Politics of the Seven Kingdoms: Dorne (Part III)

Dorne map

credit to ser Other-in-law

Politics of Dorne Part III

With the arrival of Aegon I Targaryen to the Westerosi mainland, we get the most detailed section of Dornish history, with extensive coverage both in the Dorne chapter and the various chapters of the roll of Targaryen monarchs and their foreign policy towards the only foreign kingdom on their content. All the same there are some frustrating silences in the record that leave major questions about Dornish political culture.

The First Dornish War

Despite the presentist impression that Aegon the Conqueror is an epoch-defining individual, the Martells of Dorne seem to have initially reacted to Aegon’s declaration of intent as if he were merely another participant in the Great Game:

“The Princess of Dorne dispatched a raven to Dragonstone, offering to join Aegon against Argilac the Storm King … but as an equal and ally, not a subject.

As Argilac the Arrogant gathered his swords at Storm’s End, pirates from the Stepstones descended on the shores of Cape Wrath to take advantage of their absence, and Dornish raiding parties came boiling out of the Red Mountains to sweep across the marches…”

In addition, we can see from these passages that, in the immediate pre-Aegon period, the Dornish state did have an active geostrategic ambition of trying to conquer the Stormlands (or parts thereof). While raiding and “harass[ment]” is more in line with traditional Dornish practice, “King Argilac…had [turned] back a Dornish invasion whilst still a boy.” Meria’s offer of an alliance, combined with the earlier full-out invasion suggests a more aggressive effort to permanently shift borders. This raises the question: what would a Dornish-dominated Stormlands have looked like? Or rather, since it is exceedingly unlikely that over the millenia the Dornish have never had a period of dominance, what did a Dornish-dominated Marches or Reach look like?

At the same time, Meria’s counter-offer and her continuing opportunistic behavior well into the War of Conquest raises an interesting question of timing and sequence: if Aegon wasn’t viewed by Princess Meria as a major threat even after Aegon torched Harrenhal and demonstrated how draconic might redefined the terms of warfare, when did the Dornish make the elaborate preparations for guerilla warfare which clearly were in place well before the dragons came to Dorne?

We can see evidence of this early preparation with Rhaenys’ first expedition to Dorne, which took place after the Field of Fire but four years before the First Dornish War:

“Rhaenys Targaryen had no such easy conquest. A host of Dornish spearmen guarded the Prince’s Pass, the gateway through the Red Mountains, but Rhaenys did not engage them. She flew above the pass, above the red sands and the white, and descended upon Vaith to demand its submission, only to find the castle empty and abandoned. In the town beneath its walls, only women and children and old men remained. When asked where their lords had gone, they would only say, “Away.” Rhaenys followed the river downstream to Godsgrace, seat of House Allyrion, but it too was deserted. On she flew. Where the Greenblood met the sea, Rhaenys came upon the Planky Town, where hundreds of poleboats, fishing skiffs, barges, houseboats, and hulks sat baking in the sun, joined together with ropes and chains and planks to make a floating city, yet only a few old women and small children appeared to peer up at her as Meraxes circled overhead.

Finally the queen’s flight took her to Sunspear, the ancient seat of House Martell, where she found the Princess of Dorne waiting in her abandoned castle. Meria Martell was eighty years of age, the maesters tell us, and had ruled the Dornishmen for sixty of those years. She was very fat, blind, and almost bald, her skin sallow and sagging. Argilac the Arrogant had named her “the Yellow Toad of Dorne,” but neither age nor blindness had dulled her wits.

“I will not fight you,” Princess Meria told Rhaenys, “nor will I kneel to you. Dorne has no king. Tell your brother that.”

“I shall,” Rhaenys replied, “but we will come again, Princess, and the next time we shall come with fire and blood.”

“Your words,” said Princess Meria. “Ours are Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken. You may burn us, my lady … but you will not bend us, break us, or make us bow. This is Dorne. You are not wanted here. Return at your peril.”

Thus queen and princess parted, and Dorne remained unconquered.” (WOIAF)

While the dialogue is a bit stiff and writerly (I honestly doubt that you would see that many conversations, even in Westeros where you get two House Words in as many sentences), there’s a lot we can learn from these passages about military strategy. First, we can see from the evacuations of Vaith, Godsgrace, and Plankytown that the Dornish had begun preparations for assymetric warfare for some time, given the immense logistical difficulties of transporting, supplying, and relocating thousands of people. (Incidentally, the fact that the Targaryens were surprised when the Dornish used this tactic a few years later suggests either that Raenys failed to understand the military implications of what she was seeing, or that Aegon and Visenya failed to grasp them from her report.) Second, while the Dornish seem to have gotten away with it, the Targaryens showed their hand in a way that was noticed – when she encountered the Dornish host in the Prince’s Pass, Rhaenys’ response was to rely solely on her dragons. The Dornish would plan accordingly.

What came next is not only one of the two best-sourced conflicts in Dornish history but also clearly a transformational event in Dornish nationalism:

“Of all the challenges the Dornishmen have faced, none have loomed so large as that posed by Aegon the Conqueror and his sisters. Great was the valor the Dornish showed in battle, and great the grief at the losses they suffered, for the price of freedom was steep. Yet alone of all the Seven Kingdoms, Dorne remained independent of House Targaryen, resisting attempt after attempt by Aegon, his sisters, and their successors to make the Dornish bend their knees before the Iron Throne.

The Dornishmen fought no great battles against the Targaryens, nor did they seek to defend their castles against the dragons when they came, for Meria Martell, Princess of Dorne at the time of Aegon’s Conquest, had learned much from the Last Storm and the Field of Fire, and from the fate of Harrenhal. Instead, when Aegon turned his eye to Dorne in 4 AC, the Dornish simply vanished before the dragons.” (WOIAF)

Studies of nationalism frequently point to the key role of an “Other” in shaping group identity – “we” exist and have these characteristics in common, because “they” exist” and are our opposite in every way. The Targaryens, with their ceaseless hunger for conquest, their aloof arrogance, and their pitiless raining-down of dragonfire on hearth and home[1], were perfectly suited to be that common threat that could unify the famously fractious Dornish (just as the Dornish had been for the Reachermen and Stormlanders. Moreover, as shared suffering and shared victories are the coin of building group identity – hence why there are so many outdoors “team-building retreat” centers – the shared experience of “great…valor” and “great…grief” would have given Dornishmen from the mountains, the sands, and the coasts far more in common than they had ever had before.

