Seemingly for the first time in recorded history, lords from all over Westeros had gathered together. The greatest Targaryen king in history had summoned them together to provide a peaceful mechanism for deciding the succession of the Iron Throne. And thanks to the fecklessness of Viserys I, their work would make a peace that would last only 28 years.
The End of the Beginning: The Council-that-never-happened of 130 and the Council of 136
For when Viserys I died after temporizing his way through life, the Dance of the Dragons was sure to follow. However, to give Alicent Hightower credit for being slightly less idiotic than every other participant in that civil war, she did at least suggest a Great Council to resolve the dispute between her son and Princess Rhaenrya:
“Upon seeing that resistance was hopeless, the Dowager Queen Alicent emerged from Maegor’s Holdfast with her father Ser Otto Hightower, Ser Tyland Lannister, and Lord Jasper Wylde the Ironrod. (Lord Larys Strong was not with them. The master of whisperers had somehow contrived to disappear.) Queen Alicent attempted to treat with her stepdaughter. “Let us together summon a great council, as the Old King did in days of old,” said the Dowager Queen, “and lay the matter of succession before the lords of the realm.” But Queen Rhaenyra rejected the proposal with scorn. “We both know how this council would rule.” Then she bid her stepmother choose: yield, or burn.”(P&Q)
While ultimately only a historical footnote (but then again, I am a historian and footnotes are where the devil leaves his details), Rhaenyra’s response is quite curious. Did she reject the proposal because she believed that the unequal number of lordly houses between the blacks and the greens meant that she felt she would lose an appeal from the bullet to the ballot, as it were, or did she fear that the precedent of the Great Council of 101 would automatically bar her from the succession without her father alive to insist otherwise? Whichever the case might have been, the Great Council of 130 never happened, and instead thousands of Westerosi murdered each other over which selfish, bloodthirsty inbred aristocrat would sit the Iron Throne.
And when the killing was done and the survivors looked once more to the future, something entirely unexpected happened. In the wake of the Winter Fever of 132-133 and the political instability of the False Dawn, Grand Maester Munkun turned to the Great Council once again:
“Order reestablished itself, with Munkun serving as Hand and regent for the rest of the remaining year until new regents were appointed and a new Hand was found. The time of the regency finally ended on the sixteenth nameday of the king, when he entered the small council chamber, dismissed his regents, and relieved his then-Hand, Lord Manderly, of his office…
THE REGENTS OF KING AEGON III…
WILLAM STACKSPEAR Chosen by lot in the Great Council of 136 AC.
MARQ MERRYWEATHER Chosen by lot in the Great Council of 136 AC.
LORENT GRANDISON Chosen by lot in the Great Council of 136 AC.” (WOIAF)
While we have the least amount of evidence about the Council of 136 of all of the Great Councils, there’s a lot that we can induce from what we do know. First, Munkun’s turn to the assembly model was likely due to the issue of three vacancies at once (previously, the Council of Regents had only had to deal with one or two at a time), compounded with the extreme lack of trust between the Regents in the aftermath of the (former green) Lord Unwin Peake’s attempt to make his daughter queen through murder and treason and Ser Marston Waters’ attempted coup against Lord Thaddeus Rowan over the Rogare affair. Second, the Council of 136 seems largely to have been an extension of a previous political logic: the Great Council had been deemed to be a legitimate source of authority to nominate a successor to the Iron Throne, so it was clearly also competent to name successors to a lesser position. (Although notably that logic had not held from 131-135 AC…)
Third, the Great Council’s lack of familiarity with their new mission led to the adoption of a novel method of election: allotment. While this method has some advantages in terms of preventing competition and strife between the ruling lords, and preserves the principle that all lords are equal in the Great Council, it has notable drawbacks. Firstly, it’s pretty easy to corrupt the system by either stuffing the ballot box or by bribing the person charged with withdrawing the chosen names; indeed, the Medici of Florence dominated (or corrupted, depending on your political leanings) the Republic through the simple expedient of controlling the political officials who selected the names, thus allowing them to control the political system from behind the scenes. Secondly, unlike with actual elections, there’s no way for any faction to put forward a slate of candidates, which means whoever wins doesn’t have the support of anyone in the Great Council – especially if, as happened in 136, the lots went to a trio of nobodies from lesser Houses who failed to leave any mark on Westerosi politics.
