Prince Rhaegar Targaryen, the last Prince of Dragon stone, was the eldest son and heir to King Aerys II Targaryen, the Mad King. He was the older brother of Viserys and Daenerys Targaryen and the husband of Elia Martell, with whom he had two children: Rhaenys and Aegon Targaryen.
Secretly, however, Rhaegar annulled his marriage with Elia and married Lyanna Stark in Dorne. Rhaegar’s alleged “abduction” of Lyanna sparked Robert’s Rebellion as Lyanna was betrothed to Robert Baratheon. Robert killed Rhaegar at the climactic Battle of the Trident, bringing on the deposition of the Targaryen dynasty. Lyanna’s brother Eddard Stark found her soon afterward at the Tower of Joy in Dorne, where she was dying in childbirth. She had just given birth to her son with Rhaegar and begged her brother to keep her baby safe. To protect the child from Robert and others who sought the absolute destruction of House Targaryen, Eddard claimed his sister’s son as his own bastard child whom he had fathered during the war: Jon Snow.
Prince Rhaegar Targaryen was the eldest son and heir of King Aerys II Targaryen, by his sister-wife Queen Rhaella Targaryen. For three centuries, the Targaryens had continued to incestuously marry brother to sister to keep the bloodline pure in the tradition of their Valyrian ancestors. Over time, this massive inbreeding led to a strain of insanity appearing in the Targaryen bloodline – culminating in Rhaegar’s father, Aerys II, who is best remembered as the Mad King.
Aerys II’s reign began with great promise, but as the years passed, he slid deeper and deeper into insanity and paranoia. The shift was gradual and he frequently recovered: by the time it became severe, Prince Rhaegar already showed such great promise as the future heir to the throne that most were willing to endure with Aerys’s eccentricities, intending to wait out the remainder of his reign until Rhaegar succeeded him. Rhaegar was brave, kind, and wise and most looked forward to the golden era that would assuredly begin when he would ascend to the throne. Greatly troubled by Aerys II’s growing insanity, Rhaegar was torn between whether to act against him or not, but could not bring himself to turn against his own father. Like the rest of the realm, Rhaegar hoped to simply wait out the rest of his father’s reign, and that his bouts of insanity would remain manageable by his courtiers.
Rhaegar had good reason to think that the small council could keep the realm together despite his father’s madness, as it was very capably led by Tywin Lannister, who served as Aerys’s Hand for nearly twenty years. Tywin was not only able to keep Aerys from tearing the realm apart, but managed royal affairs so well that he brought two decades of peace and plenty for Westeros, to the point that most people throughout the realm were unaware of the king’s madness until the final years of his reign.
Because Aerys and Rhaella had produced no daughters for Rhaegar to wed, he had to look outside the family for a bride. Many assumed that in reward for Tywin’s long and distinguished service as Aerys’s chief advisor, the bond between the Targaryens and Lannisters would eventually be solidified with a marriage-alliance between Prince Rhaegar and Tywin’s daughter Cersei (particularly, Cersei herself, who for a time was quite infatuated with Rhaegar). Yet Aerys surprisingly spurned the match, saying that Tywin was still just a servant and shouldn’t try to elevate his family above its station, as such a match was beneath Rhaegar. It was later believed that Aerys did this in a fit of paranoia that Tywin was trying to usurp his throne. Despite everything Tywin had done for him in two decades of loyal service, Aerys had grown so resentful and fearful that many people throughout the realm whispered – accurately – that Tywin was the real power behind the throne by that point.
Alienating his longtime Hand, Aerys instead agreed to an arranged marriage between Rhaegar and Elia Martell, a princess from Dorne, daughter of the ruling Princess of Dorne(who was a distant cousin of the royal line through intermarriage a century before). Rhaegar and Elia’s marriage was happy according to all accounts. Oberyn Martell, Elia’s younger brother, said that his sister loved her husband. Rhaegar and Elia had two children: a daughter named Rhaenys, and then a son named Aegon.
