History of Thrones: Aerys II, The Mad King of Westeros

Over the last few years, we’ve explored the rich, complicated, and controversial history of George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire in our series History of Thrones. It began as a way to help us predict what might happen next on Game of Thrones. Sometimes we were right, sometimes we were wrong, but looking through the fascinating past of Westeros was always interesting. With the final season nearly at its end, we’re going to continue by looking at what we know about characters and events that are new to the show. However, be warned, what is dead may never die, but may contain spoilers.

You can find all other History of Thrones entries here.


“Burn them all.”

Aerys II, the Mad King and last (for now) Targaryen to sit on the Iron Throne, spent the final hours of his life repeating those three words over and over, until Jaime Lannister put a sword through his back. His death marked the end of his family’s dynasty and the beginning of Robert Baratheon’s reign.

But Aerys wasn’t always a crazed ruler calling for the burning of King’s Landing and everyone in it; he was once a well-liked young man and a beloved monarch. So what happened to make him a paranoid tyrant worthy of being assassinated by his own sworn guard?

The son of Prince Jaehaerys, Aerys’ grandfather was King Aegon V (known as Aegon the Unlikely, Maester Aemon’s younger brother who is also the “Egg” in the Dunk and Egg prequel novellas by George R.R. Martin). When King Aegon V died at the Tragedy of Summerhall (which just so happened to be where Aerys son, Prince Rhaegar was born) his father became king, making Aerys next in line for the Throne.

Long before becoming king, Jaehaerys had his son Aerys and his daughter Rhaella married (a traditional Targaryen sibling marriage) after hearing a prophecy that the promised prince would be born of their line, though neither of them were particularly happy with the arrangement nor fond of the other.

As a young man, Aerys was considered charming and generous, though prone to flattery and quick to temper—the latter a sign of things to come. Aerys fought at the Stepstones during the War of the Ninepenny Kings, and his two best friends were Tywin Lannister and his cousin Steffon Baratheon (Robert, Stannis, and Renly’s father). He may not have been the smartest or hardest working young prince ever, but he was knighted at age 16, and there was no reason to expect what he would one day become.

After only three years of rule, King Jaehaerys died of an illness, and Aerys became the 17th Targaryen to sit on the Iron Throne. He named his good friend Tywin Lannister Hand of the King, and for the first 12 years of his reign the Seven Kingdoms knew peace and prosperity, mostly because of Tywin’s effectiveness as Hand. It was whispered that Tywin, not Aerys, was the true ruler of Westeros. These talks did not sit well with a king who was fond of compliments and had the ambition to be the greatest Targaryen king, but not the drive to make it happen. (When Ser Ilyn Payne, the bald mute that executed Ned Stark, was heard saying Tywin was the real leader of the realm, Aerys had his tongue pulled out.)

Aerys and Tywin’s relationship had already been strained (we’re definitely coming back to that), but now the King started to undermine and insult his Hand, who increasingly became slighted and mocked at court. That said, he still continued on in his duties. The stern and cold Tywin was effective but unloved, where Aerys was a lousy leader but gregarious, so in spite of their abilities to rule it was easy for Aerys to manipulate sentiment over who deserved praise.

Credit being given to Tywin was only part of Aerys’ growing paranoia, though. His sister-wife, Queen Rhaella, experienced many miscarriages and stillbirths, and the two lost many children shortly after they were born, which made Aerys start to fear that all of these sad events were the work of someone or something more sinister. Eventually he had two septas sleep with his wife to assure she would remain faithful to him (even though he was unfaithful to her for most of their marriage).

Tywin actually tried to resign as Hand after Aerys insulted his wife Joanna in 272 A.C., but Aerys denied it. Tywin even stayed on after his wife died giving birth to Tyrion less than a year later (remember this) and Tywin learned that Aerys had said the gods had taught Lord Tywin some humility by giving him a dwarf (seriously, we are coming back the Joanna/Tywin/Aerys stuff later).

Things would continue on that way for a few years, until the event that forever seemed to have pushed Aerys II to complete madness: the Defiance of Duskendale.

Lord Denys Darklyn of Duskendale, upset over not being granted a charter he wanted, invited the King to his home to discuss the matter personally. Ignoring Tywin’s advice not to go and eager to show his effectiveness as a leader, Aerys went and fell right into Lord Denys’ trap. For six months Aerys was held hostage, and Tywin was warned that any attempt to rescue him would result in his execution.

Finally, with reports Tywin was ready to siege the castle and happily see Rhaegar ascend to the throne if Aerys died, Barristan Selmy sneaked into Duskendale and rescued the king. The Darklyns were all burned alive, a form of execution Aerys would use countless times in the coming years.

After his kidnapping, Aerys stayed exclusively in the Red Keep for four years, believing there were plots against him everywhere. He even grew suspicious of his son and heir, Rhaegar, who he believed was conspiring with Tywin to place him on the Iron Throne. He thought the two had meant to let him die in Duskendale, and he would always be suspicious of his son from then on.

When Aerys named Tywin’s son, Jaime, as the youngest ever member of the Kingsguard, it wasn’t really an honor, but a slight to deprive Tywin of his heir to Casterly Rock and to assure Tywin’s loyalty. Tywin thanked the King for the honor, but asked to be let free of his duties as Hand so he could return home due to (a fake) illness. This time Aerys accepted, most likely because he had a pseudo-hostage in Jaime.

