The Genius of the Old King: An Examination of Jaehaerys I

JAEHAERYS I.jpg

Artwork by Amok

Introduction

“…madness and greatness were two sides of the same coin. Every time a new Targaryen is born, he said, the gods toss the coin in the air…” Barristan Selmy, attributing a quote to King Jaehaerys II, ADWD, Daenerys VI

Aegon I, Aegon the Dragon, through a combination of conquest and diplomacy, conquered all of Westeros, save Dorne. With those accomplishments behind him, many claimed that Aegon I was the greatest Targaryen king that ever existed, but they neglect one critical contender to this honor — one that was able to accomplish something that has eluded conquerors and heads of state to this day: lasting peace. Only one candidate was able to take a disjointed country and bring a long-lasting peace, an accomplishment that neither Aegon I, nor Robert Baratheon, nor any other conqueror has since equaled. That singular ruler was the Old King: Jaehaerys Targaryen, the First of His Name.

When Aegon the Conqueror died, his son Aenys took the throne. A weak, sickly man, Aenys was a far cry from the powerful, unifying figure of Aegon Targaryen, the glorified warrior-king that Westeros idealized. In addition, Aenys was also born of incest, an abomination in the eyes of the Seven, Westeros’s dominant religion. Coupled with his less-than-desirable physical traits, Aenys made an important political misstep soon after assuming the crown. Lord Paramount Goren Greyjoy subdued a revolt on the Iron Islands, and Aenys rewarded Goren by permitting the followers of the Drowned God to evict the Faith of the Seven from the Iron Islands, angering the High Septon and the institution of the Faith greatly. Between his inability to command, his indecisive nature, and the anger of the most powerful religion in Westeros, the Faith took up arms against Aenys, inciting a popular revolt, using their holy order: the Faith Militant, which would plague his rule until his death.

The Faith Militant was the holy order of the predominant faith of Westeros: the Faith of the Seven. Commanding a strong following of both nobles and smallfolk, the orders resembled the Catholic military orders of our timeline, even sharing some similarities with names, such as The Poor Fellows resembling the Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ and the Temple of Solomon, more commonly known as the Knights Templar. The Faith objected to the ascension of Aenys and its holy order took the field, with the ouster of the Targaryen regime being the goal. The Faith received much support from the recently conquered lords of Westeros, presumably most in secret. Aenys was meek and passed much of the responsibility to his half-brother Maegor, who responded with vicious brutality against all enemies that spurred many to support the Faith. Aenys was never capable of seizing much advantage against the Faith.

Aenys’s successor, Maegor, would fare little better. A markedly brutal man, Maegor was aptly nicknamed the Cruel for many reasons. During his tenure, he slaughtered men and took their wives in an attempt to father sons, he instituted a royal bounty against members of the Faith Militant, he murdered the craftsmen that built the Red Keep in a flagrant violation of guest right, and he even slew his nephew Aegon, marking him as a kinslayer. The Faith would continue to plague Maegor throughout his reign, despite a royal bounty and a sacral command to disband. None could contain the enraged Faith, whether it be kings or High Septons, and it looked as if war would engulf the country until the Targaryens were no more. When Maegor died, his nephew Jaehaerys, only fourteen or fifteen at the time, was the new king, and the Faith continued its assault, supported by many lords of Westeros and drastically outnumbered the royalist army.

This was the situation left to this new Targaryen: a realm plagued by mismanagement and brutality coupled with a religious civil war. The Targaryen dynasty had three kings: one a conqueror, one an indecisive weakling, and one a sadist. Only Aegon could have been said to have been successful, but he hardly had a complete victory given how many revolts he faced during his reign. Any ruler would be hard-pressed to find a way to victory, let alone a teenage king. However, through a multi-faceted approach, Jaehaerys secured victory, and he was given the epithet “the Wise” for good reason.

File:Faith seven aspects.jpg

Artwork by HBO

Peace Through Compromise – Effective Negotiation Strategies

The first and most compelling problem facing the Targaryen monarchy was the revolt of the Faith. The revolt was uncontained by the Faith’s leadership, sustained by rebellious nobles, popular support, and Maegor’s astounding level of cruelty. Upon assuming the Throne, Jaehaerys offered terms to the Faith. Included in the package was complete amnesty for all participants in the Faith, and appointing the monarchy as the defender of the Faith, able to defend the Faith with the full power of royal troops.

This seems like a great victory for the Faith, as the monarchy had many levies with which to defend the Faith, and the elimination of the royal bounty would encourage more people to live lives in service to the Faith. Pardons were an additional plus, as any who took up arms would not face any repercussions, including the Westerosi custom of taking children as hostages for future peace.

