When people talk about Game of Thrones, they often leave off the “s” in thrones. They think only of the Iron Throne in King’s Landing, the King of the Andals, Rhoynar, and First Men, Lord of the Seven Kingdoms, and Protector of the Realm. There is more than one throne in their world and more than one monarch though. The main conflict of the first few seasons is named the “War of the Five Kings” with Joffrey Baratheon, Stannis Baratheon, Renly Baratheon, Balon Greyjoy, and Robb Stark all declaring themselves kings separately. Across the Narrow Sea, Daenerys Targaryen declares herself Queen of Meereen (and Westeros). Tommen Baratheon also sits the Iron Throne and his mother Cersei Lannister after his death. Euron Greyjoy sits the Salt Throne after his brother Balon. Viserys Targaryen is the Beggar King, and there’s Mance Rayder the King beyond the Wall. And who could forget Jon Snow, King in the North. Quite a lot of choices; so, who is the best of the bunch?
One difficulty in evaluating monarchs is your own beliefs and politics. Some prefer the strict adherence to law of Stannis Baratheon, while others like the mercy Dany shows the downtrodden of Essos, and so on. What I want to see in a ruler may not be what you want, and vice versa. Instead I’ll try to stay relatively objective about their performances and rate them on how well they thought ahead, the outcomes of those plans, the extent that they achieved their goals, the condition of their subjects, and the devotion they inspire.
First up, he’s not the actual worst monarch, and due to unforeseen circumstances his reign was cut quite short.
Renly Baratheon: Incomplete
Renly barely got started; he was crowned king by the Tyrells by agreeing to marry Margaery, and was dead the night before his first battle. In some ways he was very successful; Renly found very powerful allies, had a popular cause, inspired loyalty in the Stormlanders versus Joffrey or Stannis, and had all the food and men to make him the dominant military force in the Seven Kingdoms.
And then his brother Stannis piloted a shadow baby and killed Renly. Renly’s plan of “amass resources and let the other armies bleed each other” is a solid strategy when you have the largest army. But again, he died so quickly after being crowned that I can’t give him a grade.
Viserys Targaryen: F
This one is a bit of a stretch- he was an heir to the Iron Throne (mostly because people don’t know about AeJon Targaryen) and called the “Beggar King”. Viserys had only one subject if you can call her that, his little sister Daenerys. He mistreated her, beat her, and sold her off to Khal Drogo to try and buy the Dothraki khalasar. Everything about this plan is awful. He doesn’t speak the language, doesn’t know anything about the horselords or Khal Drogo, has no way of enforcing the bargain, and has no control of the situation. Remarkably everyone around him was better off after Viserys died and he failed at his idiotic plan. The Beggar King died begging for his life.
Joffrey Baratheon: F
Joffrey, at his core, wanted to be a better and more respected king than his “father” Robert. For some reason he interpreted this as being the biggest dickbag he could possibly to be to as many people as possible. And also to be known as a great warrior like Robert with his famous warhammer. Unfortunately, Joffrey succeeded at neither and is almost certainly the worst king to ever sit the Iron Throne. He was despised by his subjects, his servants, even his own family. Joffrey delighted in cruelty and murder for fun, including the murder of beloved courtesan Ros. He ran from the one battle he was anywhere close to, at the Blackwater. He had no operational control over the war against the Starks and the Baratheon brothers and was frequently overruled by his mother, grandfather, and uncle. His subjects were worse off for his rule as it was Joffrey that ordered the beheading of Ned Stark that kicked off a civil war that devastated Westeros. As he drew his last breath, the rest of Westeros breathed a sigh of relief.
