Tower of the Hand

The Blacks and Reds Part I

2/22/2015 12:00:00 PM 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 previous series include Hands of the King, Hollow Crowns and Deadly Thrones, and A Laboratory of Politics. Now Steve turns his attention toward the Blackfyre Rebellions. In Part I: Origins and Causes, Steve tackles the difficult questions of why and how the Blackfyre Rebellions happened and who fought for the Blacks and who fought for the Reds.

The Blackfyre Rebellions are the longest-running political conflict in the history of Westeros, bequeathing to the people of the Seven Kingdoms "five generations of strife." They are certainly some of the most important historical events for the generation of A Song of Ice and Fire - the Blackfyre Rebellions put Mad King Aerys on the Iron Throne, they gave rise to the conflict in the Westerlands that culminated in the Rains of Castamere and gave Tywin Lannister his reputation and his link to Aerys Targaryen, they made Ser Barristan a household name and King Robert's father a Lord Paramount before his time and possibly brought about a conspiracy that would topple the Targaryen dynasty. The Rebellions continue to shape the history of Westeros to the current day, as the Golden Company once more sets foot on the shores of their home country.

And yet, despite its importance, and despite the fact that we have more information about the Blackfyre Rebellion than almost any other period in Westerosi history, there is mysteriously little that is known about this conflict. How and why it started, who fought for which side, the course of the first and most cataclysmic Rebellion, the identity and life stories of most of the members of House Blackfyre, the events of the Third Rebellion - all we have are the merest scraps of information.

In "The Blacks and Reds," I will try to uncover the history of the Blackfyre Rebellions as best I can in four parts. In this part, I will tackle the difficult questions of why and how the Blackfyre Rebellions happened and who fought for the Blacks and who fought for the Reds. In Part II, I will examine in-depth the course of the First Rebellion, my theory about the military strategy behind the battles, and how much we can learn from a single coin. In Part III, I will attempt to survey the rest of the conflict, all the way from Daeron II's ill-fated tourney at Whitewalls to Maelys the Monstrous' final battle on the Stepstones. And in Part IV, I will narrow my focus on the Golden Company - how it was formed, what makes it special, and how it has structured Essosi politics for almost a hundred years. (Incidentally, some of this material will be presented on the History of Westeros podcast, which I encourage all of you to listen to.)

The Causes

The World of Ice & Fire tells us that "there was no final insult, no great wrong, that led Daemon Blackfyre to turn against King Daeron." (WOAIF, p. 101) And yet, tens of thousands of men did not fight and die without some cause to motivate them, to inspire subjects to rise up against their king, vassals against their liege lords, brothers against brothers and fathers against sons. I will argue that there are at least three and quite possibly four main categories of causes for the Blackfyre Rebellion, although I will hold off on the last until the conclusion for reasons that will become apparent.

Aegon IV knighting Daemon Blackfyre. (Artist: Marc Simonetti)Aegon IV knights Daemon Blackfyre. (Artist: Marc Simonetti via The World of Ice & Fire)

The Historical Cause - The Dornish Question

With all due respect to my friends and colleagues at the History of Westeros Podcast, I do think you have to go further back than Aegon IV to understand the roots of the Blackfyre Rebellions. Rather, I think we have to start with the reign of King Daeron I.

The Young Dragon succeeded to the Iron Throne of Westeros in 157 AC, at the tender age of 14. The throne he ascended to was in poor shape, however. Aegon III's reign had been marked at the outset by violence, disorder, and a weakened monarchy, from the Hour of the Wolf which put a bloody end to the disputes between Greens and Blacks, to the Regent Wars of 131-136 AC which saw the monarchy turned into a political pawn of the lords of the realm. While Aegon III and his Hand Viserys were contentious rulers and able statesmen, seeking to "give the smallfolk peace and food and justice," (WOIAF, p. 86) nothing could hide the fact that the dragons were gone and with them, the foundations of Targaryen power. To provide a substitute for dragons, Daeron turned to conquest - war would put a powerful army at the hands of the king and his Wardens (after all, to lose 50,000 men, Daeron must have had at least 100,000 at his command), unite the realm behind a nationalistic project, and give the king lands to use as political chips in the game of feudal loyalties.

WhileDaeron the First (Artist: Amok)Daeron I (Artist: Amok) King Daeron's Dornish war is remembered now for its losses, at the time it promised much to many - pay for soldiers, glory for knights, land for younger sons, and political power for those who stood at the right hand of the king. And who stood at Daeron's Hand? We know Alyn Velaryon, the Oakenfist and one of the few remaining Blacks to survive the Hour of the Wolf and the Regency Wars, provided the naval might behind the invasion. More importantly, however, Daeron turned to Lord Lyonel Tyrell - "Daeron divided his host into three forces: one led by Lord Tyrell, who came down the Prince's Pass," distracting the Dornish army while Daeron marched "down the treacherous pass called the Boneway, where he made use of goat tracks that others considered too dangerous... The young king then swept away every force that sought to stop him." (WOIAF, p. 87) In addition to being King Daeron's Warden of the South, Lord Lyonel was, after all, the direct descendant of the Lord Harlan Tyrell who had died in the first Dornish War, and the men of the Reach had warred against the Dornish for thousands of years. He had every reason to join the conflict, and as the commander of a third of Daeron's forces, Lyonel stood high in the king's favor.

Thus, Lyonel shouldered the burden of trying to force the Prince's Pass, while Daeron won immortality by trapping and then breaking the Dornish host against the Red Mountains as "Oakenfist broke the Planky Town and swept halfway up the Greenblood whilst the main Dornish strength was engaged in the Prince's Pass." (ADWD 18: Jon IV) As a result of this smashing victory, "the Young Dragon was free to return in triumph, leaving Lord [Lyonel] Tyrell to keep the peace." (WOIAF, p. 88)

As reward for his work in fighting the Dornish in the Prince's Pass, Lord Tyrell was made Regent of Dorne. Lyonel had avenged his ancestor, won his victory over the Dornish that the Tyrells had never had (compared to the victories of the Gardener Kings), and won himself an entire kingdom as his own. And, given the realities of feudal politics, Lord Tyrell's regency over Dorne would mean that the second sons of the Reach would now become viceroys of Blackmont, High Hermitage, Starfall, Skyreach, Kingsgrave, Yronwood, Vulture's Roost, Sandstone, Hellholt, Vaith, Salt Shore, Godsgrace, the Tor, Ghost Hill, and Lemonwood. To understand who chooses which side in the Blackfyre Rebellion, we have to keep in mind what this victory meant for the lords of the Reach, that they now had something to lose.