However, on examination of the end result, one would be hard-pressed not to think that Jaehaerys came out on top. The Faith was forced to disband the Faith Militant, rendering it completely dependent upon the Iron Throne to protect itself and losing the ability to use a show of force as a potential option during conflicts. In essence, Jaehaerys made the Faith need the Iron Throne to stay alive, thus almost rubber-stamping future coronations of Westerosi kings. While divine sanction is a powerful tool for legitimization, it is far from the only tool, and the Faith had no ability to defend itself if the Crown and the Faith were at an impasse.

“Barth was more sorcerer than septon…” ADWD, Tyrion IV

Septon Barth looked to be a coup for the Faith as well. The Hand of the King was the number two man of Westeros, able to speak with the King’s voice and act as if he sat the Throne himself when the king was absent. Having a Septon as Hand would be, at first glance, a major victory for the Faith. The Hand was open to the Faith’s interests, and as a chief policy maker and major influence at court, this would give the Faith an even larger influence in the courtly matters of Westeros, even balancing out the loss of military power for political, legislative, and judicial influence.

However, Barth was hardly the complete victory for the Faith than first glances indicate. Barth was very unorthodox septon, as evidenced by his secular writings on dragonlore. In fact, he was so unorthodox that Baelor I, a famously pious septon-king, ordered his writings purged as heresy. While nominally a septon, Barth appears by all rights to be more a Jaehaerys loyalist than an adherent to the High Septon, and while the Faith could claim a holy Septon as Hand, that was far from the truth of the matter. Barth, by all appearances, had loyalty to Jaehaerys and the Targaryen dynasty over his faith.

In the Faith compromise, Jaehaerys showed a unique skill that many salesmen and politicians crave, the ability to create a compromise where one side is vastly advantaged over the other. Few Targaryen kings would have the ability to leverage such a bargain which so impressively favored the royal side and be loved for it, but Jaehaerys took advantage of the fatigue of war and the power of impressions to secure a large victory for the crown.

In negotiation tactics, Jaehaerys’s victory can be broken down into a winning move: the false concession. In negotiations, concessions are made on both sides, and each carries worth. A good negotiation is, in essence, looking to acquire as many worthwhile concessions as possible from the opposing side while giving up as little as possible from your own. Thus, it is less like a game of checkers, where the objective is to completely eliminate the enemy, and more akin to calculating points in chess after a stalemate, where the things each side was forced to give up are tallied and measured.

In this case, defending the Faith was actually worth far less than the Crown made it seem. Defense of the Faith might seem as another burden the Throne needs to expend money and troops on, but in truth, the Crown already had to take on that burden in exchange for peace. The King is the Protector of the Realm, responsible for the defense of the nation. If the Faith supports the King, then by necessity, the Crown has to defend the Faith, as it is solely established within Westeros. The Starry Sept and all of the Most Devout are within Westeros, and even then, all of the largest septs are all located south of the Neck, focused in less than half of the continent. Defense of the Faith merely codified what was already a de facto arrangement, and avoided the mess that Aenys Targaryen blundered into when he refused to defend the Faith to begin with.

Medieval road

Photo by

Roads, Rights, and Coin, Winning the Smallfolk

One of Jaehaerys’s most crowning achievements was the Kingsroad, the longest overland road of Westeros, which links Kings Landing to Winterfell and the Wall. While it’s not mentioned in the text, it is likely that the other roads, the Gold Road, Roseroad, High Road, and River Road, were lengthened and improved upon during this time period, given that many of those roads run to Kings Landing and thus could not have been established before the reign of Aegon I, when the Kingdoms were at war with each other.

Road building is not a very glamorous exercise for a medieval king, but roads are vital for both economic and military purposes. Dirt roads and paths cleared of brush can facilitate movement, but become very unserviceable during wet or snowy months, and in a land like Westeros, where seasonal lengths are uncertain, dirt paths can become completely unusable for long stretches of time, rendering large-scale operations such as troop deployment or caravaning impossible. Regular traffic can maintain the road, especially near Kings Landing, where it wouldn’t be uncommon to have guard patrols and merchant caravans traveling back and forth on the road every day.