A few years later, the Great Tourney at Harrenhal was held and all the prominent lords of Westeros assembled. During the feast, Rhaegar played a song on his harp so beautiful and sorrowful that it moved even the wild she-wolf Lyanna Stark to tears. The exact events that happened in private are unknown, but the public events at the tourney’s final joust are known to all: Rhaegar faced off against Ser Barristan Selmy in the final tilt, and won. Instead of then giving the victor’s wreath to his own wife Elia Martell, however, the entire crowd of hundreds of people fell silent as he rode past her and gave it to Lyanna Stark, to name her as the tournament’s Queen of Love and Beauty, an act that was doubly controversial as Lyanna was herself already betrothed to Robert Baratheon. At the same tourney, King Aerys announced that he was naming young Jaime Lannister to the Kings guard. While he was a very skilled swordsman, Aerys really appointed Jaime to the order to rob Tywin of his eldest son and heir (as the Kings guard forswear all right to inheritance), and treat him as a glorified political hostage at the royal court, should Tywin ever turn against him. Tywin was infuriated, as he had been grooming Jaime for years to succeed him as ruler of the Wester lands, and by law, Jaime’s removal meant that the first in line to inherit Casterly Rock would be Tywin’s hated dwarf son Tyrion. Tywin promptly resigned as Hand of the King, and withdrew from Kings Landing back to Casterly Rock.
About a year after the tourney, under as-yet unknown circumstances, Rhaegar allegedly abducted Lyanna Stark. Unknown to all, Lyanna had actually desired to leave with Rhaegar, and they ran off together to the Red Mountains of Dorne. They stayed at a relatively small castle Rhaegar named the Tower of Joy. Rhaegar arranged for the High Septon to grant him an annulment from his marriage to Elia Martell, then personally officiate his secret marriage to Lyanna the same day.
Lyanna’s eldest brother Brandon then rode to King’s Landing to demand the return of his sister and the death of Rhaegar, a rash thing to do according to others. King Aerys imprisoned him, and when their father Rickard went south to ransom his son, he was imprisoned as well. The Mad King then brutally executed both of them by burning Lord Rickard alive with wildfire in front of the Iron Throne and baiting Brandon into strangling himself to death in an effort to save his father. Afterwards, King Aerys demanded that Jon Arryn send him the heads of Eddard Stark and Robert Baratheon. Jon Arryn refused, and instead, raised his banners in revolt. Eddard Stark and Lyanna’s betrothed, Robert Baratheon, joined him to overthrow the Targaryen dynasty.
This war became known as Robert’s Rebellion, or the “War of the Usurper” to Targaryen loyalists. To the confusion of many, Rhaegar’s location remained unknown during most of the war, which lasted about a year: as Robert Baratheon’s rebel army fought its way up from Storm’s End through the Reach and the River lands, and then up to the Trident, Rhaegar was nowhere to be seen. For months, it seems he stayed in seclusion with Lyanna at the Tower of Joy in Dorne. During this early phase of the rebellion, Aerys II continued to think of Robert Baratheon as just an outlaw lord, but after he defeated all of the local royal armies thrown at him and crossed north of the Trident, Aerys finally realised that this was the worst revolt the Targaryens had faced in over a century.
Around the same time, Rhaegar suddenly returned to the royal court at King’s Landing to lead the crown’s armies. Both sides now mobilised the full might of their forces: Robert led his rebel army south (composed of Baratheon, Stark, Tully, and Arryn forces) while Rhaegar led the royal army north to meet him (composed of the Targaryen armies raised from the Crown lands, supplemented by another 10,000 from Dorne).
Accompanying Rhaegar were two of the Kings guard, Barristan Selmy and Lewyn Martell(uncle of Rhaegar’s wife Elia). On the way, Rhaegar privately confided to Barristan that after they won, there would be “many changes” at the royal court upon his return – alluding that he intended to depose his father for his crimes and instability, and try to restore peace with the Great Houses of the realm.
