When it comes to the history of HBO‘s Game of Thrones and George R.R. Martin‘s A Song of Ice and Fire novel series, some fans are wise old maesters and others are know-nothing Jon Snow types. To prepare for season six, we’re looking at some of the most important moments in the long, complex, and often controversial history of Westeros, and what they might tell us about events yet to come. So whether you’re as versed in the past as Maester Luwin or as clueless as Gilly in a castle for the first time, we’re calling your banner to join us on this march to the new season. Either way, be warned: there are major, major spoilers for the series in this post.
You can find all other History of Thrones entries here.
War of the Ninepenny Kings
In the last History of Thrones on Brynden Rivers, we touched upon the first Blackfyre Rebellion, when the legitimized bastard of Aegon the Unworthy, his son Daemon Blackfyre, tried to overthrow his half brother Daeron the Good for the Iron Throne. As you know, you don’t use “first” unless more followed, and the Blackfyre Pretenders, as they came to be known in Westeros, hung around long enough to get the number up to five.
Here’s a quick recap of the first four:
First Blackfyre Rebellion (196 AC): Daemon Blackfyre was killed, and his fellow Great Bastard, Aegor “Bittersteel” Rivers fled with the remaining Blackfyre forces, along with Daemon’s surviving sons, across the Narrow Sea to Tyrosh.
Second Blackfyre Rebellion (211 AC): Hardly a rebellion; more like a quiet defeat of a meeting. At the tourney of Whitewall, Hand of the King Brynden Rivers (forever on the lookout for his fellow Great Bastard brother Bittersteel) arrested Daemon Blackfyre II, who had been smuggled into Westeros, at a meeting of Blackfyre loyalists eager to place him on the thrown. The rebellion ended before it began.
Third Blackfyre Rebellion (219 AC): The third time was not the charm for old Bittersteel. He crowned Daemon’s fourth son, Haegon I, as the new Blackfyre king, and they too eventually invaded Westeros. Bittersteel was arrested after being defeated by his brother Brynden Rivers, and Haegon was killed without honor after he gave up his sword and surrendered.
Fourth Blackfyre Rebellion (236 AC): After Bittersteel was rescued from the ship bringing him to The Wall in 219 AC, he crowned Haegon’s son, Daemon III, as the new Blackfyre king. In 236 AC, Daemon III led an invasion at Massey’s Hook in the crownlands, not far from King’s Landing, with his (very resilient) uncle Bittersteel and the Golden Company (more on them shortly) fighting with him. Unfortunately he did not have much else in the way of support, and legendary knight of the Kingsguard, Ser Duncan the Tall, killed the third Daemon, ending that rebellion. Once more, Bittersteel escaped.
Bittersteel finally died in 241 AC, but that was not the end of the Blackfyre Rebellions. Those wouldn’t end until 260 AC with the fifth and final one, known as the War of the Ninepenny Kings.
Before we get to that rebellion though, let’s take a look at the mercenary force started by Bittersteel himself, the Golden Company.
The renowned, expensive, 10-thousand-man sellsword group known as the Golden Company was founded by Bittersteel in 212 AC, in an effort to unite the other exiled men of Westeros, who had been on the losing side of the Blackfyre Rebellion and had started joining other mercenary fighting forces. They are still made up of many exiles and their sons to this day (important!). The disciplined and effective Golden Company’s fighting prowess is well-respected throughout Essos, but they are especially famous for never breaking a contract—a rare, almost nonexistent trait among mercenary groups. Their motto is, “Our word is good as gold.” They have also never forgotten where they came from either, as their battle cry is, “Beneath the gold, the bitter steel.”
In fact, they really remember where they came from, because they take Bittersteel’s gold-dipped skull with them everywhere they go. Before he died, Aegor Rivers requested his men boil his flesh, dip his skull in gold, and take it with them when they conquered Westeros one day. Every captain-general of the Golden Company has had the same thing done for them since then, and their skulls sit atop the standard poles of the company.
This is a group of men, without a home, that does not forge they are the product of a group of exiles that believed they were robbed of their rightful place in Westeros, a place they planned, and still plan, to return to one day.
The last Blackfyre Pretender, one of the nine leaders of the fifth rebellion, Maelys I, was also captain-general of the Golden Company, a position he achieved after killing his cousin Daemon (yes, the Blackfyre’s really could have used a big book of baby names).
Maelys was known as the Monstrous because he had a second head, that of his twin that died in the womb, sticking out of his neck. You can see that deformity in his gold-dipped skull.
In 258 AC it was learned in King’s Landing that nine prominent men of Essos, all seeking power, had come together to aid each other in their endeavors, including Maelys. They got their Ninepenny Kings name when Prince Duncan Targaryen said, “Crowns were being sold nine a penny.”
King Aegon V died in 259 at the Tragedy of Summerhall, and his son and heir Jaehaerys II, was forced to deal with the Ninepenny Kings, who had captured the Stepstones, a group of islands just east of Dorne in the Narrow Sea, to use as their base for an attack on Westeros.
King Jaehaerys II’s force (though he was not a part of it) landed in the Stepstones in 260 AC, and several people you know from A Song of Ice and Fire fought bravely in that war, including Brynden Tully (a.k.a. the Blackfish), Tywin Lannister, and the future king (though not yet mad) Aerys II.
However, the real standout was Barristan Selmy, who defeated Maelys in single combat, ending the Fifth Blackfyre Rebellion, and killing the last descendant of Daemon (the First) Blackfyre. This deed not only earned Selmy his nickname, The Bold, but eventually earned him a spot in the Kingsguard.
So for over 60 years, Aegon the Unworthy’s deathbed decision to legitimize his bastards plagued Westeros–and his own family. Fortunately for all of the Seven Kingdom those days of having a shadow threat just across the Narrow Sea ended with Maelys death.