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credit to Michael Komarck

At the same time, one of the things I find frustrating about how this section is written is that the lack of “great battles against the dragons” means that we don’t really get an interior perspective of how the Dornish fought for independence. Even in the chapter on Dorne, the story is written from the Targaryen perspective, and due to the guerilla war strategies employed, the Dornish vanish from the text just as they “vanished before the dragons.” For example, we know that a battle must have been fought when Harlan Tyrell’s army was wiped out in the sands between Hellholt and Vaith; the victor of such a lopsided victory would have become a nationalist hero in the same way that General Giap became in the wake of Dien Bien Phu.) And yet, we don’t know who they were, any more than we have first names for the wily Lord Wyl or Lord Toland, or know much about Lord Loffrey Dayne or whichever Dornish lord sacked Nightsong. Indeed, the only Dornish hero we get is Meria Martell, who appears at the very beginning of the conflict, then disappears, then pops up briefly to throw Lord Rosby from the window in Sunspear, then disappears, then dies.

And speaking of stereotypes discussed in Part I, another thing I find frustrating is that, to the extent that we see the Dornish acting as protagonists in their own story, it’s usually to emphasize Dornish cruelty and treachery:

“Lord Orys was captured by Lord Wyl, and many of his bannermen and knights besides. They remained captive for years before finally being ransomed for their weight in gold in 7 AC. And even then, each and every one of them returned lacking a sword hand, so that they might never take up arms against Dorne again.

…In return, the Dornish responded with fire of their own, sending a force to Cape Wrath in 8 AC that left half the rainwood ablaze and sacked half a dozen towns and villages. Matters escalated, and more Dornish seats fell to dragonfire in 9 AC. The Dornish responded a year later by sending a host under Lord Fowler that seized and burned the great Marcher castle of Nightsong and carried off its lords and defenders as hostages, whilst another army under Ser Joffrey Dayne marched to the very walls of Oldtown, razing the fields and villages outside it.

Regardless, the last and least glorious phase of the First Dornish War then began. The Targaryens placed prices on the heads of the Dornish lords, and half a dozen and more were killed by assassins —though only two of the killers ever lived to collect their reward. The Dornish responded in kind, and many were the pitiless deaths that followed. Even in the heart of King’s Landing, no one was safe. Lord Fell was smothered in a brothel, and King Aegon himself was attacked on three separate occasions. When Queen Visenya and an escort were set upon, two of her guards died before she cut down the last villain herself with Dark Sister. Worse occurred at the hands of the Wyl of Wyl, whose deeds we need not recount; they are infamous enough and still remembered, especially in Fawnton and Old Oak.” (WOIAF)

In the interests of fairness, I want to discuss two potential objections to this critique (as well as my critique about the Dornish not being protagonists). The first is that, as the text is written by a maester looking for patronage from the Iron Throne, it’s naturally going to be written from a pro-Targaryen perspective. I would argue that there are textual strategies that have been used elsewhere in WOIAF[2] to counteract this: create an in-universe historian for Maester Yandel to argue against, which shows the reader that there’s multiple perspectives; or use rumor and legend to foreground the question of bias. The second is that the text emphasizes that the war descended into war crimes on both sides, so it’s not really evoking the stereotype. My argument would be that, while that’s true on its face, because we have much more exposure to Aegon, Visenya, Rhaenys, Orys, and so forth as individuals and protagonists, the audience responds differently to their actions than they do to a collective “the Dornish.”

Martell-Targaryen Relations: the First Hundred Years

No matter how savage the fighting, all wars must end, and the First Dornish War was no exception. However, one of the things I wished the text explained more about is how the upsurge of nationalist sentiment in Dorne intersected with the very diplomatic way in which the war ended.

“When Princess Meria at last passed away in 13 AC, her throne passed to her son, the aged and failing Prince Nymor. He had had enough of war and sent a delegation led by his daughter, Princess Deria, to King’s Landing. This delegation carried the skull of Meraxes with them, as a gift for the king…Dorne wanted peace, according to Deria—but the peace of two kingdoms no longer at war, not the peace between a vassal and a lord…

Swayed by such considerations, it is said, King Aegon was determined to refuse the offer until Princess Deria placed in his hands a private letter from her father, Prince Nymor. Aegon read it upon the Iron Throne, and men say that when he rose, his hand was bleeding, so hard had he clenched it.” (WOIAF)

From this text, we can surmise that Prince Nymor was probably the leader of a pro-peace party within Dornish politics (while his mother was clearly willing to pursue the war to her death), as someone who saw how his kingdom had become “a blighted, burning ruin” but who nevertheless was insistent on Dornish independence (and pragmatic enough to use hidden threats) rather than believing in peace at any price. How were Nymor’s policies received by his subjects? Did the fact that the “aged and failing” Nymor probably didn’t fight in the First Dornish War create resentment or threaten his reign? How did he persuade the lords and smallfolk who had held out for year after year despite the Dragon’s Wroth to lay down their arms? The text is silent.

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credit to Michael Kormarck

But while Nymor was very much his mother’s opposite, his daughter, on the other hand, seems to have come down somewhere in the middle between her father and her grandmother. As Sons of the Dragon details, Princess Deria was quite active in upholding the peace that she had forged with her father:

“After the frustrations of his Dornish War the king accepted the continued independence of Dorne, and flew to Sunspear on Balerion on the tenth anniversary of the peace accords to celebrate a “feast of friendship” with Deria Martell, the reigning Princess of Dorne.”  (Sons of the Dragon)

Even after ten years, it would have been no small thing to invite Aegon the Conqueror to come to Sunspear on dragonback to sit down and share a meal; one wonders how Princess Deria managed the wroth of her subjects who had seen their homes burned by Balerion. At the same time, there remains a major question as to how sincere the princess was about her “friendship” with the Targaryens, or indeed about the peace process in general:

“And high in the Red Mountains of Dorne, a pretender called the Vulture King appeared, and called on all true Dornishmen to avenge the evils visited on Dorne by the Targaryens. Though Princess Deria denounced him, swearing that she and all leal Dornishmen wanted only peace, thousands flocked to his banners, swarming down from the hills and up out of the sands, through goat tracks in the mountains into the Reach.”

