King Aerys II, The Mad King by Amok
During the reign of King Jaehaerys II, the Blackfyre threat finally ended (as best as anyone could determine). The troubles that Aegon IV had begun came to a decisive close, and Westeros could finally move on from the past and look to the future. Yet it would only be a short time later that the King would complain of shortness of breath, and die soon after, leaving the Iron Throne to his only son, Aerys.
Aerys was called “the Mad King”, but how mad is a mad king? What was the method behind his madness? And why, if he were so insane, did it take a generation for someone to overthrow him? Did he ever have a chance to rule well? The curtain was about to fall on the Targaryen dynasty, but there were still twenty-one years between the death of Jaehaerys II and the end of the dragon kings. How could a dynasty that had weathered so many problems finally find Robert’s Rebellion as the straw that broke the camel’s back?
Welcome to the penultimate 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. We have finally reached the end of House Targaryen; the dragon kings have their last fiery gasp here, with Aerys II.
The Prince of Promise
“Upon his coronation, he declared that it was his wish to be the greatest king in the history of the Seven Kingdoms, a conceit certain of his friends encouraged by suggesting that one day he may be remembered as Aerys the Wise or Aerys the Great.” -The World of Ice and Fire, Aerys II
Aerys, the Second of His Name, ascended to the throne amidst much pomp and fanfare. He was a young prince, but he already had much going for him. He was a decorated war hero (good in many different cultures, but incredibly attractive for the martial Westerosi), glib and gregarious, generous and handsome. While he had what was expected as a young man’s temper and fickleness, his harmless eccentricity was hardly notable after the dramatic madness of Rhaegel and the sadistic insanity of Aerion Brightflame. Once he sat the Throne in his own right, he declared his vision for the Seven Kingdoms: that he would be the greatest king to sit the Iron Throne, an Aerys the Wise or even Aerys the Great. That grand promise, so seemingly possible in the dawn of his reign, danced in the new king’s head for years after it had finished echoing through the throne room.
One of Aerys’s earliest moves was a shake-up of the royal cabinet, assigning young, daring, and ambitious men to high court position. Most notably, the ascendent king appointed his longtime friend and battle companion Tywin Lannister to the position of Hand of the King, shaking up the court with a young man already infamous for his brutal extermination of Houses Tarbeck and Reyne. By all accounts, Tywin brought to the government everything that Aerys lacked, a bureaucratic acumen that increased the size of the treasury. Yet theirs was, in its early years, a mutually beneficial partnership Where Tywin was brusque and blunt, Aerys was charming and gregarious. The prosperous King-Hand partnership of Aegon III and Viserys II which rebuilt the realm after the Dance of the Dragons gave convincing testimony that a powerful King and Hand could truly improve the realm for the better. Fond of the pageantry of court, Aerys threw courtly entertainments like masked balls and musical performances, whose continuation could be assured by Tywin’s shrewd management of court finances. In a court still reeling from Summerhall, Aerys’s parties were welcome relief.
Far from being a mere sideshow, royal entertainments such as these served a great political function. When the Targaryen family tree after Summerhall had been just Aerys, Rhaella, and their toddler Rhaegar, this a show of strength for the political establishment and for the Targaryens themselves, so devastated after Summerhall. The nobility, feted and entertained, gained renewed faith in the Targaryen dynasty which had faced so many troubles. The Tudor dynasty was likewise famous for throwing Arthurian-themed parties to refresh the propaganda that their dynasty was descended from that mythical king, attempting to quiet any discussion of their incredibly tenuous claim to the English throne.
Yet Aerys was not simply a party-happy, indolent king, ala Viserys I. Indeed, the young King Aerys provided a figurehead for the people to look to as a glorious head of state, inspiring belief that the dynasty and kingdom it led was truly strong. Aerys was very charming, so much so that his eccentricities were considered quaint and almost endearing. In feudalism, where so much of the governance is tied up in the body of the king, being so gregarious is no small thing. Well-loved kings can exercise great power beyond the scope of their feudal oaths, can secure buy-in when he needs coin or manpower for any royal goal, and enjoy a degree of security that prevents coalitions from building against them. Jaehaerys I’s popularity certainly secured him as well as his policy-making, but even lackluster kings like Viserys I enjoyed a great deal of security thanks to their amiable natures.
