17 Notable Figures Who Really Wielded the Power in the Shadow of those They Were Sworn to Serve
17 Notable Figures Who Really Wielded the Power in the Shadow of those They Were Sworn to Serve

17 Notable Figures Who Really Wielded the Power in the Shadow of those They Were Sworn to Serve

D.G. Hewitt - October 18, 2018

17 Notable Figures Who Really Wielded the Power in the Shadow of those They Were Sworn to Serve
King Clovis founded the Merovingian dynasty, but his successors were soon powerless. Wikimedia Commons.

10. The Mayors of the Palace were really in charge during the Merovingian dynasty, with Kings just their ceremonial puppets

The Merovingians ruled over large parts of modern-day France and Germany for almost 300 years beginning in 450 AD. The dynasty was actually made up of several different kingdoms, each with its own monarch. However, for a large part of the Merovingian era, these rulers were commonly referred to as ‘the do-nothing kings’ – and for good reason. In this part of Europe, it wasn’t the king who had the power, but the ‘Mayor of the Palace’. Indeed, according to some historians, this was the first real example of the ‘power behind the throne phenomenon’, and it seemed to work pretty effectively.

The office of the Mayor of the Palace was established in around 600 AD. Under the system, the Mayor served as a prime minister, taking care of all domestic policies, as well as dictating their kingdom’s relations with the rest of the Merovingian empire and other outside forces. Before long, the kings were reduced to nothing more than figureheads, wheeled out for the occasional special ceremony. By all accounts, the monarchs didn’t object much to the arrangement. After all, they continued to live a life of luxury without having any real responsibilities. Moreover, it’s likely many kings took heed of what happened in the kingdom of Austrasia, in the north-east corner of the Merovingian lands.

In 751 AD, the Mayor of the Palace in Austrasia, the wonderfully-named Pepin the Short, broke the arrangement. No longer content with merely being the power behind the throne, he went one step further. He deposed the ruling monarch, a certain Childeric III, and crowned himself king in his place. Only this time, the king would have both the throne and all the powers of the Mayor’s office. What’s more, he ruled that the office of Mayor should be passed down through the family. In effect, this spelled the end of the whole system and started the Carolingian Monarchy, which would over the next century evolve into the start of the Kingdom of France.

17 Notable Figures Who Really Wielded the Power in the Shadow of those They Were Sworn to Serve

Catherine de Medici refused to be a quiet lady in the background but instead dictated events in France. Wikipedia.

11. Catherine de Medici broke all the rules and was the power behind several thrones in 16th century France

In the Middle Ages, women were supposed to be seen and not heard. Even wealthy women and those of elevated status were expected to defer to their husbands, brothers, even their sons, at all times. Obviously, nobody ever told Catherine de Medici this. The Italian-born French queen had a huge impact on 16th century Europe, not only influencing their reign of her husband, but also those of his three successors. Indeed, it could be argued that Catherine was the real power behind not one, but several different thrones.

Born into Florentine nobility in 1519, Catherine was married off to the Duke of Orleans, the second eldest son of the King of France, at the age of just 14. After just one year, she was humiliated when her husband took a mistress and spent most of his time with her. Only when she gave him a child, ten years later, was Catherine back in his favor. Then, in 1547, her husband became King Henry II of France. A year later, however, he was dead, killed in a jousting accident. Their eldest son, of course, became king, but he too died after a year. That meant that Catherine’s second-eldest son Charles inherited the crown. Since he was just 10-years-old, Catherine ruled as his regent.

Over the next few years, Catherine was in charge while the French Wars of Religion broke out. She tried to broker peace between the Catholics and the Huguenots by marrying her daughter off to the King of Navarre. However. On the big day, assassins killed hundreds of protestants during what became known as the Bartholomew’s Day Massacre. Many historians believe Catherine was pulling the strings and gave the order for the slaughter. Eventually, Charles came of age and was crowned Charles IX. However, Catherine still remained almost in complete control. After years of having his mother control him, the new king couldn’t act independently. He died in 1574 and, sure enough, Catherine’s other son took over as Henry III. Even then, she continued to play a central role in the ruling of France.

