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Why Can’t Women Rule Westeros?

This essay and video were originally published on Gretchen’s personal website on 03/19/2020 as part of her Dragon’s Reign YouTube Video essay series on the Dance with Dragons.


A little over a year ago, when House of the Dragon was announced, I started a series of videos diving into a close read of the Dance of Dragons, the Targaryen civil war that the HBO show will be covering. I’ve had other things going on since then (I moved across the country during a pandemic for starters, yeah, that was a WHOLE thing), but now that it’s in production and they’ve made cast announcements, it’s time to finish what I started. I don’t plan on pulling a George and making everyone wait for an ending that may never come. So, to kick my butt back into gear, I will be posting the videos I have already completed here and adding new content once a month—or more if I have the time/energy—on both The Fandomentals and my personal website/YouTube.

I always include the script of my essays to go along with the video, that way anyone who prefers reading to listening or might need captions can have access to the full text. And I always, always include art credit for any of the images and fanart featured in my videos, which will appear alongside the images used.

So, do you like Targaryens? Interesting female characters? Discussing smashing the patriarchy? Dragons? Then let’s talk about why women can’t rule Westeros.

Why can’t women rule Westeros? Why was Rhaenyra’s status as Viserys I’s heir so contested—enough to lead to an all-out dragon-fueled civil war?

Because she doesn’t have a phallus, of course. That’s it, thanks for coming to my Ted Talk.

I mean, no Westerosi lord is going to ever admit that the kings must have a phallus, but it does seem to be a requirement. Westeros is a feudal patriarchal culture that systemically fears and therefore shuts out women in power. But that’s not the justification you’ll hear from maesters and high lords in Westeros. Interspersed with the casual assertion that women can’t rule “on the basis of their sex,” you might hear an argument about the Great Council of 101, like when King Aegon III died without a clear heir to succeed him:

Though both of the sons of King Aegon III were dead, his three daughters yet survived, and there were some amongst the smallfolk—and even some lords—who felt that the Iron Throne should by rights now pass to Princess Daena. They were few, however; a decade of isolation in the Maidenvault had left Daena and her sisters without powerful allies, and memories of the woes that had befallen the realm when last a woman sat the Iron Throne were still fresh…

The precedents of the Great Council of 101 and the Dance of the Dragons were therefore cited, and the claims of Baelor’s sisters were set aside. Instead the crown passed to his uncle, the King’s Hand, Prince Viserys. — The World of Ice and Fire

Here the Great Council of 101 and the Dance of the Dragons appear side by side as justifications for preventing women from inheriting the Iron Throne, so it makes sense that if we’re going to understand the Dance of the Dragons, we should look at the Great Council of 101. In fact, it’s not an overstatement to name the Great Council of 101 as one of main root causes of the Dance. Fire and Blood outright tells us this:

The seeds of war are oft planted during times of peace. So it has been in Westeros. The bloody struggle for the Iron Throne known as the Dance of the Dragons, fought from 129-131 AC, had its roots half a century earlier, during the longest and most peaceful reign that any of the Conqueror’s descendants ever enjoyed, that of Jaehaerys I Targaryen, the Conciliator. — Fire and Blood

This chapter then goes on to detail the Great Council, why it was called, the decisions made, and who sided with which claimant. It would turn out that you could have pretty well predicted the factions that would eventually develop around Rhaenyra Targaryen and Alicent Targaryen based on who supported Laenor Velaryon and who supported Viserys Targaryen at the Great Council. But that’s a discussion for another video.

As we see in Fire and Blood, even Jaehaerys I—the Targaren king who ruled the longest and most peacefully (thanks in large part to his wife Alysanne being a badass)—was no stranger to succession crises even prior to the Great Council. His older brother Aegon the Uncrowned was usurped and killed by their uncle Maegor, who quite possibly poisoned his own brother to inherit the throne, and Jaehaerys himself only took the throne after his older sister Rhaena was passed over, which wasn’t without its own political and interpersonal fallout. All of which is to say that by the time Jaehaerys took the throne, he’d already seen the turmoil that can result from Targaryen heirs being usurped and disinherited.

Even a king who builds roads and enriches trade routes can have his blind spots however, and one of the biggest ones for Jaehaerys was his patriarchal notions about women – especially women in power. For example, despite valuing his wife’s contributions to his reign and listening to her as a trusted advisor on many matters, he still believed a woman should only rule secondarily through her husband and should never be named the official heir to her father’s seat. His wife Alysanne, on the other hand, believed the oldest child should inherit regardless of gender, a view she held staunchly throughout her life. After their firstborn child died in infancy, Alysanne expected their daughter Daenerys would be named heir to the Iron Throne.

