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Ask the Maester: The History and Destruction of King’s Landing

The largest city in Westeros has been razed, and thousands have died with it. Is Daenerys more like Maegor the Cruel than Aerys the Mad King?

HBO/Ringer illustration

A wise lawyer once said, “You either die a hero, or live long enough to see yourself become the villain.” Daenerys Targaryen has lived quite a life. After a series of setbacks, disappointments, and personal tragedies, Dany, with some foreshadowing but very little in the way of actual setup and character development, has become the Mad Queen. The same woman who defended the Lhazareen, ordered her Unsullied not to harm women and children, and chained her own dragons when they killed a young girl, destroyed King’s Landing after the city surrendered. It is one of the most violent scenes in Game of Thrones history. Which, it needs not be said, but I’m going to say it anyway, is quite a feat. Harvey Dent, you were right.

Now on to your questions.

Joshua asks: “What’s the layout/geography of King’s Landing? I felt the director did a good job of keeping us oriented, but other than the Red Keep can you tell/show us where the Sept and Dragonpit were? Also, what’s the history of the building of the city?”

When Aegon Targaryen and his sister-wives Visenya and Rhaenys, their dragons, and a small force of fighting men made landfall on the northern bank of the Blackwater Rush near a small fishing village, there was no way to know that a great capital city would one day stand there. The three hills that rose above the place were dotted with the ruins of fortifications built by numerous kingdoms, but the area, despite being at the center of a dispute between Storm’s End and King Harren the Black, was undefended.

Aegon had a log-and-dirt fort built on the tallest of the three hills, now known as Aegon’s High Hill. The Aegonfort became the first symbol of Aegon’s power on the continent, the seat of his government. It was there that the Conqueror received the submissions of the first lords whom his forces had defeated. They knelt and laid their swords at Aegon’s feet. Aegon allowed these lords to keep their castles and their titles. His power grew.

Two years after his invasion, Aegon, now King of Westeros, had largely succeeded. King Argilac the Arrogant of the Stormlands was defeated in single combat by Orys Baratheon, who was believed to be Aegon’s bastard brother and became the founder of House Baratheon. King Harren the Black of the Iron Islands and the Riverlands and King Mern of the Reach had their lines ended at the Field of Fire. House Greyjoy, House Tully, and House Tyrell, respectively, were raised in their places. King Loren Lannister survived the Field of Fire and submitted to Targaryen rule. Queen Regent Sharra Arryn of the Vale peacefully surrendered to Visenya Targaryen. And King Torrhen Stark, seeing the power of the Targaryen dragons, knelt rather than lead his army to their doom. Only the Prince of Dorne remained unbowed, unbent, and unbroken.

But power, as Varys once told us, is a trick, a shadow on a wall that resides where men believe it resides. A great king requires symbols that embody his greatness. Many expected Aegon to relocate to a grand and history-laden location like Oldtown or Dragonstone, so rich in Targaryen lore, where the King spent roughly half the year, and establish a capital. Instead, Aegon proclaimed that King’s Landing would be his seat of power.

The city, as it exists at the time of the show, is (was) a sprawling metropolis of over 1 million people. King’s Landing grew organically, with little to no central planning, over a short time. The city is a maze of side streets and unmarked alleys, bisected by a handful of major thoroughfares. Some notable landmarks include:

  • The Great Sept of Baelor. Located on Visenya’s Hill, the Sept was once the focus of religious worship in the city and the site of Ned Stark’s execution. Cersei Lannister blew it up using wildfire at the end of Season 6.
  • The Street of Steel. This road, which begins at Fishmonger’s Square just inside the Mud Gate, is the go-to location for purchasing armor and weaponry. Gendry worked at a shop here.
  • Flea Bottom. A notorious slum, the area is notorious for criminality and its ubiquitous “bowl of brown,” a trademark stew containing meat of unknown origin. Ser Davos Seaworth grew up here.
  • The Dragonpit. Once, this great domed structure was the stable for House Targaryen’s dragons. The building has fallen into ruin. It was the site of the Bad Plan summit meeting at which Dany and Jon presented Cersei with a wight.

By 25 A.C., the Aegonfort had been renovated numerous times and took up most of the hilltop. And King’s Landing, once a humble riverside village, had grown to become the third-largest city in Westeros and an important destination for trade. King’s Landing’s iconic defensive walls were completed by 26 A.C. On Aegon’s orders, the walls were built as tall and thick and strong as those that safeguarded Oldtown and Lannisport. Seven gates—a number picked for its importance to the Faith of the Seven—guarded by towers and gatehouses allowed access to the city. Moving clockwise around the walls of King’s Landing, the first gate is the River Gate, or Mud Gate. Here, Tyrion Lannister led the defense of the city during the Battle of the Blackwater. Then comes the King’s Gate, which leads to the tournament grounds where Sansa witnessed the Mountain kill Ser Hugh of the Vale. The Lion Gate leads to the Goldroad, which Jaime used to transport the Reach’s wealth to the capital. The Gate of the Gods empties out onto the Kingsroad; in the books, Tywin Lannister’s corpse is transported back to Casterly Rock via the Gate of the Gods rather than, as Jaime wished, the Lion Gate. Not much can be said about the Old Gate, except the neighborhoods near it saw the City Watch quell rioters during the Dance of Dragons. The Dragon Gate is the site of one of City Watch’s three barracks houses. Finally, the Iron Gate in the northeast wall leads to the Rosby Road.