In fact, Catherine remained highly influential right up until her death in 1589. While her husband and sons might have been king, it was she who had the greater say in how the country was run for almost three decades, even if she never managed to bring about a lasting peace to the bloody Wars of Religion.

17 Notable Figures Who Really Wielded the Power in the Shadow of those They Were Sworn to Serve
John Dee amazed Queen Elizabeth I with his alleged mystic ways. Wikimedia Commons.

12. Dr. John Dee was Queen Elizabeth I’s go-to man for almost everything, even if he probably didn’t have magical powers like he claimed

Queen Elizabeth I ruled over England and Ireland for more than 50 years. It was under this Tudor monarch that England started to look outside its own borders and dream of establishing a truly global empire. But the idea to turn an island nation into what would become the globe-spanning British Empire was not one of Elizabeth’s alone. Instead, the so-called Virgin Queen’s foreign policies, as with many of her domestic policies, were heavily influenced by Dr. John Dee, a man of science – and of sorcery.

In 16th century England, there was no finer mind than that of Dee. Educated at the University of Cambridge and then at various prestigious European institutions, he was widely acclaimed and respected by the time he reached his 20s. He famously owned the largest library in all of England. Inevitably, his advice was soon being sought by the Royal Court. Indeed, he was there when the future Queen Elizabeth was still a child. It was he who drew up the horoscope of the princess, plus he was given the power to choose the date of her coronation.

From the very start of her long reign, then, Elizabeth drew upon Dee for his advice, whether it be in the field of philosophy, mathematics or even astrology. As he got older, the advisor believed he was receiving messages from angels. He even started writing and speaking in his own, made-up language. But however bizarre he became, Elizabeth continued to seek out his advice. In fact, it was said that whenever she had a big decision to make, she would set out on her own horse, without any guards, to find Dee and ask his advice. And she always took it, including his recommendation that she ignore the voices of caution and embark on a course of empire building.

For all his vast power and influence in Elizabethan England, Dee ended up dying in poverty. Elizabeth’s successor on the throne, James I, was vehemently against anything associated with the occult and so had Dee cast out of the Royal Court for good. His time as the mystical power behind the throne had come to an end.

17 Notable Figures Who Really Wielded the Power in the Shadow of those They Were Sworn to Serve
Aetius was a savvy politician who pulled the strings in the Western Roman Empire. Wikipedia.

13. Flavius Aetius has been called the “last of the Romans” and, though he was never Emperor, he understood how power was wielded in the declining empire

He is often referred to by scholars of ancient history as “the last of the Romans”. True or not, what cannot be doubted is that, for almost 30 years, Flavius Aetius was the most powerful man in the whole of the Western Roman Empire. Though he was never Emperor, he was almost always the man pulling the strings. As well as being a skilled soldier and military tactician, he was also a shrewd diplomat and canny political operator and successfully managed to dictate events to suit both the Empire and his own personal ambitions.

Born to ‘barbarians’, Aetius learned how to ride and fight from a very early age. He also learned all about barbarian fighting styles and military tactics – knowledge that would serve him well when he embarked on a career in the Roman Army. Indeed, even when he was still a young man, Aetius established himself as the go-to man for advice on dealing with barbarians. From 433 onwards, he was in charge of dealing with defending the Western Roman Empire from outside attacks, a position which gave him substantial military power, something he was not afraid to use.

From 432 AD onwards, Aetius served as consul, a position usually reserved for a relative of the ruling Emperor. Since the Emperor, Valentinian III, was relatively young and naïve, Aetius often made decisions in his place. Before long, envoys from the provinces were reporting directly to Aetius himself rather than to the Emperor. This made him the most powerful man in all of the Western Roman Empire and allowed him to raise a huge army to defeat the Huns at the Battle of the Catalaunian Plains in 451 AD. Aetius saved Rome from the invaders, even if it was only a temporary respite.