Rhaegar and Robert’s forces finally clashed at the climactic Battle of the Trident, at the crossing of the King sroad over the river (not far from the Inn at the Crossroads). Rhaegar’s army was fresh and slightly larger, but Robert’s was more battle-hardened, and they slowly gained ground. Rhaegar and Robert spotted each other across the battlefield and rode out to fight, resulting in an epic duel which raged for hours as the battle dragged on around them. Robert finally killed Rhaegar with a mighty blow from his war hammer, which caved in Rhaegar’s breastplate. His armour had been studded with red rubies, which were sent flying through the ford in the river – which ever since became known as the “Ruby Ford”. Their leader killed, the Targaryen army collapsed, and the rebels were victorious.
With Rhaegar’s death, the Targaryen cause was doomed: most of their supporters had been fighting for Rhaegar, not the Mad King, so after he died most either surrendered or switched sides (not to mention that the main Targaryen army had been destroyed at the Trident). The rebel army continued unopposed south to King’s Landing – but Tywin Lannister’s army arrived there first. Tywin had kept the Lannisters neutral throughout most of the war, and only made the calculated decision to side with the rebels after it became obvious they would win, to curry favour with Robert and his allies after the war ended. Tywin feigned that he had brought his army to help Aerys in his time of greatest need, but as soon as they were let inside the gates of King’s Landing, the Lannister army promptly began to brutally sack the entire city.
Rhaegar’s father the Mad King was himself killed by his own Kings guard, Tywin’s son Jaime Lannister (to stop him from enacting the Wildfire plot to burn down the city). Meanwhile, Lannister soldiers gained entry into the Red Keep: Ser Gregor Clegane, known as “the Mountain that Rides”, cornered Rhaegar’s wife Elia and her two small children in the royal apartments. Gregor killed Rhaenys and baby Aegon while their mother Elia watched helplessly, then raped Elia, before killing her too.
Shortly before the sack, Rhaegar’s heavily pregnant mother Queen Rhaella had been sent to safety on Dragon stone island, along with his younger brother Viserys. Not long after they arrived, however, Rhaella died giving birth to Rhaegar’s posthumous younger sister, Daenerys Targaryen. Viserys and his newborn sister then fled into exile in the Free Cities, across the Narrow Sea, before Robert’s soldiers could arrive on the island.
Lyanna Stark did not survive much longer than Rhaegar: after arriving at King’s Landing in the aftermath of the sack, her brother Eddard rode south with his companions searching for her, before finding her at the Tower of Joy in the western mountains of Dorne, protected by the last of the Targaryen Kings guard, the legendary Ser Arthur Dayne and Ser Gerold Hightower, who had secretly been ordered by Rhaegar himself to keep her (and her unborn child) safe. Eddard and his companions fought them in an epic confrontation, at the end of which all were dead except for himself and the wounded Howland Reed.
Eddard raced inside only to find that Lyanna was dying from childbirth, after having given birth to her son, Rhaegar’s last child and heir. With her last breath, Lyanna told Eddard of her secret marriage to Rhaegar, and that their son’s name was “Aegon Targaryen”. Lyanna made Eddard promise to keep him safe, because if Robert ever found out that Rhaegar had a surviving heir, he would kill him – not least of which because, as Rhaegar’s lawful son, he was the real legitimate heir to the Iron Throne, ahead of Rhaegar’s younger siblings. To protect his sister’s son, Eddard departed with Rhaegar and Lyanna’s newborn child and took him back to Winterfell. Eddard claims his nephew as his bastard son fathered on campaign to keep the child safe, names him ‘Jon Snow’ and raises him in Winterfell.
