There’s an impression amongst some in the ASOIAF fandom that House Targaryen has a history of polygamy, and that Westeros permitted this. Ergo, Rhaegar could TOTALLY take Lyanna Stark as a second wife and thus Jon Snow is legitimate.
As I’ve ranted elsewhere, Jon does not need to be legitimate. There’s just no need to tie ourselves up in knots to find a way for Jon Snow to be Jon Targaryen. Or Jaehaerys or Aemon or Visenya/Viserys or whatever Targaryen. The world will be saved by a bastard son of House Stark… and that’s fine.
But the need for a legitimate Jon, and this idea that House Targaryen was super special and never, ever subject to the social norms, customs and laws of Westeros when they conquered and took on the role of the defender of the Faith seems to perpetuate throughout the fandom. This post is about breaking down how and why we can be reasonably sure that the Targaryens took on the laws and lores of their new Seven Kingdoms. And, bonus…. polygamy was never “common” in Valyria. It was just a thing that happened.
Valyria and strange marriages
This is word for word the extent of what we are told about Valyrian practices around marriage, at page 53 of the World book:
From the history of Archmaester Gyldayn [i.e. from GRRM directly.]
The tradition amongst the Targaryens had always been to marry kin to kin. Wedding brother to sister was thought to be ideal. Failing that, a girl might wed an uncle, a cousin, or a nephew; a boy, a cousin, an aunt or niece. This practice went back to Old Valyria, where it was common amongst many of the ancient families, particularly those who bred and rode dragons. “The blood of the dragon must remain pure,” the wisdom went.
So this clearly sets out that despite their sigil, the Targaryens were not the only Valyrians to refer to themselves as “blood of the dragon.” Which, given what we find out about dragonbinding horns in FeastDance through Euron, Victarion and Moqorro, suggests a strong probability that blood magic was used to tame dragons and bind them to particular Valyrian sorcerers and their descendants, or even to create dragons from wyrms or other creatures in the first place. The purpose of the incest is to ensure that the dragon riding genes that allow those families to control those dragons remains active. Whatever blood magic the original sorcerer did to tame and control the dragons of that particular lineage must be passed on to the next generations dragons and dragonriders.
A good analogy from a different media is the treatment of the ‘Ancient gene’ in Stargate Atlantis. It’s set up from the first episode (following on from the same plotline in the original Stargate SG1) that certain humans have a gene passed down from their original Ancient/Lantean ancestors which allows them to activate Ancient/Lantean technology. TLDR: if you are a human who has the Ancient gene, you can activate cool shit left behind by our technologically superior predecessors.
There’s an episode in season 2 (episode 15, The Tower) where they discover a medieval, feudal style world, where those who possess the Ancient gene have set themselves up as a noble class, who rule over the non-Ancient gene possessing humans who work the fields etc for them. As generally happens in every single episode, the SGA team end up inadvertently getting mixed up in local politics…. this time, the problem is that the ‘royals’ want to keep Ancient-gene human Lt-Col John Sheppard around as a potential husband for one of the princesses, as they have diminished their capacity to operate Ancient technology through so many thousands of years of marriages in a limited gene pool. In the OPPOSITE situation to GRRM’s Valyrians, constantly limiting marriages of ‘special royal blood’ nobles to only other ‘special royal blood’ nobles has almost extinguished the Ancient gene. (and made for a really gross assortment of arseholes in charge as the nobles. Ronan Dex, played by Jason Momoa aka Khal Drogo, finds all this particularly offensive and is more than happy to lead a smallfolk revolution. It’s a good episode!)
ANYWAY, my point is: tracking “special blood” is not unique to Valyrians or fantasy. The most likely reason that the Valyrians did this was to control their dragons. The Targaryens are NOT unique – this custom was common across all noble Valyrian families, ESPECIALLY those who controlled dragons.
In real life, when royal families insisted upon generations upon generations of incestuous marriage to preserve their special blood, you ended up with some major genetic deformities. As noted by Price in that article just linked, generations of incest such as demonstrated in ASOIAF by House Targaryen should result in reduced fertility (check,) lower birth rate and higher infant mortality (again… check,) congenital birth defects (possible check – the “dragon like” Targaryen babies of Maegor the Cruel, Rhaenyra and Daemon, Daenerys and Drogo…???) and so on.