“The largest and most threatening rebellion remained that of the Vulture King along the Dornish marches. Though Princess Deria continued to issue denunciations from Sunspear, there were many who suspected that she was playing a double game, for she did not take the field against the rebels and was rumored to be sending them men, money, and supplies. Whether that was true or not, hundreds of Dornish knights and several thousand seasoned spearmen had joined the Vulture King’s rabble, and the rabble itself had swelled enormously, to more than thirty thousand men.” (Sons of the Dragon)

It is unambiguous that the Vulture King was clearly a pro-war Dornish nationalist (hence his constituency of “all true Dornishmen,” which suggests nationalist ideology positioned against those “false” Dornishmen who preferred peace over war), whose speeches inspired both Dornish smallfolk and trained soldiers alike to “floc[k] to his banners.” What is ambiguous is how we should interpret Deria’s reaction to this upheaval: was she truly in favor of the peace, and simply unable to stand against the tidal wave of nationalist sentiment? Or was she an enthusiastic member of the pro-war party, with her denunciations a mere paper shield? Or was she somewhere in the middle, and her covert support for the Vulture King was merely a way of ensuring that he would not turn his armies against the “false” Dornishmen in Sunspear? Or was she a true Machiavellian, encouraging the Vulture King to war against the Iron Throne in the hopes that the Targaryens would solve her problems for her? (After all, no Martell Princess would be entirely at ease with a Dornishman with thirty thousand armed supporters claiming the title of king, much less the particular kingly title associated with anti-Martell rebels.)

After the reign of Princess Deria, we fall into another hundred-year gap in the historical record and skip forward to the Dance of the Dragons era. We know that there was a “peace that lasted through the troubles of the Vulture King and beyond,” but the relationship between the Iron Throne and Sunspear was more complicated than cordial. On the one hand, we learn that when “Princess Rhaenyra came of age…there was even talk of wedding her to the Prince of Dorne, to unite the two realms at last,” which suggests something of a thaw in relations (possibly due to the reputation of King Jaehaerys I, who was supposedly mourned even in Dorne). On the other hand, we have the complicated geopolitical machinations between the Targaryens, the Dornish, and the Triarchy of Essos:

“Tired of waiting for a crown that seemed increasingly more distant, Daemon was determined to carve out his own kingdom. In this, he and Corlys Velaryon could make common cause, thanks to the predations of the Kingdom of the Three Daughters—or the Triarchy, as it was sometimes called—which was the union between Lys, Myr, and Tyrosh…The fighting began in 106 AC, with the Sea Snake providing the fleet and Daemon providing Caraxes and his skill in commanding men to lead the second sons and landless knights who flocked to Daemon’s banner. King Viserys contributed to their war, sending gold for the hire of men and supplies.

They won many victories over the next two years, culminating in Prince Daemon killing the Myrish prince—Admiral Craghas Drahar, called Crabfeeder—in single combat. (When he learned that Daemon had declared himself King of the Narrow Sea in 109 AC, King Viserys was heard to say that his brother could keep his crown if it “kept him out of trouble”.) It proved a premature claim to victory, however. The Triarchy dispatched a new fleet and army the following year, and Dorne joined the Triarchy in the war against Daemon’s fledgling, petty kingdom.” (WOIAF)

Prince Qoren might have entertained the notion of an honorable peace through a dynastic marriage and personal union, but he clearly drew the line at allowing the Targaryens to establish a client kingdom off his east coast that could be used as a staging ground for an invasion. Indeed, the importance with which the Martells viewed this conflict can be seen first in the fact that “Prince Qoren Martell…lead the Dornish to fight in support of the Triarchy,” and in that he married his eldest daughter to Drazenko Rogare, brother of Triarch-for-Life Lysandro the Magnificent.[3]

Despite an enthusiastic (and successful) policy of preventing the Targaryens from annexing the Stepstones, Prince Qoren was wary of further entanglements with the Iron Throne. Following something of a trend of conservative men (Mors, Nymor, Doran) and aggressive women (Nymeria, Meria, possibly Deria, definitely Arianne), this policy seems to have led to something of a generation gap in Dornish politics:

“During the Dance of the Dragons, both sides courted the Dornishmen, but Prince Qoren refused to take part: “Dorne has danced with dragons before,” he was reported to have said in response to Ser Otto Hightower’s letter. “I would sooner sleep with scorpions.”

Prince Qoren’s daughter would be of a different mind. Princess Aliandra came young to her seat and thought herself a new Nymeria. A fiery young woman, she encouraged her lords and knights to prove themselves worthy of her favors by raiding in the marches…” (WOIAF)

Given Aliandra’s disdain for the deniable cut-outs that Deria had used, it may well be that the result of these policies would have meant that her reign included some of those “other Dornish Wars” (which apparently will be fleshed out in Volume I of Fire and Blood). However, without that supplemental material, all we can say is that it’s possible, but that on the other hand, Aliandra’s relationship with the Iron Throne was good enough in this period that she “showed great favor to Lord Alyn Velaryon when his first great journey took him to Sunspear, and again when he returned from the Sunset Sea.”

Daeron’s War and Changing Dornish Nationalism

In many ways, Daeron’s war has many of the same narrative problems as the First Dornish War. Once again, the protagonists are largely non-Dornish: it’s Daeron and Oakenfist who come up with the grand strategy (and in the former’s case, has the James Dean death); it’s Aemon Dragonknight and Baelor the Blessed who get the chivalric and religious dramatic arcs; and its Harlan Tyrell who takes up Lord Rosby’s role as the imperialist stooge. By contrast, the cunning Lord Qorgyle and sadistic Lord Wyl (neither of whom exactly escape the stereotype) go without first names, as does the Prince of Dorne who almost lost his princely state only to be saved at the last minute. Once again, there’s the emphasis on Dornish cruelty and treachery (the poisoned arrow, the serpent pit, and murder under a flag of truce), although Harlan Tyrell’s counter-insurgent thuggery does do a better job of making “both sides” resonate at a human level:

“Lord Tyrell, whom Daeron had left in charge of Dorne, valiantly attempted to quell the fires of rebellion, traveling from castle to castle with each turn of the moon—punishing any supporters of the rebels with the noose, burning down the villages that harbored the outlaws, and so on. 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)

However, there is one major factor that makes Daeron’s War more than a retreat of the earlier conflict: the role of Dornish smallfolk. As I’ve discussed before, the fact that “on 158 AC, the Prince of Dorne and twoscore of the most powerful Dornish lords bent their knees to Daeron at the Submission of Sunspear,” but the common people kept fighting suggests a major social revolution in Dorne (and in Dornish nationalism). If, as I surmised above, earlier Dornish nationalism had been founded on the association between Dornish independence and the victorious Martells, that link was now broken. It may well that many of the social protectionist customs of Dorne date from this period, as the nobility had to somehow re-write the social contract with a now mobilized and politically aware commons.

