10 of History's Greatest Kingmakers
10 of History’s Greatest Kingmakers

10 of History’s Greatest Kingmakers

Khalid Elhassan - April 7, 2018

10 of History’s Greatest Kingmakers
Thomas Stanley, First Earl of Derby. Luminarium

Thomas Stanley Became a Kingmaker in an Afternoon

Thomas Stanley, 1st Earl of Derby (1435 – 1504), pulled off one of history’s most momentous acts of kingmaking during the course of a single afternoon. He was a powerful peer who ran his extensive landholdings in northwest England as if they were an independent realm. His support was thus courted by both the Lancastrian and Yorkist branches of the Plantagenet dynasty during the Wars of Roses.

The Yorkist King Edward IV had died in 1483, having named his brother Richard guardian and regent during the minority of Edward’s 12 year old son and successor, and his younger brother. However, Richard declared Edward’s sons illegitimate, and imprisoned his nephews in the Tower of London, where they disappeared and were likely murdered. He then had himself crowned as king Richard III.

Richard was challenged for the crown by Henry Tudor, the last viable male descendant of the competing Lancastrian line, who landed in England in 1485, after years of exile. Richard gathered his forces, which included a large contingent commanded by Thomas Stanley, a major Yorkist loyalist and supporter, and marched out to meet his challenger.

Stanley was conflicted: his family had been Lancastrians, but he had defected to the Yorkists. He was handsomely rewarded for that betrayal with lands and estates, and appointments to powerful positions in the royal government. He was thus indebted to the Yorkists. However, he also happened to be married to Henry Tudor’s mother, so he was the challenger’s stepfather.

Stuck between the rock of loyalty and the hard place of peace and tranquility at home, Stanley decided to play both sides, and secretly contacted his stepson to explore defection. King Richard got wind of that, however, and seized Stanley’s son as a hostage for his father’s good behavior and insurance against treachery. He then ordered the Earl to join the Yorkist army with his contingent, which Stanley reluctantly did.

The rivals met at the Battle of Bosworth on August 22nd, 1485, but Stanley was still undecided. So he kept his contingent to one side of field, while waiting to see which side looked like a winner. A livid Richard III sent Stanley a message, threatening to execute his son unless he immediately attacked the Lancastrians. The Earl coolly replied: “Sire, I have other sons“.

Richard ordered Stanley’s son executed, but the order was not immediately carried out, and before long it was too late. As the afternoon wore on, Stanley made up his mind that king Richard was losing the battle, so he ordered an attack – against Richard and the Yorkist forces. That decisively tipped the scales in favor of Henry Tudor, and against Richard III, who launched a desperate attack seeking to reach and cut down his rival, only to get cut down himself.

Following Richard’s death, Stanley found his fallen crown in some shrubs, and personally placed it on the head of Henry Tudor, henceforth Henry VII. Stanley’s stepson and new king of England brought the Plantagenet dynasty to an end after centuries of rule, and replaced it with his own Tudor dynasty. As to Stanley, treachery paid well, and was generously rewarded for his betrayal of Richard.

10 of History’s Greatest Kingmakers
Carl Otto Morner. Kunglia Samfundet

Swedish Envoy Carl Otto Morner Picked Sweden’s King on His Own Initiative, and Without Any Authorization

In 1810, Sweden had a serious problem: an aging, ailing, and heirless king, Charles XIII, who might drop dead at any moment. The king’s heirless demise could lead to a succession crisis that would plunge the country into civil war. It was a particularly vulnerable moment for Sweden, a once powerful kingdom but now a second rate power, whose survival depended on playing off Europe’s major powers.

In 1810, there were only three major powers in Europe far as Sweden was concerned: Russia, France, and Britain. Russia coveted Sweden. Napoleon’s France was allied with Russia. Britain was too committed to fighting the French in Spain to help Sweden. Thus, internal Swedish strife could give neighboring Russia a pretext to invade in order to “restore order”. Once in Sweden, the Russians would install a puppet king, and turn Sweden into a Russian vassal state.

Enter Baron Carl Otto Morner (1781 – 1868), a Swedish courtier and member of the Riksdag – Sweden’s legislative body. On his own initiative, and without authorization from the Swedish government, Baron Morner went ahead and offered the Swedish crown to one of Napoleon’s Marshalls, Jean-Baptiste Jules Bernadotte (1763 – 1844).

Bernadotte had risen rapidly through the ranks during the French Revolution, going from sub-lieutenant in 1792 to brigadier general in 1794. Campaigning in the Low Countries, Germany, and Italy, he developed a reputation as a disciplinarian who kept his troops under tight control. In 1796, he saved the French army in Germany from destruction following its defeat by the Austrians, and ensured its safe retreat across the Rhine.