When King Robert Baratheon arrives at Winterfell, he immediately goes with Lord Eddard Stark to see Lyanna Stark’s grave in the crypts beneath the castle. Robert tells Eddard that he kills Rhaegar every night in his dreams. Eddard tries to assure Robert that he already killed Rhaegar, but Robert laments that he could only kill him once. Looking nervous, Eddard tells Robert that the Targaryens are dead now, but Robert points out not all of them are – implying he will keep hunting down the younger Targaryen children until their family is totally eradicated. Robert also mentions Rhaegar when arguing with Ned over the morality of having Daenerys assassinated. When Ned decries that killing a pregnant young girl would be a dishonourable crime, Robert angrily retorts that after what her brother Rhaegar did to Ned’s sister Lyanna, he of all people shouldn’t be defending them.
When Daenerys successfully consumes a stallion’s heart and the dosh khaleen declare her unborn son to be the Stallion Who Mounts the World, Daenerys declares that he will be named Rhaego in honour of her brother. When Jon Snow hears about his “father” Eddard Stark’s imprisonment and faces the conflict between love for his family and duty to the Night’s Watch, Maester Aemon recounts his own struggle with the same conflict. He reveals his identity, that he is Aemon Targaryen, and remembers when the gods tested him when his great-nephew Rhaegar and his children were killed, who unbeknownst to them both, were Jon’s blood father and half-siblings.
When Bran Stark shows Osha the tombs under Winterfell, he gives a quick summary of the events leading to the civil war: how Rhaegar kidnapped Lyanna, who was betrothed to Robert Baratheon, and the Mad King then killed Lyanna’s brother and father, triggering the war. Robert killed Rhaegar in battle, but Lyanna died anyway.
When Daenerys Targaryen considers the possibility of buying Unsullied to employ as her army in her quest to win the Iron Throne, Ser Barristan Selmy pleads with her not to do it. He recounts how, as a Kings guard, he knew Rhaegar and fought beside him at the Battle of the Trident. That day, men fought and died for Rhaegar because they believed in him and loved him. Ser Jorah Mormont counters that Rhaegar fought bravely and honourably, but perished nonetheless. Daenerys asks Barristan if he knew Rhaegar well: he responds that he did, and Rhaegar was the finest man he ever knew – the last dragon. Daenerys is saddened, as Rhaegar died before she was born, and says she wishes she had known him – but he was not the last dragon (she is).
While conversing with Tyrion Lannister shortly after his arrival to King’s Landing for the upcoming wedding of Joffrey Baratheon and Margaery Tyrell, Prince Oberyn Martell, Elia’s younger brother, shows his ire toward Rhaegar for leaving his sister (after she bore his children, and despite her love and loyalty to him) “for another woman” (Lyanna Stark).
On her way to her father’s funeral at the Great Sept of Baelor, Cersei recalls when she was a young teenager before Robert’s Rebellion, she visited a woods witch known as Maggy to predict her future. Young Cersei asks Maggy if she will marry the Prince as her father desired. Maggy answers that she will not, but she will marry the king. Around the same time, Daenerys visits her imprisoned dragons, calling Rhaegal, the dragon she had named after her brother, by name.
Barristan Selmy shares some of his memories of Rhaegar with Daenerys in Meereen. She is pleasantly surprised to discover that Rhaegar was more than the great killer that Viserys made him out to be. Selmy tells her how Rhaegar used to disguise himself as a minstrel and play on the streets of King’s Landing while Ser Barristan stood guard. Rhaegar made quite a tidy profit on these excursions, and although he once spent the money on getting himself and Selmy very, very drunk, he usually gave the money away to other minstrels or to orphanages. Barristan mentions that Rhaegar never liked killing but instead loved singing.
Around the same time, Petyr Baelish recounts the events of the Tourney at Harrenhal to Sansa Stark while visiting Lyanna’s tomb in the crypts below Winterfell. He was just a small boy in the entourage of the Tullys at the time, but he saw what the entire huge crowd did: after defeating Ser Barristan in the final tilt, Rhaegar rode past his wife Elia Martell and gave the victor’s crown of flowers to Lyanna Stark, naming her the tournament’s Queen of Love and Beauty. Baelish recalls how the entire crowd of hundreds of people fell silent at this shocking action. He then muses how Robert’s Rebellion broke out because both Robert and Rhaegar wanted Lyanna, and wonders how many people died because Rhaegar chose Lyanna that day. Sansa accuses that Rhaegar “chose” her aunt Lyanna, then kidnapped and raped her – to which Little finger silently gives a wry look, as if he doubts that, but doesn’t explain further.
