Queen of Woe: Rhaella Targaryen

Introduction

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 have explored the Targaryen dynasty from its rise in the Conquest to its fall in Robert’s Rebellion.  My pieces, the Ladies of Fire, have analyzed the queens and princesses of House Targaryen, as well as those ladies who had a substantial impact on the dynasty itself.

For over two and a half centuries, the Targaryen dynasty had seen its fair share of ladies. Rhaenys and Visenya were celebrated as founding, conquering matriarchs of the royal house, while Jaehaerys’ queen Alysanne was universally beloved for her clever goodness. Alongside the good, of course, were those ladies less pleasantly remembered – tyrannical, usurping Rhaenyra, or defiant Daena, whose son caused many decades of grief. Whether they were considered paragons or fiends, however, both sorts of ladies played into the inheritance of the Targaryen female: a well-bred marriage pawn she might have appeared to be, but a dragon princess was still the descendant of warriors, through whose veins ran the exalted blood of mighty Valyria.

Such was the burden placed on the delicate shoulders of the last of these dragon princesses, Rhaella. It was her duty to live up to this inheritance – to be the hope of a dynasty which, by the time of her birth, was already slipping into decline. Yet Rhaella, more than any of her lady predecessors, seems to have incurred the wrath of Fate; her life, at least since the age of 14, was an almost unmitigated, relentless tale of woe. It was hers to watch the collapse of everything she had ever relied on – a stable marriage, a role as royal mother, her very kingdom – and hers to endure the cruelties of marriage to the Mad King. It was hers, most of all, to be given glimmers of hope for the improvement of her lot, and then to watch them be snatched away one by one, until the Stranger finally relieved her of her tragic burden.

Born to Obey?

Of Rhaella’s early life, little is known. Born around 245 AC, Rhaella was the only daughter and second child of Prince Jaehaerys and his sister-wife, Shaera. The fraternal relationship between her parents was unique, unseen in Westeros since the marriage of the eventual Aegon IV and Naerys almost a century before; from her earliest childhood, then, Rhaella would have had direct evidence of the potential – and perils – of traditional Valyrian incestuous coupling. Her grandfather, King Aegon V, had engineered pan-realm alliances designed to win the great lords’ support for his populist reforms. Her own parents had not been spared, with Jaehaerys betrothed to Lady Celia Tully and Shaera to Luthor Tyrell, the heir to Highgarden. Yet Jaehaerys and Shaera, traditionally minded and in love with one another, instead escaped the Red Keep and wed, consummating the marriage to ensure that Aegon could not undo it.

It may have been a charming, romantic story in the young princess’ life, – the prince and princess, in defiance of their father and king, wedding in secret for love.  Yet in her youth, Rhaella may not have been aware of, or understood, the heavy political toll her royal grandfather paid for his second son’s defiance. Aegon’s marriage had been a love match too, of course, but he had been only a minor prince and his bride a noble Riverlands lady. Comparatively, when his own heir, Duncan, chose to wed a commoner rather than his Baratheon fiancée, Aegon had faced a rebellion from Lord Lyonel; only by surrendering his only remaining marriage pawn, Rhaelle, did Aegon pacify the querulous stormlord. Now losing the Tyrells and Tullys both ensured that Aegon would never be able to sway two powerful lords to his reforms – reforms which would, by necessity, remove powers from these lords themselves.   

All of this unpleasant history had occurred before Rhaella was born. She may have known her uncle Prince Duncan and his commoner wife, Jenny; though he had waived his right to succeed, Duncan still came at least occasionally to court (as evidenced by the interaction between Jaehaerys and Lady Jenny’s friend, the mysterious and oracular woods witch). Rhaella would have cause to rue Jenny later, but for the moment she and her prince were just one of the three royal couples – along with Rhaella’s parents and the king and queen – who, in a rare form for Westeros, had all wed for love alone. Aegon had been given his nuptial autonomy, while Duncan and Jaehaerys had had to seize theirs, but the result was the same, and for the moment, all three seemed to enjoy stable, successful marriages.   

Thus, Rhaella’s childhood had taught her two lessons, mutually exclusive and destined to collide and explode spectacularly in her own future marriage. The marriages of her parents, uncle, and grandfather all stood for the proposition that marriages were fundamentally about love – more important than lands, power, or even crowns.  Yet over her head stretched the lesson which Aegon V had attempted but failed to impose on his own children: royal children were expected to obey their parents in deciding where they married – no matter whom they might love instead, no matter what unhappiness lay in the future.

For the moment, however, Rhaella was simply a young princess in the Red Keep.  Strangely but beneficially for the princess, the failure of her uncles’ and parents’ dynastic marriage schemes had actually improved Rhaella’s position at court. Without the highborn consorts with whom Aegon had hoped to match his sons, Rhaella stood third amongst the ladies in court precedence; only her mother and grandmother, Queen Betha Blackwood, came before her.  From an early age, then, Rhaella would have been on display at court functions.  As the only daughter of the new heir to the throne, everyone might have expected Rhaella to make a brilliant match; the hand of the only unmarried Targaryen princess would go a long way toward healing at least one of the rifts Jaehaerys and his brothers had caused with their broken betrothals.

Yet Rhaella would find herself as caught up in love as her father and uncles had been – with much less successful results.