Unless of course they aren’t.
War didn’t suit the Blackfyres well, not when they didn’t have the support of the great lords of Westeros on their side. That battle was fought once, and though Daemon Blackfyre was just a single turn of events away (on more than one occasion) from winning the Iron Throne, the Blackfyres never again saw the support needed to truly usurp their Targaryen brethren. The only real rebellion with a shot at succeeding was the first, because enough people wanted it to work.
In fact, it wasn’t until another Targaryen bloodline (the Baratheons are thought to be the old bastard line of the Targaryens) rose up against the Iron Throne with the support of enough of the Seven Kingdoms to be strong enough to overthrow Aegon the Conqueror’s dynasty.
Which brings us to season six, which just so happens to find another exiled Targaryen in need of support, at the same time Westeros is ready to rally around someone that can lead them.
(This is your last spoiler warning. We are going to get heavy into some events that have taken place in the books, but not on the show. Yes, some of those still exist.)
In A Feast for Crows we learn that the Golden Company, renowned for never breaking a contract, has broken a contract. Just who got them to do the unthinkable? Illyrio Mopatis, who you have not thought about in a very long time. Waaaaay back at the start of this whole thing, Daenerys was just the sister of Viserys, and she was being married off to a Dothraki horse lord in exchange for his army’s support for her brother’s claim to the Iron Throne. The man whose home they lived in at Pentos, who helped to arrange the marriage, was Illyrio Mopatis.
There’s a lot of details about where and what the Golden Company then did (or might do), but ultimately they have broken their contract with the city of Myr to join (bum-du-du–du-bum) the Mother of Dragons! The descendant of the Targaryen line the Blackfyres fought to dethrone for generations.
(This can get very confusing, and I expect there to be major changes from the books to the show, but the big picture is what is important here. Nonetheless, we still want to cover this.)
The major change that I think we will see is the omission of a character that is said to be the hidden, not-dead-son of Rhaegar Targaryen, the boy known as Aegon (another f****** Aegon, I know). Tyrion is brought to a ship containing a young man that turns out to be, or so it is claimed, the son of Rhaegar Targaryen, who was smuggled out of King’s Landing and replaced by another child, who was killed in his place. There is great debate among readers of A Song of Ice and Fire as to whether or not this is really Rhaegar’s son, or if this is a fake child. You can tell what I think since I expect the show to leave him out completely.
What is very important though is who apparently smuggled him out of there and helped keep him hidden all of these years, the same person that tried to warn the Mad King not to open the gates of King’s Landing to Tywin Lannister during Robert’s Rebellion: Varys.)
On the show Tyrion makes his trek locked in a caravan with Varys, but in the book its Illyrio who he is with. The two talk about the Golden Company and how Illyrio got them to break their contract. His answers are very revealing.
“Some contracts are writ in ink, and some in blood. I say no more.”
He does though.
“Black or red, a dragon is still a dragon.”
The Blackfyres and their loyalists might have fought their fellow Targaryens for generations, but now they find themselves in the same exiled boat. “A dragon is still a dragon,” and they share the same blood, and the same goal: the all want to go home.
“Daenerys will give the exiles what Bittersteel and the Blackfyres never could. She will take them home.”
The Blackfyres aren’t going to invade Westeros without support, and it will take someone of the right name and bloodline for the great houses of the Seven Kingdoms to rally around to get them that much needed support.
In the books they already headed their with (the potentialy fake) Aegon, but the big picture is important, which is the rebels across the Narrow Sea are ready to join Khaleesi in a unified march of Targaryens to take back Westeros.
And it’s all been made possible by a potentially secret Blackfyre this whole time. No, not Illyrio (though he might be one too, that or just a guy that sees future riches as a reward for his help), but his cohort since the start: The Spider, the Lord of Whispers, Varys.
Varys, who swears his allegiance is only to the realm, who served on the Small Council of King Robert, who begged Ned Stark to lie about Joffrey’s parentage and protect his own family from a war, the same man who warns against the plotting Baelish, has been working with Illyrio from the start of the books, and for the Targaryens from before the time of Robert’s Rebellion, to make sure a Targaryen again sits upon the Iron Throne, one way or another.
Whether it was Viserys, (the maybe fake) Aegon, or Daenerys, he has protected and shielded potential Targaryen children in an attempt to one day return one to the Iron Throne. He plotted against sitting kings (besides double-crossing Robert, don’t forget Arya heard what turned out to be Varys and Illyrio in the bowels of the Red Keeping talking about killing a Hand if needed), and, in the last chapter of A Dance With Dragons, he killed Kevan Lannister, who had restored some kind of peace and order to Westeros.
A peaceful kingdom is not ripe for a savior. Kevan Lannister was doing too good a job for Varys, who was counting on chaos to build support for Daenerys. Varys probably does want some level of peace, but only so the Targaryen/Blackfyre combined force does not have to shed much blood when they retake the Iron Throne.
Let the Lannisters and Baratheons and Starks and Greyjoys and Tyrells muck it all up, Westeros will then turn to the girl with the name, the bloodline, and the freaking dragons to fix things, and Bittersteel will finally return home to Westeros.
All we know of Varys is what he tells us, but he isn’t the Lord of Whispers for nothing. He’s brilliant, cunning, and effective. He wants peace for the realm, but on his terms, and for his family.
The Blackfyres tried to beat their Targaryen brothers five times, and five times they failed, but they still want to go home. It might be they finally figured out if you can’t beat them, join them.
I mean, it’s not bad to be on the side with dragons, or the world’s smartest Spider.
What do you think, is Varys who he says he is, or has he been working for his own interests the whole time? Tell us your thoughts in the comments below.
You can find all other History of Thrones entries here.