Was a civil war to end the reign of Aerys II, the Mad King, inevitable?

This came up in twitter discussions the other day.

The reign of Aerys II, the Mad King, was so toxic that it was headed for a bad end, no matter what happened. Rhaegar running off with Lyanna Stark pissed off a lot of people, but it was not technically the cause of Robert’s Rebellion – the King abrogating his duty to his subjects by roasting Lord Rickard and Brandon Stark alive in a poor excuse for a trial by combat, that was the thing that made the Rebellion kick off.

So… was that kind of mistake by Aerys inevitable? Was he so psychotic, so blinded by greed and narcissism and paranoia that he would inevitably cross the line and make it legitimate for his noble lords to rebel against his rule? We know that Rhaegar had hoped to stage a coup d’état to oust his father.

Rhaegar had put his hand on Jaime’s shoulder. “When this battle’s done I mean to call a council. Changes will be made. I meant to do it long ago, but . . . well, it does no good to speak of roads not taken. We shall talk when I return.”

AFFC, Jaime I

But does this mean that some kind of rebellious end to Aerys’ reign was certain?

Maybe, maybe not.

It is difficult to see how Aerys’ reign could have been sustained much longer, although it is also not clear that if Rhaegar did attempt a coup d’état if that would be strongly supported by the feudal lords. What is even less clear is if Jon Arryn’s plans for a non-Targaryen regime were something he was actively working towards, or something that he simply quietly ruminated over to himself.

So in a fashion befitting a lawyer, my answer to the title question is “it depends….” 

The madness of King Aerys

Even before his captivity in Duskendale, before he became this ghoulish figure of bedraggled hair and long nails, Aerys was not a nice man, nor particularly mentally healthy.

His grandiosity and largesse is described from his youth: generous, but quick to turn on people. Vain, but quick to make friends. The way to Aerys’ friendship was to flatter him, and play along with his bizarre ideas, knowing that he’d get tired of them soon and move on.

Most relevant to his capacity for governance, Aerys is also described as “not the most diligent of princes, nor the most intelligent.” (TWOIAF, p 113) This is particularly ominous in comparison to his father, Jaehaerys II, who is described as someone who “did not lack for courage, or intelligence.” (TWOIAF, p 111.)  

So we have a bloke who is not particularly smart, not particularly good at focusing on the job at hand, quite impulsive, very generous but quick to anger, vain and ambitious… and he became king at 18.

Aerys II’s first act as King was to dismiss the “older, seasoned men” that had comprised his father’s Small Council and royal court, including the man who had taken over as Hand of the King after Lord Ormund Baratheon died in battle in the War of the Ninepenny Kings, Edgar Sloane. In their place, Aerys appointed his friends and flatterers, crucially appointing Tywin Lannister as Hand even though the latter was just 20 years old. It’s unclear what roles Lord Steffon Baratheon or others had in Aerys’ court, but perhaps we can draw some conclusions from other information we have:

  • When the rebellion broke out, Robert Baratheon had to be smuggled back into Storm’s End, which was blockaded by the royal navy. In time, Robert would appoint his own brother, Stannis Baratheon, as Master of Ships. Could we then presume that Steffon Baratheon held this post as well? We know that Lucerys Velaryon held it by the time of the Rebellion, but before then, maybe it was held by Aerys’ other great friend and cousin?? 
  • Tywin sought to have Jaime squire for Prince Rhaegar, but Aerys rejected this in favour of “the songs of several of his own favourites, men know to be no friends of House Lannister.” We know that one of these squires would later be the knight of skulls and kisses, Ser Richard Lonmouth. Perhaps Richard’s father was part of the Small Council? Or was he just hanging around court? (More likely.) 
  • By 280 AC Aerys was enamoured of wildfire and pyromancers, appointing the head of the pyromancers, Wisdom Rossart, to the Small Council in an unknown role (Rossart would later become Hand of the King after Lord Qarlton Chested objected to Aerys’ plans to kaboom King’s Landing with wildfire.)
  • After Tywin resigned in 281 when Jaime was appointed to the Kingsguard, Lord Owen Merryweather was appointed Hand, “an aged and amiable lickspittle” who made sure to laugh at all the king’s jokes, no matter how unfunny they were.
  • We know that Pycelle was Grand Maester for a considerable time, and a great ally/arselicker of Tywin Lannister.