Mindful of Her Duty

As the only maiden Targaryen princess, the young Rhaella would have likely been a darling of the court. If we may take her surviving daughter as any indication, Rhaella was beautiful from a young age, if perhaps small and delicate in her build. As she matured, the question of Rhaella’s marriage would have consumed her grandfather’s court. Aegon V had already dangled a Targaryen princess above the Tyrells of Highgarden, only to have her brother take her instead. It may have been reasonably expected that the king would use his only dynastically born granddaughter as a bargaining chip to push forward his pro-smallfolk policies; young Tywin Lannister and her own cousin Steffon Baratheon were likely two of the names traded by expectant courtiers guessing at who might win the princess.

Rhaella herself, however, found at a tourney a wholly less noble individual to love. Barristan Selmy, when questioned by Rhaella’s daughter on the subject of the princess’ love, reported thus:

“The queen your mother was always mindful of her duty.” He was handsome in his gold-and-silver armor, his white cloak streaming from his shoulders, but he sounded like a man in pain, as if every word were a stone he had to pass. “As a girl, though … she was once smitten with a young knight from the stormlands who wore her favor at a tourney and named her queen of love and beauty. A brief thing.”

“What happened to this knight?”

“He put away his lance the day your lady mother wed your father. Afterward he became most pious, and was heard to say that only the Maiden could replace Queen Rhaella in his heart. His passion was impossible, of course. A landed knight is no fit consort for a princess of royal blood.”. (“Daenerys VII”, A Dance with Dragons)

That Rhaella should have fallen in love with a knight of superior skill in the tourney is no great surprise.  As a highborn southron girl, Rhaella would have been raised on stories and songs praising knighthood and celebrating the deeds of legendary knightly heroes, from Serwyn of the Mirror Shield to Florian the Fool.  Indeed, knighthood is so vital a part of Westerosi culture that the Reach and Vale honor as knights figures who existed millennia before the Andals invaded and brought chivalry to Westeros.  The princess’ own great-great-great-great uncle Aemon the Dragonknight had been one of these greatest Kingsguard knights in history, and a superb jouster as well; his victory as the Knight of Tears to present the tourney crown to his sister-queen would have been a familiar (and, one supposes, well-loved) story told to Princess Rhaella.

Indeed, the crown of a Queen of Love and Beauty is a high sign of favor in Westeros, presented under rules of chivalry yet fundamentally romantic in its purpose.  A man neither betrothed nor married has the freedom to gift the crown to whichever woman he wishes (although a strict observance of chivalry would grant the crown to the highest-ranking woman present, especially if she happened to be a member of the royal family). Barristan Selmy, for example, noting that his own choice for the crown at Harrenhal would have been Ashara Dayne, first acknowledged that he would have passed over the then-Queen Rhaella and Crown Princess Elia. Still, romance remained a key factor in the crowning of a Queen of Love and Beauty; Aegon IV’s mistress had been the intended recipient of the crown Aemon won, and Jorah Mormont would win the crown at Lannisport to give to his eventual wife, Lynesse Hightower.

So Rhaella must have been surprised – though delightedly so – that at a tourney, she herself would be presented the victor’s crown by the dashing, victorious landed knight who had begged her favor.   

The identity of her champion was not given out by Barristan Selmy, yet we as readers know who so honored Rhaella: Ser Bonifer Hasty.  Ser Bonifer, however, was only a landed knight; princess and admirer could have been farther apart on the social stratum, but not by much. Of course, a landed knight may be sworn to a paramount house, and indeed some landed knights wax as or more powerful as their lordly neighbors: the Templetons, hereditary Knights of Ninestars, are ancient and influential bannermen to the Arryns of the Vale, and the Swyfts of Cornfield respected bannermen (and occasional brides) of the Lannisters of the Rock.  Yet Bonifer Hasty was no Swyft or Templeton, heir to an well-known and respectable line. House Hasty is only known to exist in the person of Bonifer; he was likely only master of a small keep in the stormlands, rather than the head of an ancient line of landed knights. If he were not a hedge knight – as low as a man could be in Westeros without being merely a member of the smallfolk – Ser Bonifer was, as Ser Barristan noted, no fit mate for a princess of the blood royal.

It may be wondered, of course, if Rhaella really thought she could wed Ser Bonifer. To be sure, Rhaella might have simply been innocent in the affair, a young girl flattered by the attentions of an up-and-coming tourney champion but with no real romantic intentions. She must have known her value as the only maiden Targaryen princess; the dynastic marriage schemes of her grandfather Aegon were only a few examples of the roles highborn maidens were expected to play to further their families’ political ambitions. Yet it may also be the case that Rhaella truly loved Bonifer, as Barristan asserts.  In this love, Rhaella might have taken as her model her uncle Duncan, perhaps planning to forswear her royal state for the knight she loved; Ser Bonifer, as a knight with a keep, was certainly higher-ranking than the simply commoner Jenny.  Indeed, as a woman, Rhaella had no claim to the Iron Throne (unless, perhaps, all male lines of the family went extinct); her brother Aerys would need to make a good match, to continue the Targaryen line, but she – like her uncle and parents – would be free to wed as she desired.

What may have seemed rational to Rhaella, though, was anathema to her father, Prince Jaehaerys. He had witnessed the political backlash his father received after he and his siblings (save young Rhaelle) defied their betrothals. Allowing his daughter to wed a mere landed knight would drive the lords of the realm to rage once again, which the crown could ill afford after so many broken contracts.

