By Kevin Vallier
In my next “Political Economy of A Song and Ice and Fire” series, I’d like to figure out what sort of monarchy Westeros has.
But before I begin, SPOILER NOTE. The Robert’s Rebellion section has spoilers through Season 3 of Game of Thrones and the Queen Daenarys section has MEGA-SPOILERS through Dance with Dragons. Please use spoiler tags in the comments if you want to talk about spoilery stuff.
Ok, back to the monarchy. To simplify my analysis, let’s suppose there are roughly three types of monarchs: feudal monarchs, absolute monarchs, and constitutional monarchs. Here are some very rough generalizations.
Feudal monarchs typically have very limited powers, and those powers are often challenged by many other potent centers of power, such as churches, guilds, etc. Feudal monarchs also tend to rule partly by pact, that is by agreements with lords, vassals, etc. that give them their power. That is, vassals provide homage, legal and military service, and limited payments.
Absolute monarchs have far more power and far fewer competitors. Absolute monarchists can frequently rule by decree, have a much more articulated legislative ability and can exact punishments in a direct fashion. Absolute monarchs can exact taxes in many ways, and typically have complete military dominance. That is, the aristocratic classes do not keep military forces. An absolute monarch’s power is also typically not limited or not very limited by a constitution or by law.
Constitutional monarchs have a single ruler, but the ruler’s power is typically sharply limited by a traditional or written constitution. The monarch represents the national bureaucracy to some degree, can raise armies, exact taxes, pass limited laws, and so on. In constitutional monarchies, legislative bodies tend to have real power. Sometimes absolute monarchies have legislative bodies, but they’re largely symbolic. Some constitutional monarchs are elected, but many are hereditary, much like absolute and feudal monarchs.
My analysis of the Westerosi monarchy will consist of four time periods – the period prior to Aegon’s Conquest, the period between Aegon’s Conquest and the Dance of the Dragons, the period from the Dance of the Dragons until Robert’s Rebellion and the period from Robert’s Rebellion forward. The key factor distinguishing these periods is the availability and power and legacy of the incredible military technology known asdragons.
Dragons are basically reusable nuclear weapons. They can reach across Westeros in a relatively short period of time, burninating the countryside, burninating all the peasants. Dragons make castles obsolete (as Harren the Black learned with Harrenhal), and while they do not make armies irrelevant, they allow dragon-equipped armies to defeat much larger armies. Dragons can reproduce and live for a very long time, which means that those who possess the dragons can expect to have a military advantage for decades. Further, dragons are genetically bonded to an elite class of dragon riders. And apparently the Targaryens are the only people in Westeros with the reliable genetic ability to bond with dragons. So no one else can reliably use them. Finally, the dragons allow for the consistent use of magic, and could conceivably help enable the new creation of the military technology of Valyrian steel and Wildfire. Of course, Valyrian steel and wildfire are not the sole possession of Dragonlords, but those with dragons will have a superior ability to manufacture them, which basically generates asymmetric access to advanced metallurgy and explosives.
Thus, whoever has dragons has a massive military advantage, such that any military conquest could presumably lead to the imposition of massively asymmetric terms, enabling the creation of something far more powerful than a feudal monarchy.
Prior to Aegon’s Conquest, Westeros consisted of seven monarchies: The Kingdom of the North (House Stark), The Kingdom of the Mountain and the Vale (House Arryn), the Kingdom of the Isles and Rivers (House Greyjoy), the Kingdom of the Rock (House Lannister), the Kingdom of the Reach (House Gardener, replaced by the Tyrells after Aegon’s Conquest), the Kingdom of the Stormlands (House Durrandon, replaced by the Baratheons after Aegon’s Conquest) and Dorne (House Martell).
All were essentially feudal monarchs – pact-based, clan-based rule with vassals, military based on calling one’s banners, limited powers, no alternative legislative bodies, no explicit constitutions (as far as we know). This should not be controversial.
Aegon’s Conquest to the Dance of the Dragons
This is the hardest period to characterize because Aegon and his sisters did not exactly establish a feudal monarchy. First, it’s not clear what political and legal powers Aegon and his immediate successors had. Of course, they made pacts with the major houses that yielded to them, but the critical difference is that Aegon and his sisters had dragons, so they could impose whatever terms they wanted. We do not know all the terms of the pacts made with the submitting Kings, such as the agreement made with Torrhen Stark “The King Who Knelt.” We know that the six of the kings of Westeros were replaced and/or reduced to Lords.