As a result, the men of the Reach fought like hell to hang onto their prize:

Lord Tyrell, whom Daeron had left in charge of Dorne, valiantly attempted to quell the fires of rebellion ... punishing any supporters of the rebels with the noose, burning down the villages that harbored the outlaws ... but the smallfolk struck back, and each new day found supplies stolen or destroyed, camps burned, horses killed, and slowly the count of dead soldiers and men-at-arms rose - killed in the alleyways of the shadow city, ambushed amidst the dunes, murdered in their camps.

WOIAF, p. 88

As a result, new hatreds and new vendettas were born in the deserts of Dorne, as Reachermen seethed with resentment at the dishonor of bending the knee and then murdering men from ambush and Dornishmen counted their dead by the village. Thus it was little surprise that, as Prince Oberyn Martell explains later, "one night he found himself beneath a heavy velvet canopy. A sash hung down near the pillows, should he wish to summon a wench. He had a taste for Dornish women ... so he pulled upon the sash ... and a hundred red scorpions fell down." (ASOS 67: Tyrion IX) In the rebellion that followed, some forty thousand men died - and their kin would view their deaths not as honorable deaths in battle but murder that would have to be answered.

And Daeron and Oakenfist returned to Dorne to answer the rebellion, and seemingly won yet another startling victory, leading the lords of Dorne to once again bend the knee in submission. Except that this time, "In a bloody betrayal, the Dornish attacked the Young Dragon and his retinue beneath the peace banner. Three Knights of the Kingsguard were slain attempting to protect the king (a fourth, to his eternal shame, threw down his sword and yielded)." (AWOIAF, p. 88) The king was dead, three knights of the Kingsguard were dead, as were many lords of Westeros. Consider the War of the Five Kings, and the bitter hatreds and vendettas birthed by the murder of King Robert and the execution of Eddard Stark, the sack of Winterfell, and the Red Wedding - and now imagine that same wave of feeling engulfing tens of thousands of families all over Westeros.

AndBaelor the Blessed (Artist: Amok)Baelor the Blessed (Artist: Amok) as we learn in The World of Ice & Fire, "The outrage that followed was swiftly directed at the Dornish hostages. At the command of the king's Hand, Prince Viserys, they were thrown into the dungeons to await hanging." (WOIAF, p. 89) And at the last moment, this wave of feeling was halted at the command of the new king. Baelor the Blessed's "first act as king was to grant pardon for the Dornish hostages ... Even as his lords and council cried for vengeance, Baelor publicly forgave his brother's killers and declared that he meant to 'bind up the wounds' of his brother's war and make peace with Dorne." (ibid) Baelor went even further than simple clemency; he decided that "As an act of piety, he declared, he would to go to Dorne ... to return their hostages and sue for peace." Said peace involved Baelor agreeing "that his young cousin Daeron - grandson of his Hand, Viserys, and the son of Viserys' eldest son Prince Aegon - should be betrothed to Princess Mariah, eldest child of the Prince of Dorne." (ibid)

Baelor's actions are lauded for bringing an end to the Dornish War(s). But in retrospect, I think we can fairly criticize Baelor for how he handled his kingdom's expectations regarding the peace. While Baelor's martyr-like, all-encompassing forgiveness is certainly personally commendable, it also prevented the people of Westeros from coming to any kind of catharsis over the losses they had suffered, let alone restitution or revenge. By suing for peace, releasing the hostages unconditionally, and doing a public act of penance for the war, Baelor symbolically placed the men who had fought for his brother, both the ones who survived and the ones who died, in the wrong. The muted, inexpressible resentment and the suppressed grief and rage of those who had so much snatched from their grasp would only fester. And by uniting the houses of Martell and Targaryen, he brought the conflicts over the war into his own family.

OneAegon IV (Artist: Amok)Aegon IV (Artist: Amok) of those who clearly bore a festering resentment was the future Aegon IV. After all, Aegon was a veteran of the war and had performed well enough to be tasked with bringing the hostages back to King's Landing after Daeron's first great victory. While our image of Aegon IV is that of an obese lecher, we have to remember that the young Aegon was "skilled with lance and sword, a man who loved to hunt and hawk," (WOIAF, p. 95) which explains his appeal to Daena the Defiant, who "worshipped her father and idolized her brother Daeron, the Young Dragon." (SSM, 7/27/06) And within a few years, Aegon saw his son married to a Dornishwoman without his permission, his Dornish war-prize concubine given away, his cousin/lover imprisoned - there is little doubt that Aegon IV would have had little fondness for his uncle Baelor and his peace policy.

More than any other monarch, Aegon IV helped to bring about the Blackfyre Rebellion - few people question that. However, I'll discuss his more intimate and familiar actions in the next section; here, I'll concentrate on Aegon IV's Dornish policy. For the politics of Dorne run throughout Aegon IV's reign - his son Daeron, who quarreled with his father constantly, was the leader of a faction opposed to his father's policy, and "Daeron's allies - chief among them the Prince of Dorne, whose sister Daeron had wed - would defend his rights." (WOIAF, p. 96) When Ser Morgil publicly questioned Queen Naerys' fidelity and Daeron's paternity, "these accusations came at the same time as Aegon and Prince Daeron were quarreling over the king's plans to launch an unprovoked war against Dorne." (ibid) Thus, when considering questions of Daeron's paternity, we must always keep the Dornish question in mind - because to back Daeron was to back peace with Dorne, and to back Aegon IV meant war.