Yet more than political necessity played into Jaehaerys’ refusal to sanction a match between Rhaella and Ser Bonifer. Prince Duncan’s commoner bride had brought to court a woman Jenny swore was a child of the forest. Whether or not she was, the dwarfish woman proclaimed that the prince that was promised, the long prophesied hero, would be born of the line of Aerys and Rhaella.

What relationship Jenny’s mystic friend shared with the court is unclear, as is why Jaehaerys so firmly believed her. Personally, of course, Jaehaerys was of a more traditional mind than Aegon V; while his father had dismissed Targaryen incestuous marriages, Jaehaerys had revived the tradition. Perhaps hearing the woods witch cite what he had already intended – a similarly incestuous union for his children – as necessary to produce the great hero of Valyrian prophecy, Jaehaerys felt justified in pushing the match. Certainly, Targaryens had relied on prophecy before; indeed, it had been the prophetic dreams of Daenys the Dreamer which had saved the Targaryens alone among the dragonlords from the Doom. To risk denying the world an eschatological hero simply for a politically advantageous match – or, worse, for his daughter’s personal happiness – may have touched the Targaryen prophetic nerve in Jaehaerys, one he felt he could not ignore.

Accordingly, the prince forced his son and daughter to wed.  His royal father “washed his hands” of the matter, according to Maester Yandel; if Rhaella thought the grandfather who had wed for love would intercede to stop her father forcing this marriage, she was sorely mistaken. Once again, the king allowed his son to have his way, having had too long an experience of willfulness (of children and bannermen alike) to fight. Rhaella, no older than 14, found herself the wife of a brother for whom she likely had never felt any more than sisterly affection, and who had no romantic love for her. It was an inauspicious start to the long tragedy of her marriage.

The Specter of Summerhall   

Some time after the princess’ marriage, Rhaella’s grandfather King Aegon announced a gathering of family and court at the Targaryens’ country seat of Summerhall. The gathering, however, was only a cover for what Aegon truly desired. Frustrated at his inability to enforce his pro-smallfolk policies against obstinate lords, Aegon had become convinced that only dragons could give him the authority he craved. Summerhall, the king decided, would be the birthplace of the new generation of Targaryen dragons.

If Rhaella knew about her grandfather Aegon’s draconic desire, she made no mention of it later; indeed, it is probable that she had no inkling about what the future held (or what Aegon hoped the future held) at Summerhall. It is not recorded that Rhaella suffered from the prophetic “dragon dreams” which had affected female as well as male Targaryens since before the Doom.  Nor did she ever openly display the prevalent desire to revive the dragons from extinction which had so occupied the thoughts of some of her ancestors and relations.  The prophetic mysticism of Aerys I and the dragon-centric obsession of Prince Aerion (or, later, her own husband) had not affected this late dragon princess.

Besides, Rhaella had a far more real and pressing interest in the gathering at Summerhall. At least one dragon would be born among king and court in the country seat – not a literal dragon, but her own first child with her new husband. The child’s imminent birth was in fact the pretext for the gathering; the prince or princess born to Aerys and Rhaella would be the first legitimate dynast in the royal Targaryen line since Rhaella herself, some 14 years prior (not including her Baratheon first cousin Steffon, who was perhaps a year younger).  With such an important state event, witnesses would be crucial; the presence of the Targaryen royals and courtiers could ensure that the child born to Rhaella was a truly born Targaryen (as James II of England ensured in our own world, publishing testimonies from the more than 70 witnesses to the birth of his son).

If the designation of the birthplace as Summerhall meant that fewer courtiers would be able to attend and watch her give birth, the thought was probably small comfort for the princess, among her other worries. The pressure to produce a son was very real; a princess would be a dynastic disappointment (with Targaryen precedent excluding princesses from the Iron Throne), but a prince would both secure the Targaryen line and – perhaps – become the legendary prince that was promised, savior of humanity. More personally, Rhaella might have hoped that a son would bring her and her brother-husband closer together; their marriage had not been made in love, but the quick production of a son would raise her in Aerys’ eyes from a mere forced-upon spouse to the mother of his heir. As always, of course, the danger of childbirth was both real and terrifying; Rhaella need only to look to her own ancestress, Princess Daella, to find another Targaryen princess who had died at her first birth.  All eyes, Rhaella knew, would be fixed on her and an outcome over which she had no control. It was, to say the least, a stressful situation for the 14-year-old princess.  

The gathering, however, was destined to be not simply stressful but overwhelmingly destructive. Indeed, the tragedy at Summerhall would scar its few survivors – including Rhaella – for the rest of their days.

What happened at Summerhall remains largely a mystery. The chaos and fire which reigned unchecked as Aegon V’s dreams of dragons went up in smoke left few survivors, and those who did refused to speak of it. Yet the memory must have haunted Rhaella. She had lost at least her grandfather, her uncle, and any number of courtiers, people she had known her entire life; her mother and grandmother may have also perished in the flames. The ordinary stress of delivering a first child was grossly magnified by the hellish conditions in which it happened; her son’s birth would forever be connected to fire and loss, pain and terror, death and destruction. The small comfort of having borne a new male-line heir likely did little to alleviate the princess’ grief in the wake of the tragedy.

Mother of Dragons, Mother of Death

The tragedy of Summerhall held political implications for Rhaella, of course. With her grandfather (and uncle Duncan, though he had surrendered his succession rights) dead in the inferno, her father became King Jaehaerys II, and she Princess of Dragonstone.