There is one other factor, and that is the ever-important issue of timing. The Great Council of 136 was called at the very end of Aegon III’s minority and thus the three men selected by it to serve on the Regency Council would serve less than a year. If the Great Council had been called earlier, perhaps in 132-133 when the Winter Fever carried off the Hand of the King Tyland Lannister, Ser Torrhen Manderly’s father and brother (leading to his departure from the Regency Council), Lord Roland Westerling, and possibly Lady Jeyne Arryn and Lord Manfryd Mooton as well, then perhaps it might have been able to provide a stabilizing force on government, leading to the regularization of Great Councils in Westerosi politics.
The Unlikeliest Election: The Great Council of 233
While there is no evidence that the Council of 136 was reviled among the political class, something must have happened, because no one resorted to another Great Council for almost a hundred years. Even when Daeron was murdered and Baelor vanished in Dorne, even when Baelor was on the verge of death or seemingly had lost his mind, even when Viserys II inherited before his nieces, even when Aegon IV threatened to disinherit his son, no one thought to do it. Only after the devastation of three Blackfyre Rebellions and the dislocations to the succession caused by the Great Spring Sickness was another called:
“When King Maekar died in battle in 233 AC, whilst leading his army against a rebellious lord on the Dornish Marches, considerable confusion arose as to the succession. Rather than risk another Dance of the Dragons, the King’s Hand, Bloodraven, elected to call a Great Council to decide the matter.
In 233 AC, hundreds of lords great and small assembled in King’s Landing. With both of Maekar’s elder sons deceased, there were four possible claimants. The Great Council dismissed Prince Daeron’s sweet but simple-minded daughter Vaella immediately. Only a few spoke up for Aerion Brightflame’s son Maegor; an infant king would have meant a long, contentious regency, and there were also fears that the boy might have inherited his father’s cruelty and madness. Prince Aegon was the obvious choice, but some lords distrusted him as well, for his wanderings with his hedge knight had left him “half a peasant,” according to many. Enough hated him, in fact, that an effort was made to determine whether his elder brother Maester Aemon might be released from his vows, but Aemon refused, and nothing came of it.” (WOIAF)
There’s a lot to unpack from this passage: first, we can see further proof that there had been a precedent set in 101 AC; just as Viserys II was able to disinherit Daena the Defiant with barely a murmur from the court, here Princess Vaella’s claim was “dismissed…immediately.” Second, this does not seem to have been a Great Council that liked its options. Aerys I had eliminated his line of succession through his refusal to consummate his own marriage to Aelinor Penrose, the line of Rhaegel (which would have had powerful backing from the Arryns) had ended in violence and madness; Aerion had produced a male heir before his death, but we can see the depth of hatred for the Brightflame (“no sane man wanted any blood of Aerion’s on the throne” (AGOT)) from how few spoke up for his son Maegor, despite the clear legal case on his behalf.
In the end, the decision came down to a choice between the ineligible and the undesired. Prince Aemon was by this point a chained Maester of the Citadel, and thus could not legally serve. Despite that, “first they offered it, quietly, to Aemon. And quietly he refused. The gods meant for him to serve, not to rule, he told them. He had sworn a vow and would not break it, though the High Septon himself offered to absolve him.” (AGOT) Aegon, meanwhile, despite his laudable service in the Third Blackfyre Rebellion was “hated” enough that he became the candidate of last resort, due to his popularity among the smallfolk and his reformist tendency. Clearly, social and political conservativism was not purely the province of the Blackfyre loyalists in these years.
That being said, just as had happened in 101 AC, the authority of the Great Council was undermined by a sudden spurt of violence, with political murder brought to the very doorstep of the assembly:
“Even as the Great Council was debating, however, another claimant appeared in King’s Landing: none other than Aenys Blackfyre, the fifth of the Black Dragon’s seven sons. When the Great Council had first been announced, Aenys had written from exile in Tyrosh, putting forward his case in the hope that his words might win him the Iron Throne that his forebears had thrice failed to win with their swords. Bloodraven, the King’s Hand, had responded by offering him a safe conduct, so the pretender might come to King’s Landing and present his claim in person.
