Aerys was born to Prince Jaehaerys, the second son of King Aegon V. Whilst still a teenager, Aerys was married to his sister Rhaella in the Targaryen tradition; however, the two of them despised one another, and the marriage was never a happy one. The two of them behaved bitterly during the wedding, and in time both of them would love, but never one another. Aerys surrounded himself with pretty young maids, while Rhaella had a brief affair with Ser Bonifer Hasty, but eventually both of these would be set aside.
To Aerys' delight, Rhaella became pregnant and gave birth to their son Rhaegar in 259 AL in the Targaryen summer palace at Summerhall. Rhaegar was born in blood and grief, during the blaze known as the Tragedy of Summerhall that killed King Aegon V, his heir Prince Duncan and many others.
Aerys' father only ruled for three years before he passed away, and Aerys became king as Aerys II Targaryen.
Aerys II's reign began with great promise. Under his father and grandfather, the court at King's Landing had become stuffy, filled with old men. Aerys II brought sweeping changes, replacing many at court with younger faces, energetic and lively men who could both flatter and indulge him. Aerys, impressed by the ruthlessness of the young Lord Tywin Lannister with dealing with houses rebelling against Casterly Rock, named Tywin as the King's Hand causing many to believe there was actual promise in the young man's reign, with Aerys being a charismatic but vain ruler and Tywin being a cold but decisive lieutenant.
The first ten years of Aerys' rule were peaceful. The realm recovered from the tragic events at Summerhall and grew both rich and strong. The young and ambitious Aerys was full of grand and fantastical schemes; ranging from rebuilding King's Landing out of marble, 'making the Titan of Braavos kneel', building a replica of the Wall one hundred miles beyond the Wall to claim all lands in between, and absorbing the Stepstones into the Seven Kingdoms through conquest. His sycophants muttered in his ear that he would become known as 'Aerys the Wise' or 'Aerys the Great', among other titles. Aerys grew tired of these ambitions incredibly quickly, however, and not one of them came to fruition.
Aerys eventually grew tired of any mistresses he once had, and devoted himself (dutifully, not lovingly) to Rhaella. Closer ties were established with Dorne when Prince Rhaegar was married to Princess Elia Martell (to the disquiet of Lord Tywin, who had hoped to marry his daughter Cersei to Rhaegar). However, around 270 AL some problems arose which turned the character of Aerys' reign into something very different.
Also his marriage to Rhaella had become stagnated after nine pregnancies, with several miscarriages and deaths in infancy until Viserys III was born when Rhaegar was 17.
The Defiance of Duskendale
If the relationship between the king and queen hadn't withered away, then that between the king and his Hand certainly was. Aerys suffered this considerably during the Defiance of Duskendale.
Aerys had heard disturbing rumours that said that the peace and prosperity of the realm was due to the actions of his Hand, Tywin, and not to Aerys himself. Jealous of the respect and even fear afforded to Tywin, Aerys resolved to rely less on his Hand and solve some problems himself; on many occasions, this meant acting in defiance of Tywin purely because Tywin had advised for or against something. He soon had the chance to show superiority over Tywin when Lord Denys Darklyn of Duskendale decided to withold port taxes from the crown.
Taking a small force, Aerys personally marched to Duskendale to investigate. Lord Denys, not anticipating such a response, panicked. Ser Gwayne Gaunt of the Kingsguard was killed and Aerys was taken prisoner. He was held for six months whilst Tywin amassed an army and besieged the town in what became known as the Defiance of Duskendale. Eventually Ser Barristan Selmy of the Kingsguard managed to rescue the king. In his fury, Aerys ordered every last branch of House Darklyn to be utterly destroyed, its members tortured at excruciating length before being burned alive.
After this point a certain rot seemed to set into Aerys' reign. He was brutal, black-tempered and capricious, indulging his fascination for fire at every opportunity. The pyromancers of King's Landing gained unprecedented power and authority under his rule. Any hint of a threat to the Targaryen line was crushed without mercy, as a group of bandits known as the Kingswood Brotherhood found to their cost when they began preying on traffic between King's Landing and the Stormlands. The Kingsguard and many retainers rode out to face them, and Ser Arthur Dayne, the Sword of the Morning, killed their leader, Simon Toyne. During this battle the young squire Jaime Lannister proved his worth and was knighted.
The Harrenhal tourney
A great tourney was held at Harrenhal by Lord Whent in what became known as the Year of False Spring (281 AL). This was a rich event, and even some of the Starks from distant Winterfell travelled over a thousand miles to the occasion. King Aerys travelled from the capital for the occasion, as did Prince Rhaegar and his wife. Rhaegar was the champion of the occasion, even defeating the usually unbeatable Ser Barristan Selmy. Rather than name his wife the Queen of Love and Beauty, he instead named Lyanna Stark.