So while it is not clear exactly who comprised the Small Council while Tywin ruled the Seven Kingdoms as Aerys’ Hand, it is clear that it was made up of Aerys’ friends and allies, rather than his father’s trusted councillors, and that Tywin Lannister had free rein to just get on with governance without a huge amount of opposition from the rest of the Small Council or the King.

In later times, Aerys stacked his Small Council with only those who would tell him what he wanted to hear, confirmed in the passage “The Year of the False Spring,” at page 124 TWOIAF:

  • Lord Owen Merryweather, Hand of the King
  • Lord Qarlton Chested, Master of Coin
  • Lord Lucerys Velaryon, Master of Ships,
  • Lord Symond Staunton, Master of Laws
  • plus Varys as the master of whispers and Rossart as the head pyromancer, Pycelle, Grand Maester, and Ser Gerold Hightower, Lord Commander of the Kingsguard, a position he had also held under Jaehaerys II.

These folk are described as “lickspittle lords” who curried favour with the increasingly unwell Aerys, and were a faction against the knights and young men who allied with Prince Rhaegar as he approached adulthood. Rhaegar’s supporters at court are listed as Lord Jon Connington, Ser Myles Mooton of Maidenpool and Ser Richard Lonmouth – perhaps these are the men who squired for Rhaegar instead of Jaime Lannister? Of course, Rhaegar was also supported by his wife’s companions and family: Prince Lewyn Martell of the Kingsguard, and his sworn brother Ser Arthur Dayne of Starfall.

Pycelle describes the tension between these factions at court as similar to the Blacks and the Greens in the lead up to the Dance….. but really? 

Rhaegar’s only really powerful allies are in Dorne, connections of his wife, Elia Martell. While he has the approval of Tywin Lannister (discussed below) we have no evidence that Tywin attempted to help Rhaegar win other, more senior allies in the wider nobility once Rhaegar was married to Elia Martell, and the option of a future Queen Cersei was removed from the table. As always, Tywin’s allegiances were primarily self interested – he was Aerys’ friend so long as Aerys would let him work as Hand without interference or insult, and he would back Rhaegar as an alternative ruler only while Rhaegar was single, young and could be persuaded to marry Tywin’s golden daughter.

Aerys II, the ideas man

Even at his peak, Aerys was not a great leader of men:

None of these ideas ever came to fruition; most, indeed, were forgotten within a moon’s turn, for Aerys II seemed to grow bored with his royal enthusiasms as quickly as he did his royal paramours

TWOIAF, p 114

Aerys was an ideas man but mercifully, none of his big ideas were ever put into planning. I mean, can you imagine the practicalities of…

  • making the Stepstones part of the Seven Kingdoms
  • building a new Wall a hundred leagues north of the existing one and claiming the lands between the two as part of the Seven Kingdoms
  • building a marble city on the south bank of the Blackwater to escape the stench of King’s Landing (an idea that’s both so absurd and so appealing that Cersei unknowingly rehashes it as Queen Regent…)
  • conquering Braavos over a debt dispute with the Iron Bank
  • installing an aquaduct to funnel water from the Reach and Crownlands to Dorne to make the Dornish desert fertile, blooming land

In comparison, the achievements of Tywin as Hand are more down to earth. He settled the dispute with the Iron Bank by paying the debt of Jaehaerys II from the coffers of Casterly Rock, repealed Aegon V’s laws which curbed the powers of the great lords (although exactly what those laws were remains a mystery – and one I’d bloody well like to have solved GRRM!)

Tywin also made fiscal reforms on trade within King’s Landing, Lannisport and Oldtown, earning him the favour of the merchant elites in those centres, as well as “cultivating trade with the Free Cities” and engaging in infrastructure repairs to major roads. To top things off, Tywin threw plenty of lavish tournaments, showing off the wealth of the realm, not just to promote House Targaryen, but also to demonstrate his own wealth, power and prestige as the new Lord of Casterly Rock.

There’s no question that the realm power during the reign of Aerys II is Tywin Lannister, who was a complete arsehole in all respects but quite smart and extremely tactical. Notably, as Aerys’ bizarre behaviour grew more odious and personally insulting towards Tywin, Tywin was in favour of Rhaegar ascending to the Iron Throne sooner rather than later. Something he was so confident in, he was willing to say it openly in front of some of Aerys’ most keen flatterers:  

Most of the Small Council were with the Hand outside Duskendale at this juncture, and several of them argued against Lord Tywin’s plan on the grounds that such an attack [on Duskendale, if the Darklyns did not release Aerys] would almost certain goad Lord Darklyn into putting King Aerys to death. “He may or he may not,” Tywin Lannister reportedly replied, “but if he does, we have a better king right here.” Whereupon he raised a hand to indicate Prince Rhaegar.

