History of Thrones: Rhaenyra Targaryen, the First Woman to Claim the Iron Throne - Nerdist
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History of Thrones: Rhaenyra Targaryen, the First Woman to Claim the Iron Throne

When we began our History of Thrones series examining important events and people from the complex and controversial past of Westeros, we were searching for clues about what might happen on Game of Thrones. What we didn’t know at the time was that HBO would one day bring some of those stories to the screen, too. House of the Dragon takes place long before Daenerys brought dragons back to the Realm. But before she tried to reclaim her family’s Iron Throne, another Targaryen woman fought to sit upon it, Rhaenyra Targaryen. If you want to learn all about Princess Rhaenyra and why we believed her story was a harbinger of things to come on Game of Thrones, here’s everything you need to know about her life and brief reign. Just be warned, this tragic tale is full of spoilers for Rhaenyra Targaryen’s journey and House of the Dragon.

You can find all other History of Thrones entries here.

Young Princess Rhaenyra from House of the Dragon in the throne room on House of the Dragon
HBO

Jump to: The First Woman to Claim the Iron Throne // King Viserys’ Son // Rhaenyra Targaryen’s Romances // Targaryen Civil War // Rhaenyra Targaryen on the Iron Throne // The Death of Rhaenyra Targaryen

Rhaenyra Targaryen, the First Woman to Claim the Iron Throne

Game of Thrones’ sixth season ends with Cersei Lannister as queen of Westeros, 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 claim the Iron Throne before her.

Because while Cersei became the first official female queen of the Seven Kingdoms, she was not the first woman to sit in Aegon the Conqueror’s royal chair as Westeros’ ruler. That title belongs to the Half-Year Queen, Rhaenyra Targaryen. Rhaenyra Targaryen briefly held King’s Landing during the infamous Targaryen Civil War known as the Dance of the Dragons. The story of this war and of Rhaenyra Targaryen will now be explored in the Game of Thrones prequel, House of the Dragon.

History of Thrones: Rhaenyra Targaryen, the First Woman to Sit on the Iron Throne_1
HBO

King Viserys Targaryen Names Rhaenyra His Heir

The war of succession between Rhaenyra Targaryen and her half-brother Aegon II got its name both from its combatants and the dragons who fought each other over the skies of the Seven Kingdoms. But the story begins long before, back during the time of Rhaenyra’s childhood.

Rhaenyra Targaryen, 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 during birth. The early episodes of House of the Dragon chronicle this part of Rhaenyra Targaryen’s life.

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. The King made the Lords of Westeros swear fealty to his eight-year-old daughter as the lawful successor to the crown. Rhaenyra Targaryen was named the Princess of Dragonstone, and thereafter was always by her father’s side, becoming known as the Realm’s Delight. Rhaenyra was beautiful, with classic, old Valyrian looks. But while a popular figure (early in life), she was also a proud woman with a temper.

History of Thrones: Rhaenyra Targaryen, the First Woman to Sit on the Iron Throne_2
HBO

King Viserys’ Son and the Birth of Civil War

Viserys thought the matter of succession was established for good in 105 AC. He had reason to believe it was. He ascended to the Iron Throne without issue after the Great Council of 101 AC named him King Jaehaerys’ heir. But a year after naming Rhaenyra as his, he remarried. He wedded Alicent Hightower, daughter of his Hand Ser Otto Hightower. Their union is what set the future civil war set in motion, even if the king didn’t realize 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 two surviving boys, it was thought he would name his eldest son the rightful heir. But Viserys refused to change his mind. He said he had already named Rhaenyra his successor and that the lords of the Realm had sworn to honor his wish and will. Not everyone wanted those vows kept, though. And some questioned Rhaenyra Targaryen as heir to the Iron Throne.

Ser Otto Hightower Loses His Position for Questioning Rhaenyra’s Claim

Rhys Ifans as Otto Hightower in House of the Dragon
Ollie Upton/HBO

Viserys’ Hand and father of the Queen, Otto Hightower, pushed the issue of succession after his grandson’s birth so often that Viserys dismissed him from both his position and King’s Landing. The formerly warm relationship between Queen Alicent and Princess Rhaenyra also grew cold. From their enmity, two factions grew at court. The “Blacks” supported Rhaenyra. The “Greens” backed the Queen. (The names were references to dresses each woman wore at a large tournament).