By focusing his reign on construction projects and economic development, Jaehaerys was looking to consolidate through prosperity what Aegon had established by conquest. The 50 years preceding Jaehaerys were marked with conflicts that had claimed the lives of many Targaryen nobles, including Orys Baratheon and Queen Rhaenys Targaryen. Given the Targaryen dracocracy, this path was not sustainable. The Targaryens depended upon their dragons to project force, and taming a dragon was a risky prospect with a very real chance of death or maiming, as many blacks would learn during the Dance of the Dragons. Losing a dragon was a travesty, and losing a dragonrider meant the loss of a dragon’s power until a suitable replacement rider could tame it, which could lead other notable commanders to their deaths.

And so, Jaehaerys chose an alternate method of waging war, one through pacifying the populace with coin and food. Buying off a people is an expensive prospect, but the Faith Militant won much of its support through the smallfolk. Jaehaerys looked to undermine the notion of popular revolt by ensuring regular merchant traffic. Farmers and herders could sell excess crops and agricultural goods to merchants for sale in Kings Landing. Local smiths could receive regular shipments of metal to produce wares, and mines could sell their loads to caravaneers for significant profits. Overall, roads served to improve the standard of living for the smallfolk in small, but appreciable ways. For the highborn, the reduction of local dissent services to increase local productivity, leading to increased tax revenue and lower crime.

To further win over the smallfolk, Queen Alysanne convinced her husband to officially abolish the right of First Night in Westeros to the smallfolk’s great joy. Before Jaehaerys, lords could lie with common-born women on their wedding night, causing much resentment among the smallfolk. Many lords were upset at this development, but this led to the smallfolk loving the Targaryen dynasty. While some might say that there were altruistic motives, or perhaps the queen did not desire the king to share his bed with other women, there is a deeply cunning aspect of this. The Faith Militant revolt, and popular revolts in general, are successful largely because of the smallfolk. Individually, smallfolk have little rights and power, but a horde of smallfolk can burn crops to starve armies, sabotage tools, steal taxes, and make waging war costly and inefficient for any lord. While peasant revolts rarely succeeded in medieval Europe, they were a large drain on resources. To Westeros specifically, the Poor Fellows formed the bulk of the Faith Militant’s armies, and was comprised largely of smallfolk. Winning over the people of Westeros would make great strides toward preventing another popular revolt. The Targaryen dynasty, weakened by decades of war, could ill afford yet another large-scale revolt, and pacifying the smallfolk was an important step to ensuring another would not break out.

Jaehaerys’s focus on domestic economic issues, the public conception of his deal with the Faith, and travel to all corners of Westeros were all parts of his larger public strategy, to be seen as a King devoted to Westeros as a nation. While Aegon may have had the radical notion of “one land, one king,” it was Jaehaerys who first treated the Iron Throne as one of public service, and would lend much credence and support to the Targaryen dynasty.

Queen Alysanne by Trishkell.jpg

Artwork by Green Ronin Publishing

Travel and Approachability – The Old King’s Management Style

Jaehaerys I and his sister-wife Alysanne were well-known throughout Westeros for their love of travel. Of course, being dragonriders, travel was no great difficulty for the royal couple even in their advanced years. While the traveling speed of a dragon hasn’t been explicitly given in the text, it is known that a dragon was able to fly from Winterfell to the Wall, stopping at Queenscrown. In The Princess and the Queen, a young dragon was supposed to be able to fly from Dragonstone to Storm’s End and back in a single day with time enough for a diplomatic meeting in between. With that information from two different sources, we can estimate that a dragon can fly approximately one-third to one-half of the North in a single day, possibly more. Given that the North is larger than the other Seven Kingdoms, it stands to reason that a dragon could fly the length of Westeros in anywhere from four to six days, far swifter than the snail’s pace Robert Baratheon travels with his royal court from King’s Landing to Winterfell.

A king that enjoys travel opens a host of security concerns, as modern presidential bodyguards can likely attest, but travel opens up a host of potential advantages as well. Travel offers the king the ability to meet and interact with his vassals in person, especially invaluable in the weak feudal governmental model where personal relationships could mean the difference in a vassal that answers the royal call to arms with haste, and one that dithers away their oaths in the vein of Walder Frey. In addition, a king’s presence can stimulate economic activity, as craftsman and artists alike vie for patronage.

Personal relationships and increased visibility served Jaehaerys very well in large part to his uncle Maegor’s infamous cruelty. It was known that Maegor murdered craftsmen in his hall and stole the wives of men he had slain in his driving quest to produce an heir, and that certainly led to all sorts of wild speculation and rumor, exacerbated by the fact that Maegor was cruel to animals and kept to himself. By crafting an image of personal approachability, Jaehaerys served to distance himself from Maegor’s brutality and make himself into a wholly different symbol altogether. I’ve argued in my previous column on Jon Arryn about the importance of symbolism, and much of the lessons that Jon Arryn used against the Mad King could have been ostensibly cribbed from Jaeherys’s establishment of himself as an approachable king. While Robert was more a warrior than Jaehaerys ever was, there are a lot of parallels in both kings being seen as ‘down in the dirt,’ Jaehaerys through his travel and Robert through his warring.