TWOIAF, p 119

While TWOIAF does not indicate that Tywin genuinely conspired with the Darklyns to capture, beat up and imprison the reigning king as part of a scheme to speed up the transition from Mad King Aerys to Sane King Rhaegar (and such a conclusion is highly unlikely given the available evidence,) that is the conclusion that Aerys drew from the whole affair after being rescued by Ser Barristan Selmy. But that only concludes that Aerys was extremely paranoid to the point of psychosis, and had spent years coming to hate the man who was once his best friend. 

What is far more interesting about this comment of Tywin’s is that at the time of the Defiance, Rhaegar was also 18 – the same age as when his father took the crown. I suspect that Tywin, who had been by Aerys’ side as a friend, confidant, fellow soldier and then Hand, at that time was in a better position than most to compare 18 year old Rhaegar to 18 year old Aerys. Maybe he just thought that by flattering Rhaegar as a potential new king, he could secure a queendom for Cersei and a future Lannister-Targaryen heir to the Iron Throne. Or maybe he genuinely believed that Rhaegar was a more balanced, more intelligent, more diligent alternative to the increasingly difficult Aerys, even compared to Aerys at his peak.

Because even at his peak, Aerys was difficult. He jumped from mad idea to mad idea, from lover to lover, while treating his sister/wife cruelly, unnecessarily stirring up tension with the Iron Bank, treating his best friend’s wife with “liberties” during the bedding, and generally being an annoying arsehole. Aerys enjoyed being king, because it gave him power and people had to listen to him, but he wasn’t very good at being king.

In contrast, Rhaegar is studious, reserved, chivalric and a “puissant warrior, a true heir to Aegon the Conqueror” (TWOIAF, p 126.) But Rhaegar is also considered by everyone who meets him to be a bit… weird. A nerd, in a Westeros that has no time for book learning and esoteric musings. His crew at court contains his peers and friends, tourney knights and Dornish kingsguard members – no great lords are linked to Rhaegar or named in TWOIAF as being in support of Rhaegar’s supposed aspirations to the Iron Throne. In fact, the push for Rhaegar as an alternate king seems to come from people like Tywin who just see him as a less difficult, less objectionable person to hold that office while they get on with running things.

Which brings me to the biggest problem I have in believing the assertions of Pycelle in TWOIAF that the realm was simmering along towards an inevitable conflict similar to the Dance of the Dragons. Yes, Rhaegar was the most logical, easiest alternative to the clearly unsuitable Aerys II.

But he wasn’t much of a better option. Were the nobles really so keen to move past the reign of Mad King Aerys to the reign of Potentially Bonkers King Rhaegar?

The House of Targaryen wasn’t the only option either. Thanks to a Targaryen grandmother, the new Lord of Storm’s End, Robert Baratheon, presented a tempting option to those considering a world without dragons…

What exactly was Jon Arryn planning, and for how long?

I’ve suggested before that Jon Arryn was plotting a rebellion that would not just oust Aerys, but oust all of House Targaryen for some time leading up to the rebellion. I call this Southron Ambitions Turned Up To 11, as in Spinal Tap’s “it goes up to 11.” But the question I have never attempted to answer is when Jon decided he’d had enough of House Targaryen and their unpredictable offspring. I still don’t know. There’s simply not enough evidence in the text to draw a conclusion in any direction.

A question I’ve been grappling with in writing this blog: would Jon have been against the idea of a coup d’état to replace Aerys with Rhaegar?

