Tower of the Hand

Ranking the Targaryen kings

Tags: Essay
Aug 28, 2015, 3:00 PM ET

The question who is a good king and who is a bad king occupies Westerosi scholars all throughout the series, and arguments are presented as to who is good and who is bad, and on what grounds to make that decision. From young hotheads like Jon Snow advocating for Daeron I to experienced veterans like Benjen Stark and Stannis Baratheon countering the notion, from septons arguing for a return of Baelor the Blessed to Arya hoping for Nymeria reborn, the leaders of old inspire characters and inform their choices. It is only fitting to undertake a ranking myself from a reader's perspective (before we get to the community's most influential kings and non-kings next week).

We find good kings, bad kings and mediocre kings. While Melisandre asserts that you don't want to find onions that are half good and half rotten, the truth is otherwise. Cersei may point out that, in the game of thrones, there is no middle ground. But what does Cersei know? There certainly is a middle ground in this game of thrones. And, in the end, all men must die. In the following, I will rank the kings from best to worst. So, let's get at it!

The Iron Throne of the Targaryen kingsThe Iron Throne of the Targaryen kings (Artist: Marc Simonetti)

Jaehaerys I, the Old King

Jaehaerys undoubtedly occupies the top spot of any ranking. One could argue he was written that way. His tenure is ridiculously long and without any internal strife, marked by peaceful development and growing prosperity. That feat alone would be enough to catapult him into the top spots, but additionally, he improved the infrastructure of Westeros, being responsible for starting to build the network of roads that connects the realms. He was also the one to finally make good on Aegon's and Aenys' omissions and created a unified code of law for all the Seven Kingdoms instead of allowing barbaric local customs to distort the idea of royal justice. On top of that, he married a woman ruling at his side for almost the same amount of time in a deliberate and intelligent manner, swaying his mind on such topics as outlawing the right of the First Night. He also managed to satisfy in the martial department by holding himself well, therefore allowing even the Stupidocracy of Westeros to love him, and staging the biggest and most glamorous tourney of all time. Smaller missteps like giving the poison pill of the New Gift to the Night's Watch and not really getting to the root of the problems, thereby preventing smart policy choices, are nitpicks in the context of Westerosi politics.

Daeron II, the Good

If not for Jaehaerys' almost unnaturally long reign, Daeron II might well have made the top Targaryen king instead of sitting in the unenviable second spot. The twelfth king of Westeros was not much of a warrior, being a little bit weakly and kettle-bellied, but he was a great intellectual and skilled diplomat. Taking the throne after the damage done by his father Aegon IV, he had to mend fences everywhere he went. His single biggest achievement must be the peace with Dorne that allowed him to finally bring the Dornish into the realm without warfare and continued occupation. Instead of warriors, he filled the court with maesters, septons and singers in an early version of enlightened rule. When his Hand, Lord Hayford, died, he made his son Baelor "Breakspear" Hand of the King, who showed that he learned well from his father - much better, in fact, than his fourth son Maekar or his grandchild Valarr. However, not everyone was happy with his rule. The warrior elite, ever distrustful of intellectualism and proud of resolving conflicts by brutal force instead of cunning diplomacy and xenophobic to the bone, supported Daeron's halfbrother Daemon into starting a bloody civil war. The war, ironically enough, was won with the vital help of the Dornish and the hand of two of the greatest warriors of their age, Baelor Breakspear and Maekar. After the war, Daeron again made good of his name, healed wounds and mended fences by accepting the defeated lords back into the king's peace instead of meting out the harsh justice his half-brother Brynden Rivers advocated.

Aegon V, the Unlikely

Aegon V is best known to us as a young boy, traveling the realm with his mentor, Duncan the Tall, during the reigns of Daeron the Good, Aerys I and later his father Maekar. The lessons he learned during those travels - especially the importance of the minor squabbles among petty lords and the hardships of the smallfolk - sunk in, letting him to champion a row of reforms aimed at the betterment of the lives of the smallfolk. While many of those reforms' implementation was delayed and hindered by the lords of the realm until his death and then quickly abandoned, he still was a positive force for good in Westeros. Like his grandfather Daeron, he put more emphasis on diplomacy and cunning than on the might of weapons, a lesson he also learned during his travels with Duncan the Tall, and generally tried to govern peaceful. His legacy is a bit tarnished by the manner of his death at Summerhall, where he tried to bring dragons to live, and by the unsuccessful marriage pacts his children continued to dodge. Both failures destabilized Westeros more than necessary and would come to haunt the realm later.