While Aerys won the support of nobles with his charm, Tywin cemented their approval by undoing Aegon V’s pro-smallfolk edicts. For the wealthy merchant class, Tywin reduced tariffs, increasing profit on trade (and making up the difference in bulk for the royal coffers). He instituted severe punishments on bakers who cut their bread with sawdust or butchers selling horse as beef – practices typically performed by smaller, poorer purveyors of cheap bread and meat. He won over the knights of the realm by holding lavish tournaments, so that the bored veterans of the War of the Ninepenny Kings could continue to distinguish themselves and men too young to have fought in that war could earn their chance to face these war heroes and earn a name for themselves by knocking one down in the joust. Finally, Tywin appealed to smallfolk and lords alike by instituting a large-scale roadworks program, improving travel and generating all the revenues that larger, improved road networks could facilitate. For all Tywin’s failings and brutality, he was a wizard at administering the myriad functions of court and balancing the many different desires of the peoples of Westeros.
Aerys was also fortunate to have a young and strong heir mature through his reign to secure the succession. Rhaegar was not as outgoing or as charming as his noble father, and even seemed a bit aloof and melancholic, but he was handsome and gallant. He was a skilled warrior, excelling at the joust . His romantic personality, combined with his chivalric pursuits, made him seem half a fairy tale, lending him a powerful gravitas and air of awe. Rhaegar hearkened back to that now-semi mythical Aegon the Conqueror, exhibiting similar traits of half-removed mystique coupled with an excellence in all of his pursuits. After all, the Targaryens had lost their mystique through the years, with the death of the dragons and their dynastic marriages, but Rhaegar seemed almost a reach back to the heyday early Targaryen days, where the Targaryens were thought of as nearer to gods than the common run of men. With a charming king, a brilliant Hand, and a capable and awe-inspiring heir-in-waiting, the Targaryen dynasty looked as secure as it had ever been. Even if the worst had happened, and Aerys fell ill, the dynasty could be saved, avoiding any protracted civil war between any claimant with a drop of dragon blood.
Yet even as the sun seemed to dawn on a bright new era of Targaryen rule, clouds gathered. Aerys, from the moment he took office, was known as a very proud and conceited man, taking great pleasure in flattery. Vain and prickly, the new king began to bristle when men began to jest that Tywin Lannister ruled the realm instead of Aerys. The promise that he made at his coronation danced back in his head. He could hardly be Aerys the Great if it was truly Tywin the Great running the realm. Nothing would stop the promising king from fulfilling his own personal vision, and if that meant asserting his own authority…then so be it.
Slowly but surely, then, Aerys began to contradict Tywin’s policies out of spite. When a trade war between Volantis and two of the Three Daughters, Myr and Tyrosh, broke out, Tywin advised not getting involved, which resulted in Aerys calling for white support of Volantis by sending them gold and arms. While the two continents meddling in each other’s politics is nothing new, siding in an Essosi dispute is a large undertaking, and to make such a large decision for petty drama speaks poorly to the health of the dynasty and the man in charge. Most gallingly (for Tywin, at least), Aerys raised customs fees and tariffs, and when a coalition of merchants brought this grievance before the king, Aerys blamed Tywin for the move, restored the port fees to their previous levels, and made open mockery of his number two councilor with vulgar jokes, earning hoots and howls but angering Tywin.
Certainly, there are times when a king and his councilors can disagree on policy decisions, but Aerys seemed to make moves for no greater policy concern than defying and undermining his councilors. His misuse of his office to fulfill a personal vendetta set a troubling precedent: being too good at your job invites disfavor, and the king will hold you at fault for the actions of others, or his own. Feudalism does require a certain sense of protecting the royal majesty – a government model so tied up in the royal body requires a projection of strength to inspire competence and loyalty – but Aerys’ actions showed that loyal service would not guarantee (indeed, would shut out) royal favor. By making an ill-advised move and blaming a subordinate, Aerys demonstrated that the crown, more than just openly devaluing its subordinates and officers, would in fact lie to save face. The very foundation of political philosophy of the Seven Kingdoms, the Aegon Doctrine, was being twisted to a mockery of its former self. Aerys’s later undermining of many important aspects of government were foreshadowed here, in these early sacrifices of government operation for personal vanity.
King Aerys II condemns the Darklyns, by Marc Simonetti
Duskendale and What It Wrought
Aerys’s unsettling tendency to act for no greater reason than defiance would come to a head in the small but prosperous town of Duskendale. Lord Denys Darklyn had been agitating for a city charter for Duskendale, which had been a thriving port before the time of Aegon but had suffered from the growth of nearby King’s Landing. Tywin Lannister had been keen to avoid granting city privileges to Duskendale as parceling out new charters ran contrary to his micromanaging style as Hand. Moreover, Lord Tywin seemed to have opposed new grant laws and privileges that had not been previously bestowed to towns. Whatever the exact terms, a chartered Duskendale would enjoy greater autonomy from the Crown, as well as a host of economic and political benefits.