Based on what we know for sure, the great lords set up a range of alliances, cemented with marriages and fostering arrangements:

  • Steffon Baratheon and Rickard Stark sent their sons Robert and Eddard to the Vale, to be fostered by Jon Arryn, whom they had befriended during the War of the Ninepenny Kings;
  • Also as a result of friendships and alliances made during this conflict, Rickard Stark arranged to marry his heir, Brandon, to Catelyn Tully, Hoster’s eldest daughter, and his daughter Lyanna to Robert Baratheon, Steffon’s heir.
  • Tywin Lannister and Hoster Tully explored the option of marrying Jaime Lannister to Lysa Tully, although Joanna Lannister, when alive, was exploring the option of matching Cersei and Jaime to Oberyn and Elia Martell – although how and when Joanna became friends with the Unnamed Princess of Dorne is baffling. We presume that they became friends as they both served as handmaidens to Queen Rhaella, but why would the ruling Princess of Dorne be a handmaiden? If the Unnamed Princess wasn’t a handmaiden, when the hell did she and Joanna meet and become close friends? More unanswered questions about the Dead Mother’s Club…
  • It’s insinuated that Jon Arryn sponsored and cultivated these alliances between Stark, Baratheon, Tully and Lannister – which is interesting, given that Lady Barbra Dustin claims that Rickard Stark had “southron ambitions” that precluded wedding his sons to Northern maidens as was traditionally the custom, and that Steffon Baratheon and Tywin Lannister were close friends with the then Prince, Aerys Targaryen.

So what was Jon actually planning? He may just have been planning a series of alliances to shore up support for the great lords against any future reforms like those attempted by Aegon V. While we don’t know the details of what Egg actually tried to do, we do know that the nobles viewed these law reforms as an affront to their gods-given rights, and an unfair limitation on their powers. This suggests that Egg was attempting to implement some kind of legal equality, giving smallfolk the same rights before the King’s justice as a person of noble birth. Or it could simply be that he was attempting to limit the powers of “pit and gallows”, where nobles had an unfettered right to deal with their smallfolk in any way, no matter how unjust, without interference from the Crown. Either reform represents a significant shift away from the fundamental concepts of feudalism: that the nobles are a higher class of person to the smallfolk that they enslave, and their powers within their own lands are equal to that of the king, who is merely the first among equals. So while Egg was not trying to implement what we would think of as human rights law in a modern sense, he was probably trying to implement some kind of Magna Carta style reform.

This is where Jon Arryn gets very interesting as a character to analyse, because we have this image of him from the reminiscence of Ned and Robert as a lovely, friendly old man. As SomethingLikeALawyer of the Wars and Politics of Ice and Fire notes, Jon Arryn was a very cunning strategic thinker, and able to lead the rebellion swiftly and efficiently. This is not a man who would base his long planned rebellion on a latte-sipping concept such as human rights for all, even the smallfolk. This is a noble who would oust a regime prone to producing people like Aegon V to secure the rights of his elite noble peers. The kind of man that someone would describe as cold – which is how Lysa describes her aged husband. Sure, she has many reasons to dislike him, given the circumstances in which she was forced to marry him, and her ongoing affair with Littlefinger. But it’s notable that the person closest to him in more recent years specifically describes him as a cold. I’d suggest this cold and calculating is a far more accurate description of Jon Arryn – a man who was just as tactical, just as cunning as Tywin Lannister.

Which begs the question: were Jon Arryn and Tywin Lannister friends or foes? Allies or enemies? Pursuing the same goal of replacing Aerys with a less problematic king, or pursuing very different goals in their quest for a better king?

It also brings into question the allegiance of Steffon Baratheon. The Lord of Storm’s End is described in TWOIAF as a great friend of Aerys, as well as a close cousin, and it is noted that Tywin, Steffon and Aerys squired and trained together as pages and then as soldiers in the War of the Ninepenny Kings. As I alluded to above, it’s possible that Steffon was also part of Aerys’ Small Council, although unconfirmed. What is confirmed is that many in the royal court expected Steffon Baratheon to replace Tywin Lannister as the Hand once Tywin and Aerys’ relationship soured beyond the point of no return, but that was not to be as Steffon and his wife died coming back from Essos to Storm’s End.

But does this mean that Steffon was loyal to Aerys? If he was, then why was he so keen to have his heir fostered at the Eyrie with Jon Arryn? Obviously that question presumes that Jon’s anti-Targ intentions were known to others in the Southron Ambitions circle. This may not have been the case. Instead, Jon Arryn, a man in his thirties during the combat of the Stepstones, may just have been a mentor figure to the younger lord Baratheon, who lost his own father during that conflict. Sending his heir to be fostered with the man who helped him cope with his own father’s passing, who was helping build alliances throughout a more connected realm – this can be explained without resorting to building up Steffon as an anti-Targ conspirator.