Viserys II

Although Viserys II reigned for only a year, in fact his rule extends much longer, as he served as Hand for his predecessors Aegon III, Daeron I and Baelor I. While their reigns were both just closely shy of disaster, he prevented much bad from happening and kept the realm intact while they went on with their follies. Without him, the realm would most likely have been destroyed by war, internal strife and rebellion. With Aemon the Dragonknight he also fathered a son that could stand well under scrutiny. When he finally took the throne, he managed to improve on the laws that Jaehaerys I enacted, founded a new royal mint and greatly enhanced trade with Essos, thereby making Westeros more prosperous. Not bad for that short a tenure.

Viserys I

Inheriting a peaceful and well-ordered realm from his father Jaehaerys I, Viserys I ruled on the Iron Throne at the height of Targaryen power. He continued the policies of his father, avoiding war and bloodshed, and proved able in resolving all differences between the houses peacefully. The monarchy was stable and prosperous under his rule, and despite his remarriage into the ambitious house Hightower, he stood by his firstborn daughter Rhaenyra as his heir. The only field where he proved ineffectual, however, was at keeping the family peace. Rhaenyra's sons constantly fought with Alicent's, which would after Viserys' death lead to the Dance of the Dragons. However, it is hard to lay the blame on Viserys' door, who made it clear how he wanted the matter of succession resolved and he did physically separate the squabbling parties.

Maekar I

Like Jaehaerys II, Maekar I holds the honor of being on this list mainly because he didn't fuck up too much. While displaying a very martial attitude and even forging a new crone that looked more warlike, he didn't actually wage any big wars himself, only reacting to attacks from without, most notably to the Peake Rebellion in which he was killed, crushed by stone block thrown from the battlements. He does, however, hold the dubious honor of allowing Egg to tour Westeros with Duncan the Tall, thereby unintentionally grooming one of the best kings of Westeros.

Jaehaerys II

The last in the line of the passably good kings is Jaehaerys II, who had the good fortune of dying before messing things up to much. The most noteworthy event of his reign was the War of the Ninepenny Kings, in which he prudently and despite his reputation of being weak gathered his forces and preemptively struck at the pretenders on the Stepstones, before they could carry the war to Westeros and garner support among the houses. Other than that, he forces his two children Aerys and Rhaella into marrying each other because he believed the prophecy of a woodswitch about their line producing the Prince Who Was Promised, despite the express wishes of the betrothed and his father Aegon V. He makes the list mostly due to the fact that nothing really bad happened during his reign and his and his sibling's fate showed that letting his children marry for love wouldn't necessarily improve things that much. Aerys was the heir, and the madness was in him no matter what Jaeherys II did.

Aegon III, the Dragonbane

Like Maekar I, Aegon III mostly makes this part of the list due to his refusal to make a mess of things. As an advice to all other people having enough self-awareness of recognizing that they're unfit for an office that hereditary tradition has thrust upon them, please consider settling your own succession and then to abdicate. While Aegon III can't really be held responsible for the misrule of his regents before he came of age, even after he did he was bound to fits of melancholy in which he retreated himself from the world and left the ship of state in the hands of whomever happened to hold the rudder at the time. In the end, however, his rule was long, stable and peaceful, and that's what counts.

Aegon I, the Conqueror

It's a tough decision on where to put the guy who started it all in the first place. Without Aegon and his conquest, there is no realm with kings to rank, and the permanent war that was a feature of the Seven Kingdoms of all wouldn't have ended. It seems unfair, therefore, to hold the Conquest against Aegon, and I will concede that judging it is about of the same quality as to judge other wars of unification in history. However, what earns him the mediocre place on this list is the fact that he continued bloody, brutal and useless strife with Dorne in the First Dornish War for years to come, let much of the rule of the realm in the hands of his sister Visenya who proved to be Maegor the Cruel's staunchest champion because of the fact that she had a mentality to match. Aegon did nothing to actually unify the realm beside placing it under a single command. This task was left to Jaehaerys. However, he managed to avoid conflict with the Faith and the great lords by treading very carefully with the former and by making his constant progresses through the realm for the latter. On a scale from -100 to +100 his actual reign is perhaps a -5, all things considered.

