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After reading a previous article on whether Daenerys Targaryen (marching under a dragon banner in command of a “mercenary” army) is a reimagining of Henry VII, I found myself pondering the question: “Does Rhaegar Targaryen have a similar real-history counterpart?”
For those readers who only watch the TV show, Rhaegar Targaryen is perhaps the most important character who you (might) never see on screen! The eldest son of the ‘Mad King’ Aerys II, Rhaegar was the elder brother of Viserys and Daenerys Targaryen and is often referenced by other characters in the show, frequently referred to as the “Last Dragon” following his death in single combat against Robert Baratheon at the Battle of the Trident. It was Rhaegar who allegedly abducted Eddard Stark’s sister, Lyanna, after the Tourney at Harrenhal after naming her the ‘Queen of Love and Beauty’ instead of his own wife Elia Martell (the sister of Oberyn Martell who was raped and murdered by Gregor ‘The Mountain’ Clegane during the Sack of King’s Landing). The fact that Rhaegar’s actions initiated Robert Baratheon’s rebellion (thereby setting the stage for the book and film series) shows that he is a character who deserves a closer examination (particularly as he is at the centre of many fan theories such as the R+L=J theory which suggests that Jon Snow is the son of Rhaegar and Lyanna Stark as well as the idea that he is actually still alive!).
According to other characters in the series, Rhaegar Targaryen displayed all the attributes of a perfect medieval prince: he was a skilled knight, exceedingly intelligent and an exceptionally talented musician. He was also well-loved by the people. Indeed, Cersei Lannister remembered that at the Tourney at Lannisport the smallfolk cheered considerably more for Rhaegar than her father (who himself had received twice as many cheers as King Aerys II!) He was also apparently tall and handsome, with the traditional violet eyes and silver hair of the Targaryens with a singing voice so beautiful that it could reduce women to tears!
Ultimately, many characters in the series remember the “Last Dragon” fondly and Ser Barristan Selmy, who had served three Kings, claimed that Rhaegar would have been better than any of them. Such an assertion got me thinking: has there ever been such a prince in English history? Was there ever an heir-apparent to the throne who was a skilled warrior, intelligent, talented, beloved by the people and remembered even today as a much-lamented ‘King who never was’?
Chivalry personified: “The Black Prince” & Rhaegar
One figure who immediately came to mind was Edward, the Black Prince (1330-1376). The Prince is widely held to be the personification Medieval chivalric ideals: He was the first Knight of the Garter, an exceptional military commander whose victories over the French at Crécy (1346) and Poitiers (1356) made him a legend in his own lifetime, and perhaps the most lamented ‘Lost King’ in English history as he died of suspected amoebic dysentery just one year before his father, Edward III.
The Prince’s similarities with Rhaegar also extend to their mutual devotion to jousting as well as the claims that, like the ‘Last Dragon’, the Black Prince was so-called because of the colour of his armour (although it is unlikely that Edward would have had a dragon encrusted in rubies on his breastplate!). It is true that Edward’s ‘shield for peace’ displayed three ostrich feathers on a black field. However, the only mention of this origin of the sobriquet comes from “some shadowy evidence that he was described in French as clad at the battle of Crecy “en armure noire en fer bruni” – in black armour of burnished steel”1 and it is more likely that the title came “from his dreaded acts” during his French campaign ((Thomas Fuller, The Holy State, (Cambridge, 1642), p. 342.)) . Certainly, the Prince’s biographer David Green suspects that this is where the name originated.
A Renaissance prince: Rhaegar & Henry Stuart
However, the descriptions of Rhaegar Targaryen as an intelligent and talented prince whose popularity exceeded that of his father also suggests an inspiration from the early-modern period: Henry Frederick Stuart, Prince of Wales (1594-1612). The eldest son of James I of England (and VI of Scotland), Henry has been described as having shown great promise in matters of leadership and from a young age was a talented sportsman and musician (although it is unknown if, like Rhaegar, he could have made Cersei Lannister weep by singing and playing the harp!). The Prince’s popularity was evident in his lifetime and was demonstrated by the vast wealth of literature produced following his death from typhus in 1612 aged just 18. Indeed, the tributes following Henry’s death could easily have described the fictional Targaryen prince:
“He is dead, who while he lived, was a perpetuall Paradise, every season that he hath shewd himselfe in a perpetuall spring, every exercise wherein he was scene a special felicity…”
“…his body was so faire and strong that a soule might have been pleased to live in an age in it…virtue and valor, beauty and chastity, armes and arts, met and kist in him, and his goodnesse lent so much mintage to other Princes…” ((Albert Smith (ed.), John Donne: The Critical Heritage, (1995), p. 37. ))
Just as Rhaegar was idolised by his younger brother Viserys, who would ultimately succeed their father (albeit as the ‘Beggar King’ in exile), Henry was idolised by his brother Charles who succeeded him as Prince of Wales and ultimately became King, reigning for over twenty years before his defeat in the English Civil War led to his trial and execution by the victorious Parliamentarians in 1649. Indeed, just as Targaryen loyalists viewed Rhaegar’s death as the greatest tragedy for Westeros, Henry’s early demise was widely regarded as a disaster for Britain as, according to Charles Carlton, “Few heirs to the English throne have been as widely and deeply mourned as Prince Henry”.