In response to Daeron's Dornish or pro-peace faction, we are told that Aegon IV "turned his attention to Dorne, using the hatred for the Dornishmen that still burned in the marches, the stormlands, and the Reach to suborn some of Daeron's allies and use them against his most powerful supporters." (ibid) In this statement, we can see the origins of Daemon Blackfyre's coalition, the regions of Westeros with the biggest grudges against Dorne, the men who had lost the most with Daeron's death and Baelor's peace, and who now had an opportunity to express what had been repressed for decades.

But a close reading reveals further details - the phrase "use them against his most powerful supporters," in the context of which houses joined the Blackfyres (more of which later), suggests the use of lesser houses against the great houses (more on their loyalties later), who might theoretically have more of an interest in maintaining the status quo. We can also see that Daeron had some supporters who were peeled away from his coalition - this could include Lord Ambrose, one of the few men to be employed both by Aegon IV (as Master of Coin) and Daeron II (as Hand of the King). It could also include some of the houses of the westerlands, riverlands, and the Vale who wouldn't necessarily share the same urgency regarding the Dornish as those of the Reach, the stormlands, and the marches.

With this coalition in place, Aegon made the attempt to bring Dorne to honor his cousin Daeron's memory and to secure the victory that he and the other veterans of the Conquest must have felt had been taken from them. Now, there is a textual lacuna that suggests he may have tried more than once - in the Dorne section of WOIAF, the text mentions that "there were other Dornish Wars" after Aegon the Conqueror's, which would include at least one war other than Daeron's Conquest. Regardless of how many times Aegon IV attempted to make good on his desire to be seen as a warrior king, it never ended well. His efforts ended when "the king's plans to invade Dorne in 174 AC proved a complete failure," with the huge royal fleet "broken and scattered by storms on its way to Dorne," and his alchemical dragons "went up in flames in the kingswood, far from the Boneway." (WOIAF, p. 96) And yet... even after this catastrophe in the kingswood, Aegon IV still pursued a policy of aggression, betrothing his natural son Daemon Blackfyre to Tyrosh, "because its fleet would be of use if he made another attempt to conquer Dorne." (WOAIF, p. 101)

ForDaeron II (Artist: Amok)Daeron II (Artist: Amok) the third time, Dornish policy changed dramatically once again when Aegon IV's body finally gave up on its equally epic struggle against the consequences of hedonism and Daeron II ascended to the Iron Throne. From the beginning, Daeron II placed as his highest priority a diplomatic policy by which Dorne could be brought peacefully under the Targaryen monarchy:

negotiations with his good-brother, Prince Maron, to unify Dorne under Targaryen rule ... an agreement was reached in which Prince Maron agreed to be betrothed to Daeron's sister, Daenerys, once she was of age ... Prince Maron had won a few concessions in the accord, and the lords of Dorne held significant rights and privileges that the other great houses did not - the right to keep their royal title first among them, but also the autonomy to maintain their own laws, the right to assess and gather the taxes due to the Iron Throne with only irregular oversight from the Red Keep.

WOIAF, p. 100

Posterity and much of the fandom rightly lauds Daeron II for winning such a bloodless victory and proving the utility of diplomacy over warfare - so much so that "Good King Daeron" is often placed up there with Jaehaerys the Conciliator as one of the greatest of the Targaryen monarchs. However, with the text of The World of Ice & Fire in hand, and in the light of Jon and Daenerys' peacemaking efforts in ADWD, I think Daeron II's reign is due for some revisionism. For like Jon Snow, I think Daeron can be rightly criticized for having pushed for peace too fast and too hard, failing to build enough of a constituency behind his policy, and failing to pacify the hardliners who would lead a backlash against him.

For the peace Daeron won was not a victor's peace, or even a status quo peace if viewed from a specific perspective, but one in which the Prince of Dorne won much from King Daeron II. The lords of Westeros, so jealous of their rights and privileges that they would rebel again and again in the reign of Aegon V when he attempted to curtail them, resented that the lords of Dorne would enjoy unique benefits - thus, "dissatisfaction at these concessions was one of the seeds from which the first Blackfyre Rebellion sprang," as The World of Ice & Fire tells us. (WOAIF, p. 101) And as with Daeron I, with policy comes patronage - Daeron II's accession to the Iron Throne and his peace treaty with Dorne meant that the pro-war faction, who had held much power in King's Landing during the reigns of Dareon I and Aegon IV, was now on the outs. We are told that Daeron began his reign by "removing all the members of the king's small council," many of whom no doubt were appointed because they shared Aegon IV's views on Dorne. At the same time, Daeron "brought many Dornishmen to his court, some of whom were granted offices of note." Thus, the "belief that Dorne held too much influence over the king" both reflected a reaction to a sharp break between administrations, but also the somewhat self-interest sentiment of those houses who had just lost political power - and not just to a normal rival, but to their former enemies. (WOIAF, p. 100-101)

As always, one can never discount the power of symbolism. That Prince Maron received the hand of a king's daughter and sister, normally a prize reserved for conquerors like Orys Baratheon, likely suggested to many that Dorne had somehow won the conflict - with a half-Martell on the Iron Throne and a Targaryen brought back to Sunspear. As a result, the men who had fought for Daeron's namesake, and who had allied themselves with Aegon IV felt politically alienated:

Knights and lords of the Dornish Marches came to mistrust Daeron, and Baelor as well, and began to look more and more to the old days, when Dornishmen were the enemy to fight, not rivals for the king's attention or largesse...

In truth, the seeds found fertile ground because of Aegon the Unworthy. Aegon had hated the Dornish and warred against them, and those lords who desired the return of those days ... would never be happy with this peaceable king. Many famed warriors who looked with dismay on the peace in the realm and the Dornish in the king's court began to seek Daemon out.

