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

History has been made by kings, queens, presidents and dictators. It’s those people in positions of power – earned or not – whose names have been written in the history books, for better or worse. But, sometimes, it’s not always those who appear to be in control who are really pulling the strings. Sometimes there’s another ‘power behind the throne’. In fact, over the millennia there have been numerous notable instances of a close adviser, military general, spouse or even lover of a ruler, exerting considerable influence and changing the course of history.

Sometimes such interference can be justified. And sometimes it was helpful. At other times, however, the opposite is the case. Power being exerted and wielded ‘behind the throne’ can be undemocratic and dangerous. These following examples of the most noteworthy cases of this phenomenon are a mixture of the two. And some might even make you question what you thought you knew about history…

17 Notable Figures Who Really Wielded the Power in the Shadow of those They Were Sworn to Serve
Bismarck (left) was a far more dominant man than his Kaiser and usually got his way. LiveJournal.

1. Otto von Bismarck was the most powerful statesman in all of Europe, even more so than the Kaiser whose orders he was supposed to obey

As the King of Prussia and then as the first Kaiser (or Emperor) of Germany, Wilhelm I was, in theory, all-powerful. Even under the new Constitution which united the different German states to form one large and powerful country, he held considerable sway. But far from making full use of his hereditary – and, some believed, God-given – powers, he left most major decisions to his Chancellor, Otto von Bismarck. And so, while Wilhelm I is largely remembered as a good-natured, quiet man, Bismarck is widely regarded as one of the most powerful and influential statesmen of all time. He truly was the real power behind the German throne.

Born into significant wealth in April 1815, Otto von Bismarck enjoyed a privileged upbringing. After a time in the military, he entered politics. A strict conservative, he began to dominate Prussia, the largest and richest of all the German states, by the beginning of the 1860s. In 1862, Wilhelm I appointed him Minister President of Prussia. Though technically answerable to his king, Bismarck almost always got his way. Indeed, it was Bismarck, not Wilhelm, who was credited with securing victory over France in the 1871 Franco-Prussian War. He also then took the credit for uniting the German states and creating one, powerful country on the back of the military success.

Wilhelm had wanted to be named the Kaiser of all Germany. His wife and heirs agreed. Bismarck did not, fearing it would antagonize some of the states. In the end, Bismarck got his way. In fact, he almost always got his way. Almost from the moment of unification, Wilhelm contented himself with being a figurehead rather than a true leader. This was very much in keeping with the pair’s personalities: in contrast to Wilhelm, Bismarck was strong-willed, overbearing, outspoken and prone to violent rages. He also had complete belief in his own abilities, unlike the self-doubting Wilhelm.

In the end, it was the Kaiser’s son, Wilhelm II, a far more confident man than his father, who removed Bismarck from office in 1890. The elder statesman was 75. By that point, Bismarck had fought with the French over the annexation of Alsace and Lorraine – a dispute that would boil over and be a leading factor in the outbreak of the First World War.

17 Notable Figures Who Really Wielded the Power in the Shadow of those They Were Sworn to Serve
The Earl of Warwick grew so powerful that he chose who should be King. Wikipedia.

2. Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick, became known as the ‘Kingmaker’ as he had enough power and wealth to decide who sat on the throne of England

In mid-15th-century England, the King of England was not the most powerful man in the country. That honor fell to a man named Richard Neville, the 16th Earl of Warwick. Not only was he immensely rich, he was hugely influential, too. So much so, in fact, that he became known as ‘The Kingmaker’. While his own bloodline meant he had no claim on the throne himself, the Earl of Warwick held such power that he could pick and chose who would be king – a power he was all to happy to wield.

Richard Neville was actually born the Earl of Salisbury in 1428. His father, also the Earl of Salisbury, was one of the richest men in the country, owning huge amounts of land around the historic cathedral city. When he was just six, Richard became engaged to the daughter of the Earl of Warwick. This meant, when the Earl of Warwick’s male heir died, Richard inherited the title, and along with it, immense wealth. So, when his own uncle, the Duke of York, argued that he should be king instead of the Lancastrian Henry VI, the Earl of Warwick and his father rallied to their relative’s side.

The battle for the throne developed into the War of the Roses. Richard’s father, the Earl of Salisbury, fell in one battle, passing his land onto his son. Overnight, Richard was the richest man in all of England. He was more powerful too. As such, when the Duke of York also fell in battle, Richard backed the Duke’s son, Edward. After several notable military victories, the House of York won. Richard appointed Edward the King of England. Foolishly, the young monarch tried to reign on his own, ignoring Richard’s advice. As a result, Richard had him kicked off the throne and ‘the kingmaker’ brought Henry VI back to rule over England once again.

The Earl of Warwick’s status as the power behind the English throne was short-lived, however. The ousted Edward managed to raise an army and challenged the Kingmaker on the field of battle. At the Battle of Barnet in 1471, Richard was killed. His naked body was then paraded through the streets of London – a warning that no man should try and meddle in affairs of the crown.

17 Notable Figures Who Really Wielded the Power in the Shadow of those They Were Sworn to Serve
According to some, Martin Bormann was the man pulling the strings at the end of the Third Reich. Wikimedia Commons.

3. Martin Bormann was more than Hitler’s secretary – he decided who the dictator should see and what orders he passed on

Short, fat and uncouth: Martin Bormann was a long way from the archetypal Aryan superman. He was also more likely to be found in a grey suit in an office than in an immaculately-tailored uniform being photographed at a rally or at the frontline of the war. But appearances can be deceiving. Bormann served as Adolf Hitler’s private secretary. To get to Hitler, people, including the most senior of Nazi officials, needed to go through him, giving him a unique position of power within the Third Reich. Indeed, he was often referred to as the ‘Brown Eminence’ in reference to his dull personality and clothes as well as to the way be pulled the strings behind the scenes.

