This article includes content relating to the Dance of the Dragons, and therefore contains potential spoilers for House of the Dragon, as revealed in GRRM's writings. Anyone wishing to remain completely spoiler free for the new show should avoid any articles displaying this tag.
Behind the scenes
Rhaenyra Targaryen was revealed to be a lead character in House of the Dragon on July 18, 2020. On December 11, 2020, HBO announced that Emma D'Arcy had signed on for the series. The character breakdown reads as follows:
- "The king's first-born child. She is of pure Valyrian blood, and she is a dragonrider. Many would say that Rhaenyra was born with everything...but she was not born a man."
On July 6, 2021, it was reported that Milly Alcock was set to portray a younger Rhaenyra.
In the books
The Dance of the Dragons
In the A Song of Ice and Fire novels, Rhaenyra was the daughter of King Viserys I, and his only child to survive the cradle by his first wife, Aemma of House Arryn. When Rhaenyra was eight years old her mother died in childbirth, to a son who died only a day later. Viserys's younger brother Daemon was left as his closest male heir, but many at court felt he was so unruly that he was unfit to sit the throne, so Viserys officially named Rhaenyra his heir. This decision was controversial, as it contradicted the principle of male-preference primogeniture which had put Viserys himself on the throne, instead of his older first cousin Rhaenys Velaryon.
Rhaenyra was therefore raised expecting to one day sit the Iron Throne herself, becoming somewhat pampered and arrogant, though also receiving an education in government as befitting the heir to the throne. From an early age, Rhaenyra regularly sat at the foot of the Iron Throne while her father held royal court, and her father also regularly brought her to meetings of the Small council. A precocious young girl, in her childhood she was known as "the Realm's Delight". The year before her mother died, Rhaenyra also become a dragon-rider, claiming Syrax as her mount. One of Rhaenyra's personal tics was also that she tended to nervously play with her hands (or the rings on them) when she was thinking.
Barely a year after Rhaenyra's mother died, however, her father re-married to Alicent of House Hightower, whose father Otto was Hand of the King, and whose family had deep ties with the leadership of the Faith of the Seven (which at the time was still headquartered in Oldtown, which was ruled by the Hightowers). Viserys soon had several sons by his second wife, but even so, he still expected Rhaenyra to succeed him, and exacted public oaths from all the major lords of Westeros promising that they would accept this decision. As she grew older, Rhaenyra also toured the realm in various tourneys and banquets to seek potential suitors, but no match was decided upon.
Viserys's re-marriage also spurned House Velaryon yet again, who had hoped he would marry their daughter Laena to re-unite their bloodlines. To heal the growing political rift with them, Viserys instead pressured his own daughter Rhaenyra into an arranged marriage with Laena's brother, Laenor Velaryon - Rhaenys's only son, who according to the Velaryons and their allies (such as the Starks) should have been rightful king instead of Viserys. The marriage of Rhaenyra and Laenor was loveless, and it was rumored that both of them had affairs with other people.
While the marriage to Laenor healed the division with the Velaryons, it created a new one within Viserys's own household, as Alicent had hoped that - in Valyrian fashion of marrying brother to sister - Rhaenyra would instead be married to her eldest son, Aegon II Targaryen. Rhaenyra was a decade older than Aegon II, however, and on top of this they despised each other. Rhaenyra took to always referring to Aegon II pointedly as her "half-brother", never her "brother" (and similarly referred to her other half-siblings by Alicent). Moreover, Viserys had started to become wary of the Hightowers' political manipulations within the royal court. Rhaenyra was officially named Princess of Dragonstone, traditional title of the heir to the throne. She established her household on Dragonstone island, close to the Velaryons' island seat on Driftmark, while Alicent and her children remained in King's Landing.
By the time Rhaenyra was 14 years old, two distinct political factions started forming at court: the "princess's faction" centered around Rhaenyra, and the "queen's faction" centered around Alicent. In the year 111 AC, a great tournament was held to celebrate the five year anniversary of Viserys and Alicent's marriage, at which Rhaenyra appeared in a stunning gown of Targaryen black highlighted with red (from their heraldry), while Alicent wore an equally impressive green gown. Before long their rival factions started dressing in corresponding colors in imitation of them, leading them to be dubbed "the Blacks and the Greens" (and the nicknames stuck). The main members of Rhaenyra's Blacks were the Velaryons, along with the Starks, the Arryns (as Jeyne Arryn was Rhaenyra's first cousin on her mother's side), and the lords of the Riverlands. The core members of Alicent's Greens, meanwhile, were the Hightowers and the Lannisters, who between them controlled the major coastal cities of Westeros, including most of its wealth and population.