Sensing the rift between King and Hand, Lord Denys Darklyn made an appeal to King Aerys personally, asking him to come to discuss the charter while simultaneously withholding tax payments to force the issue. Aerys leapt at the chance to solve an issue that his Hand could not, and arrived with a small contingent and a sole Kingsguard member to handle the matter (by arresting and executing Lord Darklyn for refusal to pay taxes owed). Darklyn instead seized the king, locking him within the dungeons of Duskendale. The Hand was quick to respond, but found himself paralyzed when Lord Darklyn threatened to execute the king if Tywin attempted to storm Duskendale in an attempt to free him.
No king in the Targaryen dynasty had ever been held captive, save the tumultuous Aegon III regency when the royal family was besieged by the Kingsguard (although Rhaenyra had held Alicent and Helaena captive in the Red Keep). Darklyn’s kidnapping of the king was devastating to the prestige of the royal dynasty; the royal personage of the king’s sacrosanctity came under threat. The awe that a king could display meant nothing if he was locked in a cage and physically assaulted (even marginally so) like the meanest brigand. Aerys’s attempt to display royal strength had backfired horribly; the king looked inept and foolish for walking into an obvious trap, for only bringing one of his sworn seven, and for letting his disagreement with Tywin Lannister land him into a prison cell.
“‘He may or he may not,’ Tywin Lannister reportedly replied, ‘but if he does we have a better king right here.’ Whereupon he raised a hand to indicate Prince Rhaegar.” -The World of Ice and Fire, Aerys II
Aerys’s captivity had other consequences for his rule. One of the interesting tidbits learned from The World of Ice and Fire was that Tywin began to openly support Rhaegar Targaryen, the dragon-in-waiting. This was the first overt sign, at least chronologically, that we see of Tywin advocating for Aerys’s removal and ouster. How Rhaegar reacted to this statement is unknown, but Tywin’s action made clear that Aerys’s survival was not as important as ending the Defiance once and for all. In most cases, such open advocation for an alternate king would be considered treasonous; Barba Bracken, who had boasted of becoming queen when Naerys looked soon to die, was lucky to keep her head and merely be exiled when her rival survived. Yet Tywin remained as Hand of the King after, perhaps due in no small part to his great influence and power at court. He may not have engendered love, but few doubted Tywin Lannister lacked the power or the will to end threats against him.
Not all wished Aerys to die for Rhaegar to ascend. Barristan Selmy begged the chance of rescuing his king, and this was granted by the Hand. The odds of success were low, but the Kingsguard knight was able to secure the king in a daring prison raid. What little we know of Barristan’s rescue paints it as a classic special forces raid, using night, stealth, and sudden force to secure a position and accomplish his objectives. Yet while Barristan might have earned everlasting fame, his king would instead achieve infamy.
Though Barristan’s rescue was successful, Aerys’s captivity at Duskendale would be a breaking point. Aerys’s experience in Duskendale taxed his already delicate sanity; no longer would he be the eccentric, imaginative, charming king of his youth,Instead, Aerys would shift towards a vindictive, paranoid man, sighting treason in every man’s heart. Lord Denys’s actions proved to him that every man harbored a secret desire to kill him, and he must be made an example of lest more treasons be fostered. Aerys immediately ordered the death of every member of the Darklyn family and their Hollard allies, hearkening back to Tywin’s execution of the Tarbecks and Reynes. Only the child Dontos Hollard was spared from Aerys’s desire to exterminate the traitors root and stem. Everywhere he looked, Aerys could find men wishing his death. His Hand, Tywin, had left him to rot in Duskendale, yet Aerys could not prove Tywin’s ill intent. Aerys’s erratic jumps became more notable, more extreme, and more violent. His heir, Rhaegar, certainly wanted Aerys to be slain in prison to clear his own way for his glorious ascension (why else would two factions begin to creep up in court?), yet again, Aerys could not prove it. No proof, however, would stop him from acting.
The threat only grew as his son Rhaegar proved increasingly popular with the people. The crown prince’s victories in tourneys made him adored by the commons, and his public emphasis of the knightly virtues of chivalry endeared him to the nobility. He kept company with other famous heroes, especially his close friend Ser Arthur Dayne, considered the very soul of chivalry for his era. This, as Pycelle remarked in his writings, began to materialize into two strong factions, and the climate became tense, reminiscent of the times before the Dance of the Dragons. As Rhaegar’s popularity grew, so do, did the whispers in Aerys’s head, finding yet another obstacle preventing him from being the greatest king to ever sit the Iron Throne. As it had been with Tywin, so too, had it been with Rhaegar.