Whilst this solicited comment, it was the offer of King Aerys to Ser Jaime Lannister that he join the Kingsguard that was most shocking. Jaime accepted, disinheriting himself from his position as Lord Tywin's heir and leaving his malformed, misshapen brother Tyrion in that position. Lord Tywin, in a fury, resigned the handship and returned to Casterly Rock without delay. Ironically, this impulsive action made him panic for an entire day when he realized the son of a man who now hated him was protecting him.
The War of the Usurper
A year after the Harrenhal tourney, Prince Rhaegar 'kidnapped' Lyanna Stark and took her south. Her eldest brother Brandon was on his way to Riverrun to marry his betrothed, Catelyn Tully, at this time but instead rode to King's Landing to demand that Rhaegar explain himself. With Brandon rode a number of prominent lords, most notably Ser Elbert Arryn, the heir to the Eyrie. Rhaegar was not present, but Aerys was. Believing that Brandon and his accomplices had come to kill his son, he had them arrested and demanded their fathers present themselves. They did so, and Aerys had them murdered.
The death of Lord Rickard Stark of Winterfell, his heir and the heir to Lord Jon Arryn of the Vale, among others triggered continent-wide shock. Eddard Stark, now Lord of Winterfell, was in the Vale with the young Lord Robert Baratheon of Storm's End at the time. Robert and Lyanna had been betrothed. Aerys commanded Lord Jon Arryn to turn over Robert and Eddard to him, but Jon refused and raised his banners. The North and the Stormlands, at Eddard and Robert's commands, followed suit. Eddard married Catelyn Tully in his brother's stead, and the Riverlands joined the rebellion as well. As Robert was the great-grandson of King Aegon V through his daughter Rhaelle, who had married the then-Lord Baratheon, he laid claim to the Iron Throne and vowed to kill Aerys the Mad King and his son Rhaegar.
The preponderence of force arrayed against Aerys was impressive, but with the remaining Tyrell, Lannister and Martell forces, he slightly outnumbered the rebels. Unfortunately, due to his insult to Tywin Lannister, the forces of Casterly Rock did not stir themselves and due to Rhaegar's insult to his wife Elia by taking Lyanna as a lover, Prince Doran Martell was also slow to stir. Lord Mace Tyrell was able to besiege Storm's End and pin down a large number of Stormland forces, but not before Robert escaped to the north-west, narrowly evaded capture at the Battle of the Bells and joined Eddard's large Northman, Vale and Riverland host north of the Trident.
Rhaegar took command of the Targaryen and Martell hosts and, backed up by elements of the the Tyrells, met the rebels at the Battle of the Trident. Rhaegar lost, and was killed by Robert Baratheon. As the army swept south towards King's Landing, Aerys sent his pregnant sister-wife and young son Viserys to Dragonstone for safety.
Mere hours before the lead elements of the rebel host, under Eddard Stark, reached the city, 12,000 Westerland forces under Lord Tywin Lannister reached the city and pledged themselves to the Targaryen cause. When the gates were opened, the Lannister host instead sacked the city. Aware that Aerys was planning to destroy the city with wildfire to deny it to the rebels, Ser Jaime Lannister betrayed his oath and slew King Aerys II at the foot of the Iron Throne itself, and was known as the 'Kingslayer' for this act. He also killed the senior pyromancers who were aware of the plan. Lord Tywin took possession of the city and surrendered it to Robert Baratheon. Robert was crowned the first king of the Baratheon dynasty, and was married to Tywin's daughter Cersei.
Character and appearance
In younger life, Aerys was charming, handsome, proud, energetic and resolute, although vain, extravagant, capricious, quick to anger and not the most brilliant of men. He also enjoyed making grandiose and surreal plans until he grew bored and even denied concocting them in the first place. This being said, men saw great promise in Aerys, who was open-handed to his allies and filled the courts with balls and tourneys; he was well liked enough that no-one admittedly could have anticipated the man he became. He had an undeniably charismatic nature, and was well loved as a young man at court, but he made the mistake of filling his small council with energetic youths, charming lickspittles and scheming sycophants. Aerys was a passable warrior, but neither the strongest or bravest one in his family - he survived the War of the Ninepenny Kings, but did not win as much renown as his friend Tywin Lannister, who was knighted before him.
