If you follow Race for the Iron Throne, you know that I’m in the process of getting ready for publication of a book of my Tower of the Hand essays, which will come with some pretty awesome book-only extras. We’re getting pretty close to being able to announce the launch date and other amazing stuff, but I wanted to share an excerpt from one of my new, never-seen-before essays:
Hollow Crowns Extra: Revisiting the Monarchy, Post-WOIAF
“For God’s sake, let us sit upon the ground
And tell sad stories of the death of kings;
How some have been deposed; some slain in war,
Some haunted by the ghosts they have deposed;
Some poison’d by their wives: some sleeping kill’d;
All murder’d: for within the hollow crown
That rounds the mortal temples of a king
Keeps Death his court and there the antic sits.” (Richard II, Act III, Scene II)
“Have you ever seen the Iron Throne? The barbs along the back, the ribbons of twisted steel, the jagged ends of swords and knives all tangled up and melted? It is not a comfortable seat, ser. Aerys cut himself so often men took to calling him King Scab, and Maegor the Cruel was murdered in that chair. By that chair, to hear some tell it. It is not a seat where a man can rest at ease. Ofttimes I wonder why my brothers wanted it so desperately.”
“Why would you want it, then?” Davos asked him.
“It is not a question of wanting. The throne is mine, as Robert’s heir. That is law.” (Davos IV, ASOS)
What does it mean to be King of Westeros? Within the fandom of A Song of Ice and Fire, opinion differs: some see the monarchy as so absolute in its power that resistance, even to Aerys II, is illegitimate and destructive; others see the king as a mere pawn in the Game of Thrones, traded between the Great Houses of Westeros. Even within the setting, the actual powers of the monarchy are unclear, and some monarchs spend their reigns as virtual puppets of their vassals and others reshape the entire continent through an act of will, raising up and throwing down lords at a whim.
Yet, while much remains unclear, the World of Ice and Fire has added significantly to our understanding of the Westerosi monarchy. And so I’m going back to my essays about the monarchy, to hold myself accountable and to enrich our understanding of the monarchy.
I’m actually going to hold off on my reassessment on the structure of the Westerosi monarchy until the end of the essay, so that we can see the evidence laid out before we make our judgement. So let’s dive into the World of Ice and Fire and see what we can learn.
In general, the new information about Aegon I’s reign doesn’t contradict what I had surmised earlier but rather adds to what we know. For example, Aegon’s nationalism which I explored in the earlier essay is fleshed-out more because we can see a keen interest in making that nationalism a reality through institution-building, centered around his capitol city:
“It was Aegon who saw a great royal city to rival and surpass Lannisport and Oldtown spring up around his crude Aegonfort….a makeshift sept constructed out of the hulk of a cog on the Blackwater served the common people, and soon a much grander sept was raised on Visenya’s Hill with money sent by the High Septon. (This would be later joined by the Sept of Remembrance on the Hill of Rhaenys…the Aegonfort itself grew larger…a new wooden keep was raised, its walls fifty feet high. It stood until 35 AC, when Aegon tore it down so that the Red Keep could be raised.”
“By 10 AC, King’s Landing had become a true city, and by 25 AC it had surpassed White Harbor and Gulltown to become the realm’s third largest city…Aegon at last commanded that walls be raised…constructed began the next year, and by 26 AC it was completed.” (WOIAF)
To build a city from nothing to a metropolis of more than 50,000 people in twenty-five years is a tremendous accomplishment, and one that would ensure the long-term prosperity of House Targaryen and their closest bannermen. Part of this population came from straightforward medieval means of urban development – the construction of a stout castle and city walls for defense, for example, offer smallfolk protection from banditry and warfare that the countryside wouldn’t, so people move to the city and in turn provide the castle with goods and services as well as tax revenue. Another part of the city’s growth no doubt came from the expansion of the royal bureaucracy – tax collectors, scribes, jailers, royal navy officers, and the like create further and stable demand for goods and services, so further industries (parchment, ink, and quill pens have to be manufactured and sold, smiths have to be hired to make iron bars and manacles, shipwrights are needed to build and maintain the royal navy, and so on) grow up around them.
Next, I think the attention paid to the Faith of the Seven – the construction of multiple septs, the careful steps by the High Septon and the monarchy to show themselves as patrons – point to a desire by the High Septon and the leadership of the Faith have influence in this new center of power in Westeros (after all, other than Winterfell, they have at least a chapel and a septon in each of the regional capitols of the entire continent), as well as an understanding by the new king that the Faith is a powerful interest that will have to be courted.
