Tower of the Hand

Hands of the King: The Early Hands

4/17/2012 9:00:00 AM ET
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Race for the Iron Throne's Steven Attewell will be sharing some of his work on Tower of the Hand, offering his historical and political insights on A Song of Ice and Fire. His first piece couldn't be more appropriate for this site: a history and analysis of the Hands of the King, past, present, and future. In the first segment of this series, Steven discusses the nature of the office and the men who defined it during the reign of the early Targaryens.

handpin.jpgThe Hand of the King must build what the King dreams.

The Hand of the King is, next to the Iron Throne itself, one of the most hotly-contested offices to hold in all of Westeros, almost as dangerous to occupy as it is powerful. The men who have held the position have been as varied in character and degree of success as the monarchs they served, yet by examining both their different approaches and similarities across terms of office, we can learn a lot about what it means to be the man who must build what the King dreams, who has to get his hands dirty and actually run the realm.

In this segment, I'll discuss the nature of the office and the men who defined it during the reign of the early Targaryens. In further essays I'll look at the tenures of Baelor Breakspear and Brynden Bloodraven, why Tywin Lannister succeeded where four other Hands failed as advisor to King Aerys II, defend the reputations of Jon Arryn and Eddard Stark while contrasting their rules to Tyrion's brief but magnificent tenure.

Overview - What Powers Does the Hand Have?

In A Game of Thrones, Lord Eddard Stark describes the office as:

the second-most powerful man in the Seven Kingdoms. He spoke with the King's voice, commanded the King's armies, drafted the king's laws. At times he even sat upon the Iron Throne to dispense justice.

Together with his role as chairman of the Small Council, this basically sums up the duties of the Hand of the King - he is a law-giver, through his power to draft laws and issue royal decrees in the King's name; he is the commander-in-chief with authority over the Wardens of the North, South, East, and West, who can call on the King's vassals to supply troops for royal armies; and he is the ultimate court of appeals when the King can't be bothered.

This makes the Hand far more powerful than any comparable historical office - the Hand is more than a prime minister, more than a Lord Chancellor, Lord President of the Council, Earl Marshall, Lord High Constable, or Lord Privy Seal. Indeed, historically kings went to a lot of effort to dole out the royal offices more widely both to make a larger number of nobleman loyal to the crown but also to prevent any one vassal from getting so powerful that he decided to become a Kingmaker (although some kings failed to learn that lesson and paid a price for it). In essence, the Hand of the King is a deputy King, seemingly untouchable.

Despite all of these formal powers, despite the fact that he has in the Small Council a rather substantial bureaucracy with a permanent treasury, a standing navy, an intelligence service, and the head of the Citadel of Maesters at his beck and call, the Hand is ultimately dependent on the support of the King. At the end of the day, the Hand is an advisor to the King, and powerful in the King's absence. If the King withdraws his royal patronage, or if the King turns against his Hand, the Hand can fall from power astonishingly quickly, and it's not a surprise that so many Hands have ended their terms of office in a terminal fashion.

Likewise, the scope of the Hand's powers of office depends on what kind of a King he's dealing with - a martial King like Daeron I might take over the military role, leaving the Hand to try to hold together a kingdom and try to pay for his King's wars; a more peaceful King like Daeron II would likely take over the role of lawgiver and judge while needing a Hand who can command the King's armies in the field. Finally, a King has the ultimate authority to appoint the members of the Small Council, which means that a Hand might end up dealing with a royal bureaucracy with no loyalty to himself - a prime minister unable to rule his own cabinet. A strong King might well lead to a weak Hand, and vice versa.

The Early Hands - the Promise and Peril of Princely Hands

Themaegorc.jpgMaegor the Cruel, Hand of Aenys I (Artist: Amok) Handship's creation seems to have been a rather ad-hoc measure, as the weakness and indecision of King Aenys I resulted in the need for a competent day-to-day ruler and his younger brother Prince Maegor stepped up to protect the House Targaryen against the revolt of the Faith Militant. While it's hard to distinguish between his term as Hand and his later reign as King Maegor I, the Hand seems to have been initially a primarily military office with Maegor spending the majority of his time quelling the rebellion of the Faith of the Seven and its Orders Militant and completing the construction of the Red Keep as the crown's premiere fortification. While notoriously brutal in his personal life, Maegor seems to have been quite effective in cementing the Targaryen dynasty as the ruling House of the Seven Kingdoms despite a massive popular uprising that lasted eleven years. One might say that a brutal Hand is not a bad fit for a brutal era.

However, we also see the dangers of a princely Hand in that putting that much military and political power in the hands of a potential claimant to the Iron Throne is a destabilizing influence on the royal succession; after ruling as Hand for five years, Maegor refused to step aside when Aenys died and took the throne for himself. In this way, we can see that a certain amount of the Hand's role as a "deputy King" emerged out of happenstance; Maegor was acting as deputy King given his older brother's manifest incapacity, and the power stuck with the office rather than dying with the man.

Prince Viserysviserysiic.jpgViserys (later Viserys II), Hand of Daeron I and Baelor
(Artist: Amok)
(later Viserys II)'s term as Hand further exemplifies this Janus-like trend. On the one hand, Viserys was an able administrator who kept the monarchy functioning in difficult circumstances. The youthful Daeron I might have temporarily conquered Dorne, but he lost 60,000 men and his own life in doing so. Baelor the Blessed might have been an extremely pious man, but his policies as King often led to conflict and division within Seven Kingdoms, especially the confinement of his sisters in the Maidenvault which later led to political crisis when Daena Targaryen gave birth to the first of the Blackfyres. Throughout it all, Viserys held Westeros together with little thanks - which makes his possible poisoning of Baelor and his short, embittered reign a bit more understandable. Viserys' tenure points to some of the limitations of the position when confronted with an erring King - Viserys could maintain the Kingdom, but he simply didn't have the power to prevent reckless invasions or excesses of piety when the King wasn't willing to listen to his Hand's advice.

Overall, while the princely Hands had the advantage that their blood ties gave them a security of tenure that allowed them to be effective heads of government, they also posed a danger to the monarchy given the temptation to rise even higher. As Maester Pylos puts it, "the dragonkings oft chose Hands from among their own blood, with results as various as Baelor Breakspear and Maegor the Cruel." By contrast, the appointment of a commoner to be Hand of the King - Septon Barth - seems to have been much more successful and to have marked the transition of the Handship from a purely military position as it was in Maegor's time to one that encompassed civilian pursuits. At forty years, he still holds the record for the longest tenure of any known Hand, and his term of office seems to have been so prosperous and peaceful that it's still remembered hundreds of years later (although it helped that he was Hand to Jaehaerys I, a King known for his preternatural skill at diplomacy and extremely long reign). On the other hand, his reputation as a somewhat sinister sorcerer learned in the ways of dragonmagic might explain why succeeding Kings have been so loathe to name more commoners to fill his shoes.

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