We don’t see much of Jon Arryn, or get to know him personally in GOT/ASOIAF, but he is key to all that happens. It is his death that starts the series off, the conspiracy around his death that turns us all on our heads at the end of ASOS, and the inability of the realm’s Kings to govern without him that drives the entire ‘game of thrones’/political storyline in both show and books.
Jon Arryn was able to unite the Rebellion behind the claim of Robert Baratheon and, given what we know about Robert’s lack of enthusiasm for being king, is the brains behind the period of stability and good governance that marked Robert Baratheon’s reign. But why did the rebellion go so hard, all or nothing to overthrown all the Targaryens, rather than just the unfit for rule Aerys II? Was it just Robert’s personal feelings about Rhaegar Targaryen that led Jon Arryn to lead a Rebellion against the dragon kings, or was there something deeper and more considered going on?
This post is going to lean heavily on the theory of Southron Ambitions, and my own take on it which I term “Southron Ambitions turned up to 11”. The crux of my approach to Southron Ambitions is that not only did the previous generation of Great Lords plan a series of political marriages to unite Westeros more than before following on from buddying up while on the road for the War of the Ninepenny Kings, but there was always an agenda to overthrow the Targaryens. The realm had been dissatisfied with Targaryen madness or unfitness for generations, and House Targaryen now lacked the dragonfire to demand compliance, and was ripe for removal.
Mad King Aerys definitely lived up to his name, and was despised by the realm for good reason. But were the Targaryens well loved by their realm before that?
Prior to Aerys was the relatively unremarkable reign of Jaehaerys II. Jaehaerys’ reign was marked by the War of Ninepenny Kings, or the Fifth (and last) Blackfyre Rebellion, and like other Targaryen kings before him, Jaehaerys was not able to take part in the conflict himself. I’ll leave that hanging for now, but remember that point – I am coming back to it.
Prior to Jaehaerys II was his father Aegon the Unlikely. Egg’s reign was characterised by his absolute determination to bring in legal reforms that I think we can reasonably assume were akin to human rights protections – we are told in the text that Egg wanted to make things fairer for the smallfolk, and the nobility resisted his reforms. What is the one thing that frightens the powerful? Losing their power. It makes logical sense to infer that Egg’s reforms were to introduce some kind of human rights approach that would make smallfolk and nobles equal(ish) in the eyes of the law – something that doesn’t work with a feudal system, which requires that the smallfolk are indentured to their noble lords, and have no rights while the nobles have all rights. Egg also had to deal with the Fourth Blackfyre Rebellion, the anger of Great Lords at having marriage contracts broken, and the Westerlands continually erupting into chaos and anarchy due to Tytos Lannister’s inability to govern.
Prior to Aegon was his father Maekar, who had a fairly uneventful reign apart from the fact that he, a fourth son of Daeron the Good, became king at all, and dealing with the Third Blackfyre Rebellion. Apparently this Blackfyre Rebellion was a huge big deal, but we can only presume that we are going to learn about it in future Dunk & Egg novellas, or in the GRRMarillion style history of the Targaryens that GRRM has talked about, called Fire and Blood. The only thing we get out of TWOIAF is that the battles of the Third Blackfyre Rebellion are legendary and well known, that Egg displayed bravery on the battlefield, as did his father King Maekar, and that Aerion was back from exile and participated on the royalist side as well.
Before Maekar, we have Aerys I, who preferred books and esoteric mysteries to governing the realm or producing an heir. Aerys’ reign had the Second Blackfyre Rebellion (described in The Mystery Knight.) While Bloodraven’s rule during Aerys’ reign was, as far as I can tell from the D&E tales, pretty damn adequate for governing a realm during civil war, plague and drought, the nobility and smallfolk hated Bloodraven, and detested Aerys for being unkingly and weak willed. Not being warrior-like was also what inspired Daemon Blackfyre to try and usurp the Iron Throne from his half-brother Daeron II a generation earlier, in the First Blackfyre Rebellion.