Yet the new crown princess’ short tenure was not destined to be happy. Her brother-husband Aerys distinguished himself on the battlefield during the War of the Ninepenny Kings, earning his spurs from his friend Tywin Lannister, but their marital relationship had grown no warmer. Indeed, the gap between the birth of Rhaegar and the next recorded time Rhaella conceived matches exactly with the period Rhaella served as crown princess. Why Aerys and Rhaella were not sleeping together in this period (if indeed they were not) remains a mystery. It may be that, numb from the tragedy of Summerhall, Rhaella had no desire to relive the nightmare of her first birth; it may be that both were simply too shell-shocked to engage in that kind of closeness with another survivor of the horrific event.  Like King Aegon III and his Dance-survivor queen Jaehaera, the two were fellow victims of disaster, but both may have been too burdened by what they had undergone to engage in a deep level of intimacy.

After Aerys’ accession, however, the new king and queen could not afford a continued program of abstinence (at least from each other). Three-year-old Prince Rhaegar, now heir to the throne, was healthy and precociously intelligent, but even a highborn young boy was not safe from fatal incidents; after all, the precious only son of Alys Arryn and Ser Elys Waynwood died at three from a kick to the head. With Aerys and Rhaella now representing the only legitimate dynastic line of Targaryen descent, king and queen knew that more heirs were needed. Rhaella would have also recognized the importance of producing at least one daughter, as a bride for her son to marry. The practice of Valyrian incest had quieted over several generations, but with both Jaehaerys and his son taking sisters to wife, Rhaella would likely presume that the tradition had been revived permanently.  Her first role as consort was to bear her royal husband children, and it was to this task that Aerys and Rhaella set at the beginning of his reign.

Yet the Mother was not on Rhaella’s side in this matter. Over the course of 13 years, Rhaella conceived eight times, but not one of these pregnancies resulted in surviving children.  Three of these – in 263, 264, and 271 AC – were miscarriages, while another two were stillbirths.  The remaining three children were born alive, but Princes Daeron, Aegon (born two months premature), and Jaehaerys would each die within a few months of their births.   

The question is obvious: what made the childbearing history of Queen Rhaella so checkered? In one way, her fate was not altogether surprising (if nonetheless deeply sad). Minisa Whent, for example, bore three sons who died in infancy (and she herself died after the last birth), and even Queen Alysanne saw four children of her large family die in childhood.  In our own world, infant mortality could be high even for royalty. Of the ten pregnancies between Katherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn, only two resulted in surviving issue; of the 17 pregnancies of Queen Anne, only one child lived past infancy (and that son died at the age of 11). Westerosi medicine, hardly as advanced as our modern real-world equivalent, would almost certainly not be able diagnose if Rhaella had some underlying medical condition which impacted her fertility.

It may also be the case that some of the magic which had gone awry at Summerhall may have negatively affected either of the king’s Targaryen grandchildren. Blood magic (almost certainly involved in the attempt to hatch dragons) and the inherently magical wildfire are dangerous elements on their own, and cannot be made less so when combined. Whether Aerys had been rendered partially sterile by the extreme magic heat, or whether Rhaella had been condemned to serial miscarriage and stillbirth in her close proximity to the burning palace, it cannot be determined. Certainly, Aerys was never noted as having bastards, despite enjoying many mistresses during his reign; by comparison, both of the Targaryen kings who had taken mistresses before – Aegon II and Aegon IV – had had openly acknowledged bastard children.

Rhaella, of course, knew nothing of any medical problems or magic fallout causing her troubles.  It must have been terribly frustrating, however, to face constant failure in her primary duty as queen. If she failed to provide another son, and some ill befell young Rhaegar, House Targaryen would end with her generation, and she may well have felt the fault belonged with her.

Bride of a Monster

The relationship between Aerys and Rhaella did not seem, at its outset, as obviously disastrous as that between Aegon IV and Naerys, or Baelor and Daena. If Prince Aerys was eccentric and his desires capricious, he was certainly charming and outgoing; if Rhaella did not love her husband, she at least had no reason at the time of her marriage to hate and fear him. Yet the two were nevertheless ill-matched, and as their marriage continued the personality differences became more apparent – and, for Rhaella especially, more destructive.  

The problems in their marriage began early. As Princess of Dragonstone and wife of the heir during the reign of her father Jaehaerys, Rhaella was one of the highest ranking women at court, possibly the highest (depending on whether her mother Shaera and grandmother Betha had survived Summerhall).  One of her duties as a high-ranking royal lady would be to provide places in her court for young ladies of noble families. Placement in the royal household would be a great political boon to the families of the maidens so chosen, given as a sign of royal favor.  Rhaella’s household would in part serve as a finishing school for these maidens, teaching them the courtly skills (and giving them the courtly introductions) they would need to be well-bred noble wives (true as well in our own world; both Anne Boleyn and Jane Seymour, Queens of England wed to Henry VIII, held positions as maids of honor in the household of Katherine of Aragon, Henry’s first wife). Such a role was a natural step in a young noblewoman’s education, as much as becoming a squire was for young noblemen; both roles taught their students the skills they would need to be effective leaders of the nobility as appropriate to their gender. Personally as well, Rhaella – lacking any sisters or known female cousins – may have welcomed the companionship of Westerosi ladies, particularly if the tragedy of Summerhall had claimed her mother and grandmother.