Aenys I

Whereas Maekar I and Jaehaerys II mostly get into the middle ground by not messing up too bad, Aenys I makes this part of the list simply by his indecisiveness. Aenys, taking the throne after the death of Aegon the Conqueror, had a (perhaps unfair) reputation for being a weakling, and in a by now established pattern in Westeros faced rebellions as a result. Instead of either dealing with them decisively or negotiating a lasting settlement, Aenys elected to simply do nothing, which started to make matters worse. He hoped that his entrusted advisers would solve the problem, especially his Hand, a decision that saved some other kings we discussed from total failure. In Aenys' case, however, the Hand he chose was Maegor the Cruel, and this only made matters worse. After a Faith uprising led to a brief siege against the Red Keep, he fled to Dragonstone, where he soon died and left matters for people that were... more decisive.

Aerys I

Aerys I basically is a tragic figure. He came into the throne after his father and his nephew had been killed by the Great Spring Sickness, thereby reducing the line of succession by two capable rulers. With this not being a terribly crowded list anyway, Aerys tried to make his best out of it. He was martially weak and didn't care much for fighting, which led the Blackfyres to assume they would have an easy play with him and stage two rebellions during his reign. The Greyjoys committed the same error and rebelled against the Iron Throne. Aerys' reign also was plagued by a giant drought, driving people into banditry and making the realm less safe. Instead of bringing all of his learning to fruition, however, Aerys enlisted Bloodraven as his hand and gave him free reign to do what he thought best. While Brynden Rivers was a capable ruler, he needed to be checked by strong personality with functioning moral compass, a thing Bloodraven clearly lacked. With Aerys providing no guidance in the matter, Bloodraven was free to install Westeros' biggest police state to date and to install an immoral reign of terror until he was finally sentenced to the Wall for murdering Aenys Blackfyre under the peace banner by Aegon V.

Aegon IV, the Unworthy

Aegon IV surely was a bad king. Really, the only thing that counts in his favor is that he didn't start any wars, and why that is must needs remain a mystery. However, he did anything he could to damage everyone around him nonetheless. Not only was he a real pain on his family, whom he willfully drove to death (Aemon the Dragonknight) or tried to kill in childbirth (his wife), he also stuck his member everywhere he could. While in his youth being a fairly dashing figure, when his lusts finally defeated his better angels (as if there were many of those to begin with) he grew bloated and aggressive and won women over by sheer force. Who denies a king, after all? But so far, his behavior "only" damaged all the women at court and those he came into contact with by some misfortune or another. He also did more than any other king to willfully misrule the realm by essentially selling offices to flatterers and fools and wreaking havoc on the political fabric of Westeros. Really, how this didn't lead to war is incredible. One thing I don't hold against him that much, however: his final act of legitimizing his bastards on his deathbed. The claims that this action was responsible for the Blackfyre rebellion are nonsense. Daemon rebelled twelve years after his father's death, only because he was urged to by a bunch of people who considered themselves the finest knights in the realm, once again proving that you never should judge a ruler by his prowess with a sword.

Baelor I, the Blessed

Baelor Targaryen was the most pious king ever to sit the Iron Throne, and he is a testament to the old wisdom that you should never put a zealot in power, much less a religious one. His reign didn't start too badly as he tried to mend the fences his brother Daeron broke with the Conquest of Dorne by walking to Sunspear barefoot and making peace with the Martells. But when the Wyls sadistically refused to let Aemon the Dragonknight go, he rescued him personally by walking through a viper nest. Scarred by the experience, he grew increasingly lunatic, locking away his sisters as not to tempt any man with them, taking a septon's vows (potentially upsetting the line of succession) and concerning himself more with spiritual matters than with affairs of state. He tried to outlaw prostitution and prosecuted not only the whores themselves but also their children, exiling them from the city to an uncertain and in many cases surely fatal fate. He gave tax exemptions to fathers forcing their daughters to wear chastity belts, beggared the realm by giving free bread to the population of King's Landing and alienated the nobility by acts such as forcing Lord Belgrave to wash the feet of a leper. He also meddled in the affairs of the Faith, appointing first a lackwit and then an 8-year-old boy as High Septon. Thankfully, he chose to die after ten years and never tried to relieve his able hand Viserys of his duty, and therefore, the realm was saved.