And of course prior to Daeron the Good’s reign, we had Aegon the Unworthy proving utterly unwilling and incapable of providing stable government, the good government of Viserys II undone by his untimely end (most likely at the hand of his greedy son), the utter insanity Baelor the Blessed’s reign, the posturing wars of Daeron the Young Dragon, the end of the literal dragons with Aegon the Dragonsbane, and before that was the Dance of the Dragons.
For generations upon generations, there had been short periods of good government interspersed between far more periods of objectively terrible governance of the realm by Targaryen kings who proved themselves to be absolutely unfit for purpose. And after the Dance of the Dragons, House Targaryen lost its nuclear deterrent to challenges to its reign: dragons.
But why did it take so long for the realm to decide enough was enough? I think there are three reasons:
- There were enough periods of stable governance, usually as a result of good governance by Hands of the King such as Viserys II and Bloodraven, that balanced out the can’t-govern kings for the Great Lords to be content enough with the idea of Targaryen rule.
- Divine right. By co-opting into the Faith of the Seven with the initial conquest of Aegon I and the conciliation with the Faith by Jaehaerys I, House Targaryen had a powerful ally in the Faith to defend any claims of poor governance – they were the Sevens’ chosen rulers.
- A lack of viable alternatives. Because the Targaryens kept marrying into the family, there was no alternative royal options available to provide an avenue to get a more reasonable dynasty. Until Egg had his youngest daughter Rhaelle marry a son of the Laughing Storm…
Looking not-so-far back, and forward
When I originally posted my Southron Ambition Turned Up To 11 theory, a lot of feedback on /r/asoiaf was this: why would the Great Lords be planning a rebellion when Aerys wasn’t mad?
My answer then was this: at first, the marriage alliances were just to further the bonds of friendship between the Great Lords that had formed during the War of the Ninepenny Kings. It was only later, during the reign of Aerys and as his madness became more and more pronounced, that the fermentation of rebellion started.
But now I’m starting to wonder if we can be that dismissive of claims of earlier fermentations of rebellion amongst the Great Lords.
What is interesting about the reign of Aerys II and the seeds of Robert’s Rebellion is that it seems to have erupted in a sudden flurry of activity, but the Rebellion relies upon marriage alliances and political machinations that were occurring for a dozen years or more. That makes me wonder: is there a bit in the middle that connects the friendships and alliances forged during the War of the Ninepenny Kings, and the eventual Rebellion?
Remember I said I’d come back to the theme of what makes a king kingly: in Westeros, a king’s qualities as a king are defined by his military prowess, more so than his political acumen and capacity to govern. Daeron was “spindly of leg and round of belly,” Aerys I “loved books more than his wife,” and Jaehaerys II was unable to participate in the War of the Ninepenny Kings himself due to ill health and a lack of warrior skills.
On the face of it, that seems fine – the king was older and his son and heir was on the frontline. But let’s look at that more closely.
Jaehaerys II was born in 255 AC, and came to the Iron Throne after the disaster at Summerhall in 259 AC. He was 34 when he became king: older, according to medieval times, but not old. But he was sickly. Jaehaerys suffered ailments throughout his life, which curbed his knightly learning, and is described as the least martial of Egg’s sons. Jaehaerys died of natural causes or illness a mere three years after he became king, at the age of 37.
Westerosi society values hypermasculine traits: a man is judged to be “good” by his skill as a knight, not by his brains – look at the difference in how Jaime and Tyrion Lannister are perceived by the wider realm. Similarly, women are judged to be “good” by bearing lots of male heirs and supporting their lordly husbands by running the castle household. (But that’s a rant for another time…)
The counterpoint to this is that anyone who doesn’t meet this expectation is considered “not good” – so you have kings like Daeron the Good who were demonstrably good at governance continually doubted for their ability to be king. The capacity to be a warrior is considered more important than the capacity to be a good governor and law maker, and that’s a problem. It’s such a problem that it lead to generations of civil war under the Blackfyre flag. Let’s revisit that quote from The Sworn Sword, where Ser Eustace Osgrey gives his justification for supporting Daemon Blackfyre over Daeron Targaryen:
“Daeron was spindly and round of shoulder, with a little belly that wobbled when he walked. Daemon stood straight and proud, and his stomach was flat and hard as an oaken shield. And he could fight. With ax or lance or flail, he was as good as any knight I ever saw, but with the sword he was the Warrior himself.