But as with the story of Nymor and Deria, the account of Daeron’s War leaves me with questions as to how the end of this conflict was managed politically. Unlike in the first treaty, there would be no avoidance of entanglements with the rest of Westeros, for “as part of the terms of the agreement, Baelor agreed that his young cousin Daeron…should be betrothed to Princess Mariah, eldest child of the Prince of Dorne.” This could not have come without controversy on the Dornish side as well as the Westerosik for a few short years after bending the knee to the enemy, the Martells were literally getting into bed with the enemy. And it is in this context that we have to view the story of Baelor and the pit of vipers:

“Mounting the Stone Way, Baelor soon came to the place where the Wyls had imprisoned his cousin Prince Aemon. He found the Dragonknight naked in a cage. It is said that Baelor pleaded, but Lord Wyl refused to free Aemon…

The crossing of the desert between the northern foothills and the Scourge on foot, practically alone, nearly undid him. And yet he persevered. It was an arduous journey, but he survived to meet with the Prince of Dorne in what some consider to be the first miracle of Blessed Baelor’s reign. And the second miracle might well be that he succeeded in forging a peace with Dorne that lasted throughout his reign…

After a sojourn in the Old Palace of Sunspear, the Prince of Dorne offered Baelor a galley to take him back to King’s Landing. However, the young king insisted that the Seven had commanded him to walk. Some in the Dornish court feared that Prince Viserys would take it as a new cause for war when (not if) Baelor died upon the road, so the prince made every effort to make certain that the Dornish lords along the route would be hospitable. When he mounted the Boneway, Baelor turned his attention to recovering Prince Aemon from his imprisonment. He had asked the Dornish prince to explicitly command the Dragonknight’s release, and this Lord Wyl accepted. Yet instead of freeing Aemon himself, he gave Baelor the key to Aemon’s cage, and an invitation to use it. But now, not only was Aemon naked in a cage, exposed to the hot sun by day and the cold wind by night, but also a pit had been dug beneath the cage, and within it were many vipers…” (WOIAF)

As we can see, the unnamed Prince of Dorne was clearly the leading member of the peace party in Dornish politics, not only negotiating the treaty with Baelor but also going to great lengths to ensure prisoner transfers and other intermediary steps would be taken, and most importantly, that Baelor would survive so as to prevent a resumption of hostilities. The Wyl of Wyl, however, was clearly a member of the war party, trying to provoke a new war by killing either Targaryen prince, and walking up to the very edge of open defiance of his feudal overlord in the process. And indeed, it is only luck (or the will of the gods) that his gambit failed and the peace party prevailed.

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However, their victory would mean the end of an era, and the beginning of a new one. Even before Daeron’s treaty, his marriage to Mariah Martell clearly set the stage for Dorne to enter the polity of Westeros. Significantly, however, this peace would be an elite project:

“Two years of negotiation later, an agreement was reached in which Prince Maron agreed to be betrothed to Daeron’s sister, Daenerys, once she was of age. They were wed the following year, and with that marriage, Prince Maron knelt and swore his oaths of fealty before the Iron Throne…

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, and other such matters.” (WOIAF)

House Martell gained much from their peace treaty, and to a lesser extent the lords of Dorne kept many of their “rights and privileges.” But the ordinary Dornishman and Dornishwoman, the “Dornish street” as it were, got nothing out of the treaty when they were the ones who had won the war at enormous cost. This is another blank space in the record that I would like to see illuminated (perhaps if we ever get a story about Dunk and Egg’s adventures in Dorne…).

Most Loyal Vassals

From now on, the Martells’ identity would have to change, from independent monarchs to the most loyal vassals of the Targaryen monarchy, At the same time, their engagement in King’s Landing politics was not done solely out of loyalty to their new kinsmen[4] but to enhance the power and influence of their own house:

“In the last years of his reign, Prince Daeron proved the chief obstacle to Aegon’s misrule…The likeliest cause, however, was that he knew that such an act would bring war to the realm, for Daeron’s allies—chief among them the Prince of Dorne, whose sister Daeron had wed—would defend his rights.  

Dissatisfaction at these concessions was one of the seeds from which the first Blackfyre Rebellion sprang, as was the belief that Dorne held too much influence over the king—for Daeron II brought many Dornishmen to his court, some of whom were granted offices of note.

The third marriage was one of her own choice, after she fell in love with Ser Michael Manwoody, a Dornishman who had attended Princess Mariah at her court. Manwoody, who in early life had studied at the Citadel, was a cultured man of great wit and learning who had become a trusted servant to King Daeron after Daeron’s marriage to Queen Mariah. He was sent to Braavos to negotiate with the Iron Bank on several occasions, and there is record of a correspondence between him and the keyholders of the Iron Bank (sealed with his seal and signed with his name, but apparently in the hand of Elaena) regarding these negotiations.” (WOIAF)

During the reign of Aegon IV, this drive for influence clearly had a defensive character, as the Martells sought to prevent an imminent war but also wanted to ensure that a half-Martell prince would inherit the Iron Throne, which should prevent wars in the future. However, during the reign of Daeron II, we also get a sense that the Dornish nobility (or at least those in favor with the Martells) were looking to benefit from their new royal connections.

This raises an interesting question about the Blackfyre Rebellions. On the one hand, we know that the rebellion was at least partly inspired by lingering resentment toward the Dornish, and that the Martells would decisively back the Red Dragon during the First Rebellion. On the other hand, rather than seeing a unified Dornish resistance against Westerosi racism, the Blackfyre Rebellions saw several Dornish Houses – the Yronwoods, the Wyls, and the Santagars – join the other side and fight for them not just once but over and over again. This suggests to me a motive stronger than mere opportunism (the desire, for example, to continue the traditional practice of raiding in the marches), but what that motive was is unclear.