Unwisely, Aenys accepted. Yet hardly had he entered the city when the gold cloaks seized hold of him and dragged him to the Red Keep, where his head was struck off forthwith and presented to the lords of the Great Council, as a warning to any who might still have Blackfyre sympathies.” (WOIAF)
Always an instinctive authoritarian, Bloodraven’s actions were intended to have two effects: first, it eliminated the immediate threat that Aenys Blackfyre might actually win election at the Great Council. (Which in turn suggests something of the extent of Blackfyre sympathies within the nobility, even after two bloody wars and as many minor rebellions.) Second, it was also clearly an attempt to intimidate the Great Council to toe the line of political orthodoxy as Bloodraven defined it; because if he was willing to break the custom of safe conduct, what might he do to any minor lord who had no such promise?
As an unintended result, however, Brynden Rivers actions forced the question of how the government had to respond to his actions. While the Great Council doesn’t seem to have had the same tradition of legislative immunity that had emerged in England in the 17th century, the lords of the realm could not help but feel threatened by his actions and respond. Indeed, the fact that “THE FIRST ACT of Aegon’s reign was the arrest of Brynden Rivers,” suggests that King Aegon was under a lot of political pressure to do something. As the WOIAF puts it, “King Aegon felt he had no choice but to condemn the Hand, lest the word of the Iron Throne be seen as worthless.” Indeed, it may have been the case that Aegon’s actions here were designed to head off any move to establish legislative immunity or similar privielges by outraged or fearful members of the Great Council, and thus to ensure that government would remain monarchical and not Parliamentary.
For as much as Aegon V was definitely a progressive reformer, parliamentary government was clearly not on his agenda. Indeed, in so far as much as the dislike for him in the Great Council of 233 was reflective of overall noble attitudes, Aegon V likely would have seen further Great Councils as a vehicle for reactionary elements to oppose his reforms in the name of their “our gods-given rights and liberties.”
And thus any residual momentum behind the Great Council receded once again…
The Second Council That Never Was: The Tourney at Harrenhal
Prior to the publication of the World of Ice and Fire, fans of ASOIAF were primarily familiar with the Tourney at Harrenhal as part of the story of Rhaegar, Lyanna, Ned Stark, Robert Baratheon, and Howland Reed. With WOIAF, however, we learned an entirely different purpose for the festivities:
“If this tale be believed, ’twas Prince Rhaegar who urged Lord Walter to hold the tourney, using his lordship’s brother Ser Oswell as a go-between. Rhaegar provided Whent with gold sufficient for splendid prizes in order to bring as many lords and knights to Harrenhal as possible. The prince, it is said, had no interest in the tourney as a tourney; his intent was to gather the great lords of the realm together in what amounted to an informal Great Council, in order to discuss ways and means of dealing with the madness of his father, King Aerys II, possibly by means of a regency or a forced abdication.” (WOIAF)
To give some political background to this hypothetical Great Council: as Aerys II declined into madness and Tywin the Hand began to lose influence with his monarch, politics in the royal court began to shift into factionalism. Just as had happened with Aegon IV and Prince Daeron, at the center was a split between the king’s party and the prince’s party:
“If indeed this was the purpose behind the tourney, it was a perilous game that Rhaegar Targaryen was playing. Though few doubted that Aerys had taken leave of his senses, many still had good reason to oppose his removal from the Iron Throne, for certain courtiers and councillors had gained great wealth and power through the king’s caprice and knew that they stood to lose all should Prince Rhaegar come to power.