History records the identities of only two of these ladies. One, a Dornish princess, would later rule her principality in her own right and be mother to Doran, Elia, and Oberyn. The other was Lady Joanna Lannister of Casterly Rock. As a niece of the ruling Lord Tytos, Joanna had certainly an exalted enough lineage to merit her a place in the court of the Red Keep. Her first cousin Tywin had previously joined the household of Aegon V as page to the king; her own appointment was another sign of royal favor to the lions of the Rock, drawing the next generation away from the poor influence of Lord Tytos and giving them a strong, pro-royalist upbringing (and perhaps keeping them as insurance against Tytos’ keeping the king’s peace in the West).

If Rhaella welcomed beautiful, strong-willed Joanna, a maiden of roughly her own age, as her lady companion, she would soon have reason to rue her appointment to her household. Her husband Aerys, still young and handsome, took immediate notice of the Lannister maiden. Rumors swirled that the heir to the throne and the lady of the Rock had become lovers at Jaehaerys II’s coronation, and that Aerys made her his official mistress soon after that.  To what extent this rumor was true – it seems unlikely that Tywin, then at court, would later choose to marry a woman he knew to be the prince’s mistress once she lost the royal favor – is unknown, but the very existence of the rumor must have been deeply hurtful to Rhaella.  

Even worse, when Lady Joanna wed Ser Tywin in King’s Landing in 263 AC, Aerys took his infatuation – and his disregard for his wife – to new levels of insult.  That Rhaella must have been present cannot be doubted: this was the wedding of her lady attendant to her husband’s close friend (as well as his Hand), and such a state occasion so early in their reign could not be ignored by the new queen.  Yet at his wife’s side at the wedding feast, Aerys drunkenly underlined his rumored affair with the bride by openly lamenting the abolition of the right to the first night. That Aerys’ later conduct at the bedding ceremony – taking “unwonted liberties” – was so out of line as to merit mention both in history and narrative suggests the embarrassment Rhaella likely felt at the ordeal. In front of the court, in front of the Hand and her lady, Aerys had reminded everyone that he felt no obligation to be faithful to his wife. It was a far cry indeed from the days of Ser Bonifer Hasty, the embodiment of chivalry, laying the tourney crown in the young princess’ lap; Rhaella was now a spectacle of mock for her royal husband and the subject of japes and jeers from every courtier in earshot

The wedding passed, but the insults continued. By selecting women from her lady attendants to be his paramours, Aerys publicly associated his wife with scandal. A place in her court was no longer an enviable education in courtly manners and an introduction to eligible suitors, but a ticket to vice, where a maiden could lose her virtue and, upon the cooling of the prince’s passion, be humiliatingly wed to whatever lowly match her lord father could arrange.  Every new affair was only a reminder of the failure of her marriage; not only could she not give Aerys more children – her primary duty as both his wife and his queen – but now she had to watch her husband sully the honor of her lady attendants, one of the few aspects of life over which she had much (if not total) control.  Worse, Rhaella was severely limited in the ways she could respond to this insult. She could dismiss the ladies she knew or suspected of affairs with her husband (Lady Joanna, sent back to Casterly Rock shortly after her wedding, was not the last), but she could not stop her lascivious husband.  Instead, as in the days of Aegon IV, she had to watch her royal husband turn the court into a seminary of debauch, where the king could flaunt the highborn ladies (including ones, like Barba Bracken, attached to the royal household) who filled his bed.

To be sure, no highborn Westerosi woman would be trained to expect her husband to be faithful. Many men father bastards, and while the Faith openly preaches marital fidelity as pleasing to the Father and Mother above, in private life women are encouraged to turn a blind eye to spousal infidelity. That blind eye is part of an unspoken agreement: in return for ladies’ silence, men hide away the resulting children of any affair. Aerys had no bastards, but his affairs with the ladies of her household were just as open and insulting. Instead of employing the discretion expected of extramarital affairs, Aerys flaunted his marital infidelity and forced his wife to endure the resulting shame.  

Aerys did not stop at mere flaunting, however; he also drew the queen into his flagrant immorality:

By 270 AC, he had decided that the queen was being unfaithful to him. “The gods will not suffer a bastard to sit the Iron Throne,” he told his small council; none of Rhaella’s stillbirths, miscarriages, or dead princes had been his, the king proclaimed. Thereafter, he forbade the queen to leave the confines of Maegor’s Holdfast and decreed that two septas would henceforth share her bed every night, “to see that she remains true to her vows.” (“The Targaryen Kings: Aerys II”, The World of Ice and Fire)

The accusation was patently ridiculous; history records no potential lovers of the queen, and the only man for whom Rhaella was ever recorded to have held romantic feelings – Bonifer Hasty – had already put away his lance and was never reported to have contacted Rhaella after that tourney.  It was also openly false, considering that Princes Aegon and Jaehaerys were born and died after the queen was confined. Still, it was typical of Aerys’ petty cruelty that he would link his wife with a ill-remembered Targaryen queen, to undermine her otherwise-spotless reputation: history remembered Rhaenyra, the woman who had flaunted her bastard sons as trueborn Velaryons and borne a monstrous stillborn daughter, as a tyrannical ruler and usurper to her brother Aegon. Yet there was also a more dangerous element to his proclamation.  A Westerosi queen who committed adultery was guilty of treason and punishable by death; Aerys’ announcement to his small council suggests that the king had already taken a dark turn in his paranoia, and was perhaps even considering executing her. That no further action was taken confirms Rhaella’s innocence – the small council likely realizing it would be an unwinnable case – but the damage to her and Aerys’ relationship had already been done.