I’m also curious as to whether Blackfyre sympathies went beyond these three identitifed rebel houses, whether any of the smallfolk of Dorne who had less buy-in to the new regime than the court favorites of the Martells joined in the fighting. There are some indications that suggest something of this sort happening, as the Lords Caron and Dondarrion “burned the Vulture King out of the Red Mountains” in the reign of Daeron II, but outside of a sentence in Hedge Knight, we have little information about what that conflict entailed.

Regardless of which the case was, the ongoing difficulty for the Martells from this point on was that they didn’t have a move other than supporting their Targaryen kin – even when the steady hands of Daeron II and Baelor Breakspear were replaced by the clearly incompetent Aerys I, which meant that influence shifted from their own partisans to Bloodraven; even when their proximity to the crown drifted from Maekar to Aegon V to Jaehaerys I; even when Aerys II’s initial extravagant friendliness (his promise to “make the Dornish deserts bloom” for example) faded into equally strange anti-Dornish racism.[5] The depth of their problem can be seen in the wake of their their “victory” of marrying Elia Martell to Crown Prince Rhaegar; instead of gaining a fresh round of royal offices and favors, they found themselves lending their support to Rhaegar in a power struggle against his father, and then were humiliated before the eyes of the political class of the nation by the man they’d lent their support to. Yet rather than be able to respond in any way to this insult, they had their kinswoman effectively kidnapped and held to ransom in order to force them to give their military forces to the man who had insulted her. Even then, this did not protect Elia or her children. Never had a dynastic alliance provided so little for so much.

And yet despite that, Doran Martell’s vision of revenge still hinges on a Targaryen restoration…

Internal Rivalries:

“The disunity of the Dornish is apparent even from our oldest sources.”

“From such origins did the three distinct types of Dornishmen we know today arise. The Young Dragon, King Daeron I Targaryen, gave them the names we know them by in his book, The Conquest of Dorne. Stony Dornishmen, sandy Dornishmen, and salty Dornishmen, he named them.” (WOIAF)

It’s difficult to assess the extent of internal divisions in Dornish politics, because they seem so often to be a case of the dog that failed to bark, to borrowing from Arthur Conan Doyle. It’s not as if there aren’t potential reasons: ethnic and regional differences, opposition to Martell centralization from the deep deserts and the high mountains, or even ambitious Houses looking to replace their overlords as happens in every other kingdomin Westeros. And yet, as we’ve seen earlier, neither pre- nor post-Nymerian conflicts break down either by stony/sandy/salty or mountain/desert/coasts. Nor, other than the Yronwoods, do we get much evidence of rebellious vassals, which is a bit strange when you consider the strong personalities of the Qorgyles or the Ullers.

Moreover, the large gaps in the historical record mean that examples of rebellions and civil wars pop up in oddly syncopated fashion: the Yronwoods lead the resistance against Nymeria but then the next time we hear of them rebelling is the First Blackfyre Rebellion (a gap of some 900 years); the Daynes, Fowlers, Blackmonts, and Manwoodys all warred against Nymeria but then are seemingly unswervingly loyal for the next thousand years, despite the fiercely independent mindset of the mountain lords.

And then we have the question of social class. As we see in AFFC, the smallfolk of Dorne are perfectly happy to turn their wroth against the Martells:

“The prince is dead!” a woman shrilled behind him.

“To spears!” a man bellowed from a balcony.

Hotah gave up looking for the speakers; the press was too thick, and a third of them were shouting. “To spears! Vengeance for the Viper!” By the time they reached the third gate, the guards were shoving people aside to clear a path for the prince’s litter, and the crowd was throwing things. One ragged boy darted past the spearmen with a half-rotten pomegranate in one hand, but when he saw Areo Hotah in his path, with longaxe at the ready, he let the fruit fall unthrown and beat a quick retreat. Others farther back let fly with lemons, limes, and oranges, crying “War! War! To the spears!” (AFFC)

It seems unlikely that this was the only time in Dornish history in which the commons turned against their would-be masters, or that their gifts for assymetric warfare were not first honed on internal conflicts. And yet, we don’t have any examples in WOIAF or “The Princess and the Queen” or “The Rogue Prince” of any revolts from below. Similarly, without the Sons of the Dragon, we wouldn’t know that the Vulture Kings were particularly populist figures. This does go some lengths to explaining why the title was used and re-used by so many generations of un-related rebels, but the causes of their rebellions and the content of their beliefs is still a mystery.

Strengths and Weaknesses:

“Dornishmen fight best at home, so I say let us hone our spears and wait. When the Lannisters and the Tyrells come down on us, we shall bleed them in the passes and bury them beneath the blowing sands, as we have a hundred times before.” (AFFC)

Dorne is somewhat peculiar as a polity. On its home ground, the Dornish are essentially unbeatable, capable of beating back kingdoms who outnumber them many times over. And yet, the Dornish have only rarely been able to shape the world outside their own borders because they are so thinly peopled that they lack the capacity to conquer.

Its strength as a polity, then is its ability to efficiently marshal its resources, to make best use of its limited resources, to turn the pitiless terrain that has so restrained Dorne’s numbers into its best advantage.

However, the flipside of that efficiency is direst necessity. For Dorne, there is no margin for error, because any defeat threatens to cripple them for generations. No wonder, therefore, that Doran Martell is so cautious about wagering his armies on any one throw of the dice.

[1] Incidentally, it is in this dragonfire that I think we can find an explanation for why the 50,000 spears of Dorne suddenly become 25,000, or alternatively how we can explain how King Ferris Fowler alone could have mustered 10,000 men in the reign of Garth VII. Regardless of whether they perished directly to dragonfire, or from a combination of exposure or starvation (because an entire civilian population does not camp out for multiple years without suffering casualties, or during the conventional fighting in either the First Dornish or Daeron’s War, I believe the Dornish suffered a significant population drop in the last three hundred years.

[2] Consider, for example, how well the Ironborn chapter of WOIAF expresses the prejudices of the Old Way while still being written by a non-Ironborn in-universe author.