However, although both the Black Prince and Henry certainly share traits and certain elements of their histories with Rhaegar Targaryen, after close examination of the ‘Last Dragon’s’ background and talents as well as his death and its impact on the Seven Kingdoms, there is one historical figure whose story bears striking similarity to that of Rhaegar: Edward of Westminster, Prince of Wales.
The supposedly savage Edward of Westminster as Rhaegar?
Edward of Westminster (1453-71), also known as Edward of Lancaster, was the only son of Henry VI of England and his consort, the formidable Margaret of Anjou. Born in the midst of the internal strife plaguing England in the mid-15th Century, Edward would become the only heir-apparent in English history to die in Battle, being slain at the Battle of Tewkesbury (the last decisive battle of the War of the Roses prior to Bosworth Field) on 4th May 1471. Despite also being the son of a ‘Mad King’ and meeting a similar fate to Rhaegar, several writers have attempted instead to liken Edward to Joffrey Baratheon, citing Edward’s allegedly cruel behaviour and the rumours surrounding his legitimacy. There were certainly rumours that Edward was the result of an affair between his mother and either Edmund Beaufort, duke of Somerset or James Butler, earl of Wiltshire. However, there is no firm evidence to support such claims and Henry himself never doubted the boy’s legitimacy and publicly acknowledged his paternity.
Edward’s reputedly bloodthirsty nature is heavily based on a description written in February 1467 by Giovanni Pietro Panicharolla, the Milanese Ambassador in France (where Edward was in exile). The Ambassador reported that the 13 year old Prince “already talks of nothing but cutting off heads or making war as if he had everything in his hands or was the god of battle”. However, it is important to note that Panicharolla had “no love for the Angevins (referring to the House of Plantagenet)” and therefore his account would undoubtedly be hostile towards the ‘rightful’ heir to the English throne. Also, as a teenager who had seen his feeble-minded father humiliated, defeated and deposed by the ‘usurpers’ from the House of York, it is somewhat understandable that Edward sought vengeance on the ‘traitors’ who had betrayed Henry VI.
Edward’s brutal reputation was also based on the fact that, following the Lancastrian victory in the Second Battle of St Albans in 1461, he ordered the beheading of William Bonville, 1st Baron Bonville and Sir Thomas Kyriell (two Yorkist knights who had abandoned the captive Henry VI on the battlefield despite being charged to protect him). However, this decision must be viewed in context. Firstly, in Lancastrian eyes, the two knights were enemies of the ‘rightful’ King of England, making them traitors. Secondly, they had forsaken their duty to ensure the King’s safety – a dereliction of duty which even the honourable Eddard Stark may well have passed sentence and swung the sword for! Finally, Margaret of Anjou had already determined that the two knights should die and she asked her seven-year old son to choose their method of execution. If Cersei Lannister presented kind-hearted Tommen with such an ultimatum, would he be able refuse? Furthermore, if Edward was truly as malicious as Joffrey, beheading seems a rather ‘merciful’ punishment for enemies of the crown.
Upon closer inspection, there are far more similarities between Edward and Rhaegar Targaryen than have previously been acknowledged. For example both were very talented warriors, with Rhaegar being knighted at age 17 and becoming a skilled and capable fighter (culminating in his victory at the Tourney at Harrenhal)2. Similarly, John Fortescue (the Chief Justice who encountered Edward and his mother in exile) described the Prince of Wales as having “[given] himself over entirely to martial exercises” and wrote of how he was able to command “fierce and half-tamed steeds” and how
“he often delighted in attacking and assaulting the young companions attending him, sometimes with a lance, sometimes with a sword, sometimes with other weapons, in a warlike manner and in accordance with the rules of military discipline”.