WOAIF, p. 101

This is where I feel Daeron can be rightly criticized, because he had eleven years between his accession and the Blackfyre Rebellion to deal with this anger, and did nothing to ward it off. Especially given his manifest skills in administering and ruling, he should have known better - he may have only been seven years old when Daeron I was slain in Dorne, but he grew to majority in the reign of Baelor the Blessed and must have seen the reaction to Baelor's policies; he certainly would have been familiar with the depth of feeling that his father had drummed up in support of his new war and against Daeron himself. There was a need, once again, to manage expectations, to find symbolic and practical means for soothing and channeling violent emotion in productive direction, to explain and justify his policies, and to ensure that the men who had lost out when peace with Dorne had been accomplished had a stake in the new regime by spreading around the patronage as opposed to concentrating so much influence in the Martells.1

And it was this inaction, this failure, which turned a nascent, inchoate faction that his father's death had left leaderless into a potential constituency for rebellion.

A Side-Note

In this discussion, I have attempted to explain the motivations underpinning rebellion, in part by explaining the pro-war faction's thinking, because often I think the fandom so identifies with Baelor and Daeron II that they fail to see why anyone would have had a problem with peace.

But I don't want to dismiss the very real fact that anti-Dornish bigotry played in the Blackfyre Rebellion - Aegon might have claimed that he was the king of Dorne back in 6 AC, but Dorne had been independent of the Targaryen monarchy for 150 years by the time that Daeron sought imperial conquest. To the Westerosi then, the Dornish were politically and culturally Other - which we can see reflected a hundred and fifty years later in racial bigotry directed at Oberyn Martell when he arrives in King's Landing, and which at the time even manifested against Baelor Breakspear, who perfectly embodied all of the things the Westerosi look for in a king, but who nonetheless looked "more a Martell than a Targaryen."

However, I do think that George R. R. Martin complicates the story somewhat with The World of Ice & Fire. Dorne and its neighbors have been at war for thousands of years, with Dorne the aggressor as much as the defender - Reachermen are hardly likely to forget that the Dornish sacked Highgarden and besieged Oldtown, burned the Oakenseat, and killed King Garth X in his bed; stormlanders remember when the Yronwoods and Wyls invaded up to the River Slayne, or that Princess Meria Martell raided them when Argilac fought Harren the Black; the Marcher Lords remember the Vulture Kings who preyed upon them. As in the more recent history of Daeron I, hatred does not emerge out of some mysterious spasm of the soul, but is built, corpse by corpse, from the desire for vengeance for the beloved departed.

The Personal Cause - the Better Man?

One of the things that historians love to debate is the relative power of historical forces vs. individual agency, the longue durée of Fernand Braudel vs. the Great Man theory of world history. So we must pass from a consideration of how the history of conflict over Dorne shaped political coalitions to examine the personalities of the two rival claimants for the Iron Throne, because the conflict was more complicated than simply a clash between a peaceful scholar and a brash warrior.

To begin with, we should acknowledge the role of the personal and the familial in structuring this conflict. Daeron grew up in constant conflict with his father, taking the part of his long-suffering mother, often in political alliance with his uncle Aemon the Dragonknight, which no doubt helped to fuel rumors that their relationship was closer than the merely avuncular. For example, the two collaborated in "Barba [Bracken]'s undoing, as young Prince Daeron and his uncle, the Dragonknight, forced Aegon to send her and the bastard away." (WOIAF, p. 99) And of course, Aemon was his nephew's champion in defense of his legitimacy. There's a strongly Freudian subtext to this conflict between Daeron and Aegon - Aegon's sexual demands nearly killed Daeron's mother in 161 and 172 AC, while Aegon's habit of taking mistresses seemed driven as much by a desire to obliterate his unwanted marriage to Queen Naerys as by any sexual passion. Hence the mock marriage between Aegon and Merry Meg in 155 AC, only two years after Daeron's birth, or the Bracken's clear intent to replace Queen Naerys.

The flashpoint of their relationship was Aegon's constant, public, "barely veiled references to his son's illegitimacy," which culminated in the famous trial by combat between Ser Morgil Hastwyck and Aemon the Dragonknight, and as we learn in The World of Ice & Fire, "The false accusations of the queen's adultery... were instigated by the king himself." (WOIAF, p. 96) One could hardly imagine a more painful rejection of a son by a father, compounded by the real threat of death for one's mother, repeated year after year. However, because all forms of monarchy and aristocracy inextricably link the personal to the political, we do have to see a political side to the question of Daeron's legitimacy - Aegon's claims about Daeron were not merely insults, but a warning about what would happen to Daeron if he obstructed his father's agenda: "it was also the first (but not the last) time that Aegon threatened to name one of his bastards as his heir instead of Daeron." (ibid) Aegon's bastard children had a political salience as well - Barba Bracken's aspirations to the Iron Throne made her a potential threat. Thus, by the time he became king, Daeron understood that his father's bastards were a danger to his reign.

At the same time, I think we have to see underneath Daeron's political opposition to his father, and his more peaceful, scholarly, and uxorial nature, a rejection of his father's laddish behavior. Daeron might have insisted that he was his father's heir, but he clearly decided that he would never be like his father. Thus, the fact that "Daeron was spindly and round of shoulder, with a little belly that wobbled when he walked," and that Daeron "surrounded himself with maesters, septons, and singers. Always there were women whispering in his ear, and his court was full of Dornishmen," suggests that Daeron was not merely of a nerdy disposition, but that he was deliberately modelling himself as a scholar-administrator king, closer to Jaehaerys the Conciliator or Viserys II, and avoiding the warrior-king model that his name-sake and his father had sought to embody. (TSS) And in that, he clearly succeeded - Daeron's reform of the small council and the City Watch clearly paid dividends, and his policies found favor with "the smallfolk and noble lords alike." Furthermore, in the So Spake Martin collection, Daeron is described as "more concerned with matters of state than matters of love," attesting to his emphasis on statesmanship above all else.