[3] Incidentally, Drazenko’s link to the Martells puts Prince Viserys’ marriage to Lyrra Rogare in a different light. In addition to seeing it as part of Viserys’ ransom back to his family, and as part of the Rogare family’s limitless and unrepublican ambitions (marrying into not one but two royal families), we could potentially also see it as an attempt to improve relations between the Targaryens and the Martells by making them good-kin.

[4] Interestingly, we never see the Martells advance a claim to the Iron Throne through Maron’s marriage to Daenerys Targaryen, even when the Targaryen succession would come into question later.

[5] This, despite the fact that Aerys II was part-Dornish himself, through Mariah Martell and Dyanna Dayne; it reminds me somewhat of Bobby Fischer.


28 thoughts on “Politics of the Seven Kingdoms: Dorne (Part III)

  1. Andrew Mumford says:

    1. The Martells pre-Nymeria were renowned for their caution. Nymeria, OTOH, was bold, daring and adventurous. I think we get a dynamic of “dry” Martells and “wet” Martells. “Dry” Martells follow the patient, cautious approach such as Doran and Qoren. Then we have the “wet” Martells who are bold, reckless and adventurous such as Arianne, Oberyn, Meria and Aliandre. We saw this with Meria leading a campaign against Aegon I that included raids on the stormlands, Oldtown and putting entire garrisons to the sword, knights tortured and mutilated as well as throwing Rosby out the window herself. Her son managed to end the war, succeeding through diplomacy what she couldn’t through war. Qoren avoided getting involved in the Dance of Dragons and kept his country out of war while his daughter, Aliandre, who encouraged her lords and knights to prove themselves to her by raiding in the Dornish Marches.

    2. Regarding internal divisions, Hotah notes:
    “The white knight did drink, as was only courteous. His companions likewise. So did the Princess Arianne, Lady Jordayne, the Lord of Godsgrace, the Knight of Lemonwood, the Lady of Ghost Hill … even Ellaria Sand, Prince Oberyn’s beloved paramour, who had been with him in King’s Landing when he died. Hotah paid more note to those who did not drink: Ser Daemon Sand, Lord Tremond Gargalen, the Fowler twins, Dagos Manwoody, the Ullers of the Hellholt, the Wyls of the Boneway. If there is trouble, it could start with one of them. Dorne was an angry and divided land, and Prince Doran’s hold on it was not as firm as it might be.”

    The ones who do drink tend to be in closer proximity to Sunspear, while those who don’t except Daemon tend to be farther from Sunspear in the Red Mountains and the edge of Dorne.

    3. The war parties tend to be stony Dornishmen with Lord Wyl and his viper pit, and even the Vulture King making his base in the Red Mountains. The Dornish in the marchers
    see most of the fighting with plunder from raiding, and they’re often the first casualties in invasions. Their motives can be chalked up to profit and the hatred from years of prolonged conflict.

  2. artihcus022 says:

    I wonder if Princess Meria’s policy during Aegon’s Conquest in sending letters across was her way of disguising her actions and movements, similar to Doran and others. She might have used that as a cover for her actions to prepare for guerrilla warfare. I actually wonder when you consider the Martell policy and actions whether “Dornish nationalism” is a cynical tool to maintain their power. Like all these rebellions and great defiances are in their benefit. We in the fans are often fooled into this as well, we forget that “unbowed, unbent, unbroken” is House Martell’s words but it’s not the words of the people of Dorne who can’t help but consider that they bow and bend their heads to the Martells who broke them and will break them if they defy their authority.

    I am surprised you didn’t mention the Water Gardens, because that’s again a big symbol of Dornish nationalism but one espoused by the elite, and it’s essentially a self-aggrandizing summary of noblesse oblige, i.e. “look how nice we are when we let these peasants swim with us”. Which of course doesn’t change the genuine emotion and sincerity that Doran no doubt feels about it.

    I will say that across the books we get very little information on the smallfolk in multiple territories, like for instance we don’t know anything about the smallfolk of Westerlands, aside from Tysha, and that prostitute who was a favorite of Tytos who Tywin then humiliated. We know nothing about the Stormlands’ smallfolk (Ser Davos is from Kingslanding after all). We get a bit more from the Vale (albeit via Mya Stone who is not purely smallfolk, and the merchant class there), and the Iron Islands offers us even less than that. And of course the image of the smallfolk in the North is of a compliant underclass satisfied with their Stark overlords. The only area we really get to know them is in King’s Landing (both Dunk and Davos are from there), and from the Riverlands above all. So I don’t think the Dornish is exceptional in that regard.

    Especially after seeing GOT S7, Rhaegar’s decision is something special: humiliating his Dornish Wife in public, setting up his mistress in a tower in Dornish lands, having it guarded by the great Dornish Knight Ser Arthur Dayne, and then getting Dornish spears and Ser Arthur’s comrade Ser Prince Lewyn Martell to lead them…I mean what can I say, Rhaegar’s got some gall, in the way he’s insulting the Dornish several times over.

    • 1. I don’t think Meria’s letters are frequent enough to be described as a disguise – she only sent the one.

      2. I don’t see the Water Gardens as a symbol of Dornish nationalism at all – if anything, they’re a symbol of the Martell-Targaryen alliance.

      3. They’re exceptional in that they rate a mention where others don’t.

    • Grant says:

      We have Doran specifically lecturing on the need to value all the children in Dorne. I’d say that at least some Dornish rulers internalized a “Dornish United” view that has the Dornish rulers holding responsibility for the well being of their extended people, not just as the leader of a ruling warrior caste who can exploit the peasants.

  3. Murc says:

    And yet despite that, Doran Martell’s vision of revenge still hinges on a Targaryen restoration…

    Doran’s beef with House Lannister and House Baratheon is personal rather than political, tho. He’s attempting to resolve it in a way that squares with his political responsibilities, because by all accounts Doran takes those very, very seriously, but whatever slights that House Targaryen visited upon him can be ignored as the cost of doing business. Aerys might have disrespected Elia, but he never came close to disinheriting her children; Doran’s nephew was meant to sit upon the Iron Throne and rule as Aegon VI, with his sister at his side.

    Until Tywin Lannister, with the explicit backing of Bobby B, came along. That’s not “cost of doing business.” That’s super fucking personal.

