Emma D'Arcy as Rhaeynyra Targaryen in House of the Dragon.

Why Rhaenyra’s Place in the History of Westeros Is So Contested

It’s actually based on real historical events!

It’s finally House of the Dragon season once again, and I know I’m not the only one rejoicing because my obsession with that family of platinum-haired lizard-riding war criminals is terminal. What can I say, they’re a bunch of terrible horrible people and that makes for some incredibly entertaining storytelling.

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Spoilers ahead for the first episode of season two of House of the Dragon, Fire and Blood, and the rest of the ASOIAF canon

This first episode of season 2, aptly named “A Son for a Son,” deals with the aftermath of the violent death of Lucerys Velaryon at the end of last season. The Greens have to deal with the knowledge that Aemond’s killing of Lucerys just escalated the Dance beyond any possible peaceful solution, and the Blacks stall as Rhaenyra is lost in her grief over the loss of her son. 

Ultimately, Rhaenyra’s understandable desire for revenge on Aemond leads to one of the most gruesome events of the entire A Song of Ice and Fire canon—the assassins Blood and Cheese murdering the young Prince Jaehaerys, Aegon’s son and heir, since they can’t find Rhaenyra’s actual target anywhere in the Red Keep. And now the Dance has escalated to nuclear levels.

Phia Saban as Helaena Targaryen in House of the dragon season 2 episode 1
The whole Blood and Cheese sequence was truly an incredible performance from Phia Saban, aka Queen Helaena (HBO)

And while there are still many story beats of that Dance to go through, many of the Blacks’ supporters who aren’t familiar with the source material of Fire and Blood are itching to know—does Rhaenyra manage to dethrone her younger half-brother? If you can’t wait for the show to answer that for you, then you’ve landed on the right article.

So does Rhaenyra become Queen?

The short—but not clarifying—answer is yes and no. 

On the one hand, Rhaenyra already is Queen in her own eyes and in those of her supporters—she became so the moment she learned of her father Viserys’s passing. In both this episode and in the season one finale she was announced with all the titles that the ruler of the Seven Kingdoms has: “Rhaenyra of House Targaryen, the First of Her Name, Queen of the Andals and the Rhoynar and the First Men, Lady of the Seven Kingdoms and Protector of the Realm”. The only problem, of course, is that so is Aegon, who is the rightful King according to the Greens and their supporters. Hence the Dance.

Rhaenyra Targaryen, played by Emma D'Arcy, is crowned queen in the season one finale of House of the Dragon
Both Rhaenyra and Aegon are hailed from their respective sides as Queen or King of the Andals and Rhoynar and the First Men (HBO)

But when it comes to Rhaenyra’s place in the larger history of Westeros, then sadly she does not appear in the in-universe official list of rulers who have sat the Iron Throne from the times of Aegon the Conqueror onward. Maesters have described her as a pretender like many before and after her, and just like her actual historical inspiration has been.

That’s because Rhaenyra is most likely based on the medieval Empress Matilda, who lived in the 12th century and through a civil war for the control of the throne of England. Matilda was the daughter of King Henry I and became his sole heir after her brother William’s death in the infamous sinking of the White Ship in 1120.

Henry demanded oaths of loyalty from the country’s barons for his daughter Matilda, but after his passing the kingdom was plunged into civil war—with Matilda on one side of it and her male cousin Stephen of Blois, who only had his being male going for him since he was not “as royal” as Matilda was. These fifteen years of history have been dubbed the English Anarchy, which is definitely less evocative than the Dance of the Dragons—but the conflict at the heart of it all remains the same.

The longtime rivalry between Lannisters and Starks is also taken from English history, reworking the infamous Wars of the Roses between Lancasters and Yorks (HBO)

And Matilda is often left out of official lists of English monarchs since she was never crowned and her title was disputed—her cousin Stephen usually does appear as the only member of the House of Blois. Again, pretty much the same thing that happens to Rhaenyra.

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Benedetta Geddo
Benedetta (she/her) lives in Italy and has been writing about pop culture and entertainment since 2015. She has considered being in fandom a defining character trait since she was in middle school and wasn't old enough to read the fanfiction she was definitely reading and loves dragons, complex magic systems, unhinged female characters, tragic villains and good queer representation. You’ll find her covering everything genre fiction, especially if it’s fantasy-adjacent and even more especially if it’s about ASOIAF. In this Bangtan Sonyeondan sh*t for life.