“Daenerys is older,” she would remind His Grace. “She is first in line; she should be queen.” The King would never disagree, except to say, “She shall be queen, when she and Aemon marry. They will rule together just as we have.” But Benifer could tell that the king’s words did not entirely please the queen, as he noted in his letters. — Fire and Blood

Clearly for Jaehaerys, a Targaryen woman could only be queen as a consort to a Targaryen male heir rather than inherit the throne in her own right. Sadly, Daenerys died young from a magical disease called the shivers, so Jaehaerys got his way and Aemon became his heir.

This wasn’t a true succession crisis yet though. Alysanne and Jaehaerys had several more children after Aemon—Baelon, Alyssa, Maegelle, Vaegon, Daella, Saera, Viserra, Gaemon, Valerion, and Gael. (Thirteen is a LOT of children, you guys, and several of them were born when Alysanne was in her forties or later, which is pretty messed up). For the purposes of inheritance, only the next two siblings in line to the throne after Aemon matter, Baelon and Alyssa; they conveniently married each other and had three kids: Viserys, Daemon, and Aegon.

That’s…a lot of names I know.  All you really need to know is that Aemon was the heir to the Iron Throne but like his two older siblings, he died before inheriting it, leading to Jaeharys needing to name another heir in Aemon’s stead. 

Now, before Aemon’s death, he and Lady Jocelyn Baratheon, his wife, had a daughter named Rhaenys that Alysanne hoped would one day inherit the Iron Throne after her father,

Princess Rhaenys was born on the seventh day of the seventh moon of the year, which the septons judged to be highly auspicious. Large and fierce, she had the black hair of her Baratheon mother and the pale violet eyes of her Targaryen father. As the firstborn child of the Prince of Dragonstone, many hailed her as the next in line for the Iron Throne after her father. When Queen Alysanne held her in her arms for the first time, she was heard to call the little girl, “our little queen.” — Fire and Blood

If Westeros were Dorne, where the eldest child inherits regardless of gender, so much Targaryen history would have been different and the Dance of Dragons very likely never would have happened. As the previous quote makes plain, it’s traditional in Westeros that once an heir has been named, if that heir has children, their eldest child would be the next in line to the throne: if Joffrey had lived long enough to have a child with Margaery, that child would have come before Tommen in the line of succession when Joffrey died, for example (unless that child was a daughter, but we’ll come back to that).

So, when Aemon, son and heir of King Jaehaerys, died tragically young, Rhaenys should have become Aemon’s heir, and that would have been the end of it. Alysanne and Jaehaerys never would have been estranged, Viserys I would never have become king, Rhaenyra would have been a distant heir to the throne, Aegon II would never have usurped her, the Dance wouldn’t have happened, and Rhaenys herself hopefully would have lived a long and happy life as Queen of Westeros with her consort Corlys Velaryon instead of dying in an act of tragic heroism defending the rights of her niece Rhaenyra Targaryen in the Dance of the Dragons.

Unfortunately, Westeros practices male preference primogeniture, meaning that the eldest male child inherits and daughters come after uncles. Thus, Jaehaerys and Alysanne’s fourth child Baelon became heir to the throne after Aemon’s death. Since he was a dude in a patriarchal culture, Jaehaerys didn’t lose a night’s sleep over disinheriting his granddaughter; Alysanne’s reaction couldn’t have been more different.

The most prominent dissenter was Good Queen Alysanne, who had helped her husband rule the Seven Kingdoms for many years, and now saw her son’s daughter being passed over because of her sex. “A ruler needs a good head and a true heart,” she famously told the king. “A cock is not essential. If Your Grace truly believes that women lack the wit to rule, plainly you have no use of me.” And thus Queen Alysanne departed King’s Landing and few to Dragonstone on her dragon Silverwing. She and King Jaehaerys remained apart for two years, the period of estrangement recorded in the histories as the Second Quarrel. — Fire and Blood

Queen Alysanne didn’t mess around. She believed women had just as much right to rule as men did, so it’s fair to say she would have sided with Rhaenyra in the Dance just as Rhaenys did. In fact, Queen Alysanne literally went to her deathbed quote, “still insisting that her granddaughter Rhaenys and her children had been unfairly cheated of her rights.” This was in 100 AC, and the next year would see her turning in her grave.

When Baelon died in 101 AC, Jaehaerys was left with a true succession crisis on his hands and no wise Alysanne to kick his butt into doing the right thing by Rhaenys. So to figure out who should be his heir, Jaehaerys called the Great Council of 101, summoning all the lords of Westeros to Harrenhal and promising to abide by whatever decision the council came to about who should rule after him.