    Doran loved his sister and burns for revenge, and with the Southron Ambitions alliance backed by the Lannisters, that left the Tyrells (problematic for a lot of reasons) the Ironborn (possibilities under Quellon; none under Balon) or the possibility of a Targaryen restoration. Given his available options, it isn’t surprising he opted for the later, although one imagines that the reports he had of Viserys probably were not all that encouraging.

    Sidebar: I absolutely believe that Doran managed that betrothal without Varys and Illyrio catching on. Varys is far from omniscient and Doran seems to actually understand intelligence tradecraft.

    In any event, Doran is far from unique in this. Many of his close kin, including his daughter and heir, have a similar highly personal view of revenge and power unleavened by Doran’s sense of responsibility to the polity as a whole. The Sand Snakes want blood to flow to avenge their father, and many of them don’t much care whose blood flows. Arianne wants war, war for Oberyn and Elia and every other wrong she feels has been done to her and herself.

    It’s a Martell thing. I’m hardly the first to make this observation, but they and the Northmen have more than a little in common.

    • artihcus022 says:

      Well they have Prince Rhaegar in common since he slept with both a Martell and a Stark. Cue trashy joke of ”A Song of Ice and Fire”…

      Anyway, Daenerys is going to conquer Dorne with her dragons and Dorne will be conquered and House Martell gone by the end of the books. A house that calls itself ”Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken” will eventually have to come and face the day when those words prove false. That’s just classic situational irony.

      Of all the house words, House Martell is by far the most boastful, whereas House Stark is the most humble, so that’s an inversion there.

    • I get that it’s very personal, but he doesn’t seem to have reflected as to the costs and benefits of the relationship really were.

      As for Aerys, he held Elia prisoner and to ransom, that’s a bit more than respect. And the drive to replace Rhaegar with VIserys was certainly quite strong, as late as the Tourney of Harrenhal.

  4. Brett says:

    Good stuff. I guess if you want to stretch it, we could say that Yandel – a good Reacherman – is more prejudiced here than any other chapter on Westeros in his book.

    Aegon read it upon the Iron Throne, and men say that when he rose, his hand was bleeding, so hard had he clenched it.” (WOIAF)

    Strong evidence for the “Rhaenys survived the death of her dragon in broken fashion, and was kept alive and imprisoned in secret for years” theory?

    • artihcus022 says:

      I would like it very much if GRRM never reveals what was in that letter. To me it adds to the poignance and private sadness of Aegon-Rhaenys if we never find out. Just toss some competing theories and hints and everyone will be fine.

      If I had to wager a guess, Rhaenys did survive but the Martells or the Ullers of Hellholt or whoever kept her alive or prolonged her life but they did so by using some painful medication. And in that state Rhaenys wrote Aegon a letter to give peace to the Dornish as a last request, and that’s why Aegon went to brood in Dragonstone (shades of his descendant Stannis…) and then said, “you win” to Prince Deria.

      I can’t imagine what else would convince him to halt what would likely have been a genocidal campaign against the Dornish (and was probably halfway there if the burning fields are any indication). I can’t imagine he’d go easy or accept if they kept Rhaenys alive but tortured her for years or some such thing, because Targs Don’t Quit, and certainly not this one, except of course that he did quit.

    • Thanks!

      I’ve never been a fan of that theory, because I don’t buy that Aegon’s reaction in that scenario is to go for peace. If I’m being honest, I think as with the non-burning of Sunspear, the letter is there b/c GRRM et al. had their end-state and needed a reason to get there.

      • Sean C. says:

        The other problem I have with the “Rhaenys survived” theory is that that would mean the Dornish captured an insanely valuable prisoner, but rather than use her to immediately halt the firebombing of their territory, they contented themselves with years of torture in secret. That only makes sense if the Dornish all have the strategic sense of Ramsay Bolton.

        • medrawt says:

          Which plays into the thing Steven points out where important Dornish figures like the Wyl of Wyl exist for us as a faceless force of cruelty rather than a person with motives. Makes it hard to understand what’s Watsonian prejudice and what’s Doylist inattention.

  5. KrimzonStriker says:

    Is it fair to say the smallfolk were turning against their masters in House Martell in AFFC when said smallfolk wanted to avenge a member of House Martell in Prince Oberyn? Or since House Martell secretly shares this sentiment? It feels like the smallfolk are actually extremely loyal and act in what they think is their best interest even when House Martell itself doesn’t, like House Martell actually channeled Dornish nationalism a but too well but not to the point where they would actively abide their overthrow.

    Also, interesting what if but had Robert found out what Doran was planning how successful would he have been in subjugating Dorne compared to every other would-be conqueror? Or are you saving that for a future analysis chapter?

    • Grant says:

      We know it’s been done before. It would be a horribly bloody mess of course.

      As for the smallfolk, I wonder if it’s them identifying with Oberyn as Dornish seeking revenge for wrongs visited on them, Oberyn being unusually popular with the smallfolk or if they viewed a prince unwilling to fight for his brother as being even less willing to fight for them. Maybe all three.

      What ever the case, they’re definitely showing open opposition to official Martel policy.

    • Given that they’re going to the lengths of chucking rocks at the Prince of Dorne, I would say they are. As I’ve discussed before, one can disguise a lot of radicalism beneath the “evil councilor” trope.

  6. Grant says:

    I wonder if Aegon didn’t attempt to reach out to the Yronwoods, if they were always kept close to the royal family to prevent this or if personal ties meant that the Yronwoods were too loyal at that time to accept Targaryen rule.

    It’s been my headcanon that the Dornish held military dominance over areas, but prior to united Dorne they were too inconsistent in their holdings to do more than add genes to the population, Martel skill at bringing forth water didn’t mean nearly so much the further you got from the desert (and it might have been lost by the time there was a united Dorne to speak of), and there were too many hard spots of resistance to Dornish rule or even just too little enthusiasm for weak and distracted rulers to consolidate their conquests.

  7. KrimzonStriker says:

    But thet did so for the memory of another Dornish Prince and at the likely incitement of members of House Martell ie Arianne and the Sand Snakes. Heck part of me keeps wondering if DORAN deliberately egged them on/orchestrated the outbursts to keep the masquerade up while simulataneously prepping the populace for war, he often used the unrest in Dorne to as an excuse to delay or extract concessions in King’s Landing etc.