Robert Baratheon: D+
While the lords that supported him wanted the Mad King off the Iron Throne, Robert wanted his bride-to-be Lyanna back. He was wildly successful in his rebellion, actually deposing the Targaryens. Robert lacked any sort of plan or long-term goals for his rule unfortunately. People were more or less fine, but it had very little to do with Robert himself. Tywin Lannister kept the peace for the most part along with Ned Stark and Jon Arryn, and Robert was allowed to be a drunken womanizer who did little in his reign. He fathered bastards up and down the realm and mistreated his own family. At one point, he comments to Ned that he would rather abdicate his throne and travel Essos as a sellsword, just to feel the rush of battle again. Robert was a neglectful king whose realm puttered along as more interested lords kept it together for him. His disinterest created opportunity for people like Littlefinger and Varys who pushed the realm towards a war of their own designs. Had he not married Cersei Lannister, it’s likely he would’ve been overthrown by resurgent Targaryen loyalists without the protection of Casterly Rock.
Balon Greyjoy: D-
Balon famously tried taking his own crown, paying the Iron Price for it by declaring the Iron Islands free of Robert’s control. And then the united armies of Westeros stormed Pyke, killed almost all his sons, took his youngest son Theon hostage, and left the “Lord Reaper of Pyke” sitting on his rocks powerless. He tried during the War of the Five Kings to take advantage of Robb Stark marching the best warriors out of the North by taking the Neck and North behind the campaigning Northern army. And for a short time it worked: the Ironborn seized Moat Cailin and Winterfell, along with several smaller castles. Unfortunately these conquests were short-lived and Balon lost almost all of this territory when the Boltons seized the North. Theon was captured by Ramsay and “removed” from the line of succession via torture. The Ironborn were no better off, and then Balon was assassinated by his brother Euron.
Balon briefly had a reasonably sound strategy yet the backlash has been traumatic. And as with Viserys and Joffrey, Balon’s former subjects were better off as he fell to his death.
Tommen Baratheon: D
Given Tommen’s age, it is difficult holding him against the standard of the other kings and queens of the story. He claimed the throne at a very, very young age and shortly after lost his primary supporter and adviser in his grandfather Tywin. Had he not been killed, it’s likely that Tywin could’ve held the realm together similarly as he did for Robert. Tommen did not and his performance as a monarch suffered.
At first he was doing okay, set to marry his late brother’s wife Margaery and solidify the relationship between the Tyrells and Lannisters. The fight for his affections between Cersei and Margaery spiraled out of his ability to control, and Cersei armed the Faith Militant. Tommen did not free Margaery nor diffuse the situation. Eventually he fell in with the Faith Militant and High Sparrow, allowing them to arrest Cersei after releasing his queen. And of course the eventual explosion at the Sept of Baelor that killed them all leads to Tommen’s suicide.
His inability to wield his own power and control the actions of his family made King’s Landing a battlefield. His arming of the Faith Militant led the persecution, capture, and torture of many of King’s Landing citizens. Tommen had good intentions, and he was extremely young; even with context, he performed poorly as king of Westeros.
Cersei Lannister: C-
For the purposes of this, I’m going to ignore the heinous way Cersei seized the Iron Throne. Instead, we’ll look at what she did since becoming Queen of the Seven Kingdoms. First, she put down the Faith Militant (ending the problem she helped create) through vigorous use of Ser Gregor Clegane. Unfortunately she replaces the Faith Militant’s violent purging with a political purging as she sends her men out to kill and capture dissenters. In addition, as a result of the killing of the Tyrell family, she loses the support of the most powerful family in the Seven Kingdoms to the newly arrived Daenerys Targaryen. Also Cersei’s decision to withhold the Iron Throne’s support from the incoming White Walker invasion has the potential of dooming the entire planet to death and a neverending Winter.
In spite of herself, Cersei makes key alliances with Euron Greyjoy, the Tarlys, and the Iron Bank and manages a stalemate with Daenerys, her dragons and allies against all odds. Cersei is a cruel tyrant but an effective one so far. On the downside she killed many of her own subjects through war and murder. Her plan of fighting Daenerys worked against all odds not through strategic thinking but largely through Dany not having the stomach to burn King’s Landing down around Cersei.
Euron Greyjoy: C
Euron has been a surprisingly effective King of the Iron Islands so far. He declared he wanted his people to build a huge armada of ships, and despite being on what looks like a treeless island, they delivered! He made a successful alliance with Queen Cersei, he captured his political rival in his niece Yara, smashed her loyal fleet, and against all odds survived a war against a Targaryen with dragons so far.