However, despite the prowess displayed by Edward and Rhaegar in military exercises and tournaments, both were killed in their first actual battle. Whereas Rhaegar was slain by his rival, Robert Baratheon, in single combat on the Trident while the battle raged around them, many scholars agree that Edward of Westminster was executed after his defeat at Tewkesbury. Paul Murray Kendall, a biographer of Richard III, claims that following the rout of the Lancastrian forces the Prince was found by a small contingent of men loyal to the Duke of Clarence who immediately beheaded him on a makeshift block3. However, three Tudor sources: Polydore Vergil, Edward Hall and The Grand Chronicle of London all provided an alternative version of events which was dramatized in Shakespeare’s Henry VI, Part III. In this interpretation, Edward survives the battle and is taken before the victorious Edward IV; Richard, Duke of Gloucester; George, Duke of Clarence and William, Lord Hastings and defiantly claims that he took up arms to “recover my father’s heritage” before being struck by the King and murdered by his attendants.
Also, the relative sizes and competencies of the two armies at Tewkesbury mirror those at the fictional Battle of the Trident. For example, like Rhaegar, Edward of Westminster led a larger ‘loyalist’ Lancastrian army (numbering 6,000 men4 against a more experienced and battle-hardened ‘rebel’ Yorkist force of 3,500 men under Edward IV56. However, in terms of sheer numbers and its location on the River Trident, the fictional engagement more closely resembles the Battle of Towton in March 1461 which resulted in an estimated 28,000 deaths, causing the nearby streams to run red with blood for several days afterwards.
Your brother Rhaegar was the last dragon, and he died on the Trident 7
The similarities between the two princes also extends to the impact of their deaths on the fortunes of their families and nations as a whole. For example, while Rhaegar is often described by other characters as ‘The Last Dragon’, with his death heralding the downfall of the Targaryen Royal Dynasty, Edward of Westminster was effectively the last hope for the Lancastrian cause in the Wars of the Roses. Indeed, in both cases the death of the Royal Heir was swiftly followed by the murder of their father, bringing about the end of their respective royal dynasties. However, whereas Aerys II was murdered by Jaime Lannister to prevent the destruction of King’s Landing, Henry VI was already imprisoned by the Yorkists and murdered two weeks after the Battle of Tewkesbury as the death of Edward robbed the House of Lancaster of a more formidable leader in the event of Henry’s death. As there was now no need to keep Henry alive, his enemies could safely dispose of him and extinguish the Lancastrian Royal Dynasty. Although Henry Tudor would ultimately emerge in 1485 as the saviour of the House of Lancaster (albeit as a VERY distant relation and in his own right as head of the House of Tudor) there was no indication in 1471 that he would seriously challenge the Yorkist grip on the throne. Parallels can therefore be seen between Daenerys Targaryen and Henry Tudor in the 1470s (although only George RR Martin knows whether she will win the Iron Throne!).
The decisive Yorkist victory at Tewkesbury ushered in a period of political stability under Edward IV until his untimely death at the age of 40 in 1483. Following his death, however, the House of York was torn apart by a succession crisis in which the late King’s younger brother contested the legitimacy of his nephews, Edward and Richard, denounced them as bastards and seized the crown for himself as Richard III. Sound familiar? Robert Baratheon’s fourteen-year reign following his victory at the Trident could easily be based on that of Edward IV and the succession crisis following his death in a hunting accident and the War of the Five Kings is a clear reimagining of the troubles that plagued England between 1483-85. However, that is another topic for another time.
It is clear that (as with many of George RR Martin’s creations) Rhaegar Targaryen is a composite of various historical figures. He has the chivalric reputation, military skill, popularity and (supposedly) black armour of the “Black Prince” combined with the scholarly achievements and musical talents of Prince Henry Stuart. However, when you look at his fate and the impact that it had on the war of the rebellion, his Royal House and Westeros as a whole, it is impossible to ignore the parallels with Edward of Westminster.
The featured image of Rhaegar Targaryeon and Lyanna Stark was created by M. Luisa Giliberti http://www.winterfell.altervista.org/, copyright 2005.
- John Harvey, The Black Prince and his Age, (London, 1976), p. 176. [↩]
- A Storm of Swords Chapter 42 (Dany) [↩]
- P. Murray Kendall, Richard the Third, (1956), pp. 118, 528-9. [↩]
- P. Warner, British Battlefields, The South, (1972), p. 96.) [↩]
- A Game of Thrones Chapter 36 (Dany) [↩]
- A. Weir, The Wars of the Roses, (1996), p. 406. [↩]
- A Game of Thrones Chapter 28 (Dany) [↩]