Much like the 2020 democratic primary, the field started out quite large – fourteen different claimants showed up, all with varying degrees of support. Several of them were winnowed out quickly: the bastard sons of Jaehaerys’ daughter Seara, someone claiming to be the bastard child of Maegor the Cruel, a supposed descendent of Gaemon Targaryen (who was way up the Targaryen family tree), and even a hedge knight with the balls to claim to be Jaehaerys’ own bastard (not sure why he thought the king would go for that, but you gotta respect his audacity). 

Jaehaerys’ only remaining living son was Vaegon, who was entirely unsuited to be king, and a maester besides; so he couldn’t inherit. Jaehaerys’ only other surviving children were daughters, and he wasn’t in favor of putting a daughter on the throne after having already passed over his granddaughter Rhaenys in favor of Baelon. And it isn’t surprising that although Rhaenys was once again put forward as an option at the Great Council, and although she had many powerful lordly houses to support her, she was once again rejected as heir for being a granddaughter instead of a grandson.

When the dust settled, the final two claimants heading into the democratic primary I mean Great Council were Laenor Velaryon, Rhaenys’ son, and Viserys Targaryen, Baelon and Alyssa Targaryen’s son. In terms of proximity to the firsborn heir, Rhaeny’s son Laenor had the better claim since he was the grandson of Aemon Targaryen. Viserys was the child of Baelon Targaryen, who only became heir when Aemon died. However, Viserys had been the last Targaryen to ride Balerion the Black Dread, Aegon the Conqueror’s fearsome mount. Buuuuuut, Balerion had died and Viserys had never taken a new dragon to mount, leaving Laenor as the only potential heir who was currently a dragonrider. And being a dragonrider was kind of a big deal if you wanted to be the Targaryen king – they tend to judge fitness for the throne based on the size of their…er…dragon.

The last factor taken into account at the Great Council was age: Laenor was seven and Viserys was twenty-four, and as you know, feudal monarchies don’t love boy kings with long regencies. Unsurprisingly, the Great Council ultimately decided that Jaeharys’ heir would be Viserys.

I won’t deny there were reasonable arguments in favor of Viserys as king, but let’s do what the Great Council didn’t and consider the even more reasonable arguments in favor of Rhaenys. Setting aside male preference, Rhaenys was a more direct heir than Viserys and three years older. Unlike Viserys, who had only one child when he was chosen to rule, Rhaenys had two, the proverbial ‘heir and a spare’ that feudal lords so desperately want in order to avoid just these kinds of succession crises.

Moreover, Rhaenys had everything Alysanne said was required: a good head and a true heart. For proof of her good head, we need look no further than her choice in husband, Corlys Velaryon, a wealthy lord from a family of Valyrian descent. Although Corlys was twenty years older than Rhaenys, in wit, intelligence, and fierce, adventuring spirit, they were the perfect pair.

Rhaenys, at six-and-ten, was a fearless young beauty, and more than a match for her mariner. A dragonrider since the age of thirteen, she insisted upon arriving for the wedding on Meleys, the Red Queen, the magnificent scarlet she-dragon that had once borne her aunt Alyssa. “We can go back to the ends of the earth together,” she promised Ser Corlys. “But I’ll get there first, as I’ll be flying.” — Fire and Blood

The council wanted a dragonrider, right? Well, Rhaenys was more seasoned than Laenor, and although no Balerion the Black Dread, Meleys was a powerful dragon in her own right. And what better mount for a Red Targaryen Dragon Queen than Meleys the Red Queen? 

Rhaenys had a true heart as well—she was willing to fight for the rights of her great-niece Rhaenyra when her throne was stolen, and even sacrificed her life to undo a grave injustice that had thrown the realm into war and chaos. She was strong but not vicious, fearless but not foolhardy, patient, wise, and a firm believer in justice—exactly the kind of ruler Alysanne said the realm needed, and a lot like another dragon queen we all know: Elizabeth Warren. 

Just kidding, it’s Dany.

In fact, all of Rhaenys’ qualifications serve to make the Great Council’s unease with women in power even more blatant. Let’s not forget that she had already been passed over once before in order to install Baelon as heir, whose untimely death was the reason for this Council in the first place. If Rhaenys had been chosen as Aemon’s heir instead of Baelon, the Great Council wouldn’t even have been necessary.

But the Great Council didn’t just overlook Rhaenys “on account of her sex,” they also overlooked multiple other women with more legitimate claims to the throne. Offering up Rhaenys’ son Laenor as a claimant bypassed Rhaenys’ older child, her daughter Laena. And if the Council had wanted to follow the precedent that one of Jaehaerys’ children inherits over his grand or great-grandchildren—as they had when they chose Baelon over Rhaenys—the council could have chosen Seara, Jaeharys’ estranged daughter. Although living in Essos, Saera was very much alive in 101 AC. She chose not to press her claim, but if she had, would the Council have considered her? Pfft, yeah right. She was a sex worker and a woman, can you imagine the lords of Westeros allowing her bastard children to inherit the throne? No, no, it must be a man and a 100% certified organic, free range Targaryen man at that, even if that man was further down the line of succession.  

