RHAENYRA TARGARYEN, THE FIRST WOMAN TO SIT ON THE IRON THRONE
Season six ended with Cersei Lannister as queen of Westeros, a dream fulfilled—but only after innumerable tragedy and unspeakable acts of horror. She has the support of few friends, is beset by enemies on all sides, and if all that isn’t bad enough, she doesn’t have any dragons at her disposal, like the only other woman to sit on the Iron Throne before her. Because while Cersei is the first official female queen of the Seven Kingdoms, she is not the first woman to sit in Aegon the Conqueror’s royal chair. That title belongs to the Half-Year Queen, Rhaenyra Targaryen, who briefly held King’s Landing as its ruler, during the infamous Targaryen Civil War known as the Dance of the Dragons.
Before we get to the war of succession between Rhaenyra and her half-brother Aegon II—the war that got its name not only from its combatants but because it saw dragons fighting other dragons—we have to go back to her childhood.
Rhaenyra, born in 97 AC, was the only surviving child of King Viserys and his first wife, Aemma Arryn. Their first son died as an infant, and their second son passed away a day after Queen Aemma died giving birth to him.
Trying to ensure that his brother Daemon was not his heir, Viserys announced in 105 AC that Rhaenyra, already a dragonrider, would follow him on the throne, and made the Lords of Westeros swear fealty to his eight-year-old daughter as the lawful successor to the crown. She was named the Princess of Dragonstone, and was always by her father’s side, becoming known as the Realm’s Delight. Rhaenyra was beautiful, with classic, old Valyrian looks, and while a popular figure (early in life), she was also a proud woman with a temper.
Viserys thought the matter of his succession was established for good in 105 AC (and it should be noted, he only came to the Iron Throne after a Great Council named him the new king when the previous king left no obvious heir, so succession was a matter very much on everyone’s mind), but a year later he took a second wife, Alicent Hightower, daughter of his Hand Otto Hightower, and the future civil war set in motion, even if the king didn’t know it. Because a year after they wed King Viserys and Queen Alicent had a son (107 AC), Aegon, followed by a daughter and two other sons.
You can probably see where this is going.
Sons, no matter their date of birth, always came before daughters in the line of succession, and with the king now having living boys it was thought he would name his eldest son the rightful heir. Viserys refused to change his mind though, saying he had already named his successor and that the lords of the realm had sworn to honor his wish and will.
Viserys’ Hand and father of the Queen, Otto Hightower, pushed the issue so often Viserys dismissed him from both his position and King’s Landing. The formerly warm relationship between queen and the princess grew cold, and two factions grew at court, the “Blacks” for Rhaenyra, and the “Greens” for the Queen (references to dresses they wore at a large tournament).
Arguably the two most important men in Rhaenyra’s life were her father’s brother Daemon and Ser Criston Cole. She was very fond of both of them, and them of her. Her history with both is complicated, but there are some things that might help explain future events.
Criston Cole named seven-year-old Rhaenyra the queen of love and beauty at a tourney, and then became her personal sworn shield, a request she had made of her father (eventually Ser Criston would be named to the Kingsguard, and then promoted to Lord Commander). However, there was a sordid and controversial story that she lost her virginity to her uncle at age 16. It’s unknown if that is true, but King Viserys did exile his brother shortly after. During all of this another story is told, of Cole professing his love to her and asking her to run away with him, only for her to question his loyalties if he was capable of breaking his sworn Kingsguard vow. Whatever really happened between the princess and her sworn shield we will never know, but he suddenly became a bitter enemy of hers, and a supporter of Queen Alicent and the Greens.
Eventually she accepted/was forced into a marriage with Ser Laenor Velaryon, a man she said would have been more interested in the beds of her half-brothers, though she did have three sons with him (the overwhelming evidence is they were not his children, but another man’s).
After Ser Laenor died during a fight with a friend, Rhaenyra remarried, this time to her uncle Daemon—a union that was controversial and angered her father. Still, the king did not change his will or announce a different heir, and that’s where things stood when Viserys died in 129 AC and all dragon hell broke loose.