Power politics are a nebulous thing, and undermining the superior-subordinate relationship too much runs the risk of Tytos Lannister’s infamous softness that almost led the Lannisters to ruin. However, approachability is a very real concept in managerial styles that serves to increase organizational morale. In the weak feudal model, where each Lord Paramount commanded many more troops than the king, neglecting the opinions and morale of the component kingdoms was a good way to get overthrown, as Aerys II and Rhaegar learned to their sorrow. In between Aerys and Tytos Lannister, Jaehaerys used images of force to project his authority, with his procession of dragons and the unmistakable sight that a dragon flying over a town or castle, and kept an aura of approachability with his love of travel that implied an aura of understanding and wisdom. While Jaehaerys could easily project enough force to reduce a castle to slag, it was tempered with wisdom and rationality, traits that would suggest a measured approach to conflicts. Given his ability to secure truces between notorious enemies like Houses Blackwood and Bracken, the king was known to be one who could be approached with a problem and find a solution, and not merely depend upon his dragons to solve any problem that would plague the Crown.

File:The Wall.png

Setpiece by HBO

Public Service – The Unique Advantage of the Wall

The Night’s Watch is one of two pan-Westeros institutions that predates Aegon’s landing. A combination civil defense unit and penal colony, men from anywhere in Westeros could join the Watch and defend the realm. The Watch defended Westeros from the Others in earlier times, and all Houses from the North to Dorne could see the advantage in stopping the alien Others. However, their absence led their presence to be forgotten, and the Wall was seen largely as a dumping ground for prisoners to protect Westeros against wildling raids. By devoting their lives to the civil defense of Westeros, prisoners retained a sense of honor, reminiscent of the samurai bushido code where men were expected to die with dignity rather than live with shame. The Night’s Watch is an almost ritual death, as a man is expected to give up all rights, titles, and legacy and live out his life in defense of Westeros. For any lord, this offers a convenient way to get rid of prisoners without the expense of feeding them or the outrage of slaughtering them. For highborn prisoners, this serves as a way to remove enemy lords while avoiding or reducing the chance for vendetta from that lord’s house, a power that Tywin Lannister used to great effect when he sacked Kings Landing, and sent highborn prisoners like Alliser Thorne to the Watch.

Jaehaerys and his wife saw the Wall as a way to help win over the hearts and minds of Westeros. Here was the only other institution besides the Crown that was truly pan-Westeros, as the Faith held little sway in the North and the Iron Islands. However any man, whether Ironborn, Northern, southron, or Dornish, could and did join the Night’s Watch. To that end, Jaehaerys paid a visit to the Night’s Watch. In an era where the prestige of the Watch diminished with each generation, a royal visit lent much-needed credibility to the Watch as an institution. Following his visit, Queen Alysanne Targaryen financed the construction of Deep Lake to replace the aging Nightfort. This move is very much in line with Jaehaerys’s domestic political strategy. By financing a castle on the Wall, he cements his reputation as a public servant. Where Maegor had a reputation of a king who cared so little about his kingdom that he could flagrantly ignore the prohibitions on both guest right and kinslaying, Jaehaerys proved himself to be so devoted to Westeros that he is largely remembered for his investments into Westeros as a whole.

This idea would further be cemented when Jaehaerys lended his aid to Westeros. Upon his dragon, he flew north of the Wall to fight against wildlings, giants, and wargs, according to his grandson Viserys. How much of this story is actual fact is unknown, given that it is a second-hand account told to children to excite them, but it fits with his personality. Rather than fighting and engaging the vast host single-handedly, he likely flew with his dragon in support of the Night’s Watch and any other troops. The wildling technological inferiority would mean fewer weapons capable of attacking a swooping dragon, such as scorpions and other siege weaponry, and a dragon can wreck havoc upon reserves, supply trains, and charging cavalry wedges while preserving friendly troops from the risk of dragonfire.