But you do have to wonder what Steffon made of his cousin’s antics as the years progressed. Malora Hightower suggests that 

Keeping his heir away from his cousin’s capriciousness and cruelty by sending Robert to be fostered in the Vale, far from King’s Landing, could have been an insurance policy by a cautious Steffon Baratheon as well.

It’s easy to see how Jon Arryn might have been a father figure to a young Steffon Baratheon during the War of the Ninepenny Kings, but he wouldn’t have been a fatherly mentor to Rickard Stark or Hoster Tully, based on the image presented in ASOIAF as though Jon, Rickard and Hoster were equal partners in the Southron Ambitions theory. But is this accurate?

  • Jon Arryn: Born 218-220 AC, aged 42-44 during the War of the Ninepenny Kings, died aged 76-78 in 298 AC.
  • Hoster Tully: Born 238-240 AC, aged 20-22 during WOT9PK, died aged 57-59 in 299 AC
  • Rickard Stark: This is difficult. He was born between 230-249 AC, which means he was anywhere between 11 to 30 during the WOT9PK, and died aged 33-52 in 282 AC. Let’s put him at about 25 during the Stepstones conflict, which places him as a little older than Hoster and still considerably younger than Jon.
  • Steffon Baratheon: born 246 AC, a 14 year old squire during the WOT9PK, and died in 278 AC at the age of 32.
  • Aerys Targaryen: born 244 AC, a 16 year old squire who was knighted during the WOT9PK by his friend Tywin, and died in 283 AC aged 39-40.
  • Tywin Lannister: born 242 AC, 18 years old during the WOT9PK, killed by Tyrion in 300 AC at the age of 58 (and did not, in the end, shit gold.)



For the sake of an interesting comparison, Doran Martell (born 247-248) would have been 13 during 260 AC, the year of the WOT9PK, so he feasibly was also squiring in that conflict – perhaps to his uncle, Prince Lewyn Martell, who would later be appointed to the Kingsguard to protect Doran’s daughter Elia when she married Rhaegar. Mace Tyrell was just a chubby 4 year old running around Highgarden during the Blackfyre’s last stand in the Stepstones, which could explain why the Reach were not involved in the Southron Ambitions loop – given Olenna’s scathing indictment of her husband as a man so dense that he rode off a damn cliff, maybe Jon Arryn thought that Highgarden was a liability not worth involving in his conspiracy?

So this makes Jon Arryn an even more interesting character – a man in his 40s, mentoring Rickard Stark and Hoster Tully in their 20s, and keeping an eye on the young trio of 14 year old Steffon Baratheon, 16 year old Aerys Targaryen and 18 year old Tywin Lannister during that war. He has a significant level of seniority by age, even though they are all equally ranked within the social hierarchy of Westeros. How did Jon use that influence over his younger friends and allies to achieve his long term objectives of a more stable government, in which the nobles held more power than the potentially unreliable King? 

It helps to think of Jon Arryn’s ambitions before Aerys burned the Starks as being a little bit more altruistic than what eventually happened with Robert’s Rebellion. What I suggest that Jon ideally wanted in Southron Ambitions Turned Up To 11 is some kind of noble-dominated Parliament/permanent Great Council, which could prevent the kind of law reforms that Aegon V attempted, or the realm being constantly at the whim of an absolutist ruler.

But how exactly did he communicate that to his noble peers?

If we presume that Jon was already considering a Westeros without dragons, I doubt he would have been so bold as to suggest this to Lord Ormund Baratheon, Steffon’s father, before his death in battle – Ormund’s wife was Rhaelle, sister of Aegon V, the Targaryen granny who gave Robert Baratheon his dynastic ties to claim the kingship. So it’s very unlikely that Southron Ambitions was, at the beginning, turned up to 11. As far as Rickard, Hoster and Steffon were concerned, Jon Arryn was just suggesting a series of marriages and fosterings to secure friendships and alliances made during the conflict, to aid in a more united Westeros in the future. As far as all of these great lords were concerned, a more united nobility was a good thing if it meant preventing the ability of kings to go rogue and limit their rights as Aegon V had just attempted to do. So maybe that is as far as Southron Ambitions goes… at first?