Bernadotte first met Napoleon in 1797, and the two developed a friendship, but it eventually ended because of rivalries and misunderstandings. While relations were still good, however, Napoleon recognized Bernadotte’s talents, and in 1804, appointed him a Marshall of France. In 1805, Napoleon further rewarded Bernadotte by making him Prince of Ponto Corvo in Italy.

Relations began souring during the Prussian campaign in 1806. Napoleon severely criticized Bernadotte for failing to bring his corps to the hard-fought battles of Jena-Auerstadt, and barely refrained from court-martialing him for dereliction of duty. The relationship was sundered at the 1809 Battle of Wagram, after which Napoleon relieved Bernadotte of command for his poor handling of his troops.

Fortune smiled on Bernadotte soon thereafter, however, when Morner came calling. While Bernadotte had not been a great general while serving under Napoleon, he had been a humane one. After one battle, he treated Swedish prisoners kindly enough that, when they returned to Sweden, they had nothing but good things to say about him. It happened just when Sweden was looking for a crown prince.

Morner was a Swedish envoy in Paris, when he offered the crown to Bernadotte in 1810. The Swedish government, surprised and affronted by Morner’s unauthorized offer, had him arrested. The more the Swedes thought about it, however, the more appealing Bernadotte seemed, and the French Marshall’s candidature gradually gained favor. In August of 1810, the Riksdag elected him crown prince, the king appointed him to command Sweden’s armies, and Bernadotte became regent.

Once Bernadotte assumed the regency and governance of Sweden, he cast about for an accomplishment to solidify his authority. The opportunity came when Napoleon was weakened after his 1812 invasion of Russia ended in catastrophe. In 1813, Bernadotte switched sides, signed a treaty with Britain, declared war on France, and landed a Swedish army in northern Germany. In alliance with the Austrians, Russians, and Prussians, he got his payback against Napoleon by helping defeat him in the war’s biggest and bloodiest battle, at Leipzig, in 1813. After the war, he returned to Sweden, where he established the Bernadotte Dynasty, whose royal family reigns to this day.

10 of History’s Greatest Kingmakers
Marble bust of Pompey the Great, dated circa 50 BC. Pintrest

Pompey the Great Was One of History’s Greatest Makers of Kings

Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus, better known as Pompey the Great (106 – 48 BC) was one of the greatest statesmen and generals of the Roman Republic’s final decades. He partnered with Julius Caesar to jointly rule Rome in the First Triumvirate, before the duo had a falling out that culminated in a civil war that ended badly for Pompey. Before he was eclipsed by Caesar, however, Pompey had once dominated the Eastern Mediterranean, and engaged in one of history’s most ambitious bouts of kingmaking as he reorganized the region to suit Rome’s needs.

Pompey was born into a powerful family, with vast holdings in Picenum in central Italy. His father was a general who became consul in 89 BC, and had a reputation for double dealing, greed, and ruthlessness. An ally of Sulla, he was killed during the civil war against the Marians in 87 BC, and 19 year old Pompey inherited his vast wealth and, more importantly, his legions.

Upon Sulla’s return to Italy from a war against Pontus, Pompey joined him with 3 legions in his march on and seizure of Rome. Sulla then sent him to recapture Sicily and Africa from his Marian opponents, which Pompey accomplished in two lightning campaigns by 81 BC. After executing the captured Marians, Pompey was hailed by h is troops as Magnus, or “the Great”.

After Sulla’s retirement, Pompey menaced the Senate into appointing him commander of the war against the final Marian remnants in Hispania, which he eventually won after considerable effort by 71 BC. He took his army back to Italy with him, ostensibly to help put down Spartacus’ slave revolt, but in reality to guarantee his election to the consulship in 70 BC.

In 67 BC, Pompey was given authority throughout the Mediterranean to settle a piracy problem that had grown out of control, and he managed to do so in a brilliant campaign that lasted only 3 months. He was then appointed to command a war against Pontus, and granted authority to settle the entire eastern Mediterranean. He did that by annexing some kingdoms to the Roman Republic, and reducing others to client states. He engaged in wholesale kingmaking, removing and appointing kings and rulers throughout a vast territory stretching from the Danube to the Red Sea. That settlement was Pompey’s greatest and longest lasting achievement, which, with few modifications, endured for over 500 years.

