Many fans see George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire as a saga about Daenerys Targaryen’s return to her homeland (assuming she actually gets there). Long before Daenerys, the Targaryens ruled for centuries. Here’s the story of how Dany’s ancestors conquered the world of Game of Thrones.
The Targaryen family hails from a region of the world to the far East of Westeros. They were one among many noble houses that played a part in ruling it: the vast empire of the Valyrian Freehold.
Hundreds of years before the events of the Song of Ice and Fire series, Westeros and Essos was a place of magic and mythical creatures, and Valyria was no exception: not only were the ruling houses ardent practitioners of magic—Valyria’s shining cities were built and maintained using magical powers—but also breeders of dragons, fearsome, fire-breathing creatures that Valyrians trained and rode into battle.
Using the might of their magic and their dragon riders, Valyria expanded from a single city-state to a powerful empire, that spread across the eastern continent of Essos and ruled for thousands of years. This was seen as the peak of civilization in the known world: champions of culture and art, as well as in military tactics and weapons production (You frequently hear characters in Game of Thrones refer to Valyrian Steel, an incredibly potent metal, imbued with magic, that only exists in a handful of swords by the time of the TV show).
House Targaryen was a minor ruling family in the Empire, but that smaller size ensured its survival when the Valyrian Empire came crumbling down. After his daughter had a prophetic vision of the Empire’s destruction, Aenar Targaryen took his family and their five dragons to the furthest reaches of the Valyrian Empire—a small island off the coast of Westeros called Dragonstone—to try and keep them safe. It was a decision that proved fateful: 12 years later, the magic-infused ring of Volcanoes that Valyria had built its capital city on exploded in a cataclysmic storm of destruction. The city of Valyria was eradicated, as was much of the land it was built on, and millions of Valyrians died in a night of storms and fire. The few that survived what would eventually be known as “The Doom” were brought down by the nations that the Empire had enslaved, which saw the loss of Valyria as an opportunity to free themselves.
The Targaryens remained untouched and safe on Dragonstone, believing themselves and their dragons to be the sole survivors of the once-mighty Valyrian Empire.
After the loss of their homeland, the Targaryens spent just over a hundred years on Dragonstone, unsure of what to do to survive. They attempted to form new alliances with Eastern kingdoms like Volantis—which had spent the years after the doom trying to take over the regions of land formerly held by the Valyrians. (Those regions had become known as the nine free cities of Essos.) But in the end, the Targaryens chose to remain isolated. Almost all of their dragons died, leaving only one original, along with two hatched on Dragonstone. House Targaryen was seemingly content to live out the rest of its existence as the rulers of Dragonstone and nothing more...
Aegon the Conqueror upon Balerion, the Black Dread. Art by Jordi González Escamilla for A World of Ice and Fire.
Until Aegon Targaryen was born. Brash and young, Aegon developed a taste for battle (and aspirations far beyond Dragonstone) early in life, after he helped defeat another attempt by Volantis to take over the free cities. So he set his eyes on Westeros. By the time Aegon was born, the region was used to invasion—while Valyria flourished and fell, Westeros was invaded and populated by the First Men, and then invaded and populated again, by the Andals. Seven Kingdoms had formed under seven noble houses, each ruling its own region (and occasionally warring with each other over boundaries and land).
Aegon saw an opportunity to re-establish Valyria as a ruling power once more, especially after he had a dispute with the Durrandon family (the House that ruled the Stormlands before the Baratheons), which had been on Aegon’s side in the battle against Volantis. So Aegon took his sister-wives and dragons to the shore of Westeros. He crowned himself king in the city of Oldtown, and sent a message to each ruler of the seven kingdoms: submit to him, or burn.
Some submitted, some didn’t—but just two years later, all but Dorne had come under Aegon’s rule. Establishing the site of his first conquests as the new capital city, King’s Landing, and making Dragonstone a secondary ruling seat for his heir, Aegon began an era of Targaryen rule that lasted for 300 years.
Aegon’s initial invasion was not as easily achieved as the relatively short war of conquest might make it seem. Although the Targaryens ostensibly converted to the Andal religion of the Faith, they still practiced the Valyrian tradition of incestuous marriage, which they believed would keep the last blood of Valyria pure.
After 37 years of rule, Aegon died and was succeeded by his son/nephew Aenys I. This led to a revolt by the Church and the peasantry of Westeros, which formed the Faith Militant, a militaristic and zealous arm of the Faith. Aenys died of illness before for the Faith Militant could be quelled—leaving Aenys’ half-brother Maegor to rule Westeros and quell the rebellion (something he did so savagely it earned him the name “Maegor the Cruel”).
Maegor’s reign eventually ended in his mysterious death little more than a decade later, and he was replaced by his own half-nephew (and Aenys’ son), Jaehaerys, who lead a 55 year-long reign so peaceful—he disbanded the Faith Militant, rather than crushing them as Maegor had intended—he was dubbed the Conciliator, marked by his ability to negotiate peace between squabbling lords and even the still-hostile Dorne.