By contrast, Daemon Blackfyre was raised in the tradition of the warrior-king. From the beginning, Daemon was raised as a prince, for unlike any of the royal bastards, he could claim descent not only from his father Aegon IV, but also from his mother, Daena the Defiant, daughter of Aegon III. We are told that Daemon was "raised at the Red Keep, this handsome youth was given the instruction of the wisest maesters and the best masters-of-arms ... He loved nothing better than deeds of arms and excelled at them, and many saw in him a warrior who would one day be another Dragonknight." While we know little of how long Daemon was raised by his mother, it's clear that the warlike Daena, who excelled in horse-riding and archery, who dreamed of riding dragons to war, and who (as we have mentioned before) idolized the Daeron the Young Dragon, had a powerful influence on her son and likely raised him on stories of the evil Dornish and their foul murder of her royal brother.

But lest we fall into a simple story of nerds vs. jocks, we should note that Daemon wasn't just a warrior. Yes, "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." (TSS) But as Martin explains, Daemon could "be charming and charismatic too, with a winning smile... He made friends easily, and women were drawn to him as well." (So Spake Martin) Just as Renly made use of chivalric iconography to build a political following, Daemon used his abundant gifts to attract a political following of the greatest knights of his day: "Robb Reyne, Gareth the Grey, Ser Aubrey Ambrose, Lord Gormon Peake, Black Byren Flowers, Redtusk, Fireball... Bittersteel." (TSS) Daeron might have been the better diplomat and the better administrator, but Daemon was clearly a gifted politician, someone easily capable of the charisma that calls armies into being - just as Daeron I had done.

And as reward for his efforts in turning himself into the very image of the warrior-king, Daemon received what Daeron II never did - paternal recognition and approval. For a twelve-year old Daemon, to be acknowledged by his father publicly must have been an enormous triumph; to be handed the sword Blackfyre, the sword of the Targaryen kings, would have felt like a sign from the gods that he had some special destiny as a conquering hero. And his father Aegon encouraged this belief, by making his threats to name a bastard as his heir (and no one would have doubted that a bastard who was Targaryen on both sides would be the natural choice), and by legitimizing Daemon on his deathbed only two years after he had given him the sword. It has an almost Arthurian ring to it - the king is dead, long live the king. I'm actually somewhat impressed that Daemon had the self-control to avoid seizing the Iron Throne then and there.

However, Daeron and Daemon couldn't just embody two different models of kingship in isolation - their differences would lead them to clash long before it came to open war. The most well-known conflict was over the Princess Daenerys:

Daemon had developed a passion for Daeron's sister, young Princess Daenerys. Only two years younger than Daemon, the princess supposedly loved the bastard prince in turn, but neither Aegon IV nor Daeron II were willing to let such matters rule in matters of state. ... A different tale claims that Daemon was not so much opposed to wedding Rohanne of Tyrosh as he was convinced that he could follow in the footsteps of Aegon the Conqueror ... and have more than one bride. Aegon might even had promised to indulge him in this ... but Daeron was of a different mind entirely.

WOIAF, p. 101

Now, much of the fandom is quite skeptical about this, and Maester Yandel of The World of Ice & Fire agrees with them: "if it was truly all for the love of Daenerys, how is it that eight years passed before the rebellion bloomed" and noting as well that "Daenerys was never aught but a loyal wife to Prince Maron, and if she mourned Daemon Blackfyre, she left no record of it." (ibid) However, the So Spake Martin archives tell a very different story. According to GRRM, "despite Daemon and Daenerys being in love, her brother the king, Daeron the Good" decided to prioritize peace with Dorne over their feelings in the matter. As he puts it:

It's a political marriage, pure and simple, a convenient marriage to guarantee a union between Dorne and the Seven Kingdoms. And also, he prefers to give his sister to the prince of Dorne over a bastard bother with whom he'd already had a few clashes and whom too many people were looking one as a legitimate claimant to the throne or rightful king. That was the straw that broke the camel's back, and helps lead to Daemon becoming the first Blackfyre Pretender.

So Spake Martin

As with Aegon IV, we have to see the links between the personal and the political here. Daemon and Daeron were already clashing over a number of different policy areas - with the Dornish peace being no doubt the most prominent, but I'd love to know what the others were - and Daeron perceived his brother to be a political threat to him. Giving Daenerys to Daemon would give Daemon a claim to the Iron Throne too strong to be ignored - son of Aegon IV and Daena Targaryen, grandson of Aegon III (whereas Daeron was a mere greatnephew), and now with a Targaryen wife who would symbolize the traditional authority of their family and starkly contrast with Daeron's Dornish connections. Giving Daenerys to Dorne would win him a huge diplomatic victory, ensure that House Martell would (like House Velaryon) be a semi-Targaryen support to the monarchy, and forestall any further danger.

However, in retrospect, Daeron's decision-making here doesn't quite match the propaganda of "Good King Daeron." He already had a volatile political situation in which large segments of the political community were feeling isolated, and had probably already started to gather around his brother, who almost certainly was taking an anti-Dornish and pro-military position, and now he exacerbated the situation by giving his half-brother a personal grievance against the king, who had now twice meddled with him in matters of marriage - first, by insisting that a fourteen-year-old Daemon marry Rohanne of Tyrosh, despite that it was not "Daemon's desire" to marry her, and second, by marrying the woman he loved to the people he had been raised to fight against. Even if it didn't cause him to go to war, it certainly changed their relationship from one of brothers who might disagree over policy, but nevertheless would share in the family prosperity (hence Daeron honoring Aegon IV's bequests granting Daemon incomes, lands, and a castle). At the very least, Daeron should have acted to defuse the situation - following the model of Viserys I, who dealt with a similarly troublesome Daemon by sponsoring him in wars safely off the continent.

Evil Councilors

However, Daemon and Daeron were not the only personalities who mattered in bringing the First Blackfyre Rebellion into being. As George R.R Martin himself says, "Daemon Blackfyre rebelled so many years after Aegon the Unworthy's death for several reasons. One was his growing resentment at having the status of a bastard, and what it meant. Another was that he gained councilors who urged him to it." (So Spake Martin) As we know, one of those was Ser Quentyn "Fireball" Ball, who had been promised a "place in the Kingsguard, when an opening made itself apparent," by Aegon IV, only to be denied by Daeron II. (ibid) As we will see, Ser Quentyn's loyalty to Daemon - built over a lifetime of close acquaintance - will be crucial to the Black Dragon's war effort.