Aerys acted swiftly to isolate Rhaegar, and his tool was a royal marriage. As king and father to his son, it was his responsibility to select a bride for Rhaegar, and his sights looked eastward. Rhaegar could not be wed to wealthy Cersei Lannister as Tywin intended; such a match would empower both his heir and Hand far more than paranoid Aerys was willing to tolerate. A Volantene or Lysene lady would have an impressive Valyrian pedigree, yet equally as important, would have few if any allies in Westeros.
Nominating his old friend Steffon Baratheon for this task, Aerys felt proud that he had stymied a plot against him before it could even materialize. Yet tragedy struck when Lord Steffon died in a shipwreck off the coast off Durran’s Point, having found no bride for Rhaegar and leaving Aerys without a Lord Paramount to call friend. Unable to find an Essosi maid, Aerys looked to Dorne, a princedom held slightly apart from the rest of Westeros due to its differing customs. Aerys made a match with Princess Elia Martell, ensuring that Rhaegar’s marriage alliance would only secure him Dorne, one of the least populous of the Seven Kingdoms. Even this marriage did not bring the king joy; Aerys was noticeably prickly at the birth of his granddaughter, claiming that she ‘smelled Dornish,’ (though given Aerys’s earlier travels to Dorne and his marriage of Rhaegar and Elia in the first place, his comment was likely less a surge of racism and more Aerys finding an excuse to hate anything that could be considered a happy moment for his heir).
Fire Can Kill A Dragon
“In the wake of Duskendale, the king also began to display signs of an ever-increasing obsession with dragonfire, similar to that which had haunted several of his forebears.” -The World of Ice and Fire, Aerys II
Though not even two decades had passed since Aerys’ glorious coronation, the king had turned from a celebrated young ruler to a suspicious, monstrous dictator, seeing treason in every act. Increasingly distant from the realities of rule, Aerys turned to that most draconic and dangerous of allies, fire. Indeed, he grew obsessed with all forms of fire as a hallmark of the lost Targaryen dragons, similar to his great-uncle Aerion Brightflame, who had drank wildfire in an attempt to change himself into a dragon. Aerys showered royal favor upon the pyromancers (out of favor ever since the disaster at Summerhall, in which they had played no small part) and utilized fire as an execution method for his enemies. Aerys even found the burning to death of prisoners to be sexually arousing, and often after an execution, he would subject his wife to a rather brutal session of undesired sexual copulation (so much so that Jaime Lannister noted that Rhaella appeared to have been savaged by a beast rather than had sex with her husband). This combination of fire and blood may have delighted Aerys, but it would have brought the end of his house, and it would all come to a head in the Year of the False Spring.
In 281 AC, the grandest tournament Westeros had seen in that generation was called at Harrenhal by Lord Whent, with all lords and ladies from the realm welcome in attendance. This grand tournament had purses set to match, with exorbitant riches easily five times the size of a tournament purse luring the noblest lord to the meanest hedge knight. Yet there were rumors circulating that this grand tournament was not merely called to celebrate Lord Whent’s maiden daughter’s nameday and the end of a long winter. The Kingsguard knight Oswell Whent had been seen visiting his lordly brother, and Ser Oswell had long been a contemporary and friend to Rhaegar Targaryen. With so many lords in one place, many of Aerys’s sycophants suggested that Rhaegar meant to build a coalition to oust his father. While some suggested banning the tournament by royal edict, and others suggested putting a hold to all tournaments so this could not happen in another location, Aerys decided that he would attend the tournament, as surely no plotting would happen under his nose.
If Aerys had hoped to cow machinations by his presence, he may have been successful. If, however, he had hoped to use his royal personage to win love and support as he had in his youth, he was sorely mistaken. Aerys had become disheveled and wide-eyed, a fear of blades turning his hair into a ragged mess – a filthy, monstrous spectacle in stark contrast to the handsome, dashing prince he had been in youth. His fits of emotion, fierce and chaotic as a hurricane, with little sense of logical progression from one thought to the next, left him looking less a king to rule and more a fool to entertain, and few men came to that tournament with more faith in Aerys than they had before they arrived at Harrenhal.
Despite his bedraggled appearance, the tournament proceeded however, with a grand ceremony made of swearing in the newest Sworn Brother of the Kingsguard, Ser Jaime Lannister. Aerys had meant the naming as a slight, to deprive Tywin of his talented and handsome heir. Yet scarcely had Jaime left to take up his post in King’s Landing did trouble begin. A mystery knight with a weirwood device defeated three champions, then vanished as quickly as he appeared. Aerys was incensed, convinced that the mystery knight was Jaime Lannister, defying his orders and certainly intending to mock the royal person with that grinning weirwood. Ordering the lords in attendance to find and unmask this Knight of the Laughing Tree, he became even more convinced of a plot against him when none of the men dispatched to learn of this mystery knight returned with the truth. His obsession with finding his secret enemies found its way into all walks of his life, and each time he had found an ‘enemy,’ he became more and more convinced that there were secret enemies to be feared. And each time he couldn’t find his enemy, he grew even more convinced that his secret enemies possessed great cunning, and were foes to be feared.
