Robert’s Rebellion & the Targaryens’ Downfall in ‘Game of Thrones’ Explained


The Big Picture

  • Robert’s Rebellion was sparked by the abduction of Lyanna Stark by Rhaegar Targaryen, leading to a continent-wide conflict.
  • The Battle of the Trident was the major turning point in Robert’s Rebellion, resulting in the victory of Robert Baratheon.
  • The Sack of King’s Landing saw House Lannister join the rebellion and end with the death of King Aerys, leading to the ascension of Robert Baratheon as king.

The world of Game of Thrones is one in which there will always be some conflict going on. After centuries of war, it’s likely that the people of Westeros just don’t know how it is to live in peace, and they have George R.R. Martin to thank for that. The author of the A Song of Ice and Fire book series created one of the most complex worlds in fantasy fiction, with a rich history that revolves around wars and battles moving forward. Many wars are going on at different moments in Game of Thrones, but they all stem from a single continent-wide conflict that happened years before the show even began. We’re talking about Robert’s Rebellion, which sees the fall of House Targaryen in Westeros and sets the status quo at the beginning of the series. And it all starts with a tragic tale of love, rejection, and loss.

Game Of Thrones

Nine noble families fight for control over the lands of Westeros, while an ancient enemy returns after being dormant for a millennia.

Release Date
April 17, 2011

David Benioff, D.B. Weiss



The Abduction of Lyanna Stark

Rhaegar Targaryen and Lyanna Stark marry each other in secret by a lake in 'Game of Thrones' Season 7, Episode 7
Image via HBO

Like every major political conflict, the seeds of Robert’s Rebellion were sowed years earlier — only instead of political motivation, the motivation were personal. As kids, Eddard “Ned” Stark (Sean Bean/Robert Aramayo) and Robert Baratheon (Mark Addy) were sent to foster at the Eyrie with Lord Jon Arryn (John Standing) and became best friends. This friendship led Ned’s father, Lord Rickard Stark of Winterfell, to agree to the betrothal of his daughter Lyanna (Cordelia Hill/Aisling Franciosi) to Robert, who was the heir to Storm’s End. Lyanna didn’t like this because she knew Robert would be more lustful than loving, and he would never keep to one bed. Years later, the Tourney at Harrenhal gathers all the major houses in Westeros for a celebration, and Lyanna meets Prince Rhaegar Targaryen (Wilf Scolding). After winning the last tilt, Rhaegar crowned Lyanna the queen of love and beauty instead of his wife, Princess Elia Martell. Ned recalls this as “the moment all smiles died,” and the seeds of the Rebellion were sown.

The following year, the heir to Winterfell and Ned’s older brother, Brandon Stark, was to wed Lady Catelyn Tully (Michelle Fairley). Most Northern houses are on their way to Riverrun when word that Rhaegar has apparently abducted Lyanna starts to reach everyone. Brandon rides past Riverrun to King’s Landing to challenge Rhaegar and is immediately arrested by the Mad King Aerys II (David Rintoul) under charges of plotting against Rhaegar’s life and treason. Aerys summons Lord Rickard, Brandon and Ned’s father, to King’s Landing, too. Lord Rickard, dressed for battle, is seized and burned alive inside his armor. Brandon tried to save him, but a Tyroshi torture device choked him with his efforts, and he died, too.

Aerys then orders Jon Arryn to send him the heads of Ned and Robert, who are still at the Eyrie. But, having raised the boys, Jon Arryn refuses. After the death of his father and brother, Ned rides back to Winterfell, and Robert sails back to Storm’s End. Houses Arryn, Baratheon, and Stark declare war on House Targaryen and thus starts Robert’s Rebellion. Ned is determined to get his sister back after losing so much, and Robert is determined to kill Rhaegar for kidnapping his betrothed. Also, Ned weds Catelyn Tully as the new Lord of Winterfell, Jon Arryn marries Lysa Tully (Kate Dickie), and they both ride to war.

The Battle at the Trident

Mark Addy as Robert Baratheon walking through a courtyard in Game of Thrones
Image via HBO

With Ned Stark coming from the North and Robert Baratheon from the Stormlands in the South, their armies had to meet in the middle. Because of that, the Riverlands was the main stage for Robert’s Rebellion, with its most important battle taking place at the Trident — one of the most important rivers in Westeros. The setup for the Battle of the Trident saw many other battles taking place before, though, as not all the bannermen of House Baratheon followed them. Some decided to turn on them and gathered at the Targaryen stronghold of Summerhall. After Robert left Storm’s End with his army, he first crushed these forces at the Battle of Summerhall.