However,Bittersteel (Artist: Amok)Bittersteel (Artist: Amok) the most famous and most influential of Daemon's councilors was Aegor Rivers, known as Bittersteel. Aegor had many reasons to be opposed to King Daeron - for one thing, when he was prince, Daeron had engineered Barba Bracken (Aegor's mother)'s removal from court when the Brackens aimed too high, losing his grandfather his position as Hand of the King. Indeed, if his grandfather's plan had succeeded, Aegor (or his hypothetical brothers) might have been named the new heir to the Iron Throne, as the son of the king and the new queen. As a result of Daeron's actions then, Aegor was raised not in King's Landing but in exile at Stone Hedge, where he was raised in the Bracken tradition of being "choleric and ... quick to take offense." (WOIAF, p. 101) Compounding this was the fact that Aegon IV seems to have liked Rivers, as he "visited at Stone Hedge to see his bastard son, Aegor," which he doesn't seem to have done with any of his earlier bastards other than Daemon. (WOIAF, p. 99)

Bittersteel gravitated toward his older half-brother Daemon, and at least in the public's understanding of history, "Aegor Rivers soon began to press Daemon Blackfyre to proclaim for the throne. ... Bitter his steel may have been, but worse was his tongue. He spilled poison in Daemon's ear, and with him came the clamoring of other knights and lords with grievances." (WOIAF, p. 102) Notably, unlike Daemon's other supporters, Aegor married into Daemon's family, marrying his daughter Calla, who would be very important in the future. Especially in light of his later command of the Golden Company and his closeness to the Blackfyre family, I think we can see the young Bittersteel as Daemon's chief campaign manager, responsible for recruiting other Houses to Daemon's side and for conducting the Blackfyre's media campaign aimed at hyping up the sword Blackfyre as the symbol of Aegon IV's rightful heir, spreading the story of Daeron's illegitimacy, and using their candidate's martial virtues and personal magnetism to convince the nobility of Westeros that "Daemon was the better man." (The Sworn Sword)

Bittersteel wasn't alone, however. Also close to Daemon Blackfyre was the knight known as Fireball:

"What do you know about his sire?"

"For his hot head and red hair. Ser Quentyn Ball was the master-at-arms at the Red Keep. He taught my father and my uncles how to fight. The Great Bastards too. King Aegon promised to raise him to the Kingsguard, so Fireball made his wife join the silent sisters, only by the time a place came open, King Aegon was dead and King Daeron named Ser Willam Wylde instead. My father says that it was Fireball as much as Bittersteel who convinced Daemon Blackfyre to claim the crown."

The Mystery Knight

Fireball, like many of Daemon's other supporters, has clear motivations for his support. Firstly, he was a renowned knight and had personally trained Daemon Blackfyre in arms - indeed, Daemon was his star pupil and Daemon's success at winning a tourney and his spurs at the age of twelve must have been one of his proudest accomplishments, which would explain why he leaned towards Daemon as opposed to the notably non-martial Daeron. Secondly, Ser Quentyn was from a very old Reacher House - House Ball was supposedly founded by one of Florys the Fox's sons, making them kin to the Peakes and the Florents - and probably shared the same historical grievance and prejudice against the Dornish. Thirdly, Ser Quentyn was an Aegon IV appointee with a grudge against the new administration - Fireball gave up his marriage on the strength of Aegon IV's promise to make him a member of the Kingsguard, only for Daeron II to give "his" place away.

Fireball's role at this point is a bit murky - as the master-at-arms for the Red Keep, Fireball was a member of the royal court holding a key strategic position as the master-of-arms controls the royal household guard (as opposed to the Kingsguard and the Goldcloaks); the position is important enough for Tywin to try to make his brother Tygett master-at-arms and for Cersei and Margaery to feud over it. On the other hand, at this moment in time, he doesn't seem to be more than just another voice in Daemon's ear whispering grievances, albeit a voice that Daemon would have trusted more than almost anyone else.

However,Bloodraven (Artist: Amok)Bloodraven (Artist: Amok) evil councilors were not only found on the side of the Blackfyres, for Daeron had a supporter who did not share his peaceful nature, Brynden "Bloodraven" Rivers. In a sense, Bloodraven's allegiance was decided at birth - his mother, Missy Blackwood, was known for "a kind heart and generous nature that led even Queen Naerys herself - as well as the Dragonknight and Prince Daeron - to befriend her." (WOIAF, p. 99) As a result, Bloodraven was spared Aegor's exile (no doubt thanks to the good offices of Prince Daeron), and was "able to maintain his close relations at court - for Bloodraven's mother had been well loved during her life, and was fondly remembered, so Blackwoods did not suffer as the Brackens did when the king cast off his respective mistresses." (WOIAF, p. 101-102) Given Bittersteel's public resentment of this differential treatment, the "rivalry" between Bloodraven and Bittersteel was set in stone, even if the two men had not been party to the ancient Blackwood-Bracken feud. To that end, just as Bittersteel gravitated to Daemon, Bloodraven supported Daeron and probably became his master of whisperers, given his facility with spy networks (more on that in Part II). And given his actions during the rest of the narrative, I highly doubt that Bloodraven was urging Daeron to seek peace.

Indeed, given that Daemon did not survive the First Blackfyre Rebellion and Daeron did not long outlive it, it's arguable that the true combatants of the "five generations of strife" were Bittersteel and Bloodraven, each of them the power behind the throne, each of them the constant in every Rebellion, as if the entirety of Westeros had become subsumed into the Riverlands feud.

What side were they on?

Thus, by 196 AC, Westeros had strongly entrenched political divisions, two sharply different candidates for the Iron Throne, and political advisors urging on the conflict from both sides. But to become a war in which "two princes fight for a chair where only one may sit," and "great lords and common men must choose," the two camps needed the nobility of Westeros to choose sides - and choose they did, for "half the realm was for the red dragon and half was for the black." (The Sworn Sword) But for a conflict that split the country in half, it's awfully hard to figure out which houses fought for which dragon.