Prince Rhaegar at the Harrenhal Tournament, by Paolo Puggioni
To make matters even worse, Rhaegar Targaryen won the final tilt, but instead of crowning his wife Elia the Queen of Love and Beauty, he dropped the garland into the lap of Lyanna Stark, maiden daughter of Rickard Stark, Lord Paramount of the North. Aerys and his sycophants conferred immediately on the implications. Could Rhaegar be looking to upjump his alliances, undoing Aerys’s careful planning by wedding into House Stark? House Stark had their heir betrothed to the Tullys of Riverrun, and their second son was fostering under Jon Arryn of the Vale, an alliance of three great Houses. Three, plus the quietly hostile Tywin Lannister, and with the death of Steffon, Aerys had no Great Houses he could trust.
Matters only worsened when Rhaegar was later found to have abducted Lyanna Stark in the Riverlands. Brandon Stark, heir of house Stark, notably angered that Rhaegar’s gesture implied that he would have take Lyanna as a royal mistress, was enraged that the Crown Prince would kidnap his maiden sister. With a small following of nobly born friends, Brandon demanded that Rhaegar return his sister, shouting loudly that Rhaegar must ‘come out and die’ for his actions. Aerys immediately seized Brandon for treasonous intent, and demanded that the fathers of the men seized come to King’s Landing to account for their sons, including Lord Paramount Rickard Stark. When the men arrived in the Red Keep, he had them seized as well, accusing them all of committing treason. Lord Rickard demanded a trial by combat, and in a flash of sadistic glee, Aerys agreed but declared fire to be the champion of House Targaryen. He burnt Rickard alive, and forced Brandon Stark to watch, hooking him to a strangulation cord that would tighten as he moved. Aerys cackled with glee as Rickard burned to death while Brandon choked in a vain attempt to free his father from his horrible fate. Then, he immediately ordered Jon Arryn to forfeit the lives of Robert Baratheon, Lyanna’s betrothed, and Eddard Stark, who might seek revenge for the death of his brother.
I’ve spoken at length about how unsettling this terrible act was to feudalism as a whole from the point of view of a vassal, but from the point of the crown, this was just as terrifying. The king had made a public statement that noble rights came at the pleasure of the king instead of being established through the body of law. No longer was Aerys a feudal monarch, with fealty owed and obligations sworn, but an absolute monarch, capable of rewriting his demands and obligations at the royal whim. Any noble, even the highest among them, could not reasonably expect any established precedent to remain theirs to enjoy. Every single right and privilege these nobles had been taught to enjoy – even their lives – were now Aerys’s to allow or deny. Aerys threw royal credibility into the cesspit when he declared that all nobles had the right to life under his desire only. If Aerys had merely perverted the Aegon Doctrine by punishing success, he was now taking the idea far beyond what his conquering ancestor had intended. Not only was continued success only permissible under the good auspices of the crown, but nobles had to fear constantly that their lives could be taken, without recourse or warning, by the crown. Aerys had at last established the complete inversion of Aegon’s Conquest. If investing the vassals for them to truly want to work for the continued success of the kingdom was Aegon’s ideology, then Aerys made his vassals want to work for the overthrow of the kingdom, lest they all be wearing crosshairs for the rest of their lives.
Aerys did not depart the Red Keep for the length of the rebellion. Though only 40 years of age, Aerys had long grown frail after fear of poison prevented him from eating enough food, and fear of assassination prevented him from leaving the castle. However, he was far from idle during the rebellion; instead, Aerys delegated the task of handling the rebellion to his Hands. The king would assume a senior political role instead of a military one, but the long litany of action, failures, and punishments speak to Aerys’s political style and his relationship with his councilors during the history of the rebellion.
His first Hand, Owen Merryweather, was famed as a generous man, though not a capable one. Owen had long attempted to manage the pro-Aerys and pro-Rhaegar factions at court to middling success, but the Lord of Longtable found himself lacking when it came the Rebellion. Whether Merryweather simply did not take the rebellion seriously or selected an incorrect approach, the Hand fought with words, issuing proclamations for lords to kill the rebellious Lords Paramount. The Vale lords remained (mostly) loyal to Jon Arryn, and the Hand’s missives went unheeded. Furious for Owen’s failure to contain the rebellion in the Vale, and for not being active enough to prevent Eddard and Robert from reaching their power bases at Winterfell and Storm’s End respectively, Aerys exiled his Hand and stripped him of his lands.