Some of the most notable cases of royal families in-breeding themselves to the point of collapse are the Hapsburgs of Spain, who ended up with a drooling, intellectually and physically impaired, sterile man who couldn’t even eat because his jaw was so deformed, the elongated, alien like skulls of Tutenkhamen and his kin, and the haemophilia of Prince Alexei of Russia which led his mother, the last Tsarina, to consult Rasputin, the Mad Monk, for a cure, a trait shared by many of Queen Victoria’s descendants across Europe (the Doctor Who explanation is far more entertaining though.)
GRRM’s depiction of generations of a preternaturally beautiful family who continuously practices incest with only internal defects around fertility is not completely inaccurate, but also not accurate. The Targaryens should look quite strange by now, and they don’t.
Valyria: pushing the boundaries of acceptable behaviour
The sorcerers of Valyrian had conquered dragons and bound these creatures of fire and legend to their will. Who says they had to follow any society’s rules anymore?
That’s really the only reason that we have some evidence of Valyrian polygamy – it was never practised as a means of controlling their dragons, like incest was, and it was NOT a regular occurrence. It was a rare thing. Partly fuelled by a sense of excess and grandeur that would ultimately damn the Valyrian Empire and, one suspects, just a way of getting around the fact that arranged marriages of brother and sister probably didn’t always involve a major romance for the ages…
Some of the sorcerer princes also took more than one wife when it pleased them, though this was less common than incestuous marriage. In Valyria before the Doom, wise men wrote, a thousand gods were honored, but none were feared, so few dared to speak against this custom. [emphasis added]
LET ME REITERATE THAT FOR YOU.
“Sorcerer princes” i.e. dragon controlling Valyrian nobles, SOMETIMES but not frequently took more than one wife.
Not common place.
Not all of them.
It was also considered to be offensive to broader society, within Valyria and outside it. It was weird! It was excessive, even in the Valyrian Empire. People didn’t fight back against the fact that Valyrian sorcerer princes took more than one wife BECAUSE THEY HAD FREAKIN’ DRAGONS THAT COULD KILL YOU.
This was not true in Westeros, where the power of the Faith went unquestioned. Incest was denounced as a vile sin, whether between father and daughter, mother and son, or brother and sister, and the fruits of such unions were considered abominations in the sight of gods and men. With hindsight, it can be seen that conflict between the Faith and House Targaryen was inevitable.
So long as the Targaryens kept to themselves on Dragonstone, and didn’t interact much with the mainland, the Faith-fearing Southron Andals seem to have left them alone to marry whoever they wanted. Because no one really wants to annoy the weird people who have access to beasts of mass destruction.
But once Aegon and his sister-wives conquered the Seven Kingdoms, that couldn’t continue. The Faith and the nobles might have feared Aegon, Visenya and Rhaenys, but they didn’t fear Aenys, Rhaenys and Aegon’s son, and they were willing to continue fighting Maegor, Visenya and Aegon’s son, despite his fearsome conduct.
The moment the Targaryens decided to make themselves Kings of Westeros, and be bound to the Faith, they made their funky marriage practices a huge problem. They had to either accept Andal law and custom, or argue that they were allowed to be different because… reasons?
Aegon the Conqueror’s choice: be bound by the Faith
Aegon made a very practical, very pragmatic and very political choice when he invaded Westeros and created the Seven Kingdoms: he chose to bind his family to the customs, practices and faith of the Seven. Not just by having the High Septon as one of his advisors, but in a much more important demonstration of politically becoming one with his newly conquered peoples:
The day of Aegon’s Landing [where King’s Landing was built] was celebrated by the king and his descendants, but the Conqueror actually dated the start of his reign from the day he was crowned and anointed in the Starry Sept of Oldtown by the High Septon of the Faith.
Aegon made a deliberate and careful choice to tie his reign and that of his dynasty to the Faith. The Faith which vehemently objected to his birth and the birth of his children as ‘abominations in the eyes of gods and man’ because of the history of incest in his family.
That’s an interesting choice!
GRRM doesn’t explicitly dive into the common way that royals decided they were the ones who ought to rule their kingdoms, divine right. But Dany frequently acts and talks along the lines of divine right – Westeros is hers to rule because it was her family’s kingdom, the Iron Throne is hers by right, and so on. What she’s really getting at in all of this is: I should be Queen of the Seven Kingdoms because I am the last Targaryen, and we have a divinely ordained right to rule.