In the end, his ambition and lust for power caught up with him. In 453 AD, the Emperor Valentinian accused Aetius of wanting the crown for himself. In a blind rage, he teamed up with one of his bodyguards and killed Aetius in his Roman palace. According to the famous historian of Rome Edward Gibbon, the Emperor’s closest advisers told him “you have cut off your right hand with your left”. Before long, without the power behind the throne there to protect him, Valentinian himself was murdered.

17 Notable Figures Who Really Wielded the Power in the Shadow of those They Were Sworn to Serve
Empress Dowager Cixi broke all the rules to modernize her country. YouTube.

14. The Empress Dowager Cixi had her own nephew, the Guangxu Emperor, placed under house arrest and then set about modernizing China

She started out as an imperial concubine – a sexual plaything for the royal court – but made her way up to become the most powerful figure in all of China. What’s more, she remained in such a position for almost 50 years. In more way than one, the Empress Dowager Cixi can be credited with bringing her country into the 20th century, pushing through hugely significant social and economic reforms. So, how did Cixi go from concubine to being the power behind the throne of not just one but two Chinese Emperors?

Born in 1835, Cixi was chosen to be one of the favored concubines of the Xianfeng Emperor while she was still in her teens. She gave birth to a son, Zaichun in 1856 and, when the ruler died just five years later, the boy was named the Tongzhi Emperor. Since he was just six-years-old, a group of regents ruled in his place. Using her charms as well as her political cunning, Cixi ousted the group and installed herself as the regent. Over the next couple of years, she built her power up to such an extent that, when the Tongzhi Emperor died in 1875, she was able to crown her nephew his successor. This completely broke with the rules of succession that had been in place for 200 years, proof that it was Cixi rather than the old elites who was really calling the shots.

From that point on, while her nephew ruled as the Guangxu Emperor, it was the Empress Dowager Cixi who was the real power behind the throne. She supported a wide range of reforms, introducing new technology from the West while making sure to avoid importing Western political models of social trends. Around the turn of the century, fearing the Emperor was planning to assassinate his own aunt, she had him arrested and placed under house arrest. She would then rule almost completely unchecked until her death in 1908.

To her critics, Cixi was a despot who broke the traditional rules of imperial succession to satisfy her own thirst for power. To many, however, she was a smart, albeit ruthless politician. Thanks to her leadership, China was set on the course to becoming a constitutional monarchy, bringing the traditional, conservative nation into the 20th century.

17 Notable Figures Who Really Wielded the Power in the Shadow of those They Were Sworn to Serve
Cardinal de Richelieu was ruthless and ambitious and he had the ear of the King. Wikipedia.

15. Cardinal de Richelieu transformed French politics and society by making himself a powerful voice in the King’s ear

In 17th century France, the King had absolute power. The Church, however, was also highly powerful. Both institutions were reliant on the support of the other, something Cardinal Arman Jean du Plessis, the 1st Duke of Richelieu realized all too well. Far from being a humble man of God, he was ambitious and power-hungry and used his position in the Catholic Church, as well as his cunning, to become the most powerful man in the court of Louis XIII. While he may not have been born with royal blood, he was seen by many as the true power behind the French throne.

Richelieu’s rise to prominence was swift and spectacular. Born in 1585, he was a Catholic bishop by the age of 32. By 1616, he was France’s Foreign Secretary and then, two years after being made a Cardinal, he was named Louis XIII’s chief minister in 1624. It was a position he would held for almost two decades until his death in 1642. He used his unique position to block the nobles’ access to the king. This way, he steadily kept the nobility out of government. Many go so far as crediting Richelieu with the transformation of France into a strong, highly-centralized state.

