Lyonel Baratheon, in typical Baratheon fury, rebelled, stating that a king who backed out on his arrangements and promises was not a king to whom he owed fealty. The Lord of Storm’s End would crown himself as the new Storm King in the manner of his Durrendon ancestors, and it was only Ser Duncan’s swordarm and a marriage arrangement in compensation that would cause the Laughing Storm to relent. Aegon, previously only unable to cow vassals and children, now was an actual creator of civil unrest by making promises he was unable to keep.
Without a significant power base, Aegon nonetheless tried to implement the reforms he so desired for his beloved smallfolk. The folk tale turned nightmarish when touched with reality, as the nobles of Westeros decried Aegon’s curbing of their rights for the commons. This prince that had depended on the nobility for acclaim in the Great Council had broken his promises and now threatened to erode their power base even further, stoking fierce opposition with Aegon unable to call on allies for support. Aegon was repeatedly forced into compromise, a far cry from Jaehaerys’s institution-based reformation plan which won so much support that he was forever named the Concilator. As each compromise stymied his chances of reform, Aegon became more desperate for a way to implement the vision he held, pushing harder to preserve the smallfolk from the everyday violence that characterized their daily lives.
Thus did the folktale come crashing down to Planetos. Aegon’s virtues were increasingly checked and controlled by a nobility unwilling to give up their power. His vision was insufficient to win over his vassals, and the legal reforms that gave smallfolk considerable rights would not long outlive the Unlikely King. All of his efforts were for naught; there was no “all was well” ending for Aegon V and his smallfolk-minded reforms.
Aegon’s chief mistake was pushing reformation too hard, too fast, without a support base to give him the political clout he needed. Reformers work against institutions by their very nature, and reform is a costly, painstaking process, and the larger the institution, the less fluid it can be, and the more resistant to change. While the king is the supreme authority of Westeros, the Iron Throne is at its heart a weak monarchy. Lords Paramount field a great deal of troops and hold a vast amount of territory. Eroding noble power is sure to anger most nobles, and without the marriage network, Aegon found himself woefully outnumbered when it came to enforcing his edicts. His noble vision suffered the fate of so many other would-be reformers: the people weren’t invested.
The other great reformers of the Targaryen dynasty, Aegon I and Jaehaerys I, were able to use dragons as an appeal to force that got them to maintain their great changes, and their lordly mien inspired awe while the classist nobles would not be impressed with the ‘half-a-peasant’ Aegon V. Without any other leg to stand on, Aegon looked to dragons as the way to protect his beloved smallfolk. Thus, with the best of intentions, Aegon assembled the greater portion of the Targaryen family at their palatial resort of Summerhall.
Jaehaerys II, by Amok
Jaehaerys II – Nine Crowns a Penny, One Crown a Dragon
With the death of much of the Targaryen family, the crown passed to Jaehaerys II. Though the crown would only sit on his brow for the span of three years, Jaehaerys II was not idle on the Iron Throne. In fact, Jaehaerys remains one of the most interesting kings that we know nothing about, much like Maekar I. We know that he spent much of his lifetime reconciling the nobility with the Throne, whose relationship had soured during Aegon V’s reign, but we don’t know how he did it. The easy answer would be undoing Aegon V’s reforms, but it took Tywin Lannister, acting as Hand for Aerys II Targaryen, to undo them all, so clearly some remained in place for the entirety of Jaehaerys’s albeit short reign. The war also saw the Fifth Blackfyre Rebellion, commonly and cleverly called the War of the Ninepenny Kings. This would be the last time in Westerosi history that the Warden positions would be activated, and the only all of Westeros would act as a singular entity in a foreign war. The last time that a pan-Westerosi war (and not a civil war) of such a large degree was ever fought was Daeron’s War of Conquest, but unlike the campaigns of the Young Dragon, this war would be resolved decisively in the Seven Kingdoms’ favor.
The War of the Ninepenny Kings is unique in that it is Westeros’s only foreign war. While Argilac Durrendon fought against Volantis for glory and honor in the Free City’s War of Valyrian Reclamation, and Prince Daemon Targaryen had a brief War in the Stepstones with the Sea Snake, at no point during the Targaryen dynasty did Westeros as a whole engage in a foreign war. Only in this one war, the last gasp of the Blackfyre Rebellions (at least under Targaryen rule), did Westeros strike preemptively against the foreign threat of the Blackfyres. The war included such notables as the future Aerys II Targaryen, his best friends and future Lords Paramount Steffon Baratheon and Tywin Lannister, the Warden of the East Jon Arryn, Hoster Tully and his valiant brother Brynden the Blackfish, and the father of a man who would eventually be called Littlefinger. Even Quellon Greyjoy would lead 100 longships to the Stepstones, one of his many moves to strengthen the Iron Islands’ ties with the ‘green lands’ of the Westerosi continent.