Rhaenyra's personal sigil was a variation on the normal Targaryen heraldry, quartered with the moon-and-falcon sigil of House Arryn (for her mother) and the seahorse sigil of House Velaryon (for her husband Laenor, and because the Velaryons were one of her major supporters). Thus, viewed head-on, the top left and lower right quarters contained a normal red Targaryen dragon on black, the Arryn sigil was in the upper right, and the Velaryon sigil was in the lower left. While her faction during the Dance was informally known as "the Blacks", armies loyal to Rhaenyra bore banners displaying her personal heraldry of quartered red dragons.
- This particular section contains MAJOR spoilers for House of the Dragon. Anyone wishing to avoid spoilers for the upcoming prequel series should not click [Expand].
Upon Viserys I's death, Alicent rushed to crown Aegon II in King's Landing in defiance of Rhaenyra's claim, sparking a devastating war known as The Dance of the Dragons, as it was the only war in which both sides had dragonriders. The war lasted for three years, and by the time it came to an end nearly all of the Targaryen dragons had been killed. The conflict also resulted in the death of three of Rhaenyra's five sons, as well as the eldest son of Aegon II.
Aegon II held many advantages in the war, including control of the capital city, the support of the Lord Commander of the Kingsguard, and the approval of the High Septon. Rhaenyra's faction was based at Dragonstone, and to her advantage she had a larger number of dragons under her control - twelve to Aegon's four - though three of these were "wild" dragons and as-yet untamed, while another three were immature. She also did not have enough Targaryen blood relatives on her side to ride all of them, and a dragon will (typically) only bond with someone possessing the blood of Old Valyria. Thus a search was launched to find any surviving Targaryen bastards - nicknamed the "dragonseeds" - and enlist them in Rhaenyra's cause.
The two factions during the war - one supporting Aegon and the other supporting Rhaenyra - became known as the "Blacks" and the "Greens" because of an incident that took place at a tournament some years before the war began. Aegon II's mother Queen Alicent had worn a green dress to the tournament while Rhaenyra wore a black dress. Generally, Rhaenyra was supported by noble families who had enjoyed royal favor during her father's reign and possessed strong ties to the crown, while Aegon II rallied those who had been out of favor. Viserys I had signed charters with many powerful Houses in which they swore to accept Rhaenyra as his heir, but at least some of them broke their word after Viserys died. Rhaenyra sent her eldest son Jacaerys north on his dragon to visit the Eyrie and then Winterfell. At that time, the Vale was ruled by a female heiress who had inherited in her own right due to a lack of male heirs, and given that the entire civil war questioned a woman's right to rule, she and Rhaenrya were natural allies. Moreover, the Arryns had enjoyed royal favor earlier in Viserys I's reign since his first wife - Rhaenyra's own mother - was an Arryn, thus binding the two families by blood.The Starks came into the war on Rhaenyra's side in accordance with the original agreements they had made with Viserys. Rhaenyra's second son Lucerys flew on his dragon to Storm's End to gain an alliance with House Baratheon, but Aegon II's brother Aemond flew to Storm's End at the same time to pursue the same goal, riding the older dragon Vhagar. The results were decidedly mixed, and Storm's End subsequently supported Aegon II. The Westerlands also sided with Aegon II because he had appointed Tyland Lannister as his new Master of Coin. The Hightowers were of course staunch supporters of Aegon II, and so apparently was much of the Reach. Dorne had not been incorporated into the realm yet, and as they have often done throughout history, the Iron Islands remained neutral while the mainlanders slaughtered each other.