GRRM doesn’t dive into this too deeply because to really believe in divine right, we need Dany and any other Targaryen who wants to claim this (or Baratheon, even – hello Stannis, I see you there…) to really, deeply, genuinely believe in A god, any god/s, just some god that says “You People Must Rule The Other People Because You Special.” And… Dany, Stannis etc – they just aren’t that religious. The only really religious Targaryen was Baelor the Blessed, but his predecessors had been banging on about their special right to rule for generations. But really, GRRM is interested in the claims of people to the Iron Throne who want to seize political power for the sake of having political power, more so than the idea that a person with special blood should rule. That’s why Stannis’ arc is centred so much on becoming a more deserving man of the Iron Throne – he is defending Westeros from a threat that most of Westeros isn’t even yet aware of, and he’s the only one doing it.
The other likely reason that GRRM avoids having his various claimants to the Iron Throne get too excited about divine right to rule: the political theory of divine right might have been floating around as a vague concept amongst medieval feudal kings, but didn’t really become a big thing until royals started to face threats of “the people” (primarily the noble elites rather than the smallfolk, but the idea of a citizenry was slowly emerging) for failing to govern for the good of the nation rather than the good of just the king. James VI + I was one of, if not the first major proponent of the political doctrine of the divine right of kings, as a way of justifying his increasingly absolutist rule, something that his son Charles I would continue and ultimately lose his crown and his head over. However, Queen Elizabeth I was also a fan of James VI’s theory, before she declared him to be her heir – she needed to justify her status as the divinely chosen ruling Queen, in the face of sexist hostility to her rule, to become the first successful and respected ruling queen of medieval-to-modern England. James believed that:
The state of monarchy is the supremest thing upon earth; for kings are not only God’s lieutenants upon earth, and sit upon God’s throne, but even by God himself are called gods. There be three principal similitudes that illustrate the state of monarchy: one taken out of the word of God; and the two other out of the grounds of policy and philosophy. In the Scriptures kings are called gods, and so their power after a certain relation compared to the divine power. Kings are also compared to fathers of families: for a king is truly Parens patriae, the politique father of his people. And lastly, kings are compared to the head of this microcosm of the body of man. (emphasis added)
So the idea is that the king, God’s special chosen one, the head of his own family and the family of the nation, is also God’s commanding officer on the ground. Ergo, whatever the king wants must be God’s will, right?
And… that more or less explains where the shit hit the fan for James’ son Charles, and Charles’ son James II…. If you’re interested in that topic, look up the Glorious Revolution of 1688 for how James II was booted off the throne by Parliament in favour of his sister and her Protestant husband, Mary and William of Orange. For the decline and fall of Charles I, Geoffrey Robertson’s analysis of how the lawyers of the Protectorate had to work out how to put the King on trial is absolutely fascinating (admittedly…. if you’re a law nerd, which I am…)
Aegon the Conqueror isn’t quite at James VI + I’s divine right theory, but he is attempting to ground the legitimacy of his and his successor’s reign in the culture and religion of the dominant people of Westeros – the Faith-worshipping Andals. Maybe as a mark of respect to the North for Torren Stark choosing to kneel rather than fight, or more likely just because Aegon didn’t really care about the North so long as the Starks maintained order and swore fealty to the Iron Throne, no attempt was made to ground the legitimacy of Aegon’s reign in the old gods. This is why Aegon’s choice to mark the start of his reign as the date on which he was crowned and anointed by the High Septon is definitely a political choice. While his descendants may have become true believers in the Faith of the Seven, Aegon himself was just making sure that he had all the trappings and social constructs of power – he wrapped himself in the rainbow cloak of the Faith, so to speak, so that the devout folk of Dorne, the Stormlands, the Reach, the Riverlands, the Westerlands and the Vale, all of whom followed the Faith to one level of fervour or another, had to accept the new regime as their gods-bestowed, legitimate kings.
But it also put his sons on a collision course with the Faith. Aegon and his sister-wives might have temporarily won the allegiance and respect of the Andals, but in the long term…. the Faith was clear on their teachings about incest: the children of incest are abominations and damned. How could the children of abominations who went on to have their own abominations possibly be the gods’ chosen rulers?
Conflict was inevitable on the point of incest. But what about the point of polygamy, another major no-no in the Faith…
How many polygamous Targaryens were there?
Of the known members of House Targaryen, there are actually only a few polygamous marriages. As outlined above, even within Valyria, polygamy was not common. It was a thing that happened, but it wasn’t a normal event like incestuous marriages.