By 35 A.C., it was clear that the Aegonfort had outlived its usefulness. Aegon ordered that the sprawling log fort be dismantled so a proper castle, fit for a king, could be raised in its place. The royal court was moved to Dragonstone, and construction began. Two years later, Aegon died, and his son, Aenys—yes, Aenys—became king. “My descendants shall rule from here for a thousand years,” he said. Not quite. Aenys died, likely of stress-related illness and maybe a little bit of poisoning, in 42 A.C., and his brother Maegor seized the moment.

Maegor Targaryen, known as Maegor the Cruel, put his personal stamp on the Red Keep. At the time, the realm was wracked by the Faith Militant Uprising, the conflict between religious extremists and House Targaryen, whose incestuous traditions they considered abhorrent. With the security of the royal family threatened, Maegor went above and beyond the plans put in place by his father and brother. New builders were brought in, and secret passages were installed. A fortress within the castle—known as Maegor’s Holdfast—was constructed to house the royal apartments. The holdfast is a square-shaped keep surrounded by a wide dry-moat filled with metal spikes and high walls 12 feet thick. A drawbridge spanning the moat is the only way in or out of the fortress, and at least one member of the Kingsguard is always stationed there. Finally, once the Red Keep was completed, Maegor invited the builders to a massive celebration feast and there had them slaughtered to keep the secrets of the Red Keep safe.

Since Daenerys’s attack on the city, much of the above has been destroyed.

Kate asks: “Daenerys Targaryen, the woman who chained her children in the catacombs when they harmed innocents, the woman who sought justice for murdered slave children, the woman who risked everything to march her armies north because she believed in LIFE, just sacked a city filled with innocent people that CERSEI planted there AFTER they surrendered. The showrunners have made her out to seem evil when every other main character has done something horrific as well.”

Zack asks: “Where does Dany’s sack of King’s Landing rank in the crimes of war power rankings? ... Like, top five? Maybe?”

It would be impossible and in intensely poor taste to rank Game of Thrones war crimes. That said, Drogon’s flames and the destruction wrought by Dany’s armies—which included Jon’s Northern forces, the armies of the Vale, the Unsullied, and the Dothraki—likely killed untold numbers of people. Tens of thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands. That is, even by the standards of the brutal world of Game of Thrones, staggering and historically significant. The largest city in Westeros by population has just been destroyed.

Still, you raise an important point. Armies in Westeros (and elsewhere in the known world) are, by and large, armed gangs. The foot soldiers are often largely made up of peasants, gang-pressed by their lords into service for little to no pay and sent to die many miles from home. The liberty to sack a city or a village is essentially how these armies are paid. In this preindustrial society, commoners produced the food, textiles, and other items necessary for war, in addition to providing the levies that made up the infantry. Therefore, attacks on civilians were, by and large, considered fair game. In this world, war crimes—murder of civilians, the burning of villages, mass theft, rape—are endemic and acknowledged, occasionally with regret, as the cost of battle. The difference with Dany—aside from the massive scale of the dragon-fueled destruction—is that the carnage happened on camera, unlike events from the history of Westeros or those that happened largely out of our sight.

For instance, Tywin Lannister infamously allowed his troops to sack King’s Landing at the end of Robert’s Rebellion. In the books, Jorah, in the speech that includes the famous “there is a savage beast in every man” line, tells Dany:

Babes were butchered that day as well, and old men, and children at play. More women were raped than you can count.

But we should not limit these acts to characters we consider “villains.”

Robb Stark was a brilliant and honorable battle commander. Yet in the books, after his victory at the Battle of Oxcross in the Westerlands, he ordered his troops to pay “the Lannisters back in kind for the devastation they’d inflicted on the Riverlands.” This is Robb’s answer to Ser Gregor the Mountain Clegane’s activities, which included the murder and torture of civilians and the burning of villages and fields. And, in the show, it is the forces of Roose Bolton, Robb’s bannerman at the time, who nearly rape Brienne.

This is in no way an excuse for Dany’s actions. The mass murder and abuse of civilians, which she sparked by ordering Drogon to engage after the city bells had been rung, was horrendous. However, we must also acknowledge that warfare in the world of Game of Thrones leaves no one’s hands clean, even our most heroic characters. As the Hound said to Sansa in Season 2, “Stannis is a killer. The Lannisters are killers. Your father was a killer. Your brother is a killer. Your sons will be killers someday. The world is built by killers. So you’d better get used to looking at them.”

John asks, “Is Dany more like Maegor rather than her father?”

Before the attack on King’s Landing, Dany had never before wantonly attacked noncombatants or sought cruelty for cruelty’s sake.

Maegor, meanwhile, was called “The Cruel” for good reason. As mentioned above, he had all the tradesmen who worked on the Red Keep executed. After a campaign against the Poor Fellows, he returned to King’s Landing towing 2,000 skulls, many of which were believed to have belonged to smallfolk. He had his nephew Prince Viserys tortured to death.

None of these actions are similar to those that Daenerys has carried out, even after her destruction of King’s Landing.

Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.