At some point during the war, Rhaenyra herself was captured by Aegon II's forces and was fed to her half-brother's dragon, while her son was forced to watch. Rhaenyra's supporters continued to fight on in the name of her two surviving sons, however, and eventually triumphed: Through uncertain circumstances, Aegon II died without male heirs, and peace was achieved when Rhaenyra's eldest surviving son was crowned as Aegon III. He was the son who had been forced to watch his mother consumed by a dragon, and he developed a deep hatred and fear of the creatures. So many dragons had died in the war that the Targaryens couldn't maintain a stable breeding population, and the few survivors became inbred and sickly. The last Targaryen dragons - the last dragons in the known world - died during the reign of Aegon III, earning him the sobriquet "Aegon the Dragonbane". Aegon III married Aegon II's surviving daughter to re-unite the factions from the war, though many cadet branches and relatives of House Targaryen had been killed in the war. Aegon III ruled well, and both of his sons (Daeron I and Baelor I) became kings after him, but each died childless. Therefore, the throne later passed to Rhaenyra's youngest son, Viserys II, who had served as Hand of the King under his nephews for many years. Viserys II was the father of Aegon IV and grandfather of Daeron II, and Daeron II was himself the grandfather of Aerion Brightfame, Aegon V "the Unlikely", and Maester Aemon.
Rhaenyra was married twice, and had five sons. Her first husband was her second cousin, Ser Laenor Velaryon, the son of Lord Corlys Velaryon who served as Rhaenyra's Hand of the King during the Dance, and her first cousin once removed, Princess Rhaenys. She had three sons by him; Jacaerys Velaryon, Lucerys Velaryon, and Joffrey Velaryon. It was widely rumored by her opponents, however, that all three were actually bastards fathered by her lover, Harwin of House Strong. While this accusation was used as a political weapon, it is strongly suggested that there was some truth to it - though the matter is academic given that all three were definitely descended from the royal line through their mother, and it is irrelevant for later history because all three died without issue. Rhaenyra's second husband was actually her own uncle, Prince Daemon Targaryen, her father's younger brother. Daemon was a fierce and powerful warrior, and one of the most skilled and dangerous dragon-riders during the Dance. The two sons she bore to Daemon were Aegon and Viserys (who later became the Kings Aegon III and Viserys II). Rhaenyra's only daughter - carried during her final pregnancy - was stillborn; she named the dead girl, Visenya. The entire reason that Rhaenyra wasn't in King's Landing when her father died is because she was resting at Dragonstone eight months pregnant. However, when news reached the island that her half-brother had declared himself king in opposition to her, she became so distressed that she went into premature labor and her daughter was stillborn, as well as badly deformed (similar to Daenerys Targaryen's stillborn son Rhaego generations later). Rhaenyra blamed her brother and his supporters for causing the death of her daughter, adding further fuel to her hatred of them. Rhaenyra was also supported by Princess Rhaenys Targaryen, popularly known as "the Queen Who Never Was" due to that fact that she held a claim to the throne after her grandfather Jaehaerys I died, but her claim was ignored and the throne passed to her cousin Viserys I.
Later histories remember Rhaenyra as pampered and arrogant. She could be charming to those she liked, but was also quick to anger and never forgot a slight. However, this does not match contemporary accounts of her character – she was referred to as "the Realm's Delight" without irony in her youth – and her actions in the Dance of Dragons itself. By all accounts, she was the patient one, while Aegon II - a full decade younger than her - was still very much an impulsive young man. Rhaenyra actually benefited from years of training and experience at council, skills which Aegon II sorely lacked. When Rhaenyra first learned of the coup against her at King's Landing, she actually decided against making an immediate full scale assault against the capital, realizing she would have to be patient if she was to have any hope of winning back her throne. It is strongly implied that the reason Rhaenyra is remembered as arrogant is specifically because she was a woman who intended to rule in her own right, and she actually behaved no better or worse than a man would have in her position. The problem was that in the patriarchal society of Westeros, it was seen as improper for a woman to issue firm commands to men instead of behaving submissively; i.e. instead of behaving like Catelyn Stark, politely cajoling and urging male lords to do what she wanted, Rhaenyra assertively gave out orders in the manner Tywin Lannister or Brienne of Tarth would - good, sensible orders, but men were frequently offended that she did not behave submissively as a "proper" lady should.
Impact on royal succession law
After the Dance of the Dragons, House Targaryen revised the royal succession laws to follow a modified and extremely strict version of male-preference primogeniture, in which female heirs are put behind all possible male ones. For example, under the succession laws of most Andal nobles in Westeros, a lord's daughter will succeed before the lord's own younger brother, but under the new Targaryen royal succession laws, a lord's younger brother will inherit before the lord's daughter. Before Rhaenyra, the first five generations of Targaryens (Aegon I, his sons Aenys I and Maegor I, Aenys I's son Jaehaerys I, his son, and Viserys I) had simply never produced a firstborn daughter before, so this did not retroactively remove an older female branch from the line of succession.