Another aspect of Aegon’s monarchy thrown into sharper relief is the extent to which it actually was a triumvirate, where Aegon could call upon his sisters to provide additional expterise. Indeed, we can see a clear division of labor between the two sisters: in addition to being a second lawgiver, Rhaenys emphasized the “soft” side of power, focusing on propaganda and winning the love of the population:
“As the city and its prosperity grew, so did that of the realm. This was in part due to the Conqueror’s efforts to win the respect of his vassals and that of the smallfolk. In this he was often aided by Queen Rhaenys (whilst she lived) for whom the smallfolk were of special concern…”
“…those singers made songs of praise for the Targaryens and carried them throughout the realm…the queen also did much to bring the realm together through the marriages she arranged between far-flung episodes.” (WOIAF)
By contrast, Visenya was the iron fist to her sister’s velvet glove, taking up the role of Aegon’s security advisor, always with an eye to the threats against Aegon’s person and the Targaryen dynasty more generally. Hence the fact that “it was Visenya, not Aegon, who decided the nature of the Kingsguard. Seven Champions for the Lord of the Seven Kingdoms, who would all be knights. She modeled their vows upon those of the Night’s Watch, so that they would forfeit all things save their duty to the king. And when Aegon spoke of a grand tourney to choose the first Kingsguard, Visenya dissuaded him, saying he needed more than skill in arms to protect him; he also needed unwavering loyalty.” Thus, the Targaryen monarchy as much grew up around Aegon as was created by him.
And that strikes me as the central mystery of Aegon the Conqueror. On the one hand, he was held up by his contemporaries as a man of action, as “the seven warring kingdoms had rarely been at peace within their own borders…uniting them under one rule required a truly remarkable man. So it was fortunate for the realm that Aegon was such a man.” On the other hand, Aegon is often described as a withdrawn, anti-social individual who “having established councilors early on…Aegon the Conqueror often left the day-to-day governance of the realm to his sisters and these trusted councilors.”
At the same time, I think it’s wrong to call Aegon an absentee monarch. Rather, I think he was simply pursuing another angle of state-building:
“And instead, he worked to knit the realm together with his presence – to awe his subjects and (when needed) frighten them…half of the year he dedicated to the royal progress…paying his respects to the High Septon in the Starry Sept each time he visited Oldtown, guesting beneath the roofs of the lords of the great houses (even Winterfell…)…the king brought a glittering train with him whenever he went…”
More than anything else, this detail cements my opinion that Aegon was very much a feudal king, because the royal progress was central to how the monarchy worked, especially in the early medieval period before the monarchies of Europe had developed extensive bureaucracies. Given the centrality of individual relationships between liege lord and vassal in feudal politics, the idea of a royal progress is to cement in the minds of Aegon’s vassal a connection between the magnificence of the royal person – there’s a reason why kings adopted the titles of “Grace” and “Majesty” and put so much time and money into the magnificence of their court – and the prestige of the monarchy. If we think of socialization as a process of society putting a little policeman into your mind (to borrow Terry Pratchett’s phrase) to ensure that you’ll follow the rules of your volition, then Aegon was putting an image of the King into the minds of his subjects, to keep them desirous of royal favor and fearful of royal (fiery) wrath.
However, there’s a tradeoff here. With this kind of monarchy, everything relies on the person of the king – if like Aenys the king appears weak of body and mind, or if like Maegor he fails to leaven fear with magnificence, the monarchy can fall apart quite easily, because it lacks a solid foundation of functionaries to keep the institution going in the name of the King.
Likewise, Aegon’s monarchy concealed a fatal flaw of decentralization – because he had no large group of Valyrians to take over the ruling class as William the Conqueror did for the Norman lords who followed him to Hastings, Aegon largely relied on the pre-existing rulers and their traditional sources of power. As admirable as this strategy was for ending the War of Conquest faster than it would have otherwise, it would also create long-term problems for the monarchy:
“…in these progresses, the king was accompanied not only by his courtiers…six maesters were often in his company to advise him upon the local laws and traditions, so that he might rule in judgement at the courts he held. Rather than attempting to unify the realm under one set of laws, he respected the differing customs of each region and sought to judge as their past king might have had.” (WOAIF)
For medieval monarchs wrestling with the problem of how to exercise power after fiefdoms become inheritable and thus can’t be reshuffled to keep one’s vassals loyal, the law was a mighty source of power. The kings of England – especially the early monarchs from Henry Beauclerc through Edward III – from were especially good at using the courts to enhance royal power, both enhancing the king’s explicit authority vis-à-vis the nobility and the church and attracting political support from the commons by offering more equal justice. By contrast, Aegon allowing the continuation of the lords’ rights of “pit and gallows” and the Faith’s religious courts created a source of alternative authority that would bedevil his descendants. In political science terminology, this sets up a path dependent process that would leave the monarchy a weak feudal monarchy for a long time…
 “Where only finishing boats were seen, now cogs and galleys from Oldtown, Lannisport, the Free cities, and even the Summer Isles began to appear as the flow of trade shifted from Duskendale and Maidenpool to King’s Landing.” (WOIAF)
…and that’s all, folks. For the rest of the essay, you’ll have to pick up a copy of “Kings, Hands, and City-States,” coming very soon!