Conclusion

Jaehaerys would reign for fifty-five years over Westeros, and in those five decades, he accomplished many things. As a shrewd negotiator, he ensured royal dominance over the Faith of the Seven. As a diplomatic figure, he won over the smallfolk and lords alike to prevent rebellion and consolidate Targaryen rule over Westeros. In his later years, the prosperity would continue, but his advanced age and the loss of his sons and wife to the same would take their toll on him. He spent much of his final years bedridden, tended to by his granddaughter-in-law Alicent Hightower, until he ultimately succumbed to old age at sixty-nine years old. The Old King was loved and mourned by many in Westeros. Even the Dornish, who had a long history of animosity and bloodshed with the Iron Throne, mourned the loss of Jaehaerys. He left behind a legacy of prosperity, which would unfortunately turn into decadence and complacency during Viserys I’s reign, which would later explode into the Dance of Dragons. For Jaehaerys’s part, however, he was one of the greatest Targaryen kings, if not the greatest that the dynasty had ever generated, and the longevity of the Targaryen rule owes no small amount of credit to the Old King.

21 Comments

Filed under ASOIAF Analysis, ASOIAF Political Analysis

21 responses to “The Genius of the Old King: An Examination of Jaehaerys I

  1. Carl Mas

    A very interesting article. Jaehaerys deserves more recognition than it has now. 5/5 I suggest an article on Aegon V, might be a good topic.

    • Thank you.

      Aegon the Unlikely has a lot of information on him from his early stuff, and I see a lot of unique parallels between him and the prospective Aegon VI, but I’d really like to know more about Prince Duncan the Small and Summerhall before I really went in depth on him.

      • WPA

        At this point – The Tragedy of Summerhall probably deserves an essay/article just on itself.

  2. Gabriel

    Amazing piece of text! He’s definitely my favorite king. Keep on with the excellent job!

  3. Andrew

    I agree completely, and you’re not alone in that. Jaehaerys was the best king to ever sit the Iron Throne. By the time he sat the Iron Throne, the Targaryens thanks to Maegor, and to a degree, Aenys and Aegon and his sisters, had become associated with dragons, war, death and destruction (those last three go with the first), and tyrants acting above the laws of gods and men. By the time his reign ended, Jaehaerys had left behind a different legacy with Targaryens still being associated with dragons, but also with peace, prosperity and good governance.

    Ser Ryam Redwyne, the greatest knight of his time, was the Lord Commander of the Kingsguard; adding that, Jaehaerys became synonymous with a golden age.

    Even in The Princess and the Queen, men make more references to Jaehaerys than Viserys paraphrasing “the Old King would never have asked this of any man of honor.”

    Contrary to what Dany and Aegon think, I don’t think Westeros needs another Aegon the Conqueror, but another Jaehaerys the Wise.

    • Jaehaerys was able to establish a legacy of both strength and restraint in his tenure on the throne, and that was precisely what war-weary Westeros needed.

      It isn’t very glamorous to young hearts to be Jaehaerys, but Westeros is the better for it.

  4. James SC

    Finally a new article, and a good one at that, I burnt through the archives since Season 4 ended and the long wait til Winds of Winter.

  5. Beto

    you forgot a massive concession he got from the faith. Jaehaerys deprived them of the scales of judgment, cementing the monopoly of justice for the crown

    • Didn’t so much forget about it as omitted it by necessity. The essay was running a little long such as it was.

      I was also unsure of the particulars of the relationship between the Faith’s institution of justice and the various King’s legal systems. I didn’t want to draw up parallels between say, the Catholic or Church of England’s ecclesiastical courts on pure conjecture alone.

      But it is another way that Jaehaerys made the Faith dependent upon the Crown, and tied the Faith intensely (in a subservient role) to the Throne.

  6. BosnianSoldier

    Excellent text, keep up the good work!

  7. AdrienIer

    I remember from the books a Jaehaerys the Conciliator, is it another of his nicknames ? Great article by the way, on a very unusual subject.

  8. Pingback: Game Of Thrones: 10 Most Powerful Warriors | Musings of a Mild Mannered Man

  9. Glen

    Really a terrific read. I can’t find any reference to Maegor killing an Aegon nephew. Can you clarify?

  10. John S

    Another wonderful article — thanks. I’m finally getting into Targayen family history, especially after reading “The Princess & the Queen”.

    One thing: you mention the Wall and the Faith as the only two non-royal pan-Westeros institutions. What about the Maesters and the Citadel? I would add them, especially in light of the theory that posits they the maesters killed off the dragons after the Dance of Dragons.

    • somethinglikealawyer

      Actually, the two institutions I meant were the Wall and the Citadel. The Faith didn’t have much influence in the North outside of White Harbor.

      • John S

        Oh that makes sense now — thanks for clarifying. Really enjoyed the read and hope for more ancient Targ essays.

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