During her life, Rhaenyra styled herself "Rhaenyra of House Targaryen, First of Her Name", but subsequent histories do not refer to her as "Rhaenyra I". Many felt that because Rhaenyra's own son Aegon III ended up succeeding to the throne, the dynastic claim of her faction was vindicated. However, at this point House Targaryen wanted to enforce the new strict male-preference primogeniture laws, under which the deceased Rhaenyra would never have inherited in the first place. Thus, even her own son could not retroactively consider his mother to have been the rightful ruler during the civil war. If her half-brother was not retroactively established as the lawful heir, Rhaenyra's son would have been crowned under the royal name "Aegon II" not "Aegon III", to reinforce that his uncle had not been the lawful heir. Because he couldn't do this and enforce the new strict male-preference primogeniture laws, her son had to take the name "Aegon III" and officially declare that his mother had only been a rival claimant, not the lawful heir.
It is because of Rhaenyra and the Dance of the Dragons, and the stricter male-preference royal inheritance laws that House Targaryen embraced as a result, that there has never been a ruling Queen on the Iron Throne, at any point in the subsequent 170 years between the Dance and the War of the Five Kings. Any subsequent female monarch of the name "Rhaenyra" would have to be styled "Rhaenyra I", not "Rhaenyra II", though the Targaryens just avoided the issue by never naming one of their daughters "Rhaenyra" again.
Rhaenyra may have formed her own rival Kingsguard, which may have been known as a Queensguard. Daenerys Targaryen later forms her own "Queensguard", but it isn't clear whether this is a term Daenerys made up, or if it is the proper term for the Kingsguard under a female monarch. It is known that just as Targaryen fought Targaryen and dragon fought dragon in the civil war, the Kingsguard was split, with different members joining both sides. Lord Commander Criston Cole of the Kingsguard had chosen to declare Aegon II king, and thereafter became known as "the Kingmaker", but he died during the civil war.
Rhaenyra Targaryen and the Dance of the Dragons are going to be the subject of an upcoming prequel novella by author George R.R. Martin, titled The Princess and the Queen.
The succession dispute and civil war between Rhaenyra and Aegon II is analogous to the Anarchy, a period in England during the early twelfth century. During this time, King Henry I's only surviving heir was his daughter Matilda. Like Rhaenyra, Matilda was quite pampered and arrogant; although she hadn't been raised as the heir apparent her whole life, after Henry I's son died in the White Ship disaster, Matilda was her father's only legitimate child. She was also the widow of the Holy Roman Emperor, one of the most powerful monarchs in Europe, and thus familiar with politics and rulership. Similar to Viserys I, Henry commanded the nobles of the realm to take oaths swearing they would support Matilda as his successor, but after Henry's death this began to crumble: Matilda's claim was challenged by her cousin Stephen of Blois, who was from a junior branch of the royal family but nonetheless usurped the throne by rushing to the capital to be crowned king. In the cases of both Rhaenyra/Aegon II and Matilda/Stephen, the resulting civil war wasn't really concerned with who the lawful heir was under different succession rights, but was truly a struggle between two major factions of nobles which had developed: those who currently enjoyed royal favor (under Rhaenyra and Matilda) and those who had not previously enjoyed royal favor (the supporters of Aegon II and Stephen). In both cases, the rival male claimant is historically considered the lawful ruler (Aegon II and Stephen), but the son of the female claimant (Rhaenyra and Matilda) ended up ruling after the male claimant's son had died (the succession of Aegon III and Henry II Plantagenet).
|Lord:||King Viserys I Targaryen||Heir:||Prince Daemon Targaryen|
|Seat:||The Red Keep, King's Landing||Lands:||The Crownlands|
|Titles:||King of the Andals and the First Men · Lord of the Seven Kingdoms · Protector of the Realm|
|Ancestors:||Aenar · Daenys · Aegon I, the Conqueror · Visenya · Rhaenys · Aenys I · Maegor I, the Cruel|
|Current members:||Rhaenys Velaryon · Aemma Arryn · Rhaenyra Targaryen · Aegon Targaryen · Aemond Targaryen|
|Deceased members:||Rhaena Targaryen · Aegon Targaryen · Jaehaerys I, the Concilliator · Alysanne Targaryen|