Once the Baratheon army entered the Riverlands, they were confronted by Lord Jon Connington’s army at Stony Sept. Connington, Aerys’ Hand and Rhaegar’s best friend, searched the town for Robert, but the people turned against him and hid Robert from him. It is only when the Stark and Arryn forces arrive that Robert gets out of hiding so he can challenge Connington. This is when people started to sympathize with Robert’s figure and cause. Robert defeats Connington in combat and, thanks to his friends, defeats the Targaryen army at the Battle of the Bells.

At that point, Prince Rhaegar had vanished but when he returned, Prince Doran Martell (Alexander Siddig) of Dorne joined the war on the Targaryen side to protect his daughter and Rhaegar’s wife, Princess Elia, and their children: Rhaenys and Aegon Targaryen. Rhaegar makes his way to the Riverlands with his army, but he is intercepted by the rebel forces when trying to cross the Trident. This is the main battle of Robert’s Rebellion, the Battle of the Trident. Nearly 80,000 men engaged in combat, and, somehow, Robert and Rhaegar managed to find each other. Their fight is epic, and Robert emerges as the winner, killing Rhaegar and leading the rebel forces to victory. What’s left of the Targaryen forces flees to King’s Landing, and the Stark army gives chase, led by Ned. Meanwhile, in King’s Landing, Aerys is having pyromancers fill the underground tunnels with wildfire. He sends his wife, Queen Rhaella, and his new heir, Prince Viserys (Harry Lloyd), to Dragonstone for safety, as Rhaella is pregnant with a baby girl, Daenerys (Emilia Clarke). However, he keeps Rhaegar’s wife and children in King’s Landing as hostages.

The Sack of King’s Landing

All this time, House Lannister had remained neutral. Lord Tywin (Charles Dance) was the Hand of the King for a long time, but his friendship with Aerys eventually went sour, and he returned to Casterly Rock. Throughout the war, Rhaegar tried to convince Aerys to call for their aid. Tywin refused calls from both loyalist and rebel forces before, but toward the end of the rebellion, he shows up at the gates of King’s Landing with an army of his own. He announces he’s at Aerys’ side, and the gates open for his army. As soon as this happens, Lannister forces begin sacking the city — after all, Tywin Lannister would never join the losing side of a war.

The sacking rages, and eventually Lannister forces invade the castle. Ser Gregor Clegane (Hafþór Björnsson) leads the attack, violently raping and murdering Princess Elia and her children. Going mad, Aerys orders his pyromancers to burn the city and order the only knight of the Kingsguard, Ser Jaime Lannister (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), to bring him Tywin’s head. Jaime is Tywin’s eldest son and, of course, refuses, and seeing that Aerys intends to burn the whole city, Jaime kills the king and earns himself the title of Kingslayer. He then sits on the Iron Throne, intending to surrender it to whoever arrives first. The Sack of King’s Landing only ends when Ned Stark arrives with his forces to pacify the city. He finds Ser Jaime and takes the throne in Robert’s name, giving the Seven Kingdoms a new king.

After pacifying the capital and making Robert Baratheon king, Ned rides south to lift the last remaining open battle of the rebellion, the Siege of Storm’s End by House Tyrell. The seat of House Baratheon was maintained by Robert’s brother, Stannis (Stephen Dillane), who kept it for nearly a year despite the siege. Baratheon forces there were forced to eat rats to survive, and were only kept from starving thanks to a smuggler named Davos (Liam Cunningham), who sailed past the Tyrell blockade to provide the castle with onions and fish — he would go on to be knighted and be known as the Onion Knight.


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The End of the War and Ned’s Promise to Lyanna

From Storm’s End, Ned rode to Dorne after learning of a place Rhaegar called “the Tower of Joy.” After all this time, Lyanna was still missing, and that had to be the place where she was being kept. He arrives with a few Northern warriors and Lord Howland Reed (Leo Woodruff) and finds the place being kept by three members of the King’s Guard: Ser Arthur Dayne (Luke Roberts), and Ser Oswell Whent (Eddie Eyre). In the books, Lord Commander Ser Gerold Hightower is also with them. Even after Rhaegar’s death, the knights refused to let Ned through and engage his host in a fight.

Although Arthur Dayne was known as the best swordsman in the realm, Howland Reed stabs Dayne in the back and Ned dishonorably kills him in order to end the fight. Only Ned and Howland Reed survive, and when he ascends the Tower of Joy, Ned finds Lyanna dying after giving birth to her child with Rhaegar. She makes Ned promise to raise the boy as his own bastard, otherwise, Robert will undoubtedly kill the baby. This baby is Jon Snow (Kit Harington) aka Aegon Targaryen. And, thus, the stage is set for Game of Thrones.

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