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History of Thrones: Aegon’s Conquest, When Dragons Came to Westeros

Winter is here, and along with it the return of our series History of Thrones, where we examine important historical events and people from the complex and controversial past of Westeros, ones that might tell us something about the story going forward on Game of Thrones. However be warned, if you refuse to bend the knee to theories, you might consider these spoilers.

You can find all other History of Thrones entries here.


The last of the Valyrian dragonlords sits off the western shores of Westeros at Dragonstone, plotting an invasion on the strength of three dragons. But far from forging a new path, Daenerys seeks to recreate her family’s greatest triumph from three centuries ago: when another head of House Targaryen found himself exactly where she does now. That’s when Aegon I (a.k.a. Aegon the Conquerer) turned his sights to the Seven Kingdoms, and his Conquest still stands as the greatest military triumph in Westerosi history. And the lessons of his march—and flight—to victory could pave the way for the Mother of Dragons to reclaim the Iron Throne he forged.

For over a century House Targaryen resided on the island of Dragonstone, independent from the kingdoms of Westeros. Having fled Valyria only 12 years before the Doom that destroyed the world’s greatest power, the Targaryens were the last dragonlords, and even they were down to only one dragon, Balerion.

It was on Balerion’s back that the newest Lord of Dragonstone, Aegon Targaryen, joined the other Free Cities of Essos against Volantis, which after a century of war hoped to replace Valyria’s place of power. Aegon burned the Volantene fleet at Lys, and having tasted the strength of his dragon, he returned home to plot his next move.

The Free Cities wanted him to help them reform the Valyrian Freehold (like Volantis, the Free Cities were former Valyrian colonies), but he elected to turn west instead to the Seven Kingdoms, a place some reports say he had previously visited the southern island, Arbor, Oldtown’s Citadel, and possibly even Lannisport.

A Targaryen invasion of Westeros was feasible for the first time because they had recently hatched two more dragon eggs, which were now fully grown and ridden by Aegon’s two sisterwives, Visenya and Rhaenys.

Aegon’s invasion was kickstarted when the Stormlands’ King Argilac sent a letter to Aegon offering him his daughter’s hand in marriage. As a dowry he offered lands that actually belonged to his greatest threat, Harren the Black, the King of the (Iron) Isles and Rivers (now known as the Riverlands). Harren was nearing completion of his new enormous castle Harrenhal, and Argilac saw an opportunity to defeat his rival.

Aegon didn’t want another wife, nor did he need Argilac to “give” him lands he’d have to take himself. As a counter-offer, Aegon served up his closest friend (and possibly bastard half-brother) Orys Baratheon as a husband for Argilac’s daughter. Argilac responded by sending Aegon the hands of his envoy.

In response, Aegon called upon his small force of bannermen. And after meeting with them and his sisters over his wooden table of Westeros (a map without borders) he sent letters to every ruler in the Seven Kingdoms announcing himself the new king of a unified realm.

He promised that those who bent the knee would keep their lands and titles, and those who did not would be destroyed.

He rejected offers of alliance from Dorne and the Vale because they would not kneel, and in 2 BC (time is forever marked from the time he was formally crowned in Oldtown, BC = Before the Conquest, AC = After Aegon’s Conquest) Aegon, his sisters, and their dragons landed at what is now King’s Landing with under 1,600 men.

Houses Rosby and Stokeworth quickly surrendered after Aegon’s sisters arrived with their dragons (a little roof burning display was needed at Stokeworth), but Duskendale and Maidenpool united and marched on Aegon’s forces. Their 3,000 men gave them the advantage on the ground, but after Aegon burned the lords from the sky. Both of their castles then swore allegiance.

For the next two years, Aegon continued to move across Westeros, sometimes meeting an enemy force, sometimes meeting kneelers who hoped to save their lives and the lives of their people from dragonflame.

Even when Aegon’s growing army suffered losses, the strength of his dragons turned those setbacks into victory, bringing more houses under his rule. Harren the Black refused to kneel and burned inside the walls of his impenetrable new castle, his huge stone walls not strong enough to save him from dragons. House Tully, who had been the first house of the Riverlands to kneel before Aegon, became the new Paramounts of the Trident.

Dragons proved decisive in defeating the last of the Storm Kings, when Argilac fell and House Baratheon became the new Lords of Storm’s End.

As word about Aegon and his dragons spread, those willing to oppose grew smaller, with more and more houses swearing allegiance to him instead, like at Oldtown.

But two Western kings decided to stand together and fight. Mern IX Gardener, King of the Reach, and Loren Lannister, King of Casterly Rock, put together the single largest force in the history of the Seven Kingdoms; they marched 55,000 soldiers to the plains of the Blackwater Rush and attacked the Targaryen army. But Aegon and his sisters, united on a battle field together for the first time, bathed the middle of the army in dragonflame, destroying the Gardener force.