Also, before we get too high up on that horse about “ew polygamy is sooooo gross, you freaky Valyrians….” – remember, the Ironborn also practice polygamy. Still. The only difference is that their additional wives have less say in the matter (as the “salt wives” are no more or less than sex slaves, stolen from the ‘greenlands’ of Westeros and other lands where the pirates hunt and pillage) BUT… salt wives’ offspring are still considered sons who might inherit their father’s property and rights, if the rock wife bears no sons (or her son’s die, or whatever.) And we have examples within the ASOIAF canon of lower-born, former salt wife sons who established their own houses. So… polygamy does happen in Westeros, and did happen before Aegon’s Conquest. It’s not just a Valyrian thing! It is still… weird. Not widely practiced. Not accepted by the Faith or the Northerner First Men. Which is interesting, given that we have indications that the wildlings sometimes practice polygamy, and we have canon confirmation that the First Men practiced polygamy – especially Garth Greenhand and his many, many offspring! There is an argument to be made, as /u/MithrasStormborn does here, that the Ironborn and their various objectionable cultural practices of raiding, multiple wives etc is actually more representative of true, non-Andal blended First Men than the North’s more structured approach to cultural norms and laws.
We also have the Dornish paramours phenomenon, which is a little different – how much property and inheritance rights flow on to bastards born to paramours is unclear, and seems to be handled on a case by case basis within families according to how much the bastard offspring are accepted by the legal wife and kids. The only major difference for Dorne is that as a culture, they broadly (although not universally) accept that noble marriages are often done for politics or financial reasons, rather than love; having a lover is not considered a horrible, heinous sin – even though it is against the strict rules of the Faith. For the Dornish, shit happens…. and that shit includes enjoying love in all its forms, whatever society demands of you in terms of obligations to continue the family line and make politically advantageous matches.
Back to those kooky Valyrians…
The earliest recorded Targaryen is Aenar Targaryen and his daughter, Daenys the Dreamer, whose prophetic visions of the Doom led the family and their vassals to flee Valyria before it went kaboom.
The Targaryens were of pure Valyrian blood, dragonlords of ancient lineage. Twelve years before the Doom of Valyria (114 BC), Aenar Targaryen sold his holdings in the Freehold and moves with all his wives, wealth, slaves, dragons, siblings, kin and children to Dragonstone, a bleak island citadel beneath a smoking mountain in the narrow sea… The Targaryens were far from the most powerful of the dragonlords, and their rivals saw their flight to Dragonstone as an act of surrender, of cowardice. But Lord Aenar’s maiden daughter Daenys, known forever after as Daenys the Dreamer, had foreseen the destruction of Valyria by fire. And when the Doom came twelve years later, the Targaryens were the only dragonlords to survive. (emphasis added)
So here we have confirmation that Aenar was a polygamist, and that while the Targaryens were no where near the most powerful dragonriding family in Valyria, after the Doom they were the sole keepers of the knowledge and heritage of dragon riding and breeding.
After Aenar, his son Gaemon, brother-husband to Daenys by this time, took over as Lord of Dragonstone. No mention that he had more wives than just dreamy Daenys.
Gaemon’s son Aegon and his daughter Elaena ruled together after his death. After them, the lordship passed to their son Maegon, his brother Aerys, and Aerys’s sons, Aelyx, Baelon, and Daemion. The last of the three brothers was Daemion, who son Aerion [father of Aegon the Conqueror] then succeeded to Dragonstone.
These passages on pages 31-33 of the World book comprise the grand total of published knowledge about early House Targaryen – for now. It’s possible/likely that we may get more information about early House Targaryen when Fire & Blood comes out.
So as far as we know, these are the only polygamists in House Targaryen:
- Aenar Targaryen – polygamist
- Gaemon – not a polygamist?
- Aegon – not a polygamist?
- Maegon – no information
- Aerys – no information
- Aelyx – no information
- Baelon – no information
- Daemion – no information
- Aerion – not a polygamist. Married Valaena Velaryon. Only one wife on the family tree.
- Aegon the Conqueror – polygamist. Married one sister for duty, the other for love.
- Aenys – not a polygamist
- Maegor – polygamist
- Jaehaerys I onwards – NO MORE POLYGAMY though heaps of ongoing incest.
Now, to be very fair, “no information” does not mean confirmation that this Targaryen ruler of Dragonstone was not a polygamist. But it also doesn’t mean confirmation that they were!