“You can know a man by his friends, Egg. Daeron surrounded himself with maesters, septons, and singers. Always there were women whispering in his ear, and his court was full of Dornishmen. …
“Daemon, though . . . Daemon was no more pious than a king need be, and all the great knights of the realm gathered to him. …
“Why, lad? You ask me why? Because Daemon was the better man. The old king saw it, too. He gave the sword to Daemon. Blackfyre, the sword of Aegon the Conquerer, the blade that every Targaryen king had wielded since the Conquest . . . he put that sword in Daemon’s hand the day he knighted him, a boy of twelve.”
Westerosi history is littered with examples of kings who were disrespected or despised by the realm for their inability to meet this hyper masculine ideal of a Warrior King. Why should we assume that the realm’s attitude to Jaehaerys II was any different to the sneering about Aerys I, or Daeron II?
Planting the seeds of Rebellion
So we have generations of Targaryen kings who don’t meet the expectations of martial, hyper masculine Westerosi nobles for a Warrior King. And we have all the Great Lords and heirs of the realm camping and fighting together in the Stepstones, battling the last Blackfyre, Maelys the Monstrous.
We know that it is a canon fact that the lords of the realm forged alliances and friendships as a result of their extended period of fighting abroad.
But what takes us from friendship to political alliances? From acquaintances to in-laws?
After the War of the Ninepenny Kings, a series of marriage contracts were made or attempted to be made. This interconnection between Great Houses was unusual. It was the practice and culture of Westeros’ Great Lords to use their children’s marriages to cement local alliances against local threats – for instance the Starks cementing alliances with Northern households to ensure compliance with their rule across a large and difficult to monitor tract of land.
But suddenly in the early days of the reign of Aerys II, all the Great Lords are planning marriages to unite themselves together. This was purportedly to “solidify the bonds of friendship and alliance forged during the War,” but is that just a little too convenient? Westeros is not a particularly united realm, and we see repeatedly throughout ASOIAF that while the king in the capital might hold absolute power, they have little direct effect on the day to day lives of their subjects spread across a continent that holds tight knit regional community bonds higher.
Let’s also think about the political and military advantages of uniting. We know that the planned or discussed marriages were:
- Brandon Stark to Catelyn Tully
- Elia or Oberyn Martell to Jaime or Cersei Lannister
- Jaime Lannister to Lysa Tully
- Robert Baratheon to Lyanna Stark
These are the marriages or potential marriages we know about from the text. We also have Robert Baratheon and Ned Stark fostered with Jon Arryn in the Vale. Then there are the marriages that eventually resulted: Ned Stark and Catelyn Tully, Robert Baratheon and Cersei Lannister, Jon Arryn and Lysa Tully, Stannis Baratheon and Selyse Florent. All are very strategic, very planned and have nothing to do with the personal affections of those involved in the slightest.
It is very interesting that the Reach and the Iron Islands are left out of these early marriage discussions, and that the Vale’s involvement is questionable as well. We know that a Vale man (Petyr Baelish) was sent to foster with the Tullys in the Riverlands, and that Jon Arryn lost his sons to illness and war before he married Lysa Tully during the Rebellion. Did he plan to marry his sons to daughters of the Reach? To the Hightowers or other noble Reach families? Did Mace Tyrell have plans for Willas Tyrell before and after his injury, to link his son to another Great House?