During this time, the two most important men in Rhaenyra’s life were her uncle Daemon and Ser Criston Cole. She was very fond of both of them and them of her. Her history with both was, for lack of a better word, complicated. But what we know of her relationship with each help explain future events. House of the Dragon also delves into Rhaenyra Targaryen’s complex relationships with both these men.

The Men Who Loved Princess Rhaenyra Targaryen

Fabien Frankel as Ser Criston Cole in House of the Dragon
Gary Moyes/HBO
Ser Criston Cole

Criston Cole named young Rhaenyra the queen of love and beauty at a grand tourney. Soon after he became her personal sworn shield as a member of the Kingsguard. She had asked her father to give him the position. But Viserys was clearly impressed with Ser Criston, too. The King eventually promoted Cole to Lord Commander of the Kingsguard. House of the Dragon delves into Criston Cole and Rhaenyra Targaryen’s romance and even resolves a mystery about their relationship from the Game of Thrones book, Fire & Blood.

Daemon Targaryen

The story of the princess and her valiant knight did not end as a fairy tale, though. A sordid and controversial story began to spread that Rhaenyra lost her virginity to her uncle Daemon at age 16. No one knows if that is true. But Targaryens had long married within the family to keep their bloodlines pure. And King Viserys did exile his brother shortly after. In House of the Dragon, the answer seems to be that Rhaenyra and Daemon Targaryen did not sleep together when she was young. But perhaps we do not know the full story yet.

daemon targaryen sits on iron throne in house of the dragon
HBO
Doomed Romance

Meanwhile, the histories tell another story about Rhaenyra and the other man who loved her. As mentioned, one tale tells that the day came when Criston Cole professed his love to Rhaenyra and asked her to run away with him to Essos. But instead, she questioned his loyalties since he wanted to break his sworn Kingsguard vow. But another version of the story says that it was she who professed her love to him, only for him to turn her down. Whatever really happened between the princess and her sworn shield, has remained a mystery until now. But whatever it was, he suddenly became a bitter enemy of hers. Once again, if House of the Dragon is to be believed, it was actually Cole who confessed to Rhaenyra, but instead of questioning him, she wanted him to remain her lover and guard. In any case, Ser Criston Cole then became supporter of Queen Alicent and the Greens.

Game of Thrones‘ prequel series professes to deliver a true account of the events of the time. What we know so far comes from meta “histories,” where the truth of events became distorted with time. It seems that House of the Dragon reveals to us the truths of the relationships between Rhaenyra Targaryen, Daemon Targaryen, and Criston Cole. And, indeed, we have seen depictions of many of moments between the trio.

The Controversial Marriages of Rhaenyra Targaryen

Emma D’Arcy as Princess Rhaenyra Targaryen in House of the Dragon
Ollie Upton/HBO

Eventually, Rhaenyra entered into a politically motivated marriage with Ser Laenor Velaryon. Her father arranged the union and threatened to name his son Aegon heir instead when she protested the arrangement. Her desire to be queen was greater than her lack of desire for a husband. But it seems perhaps the match was not a great one for either of the pair. The Princess said Laenor would be more interested in romancing her half-brothers. The couple did officially have three sons together, but the overwhelming evidence indicated Laenor was not their father. The inescapable and obvious question of paternity in the matter of Rhaenyra Targaryen’s children would become a major moment on the path to civil war. Rumors of the boy’s true father would also lead to bitter disputes with their cousins that led to violence over the years.

Daemon and Rhaenyra getting married on House of the Dragon
Ollie Upton/HBO

A few years later, Ser Laenor died during a fight with a dear friend. Some believe it was a lovers quarrel born of jealousy. But others whispered that Daemon arranged to have Laenor murdered. That was never proven. What happened next, though, did nothing to quell the murmur of conspiracy. Rhaenyra quickly remarried, this time to her uncle Daemon. Their controversial union angered her father. Still, the king did not announce a different heir. And that’s where things stood when Viserys died in 129 AC, and all dragon hell broke loose.

On House of the Dragon, we see the marriage between Rhaenyra and Daemon take place. In House of the Dragon‘s version of Rhaenyra, Daemon, and Laenor’s story things go a bit differently. The three come to some kind of arrangement and stage Laenor’s death so he can escape with his lover somewhere far away, and Rhaenyra and Daemon can wed.