This fits with what we can surmise about the marriages and alliances. Sure, if we take the Up To 11 theory on its face, Jon gets to groom Robert Baratheon to be a suitable potential king, and Rickard Stark gets his only daughter to be Queen of the Seven Kingdoms as Robert’s bride. But Hoster Tully and Tywin Lannister get nothing obvious from these arrangements. Hoster secures Catelyn a good marriage to the heir to the North, which gives him a strong ally in any future wars (as his grandson discovered in the future) and if he also secured Jaime Lannister as a husband for Lysa, then Hoster has more or less neutralised two thirds of the threats against the Riverlands – he only has to be concerned about the Reach, Ironborn or Stormlands, the latter of which can be neutralised via the North with Robert and Lyanna’s marriage.

But Tywin gets…. Not much. Which is probably why he stayed out of it, preferring to hedge his bets with the Targaryens, where he already had significant power and influence because of his friendship with Aerys, until it became clear that Rhaegar was as useless, if not more so, than his sire.

The process of rebellion: calling a Great Council

There’s two ways you can be rebel scum: go for broke, with an army, or attempt a more peaceful transition. The means through which you do that in Westeros is a Great Council, used in the past to determine issues of royal succession when things were complicated. 

This is what Rhaegar attempted to do under the guise of a grand tourney at Harrenhal, but his plans had a spanner thrown in the works when Aerys attended in person. But then Rhaegar himself stuffed up any chance he had of impressing the gathering nobility with how he could be an alternate king. Sure, he played the part of a puissant warrior, winning the tourney…. But then he angered three out of eight regions in one moment by crowning Lyanna Stark, sole daughter of the Warden of the North, betrothed of the Lord of Storm’s End, and definitely not his wife, Elia Martell of Dorne, as the Queen of Love and Beauty.

It’s tempting to say that this is the moment when Jon Arryn and co decided that the Targaryens were just more trouble than they were worth, once Rhaegar confirmed the worst suspicions about him, that he was just as impulsive and just as unlikely to think through the consequences of his actions as his father and forebears.

But does the above analysis bear out that idea? Possibly not. It seems increasingly likely as I go through the process of writing this blog that whatever ideas Jon Arryn had about a Westeros with Targaryens in charge, he kept those ideas to himself. It was too risky to share ideas of an anti-Targ revolution with Ormund Baratheon, who married a dragon, or with Steffon or Tywin, who were close friends of Prince Aerys. So while it’s possible that he did share those thoughts with Rickard Stark and Hoster Tully at some point, it’s unlikely that those conversations started during the War of the Ninepenny Kings.

But Jon was able to implement a Rebellion very quickly and very efficiently for someone who apparently didn’t spend any time thinking about it before 282 AC…. so that doesn’t bear out either. In his actions as Hand to the new king Robert, Jon Arryn’s focus was on pragmatic practicalities and pushing on to a unified future, rather than matters of principle. I tend to think that the same kind of pragmatism fuelled Jon before the option of rebelling presented itself. He might have entertained ideas about a world that didn’t involve the potential lunacy of House Targaryen, but how did he communicate these ideas to his co-conspirators, if he did at all?

Maybe it was just a case of softly softly, gentle monkey – Jon laid the fertile ground for the idea of a world without Targaryens, without actually raising the possibility directly.

There were other potential turning points, where the possibility of King Rhaegar was more tangible than others. Malora Hightower has analysed the “what if” of Aerys not surviving the Defiance of Duskendale here. If Rhaegar was crowned in 277 AC, things would have been very different. He would have been able to choose his own bride, and may have been influenced by Tywin Lannister to take up the offer of young Cersei as his bride, rather than sending Steffon and Cassandra Baratheon to Essos in 278 on their fateful journey.

So… no Elia Martell as Queen. Steffon Baratheon remains Lord of Storm’s End for some time to come, so while Robert was already being fostered in the Vale, perhaps Stannis and Renly are a little bit less of a mess. Whoever Cersei whispers to in order to get Jaime appointed to the Kingsguard (my money is on Varys, who she imagines to be a friend) doesn’t need to suggest to Aerys that taking Tywin’s golden heir away from him, so Jaime remains the heir to Casterly Rock, and is probably married off to Lysa Tully. Jon Arryn still has his nephew and cousin as backup heirs, so doesn’t need poor Lysa as a fertile wife.