Also very interesting… Gaemon and Daenys ruled together, as did their children Aegon and Elaena, and eventually Aegon, Visenya and Rhaenys. Jaehaerys and Alysanne ruled together for all intents and purposes too. When the House Targaryen stop letting its women take charge alongside their men? Viserys I? Earlier?
But there is certainly no overwhelming precedent of Targaryen polygamy that could justify Rhaegar’s cooked AF plan to marry Lyanna Stark (if that was his plan – and while the show took that route, I still think it’s a very, very big IF as to whether Book Rhaegar really gave a shit about marrying Lyanna…)
So the grand total of this “long history of polygamy” that fans claim justifies theories that Rhaegar could legitimately marry Lyanna consists of THREE known polygamist Lords/Kings, and a reference in a passage about Old Valyria that taking more than one wife was not common, though it did happen.
A precedent (in the context of saying “there’s precedent for Rhaegar to take a second wife”) is not a thing that happened that one time. A precedent is something that has happened so many times that it holds some kind of social or legal weight, something that would justify it being relied upon in the future. Within the Anglophone common law world, precedent is a very specific legal doctrine of following decisions made by superior courts as “judge made law” which supplements or clarifies legislation.
So it really, really, REALLY bugs me when people say “Oh but like there’s totally a precedent which would allow Rhaegar to marry Lyanna….” NO. There isn’t. That’s not what a precedent is, that’s not how this idea works, in law or in social norms, and there just is not enough evidence that polygamy was continued by House Targaryen after they left Valyria to even go so far as to say the Targaryens regularly practised polygamy!
Maegor the Cruel is an anomaly, for so many reasons, including his polygamy. The anomaly of his reign was solved by Jaehaerys the Conciliator, who reached a conciliation with the Faith which ceased the civil war between Oldtown and the Targaryens.
Again… GRRM chooses his words with care. A conciliation is a specific thingA conciliation is a specific thing – it’s not just a peace deal or agreement. There’s give and take by both sides. The Faith gave up their Militant army. Jaehaerys foreswore polygamy. Was that all? Probably not…
But that itself leads to an interesting question, and perhaps one for another blog…. why did the Faith accept Jaehaerys’ offer if it meant accepting incestuous marriages within the royal family?
It’s fairly easy to deduce that part of Jaehaerys’ offer to the Faith was “we will stop practising polygamy,” because NO Targaryen prince, king or otherwise, has successfully managed to play the polygamy card since then. And some of them tried! Daemon, the Rogue Prince, tried to argue that he should be able to marry a second wife while his first wife, Rhea Royce, still lived, because he hated the “bronze bitch” – his brother Viserys I said no. Later, another Daemon, this time Daemon Blackfyre attempted to argue he should marry Daenerys (the first one, half sister of Daemon and full sister of Daeron the Good, who married Prince Maron Martell, finally bringing Dorne fully into the Seven Kingdoms fold.
Neither of these Daemons are the type of guy to be particular fussed about some stuffy old dude in a crystal hat saying “no no no, thou shalt not take more than one wife!” Nor are they people who particularly feared their king – both rebelling against the Iron Throne for differing reasons.
But they did not press the issue, or try to claim some special right of Targaryen other-ness which would allow them to take a second wife just because they wanted to when their king refused it. The only rational inference here is that House Targaryen, even only a generation or two after Jaehaerys reached a conciliation with the Faith, considered themselves bound by the laws of Westeros and the Faith which prohibited polygamy.
Ergo, Jaehaerys’ offer to the Faith included a guarantee to give up polygamy, and the Targaryens have been as bound as anyone else in the Seven Kingdoms (who bothers to follow the law… which the Ironborn and wildlings don’t!) by the legal and religious prohibition on polygamy.
Point of interest: polygamy is linked to higher rates of social unrest and civil war by the Economist. So there’s plenty of good reasons for the royal house to give up this ridiculous practice, regardless of the Faith’s concerns.
But how did Jaehaerys manage to convince the Faith to abandon their opposition to House Targaryen’s incestuous marriages? I’ve asked myself that question a lot, and while I’ve got some ideas bouncing around, I still don’t really know.
Maybe we’ll find out in Fire and Blood. So that’s a reason to get excited for the not Winds release!
Merci beaucoup to all the folk on reddit and twitter who helped me bounce around ideas on the reddit post which preceded this blog post. It was very helpful.