The Death of King Viserys Leads to All-Out Targaryen Civil War

Paddy Considine as King Viserys Targaryen in House of the Dragon
Ollie Upton/HBO

Rhaenyra was in Dragonstone, away from court, when her father, Viserys Targaryen, died, an event that has finally happened on House of the Dragon. Meanwhile, Queen Alicent was in King’s Landing. On House of the Dragon, Alicent is at Viserys side when he dies, and hears him speak of the prophecy, “A Song of Ice and Fire.” She does not realize Viserys believes himself to be speaking to Rhaenyra. These are events that the books do not recount.

In the books, after Alicent learned of her husband’s death, she kept it hidden for a week. In the meantime, she called together the small council to determine succession. The council was almost entirely made up of Greens, save for Lord Lyman Beesbury. He argued that Rhaenyra was the rightful heir. For that, the Lord Commander of the Kingsguard, Ser Criston Cole, slit his throat, ending the debate. It’s why Cole is forever known as the Kingmaker. In House of the Dragon, we see these events take place according to what is set out in the books. Although Alicent seems much more empathetic to Rhaenyra and what she might go through and does not wish to kill her, while Otto Hightower is much more set on blood.

Spoiler Alert

In the Game of Thrones books, Aegon II reluctantly accepted the title of King only after he was convinced his half-sister would execute him when she became Queen. Rhaenyra was predictably furious when she finally heard everything that had happened. In response, she had herself crowned on Dragonstone. In House of the Dragon, however, Rhaenyra Targaryen has a much more measured initial response to the news of what has transpired with the crown. Although she crowns herself Queen, she initially agrees to consider the terms sent by Queen Alicent and Otto Hightower. Though Rhaenyra does not think to give up her claim, she notes she does not wish to rule over a kingdom of ash and bone.

The Realm Chooses Sides in the Dance of the Dragons

Rhaenyra Targaryen Crowned as Queen (1)
HBO

Despite swearing a vow to King Viserys, many lords of the realm took up Aegon’s claim, for a myriad of reasons. Chief among them was that Rhaenyra Targaryen was a woman. Some also believed her children, next in line to the Iron Throne, were bastards. And some thought crowning her would ultimately make her despised uncle-husband King. However, she had many supporters who planned to keep their vow to her. Plus, she had one major advantage over her brother—Rhaenyra’s side had more dragons than Aegon and the Greens.

Rhaenyra Targaryen and her family on House of the Dragon (1)
HBO

Any small hope for a peaceful resolution went out the window quickly. The two sides quickly went to work rallying support which led to a deathly encounter. King Aegon’s brother Aemond, riding on his giant dragon Vhagar, killed Rhaenyra’s son Luce atop of his much smaller dragon, Arrax. When Luce died over Shipbreaker’s Bay off of Storm’s End, peace was no longer an option. In House of the Dragon, Lucerys’ death at Aemond and Vhagar’s hands appears to be more accidental than in the books. However, when news reaches Rhaenyra Targaryen at the end of season one of House of the Dragon, it still strikes the match of full-on war.

Rhaennrya stands at the foto of the Iron Throne where Alicent Hightower stands on House of the Dragon
HBO

To tell the tale of the entire Dance of the Dragons would take five more parts. (NOTE: There’s a reason HBO chose this as its first Game of Thrones spinoff. It features some epic fights, horrible tragedies, and shocking moments we haven’t even touched on). But Westeros will never forget when the skies filled with the flames and shadows of dragons battling one another. And the Realm will never forget how it ended.

Fire & Blood Comes to House Targaryen

A dragon leers on House of the Dragon
HBO

King Aegon II was badly injured early in the war. He and his dragon spent most of the Dance missing out of sight. Some even thought Aegon was dead for most of it. However, in the end, he emerged victorious. But only for a very brief time.

Rhaenyra Targaryen could, and probably even should, have won this civil war. She had enough of the realm’s support along with her superior number of dragons. But she lost too many of each of these aspects because of her own anger, paranoia, and mistakes. (She even lost the bastard Targaryens who became Dragonriders during the way. They betrayed her like so many others.). Despite all of that, though, she did sit upon the Iron Throne for a fleeting time.

Rhaenyra Targaryen Takes the Iron Throne, but Only For a Moment

While the Green forces were away from King’s Landing, they foolishly left the capital sparsely protected. That allowed Rhaenyra and Daemon to easily take the city, where she sat on the Iron Throne for half-a-year. An infamous story says when Rhaenyra Targaryen 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?)