Rhaenyra was in Dragonstone at the time. Queen Alicent, after being told the news of her husband’s death, kept it hidden and called together the small council to determine succession. The council was almost entirely made up of Greens, save for Lord Lyman Beesbury, who argued Rhaenyra was the rightful heir. He had his throat slit by the Lord Commander of the Kingsguard–Ser Criston Cole, forever known as Criston the Kingmaker.
Aegon II reluctantly accepted the title of king, while Rhaenyra, furious upon hearing the news, had herself crowned on Dragonstone. Despite swearing to King Viserys to honor his wishes, many lords of the realm took up Aegon’s claim, for a myriad of reasons (Rhaenyra was a woman, she had children believed to be bastards that would be next in line to the throne, and it was possible crowning her would make her despised husband Daemon king). However, she had one major advantage, though: more dragons than Aegon and the Greens.
Any hopes for a peaceful resolution went out the window quickly, when King Aegon’s brother, Aemond—on his giant dragon Vhagar—killed Rhaenyra’s son Luce—riding his much smaller dragon Arrax—over Shipbreaker’s Bay off of Storm’s End.
To tell the tale of the entire Dance of the Dragons would take five more parts (but my goodness it is amazing, with some epic moments and horrible sadness), but it saw the skies of Westeros filled with the flames and shadows of dragons battling one another, King Aegon II injured so badly he died shortly after winning the war, and the deaths of most of the dragons and thousands of people—including those of many Targaryens from both sides.
At no point was Rhaenyra ever close to winning: She never had enough support of the realm and she lost too many dragons (only to find new bastard Targaryens to ride dragons that had never been seated before, just to see them betray her), but she still sat on the Iron Throne.
While the Green forces were away, they foolishly left King’s Landing sparsely protected, and Rhaenyra and Daemon easily took the city, where she sat on the Iron Throne for half-a-year. The famous story is that when she first got up from the chair she was bleeding from so many cuts. To some it meant the throne had rejected her for not being worthy. (Though in fairness, how many people could avoid being cut by a chair of swords the first time they tried to get comfortable in it?)
Her brief rule, which her brother Aegon would later declare to have been unofficial, was celebrated in the city at first, but soon grew unpopular. She raised taxes, began executing green loyalists, and earned the crude moniker of “King Maegor with Teats,” in reference to the brutal and hated second Targaryen king.
Her time on the Iron Throne enraged citizens, believing dragons to be evil, so they stormed the Dragonpit and killed the four dragons there, as well as Rhaenyra’s own dragon Syrax shortly thereafter. Soon after, having lost her first three sons,Rhaenyra fled back to Dragonstone, where she was betrayed and brought back to King’s Landing to see her injured and delirious brother the king.
She was burned and eaten by the king’s own dragon Sunfyre (one of only two left remaining from the 12 dragons the Targaryens had at the start of the war). Her young son (also named Aegon to screw with us) watched as she was devoured.
Rhaenyra’s son would actually succeed his uncle though, when he was murdered soon after without an heir, making Rhaenyra the mother of King Aegon III, a sad man who never recovered from seeing his mother’s horrible death. He is known as Aegon the Dragonsbane, because during his rule the last dragons died (until Daenerys almost 150 years later). Some suspect him of conspiring to eliminate them due to his personal hatred of them, though other theories say it was a plot conceived by the maesters of the Citadel.
(His brother, Rhaenyra’s other son Viserys, once thought lost forever, returned, and ended up sitting on the Iron Throne himself, meaning Rhaenyra ended up being the mother of two kings.)
The Dance of the Dragons was really the swan song of the dragons, and House Targaryen was never as powerful without them as they were before. Rhaenyra had grown up believing she would rule Westeros, and when the time came it was stolen from her, and she answered with fire and blood, and was destroyed by them, too.
She may have been the first woman to sit on the Iron Throne, but she never ruled the Seven Kingdoms; even though the Half-Year Queen had lots of dragons, it didn’t matter without the support of the realm.
How long might a despised Queen Cersei last there herself, without dragons or friends, and with another silver-haired Targaryen queen on the back of her own dragon, sailing towards the Iron Throne that was once promised and denied to her ancestor?
Cersei might officially be the first Queen of Westeros, but she might not even be there longer than the first woman to sit on the Iron Throne.
What do you think? Was Rhaenyra the rightful heir, or did Aegon II deserve to follow his father? Tell us what you think below in the comments.