Over 5,000 men died, and twice as many were injured in what is known as the Field of Fire. House Gardener was completely destroyed, Loren Lannister kneeled and was named Warden of the West, and when Aegon flew to Highgarden, the Gardener stewards House Tyrell bent the knee and were rewarded by being named Wardens of the South.

The Vale had intended to fight, confident in the strength of the Eyrie, but after the Queen Regent Sharra Arryn found her son Ronnel sitting on Visenya’s lap, begging for a ride on the back of her dragon Vhagar, the Arryns became Aegon’s Wardens of the East.

Like the West, the North amassed an impressive force of 30,000 men—twice the size of Aegon’s current army, now larger thanks to his newest bannermen. The two sides met at the Trident, and many men wanted the King in the North, Torren Stark, to fight. But knowing all too well what happened at the Field of Fire, and that Harrenhal now stood in ruin, Torren called for peace. He is forever known as the King Who Knelt (an event Daenerys was only too happy to remind Jon Snow about), but none of Torren’s men died, and House Stark was named Wardens of the North.

After only two years and accepting the Faith of the Seven, the High Septon in Oldtown formally crowned him Aegon of House Targaryen, the First of His Name, King of the Andals, the Rhoynar, and the First Men, Lord of the Seven Kingdoms, and Protector of the Realm. The first ruler of a unified Westeros ever then built his new capital where he first came ashore at what is now King’s Landing, and made the Iron Throne out of the swords of his defeated enemies, which was forge in dragonflame.

But Aegon never ruled all seven kingdoms because, despite his unparalleled conquest he never did take Dorne. When Rhaenys flew there on her dragon Meraxes, she found all of its castles abandoned. One person remained at Sunspear though, the seat of the Dornish rulers of House Martells. It was there Princess Meria told Rhaenys that Dorne had no king and would never kneel.

In 4 AC, Aegon waged the First Dornish War in an effort to finish his conquest, but the Dornish continued to hide, smart enough to learn the lessons of the Field of Fire. They wouldn’t let Aegon use his dragons against them, instead using guerrilla warfare tactics of quick strikes and retreat.

Six years into the war Meraxes was struck through the eye by the bolt of a scorpion (similar to the weapon Qyburn is building for Cersei now) and fell to his death. No one knows whether Rhaenys died in the fall or was killed by her captors after, but the sister-wife Aegon most loved died too, and her body was never returned.

In response, a grief-stricken and enraged Aegon, along with Visenya, burned every castle and holdfast in Dorne except for Sunspear. But the war came to an end a couple of years later, when Aegon received Meraxes’ skull along with a letter. No one knows what that letter said—did it have something to do with the fate of Rhaenys?—but the next day Aegon agreed to a peace with Dorne, which wouldn’t formally become a part of the Seven Kingdoms until a Martell/Targaryen marriage almost 150 years later.

Thus far, Daenerys has not only failed to find early success like Aegon, she’s only suffered defeats. This despite having a far greater advantages in forces, allies, and naval strength than he did.

But while Aegon had a lot less men and far fewer ships, even when those failed him he was able to quickly overcome his setbacks for one reason and one reason only, and it wasn’t because he had three dragons.

He had Visenya and Rhaenys to ride the other two.

The three did have success by themselves at certain points, but when they really needed to unite, like at the Field of Fire, they did, and they were able to defeat an enormous force. That show of strength also brought other Kingdoms to heel, allowing Aegon to spare many lives of people he wished to rule.

Dragonriders are needed because dragons are hard to control. It’s said the Valyrians used magic to manage them, and without two other heads of the dragons, Daenerys is at risk if she heads out alone. Especially because Dorne created a blueprint for how to defeat a dragon, a lesson Qyburn is putting into practice.

Dragonflame works so quickly it can put down an enemy in an instant, like Daenerys did at Meereen, but the Seven Kingdoms know dragons are not invulnerable, and one is a much easier target than three. There’s no guarantee that a single dragonrider can repeat the success Aegon and his sisters had when Westeros had never faced one before.

The Mother of Dragons doesn’t need a new strategy, just like she probably didn’t even need an entire khalasar and the Unsullied, or a fleet of ships. Aegon didn’t have them, but he quickly acquired them because he had what she doesn’t, two more dragonriders next to her. What good are the greatest weapons in the world if you can’t use them?

Tyrion thinks Jon Snow could be a valuable ally, but he has no idea just how true that is of the secret son of Rhaegar, Daenerys’ brother. Or that if an old rumor about the Mad King and his mother is true that Tyrion himself could be the third head of the dragon Daenerys needs to find.

Aegon showed mercy when he could, and he used force when required, even when the loss of life was enormous. But the biggest lesson Daenerys can learn from his Conquest was that he didn’t do it on his own.

What do you think? What can she learn from ancestor’s invasion of Westeros? Tell us in the comments below.

You can find all other History of Thrones entries here.

Images: HBO

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