Emma D'Arcy and Matt Smith look at each other in the Game of Thrones prequel House of the Dragon
HBO Max

Rhaenyra Targaryen’s brief rule, which her brother Aegon later declared unofficial, initially caused a celebration in the city. But the Queen soon grew unpopular. She raised taxes, began executing green loyalists, and earned the crude moniker of “King Maegor with Teats.” That was a hard reference to the brutal and hated third Targaryen king.

Rhaenyra Targaryen’s Death—How Did the Queen Die?

Rhaenyra’s time on the Iron Throne enraged citizens so much they came to think of dragons as evil. So one legendary night, they stormed the Dragonpit in a frenzy and killed the four dragons inside. (Many died during the attack.) They also killed Rhaenyra’s own dragon Syrax, shortly thereafter. Having already lost her first three sons to the war, Rhaenyra fled back to Dragonstone for safety. But there she was betrayed and brought before her injured and delirious brother King Aegon II.

aegon-ii
HBO

So how did Rhaenyra Targaryen die? Well, Aegon had his dragon Sunfyre burn Rhaenyra alive before he ate her. (Sunfyre was one of only two dragons left from many who fought in the war). He also made Rhaenyra’s young son, also named Aegon, watch his mother die. The King refused calls to execute his nephew, though. Instead, he kept him prisoner as his enemies continued the war in the name of Rhaenyra’s son and own heir. And the younger Aegon would ultimately achieve what his mother couldn’t.

King Aegon Is Dead, Long Live King Aegon

Milly Alcott as Princess Rhaenyra Targaryen in House of the Dragon.
HBO

Someone close to King Aegon II—who proved himself as unworthy of the Iron Throne as many had feared—murdered the unpopular monarch not long after Rhaenyra Targaryen’s death. And his demise raised the same issue that started the Dance of the Dragons decades earlier. Aegon II died without an obvious heir.

In a poetic end to the deadly war, Rhaenyra’s son with Daemon became King Aegon III. He was also wed to his cousin, Aegon II’s daughter Jaehaera. Their marriage reunited both sides of House Targaryen. But the new King was a sad man who never recovered from seeing his mother’s horrible death. He was known by many names, such as Aegon the Unlucky, Aegon the Unhappy, and the Broken King.

History of Thrones: Rhaenyra Targaryen, the First Woman to Sit on the Iron Throne_3
HBO

But his lasting moniker is Aegon the Dragonsbane. Because during his rule, the last dragons died (until Daenerys’ time, almost 150 years later). Some suspected him of conspiring to eliminate the creatures due to his personal hatred. But other theories say the maesters of the Citadel, who hated magic and the death caused by dragons, secretly plotted to kill them off.

When Aegon III died, his brother, Viserys—once thought lost forever—ended up sitting on the Iron Throne himself. For everything denied her, Rhaenyra Targaryen ended up being the mother of two kings.

The Dance of the Dragons’ Legacy and House of the Dragons

Milly Alcock as Young Rhaenyra, Emily Carey as Young Alicent in House of the Dragon
Ollie Upton/HBO

The Dance of the Dragons was the swan song of the dragons. And House Targaryen was never as powerful without them as they were before.

As for Rhaenyra Targaryen, she grew up believing she would rule Westeros. But when the time came, her enemies and family stole the crown from her. She answered with fire and blood and was destroyed by them. So while Rhaenyra may have been the first woman to claim the Iron Throne, she never ruled the Seven Kingdoms. The Half-Year Queen’s tale is the ultimate reminder that all rulers—whether Jon Snow, Daenerys Targaryen, or Cersei Lannister—need more than many dragons to rule. They need the support of the people. And the people never truly wanted a woman to rule.

What none of those who opposed Rhaenyra Targaryen knew, including us until House of the Dragon, though, was that Rhaenyra was fighting for something bigger than herself. She knew about Aegon’s dream of Ice and Fire. Her father gave the responsibility of the world to her. For that, she’s a far more sympathetic figure than the histories have ever told of the woman who lost the Dance of the Dragons. But it also means her many mistakes are more unforgivable, too.

Originally published July 1, 2017.

Mikey Walsh is a staff writer at Nerdist. You can follow him on Twitter at  @burgermike. And also anywhere someone is ranking the Targaryen kings.

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