Aegon II

If you do not have the claim or the skill to be king, no special desire to become it but a strong sense of entitlement, well, congratulations, you are Aegon II. Putting his own claim over that of his half-sister Rhaenyra, spurred on by Criston Cole and his mother Alicent Hightower, he started the Dance of the Dragons. Without any clear grasp of how to govern and what to do, he left much of the day-to-day-governing to Cole and his Hand Otto Hightower, while his brother Aemond One-Eye continued to fuck things up and to let his personal vendettas get into the way of the war effort. When his aunt Rhaenys attacked Rook's Nest, he attacked her together with Aemond, getting maimed horrifyingly in the process and recovering for a half a year on Dragonstone, where he finally murdered his half-sister Rhaenyra in front of her son Aegon (III) by letting her be devoured by his dragon Sunfyre. He then tried to conclude a war looking increasingly bad as a northern army descended on King's Landing and was thankfully murdered before he could create Westeros' biggest cinder out of the city. In an interesting parallel to the fate of Aerys II, the murder that prevented the genocide of King's Landing was then judged by a Stark who ordered the execution of the assassins. Judgmental lot, those Starks.

Aerys II, the Mad King

Aerys was able to build on a strong foundation when coming into power, inheriting a stable kingdom from his father Jaehaerys II and his grandfather Aegon V. His character was never strong: he was vain, proud, distrustful, not really intelligent or diligent but able to hide all these facts under a natural charm. One of his defining characteristics regarding policy was the love for grandiose ideas, abandoning them as he became bored with them or faced their unreality. Constantly mistreating his sister-wife without even respecting her public dignity by sleeping with her mistresses and handmaidens, he also intended to make the court young and vigorous, sharing the ideals of Daeron I. Instead of the tried and tested advisers of Jaehaerys II and Aegon V, he relied on young and untested people whom he chose on grounds of being uncompromising in attitude, like Tywin Lannister. The latter proved to be one of his better choices, constantly rescuing the realm from Aerys' stupidities, much like Viserys II had done during his tenure as Hand. Of course, Aerys constantly slighted Tywin until his Hand tried to get him killed in the Defiance of Duskendale, where Aerys finally went mad and was rescued only by Barristan Selmy (thanks for that, by the way). After, he started to saturate his sexual desires by watching people burn to death. His growing paranoia led him to brutally torturing and murdering people in his surroundings randomly, without being stopped by the lickspittles he put into positions of power. In the end, he chose the wrong targets to torture and kill, upgrading from serving women and daughters of minor knights to the sons of major lords, leading to the much deserved downfall of his house.

Daeron I, the Young Dragon

Ascending to the throne at the age of 14, Daeron Targaryen surely wasn't only a hero to young Jon Snow. However, many more people than just Jon should have heeded his uncle Benjen's advice that war is not a game. It definitely was for cocksure Daeron, who, when faced with the suspicious lack of dragons, only replied that he considered himself a sufficient dragon. Although he certainly displayed a level of insight and intelligence unusual in 14-year-olds, he still used it only to attack someone who wasn't even an enemy: Dorne, the last unconquered kingdom of Westeros. With a comparably dab plan of attack he forced his way down the Prince's Pass and the Boneway (the idea to cut the Dornish support in the rear was developed by Alyn Velaryon) and sacrificed ten thousand men in conquering the deserts of Dorne. After his victory, he stationed a giant force in Dorne that was subject to a constant guerrilla war of attrition and had to deal with a giant Dornish rebellion within the span of his short four-year rule. Not really understanding the enemy he was facing and hoping to subdue, he was lured into a trap and killed, which opened the way for the occupation by Lord Lyonel Tyrell, an occupation that was cut short by a severe case of death by scorpions and led to the renewal of Dornish independence. In the end, anywhere from 50,000 to 150,000 people were dead, for nothing but a vain dream of glory. Daeron did succeed, however, in hiding this fact behind the brilliant simplicity in the prose of his "Conquest of Dorne" that enamored him to young idiots for generations to come.

Maegor I, the Cruel

There can't be much doubt that the bottom spot on this list belongs to Maegor I, called "the Cruel." His missteps started at a young age, when he needlessly provoked religious backlash by marrying a second wife in addition to his first one, after already being hindered by the High Septon in marrying his sister. Although his father exiled him for the act, this did nothing to stop the eventual outbreak of the rebellion of the Faith, which Maegor took head on after assuming the throne - a feat he only managed to do because he violently suppressed the superior claim of his nephew in a short and bloody civil war. He then thought it a good idea to defeat the Faith in a Trial of the Seven, which he survived only with a grievous head wound that left him even worse than before. Instead of now sorting out a peace with the formally beaten Faith, he massacred unsuspecting worshipers and went on a genocidal war that was also taken up by the Faith in equal fury. Between murdering septons, Poor Fellows and other enemies, he also murdered all craftsmen involved in the building of the Red Keep. In the end, his constant violence encouraged open rebellion and his demise, which he only escaped by committing suicide on the Iron Throne.

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