In 275 AC, however, Rhaella had cause for hope. That year, Aerys – now convinced (much to Rhaella’s probable satisfaction) that his own infidelities were the cause of their childlessness – had sworn to be faithful to his wife. This pious display of conjugal fidelity seemed to work, for the following year, the queen gave birth to Prince Viserys. Although small, the infant was born robust and healthy, with no signs of dying in the cradle as his brothers had. The birth and maturation of her second son must have come as a great relief to Rhaella. No longer would she be the infertile queen, mother of dead princes, able to be so easily insulted by her philandering husband. Viserys’ birth allowed Rhaella to hope for a more stable relationship with her husband: living children, a faithful husband, the ugly clouds of Summerhall dispelled forever.  

Unfortunately, it was a false hope. Viserys’ birth was not the dawn of a new era for king and queen, but the last flicker of normalcy in their relationship; henceforth, Aerys would descend into full madness, dragging helpless Rhaella with him.

The Crowned Prey

They said the queen looked as if some beast had savaged her, clawing at her thighs and chewing on her breasts. A crowned beast, Jaime knew. (“Jaime II”, A Feast for Crows)

By 276 AC, it was plain that the marriage of Aerys and Rhaella had failed personally. Even in ordinary circumstances, they would be remembered as an ill-matched royal couple: he, the philanderer whose hypocritical paranoia drove him to insult her; she, the tragic mother of dead princes, accepting her husband’s cruelties without recorded protest. Yet these were no ordinary circumstances. Aerys had showed signs of eccentricity from youth, but as his reign progressed his mental instability tipped into full-blown derangement. If Rhaella thought she had suffered before – humiliatingly being accused of adultery, forced to prove her virtue, confined for actions she did not commit – she had no idea what torture awaited her in the later years of their marriage.  If Aerys would be remembered as the crowned beast, Rhaella would be the crowned prey, destined to suffer greatly at her royal husband’s hands.

The king had already demonstrated his paranoia shortly after the birth of baby Viserys. Though Rhaella was permitted to nurse her second son (a rare privilege not ordinarily accorded to real-world royal mothers), Aerys forbid his wife to be alone with the new prince.  It would have quashed, at least in part, Rhaella’s sense of triumph in giving birth to Viserys.  Viserys, she realized, would not be the symbol of reunion between husband and wife but be a sharp reminder that she would never be trusted by the king.  Instead, Rhaella concentrated her energies on protecting her baby son against the worst of the king’s madness; her husband and her elder son might be declared enemies, but Viserys, a blank slate, could be hers, a comfort against Aerys.

What relationship Rhaella did share with Rhaegar is unclear. The king, certainly, believed his wife and son to be plotting against him, but Aerys saw traitors in every non-sycophant.  Even if Rhaella secretly sympathized with her son over her husband – not an unrealistic possibility, given Aerys’ cruelty towards her – Rhaegar’s was not a personality that lent itself to a strong mother-son bond.  Not only was Rhaegar melancholic and introverted (not one who could comfort a queen who desperately needed a warm, trusted friend at court), but his deep interest in Summerhall could never be appreciated by a queen who had watched too many friends and family members die in the blaze (and who likely saw in her son a horrific reminder of the day of his birth).  At best, Rhaella might have hoped that if Aerys were to die soon – especially when, in 277 AC, he was kidnapped by the Darklyns – the new King Rhaegar might treat her with the honor and dignity she merited as both a dowager queen and his mother.  Prince Daeron had once defended his mother Naerys against the calumnies of Barba Bracken, but there was no like act of filial chivalry recorded for the Prince of Dragonstone to his long-suffering mother.

As it happened, Aerys did return from Duskendale, but he did not come back unharmed. The experience had traumatized him, and the paranoia and ego which had previously been covered by a veneer of charm now reigned unchecked. Rhaella had known him longer than anyone, had been intimate with him for almost 20 years. She could not have failed to recognize the dangerous turn in his personality – his insistence on the entire Kingsguard’s presence in meetings with the Hand, his hysterical ban on any bladed objects in his presence (save his precious Kingsguard’s swords, of course).  Having endured his petty cruelties for so longer, however, Rhaella had no will to question or speak out against him.

There was no way, however, Rhaella could ignore Aerys’ dangerous new obsession: fire. In one way, his obsession was not entirely surprising: their great-uncle Aerion, who had tried to drink wildfire to turn into a dragon, was a monstrous legend in his own time, and draconic desires had haunted the Targaryens since the dragons’ extinction (including their own grandfather). Nevertheless, Rhaella, survivor of the inferno of Summerhall, would see fire not as a source of wonder, but as a terrifying reminder of that haunting nightmare echoing back to taunt her. Rhaella likely feared her husband’s new obsession; she who had lost her grandfather and any number of relatives in the blaze was now forced to relive those terrible moments on any whim from her royal husband.