Through a series of visions, Bran Stark, Lyanna’s nephew, witnesses the showdown that took place at the Tower of Joy, and learns that his “half-brother”, Jon Snow, is actually the son of Bran’s aunt Lyanna and Rhaegar Targaryen. Bran’s father, Eddard, claimed Jon as his bastard son in order to protect him from Robert, who would have surely killed him if he ever found out. Before his death at the climax of the showdown, Ser Arthur told Eddard that Rhaegar had ordered them to remain at the Tower of Joy, but he did not specify why.
When Randyll Tarly answers a summons to King’s Landing by Cersei Lannister, her brother Jaime Lannister reminds Randyll that he was the only man who defeated Robert Baratheon in battle, something Rhaegar ultimately failed to do at the cost of his own life.
Daenerys tells Jon that both Viserion and Rhaegal were named for her deceased brothers, neither of them yet aware that Rhaegar was secretly Jon’s biological father, or that this means Jon is really her nephew.
At the Citadel in Oldtown, Gilly is reading through the private diary of the High Septon during Robert’s Rebellion, and points out an entry to Samwell Tarly saying that the High Septon clandestinely gave Rhaegar an annulment from Elia Martell, then married him to someone else in a secret ceremony in Dorne. At the time, Samwell doesn’t know the significance of this discovery.
Samwell and Gilly subsequently leave Old town, and later arrive in Winterfell. Sam meets with Bran Stark, who informs Sam that he has learned from his visions that Jon isn’t really Eddard Stark’s son, but the son of Rhaegar Targaryen and Lyanna Stark. Bran thinks this means Jon’s name is not “Snow” but “Sand”, the special surname used for highborn bastards born in Dorne. Samwell replies that Sand is not Jon’s name and, realising the significance of the High Septon’s diary entry about Rhaegar’s secret second marriage, tells Bran that Rhaegar and Lyanna were married. He asks the skeptical Bran if he can use his powers to check what really happened. Using his Greensight, Bran looks back through time again to see the secret wedding of Rhaegar and Lyanna in front of a weirwood heart tree. With joy in her eyes, Lyanna lovingly kisses Rhaegar. Stunned, Bran explains to Sam that Robert’s Rebellion was built on a lie: Rhaegar didn’t kidnap and rape Lyanna, she loved him. Their secret marriage also means that Jon Snow is in fact Rhaegar’s lawful son, and the real rightful heir to the Iron Throne (ahead of Rhaegar’s younger sister Daenerys). Bran then finally recalls Jon’s birth name, which Lyanna whispers to Ned Stark with her dying breath: “Aegon Targaryen.”
On Bran Stark’s urging, Samwell Tarly informs Jon Snow, while in the crypts beneath Winterfell, that he isn’t the son of Ned Stark, but the son of Lyanna Stark and Rhaegar Targaryen, and that his true name is Aegon Targaryen. Jon reacts incredulously, doubting his father would lie to him all his life, but Sam says that Ned Stark lied to protect Jon from Robert Baratheon, who would’ve killed him if he had found out the truth. Sam tells Jon that he is the rightful heir to the Iron Throne as Aegon Targaryen, the Sixth of His Name, and not Daenerys.
Jon and Daenerys stand near the statue of Lyanna Stark in the Crypts of Winterfell where Jon reveals to Daenerys that he is in fact the son of Rhaegar and Lyanna Stark to which she states that Jon is the “last male heir” of House Targaryen.
