History of Thrones: Rhaegar Targaryen’s Short Life and Lasting Legacy

In History of Thrones, we examine important historical events and people from the complex and controversial past of Westeros, ones that might tell us something about the story going forward on Game of Thrones. With the season now in full swing, we’re continuing our deep dives by looking at what we know about characters and events that might be important to the story. However, if hearing theories makes you want to play a sad song on your harp, avoid going further because you might think of them as spoilers.

You can find all other History of Thrones entries here.

Update: Since this history was first published last year two monumental facts about Rhaegar Targaryen have been revealed. The first came in the season six finale, when we learned that Jon Snow really is the son of Lyanna Stark and Rhaegar, and that a dying Lyanna made her brother Ned promise her at the Tower of Joy to keep Jon’s real identity a secret to protect him. But in season seven’s fifth episode “Eastwatch,” Game of Thrones told us something potentially even more important: Rhaegar and Lyanna married in secret, which means Jon Snow isn’t a bastard. And that gives Jon the best claim to the Iron Throne.

While Gilly was looking through the recordings of High Septon Maynard, she told Sam this Westeros-shattering information (even if she butchered Rhaegar’s name):

““Maynard says here that he issued an annulment for a Prince Rhaegar and remarried him to someone else at the same time in a secret ceremony in Dorne.”

Rhaegar was married to Elia Martell, but this means at some point before he headed out to face Robert Baratheon, who was leading the rebellion against his family (Robert was betrothed to Lyanna, and her “abduction” by Rhaegar was what led to the uprising), Rhaegar had the highest ranking official in the Faith of the Seven formally set his marriage to Elia aside. The Seven do not allow polygamy, and since Rhaegar immediately remarried that annulment was obviously needed for his new marriage.

That means Rhaegar married Lyanna. We know because The Tower of Joy, where Lyanna died giving birth to Jon, is located in the northern edge of Dorne’s Red Mountains, and also because Rhaegar had his three best Kingsguard watch over her there, not himself, not his father, and not Elia and their two kids.

Rhaegar had them protecting his now legal wife and their unborn child, who Rhaegar likely believed would be the Prince That Was Promised, a prophesied hero whose song would be ice (Stark) and fire (Targaryen).

That means Jon isn’t a Snow, he is a full, legal Targaryen, and he has the greatest claim to the Iron Throne, far greater than his aunt Daenerys, Rhaegar’s sister.

We knew Rhaegar’s life was short, but until now we didn’t realize just how long–and important–his legacy really is.


Rhaegar Targaryen was killed by Robert Baratheon in single combat during the Battle of the Trident at the ruby ford, so named for the jewels from Rhaegar’s armor that filled the river after he was struck by Robert’s warhammer.

While Rhaegar’s father— The Mad King Aerys II—still sat upon the Iron Throne a short while longer, Rhaegar’s death is a more apt mark for the end of the Targaryen dynasty in Westeros rather than when Jaime Lannister put his sword through Aerys II.

Yet, for a man that didn’t live to see his 25th birthday—and who died almost two decades before the start of the story—Rhaegar’s presence in A Song of Ice and Fire is ubiquitous, and his legacy might be far more important than anyone could have imagined as he lay dead in the waters of the Trident. So who was the Prince of Dragonstone, the beloved heir to the Iron Throne that never took his royal seat, and why are memories of him never far from the people that knew him best? More importantly, why might he still help save the Seven Kingdoms from the army of the dead?

Rhaegar was born during the Tragedy of Summerhall, a horrible event at the Targaryen pleasure palace that claimed many lives, including those of King Aegon V and his Lord Commander of the Kingsguard, famed knight Ser Duncan the Tall. While details of what happened are scant, it seems as though King Aegon V was trying to hatch dragon eggs with wildfire when a massive fire broke out.

Being “born in grief” may have contributed to Rhaegar’s quiet, often sad demeanor, and he would visit the ruins of Summerhall with his harp—he was a very skilled musician—before returning, singing beautiful songs that would make women weep.

As a child he read so much the members of the royal court would make jokes about him, but then one day, after coming across something in his readings (though no one knows what it was), he suddenly told the master-at-arms, “I will require a sword and armor. It seems I must be a warrior.” And he became an excellent warrior.