But in the wake of Jaehaerys’ death, House Targaryen was flung into a war that would ultimately lead to its downfall—not at the hands of any of its enemies, at its own instigation. Jaeherys was succeeded by his grandson, Viserys I, who was chosen to rule by council after Jaeherys’ own son and heir had died during his rule. Viserys himself was seen as a wise ruler, but the selection of his heir caused great tumult within the Targaryen family: He wanted his daughter, Rhaenyra, to rule after his death. Although House Targaryen did not have a strict line of succession (such as the English Monarchy in our own world, who up until recently placed sons over daughters in terms of lineage), Viserys I’s choice to pass on his crown to his daughter did not sit well.
Viserys’ Commander of the Kingsguard defied his king, to crown Viserys’ son, Aegon II, as Viserys’ successor. When Rhaenyra challenged Aegon’s rule, the Targaryen family was split into a bloody, violent civil war that would become known as the Dance of the Dragons.
Like the first Aegon’s war of conquest, the Dance was short but hugely impactful on the future of Westeros. Many members of House Targaryen perished in the two year war, including Aegon II and Rhaenyra, as did the vast majority of their dragons—the final Targaryen dragon died during Aegon III’s rule, after the end of the Dance, marking the complete extinction of the species (until Daenerys hatched her own). Diminished in number and without Dragons to enforce its rule, House Targaryen’s grip on the Seven Kingdoms began to decline, just 130 years after Aegon the Conqueror had first landed in Westeros.
The latter half of the Targaryens’ rule over Westeros was marked by almost constant infighting and rebellion. Aegon the III’s son, Daeron, attempted an invasion of Dorne, which had resisted Targaryen rule since the House first came to Westeros—and was briefly successful, only to be slaughtered in an uprising. (Daeron’s grandson, also named Daeron—the Targaryens were big fans of that—would eventually integrate Dorne into the Seven Kingdoms peacefully, through marriage.)
Aegon IV, Aegon III’s own grandson, sired many children both legitimately and illegitimately, and then legitimized all his offspring shortly before his death, sprouting a bastard House dubbed House Blackfyre. The Blackfyres, first led by Daemon Blackfyre, rebelled openly three times—first against Daeron II, and then against Maekar I and Aegon V—before being ultimately defeated. Although the Blackfyres failed to establish one of their own on the Iron Throne, their ongoing rebellions weakened House Targaryen even further, with a rapid succession of Kings threatening to destabilize Westeros.
Eventually Aerys II came to the throne, and the first half of his 20 year reign was marked with a sense of stability and promise the Targaryens hadn’t seen for decades. But then, Aerys steadily fell into a madness (sparked by his abduction at the hands of the revolting House Darklyn, and the failure of his Hand of the King, Tywin Lannister, to free him quickly enough—although Tywin besieged the Darklyn’s seat for six months.) He came to distrust his court, Tywin in particular—their childhood friendship had long since soured as Aerys sank further into paranoia—and he became fascinated with trying to bring back dragons from extinction, thinking himself the greatest Targaryen king since Aegon the Conqueror.
After deeply offending Tywin by claiming the Lord’s eldest son Jaime for his Kingsguard, Tywin resigned as Hand and left the capital. Shortly after, Aerys incited open rebellion with the public executions of Brandon and Rickard Stark. Aerys burned the two men alive after his son, Rhaegar, fell in love with Brandon’s sister Lyanna, who was betrothed to Robert Baratheon, and ran off with her. When Brandon rode to Kings Landing to confront Rhaegar about his kidnapping of Lyanna, Aerys simply imprisoned Brandon, summoned Rickard to Kings Landing, and then publicly executed them both.
In outrage, Robert, Lyanna’s betrothed, and Rickard’s son Eddard joined House Arryn in rebellion—and Robert proceeded to prove himself a capable warrior, sweeping across Westeros and recruiting allies wherever he went.
In the end, 283 years after Aegon the Conqueror landed in Westeros, the rule of House Targaryen died in flame. As the maddened Aerys laid plans to burn King’s Landing to the ground to avoid Robert besieging the city, Jamie Lannister betrayed him, running his sword through the King’s back. Jamie’s father Tywin assaulted Kings Landing, sacking the city and leading to the death of Aerys’ children and grandchildren... seemingly all but two.
At Dragonstone, besieged by Robert’s brother Stannis Baratheon, Rhaella Targaryen died giving birth to her daughter, Daenerys, who was spirited away to Essos with her brother, Viserys III. Nearly 300 years on unbroken Targaryen rule had come to an end, seemingly for good—something that may change by the time the events of Game of Thrones and A Song of Ice and Fire come to their conclusion.