Merryweather’s strategic choice to wage a diplomatic campaign was an appallingly poor decision. Aerys had slain the heir to the Vale (and a handful of young men from eminent noble families) without trial, and demanded that Jon Arryn forfeit the lives of two of his wards, ordering Jon to violate one of the oldest and most sacred traditions of Westeros. The families of the Vale, one of the more conservative regions of Westeros, prided themselves greatly on honorable conduct and had long celebrated a chivalric culture. When Jon refused the dishonorable command, Owen had attempted to move down the chain and ask one of Jon’s subordinates to be complicit in Aerys’s conduct. Owen gambled greatly on royal prestige compelling loyalty, without consideration for how the crown acted and how they were perceived. Desiring a more active presence for the Throne on the battlefield, Aerys appointed a warrior for the next chance at the position.
This warrior was Jon Connington, Lord of Griffin’s Roost, and his selection as Hand may have been one of Aerys’s better political decisions in the later years of his reign. Connington, a Stormlander, would be openly defiant of his Lord Paramount and thus make an open demonstration that Robert did not command the loyalties of his bannermen as he might wish. Connington was a capable warrior, educated in the finer nuances of campaign, but he was loyal to Rhaegar, not Aerys, and empowering a close confidant of Rhaegar may have hurt Aerys in the long run if Rhaegar had elected to depose his father. With Rhaegar’s abduction of Lyanna Stark marking him an enemy of the Starks and Baratheons, however, it’s reasonable to assume that Aerys knew that Rhaegar couldn’t fight the rebels and the crown at the same time. Connington led his army to Stoney Sept, hoping to capitalize on Randyll Tarly’s indecisive victory over the rebels at Ashford. Surrounding the town, Connington attempted to offer rewards to tempt men to give Robert Baratheon up: when that failed, he took prisoners and hung them in crow cages to starve and suffer. Whether Connington used the carrot or the stick, however, the smallfolk refused to give up Robert’s location, and Connington’s campaign ground to a halt as he searched from house to house. Eventually, his delay took so long that a relief army commanded by Eddard Stark attacked Stoney Sept while Connington’s men were out of position. Connington handled his troops admirably, however, and was able to slay a senior officer (Jon Arryn’s new heir Denys), and wound Hoster Tully himself before withdrawing his forces. Aerys, however, was not in the mood for handing out silver medals. Connington, much like Merryweather, was stripped of his lands and sent to Essos.
Connington made a great many mistakes in his campaign against Robert, some of which he bitterly recriminates about in his chapter in A Dance with Dragons. Desiring to defeat Robert in a decisive battle, Jon Connington refused to even consider burning the village to the ground, or so he discusses with Myles Toyne. Yet the greater mistake Connington made, and the one he is unable to understand even in his older age, is that he neglected the attitudes of the smallfolk toward the crown and the rebellion. Earlier in the reign of King Aerys II, the infamous Kingswood Brotherhood was sheltered by the smallfolk of the region, as they felt that the royal government did not protect their rights nor have their best interests at heart. Ser Arthur Dayne had been able to win over the smallfolk through bringing their matters to court for the king to hear personally, delivering them concrete and appreciable rights from the crown, as well as fairly paying for any goods requisitioned. Connington, in forcing the people of Stoney Sept to quarter his troops, and demanding that they too violate guest right by turning over the man they were protecting, did nothing to combat the romantic rebel Robert. He offered mere token incentives that did not appeal to the smallfolk of the region as a class. Had he been able to promise Stoney Sept a charter, he may have had greater fortune, but Connington’s blindness cost him his campaign.
Running short on lords to support him given Robert’s sustained victories in conjunction with the wildly differing approaches of Robert pardoning rebels and welcoming them into his service against Aerys’s exile-and-seizure approach, Aerys turned to an old sycophant, Qarlton Chelsted. Long a toady of Aerys, Qarlton’s lowly former rank and lack of renown represented Aerys’s dwindling support base perfectly.
At this point, however, Aerys was no longer in charge of the royal military effort. Rhaegar had emerged from Dorne and had taken the bulk of the Kingsguard with him, leaving Aerys and Qarlton to handle measures in the capital itself. Aerys instead embarked on one of his grandest schemes yet, and unlike all of his other fanciful plans, he actually went through with it (mostly). Summoning the pyromancer Rossart, Aerys ordered wildfire placed in caches all throughout the city; if the capital appeared to fall, the Wisdoms would ignite the wildfire and burn the city to the ground. Qarlton, upon learning of this plan, attempted to dissuade Aerys every way he could, resorting to begging and pleading before angrily resigning his position. Aerys, however, had enough of Hands failing him, and decided to burn Chelsted rather than exile him. Empowering Rossart by placing the Hand’s chain of office on him, Aerys’s last great scheme was to knock the chessboard on the floor.