Yet Aerys only became more entranced by fire, and soon found an extremely cruel way to involve his wife in his obsession. Aerys soon refused to sleep with his sister-wife unless he had burned a man alive first, and his relations with her after were physically abusive.  The physical attraction of their relationship, if there had ever been even a slight one, had long since ceased entirely, but this was a new, profoundly dark dimension of their marriage. Westerosi law does not recognize marital rape as a crime, but the absence of it from law did not in any way lessen the trauma for the queen; theirs had never been a love match, but this level of violence was unprecedented even for normal dynastic matches. Rhaella, so long blind to his mad schemes and largely uncomplaining of her increasingly terrible situation, was even driven to protest:

The day he burned his mace-and-dagger Hand, Jaime and Jon Darry had stood at guard outside her bedchamber whilst the king took his pleasure. “You’re hurting me,” they had heard Rhaella cry through the oaken door. “You’re hurting me.” In some queer way, that had been worse than Lord Chelsted’s screaming. “We are sworn to protect her as well,” Jaime had finally been driven to say. “We are,” Darry allowed, “but not from him.” (“Jaime II”, A Feast for Crows)

However, there was at least one bright moment in Rhaella’s late married life, though in typical Aerys fashion the king robbed his wife of even this small comfort. In 279 AC her elder son Rhaegar wed the Dornish Princess Elia. Gentle, graceful, clever Elia was the opposite of abusive, paranoid Aerys in every way, and Rhaella must have looked forward to taking the new crown princess as her lady companion (after all, even Aegon IV never tried to make his daughter-in-law Mariah Martell his mistress).  While the queen saw her granddaughter Rhaenys shortly after her birth, however, the enmity between father and son was so strong that visits between the two courts were few and far between; Rhaegar kept his own court on Dragonstone, and Aerys held her a prisoner in the capital. To Rhaella’s probable sorrow, she would not often see her sweet daughter-in-law and baby grandchildren.

Worse was coming for Rhaella, however. War, the likes of which the kingdom had not seen since the First Blackfyre Rebellion, was about to rip her world apart.

The Last of the Dragons

Rhaella had never been a political queen, ambitious to assert her own power.  If she knew about the politics of the Seven Kingdoms – and living her entire life in the Red Keep, a king’s daughter, a king’s sister, a king’s wife, she must have known something – that knowledge came secondhand, framed in the personal struggles of her family members. So it was with Robert’s Rebellion. Hers would be a background role, playing silent witness to the event which would destroy everything she had ever known, and whose end would also be her own.

With the fall of Rhaegar at the Trident, the tide of the war turned against the Targaryens. Robert and his allies were racing toward the city which represented one of the last footholds of the Targaryens’ crumbling kingdom.  The many caches of wildfire under the capital might ensure  that the king would not be taken alive – but with Rhaegar dead, and with the new heir Aegon only an infant (and the son of Aerys’ deeply distrusted heir anyway), Aerys still needed to secure his line’s succession.  Accordingly, the king dispatched his wife and remaining son to Dragonstone, ancestral seat of the Targaryens, where – at least in theory – they could be kept safe.

The queen could not have known at that moment – though she might have suspected – that she would never see her home again. Still, Rhaella was likely comforted by her new island home, no matter how grim it appeared on face. If the Usurper attempted to take her, he would need to battle his way through the royal navy protecting Dragonstone, and the ancient citadel itself had not fallen since Aegon II flew his battered dragon there at the tail end of the Dance.  It could almost be a holiday – mixed with sadness to leave Elia and the children, of course, and deeply uncertain, but a chance to spend more time with the son with whom she had already shared key moments (and an escape from her torturous husband).

The Sack of King’s Landing, however, shattered her fragile island peace. Dark wings bring dark words, and no words could have been darker for the woman who was now Queen Dowager of the Seven Kingdoms. Her capital and birthplace had been mercilessly sacked. Her gentle and sweet daughter in law and baby grandchildren had been brutally murdered. And brave young Jaime Lannister – the boy who had guarded her and Viserys during the Tourney of Harrenhal – had killed her husband. Rhaella was now the only adult Targaryen left; she, her second son, and her unborn child represented the entire legitimate Targaryen line left in the world.

To be sure, Rhaella could not have loved Aerys entirely by this point, or else had patience to rival the Mother; there had been too many years of abuse and insult, rape and torture. Yet she may still have felt a reasonable amount of shock at his death, and perhaps even a little mournfulness. She had known him longer than anyone except their own parents; for over 20 years they had shared not simply a bed but many intimate moments together. He was a survivor of Summerhall; only he (and what few others remained) could understand that shadow of tragedy which had haunted her since her girlhood. He was the father of her children, the living and the dead, and had shared her maternal grief (at least early and at least in part). She, more than anyone, had watched him decline from charming prince to cruel madman. He had not always been the monster he became, and for that former man – the one for whom she felt, if not love, at least some sisterly affection – Rhaella would have been reasonable to mourn.

Mourning, however, would not preserve her safety, nor that of her remaining family.  If she waited to be captured on Dragonstone, she would be left to the mercy of the usurpring Robert Baratheon – the same man who had caved in her son’s chest on the Trident, the man whose ally Tywin Lannister had directed the brutal sack on her home. She herself would likely face permanent confinement with the Faith – a traditional Westerosi punishment for politically troublesome ladies, offered to Alicent Hightower and Helaena Targaryen during the Dance and imposed on the Tarbeck daughters after the Reyne-Tarbeck Rebellion.  That itself was not so terrible a fate; gentle Rhaella might have welcomed spending her remaining years in prayer and quiet service, free from the burdens of queenship.   Her children, however, might instead meet much crueler fates.  As the new Targaryen pretender, eight-year-old Viserys was too politically powerful to be allowed to live as a private citizen under the new regime, and the rebel forces had already proven willing to kill children for their blood claims (here, Rhaella might have recalled not just Aegon and Rhaenys but the rumored murder of the three-year-old “last Lord Tarbeck” during the Reyne-Tarbeck Rebellion).  