    • Grant says:

      Responded in the wrong area.

      Anyway, protesting over Oberyn’s death is a relatively safe way to do it and they’re at the point of throwing things at the prince himself.

      Whether out of genuine outrage or seizing a way to show discontent without going into treason, I’d say it’s of their own making.

      • KrimzonStriker says:

        Yeah, I accidentally put my response in a new one. Let’s just keep it here for now.

        I’m just saying it offers a bit of legitimate justification to be aggrieved without clamoring for the wholesale overthrow of House Martell as an institution is all. Not just for Oberyn but also Elia’s murder as well. It’s easy enough to single out Doran from the rest of his family in that case, as even Dorne’s form of government is still largely based on individuals which the smallfolk still strongly identify with as their leaders as is the case for Oberyn, whose basically taken on martyr like qualities here. I mean the smallfolk of Dorne are largely removed from the conflicts and concerns plaguing the rest of the Seven Kingdoms, it’s only the personal insult to House Martell that’s got them clamoring for revenge now, which means House Martell itself is still largely symbolic of Dorne as a whole to them.

        • Grant says:

          A prince stealth-encouraging protests against himself is a dangerous move, it could have easily gotten out of control and led to him being deposed and Arianne being put in charge.

          And the fate of Elia and Oberyn are big part of their anger, but they have grievances beyond that ‘just’ that. They went to war for Aerys II and probably a good number of their men died in the fighting. They were fighting because Elia was taken hostage, they weren’t like the hypocritical Reach who praise chivalry and fight for the king who spits on it. And they lost and have nothing to show for all that they hoped for and then fought for. No king of Dornish descent who could benefit his mother’s homeland. Instead the murderous Lannisters and then the hypocritical Tyrells and their regions got the prizes while the Baratheons say these people did nothing wrong.

          I think the last war and it’s aftermath left an injury strong enough to make Dorne embittered, but not so bad as to make them want to avoid another war.

          • KrimzonStriker says:

            Eh, honestly so were a lot of Doran’s moves in my mind. I mean, Doran DID actually openly encourage those protests later on as he told Hotah when he ordered the Sand Snakes arrested and the latter warned him about it, to which Doran basically replied he was counting on it to, as I abbreviate, assure Tywin that there was no more leal friend then him.

            So again, they’re largely associating House Martell with Dorne and the benefits to Dorne. Identifying them as part of their national pride as well.

            Certainly the last war left them embittered I imagine, but they say on it for 15 years once Oberyn signed on with his brother’s strategy and now those other Houses have largely torn themselves apart in the Wot5K, all with them not having to do a thing. It isn’t until Oberyn’s death that we start to really hear about grumblings. Again, him becoming the martyr for his cause and inflaming the situation. Whatever internal discontent with Doran I think by and large the Martell’s as a whole have done a pretty good job in ingratiating themselves in the minds of the common folk (and why that whole Sand Snake coup will never work in the books.)

  8. Sean C. says:

    Regarding Dorne’s population numbers, I’ve thought that it could also be explained partly as long-term ecological shifts. There’s little in the way of change in the Seven Kingdoms’ ecology generally, but there are parts of, say, the Middle East (the region Dorne most strongly resembles) that experienced major drop-offs in soil fertility in the periods between antiquity and the modern age. Hence, e.g., a lot of Israel’s programs to increase cultivation.

  9. Huggable says:

    Deria has always interested me quite a lot. Meria ruled for a long time so most people alive at that time would really only remember being ruled by her as an old woman, and then ruled by her old son. So Deria would have been quite a change for them a younger vibrant woman, who perhaps symbolised a new dawn for them a fresh start, the chance to rebuild and live again. She was also the one who brought the peace back with her, it was her father’s policy but she was the one who had to go to KL and secure it. I wonder if she used that to her advantage, maybe cast herself as the princess who brought the peace maybe thats what the friendship celebration was about, showing people that she was the arbiter of peace and that they’d be independent and peaceful under her not by following the vulture king which would lead to more death.

  10. Riana says:

    Dorne is defined by its defiance.

    The Rhoyane influence of Nymeria pushed a revolution in cultural and ethnic identity. Dorne exists less as a kingdom and more as a proto- nation even before the dragons began.

    Their fire only tempered and purified the unity of Dornish identity. Similar how the over long winters define the North with the Starks.

    The emphasis of the ‘other’ and racist ideology against the Dornish can not be overstated. Yandel forgives or softens the horrors of the dragon in ‘romantic’ imagery. The Tyrell overlord instilled by Daeron I could have come out of the Tywin Lannister camp- terrorised and murdered whole villages and rape a local girl every night (but ‘cowardly’ killed by scorpions when he ranged to have a new rape victim delivered to him). For the love of God, Aegon the Unworthy took a highborn hostage and locked her in his room until he tired of her and threw her into the dungeon to await her death. Casella Vaith was raped into insanity and she is written as one of Aegon’s great ‘loves.’

    The entire propaganda of Daemon Blackfyre is situated in hypocritical chivalry and naked ambition. For all the ‘honors’ that Daeron I supposedly showered on his in-laws, we don’t actually get any named other than a love match between Micheal Manwoody and Princess Elaena. All the privileges of the treaty (keeping the titles of Prince etc) were negotiated by Baelor, not Daeron II. Instead we get Daemon is pretty and good with a sword, racist tripe, and the inglorious rewriting of Daemon’s desire to turn Daenerys into his public whore into a love song.

    • Anas Abusalih says:

      The title of Prince and all the other concessions WERE negotiated by Daeron II, not Baelor. Also, nowhere in the text is it said that Lord Lyonel Tyrell raped a Dornishwoman every night. All that is said is that he was lusty and had a habit of turning lords/ladies out of their rooms to sleep in their place. Beyond that there is much more to the Blackfyre supporters than just ambition and racism, not to mention the Targaryens comitting atrocities does not justify the Dornish doing the same, particularly when the latter were the first ones to break standard forms of conduct.

      • thatrabidpotato says:

        I’m a little confused as to what Riana’s trying to say re: the Blackfyres here, but Oberyn directly says in Storm that Lyonel Tyrell had a taste for Dornish women, and that the scorpions dropped on him when he pulled on a bed rope to summon a Dornish wench. So Riana’s not wrong on that count.

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