It would not be Robert, but Tywin Lannister who would trigger this new scheme. Aerys, now having lost Rhaegar and knowing that the rebel army was coming, sent Viserys and Rhaella to Dragonstone to safeguard his new heir from the wildfire plot. When Tywin Lannister arrived at King’s Landing, Aerys was counseled from two conflicting sides. His spymaster Varys believed Tywin would never support the royalists when the crown had lost so much. Grand Maester Pycelle, on the other hand, suggested that despite all that happened, Tywin would never let his old friend die and lose his seat (though truth be told, Pycelle knew that was not true and counseled him falsely). Aerys elected to trust Pycelle’s advice, but why? Why would a man who saw treasons where there were none, who couldn’t trust a barber or cook, would trust a man that he had mistrusted for years?
Certainly, Pycelle could have been a better manipulator than Varys, but that case seems unlikely. The Spider has throughout the series demonstrated a knack for persuading belief in his chosen path, while Pycelle made several key blunders through A Game of Thrones that gave Eddard Stark key clues into his investigation of Jon Arryn’s death. His clumsy attempts to paint Varys as a spy did not fool Eddard, and Tyrion was able to manipulate him during A Clash Of Kings.
Was it truly madness, then, or did Aerys want Pycelle to be correct? Was Aerys longing for the comforts of his youth, when he had two great friends with bonds forged in war and growing up? Did Aerys believe that Tywin could never kill an old friend? Was Aerys, in some remote way, hoping for an out that would cause him not to commit the wildfire plot? Or was he truly irrational, not following a logical sequence of thoughts? This remains one of the great mysteries of the Mad King, left unanswered. When Tywin betrayed him, Aerys issued the final order that caused Jaime Lannister to abandon his Kingsguard oath, slay Rossart and Aerys, and end the war for good. Thus passed Aerys, Last of His Name, carrying with him two hundred-plus years of heroes and villains, sages and fools, sadists and saints.
The Culpability of Madness, and the Truth of Threat
Much has been made of Aerys’s madness, both in-universe and in the fandom. Indeed, it is one of Aerys’s two defining characteristics (other than holding the dubious honor of being the monarch who brought down his dynasty). How insane was Aerys? Did he have an inability to perceive reality? Did he have a mental disorder which compelled him to act in irrational fashion? Or did Aerys make reasoned (if delusional) choices and deserve the full opprobrium for his actions?
Indeed, Aerys never seemed to be the most stable of individuals even from his early adult life. Maester Yandel notes that “his Grace was full of schemes,” which were inspired by events in his daily life. When Rickard Stark visited from the icy North, Aerys immediately became enraptured with the North, and its great Wall, and declared that he would raise a new one, seizing the land in between for his kingdom. When the king visited Dorne, he declared a great new project of bringing water to that desert country, changing the very landscape as a testament to his rule. Angered by the foul stench of King’s Landing, he declared that there must be a new capital made of shining white (presumably sweet-smelling) marble. These schemes were quickly forgotten, and even became part of Aerys’s endearing charm early in his reign. He never wasted much in the way of resources on these passing fancies, and could simply be thought of to have an overactive imagination and little in the way of a filter from his brain to his mouth.
Yet his imagination running away from him would not help later in his reign, when his paranoia allowed him to imagine all sort of conspiracies against him no matter their basis in reality. His changeable nature would mean that at any moment, Aerys could extrapolate an action to be proof of a threat to the royal person, and with the power of the crown behind him, few people would be able to check his actions. His loose grip on logic prevented him from checking his own actions and logic, and common to many conspiracy theorists, he believed the absence of evidence only further proof of the skill (and thus the threat) of the conspiracy against him.
There is certainly evidence that Aerys was becoming increasingly detached from reality as his tenure on the Iron Throne continued. Fearful of someone poisoning Viserys’s nameday gifts, he had all of the presents burned in the royal courtyard. Ever afraid of Tywin Lannister, Aerys wrote that his old friend Steffon Baratheon had been murdered by Tywin using some sorcerous power to destroy his ship in Shipbreaker Bay. Fearful of assassination attempts, he would allow no blades in his presence saved those carried by his Kingsguard, which including razors and shears for personal grooming. If before he was a handsome youth representing the promising future of the Targaryen dynasty, now his visage depicted the unhinged nature of Aerys’s mind. He grew increasingly isolationist, removing himself from that vital personal touch that feudalism asked of its practitioning monarchs. He made wild leaps of logic to come at fanciful conclusions, and so perhaps calling him the Mad King means that Aerys truly lost touch, and many of his actions were somewhat excused by his inability to rationally perceive and act within the world.