…Chief amongst the Mad King’s supporters were three lords of his small council: Qarlton Chelsted, master of coin, Lucerys Velaryon, master of ships, and Symond Staunton, master of laws. The eunuch Varys, master of whisperers, and Wisdom Rossart, grand master of the Guild of Alchemists, also enjoyed the king’s trust. Prince Rhaegar’s support came from the younger men at court, including Lord Jon Connington, Ser Myles Mooton of Maidenpool, and Ser Richard Lonmouth. The Dornishmen who had come to court with the Princess Elia were in the prince’s confidence as well, particularly Prince Lewyn Martell, Elia’s uncle and a Sworn Brother of the Kingsguard. But the most formidable of all Rhaegar’s friends and allies in King’s Landing was surely Ser Arthur Dayne, the Sword of the Morning.” (WOIAF)
The politics of this split are rather interesting, in that we don’t see many of the Great Houses involved (compared to say, the Great Council of 101 or the Dance of the Dragons): Aerys seems to have drawn his support primarily from his direct vassals in the Crownlands (Chelsted, Staunton), some lesser lords from the periphery of King’s Landing (Velaryon, Merryweather), while Rhaegar’s more diverse coalition included the Conningtons and Lonmouths from the Stormlands, the Mootons and the Whents from the Riverlands, and the Martells and Daynes from Dorne.
But with the Tullys, Arryns, Baratheons, and Starks together in the Southron Ambitions Conspiracy and Tywin Lannister very much his own man, the only Great Houses left to be recruited were the Tyrells and the Greyjoys. And while the Greyjoys I wouldn’t expect to be part of any faction given their isolation from royal politics, it is particularly puzzling that the Tyrells would have been absent from the political maneuverings of these years, given their intense desire for royal favor during the reigns of King Robert and King Joffrey.
Nevertheless, the Tourney of Harrenhal raised a whole host of issues: some of Aerys’ loyalists “had even gone so far as to suggest that Aerys should disinherit his “disloyal” son,” hoping that Viserys’ young age would “certainly mean a regency, wherein they themselves would rule as regents. With the king’s party looking to disinherit the Crown Prince and the Crown Prince backing forced abdication by proxy, clearly there was a growing element of brinksmanship in royal politics. The degree of rising tension can be seen in the ridiculous idea of Lords Chelsted and Staunton (really, Aerys’ coalition does not inspire confidence) to ban tourneys with Lord Merryweather faintly arguing for some sort of sanity. Unfortunately for Aerys’ partisans, the King’s sudden surge of confidence (helped along by Grand Maester Pycelle), put the issue of abdication and regency firmly back on the agenda:
“If that was indeed the king’s intent, it was a grievous miscalculation. Whilst his attendance made the Harrenhal tourney even grander and more prestigious than it already was, drawing lords and knights from every corner of the realm, many of those who came were shocked and appalled when they saw what had become of their monarch. His long yellow fingernails, tangled beard, and ropes of unwashed, matted hair made the extent of the king’s madness plain to all. Nor was his behavior that of a sane man, for Aerys could go from mirth to melancholy in the blink of an eye, and many of the accounts written of Harrenhal speak of his hysterical laughter, long silences, bouts of weeping, and sudden rages.
Above all, King Aerys II was suspicious: suspicious of his own son and heir, Prince Rhaegar; suspicious of his host, Lord Whent; suspicious of every lord and knight who had come to Harrenhal to compete … and even more suspicious of those who chose to absent themselves, the most notable of whom was his former Hand, Tywin Lannister, Lord of Casterly Rock.” (WOIAF)
This was in many ways a perfect scenario for Rhaegar Targaryen: his father’s mental collapse made self-evident at the same time that his own knightly virtues were made manifest through his own victories at the Tourney, all in front of the eyes of the entire political class of Westeros. With a few whispers in the right ears, a Great Council could be called into session and Aerys and his cronies could be swept out in a day. Indeed, if Stefan is right about the Southron Ambitions Conspiracy, there might have been a majority coalition who would be sympathetic to calls to remove mad kings, in exchange for a compromise on royal power vis-à-vis the nobility. In that bargain, might a strengthening of the Great Councils be possible, even if it was closer to the reforms of Edward I than of 1688-9?