As is the case with Cersei, he is extremely brutal and because of his murderous desires towards his niece and nephew, he has split the Ironborn into a bloody civil war. Euron continues achieving his objectives; only his marriage with Cersei is still unaccomplished from his stated goals. Outside the civil war it’s unknown how the Iron Islands are faring during all of this.
Jon Snow: C+
Controversial entry for the King in the North, I know I know. Jon has made some serious decision-making and tactical errors as his time since becoming king. King Jon has a bad streak in politics. The Northern Lords only rally around him after a rousing speech by Lyanna Mormont when Jon’s own speech falls flat. He also regularly ignores the advice of his advisors, particularly Sansa, in surprise declarations at court. On his own devices Jon would likely not be King nor still have the support of the lords.
And then there was the wight hunt strategy which proved dangerous and his whole party nearly died. It’s only out of affection, which Jon could not have counted on, that Dany would fly her dragons up at a warp speed and save them. Also in this mission Thoros of Myr, only one of two followers of R’hllor that displays they can raise the dead, dies following a wight bear attack. Then, of course, the death of Viserion will prove devastating. The Night King knocks down the Wall with Viserion and now the North will be overrun by the unchecked hordes of the dead.
Jon does have some successes as ruler. He has forged an alliance with the most powerful ruler in Westeros at the moment in Daenerys Targaryen- and a romantic relationship. All of his other mistakes pale in winning the loyalty and affection of the dragon queen and her forces, particularly the two dragons. And although the wight hunt was incredibly stupid, it convinced many in Westeros (particularly Jaime Lannister) of the true threat coming from beyond the Wall. Overall, he hits the major objectives in a big way at huge costs and is bailed out from his ill-advised plans by the women around him. Ideally he should not need saving from his own plans.
Stannis Baratheon: B-
This one pains me as a definitive Stannis disliker. King Stannis had well-organized, thought-out, and executed plans that fell through for reasons beyond his control. While I personally find his murder of his brother via sorcery repugnant, it was the quickest and most efficient way of acquiring the majority of Renly’s army. Stannis’ following attack on King’s Landing was within minutes of succeeding except for a surprise charge from the Tyrell and Lannister forces from the North. And even that was not Stannis’ fault- Edmure Tully had blocked Tywin from crossing into the Westerlands and gave the Lannisters just enough time that they could race back and smash the Baratheon forces on the walls of King’s Landing. He saves the Night’s Watch from Mance Rayder’s attack. His surprise attack saves the Watch from certain doom and allows for an eventual uneasy peace.
King Stannis has his major faults as well. His reliance on Melisandre and her powers led him down dark and self-destructive paths. Her vision convinced him of an ill advised march on Winterfell, and then during that brutal march through blizzards he burned his daughter Shireen for better weather. He lost many of his soldiers in the night who couldn’t serve a man who kills his daughter. Stannis converting to the Lord of Light drove away potential allies who would not fight for an unknown god. Overall, up until the Winterfell plan, Stannis had sharp ideas, well-thought-out strategies, and executions foiled by chance. He does get dinged though for the near-total destruction of two separate armies, a fleet, and no real improvement in life for his subjects.
Robb Stark: B
Robb is the kind of king that, had his dinner plans at Chez Frey gone better, would’ve been remembered for generations. The Young Wolf sweeping out of the North, winning every battle, riding a direwolf and cutting down men like wheat. The truth is a bit less impressive. Robb did amazingly well in battle, never losing a battle he commanded. He had the devotion of his soldiers and most of the North. His plans were surprising and effective. Despite all that, Robb failed in two specific ways.
First was politics. After he was crowned King in the North, Robb needed more allies. His first instinct was sending Theon Greyjoy back to the Iron Islands as his envoy, which blew up in his face as Theon turned his cloak and sacked Winterfell. Another option was making common cause with Stannis Baratheon or Renly Baratheon. They both demanded that Robb give up his crown in order to join as allies which Robb was unwilling to do. Had Robb accepted being Warden in the North again, his army with Stannis or Renly would’ve smashed Tywin even if he lost some popular support among the Northerners. It’s these decisions that isolated Robb and gave Tywin the window he needed.