Yet there’s also evidence that Aerys was able to perceive the world accurately, and his actions were made with intent. Even until the end, Aerys was capable of complex thoughts. They may have been horrific in their scope, barbarous even, but they were done willfully, with a full understanding of what was done. His twists on trials by combat, his use of strangulation cords to twist the knife in Brandon Stark’s wounds even unto his final moments, these require a greater understanding than madness. Even if Aerys’s notions of treason were the evidence of an insane mind, he acted upon them with the full understanding of what his actions were. Aerys understood what he was doing, and he knew the horror of it. He believed his position allowed him the pleasure of watching men burn to death as an entertaining joy to be savored. He took delight in inflicting suffering upon the unwilling, and that is what makes the Mad King truly a terrifying villain. Aerys relegates himself among the worst of the monarchs to sit the Throne. The Mad King was truly mad, sometimes even at the mercy of his wild imagination, but that was not him at his worst. When he wished to murder half a million people, when he laughed as a son strangled himself trying to save his suffering father, when he brutalized and raped his wife, he knew what he was doing…and he didn’t care.
The wildfire plot is the key to understanding Aerys’s madness did not control him. Jaime speculates that the king believed he could turn into a dragon with the wildfire, but why would Aerys wait until Rhaegar was dead before his mythical transformation? If he truly believed that he could turn himself into a dragon, why not do so before all hope was lost? If it was simply an idea in his head, why is it the only idea in a history of crazy ideas for Aerys to act on? It seems more likely that Aerys saw the lives of the half-million people at King’s Landing as his to spend, a natural extension of his belief that he was permitted to execute Rickard Stark at his own whim, than some fanciful delusion that the wildfire plot would finally give him the strength to crush the rebels had he had long dreamed. It was not a grand apotheosis, but rather Ahab’s famous final words from Moby Dick: “from hell’s heart, I stab at thee.” This chilling and conscious thought relegates Aerys as among one of the greatest fiends in Westeros’s history. In the end, while he may (and probably was) at the mercy of irrationality when it came to imagining slights and plots against him, he acted on those thoughts with full cognizance of his actions.
There remains one other question, and it is one that should give many pause. Was Aerys II correct in believing that there were threats to his crown or his body? Did Rhaegar Targaryen mean to oust his royal father, using the Tournament of Harrenhal as cover to build his coalition? Did the Southron Ambitions bloc mean to check the monarchy, or even do away with it altogether? And if they were, was Aerys justified, even slightly, in stopping this threat? Certainly, if Robert Baratheon and Eddard Stark have the right to self-defense, Aerys Targaryen cannot justly be deprived of the same right. Can he be vindicated, if not fully in action, at least in acting at all?
Yet if Aerys had the right to defend himself, if he suspected the Starks of attempting to build a coalition that would impede the operating capacity of the government or the power of the Throne, he did not have the ability to supercede the obligations of his office, and without proof of ill intent, Aerys could not have responsibly ordered the execution of Rickard for a crime he didn’t commit. By cloaking his actions as punishment for treason, Aerys wielded the death penalty with the care of a toddler in a tantrum, and made the statement clear that this was how royal power was defined. Justice was simply a matter of royal opinion, rendering every person in Westeros under the sword of Damocles, regardless of past service, loyalty, or most disturbing of all, actual innocence. By refusing to obey the checks on his power, Aerys stated that royal power was unlimited, that the oaths sworn by the crown were worthless as Aerys was under no obligation to fulfill them. This is textbook tyranny, and Aerys cannot be spared either by madness or self-defense.
In the end, Aerys’s megalomaniacal desire to be the true and only leader of Westeros, to be the only recipient for glory, to be the only one who mattered, cost him every ally he had ever gained. His misuse of the offices of government engendered none to trust him as king, and enabled the growth and development of powerful factions belonging to rival power players in the court, especially his son, Rhaegar. Aerys’s paranoid nature made enemies out of his vassals, but his arbitrary and capricious rule made him nothing short of a grave threat to the very government he was ostensibly in charge of. Aerys projected no consistency in government, which in turn, caused his vassals to doubt his leadership and the institution that they were members of. His desire to be alone in glory left him alone in infamy in the end, and when his Kingsguard turned against him, finally finished with the crimes he committed using his crown, the Targaryen dynasty came to a final close.