But the royal houses were generally left in power, and some were made Wardens, which is an increase in power, though only in military power. We know that the new Lords Paramount had immediate authority over their vassals, we know that their militaries were left largely intact, and we know they had judicial functions. We also know that they had to pay some sort of tax or tribute to the Iron Throne. I could be wrong, but I thought some laws were made national, such as some details of succession, but I can’t recall specific examples.
Importantly, the Targaryens were powerful enough to exempt themselves from some very important laws, mostly importantly laws forbidding incest and polygamy. This created decades of tension with the Faith of the Seven and their Faith Militant, however, which ultimately led the Targaryens to disarm them (beginning with Maegor the Cruel and ending with Jaehaerys the Conciliator). Nonetheless, Aegon felt compelled to convert to the Faith. But whatever the Faith’s power, it does not compare to the power of the Roman Catholic Church in feudal Europe.
It appears that, despite their heritage as freeholders among the Valyrian dragonlords, Aegon sought to create a single, strong, but still essentially feudal monarchy, rather than a new freehold. Yet he presumably could have imposed more absolutist terms. He may have gained the power over a few years or decades, given that the Targaryens were seen as having somewhat divine power (the blood of the dragon). They were, after all, dragonlords and many of them were extremely beautiful. Most had a unique, almost magical appearance with their silver hair and purple eyes. That said, I’m not aware of anyone worshipping the Targaryens as gods, or as having any special connection with the gods. So they bear few resemblances to ancient dynastic tyrants.
So between Aegon’s Conquest and the Dance of the Dragons, we have a huge feudal monarchy, but with the military power to quickly become something much stronger. The Targaryens, however, seemed largely uninterested in state-building, unlike their Valyrian forbears, who built roads and cities. Aegon did create King’s Landing, and other Targaryen monarchs created other public works, but they did not behave like Roman Empire. They were not state-building Caesars.
An interesting question is why the Targs didn’t try harder to consolidate power. I’d be especially interested in why they never attempted to centralize military power. Perhaps they thought they didn’t need to do so, given that they had dragons. But if the Iron Throne had the only military, that could have worked to their benefit.
So during this period, Westeros has a feudal monarchy with modern reach and the potential to exercise modern power. But the monarchs only maintained this advantage for about 130 years. The Dance began in 129 AC.
From the Dance to Robert’s Rebellion
Following the Dance, the dragons were dramatically weakened, and with them House Targaryen. The Targs still maintained a strong hold over the throne, though the Blackfyre Rebellions would challenge their authority several times. Nonetheless, the Blackfyres were legally legitimized bastards, so it was an intra-family dispute. None of the major houses seemed interested in gaining the Iron Throne for themselves, unless you count House Hightower during the Dance. So during this period, the feudal monarchy loses much of its modern power, and starts to more closely resemble a traditional feudal monarchy. And, importantly, the regime became less politically stable, especially due to the Blackfyre rebellions.
After Robert’s Rebellion (Show Spoilers through Season 3)
Following Robert’s Rebellion, the Targaryens are removed from power. Many people remember when Aerys was the on the throne and know that Robert’s hereditary basis for his crown is weak. Even Robert said his claim was his warhammer. So we have a ruler that is seen as a usurper by many, either openly or covertly, and has no real connection to the magical Targs. This, in my view, substantially weakened the feudal monarchy. This is obvious once Jon Arryn, Robert and Rob Stark die, as they held together three noble houses in a military alliance based in deep friendship. The Baratheon-Lannister alliance falls apart as well. And this leads to several potentially successful secessions – the secession of the Iron Islands (attempted by Balon Greyjoy before, and seemingly successful the second time), and the secession of the North under Robb Stark.
In my opinion, with the loss of the dragons, it is no longer clear in Westeros whether “one king means peace.” Westeros is huge and it’s not clear whether the Westerosi monarchy is a stable governing body. Without a state bureaucracy, managing the seven kingdoms from King’s Landing is extremely difficult. In practice, the wardens have great power to challenge the crown, so it makes sense that the monarchy would break up with the loss of the dragons. Had Daenarys’s dragons not hatched, I suspect that in another hundred years, the Westerosi monarchy would collapse after the powerful kingdoms seceded. I see no prospect in particular for the throne to try to rule the North. The North is poor in resources and hard to conquer, so there is little reason to spend the effort to conquer them. So perhaps we’d end up with North Westeros and South Westeros, with the Iron Islands generally serving as reaving jerks until they get temporarily conquered again. I suspect that Dorne would probably secede as well.