It’s unclear if Baelish and Lysa would still have their teenage dalliance. Hoster would have still offered to foster the older Lord Baelish’s son, and Petyr would have still fancied himself in love with Catelyn, with Lysa as an “ok then” alternative. Hoster would have had to keep Lysa’s condition very hush-hush if she was betrothed to the son of proud Tywin Lannister, the man who doesn’t take another man’s leavings according to Pycelle in TWOIAF…

As far as the North is concerned, well. There’s no Robb, Jon, Sansa, Arya, Bran and Rickon. Whatever heirs to the North would be conceived would come from Brandon Stark and Catelyn Tully. Ned would have been free to marry someone else – perhaps Ashara Dayne, assuming that they still managed to meet at some tourney somewhere, or if not, perhaps some Vale girl. Meanwhile, Lyanna is left miserable in Storm’s End as Robert Baratheon continues to drink and whore his way around the Stormlands in the same way that he drank and whored his way around King’s Landing (and everywhere else) in the canon timeline. 

Importantly, there’s no Daenerys. She was conceived when Aerys raped Rhaella after he burned Lord Qarlton Chested during the Rebellion. So if he’s dead, and Rhaella is finally allowed to live in peace, then… no Dany. No dragons.

I can’t imagine that Rhaegar and Cersei would have been a happy marriage. Nor can I imagine that the reign of King Rhaegar would have gone particularly smoothly. Sure, he would have initially seemed to be a vast improvement from his father. But how much would he have changed the Small Council?

Assuming Tywin convinces Rhaegar to wed Cersei, we should also assume that Rhaegar rewards his good-father by allowing him to continue his work as Hand of the King. Tywin’s competence in the role would suit Rhaegar, as it would free him up to focus on his esoteric concerns. I’m sure Tywin would prefer that the curiously pro-Lannister crony Pycelle remained as Grand Maester, but perhaps Rhaegar would use his great-great-great-grand-uncle Aemon’s influence in the Citadel to have a more similarly minded maester sent to King’s Landing – perhaps Marwyn the Mage? I imagine that spaces would be found to accommodate his friends too, while clearing out Aerys’ simpering lickspittles… although how much of an improvement Ser Richard Lonmouth and Ser Myles Mooton would be on the likes of Lord Merryweather and Lord Stauntion remains to be seen?

The problem with any King Rhaegar AU is that at some stage or another, the illusion of things proceeding smoothly is going to drop. He believed he was Azor Ahai Reborn, The Prince That Was Promised, for years before he became convinced that TPTWP was his son, Aegon. Then there’s whatever the hell kind of thinking led him to run off with Lyanna Stark. My point is: at some stage, Rhaegar is going to attempt to use his position as King to either hatch dragons (bringing the realm back to unpleasant memories of Summerhall?) or rally an army to go and fight the Others…. An enemy that even Northern lords like Rickard Stark no longer believe in.

And what then?

Does this mean that some kind of anti-Targ rebellion was inevitable? Because even if there was a less revolutionary shift from Aerys to Rhaegar initially, at some stage… Rhaegar would have dropped the act of the perfect prince to focus on his true ambitions as AAR. Which would not have gone down well with the noble lords of the realm…. 

But would Rhaegar’s lack of attention to governing have been a deal breaker for the nobles in the same way that his father breaking the protection of feudalism was? Probably not. After all, the realm grumbled and carried on during the reign of Aerys I, who was similarly esoterically minded like Rhaegar, and let Brynden “Bloodraven” Rivers rule the Seven Kingdoms as Hand… but the Second Blackfyre Rebellion was a complete fizzer because people just weren’t that prepared to jump back into civil war just because the King was a bit nutty.

Would an anti-Targ/anti-Rhaegar rebellion have fallen to a similar fate? The ennui of “well, we don’t really like the king being a loony but fuck it, who cares?”

The other AU – Aerys doesn’t come to Harrenhal

We’re told in TWOIAF that as far as everyone in the realm was concerned, Lord Whent’s tourney in 281 AC was paid for by Rhaegar, and intended to be a gathering of all the great lords of the realm in a clandestine Great Council, to discuss a coup d’etat against his increasingly unstable father.

That’s not a controversial concept.

But what exactly was Rhaegar planning to do to enact this?

Through his marriage to Elia Martell, and his friendship with Prince Lewyn Martell and Ser Arthur Dayne, Rhaegar had considerable ties to Dorne. But this did not give him a particularly great military advantage. Similarly, while he had friends amongst the younger knights of the Crownlands and beyond, his father was supported by cronies at court who, while not particularly powerful in the Reach or Crownlands, could call upon armies or their liege lords if things started to kick off.