After learning about Jon Snow’s true parentage from Tyrion Lannister, who learned about it from Sansa Stark, who in turn had learned about it from her brother Bran with Jon’s permission, Varys attempts to use Jon Snow’s parentage to support his claim to the Iron Throne after he begins to worry about Daenerys slipping into the Targaryen madness that her and Rhaegar’s father had descended into. However, the plot ultimately fails, and Varys is executed for treason.
In the aftermath of her razing of King’s Landing, Jon assassinates his aunt Daenerys to prevent her further “liberation” of the entire world. Rhaegar’s son, the last living member of House Targaryen, is ultimately banished to the Night’s Watchby the new King Bran to compromise between the Starks and the Unsullied. There, Jon leads the Free Folk beyond the Wall to retake their lands after the extinction of the White Walkers.
- Barristan Selmy: “Viserys never told you?”
- Daenerys Targaryen: “He told me Rhaegar was good at killing people.”
- Barristan Selmy: “Rhaegar never liked killing. He loved singing.”
- — Ser Barristan recounts his time with Rhaegar.
According to those who knew him, Rhaegar was a wise, kind, and well-educated man, greatly loved in the Seven Kingdoms before his alleged abduction of Lyanna Stark. He was everything that could be hoped for in a future king, and very popular with lords and commoners alike – in contrast to his increasingly erratic father. Aerys’s descent into insanity and paranoia greatly troubled Rhaegar, which resulted in Rhaegar frequently brooding on his inner turmoils. Rhaegar’s honor and intelligence made him very charismatic, earning him the genuine support of his followers. Neither Rhaegar’s allies nor his enemies could ever explain in later years why such a promising young prince would suddenly abduct Lyanna Stark, as it didn’t seem in his character.
Despite the superb skills he displayed while participating in the great Tourney at Harrenhal, Ser Barristan Selmy (whom Rhaegar had unhorsed in the final joust) described Rhaegar as a peaceful man who much preferred singing over fighting and killing. He was highly skilled at playing the harp as well, and would often go out into the streets of the capital city disguised as a common minstrel to play and sing for passers-by.
Rhaegar’s sorrow at the behaviour of his father (and his treatment of Queen Rhaella) gave him compassion for the suffering of others. When he went out to sing in Flea Bottom, he would usually give away any money he had earned from it – sometimes to the next minstrel on the street, or to an orphanage (one time he used it to get very drunk with Barristan, though that might also be an example of him treating his friends well).
After the Baratheons overthrew the Targaryens in Robert’s Rebellion, history became biased in favor of the victors: Rhaegar became remembered as a villain second only to his insane father the Mad King, and people believed Rhaegar brutally abducted and raped Lyanna Stark and left her for dead. Even the Martells, who weren’t sure what happened with Lyanna and didn’t specifically care, were still upset that in either scenario, Rhaegar left Elia for another woman and dishonoured Dorne. Had the Lannisters not butchered Elia Martell and her children by Rhaegar, the Martells might have kept that view, but the Lannisters’ needless brutality drove a wedge between Dorne and the new Lannister-funded Baratheon regime in King’s Landing. Targaryen loyalists, meanwhile – such as Rhaegar’s own younger brother Viserys, in exile – developed their own skewed remembrance of events, that Rhaegar was the perfect Crown Prince, a tragic figure, and Robert was the villain of their story, seizing the throne from the rightful rulers and murdering the true heir.
Ultimately, Rhaegar still remains a controversial and perplexing figure as his star-crossed romance with Lyanna Stark inadvertently led to his insane father sparking a war with half of the Seven Kingdoms. Thousands died due to Rhaegar’s actions (or inaction), ending in his death, the overthrow and exile of what was left of his family, and (indirectly) resulted in the murder of Elia and their two children together. What could possibly have motivated Rhaegar to not only elope with Lyanna, but fight a war to keep their marriage a secret, remains unknown. Rhaegar valued his forthcoming child with Lyanna so much that he even left champions of his Kings guard behind in Dorne to defend her – living legends who could have tipped the balance if they had fought by his side at the Battle of the Trident.
- See main article “Rhaegar Targaryen and Lyanna Stark”