Needless to say, any possibility of a Great Council or of majority support for Rhaegar’s machinations evaporated the moment that Rhaegar named Lyanna his Queen of Love and Beauty. Given the cultural implications of such an action, the Starks and Baratheons would have to oppose him politically lest they be seen as condoning his insult, and the Tullys and Arryns would be unwilling to cross their close allies. Rather than being seen as a “perfect prince” to replace an ailing monarch, now Rhaegar had the air of a feckless adulterer just as lacking in judgement as his father. All of which makes this scene rather baffling:
Rhaegar had put his hand on Jaime’s shoulder. “When this battle’s done I mean to call a council. Changes will be made. I meant to do it long ago, but…well, it does no good to speak of roads not taken. We shall talk when I return.”
Those were the last words Rhaegar Targaryen ever spoke to him. Outside the gates an army had assembled, whilst another descended on the Trident. So the Prince of Dragonstone mounted up and donned his tall black helm, and rode forth to his doom. (ASOS)
While providing further proof that Rhaegar had indeed intended to turn the Tourney at Harrenhal into a legislative assembly, I have to admit I don’t understand Rhaegar’s political thinking here. Just as before, his father and his father’s coterie would oppose out of self-interested paranoia, likely claiming that Rhaegar and the rebels had conspired together to overthrow the king (why was Rhaegar not there for the initial fighting, hmmm?). But unlike in 281, there was no opening to the Rebel Alliance. The deaths of Rickard Stark, Brandon Stark, and Elbert Arryn at Aerys’ hands, the “kidnapping” of Lyanna Stark, and all the blood shed since would harden their anger and resentment. Perhaps the aura of a victorious warrior-prince might sway some, but with the Dornish no longer in his coalition and unable to comply with the marital demands of the Lannisters or the Tyrells, I don’t see where Rhaegar was going to assemble a majority in the Great Council to do anything.
Perhaps he should have stuck to prophecies…
In all of ASOIAF, the idea of a Great Council really comes up only in ACOK, when Catelyn Stark proposes it as a way to stop the fighting between the anti-Lannister forces:
“”Robb will set aside his crown if you and your brother will do the same,” she said, hoping it was true. She would make it true if she must; Robb would listen to her, even if his lords would not. “Let the three of you call for a Great Council, such as the realm has not seen for a hundred years. We will send to Winterfell, so Bran may tell his tale and all men may know the Lannisters for the true usurpers. Let the assembled lords of the Seven Kingdoms choose who shall rule them.”
Renly laughed. “Tell me, my lady, do direwolves vote on who should lead the pack?” Brienne brought the king’s gauntlets and greathelm, crowned with golden antlers that would add a foot and a half to his height. “The time for talk is done. Now we see who is stronger.” Renly pulled a lobstered green-and-gold gauntlet over his left hand, while Brienne knelt to buckle on his belt, heavy with the weight of longsword and dagger.”(WOIAF)
As I’ve talked about elsewhere, Renly’s curt refusal of Catelyn’s suggestion speaks to the lack of substance behind the shiny surface. However, I think it speaks to the larger problem of the power of the political community vs. the power of the sword: when your political community is made up of a warrior caste which has little inhibition about resolving an unfavorable election at the point of a sword, how do you compel people to abide by the majority vote? Just as the erosion of the taboo against political violence ultimately doomed the Roman Republic, that temptation to “see who is stronger” would always be there.
This is not to say that a Great Council couldn’t resolve these tensions – it has in the past, after all. But what is necessary for conciliarism, let alone parliamentarianism, take root, is for the political powers that be to see their interests as being bound up with those of the institution, whether that’s the nobility seeing their collective voice as a way to protect their rights or check monarchs or monarchs seeing these assemblies as a way to win consensus and compliance for royal policies and taxation. Formal power and political culture will need to change at the same time.
 Following the precedent of 101, Maegor was the male heir of the oldest son of the king to produce male heirs. Moreover, Maegor had a claim both through his father and grandfather, but also through his maternal grandfather Rhaegel Targaryen.
 “Of the deeds done then, both good and ill—of the leadership of Maekar, the actions of Aerion Brightflame, the courage of Maekar’s youngest son, and the second duel between Bloodraven and Bittersteel—we know well.” (WOIAF)