During all this time Aerys’ fascination with fire, and specifically wildfire, grew into an obsession that would help lead to his death at Jaime’s hand.

After four years he did finally leave the Red Keep to attend the infamous Tourney at Harrenhall, where Rhaegar named Lyanna Stark, and not his own wife Elia Martell, the queen of love and beauty, setting into motion the war that would become known as Robert’s Rebellion.

(Following Lyanna’s “kidnapping” by Rhaegar, Ned’s older brother Brandon went to King’s Landing demanding to face Rhaegar. He and his companions were arrested for treason, and their fathers called to court. Lord Rickard Stark demanded a trial by combat, and Aerys chose fire as his champion. Lord Rickard was burned to death, while Brandon died from a torture device that strangled him as he futilely tried to rescue his father. After, Aerys called on Jon Arryn to send him the heads of his wards Ned Stark and Robert Baratheon. Instead they went to war.)

If Aerys meant his presence at the tourney to be a sign of strength to the lords of the realm it blew up in his face, for during those four years his paranoia had made it so no one was allowed to have any blades near him, which meant his hair and beard were long and unkempt, and his fingernails had grown nine inches (sadly, the show did not give him his crazy look in Bran’s flashbacks). Aerys was also very thin because he barely ate from fear of poison, and he had violent, wide-ranging mood swings. Besides his Mad King moniker he is sometimes called the Scab King, because of all of the cuts he received from the Iron Throne, which didn’t help his appearance either.

After his son Rhaegar was killed by Robert, a desperate Aerys sent away his pregnant wife (Daenerys would be born soon after) and his other son Viserys, but was relieved when his old friend Tywin Lannister, who had remained neutral during the war, showed up to King’s Landing with his forces swearing allegiance to Aerys and the crown. Against the counsel of Varys (and on the advice of Maester Pycelle), Aerys opened the gates, only to watch as the Lannisters overran the city in Robert’s name.

In his final moments he told Jaime, who he had kept by his side throughout the war to ensure Tywin’s loyalty, to bring him the head of his father, while he ordered his final Hand of the King, the Pyromancer Rossart, to burn down the city and kill it’s half-million residents with the stores of wildfire he had buried throughout King’s Landing. (Aerys believed the fire would turn him into a dragon anyway.)

“Burn them all.”

Rather than let that order be carried out, Jamie killed Rossart, and then he ended the Targaryen dynasty by putting a sword through the Mad King.

We’ve already covered the possibility that the voices Aerys claims to have heard might not have been so imaginary, but there is another theory about his life and relationship with Tywin that might also have huge ramifications, because for years there were whispers that the discord between Aerys and Tywin had to do with Aerys’ fondness for Tywin’s wife, Joanna.

There were rumors that Aerys had a crush on her from a young age, and even that he bedded Joanna the night his father took the Iron Throne. A few years later, when Tywin and Joanna were married, Aerys joked about how unfortunate it was that the old rule allowing a lord to sleep with any woman on their wedding night was no longer in play. It was also said that he then acted inappropriately during the bedding ceremony.

Shortly after Tywin and Joanna’s wedding, Queen Rhaella dismissed Joanna, who had been one of the Queen’s ladies, from court. Joanna returned there years later for a ceremony honoring Tywin’s 10th year as Hand. This was in 272 A.C., and once again the Mad King insulted her and Tywin by asking if her nursing her twin children had ruined her breasts. (This is when Tywin tried to resign the first time but was denied.)

Less than a year later, in 273 A.C. Joanna died giving birth to Tyrion.

If it feels suspicious that Tyrion was born shortly after Aerys and Joanna saw each other for the last time it should, because there’s quite a bit of circumstantial evidence Tyrion might not really be Tywin’s son beyond just the lusting of the Mad King over Joanna.

Tywin once said to Tyrion, “Men’s laws give you the right to bear my name and display my colors, since I cannot prove that you are not mine.” Then, as he was dying from Tyrion’s bow, Tywin’s last words to him were, “You…you are no…no son of mine.”

On their own, those could just be the word’s of a hateful father, but also remember that Joanna died giving birth to Tyrion, just like Rhaella died giving birth to Daenerys, and just like—we think—Lyanna died giving birth to her and Rhaegar’s son, Jon Snow.

(In the books Tyrion also has two mismatched eyes, one green and one black, just like a famous Targaryen bastard, and his hair, a blond and black mix, is said to look less like a Lannister’s and more like a Targaryen’s.)

Daenerys has said she needs two more heads for the dragon. Tyrion might be that third, hidden descendant of the Mad King. After a lifetime dreaming about them, we now know how good Tyrion is at dealing with dragons…

The memories of the Mad King have always been hanging over the events on Game of Thrones, but with them now showing him in Bran‘s flashbacks his role in the story feels more important than ever. Are we going to learn what made him mad and why it might determine the fate of mankind? Are his caches of wildfire still hidden throughout King’s Landing, still posing a threat to the capital and all its subjects? Is he not only the father of Daenerys, but of Tyrion too?

The Mad King was only 40 when he died, and it wasn’t soon enough, but that doesn’t mean his story ended with Jaime’s sword. In some ways it is only just beginning.

You can find all other History of Thrones entries here.

Featured Image: HBO

Top Stories
Trending Topics