So it was in such a bleak situation – meteorologically as well as politically, with a storm raging outside – that Rhaella gave birth to her last child.  The queen at last had the daughter for whom she had tried so hard, to give Rhaegar a bride – but Rhaegar was dead, as was his wife and children.  Perhaps she suspected that this new girl would be Viserys’ bride instead, to continue the Valyrian tradition of incest which had caused her and her family so much grief.  More important than the baby’s eventual spouse, at this moment, was her name, and here Rhaella took her last opportunity to secure safety for her children.  The name Daenerys was Rhaella’s appeal to the Dornish – the people of her sweet, murdered daughter-in-law, the sole remaining allies of the dragons now that the reacher lords had bent the knee.  Once, the Targaryens had given a Princess Daenerys to Prince Maron, thereby sealing the bond between the Martells and Targaryens; now, or so Rhaella must have hoped, the Martells would take in another Princess Daenerys.

Whatever happened with the Dornish, Rhaella would not live to see it. Not even 40 years old, the last Targaryen Queen of the Seven Kingdoms died shortly after the birth of her only living daughter. Her young son and infant daughter would be left to the vicissitudes of fate without her guidance.

Conclusion

No one could doubt that the two first ladies of the Targaryen dynasty, Rhaenys and Visenya, were true she-dragons, as fiery as the mounts they commanded. Willing and even eager for battle, yet also prepared to take to the throne and dispense law and justice, the two sisters had dedicated themselves to molding House Targaryen into a lasting dynasty, to rule Westeros forever. Yet if Vhagar and Meraxes are appropriate parallels to the might and power of Visenya and Rhaenys, the unnamed last dragon might be an equally fitting parallel to Rhaella, the last she-dragon of the ruling dynasty. The last dragon was a pitiful little female, born after the Dance had seen its cousins rip each other – and their species’ future in Westeros – to shreds; hardly larger than a dog, twisted and sickly, she produced five unhatched eggs before dying, a mere object of spectator curiosity. Likewise Rhaella, marked by the destruction and grief of Summerhall, spent most of her life on display as her increasingly insane and abusive husband’s tragic consort. She lived to see the fall of her House and the death of her eldest son, but did not survive to watch her other children become, as the dragon eggs had been for later Targaryen kings, the pawns of ambitious men.

 

12 Comments

Filed under ASOIAF Analysis, ASOIAF Character Analysis, ASOIAF History, ASOIAF Meta, Ladies of Fire, The Three Heads of the Dragon

12 responses to “Queen of Woe: Rhaella Targaryen

  1. Crystal

    Poor Rhaella – one of the saddest characters in ASOIAF. When you find yourself wishing that she had married *Tywin Lannister* instead. It would have been interesting if she had married Steffon Baratheon and become Robert et al’s mother. But in any case, being married to Aerys made her life unbearably sad.

    I think Aegon V could have done a HELL of a lot more to control his children. Not being able to do so really made a hash of things for the Targs.

    Re Rhaella’s miscarriages and stillbirths, there is this article on the Habsburg dynasty and how inbreeding contributed to infertility, here: http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0005174
    They didn’t marry brother to sister, but some of those Habsburgs might as well have been Targs from the inbreeding coefficient. Jaehaerys and Alysanne seem to have been the only brother/sister marriage that produced a large family where most of the children survived. (I don’t count the accidental death of Viserra and Aemon or Maegelle’s death from illness as they had nothing to do with heredity.) There were a lot of small 3 or less children and/or sickly families from Targ incest.

    I also think that Aerys’ abuse of Rhaella didn’t help her fertility any.

  2. Sir Theodred of Pennytree

    About rhaegar and raella relantionship, i think that they could have been close, alot of times lonely introverted children are very atatched to their mothers, we never hear anything about that, but its possible, and i always had the impression that aerys and rhaegar relantionship was so bad that rhaegar lived most of is adult life in a sort of exile in dragonstone, he did have is little court there, maybe thats why we never hear about friction betwen rhaegar and aerys about the treatment of his mother, or maybe i am completely wrong i would like to hear your opinion .

  3. Paul

    Great essay Shelly! And no i’m not looking at your headgear, please don’t hurt me. I think it looks terrificAAAAHHH!

  4. Spandana

    Good point about Rhaella appealing to the Dornish by naming her daughter Daenerys. Look like, Daenerys might not keep it up though.

  5. Aella

    From Jaehaerys II’s page in TWOIAF:
    “Jaehaerys finally allowed himself to be persuaded to remain at King’s Landing with his queen”
    Shaera survived Harrenhal.

  6. I cannot wait for the essay on the Mad King. That is going to be awesome. On that note, i feel nothing but sadness and pity for Rhaelle. It seems she was a lovely person that sought peace in her life. But only ever found death and suffering. In some ways Daenerys is a lot like Rhaelle, in terms of the suffering she endured at the hands of her brother. However, unlike Rhaelle, she lashes out violently against those that she considers her enemies. Much like her father Aerys… just a thought.

  7. Tony Moore

    This one is particularly fascinating – my first PoV-ish glimpse at a very important figure in the asoiaf-backstory! Endless thanks for doing the excellent audio version.

  8. Pingback: An End to an Era: A Political Analysis of Aerys II | Wars and Politics of Ice and Fire

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