We don’t know. However, we can see that the North, the Stormlands, Dorne, the Westerlands and the Vale were keen to cement alliances beyond their regions. This leaves House Targaryen completely isolated and reliant on the Reach for support in the face of Rebellion. For me, this military and political view of the marriage and fostering arrangements made in between the War of the Ninepenny Kings and Robert’s Rebellion very curious, and very suggesting of a more tactical and strategic plan than just being buddies.
What was the catalyst?
We are told from ASOIAF and TWOIAF that Tywin Lannister as Hand of the King to Aerys II undid what remained of Aegon V’s reforms, and this made him popular with the Great Lords…. at first.
Now, we’ve spent a lot of time with House Lannister during ASOIAF, and know Tywin’s character quite well. He is not well liked by other Houses. Feared, but not liked. If anything, other nobles resent the stranglehold that House Lannister has on power and wealth through the machinations of Tywin.
Aerys’ early rule might have been stable thanks to Tywin as Hand, but I don’t think we can say it was all that popular. We know from the text that there were enough indications of Aerys’ madness early in his reign, (like the sudden plan to build an alternate capital on the other side of the Blackwater, or his feckless grants of favour – much like his ancestor Aegon IV) to make the Great Lords wary of this king, and remind them of the difficulties of past Targaryen kings and poor governance.
My theory is that these early signs of madness, and the difficulties that Tywin had in keeping the realm on an even keel under the erratic governance of Aerys was enough to give the other nobles pause for thought. Time to reflect on the erratic nature of Targaryen governance, and that House’s contributions to the good of Westeros – or otherwise.
House Targaryen lost its key advantage over other Great Houses in the reign of Aegon III, when the last dragon died. That was a long time before Aerys II’s reign, yet the Targaryen kings still acted as absolute monarchs who had no peers, no rivals and no check on their ambitions or plans. The realm was at the mercy of the sanity of its king, and in a family that considered incestuous marriages ‘pure’, that posed a challenge for the realm.
Did the Great Lords decide that enough was enough?
We have a series of marriage alliances: Brandon Stark will marry Catelyn Tully. His younger brother Ned is fostered alongside Robert Baratheon with Jon Arryn in the Vale. Robert will marry Lyanna Stark, even though Lyanna is less than impressed about this future. And until Jaime’s appointment to the Kingsguard and Tywin’s subsequent tantrum and isolation, the Westerlands and Riverlands are also to be joined in political matrimony. Dorne has fallen out of the plans, after Elia Martell was wed to Rhaegar Targaryen, and Oberyn Martell did not want to marry.
The Reach remains isolated, as does the Crown, but the rest of Westeros is united in some way or another. Ripe for a rebellion to ferment? Perhaps.
The Tourney of Harrenhal
Everyone knows this part: Mad King Aerys is mad, Rhaegar wants to have a Great Council and peacefully set aside his father to correct the governance of the realm, and a grand tourney is arranged at Harrenhal with a prize that is beyond the means of Lord Whent, the then lord of the cursed castle.
But it doesn’t go to plan. Aerys decides to crash the party, a mystery knight appears, Tywin Lannister pitches a fit when his heir is appointed to the Kingsguard, and the planned Great Council fizzles out.
Did the Great Lords plan to play along with Rhaegar? Or were they also concerned about his sanity?
Rhaegar Targaryen as Prince of Dragonstone seemed to fit the Warrior King mould: he is skilled enough with a lance to win the tourney (although this could be because no one tried too hard against him, similar to the Black Prince in A Knight’s Tale,) his martial skills are commented upon favourably by other knights and we are told he studied warrior skills attentively after becoming convinced that he was The Prince That Was Promised.
But that right there: that’s the problem, isn’t it? The realm already had one Mad King, did the Great Lords think that Rhaegar’s mental health was also a bit iffy? His melancholy was well known, and while his emo antics seemed to be written off due to his birth being in the shadow of the flames at Summerhall, can we discount the concerns the Great Lords might have had about his capacity to be a good king?