What was unknown was what the great lords thought of Aerys and Rhaegar. Tywin Lannister made his feelings on the matter quite clear, by refusing to attend the Harrenhal tourney where his eldest son Jaime was to be invested in the Kingsguard, having earlier resigned his post as Hand when Jaime’s appointment was first announced. (Side note: it was only in re-reading these sections of TWOIAF in preparation for this blog that I realised that these events were separate. I’d always been under the impression that Tywin came to Harrenhal, Jaime was appointed to the Kingsguard, and Tywin stormed off. But actually no. Jaime’s appointment was announced some weeks or months ahead of the tourney, in the throne room, where Tywin resigned and returned to Casterly Rock. He then refused to attend Harrenhal at all, although other Westerland lords attended the event.)

Tywin had earlier been a supporter of the idea of King Rhaegar, but that was also before Rhaegar’s marriage to Elia Martell. Cersei reveals in her AFFC POV chapters that she believed she was at court to constantly remind Rhaegar she was a suitable replacement for if or when Elia died in childbirth, but Cersei is not a reliable narrator on political machinations. It’s a fair guess that Tywin did hope that Cersei and Rhaegar could still wed in a future without Aerys or Elia… but would that potential have been enough for him to back Rhaegar in a coup against Aerys? Unclear.

So Dorne is, presumably, pro-Rhaegar, and the Westerlands are commanded by someone who is not necessarily pro-Rhaegar, but certainly anti-Aerys. What about the North, the Stormlands, the Reach, the Iron Islands, the Vale and the Riverlands?

Houses Baratheon, Stark, Arryn and Tully are all interconnected by marriage and fostering alliances. If Jon Arryn was attempting to persuade his comrades Hoster and Rickard of the benefits of a world without Targaryens, then it is possible that Robert, Brandon and Brynden Tully, who attended the tourney where Rickard and Hoster did not, might have needed to be persuaded about the merits of Rhaegar as another dragon over a non-dragon alternative, but would they have said this openly at the Council? Unlikely. Also interesting: it’s not clear if Jon Arryn was at the Harrenhal tourney or not. One would assume that he was, as interested in politics as I propose that he was, but he may not have been.

What about the Reach? Again, we lack sufficient information to know for certain, but the fact that the Reach was rallied for Aerys in Robert’s Rebellion suggests that they may have been open to the idea of King Rhaegar in place of the Mad King.

And this is the problem that I have with the idea that civil war was inevitable: while replacing Aerys with Rhaegar or someone feels inevitable, it wasn’t until the Mad King broke the rules of feudalism and roasted the Starks that any attempt at a coup really had moral, legal or social standing. Without that level of legitimacy, it’s hard to get people to change the status quo, even when it’s clearly unsatisfactory.

So… YES. Aerys’ reign was unsustainable.

YES. Rhaegar tried to rally a Great Council to convince the lords of the realm to back his proposal to force his father to abdicate.

YES. Jon Arryn was able to implement an entirely new regime far too quickly and easily for a man who’d never thought about it much…. i.e. he had thought about it. A lot. And had been slowly grooming his Stark, Baratheon and Tully allies to be prepared to back his radical idea when circumstances presented themselves.

But I highly doubt that Jon Arryn was expecting or hoping that Aerys would go that far and do something that bad, which would give him causus belli to rebel. 

Which is why it is difficult to say with confidence that civil war was inevitable. Civil unrest was inevitable, sure. But there’s a long way to go between unrest and outright rebellion. 

The days of the dragons may have been numbered as they had been whittled down to just Aerys, Rhaegar, Viserys and baby Aegon as potential claimants, but without the Targaryen kings making such an error of judgement as burning their citizens alive, it’s difficult to see how much traction proposals for a civil war would get even with a king whose sanity was questioned. Something really bad has to happen to convince people that civil war is justified. In the Blackfyre Rebellions, the justifications ranged from toxic masculinity to dreams to last ditch efforts of a dying male line…. but would the gregarious charm of Robert Baratheon and political acumen of Jon Arryn have been enough to convince Westeros that it was time to move on from the whims of House Targaryen?


One thought on “Was a civil war to end the reign of Aerys II, the Mad King, inevitable?

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