Aerys started off his reign as an extremely charismatic young king, noble and determined and surprisingly generous in his own right. Even after his death, some lament that they lived plentifully in the early years of his reign - granted, many of these were smallfolk, whereas the nobility of Westeros almost unanimously remember the murderous megalomaniac that Aerys became. Aerys seemed to win allies and friends very easily due to his charming nature and liked to surround himself with young and energetic men as well as beautiful young women. With regards to surrounding himself with younger men, this was a reaction to the fact that by the time Aerys donned his crown his court had grown full of hidebound old men, which did not appeal to him as much. Aerys loved music, dancing, balls, tournaments and women; the latter in particular leading to rumours that Aerys took their maidenheads for himself. It was never reported that he sired any illegitimate children with any of the women he filled his courts with, but this could retroactively mean that Aerys kept them a secret or discarded them entirely. Either way, he quickly washed his hands of his lovers.
As he grew older, Aerys became harsher, crueller and more manic, prone to furious outbursts and tirades, many of which led to acts of savagery that cemented his reputation as one of the worst kings in all of Westeros, worse still than Maegor the Cruel, Aegon the Usurper or Aegon the Unworthy. He became jealous, envious and suspicious of his once friend Tywin and seemed to resent the popularity of his son Rhaegar. After the Defiance of Duskendale these characteristics became more pronounced, and although amnesty was promised to his captors, he triggered a slaughter that led to the extinction of two powerful houses. He became intensely paranoid, even before the Defiance, and saw a contradiction in conversation as a wilful and malicious act of defiance.
He developed a fascination with fire, and burning people alive became his favoured method of execution, as he believed himself to be a dragon in human form. He also developed a sick cunning, as evidenced by how he promised Rickard Stark a trial by combat, but loopholed that promise by declaring that fire was the champion of House Targaryen, setting the northman on fire in his armour and then strangling his son Brandon in the latter's attempt to save him. Aerys was also sexually aroused by his monstrous acts, and after he executed a man he would rape his wife, so violently that he let her with serious bruises, scars and even bite marks all over her body.
His initially tolerable marriage to his sister-wife Rhaella soon became cruel, and he took to forcing himself upon her when she was not receptive to his advances. It is often perceived that there truly wasn't any love between them, as Aerys filled his courts with beautiful young maidens and even openly lusted after Joanna Lannister, the latter fact souring the relationship between him and Tywin - furthermore, Joanna was one of Rhaella's court companions, and Rhaella eventually dismissed Joanna from court to keep Aerys from making whores out of her companions. The resentment towards Rhaegar made him belittle his daughter-in-law Elia, and he even shunned Elia's children by declaring that they 'smelled Dornish'. Rhaella suffered the worst out of Aerys' savagery, and two decades after both their deaths Ser Jaime Lannister deeply regrets not intervening to protect Rhaella from her husband, because the other Kingsguard discouraged protecting the queen or judging the king. Aerys grew to despise Rhaegar, despite him being Aerys' own heir, and a rift was made between father and son that led to suspicions that Rhaegar planned to undermine him and even depose him entirely. Nobody entertained this rumour more than Aerys himself.
Although handsome in his youth, during the last years of his life, Aerys was very thin (he was fearful of being poisoned, and therefore he fasted), and gaunt with a long, straggly beard and fingernails which grew to several feet in length. He refused to let blades or razors in his presence, even to shave or trim his fingernails, with the obvious exception of the blades on the Iron Throne and the inevitable exception of the blades of his Kingsguard. He wore the big, elaborate dragon-emblazoned crown of Aegon IV. Aerys Targaryen, Second of His Name, showed the exacerbated, undisciplined and uncensored flaws of his ancestors - bloodthirst, hubris, insanity, cruelty and megalomania.
Appearances in the series
Although he is long dead by the time the books begin, he is remembered by various characters and appears most notably in Jaime Lannister's recounting of why he killed Aerys in A Storm of Swords. Tywin Lannister, his old friend-turned-nemesis, remembers Aerys constantly, especially after witnessing the king that Tywin's grandson Joffrey is becoming. He notes at one point that both Joffrey and Aerys tended to cut out the tongues of their enemies, and that neither man learned nor respected what it meant to be a truly strong or good king. Jaime in particular has Aerys' death thrown in his face on countless occasions - men like the Blackfish and Barristan Selmy use it as an example of Jaime's capacity for dishonour; Cersei has the gall to suggest that Jaime ought not have a problem breaking his vows of the Kingsguard a second time. Aerys' monstrous nature is remembered by both Barristan and Jaime, especially with regards to his relationship with and abuse of his wife Rhaella.