Knights sitting around a campfire, by Zomg-A-Dropbear
Indeed, the War of the Ninepenny Kings is notable for its spirit of unification. Men from all over Seven Kingdoms – men who might ordinarily never see more of the realm than their own ancestral lands – would interact with each other for an extended period of time. Men from the Stormlands fought shoulder-to-shoulder with men from the Reach, and Valemen alongside Westermen from the opposite shore. Houses who might have had historical grudges would instead form “fast friendships” with men who were previously known only as a nefarious, nebulous other. Dornishmen would gamble and drink during downtime with Northmen from thousands of leagues away, men carved from ice and men from the red sands becoming brothers in arms. Songs from far-off taverns would be sung around campfires, the singers swapping celebrated regional heroes with their new companions. Even rank and social formalities were stripped away; the Lord of Riverrun became such close friends with a very minor Vale lord that the former offered to take the latter’s son to foster. Westeros saw unprecedented unity never seen since Jaehaerys I Targaryen. For all of war’s human cost, the bonds forged in the War of the Ninepenny Kings gave proof that Westeros truly could become one nation.
The logistics of a foreign invasion, even with the Iron Islands and the Redwynes supplying naval support, are difficult. Foreign invasions don’t have local support, and the Stepstones, traditionally a hideout for pirates and raiders, would be soil-poor and any invading army would find supplies stretched even in the best of times. Foreign invasions are tricky even with the preferred 3:1 ratio of attackers to defenders. The Band of Nine had shorter supply lines their overthrow of the Archon of Tyrosh and installation of Alequo Adarys as the new ruler, and two pirate fleets ensuring that naval superiority could be contested by either side.
The land campaign fared little better. Ormund Baratheon, Hand of the King, died early in the engagement, but that would not lead to the dissolution of the Westerosi forces. Barristan Selmy would avenge his Lord Paramount by slaying Maelys Blackfyre, but it would take another six months for the Band of Nine to abandon Westerosi ambitions entirely, certainly proving that the Band of Nine was willing to fight even if they no longer had a claimant for Westeros. With the successful resolution, however, Jaehaerys proved that he could be a decisive king. Much like Viserys I, flaws can be overlooked if prosperity is assured, and Jaehaerys II gave his people the chance for everlasting glory. Modern day knights believed that they could be immortalized in song next to greats like Baelor and Maekar of “Hammer and Anvil” fame, and a war was averted without ruin to the Westerosi homeland. Victory can make even a king like meek and sickly Jaehaerys seem like an giant. While Jaehaerys might have been personally infirm, his nation was strong, and thus all men could be proud of themselves and of their king.
This War of Ninepenny Kings has an analogue in the main book series: The Greyjoy Rebellion. Robert Baratheon, in leading a large coalition of troops from all over Westeros to win decisively on the Iron Islands, knit the realm close together. Even Lords Eddard Stark, Stannis Baratheon, and Tywin Lannister, no great friends even in the best of circumstances, were united under a single coalition, under a single leader, and all worked well in cohesion. Robert Baratheon and Jaehaerys II were able to prove that a single ruler could truly unite Westeros behind a single will. Jaehaerys II was perhaps the first and only Targaryen king to validate Aegon I’s grand dream: one continent ruled by one king, together behind one vision, becoming one people.
That Jaehaerys II was willing to lead himself, despite his personal infirmity, showcases a deep sense of personal duty that would have been imparted to him by his father Aegon (and perhaps in his early years by his grandfather, Maekar I). This willingness to take on personal hardship for the benefit of the realm, is a civic virtue that Jaehaerys’s vassals would recognize and acknowledge, a true model of behavior for his vassals to measure themselves by. If a king was willing to lay his life on the line, how could a Lord Paramount do any less? And if a Lord Paramount was willing to risk his brothers and heirs to save his country, how could the lesser lords and landed knights do anything but follow. A cynical man might think that these houses looked simply for advancement and glory, yet so many people from so many regions suggests a buy-in for the mission itself, and in this, Jaehaerys II was able to unite his country in a way that had never been seen before.
The rest of Jaehaerys’s reign was uneventful, though perhaps that could be chalked up to its relatively brevity. He would die of illness three years into his reign, but those three years saw civil unity and peace even as foreign threats loomed. While we understand little of domestic matters (aside from the infamous Reynes of Castamere), the fact that conflict did not seem to be very noticeable outside of Tytos and his vassals to arise suggest large scale peace in most of Westeros.
Jaehaerys II is ultimately a contradiction. Selfishly, he took his sister Shaera to wife and caused his father no end of headaches, destroying his attempt to build a Westerosi coalition. In his reign, however, he united the realm much the way his storied namesake did (though not for as long). Jaehaerys II understood the value of giving his vassals a purpose to unite behind, answering one of the great mysteries of leadership: how do you get everyone to work together? It’s unknown whether he could have crafted a similar peacetime vision once the allure of victory wore off and a new generation came into their holdings; illness would claim him before he ever got the chance. Like his grandfather Maekar whose crown he bore, he had a chance to unite the kingdom. Like his father Aegon V, he took his duty to his people seriously. But like so many Targaryen kings, his works would be undone by his own son.