Thanks in no small part to the History of Westeros folks and BryndenBFish of Wars and Politics of ASOIAF, I've managed to assemble a list of all known partisans. And the results are quite telling.

The Reds

From the Vale: House Arryn, House Templeton, House Waynwood, House Corbray
From the Westerlands: House Lannister, House Lefford
From the Riverlands: House Tully, House Blackwood, House Smallwood
From the Crownlands: House Targaryen, House Hayford
From the Stormlands: House Baratheon, House Penrose, House Dondarrion
From the Reach: House Caswell, House Webber
From Dorne: House Martell, House Dayne

Taking a look at this list, it's quite astonishing that the Blackfyres survived at all, or that anyone in their right mind joined the Rebellion given the odds. Five Great Houses - two Wardens - all backing the monarchy (motivated no doubt by the desire for continuity and the status quo; once you're at the top, change is bad) should be nigh-invulnerable. These are the largest, most powerful Houses in all of Westeros... and yet, somehow, the Blackfyres almost triumphed in the First Blackfyre Rebellion and remained a real threat for more than sixty years. (Compare this to Balon Greyjoy, who had a Great Power at his command and lost to an alliance of three.)

Another thing we can see from this list is the power of dynastic alliances. House Arryn and House Baratheon, both linked into the Targaryen dynasty by blood, side with Daeron - despite in the latter case the regional anti-Dornish sentiment that might otherwise drive them to side with the Blackfyres. The Martells and the Daynes and the Dondarrions support House Targaryen due to the marriages of Daeron, Maekar, and Baelor, again when the Dondarrions should be joining their Marcher lord brethren on the other side.

The Blacks

From the Vale: House Sunderland
From the Westerlands: House Crakehall2, House Reyne3
From the Riverlands: House Bracken, House Frey, House Grey4, House Heddle, House Nayland, House Paege, House Shawney,
From the Reach: House Ambrose, House Ball, House Blackbar5, House Bulwer, House Cockshaw, House Cuy, House Fossaway6, House Osgrey, House Peake, House Risley, House Strickland, House Vrywel
From the Stormlands: House Caron
From Dorne: House Santagar7, House Yronwood, House Wyl
Others: Tyrosh, Myr

A couple things jump out here. The first thing is that the Blackfyres drew their support from lesser houses that were traditional rivals of their lords paramount, or that were in some way troublemakers from their region - the Sunderlands were formerly independent of the Arryns and a cause of much conflict between the Arryns and the Starks, the Reynes (and the Tarbecks) major rivals of the Lannisters, the Brackens and Freys unruly and disloyal vassals of the Tullys, the Yronwoods who warred against the Martells to keep their throne. As we might expect, these local sources of grievance found their outlet in Daemon Blackfyre - if Daemon could supplant Daeron, perhaps they might supplant their liege lords and become the new lords paramount of their own regions.

The second thing is that there's a strong regional concentration here - Daemon's strength is largely in the Reach, the natural constituency for anti-Dornish policies. (Notably the Stormlands seem to have been peeled off from his coalition for reasons I'll explain next time, although one should note that his support from the Stormlands still comes from the Marcher lords) Ironically, by the logic of "the enemy of my enemy is my friend," Daemon also had a strong presence in Dorne among those Houses opposed to House Martell's predominance, ironically uniting under one banner both the Marcher lords and the Dornish lords who traditionally have fought against them. The other source of his strength comes from the riverlands, where Bittersteel could build a strong coalition on the foundations of House Bracken and any other riverlords who might have had a longstanding grudge against Bloodraven's favoritism toward his Blackwood kin.

The third thing to notice is that, already, Daemon had support from Essos, ironically thanks to his unlooked-for marriage to Rohanne of Tyrosh, that would become invaluable to the Blackfyre Rebellion in the aftermath of the Redgrass Field, when they would look to Essos for refuge, reinforcements, and resupply.

Fourth and finally, these are all lesser houses, which is something to keep in mind for the conclusion.

A Foot in Both Camps

From the Iron Islands: House Greyjoy
From the Westerlands: House Tarbeck
From the Riverlands: House Butterwell, House Lothston
From the Reach: House Hightower, House Oakheart, House Tyrell

Remember when I said that it was astonishing that anyone in their right minds would join the Blackfyres, given the odds stacked up against them? From The World of Ice & Fire, we actually get some information that might explain why - I think the Blackfyres thought they had support from at least two of the great houses. We know from The World of Ice & Fire that "Torwyn Greyjoy ... swore a blood oath with Bittersteel and then betrayed him to his enemies." Given the normal Greyjoy interest in unrest, it's not surprising that the Greyjoys might offer Bittersteel their support, if a weakened Targaryen monarchy would provide scope for a renewal of the Old Way - as indeed happened under Dagon Greyjoy, the Last Reaver. Likewise, the Greyjoys could have provided the Blackfyres with a strong naval force as well as political legitimacy.

But the more controversial pick here is House Tyrell. After all, the Lord of Highgarden, Leo Longthorn "won distinction during the First Blackfyre Rebellion, winning notable victories against Daemon Blackfyre's adherents in the Reach." (WOAIF, p. 218) Surely, Leo was a stout supporter of the Reds?

Well, consider what we know of the preceding political history of Westeros. From standing at the right hand of Daeron the Young Dragon and serving as regents of Dorne, the Tyrells had lost their position and were now living under a monarch who married into their traditional, hereditary enemy, the same family responsible for the death of Lyonel Tyrell (Leo's father or grandfather). Not only that, but the Dornish were now dominant in the court of Daeron II. Add to that that Leo Longthorn was exactly the kind of man who would fall for Daemon's appeal - the Reach is the heart of chivalry, and Leo was "a tourney champion remembered to this day ... the finest jouster ever to couch a lance." (WOIAF, p. 218) Is it likelier that this Tyrell of all Tyrells would prefer the bookish, pro-Dornish Daeron to the Warrior reborn in Daemon, who promised a chance at revenge?