(Some think he read about the prophecy of “the prince that was promised,” and, believing it might be him, decided he must learn how to fight. Though he later thought his own son Aegon would fulfill the prophecy, so if that was the case initially he changed his mind later. It’s also worth noting he was also a believer in prophecy and seemed to act on making them come true.)

Tall, handsome, skilled at anything he did—even if he didn’t really care for it—Rhaegar was loved by both the common folk and those closest to him. He was knighted at age 17, and though not a frequent participant in tournaments, when he did enter them, he did very well.

He was married to princess Elia Martell of Dorne. They had two children together, a daughter Rhaenys and their son.

As The Mad King became more and more paranoid, he even grew suspect of his Rhaegar, and feared his son was plotting against him to rule Westeros, a hope of those loyal to Rhaegar and a worry shared by those closest to Aerys II. (There is some evidence that had Rhaegar triumphed in Robert’s Rebellion that he would have tried to have his unstable father removed from the Iron Throne, but not that he ever planned to kill or harm him in any way.)

Despite his nobility and the regard he was held in by most, it was Rhaegar’s own dishonorable actions starting at the famous (or even better infamous) Tourney at Harrenhall in 280 (or 281) A.C. that led to both his death and the end of the Targaryen dynasty in 283 A.C.

Rhaegar won the jousting contest, beating an impressive lineup of competitors, and then proceeded to do something truly shocking. He did not name his own wife Elia as the queen of love and beauty, but instead he bestowed that title—and a crown of blue roses—on Lyanna Stark, then betrothed to Robert Baratheon. Ned Stark would describe it as the day “when all the smiles died.”

There are many theories on why Rhaegar did this, but we’ll save that for another day. What really sent the realm into civil war was when, a year later, Rhaegar “abducted” Lyanna Stark. That would result in Aerys II killing Ned’s father and older brother, Jon Arryn of the Vale refusing to turn over Ned and Robert to the Iron Throne, which then triggered the rebellion, which would cost Rhaegar his life that day at the ruby ford.

It’s said that when Rhaegar died it was Lyanna’s name he spoke.

Even after his death, Rhaegar cared and protected Lyanna, because he’d sent the three best members of the Kingsguard—including his best friend and one of the greatest knights the Seven Kingdoms has ever known, Ser Arthur Dayne the Sword of the Morning—to protect her at the Tower of Joy. And make no mistake, this was no small sacrifice: to protect Lyanna with such an impressive trio meant taking away sworn, loyal, and skilled guards from beside him in the war, away from his father, and away from his actual wife and two children. All of them suffered violent deaths that may have been avoided with those three guards not off protecting Lyanna.

So why would a great man, loved and respected, dishonor his wife and family to take up with a Northern woman? And why would he then protect her at the cost of everyone else?

The answer is simple: love. Beautiful Lyanna Stark, known as The She Wolf for her courage and temper, wasn’t abducted; she willingly went off with the gorgeous, skilled crown prince. And then she got pregnant.

Or at least that’s what the most important theory in Game of Thrones history says.

It’s believed Rhaegar sent those three Kingsguard members to protect the woman he loved and their unborn child, who really would fulfill the prophecy of the prince that was promised, because he would be born of ice (Stark) and fire (Targaryen).

As she was dying Lyanna Stark said to her brother, “Promise me, Ned.” Ned Stark never revealed what that promise was, but Lyanna would have known the danger any son of Rhaegar Targaryen would live under—if the child was allowed to live at all—so it’s thought she asked her brother to protect her boy.

A boy the world would come to know as Jon Snow.

There are those that think Rhaegar truly was the prince that was promised, and that the day Robert struck him down he cursed the realm to eternal darkness, but it just might be that Ned Stark’s bastard is really the son of The Last Dragon, and his is a song of ice and fire.

Rhaegar’s life, full of so much promise and hope, was short, and his love for Lyanna Stark resulted in his death and the deaths of thousands of others, but the child he left behind might not just extend his bloodline, his son might just save everyone.

What do you think? Was Rhaegar a kidnapper and dishonorable? Or a man who fell in love with a woman? Tell us your thoughts in the comments below.

You can find all other History of Thrones entries here.

Images: HBO

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