We found out at the end of the season 7 that Jon Snow was not the illegitimate child of Ned Stark and “Some Bint” (Catelyn Stark’s own words, there) but instead Aegon Targaryen, the legitimate son of Rhaegar Targaryen and Lyanna Stark and the rightful heir to the Iron Throne.
Now that Jon knows the truth, courtesy of Sam, there are lots of questions (to hopefully be answered this season) on what this means for him, his future, his relationship with Daenerys and the future of the Seven Kingdoms, but there’s a few big questions about the past, too – namely, who are Rhaegar Targaryen and Lyanna Stark, and how did they end up causing a war?
Who is Jon Snow's real father?
Let’s start with dad. Prince Rhaegar Targaryen was the eldest son of King Aerys II Targaryen, aka the Mad King, and the older brother of Viserys (last seen being turned into a very unusual golden mantlepiece statuette by the Dothraki) and Daenerys (last seen sleeping with her older brother’s son).
As a child, Rhaegar was very studious and insular: he only wanted to play his harp and read. But then one day, Rhaegar read something that sent him down to the Master-at-Arms; he stated “I will require sword and armour. It seems I must be a warrior.”
After this, Rhaegar basically became the perfect prince. He became a great fighter, winning tournaments all over the place and receiving a knighthood at only seventeen even though he openly never enjoyed fighting.
He married Elia Martell and had two children with her, Rhaenys and Aegon. He often made women cry with his songs, and although he was still private and solemn, he was loved: Cersei Lannister recalled a tournament where the crowds cheered twice as much for Tywin as they did King Aerys, but twice as loudly for Rhaegar as they did for Tywin.
Rhaegar was so great, he was even respected by notoriously hard-to-please Tywin, Hand of the King at the time. Once, when King Aerys had been captured and his life was in danger, Tywin was fairly unbothered that he might not return. Gesturing to Prince Rhaegar, he stated: “We have a better king right here.”
He was also, with silver hair and indigo eyes, a total babe – Cersei said, “Next to Rhaegar, even her beautiful Jaime had seemed no more than a callow boy.” And we all know how much Cersei likes Jaime.
Who is Jon Snow's real mother?
Lyanna Stark was the daughter of Lord Rickard Stark and the sister of Brandon, Ned and Benjen Stark. She was far more like Arya than Sansa in temperament: her father said she had “the wolf blood” in her because of her wildness, and Ned states that she would have definitely carried a sword if her father had let her.
Robert once compared Cersei to Lyanna unfavourably, believing that Lyanna would have never publicly disagreed with him like Cersei does, and Ned disagreed. In his eyes, Robert was so blinded by Lyanna’s beauty that he never saw “the iron underneath.” Lyanna, meanwhile, wasn’t that enthusiastic about Robert, knowing that he would cheat on her as soon as they were married.
Lyanna was a skilled rider: Roose Bolton once described her as “half a horse herself.” There is strong evidence that she was a skilled fighter, too: in A Song of Ice and Fire, Meera and Jojen tell a story about their father, Howland Reed, who was attacked by three squires at the Tourney (or tournament) of Harrenhal.
Lyanna Stark brought Howland back to her tent to be protected by her brothers, who convinced Howland to stay and enjoy the tournament. The next day, a mysterious knight entered the tournament. This knight’s armour didn’t fit well, and their shield had a laughing weirwood tree clumsily painted on it. This contender, known as The Knight of the Laughing Tree, took on the three squires who had beaten up Howland Reed the day before and won, before disappearing.
People don’t know who The Knight of the Laughing Tree is, but there’s an incredibly popular fan theory that it’s Lyanna Stark in disguise.
The Tourney of Harrenhal
King Aerys was already paranoid about the Tourney, thinking that it had been organised so that everyone could get together and be mean about him. The Knight of the Laughing Tree enraged him further as he thought it was one of his enemies making fun of him.
Aerys sent Rhaegar after the knight, but he returned with only the laughing weirwood shield. Could the intelligent, brilliant prince really not find the knight? Or did he find them, realise that it wasn’t a rebellious knight but instead a beautiful girl from the North, and let her go?
We only have supposition that this is what happened. But it would certainly made what happened next more feasible; when Prince Rhaegar won the tournament, he was given a crown of winter roses so that he could name one of the women there the Queen of Love and Beauty. He rode right past his wife, Elia, and gave the roses to Lyanna. Then, months later, Rhaegar “kidnapped” Lyanna and carried her away.
Sam’s research and Bran’s Greensight let the viewers know that this wasn’t a kidnapping at all, but two people who were in love running away together. Their families, however, weren’t so lucky.
Rickard and Brandon Stark went to King’s Landing to insist that King Aerys deal with the kidnapping, and were murdered for their trouble. Ned and Robert Baratheon were next on the list, so Robert led a rebellion against the Targaryens to defend his life, his honour, and his betrothed. And we all know how that turned out.
Lyanna stayed hidden, but Rhaegar led the Targaryen armies. Robert killed Rhaegar in one-on-one combat – Daenerys had a vision of Rhaegar's death in the House of the Undying where she describes how “Rubies flew like drops of blood from the chest of a dying prince, and he sank to his knees in the water and with his last breath murmured a woman’s name.”
And then Ned found Lyanna – after killing the Kingsguard, he found her dying and with her baby in her arms. Jon Snow, the baby she made him swear he would tell the kingdom was his own.
“He’ll kill him, you know he will,” Lyanna said to her brother. “Promise me. Promise me.” And he did.
Far from being an unwanted, unloved bastard born as a result of a quick fumble while Ned was lonely, Jon Snow was conceived and born to two parents who loved him so much they were willing to start a war for him, and looked after by a man who loved his sister, and therefore probably his nephew, so much he was willing to poison his marriage for them.
How much of this Jon is going to find out, we don’t know, but it certainly is a very different origin story for the boy who had to join the Night’s Watch to escape the shame of his illegitimacy, and managed to make himself a King through his actions even though it was his birthright all along.