Moreover, we have to solve a difficult logistical conundrum. Given that the bulk of the Reach sided with Daemon - even straddlers like House Oakheart and House Hightower sent military support, with the latter primarily sending its vassal houses - how is it that Leo didn't notice the Rebellion breaking out all around him and was "unable to gather [his forces] quickly enough to arrive in time for the Battle of the Redgrass Field," when the lords of the Vale managed to make it to the battlefield on time?

I think the most likely scenario is that Leo Longthorn possessed both the love of jousting of a Ser Loras and the political savvy of an Olenna or a Margaery. Seeing that his region was solidly behind the Black Dragon, Leo quietly promised his support to Daemon Blackfyre and then hung back to see who would win at the Redgrass Field. When Daemon died and the rebels scattered, Leo pivoted to attacking his own bannermen, thus empowering himself at their expense. Perhaps it's not the most chivalric political strategy, but we know that Leo Longthorn is a man with a "cynical smile" who was singularly unmoved by Dunk's appeal to true knighthood at Ashford. (The Hedge Knight)

As I will explain in Part II, the support of Leo Longthorn (however uncertain) explains certain aspects of Blackfyre political and military strategy in the First Rebellion - no wonder Bittersteel et al. thought they could take the Iron Throne, if the biggest army in Westeros was on their side.

As for the others, each of them hold some form of significance: House Tarbeck, along with House Reyne, would be both politically and militarily crucial for the Blackfyres in their early victories; House Hightower and House Oakheart's presence provides further evidence for Daemon Blackfyre's strength of support in the Reach; House Butterwell's division also will explain much of the Blackfyre strategy; as will House Lothston's strategic importance in the riverlands.

Lord Not Appearing in the War

From the North: House Stark and its bannermen.

While we often think of the North as somewhat isolationist, consider that the Starks had been active in most of Westeros' major continental conflicts up until this point: Aegon I's Conquest, the Dance of the Dragons, even Daeron's Conquest had seen some form of Stark intervention. And in the time of A Song of Ice and Fire, the Starks will be one of the most important players in the War of Five Kings.

And yet the Starks sat out almost all of the Blackfyre Rebellions. A couple different things might explain this: firstly, the lengthy political crisis that followed the death of Rickon Stark, Cregan Stark's heir. Secondly, the Skagosi rebellion that erupted during Daeron II's reign which occupied the attention of at least two lords of Winterfell. Thirdly, Dagon Greyjoy's raids between 209-211 (and possibly beyond) that mortally wounded Lord Beron Stark and produced another crisis of succession. Fourth, the invasion of Raymun Redbeard in 226 AC that led to the death of Lord Willam Stark.


In thinking about the Blackfyre Rebellion, one of the things that kept coming back to me was the fact that the First Blackfyre Rebellion was a civil war that put the king and the lords paramount on one side, and a large coalition of lesser houses on the other, and created a running crisis which continually beset the monarchy, preventing it from ever catching its breath long enough to put itself on a firmer foundation after the Dance of the Dragons, and which set up the underlying conditions that would ultimately end the Targaryen dynasty.

And when I thought about in those terms, the historical parallel seemed clear: the Barons' Wars. One of the strange ironies of Medieval English history is that a monarchy which seemed to be one of the most powerful in Europe between the reigns of William the Conqueror through the "Angevin Emperor" Henry II was suddenly on the verge of total collapse by the mid 13th century, not due to external conquest but due to a series of civil wars which pitted King John and his son King Henry III against a series of "overmighty vassals."


As with the Blackfyre Rebellion, the origins of the conflict lay with a military defeat - here the loss of most of the Angevin Empire in France to King Phillip II, and John's increasingly expensive and increasingly inept attempts to get it back. Fed up with increasingly confiscatory taxes, the lords of England revolted against their king - the result of which was the Magna Carta. Now mostly famous for the right of habeus corpus, the Carta primarily protected the nobility of England from further taxation - and empowered some 25 barons, including the Bigods of Norfolk and Suffolk, the de Clares of Hertford, the de Mandervilles of Essex, the Mowbrays, the Percys, and the de Veres of Oxford, to seize his castles if he balked. When King John promptly reneged on the Magna Carta (with the assistance of the Pope), the barons rose up against him again in 1215, led by the Baron Fitzwalter, one of the original 25 barons, who they elected as "Marshal of the Army of God." During the First Baron's War, the English monarchy almost collapsed, with the Barons' ally King Louis VIII of France acclaimed as King of England in London. After a bloody series of sieges, the whole thing ended in confusion when King John died in 1216, and the barons promptly switched sides, acclaimed John's son Henry as king in exchange for him promising to abide by the Carta, and promptly expelled King Louis.

The Second Baron's War took place approximately 50 years later, after King Henry III botched an invasion of Brittany in 1230 and an invasion of Poitou in 1241, both provinces lost by his father John. Led by the radical and charismatic Simon de Montfort, Earl of Leicester, the barons of England first executed a coup d'état in 1258, forcing the king to agree to the Provisions of Oxford, which established the first Parliament in England. In 1263, when Henry attempted to abrogate the Oxford Provisions, de Montfort defeated him in the Battle of Lewes, and for fifteen months England was ruled by a Parliament that included the barons of England, ordinary knights from the counties, and for the first time, the burghers of the towns and cities of England. Unfortunately for de Montfort, Henry's son, the future Edward I was a better soldier than his father, and defeated and killed de Montfort at the Battle of Evesham in 1265.

Lost lands, attempted reconquests ending in failure, kings attempting to succeed where their predecessors had failed, and overmighty vassals attempting to reconstruct the entire political order of the kingdom - sounds a lot like the Blackfyre Rebellion to me.

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Warning: Footnotes may contain spoilers from later chapters or books.
  • 1 - Shades of King Robert and his reliance on the Lannisters.
  • 2 - Redtusk
  • 3 - Robb Reyne
  • 4 - Possibly the house of Gareth the Grey
  • 5 - Possibly the house of Black Byron Flowers
  • 6 - The Bad Apple
  • 7 - Spotted Tom

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