Outside of domestic politics, Richelieu also dictated French foreign policy. He made allies and he made enemies, always seeking to ensure French dominance, even if it meant signing agreements with Protestants. The ‘Red Eminence’ also transformed the nation’s cultural life, above all promoting and protecting the French language. Even when he died, he still had a say in the affairs of state – after all, his successor was Cardinal Mazarin, a man who he had personally chosen and groomed for the role.

While for many, Richelieu is the ultimate example of the ‘power behind the throne’ phenomenon, historians of 17th century France often argue that, though he undoubtedly had huge amounts of power and influence, ultimately, the King was in charge. The so-called Day of the Dupes is held up as evidence for this. On this day in November 1630, it looked like Richelieu’s time was up. His enemies joined forces and gained the queen mother’s backing. They demanded the King dismiss his closest adviser. Apparently, even Richelieu himself expected to be dismissed. In the end, however, Louis XIII kept him in power – proof that Richelieu’s elevated status at the Court was wholly dependent on royal approval.

17 Notable Figures Who Really Wielded the Power in the Shadow of those They Were Sworn to Serve
Did Rasputin really have control over the Tsar of Russia. His enemies thought so. Wikipedia.

16. Grigori Rasputin wormed his way into the affections of the Russian royal family, though how much power he had over the Tsar is a mystery

He was the holy man who charmed his way into the inner circle of the Russian royal family. Grigori Rasputin came from almost nowhere to be far more than just a friend to the family of Tsar Nicholas II, the last monarch of Russia. But just how powerful was the ‘Mad Monk’? Did he, as some contemporaries feared, have almost complete control over the royal family? Or did the Tsar merely tolerate his presence knowing that his wife was happy and his son safe? This has long been – and continues to be – the source of much heated debate.

Born a Siberian peasant in 1869, Rasputin joined the Orthodox Church as a young man. After years of wandering, he ended up in St. Petersburg and used his unique charms and mysticisms to start making a name for himself within Russian society. He became acquainted with the ruling Romanovs and offered to treat their son, Alexei, who suffered from hemophilia. He allegedly stopped the boy’s bleeding. The Tsarina was amazed and hugely grateful. She invited Rasputin to become her son’s primary carer, bringing him into the inner circle.

Just how powerful Rasputin was within this inner circle is highly debatable. He did give some military tips to the Tsar. Most notably, in the summer of 1915 he advised the Tsar to take full control of the Russian Army. This meant the King left the capital for the front, leaving the Tsarina – and, critics argued, Rasputin, too – in charge of the country. Undoubtedly, the self-proclaimed man of God did have some hold over the Tsarina. However, claims that he used her as his puppet or that he had sexual relations with numerous women of high society may just have been anti-monarchical propaganda spread in the wake of the 1917 revolution.

The Tsar’s supporters certainly believed Rasputin to be a harmful influence. In December 2016, they murdered him in the most brutal way imaginable, and then threw his body into the river. But it was too late to save the Russian monarchy. Just a few weeks later, the people rose up. Tired of the war, the Russians demanded their Tsar step down. The Russian Revolution had begun.


Where did we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“Otto von Bismarck.” History.com

“Second World War History: Martin Bormann.” Spartacus Educational.

“He made men into kings: The all-powerful Earl of Warwick.” Royal Berkshire History.

“Satirical film targets Italy’s Andreotti.” Reuters, May 2008.

“Edith Wilson: America’s First Woman President?” ThoughtCo.

“Jim Farley’s Story: The Roosevelt Years.” Foreign Affairs, October 1948.

“Diego Portales, Chilean Politician.” Encyclopedia Britannica.

“Catherine de Medici (1519-1589).” BBC History.

“John Dee: the man who spoke to angels.” Daily Telegraph, January 2016.

“Cardinal Richelieu: Renaissance and Reformation.” Oxford Bibliographies.

“Meet the Empress Dowager who Helped Modernize China.” National Geographic, December 2016.

“Rasputin: 5 Myths and Truths About the Mystic Russian Monk.” Time Magazine, December 2016.