Second was Robb breaking his promise with Walder Frey and marrying for love. This broken promise leads directly into the Red Wedding and the end of King Robb. A huge swath of the Northern army was slaughtered, many heirs and lords of the North killed or captured, and Robb himself killed with his mother, his wife Talisa, and their unborn child. In the end, he was an incredibly smart and talented battle commander whose pride and young heart got the better of him. The North suffered dearly for Robb’s failure.
Mance Rayder: A
Mance Rayder, the King Beyond the Wall, did amazing and impossible things in his lifetime. The wildlings were fractured into a thousand different tribes that all hated each other and fought constantly. They had no shared identity or purpose, and Mance gave them that. With his skills and knowledge of the return of the White Walkers, Mance improbably brought the clans and giants together under his leadership. And then, convinced them that they needed to assault the Wall itself. Of course when death is at your heels it’s less of a crazy notion. Mance sold them on one thing, no matter what they would be on the other side of the Wall. And bless his heart, Mance did it.
It took a surprise attack by Stannis taking them captive, and Jon and Tormund going to Hardhome to finish his work, but the wildlings got through the Wall. Mance had an objective, nearly an impossible one, and it was achieved by himself and those that believed in his message after his death. As with Robb, his only failings as a leader was pride in that he refused to make common cause with Stannis in exchange for all his people being ushered through the Wall. The catch was swearing loyalty to Stannis, all the men joining his army, and taking the Red God R’hllor over the Old Gods. Just about all his people would be better off, considering the army of the dead chasing them- although Mance reckoned death would find them quickly anyway in Stannis’ army.
Mance was a great leader and probably the best king in the story so far. His main defeat was a surprise cavalry charge from an enemy and king he had never heard of before. And in the face of that, Mance ordered surrender to preserve as many lives as possible. Well done, Mance; you’ve done far better than most and were an effective, popular, intelligent, and compassionate leader. Had Mance not been surprised by Stannis and actually taken the Wall from the Night’s Watch, he would’ve gotten an A+. No one did more with less.
Daenerys Targaryen: A
Daenerys makes for a challenging ruler to evaluate, she has something no one else in the story has. Well, three things. Three flying, firebreathing lizards that render defenses and armies useless. It’s almost like she is walking around with tactical nukes in a world of swords. And how she uses them is remarkable. Imagine Drogon in the hands of Joffrey or Viserys, what they would do with that kind of power. Joffrey would’ve just flown around roasting peasants for fun and feeding his dragon people who were slightly mean. Viserys would’ve burned alive every family who turned against the Targaryens and likely brought back the Valyrian practice of slavery on the wings of dragons. Instead, Daenerys uses her power to smash the Masters of Slaver’s Bay and free the slaves. Her mercy and compassion is unusual for someone in her position, and unlike Tommen, she didn’t let others take advantage of her.
Dany promised she would lead her khalasar succesfully, and did. She wanted to free the slaves of Meereen and improve the lives of the subjugated people, and made it happen. She also came back to Westeros and instantly changed the power dynamics of the country.
One main knock against her was highlighted in the last season: her reliance on killing for getting her way. She’s no different than any of the other rulers in this list, however- they all take a “gotta break some eggs to make omelets” strategy. And before she returned to Meereen with the Dothraki nation and Drogon, Slaver’s Bay erupted into civil war and slaughter. Dany’s people adore her (except the deposed Masters) and she has accomplished just about everything she set out to do. I imagine Robb Stark or Stannis would’ve also won their wars pretty easily if they had dragons. A successful queen, mother to her people, highly intelligent, excellent at executing her strategies, and harnessed the dragons like Aegon the Conqueror come again. Overall well done, Dany! (Stop burning quite so many people to keep the Mad King comparisons down.)
What do you think, dear reader? Did I hammer Jon too hard for his planning abilities and not reward him for improvisation? Is Stannis deserving of the highest grades possible and I’m blind to his greatness? Is Dany actually a brutal warmonger the world would be better without? Let me know below and I will surely disagree but listen respectfully.