So, in sum, Westeros is essentially a feudal monarchy but is capable of becoming something more with reliable dragon access and Targ rule (and maybe Baratheon rule, and maybe Stark rule if Jon has Targ blood and ends up in the royal family somehow).
Now let me speculate on the Westerosi monarchy to come. This involves LOTS of spoilers. I really mean that. Again, if you want to talk about that section, use spoiler tags in the comments.
They should look like this:
…. Blah, blah, blah.
See how I left space so people can scroll past them? Yeah, that’s the way to do it.
Queen Daenarys? (SPOILERS through Dance with Dragons)
Imagine that Daenarys gains the Iron Throne with her dragons and her dragons can stably reproduce. She will have roughly the same power as Aegon the Conquerer, and may well have a larger army, if she can combine all the forces she seems to have access to by the end of Dance with Dragons and the spoiler chapters from The Winds of Winter. If she takes down Khal Jhaqo (hopefully by serving him up to Drogon), she’ll have a huge khalasar to add to her Unsullied and sellsword companies following the end of the Battle of Fire. I also expect the Volantene fleet to be commandeered by her in some way. However, given that GRRM has suggested that Tyrion and Dany won’t meet early in Winds of Winter, she might fly Drogon to Asshai, given the part of her prophecy that she must go east to go west and that she must “pass beneath the shadow” meaning Asshai-by-the-shadow.
If she unites with “Aegon” (who I think is almost certainly Magister Illyrio’s son; he is the “Mummer’s Dragon” in Dany’s vision in the House of the Undying; “Mummer” has a double-meaning: he’s a fake dragon (a Blackfyre through the female line) and Varys’s dragon, as Varys grew up as a mummer) then they could restore the monarchy together, though I suspect they will be at odds given the release of the Princess and the Queen storyline and the emphasis on the Blackfyre Rebellions in the Dunk and Egg series. GRRM wants us to know that Targs can butcher each other and their dragons. I think “Aegon” might steal a dragon, perhaps Rhaegal, and that one of the dragons will die as a result. I also expect him to die in the process. But with or without Aegon, Queen Dany could remake the political order.
And Dany’s sympathy for slaves and smallfolk might lead her to alter the political order to work better for their sake. GRRM repeatedly emphasize how much the smallfolk suffer from the game of thrones. Dany constantly feels guilty about the people she hurts. I would be very surprised if she established a constitutional monarchy. That would be anachronistic. But she might disarm the major houses and create what she regards as a benevolent despotism. Or maybe we could get a Magna Carta going with the major noble houses.
Stannis would largely restore the status quo, but he’d be a much better ruler than Robert, and probably better than Dany. The problem is that Melisandre would demand that Stannis impose R’Hllor worship on everyone, and that would lead to complete chaos and civil war, especially now that Cersei has restored the Faith Militant (man, what a stupid thing to do). But Mel might die, or split with Stannis once she decides that Jon and/or Dany is Azor Ahai and that Longclaw is Lightbringer (once Jon suffuses it with royal blood, probably Dany’s, to create Lightbringer and stop the whitewalkers, like Azor Ahai did with Nissa Nissa, his wife, which would be the third betrayal of Dany (“three treasons you will know: once for blood, once for gold and once for love”) but I know I’m getting really out there).
FWIW, I think it is entirely possible that Stannis is king at the end, and does the hard work of knitting Westeros back together. For various reasons, I don’t think Jon will end up anywhere near the throne. Right now I give Stannis and Dany a 40% of ending up on the Throne, with a 20% chance that no one ends up on the Throne.
Remember: if you want to talk about this section, use spoiler tags. Again, they should look like this:
…. Blah, blah, blah.
See how I again left space so people can scroll past them? Yeah, again, that’s the way to do it.
This article was originally published on Bleeding Heart Libertarians.
Kevin Vallier is an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Bowling Green State University. His main areas of work are within political philosophy and ethics, and he is the author of Liberal Politics and Public Faith: Beyond Separation.