When you lay it all out, it really starts to look like Jaehaerys and the lords of Westeros bent over backwards to put a man on the throne when there were more qualified women available who were closer to the throne. All of the ‘reasonable’ arguments in favor of Viserys end up looking like excuses when Rhaenys Targaryen is sitting right there!

Excuse me, I get really fired up about Rhaenys Targaryen; I will go to my death bed yelling about Rhaenys being cheated of her rights! It’s what Alysanne would have wanted.

Anyway, it’s important to note that the Great Council didn’t actually make a law about women being unable to inherit the Iron Throne. Everyone there acted on the assumption that a woman couldn’t inherit and that even a female line with primogeniture would come after a male line, but no one technically enacted a law saying, “women can’t rule Westeros.”

…And therein lies the root cause of the Dance of the Dragons.

The lack of an explicit law against women inheriting the Iron Throne is a loophole that Viserys exploited when he named his eldest child Rhaenyra as his heir. At the same time, the clear Westerosi preference for male inheritance of the Iron Throne was exploited by Aegon II and the Hightowers when Viserys died while Rhaenyra was away on Dragonstone… but that’s getting ahead of the story.

For now, the important things to know about Jaehaerys’ Great Council of 101 are:

  • First, it established a clear preference for male inheritance over the female line, regardless of birth order, but it did not make any laws preventing female inheritance.
  • Second, the preference for male inheritance was part of a pre-existing pattern of thought for Jaehaerys himself, as can be seen in his decisions prior to and leading up to the Great Council, such as when he voiced a preference for Aemon inheriting over the elder Daenerys, and in naming Baelon as his heir after Aemon’s death when Aemon’s daughter Rhaenys should have been the heir.
  • Third, while Jaehaerys’ preference reflected both his own personal values and those of Westerosi culture, his wife Alysanne opposed both him and Westerosi norms, and she made her own values known whenever Jaehaerys made assumptions about women not being quote unquote ‘fit’ to rule.

So, when looking at the events of the Dance of Dragons, it’s critical to remember that the Great Council made a decision and established a preference, but it didn’t enact a law. Moreover, while male preference for inheritance may have been the norm in Westeros, it was by no means unquestioned prior to Rhaenyra and the Dance. Jaehaerys himself had inherited the crown despite having an older sister named Rhaena who came before him in the line of succession, and she came to resent being disempowered by her younger brother just as her great-great grandniece Rhaenyra would come to resent being usurped by her younger brother. Thus Rhaenyra wasn’t even the first disempowered Targaryen female heir to voice her discontent with the way things were, just the one who had the most dragons on her side to support her claim.

By now it really is starting to look like Martin is building a theme about systemic female disempowerment in societies with entrenched patriarchal values and why that’s a problem for everyone. Now you know me, I’m more than capable of writing this kind of essay based on my own perspective because I’m so invested in the plight of disempowered and maligned women in Westeros – but this isn’t just some vanity project of mine. By making the Great Council the root cause of the Dance, and by making Rhaenyra’s usurpation the immediate cause, Martin himself is planting a giant red flag on the systemic disempowerment of women as a source of gruesome violence, conflict, and war. It’s not overstating the case to say that had women not been passed over repeatedly and consistently in favor of men prior to and including the Great Council, Targaryen history would have unfolded quite differently.

In fact, you could argue that after the Great Council, something like the Dance was nigh inevitable, given the complex mixture of resentment, gendered antagonism, and hard feelings the Great Council had stirred up. The shit might not have hit the fan yet, but the shit cannon was armed and waiting for someone to pull the trigger…

And that someone would inadvertently be Viserys I, the very king Jaehaerys and the lords of Westeros had chosen to succeed him.

That’s it for this episode of the Dragon’s Reign. You can buy me a cup of tea on Ko-fi if you feel like keeping my brain juices flowing, the link is in my channel header. Please be sure to hit like and subscribe buttons before you go, and I’ll see you next time on the Dragons Reign, where the dragonflame burns hot but the women are straight fire!

Featured Image “The Queen Who Never Was” Courtesy of Bella Bergolts

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Author

  • Bi, she/her. Gretchen is a Managing Editor for the Fandomentals. An unabashed nerdy fangirl and aspiring sci/fi and fantasy author, she has opinions about things like media, representation, and ethics in storytelling.

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