This is the heart of what I said earlier: while the Great Lords were prepared to meet with Rhaegar and discuss a peaceful transition of government that would remove the Mad King, I don’t think we can assume that they were all supportive of the idea of King Rhaegar. Not when you consider the past concerns and rumblings of rebellion due to Targaryen madness or “unwarriorness”.
But why is Jon Arryn the mastermind?
I think that Jon Arryn was the one who encouraged the realm to overthrow the Targaryens once and for all.
Bold claim, I know. But bear with me for a bit.
What do we know of Jon Arryn, from other characters?
He was cool, calm and collected (Lysa describes him as cold and loveless.) He was a man of great strategic mind and thought (he was able to get Doran Martell to calm Oberyn down and ensure Dorne’s continuing support for the Seven Kingdoms, while facilitating a marriage between Baratheon and Lannister to secure the Iron Throne’s ongoing financial stability from the mines of Casterly Rock.) He was able to spot talent and put people in key positions (Littlefinger – even if he was schemed a bit on that one, Baelish does clearly have talent in business and, other than his rampant corruption, seems to have done a capable job as Master of Coin.) And he was able to keep the wheels of government ticking as Hand while Robert was off whoring, drinking, hunting and hosting tourneys so that the realm had a very peaceful, very stable 15 odd years after generations of unrest and chaos.
I think Jon Arryn is exactly the kind of guy who would reflect on generations of poor Targaryen governance and think “is there an alternative?”
In Robert Baratheon, he got the perfect puppet king: the right bloodline to keep loyalists happy, the right warrior skill set to keep Westeros’ hyper masculine ideals comfortable, and dumb enough to let Jon get on with running the country without interference.
By selecting the grandson of Rhaelle Targaryen-Baratheon as his chosen rebellion figurehead, Jon Arryn was able to ensure that the Faith would back their rebellion as just and in accordance with divine right – Robert Baratheon had the right pedigree, and unlike Aerys or Rhaegar Targaryen, had no question mark over his mental health.
Politically, the young Robert is attractive: a king who is savvy enough to realise he needs the support of other Great Lords (unlike the Targaryens who had become legendarily arrogant), with the right skill set (i.e. good with a sword, looks the part) and an amiable jolly king attitude that would please the smallfolk. Robert’s gregarious nature is already well established as a teenager, pre-Rebellion – the love ’em and leave ’em attitude is in place, but without the selfish capriciousness of an Aegon the Unworthy.
All Jon needed now was for Aerys to do something bad enough that the rest of the alliance would go with him. Unfortunately, that happened to be two fold: Rhaegar demonstrated his lack of forethought and strategic planning by eloping with Lyanna Stark to be his non-Faith approved second wife, or his mistress (or the Robert Baratheon version: kidnapping her); and then Aerys did something unimaginably cruel in roasting Rickard and Brandon Stark alive in the royal court.
For all the awfulness, suddenly Jon’s long planned rebellion had such an attractively romantic edge: a young king overthrowing a tyrannical despot for love and justice for the realm. However, Jon had also lost some of his alliance’s firepower: Tywin Lannister’s curt petulance following Jaime’s Kingsguard appointment meant that they could not be certain of Westerland support, and Dorne were now forced to support the royalist cause in order to ensure the safety of Elia Martell and her children, kept captive by Aerys in the Red Keep. Hoster Tully nearly backed out of the alliance, and it was only Jon marrying Lysa, the soiled second daughter, himself that secured the large Riverlands force to join the Stormlands, North and Vale armies in open rebellion.
The long planned overthrow of the Targaryen dynasty was on a knife edge, and ultimately came down to a whole different set of problems to do with entrenched misogyny in Westeros. (Hoster Tully selling off Lysa after she had “soiled” herself with Baelish, forcing Jon Arryn to marry a girl decades younger than her in order to get the Riverlands armies at all.)