Returning to Italy in 62 BC, he sought land upon which to settle his veterans, and legislation to ratify his settlement of the east, but political chaos in Rome prevented that. He finally accomplished his goals after forming a Triumvirate with Caesar and Crassus to divide Rome’s power amongst the trio, sealing the deal by marrying Caesar’s daughter. After Crassus died in 53 BC, followed by Pompey’s wife and Caesar’s daughter soon thereafter, the remaining Triumvirs drifted apart, and finally went to war when Caesar crossed the Rubicon into Italy in 49 BC.

Pompey and the optimates conservative faction fled to Greece, where they raised an army. Caesar followed, and Rome’s two greatest generals finally met at the Battle of Pharsalus in 48 BC. Caesar proved greater, and Pompey’s army was crushed. Fleeing, he sailed to Egypt, where he was inveigled to come ashore, only to get assassinated and have his head chopped off as soon as his feet touched Egyptian soil.

10 of History’s Greatest Kingmakers
Augustus. Wikimedia

After Defeating Antony and Cleopatra, Augustus Repeated Pompey’s Wholesale Kingmaking

Following his victory over Marc Antony and Cleopatra in 31 BC, Gaius Octavius, better known to history as Augustus (63 BC – 14 AD), acted as kingmaker in the Eastern Mediterranean. Rulers from the Nile in Egypt to the shores of the Black Sea were confirmed, deposed, or installed, as reward or punishment for their stances during the recently concluded conflict. Herod the Great, mentioned in the New Testament as having ordered the Massacre of the Innocents, was among the kings whose fates were decided by Augustus.

Octavius had been born to an affluent plebian family on his father’s side, while his mother was of the patrician Julii lineage, and a niece of Julius Caesar. Octavius’ famous grand uncle launched him into public life, and groomed him to be his heir. He was in Albania, completing his military and academic studies, when Caesar was assassinated in 44 BC.

Returning to Italy, Octavius learned that Caesar had adopted him as his son in his will, and made him his chief heir. However, Caesar’s lieutenant, Mark Antony, refused to honor the will, while Caesar’s assassins ignored the teenager. Cicero, an elder statesmen and a leading figure of a politically powerful but militarily weak faction, sought to manipulate him, quipping that he would “raise, praise, then erase” Octavius.

All underestimated Octavius. He paid for public games in honor of his adoptive father to gain recognition and popularity, and wooed Caesar’s veteran soldiers to his side. Cicero’s faction sought Octavius’ aid, bent the rules to appoint him a senator despite his youth, and sent him against Mark Antony, who was forced to retreat from Italy to Gaul. The consuls in official command of the forces arrayed against Mark Antony were killed, so Octavius compelled the Senate to appoint him to a vacant consulship despite his youth.

He then double crossed the Senate, reached an agreement with Mark Antony, and joined him in a power sharing dictatorship. The duo then launched a massive purge that executed thousands of suspected opponents, including Cicero. They then went after Caesar’s assassins, defeating them, and exacting revenge. The duo swore friendship, sealing the bargain with Antony wedding Octavius’ sister. They then divided the Roman empire, with Antony ruling the east, while Octavius stayed in Rome and ruled the west.

Things soured when Antony fell in love with Cleopatra in Egypt, and married her, abandoning Octavius’ sister. Octavius used that as a pretext to attack Antony, whom he defeated in 31 BC,. He then seized Egypt and the eastern provinces, finally bringing the entire Roman empire under his control. Following his victory, Octavius engaged in a round of kingmaking in the Eastern Mediterranean, nearly as extensive as that of Pompey the Great a generation earlier.

Octavius then ended the Roman Republic, whose political structure, created for a city state, had proved impractical for the governance of a vast empire, and led to a century of chaos and bloodshed. For restoring peace, the Senate granted Octavius the honorific “Augustus”, by which he would be known to history. In the Republic’s place, Augustus established a stable, autocratic, and centralized de-facto monarchy. It kicked off a period known as the Pax Romana, that brought to the Greco-Roman world two centuries of peace, stability, and prosperity


Where Did We Find This Stuff? Sources & Further Reading

Ancient History Encyclopedia – Pompey

Ancient History Encyclopedia – Praetorian Guard

BBC History – Augustus

Encyclopedia Britannica – ­Godwine, Earl of Wessex

Encyclopedia Britannica – Ricimer, Roman General

English Monarchs – Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick, ‘Warwick the Kingmaker’

History of War – Thomas, Lord Stanley, Earl of Derby

History Today – The Rebellion of Earl Godwin

Indian Express – Who Were the Sayyid Brothers?

Spectator, The, March 4th, 2017 – The Double-Edged Sword of the Praetorian Guard

Wikipedia – Carl Otto Morner

Wikipedia – Chanakya