According to some scholars of the Nazi regime, as Hitler became increasingly unstable and paranoid, Bormann used his position at the head of the Reich Chancellery to shape policy not just at home but also in the theater of war too. In the words of the historian Louis L. Snyder, “He was, indeed, the power behind Hitler’s throne. Under his unprepossessing exterior was the classic manipulator, the anonymous power seeker who worked in secrecy and outmaneuvered all his rivals seeking Hitler’s ear.”

For his part, Hitler was often open in his praise of Bormann. He would rant that his generals needed to be more like Bormann, both in their work-rate and in their reliability. Inevitably, many senior Nazis, including Himmler and Goering, grew jealous and suspicious of Bormann. However, he used his position as the gatekeeper to Hitler to pit his rivals off against one another, allowing him to retain his position of power and influence right up until the very end of the Third Reich.

Bormann took control of the regime following Hitler’s suicide in 1945. Within a matter of days, however, he too had taken his own life, most likely jumping off a bridge on the outskirts of Berlin. He was tried in absentia and sentenced to death for war crimes and crimes against humanity, proof, if it was needed that this seemingly-unremarkable administrator was at the very heart of the worst excesses of Nazism.

17 Notable Figures Who Really Wielded the Power in the Shadow of those They Were Sworn to Serve
Giulio Andreotti, here with Thatcher, was the driving force of Italian politics for decades. The Times.

4. Giulio Andreotti dominated Italian politics for almost half-a-decade, despite not being Prime Minister for much of that time

Though he may not be very well-known outside of Italy, there can be little doubt that Giulio Andreotti was one of the most important political figures in post-war Europe. Quite simply, he dominated Italian politics for decades. Not only did he hold the office of Prime Minister for three separate terms, he was also believed to be running the country even when he wasn’t in office. Not for nothing was Andreotti described as Italy’s own Éminence grise, operating behind-the-scenes to shape Italian politics and society to his own liking.

Despite his humble background – Andreotti was born in 1919, one of three children of a Roman school teacher – he excelled at university and was a rising political star in his mid-20s. By the time he was in his 40s, he was the leader of the Christian Democrat party and then, in 1972, he became Prime Minister for the first time. He would hold the highest office in the land on two more occasions between 1976 and 1992. However, it was the power he wielded while he was in opposition or in another government post that led him to being called the true ‘power behind the throne’ of Italian politics during the 1980s and 90s.

In all, Andreotti was active in Italian politics for more than 40 years. During this time, Italy went from being a largely-rural economy into one of the biggest economies in all of Europe. Andreotti has been widely credited with overseeing this national transformation, using his connections in the Vatican as well as in politics to modernize his country. To his detractors, however, his power was often undemocratic. Moreover, ever since the 1970s, it’s been widely alleged that Andreotti’s associations with organized crime were closer than he ever disclosed. Andreotti, who was sometimes jokingly referred to as the ‘Divine Julius’, in reference to both his longevity and the power he held in Roman society, died in 2013 at the age of 94.

17 Notable Figures Who Really Wielded the Power in the Shadow of those They Were Sworn to Serve
During his second term, Edith Wilson was more than just her husband’s helper. Wikipedia.

5. Edith Wilson took over at the White House when her husband, President Woodrow Wilson, was incapacitated by a stroke

As almost everyone knows, there has never been a female President of the United States. Or has there? Of course, no woman has ever been elected to the highest office in America. But did Edith Wilson actually function as the president after her husband, President Woodrow Wilson, suffered a debilitating stroke while in the White House? Some scholars believe she may have. Either way, there’s no doubting that Wilson was far more than a subservient First Lady, but instead was an informed and active participant in her husband’s administration.

Wilson was born Edith Bolling in October 1872. She had little formal education, but was still well-read and resourceful. On a trip to Washington DC to visit her sister, she met Norma Gait. As one of America’s most prominent jewelers, he was in a position to offer her a comfortable future. The pair married in 1896. But then, in 1908, Norman died suddenly. Edith was left a widow. She used part of her inheritance to tour Europe and then, a few years after returning to America, she was introduced to Woodrow Wilson, the President of the United States and himself a widower. The pair wed in a private ceremony at Edith’s home in 1915.

For the remainder of President Wilson’s first term, Edith was a constant presence. Then, when he suffered from a stroke in October 1919, she stepped up to become almost the de facto President of the United States. It was Edith who decided what papers her ailing husband could read in bed. If she didn’t think a matter deserved his attention, she never showed it to him – in essence, Edith, who had no experience in politics and who had never been elected to any office, was in charge of the executive branch of the American government. This carried on until President Wilson’s second term of office came to an end in May 1921,

Ever since, Edith Wilson’s exact role, and the justification for it, have been the subject of fierce debate. To some of her critics, Edith actually limited the effectiveness of some of President Wilson’s more ambitious reforms, while others charge that she was in well out of her depth and may even have been acting illegally. True or not, it’s clear she was the real power in the White House for a few years despite never winning a single vote for herself.

17 Notable Figures Who Really Wielded the Power in the Shadow of those They Were Sworn to Serve
Was James Farley (right) the real reason FDR made it to the White House? Getty Images

6. James Farley was credited with being the genius behind Roosevelt’s election wins, but never managed to land the top job himself

In 1924, James Farley met Franklin Roosevelt at the Democratic National Convention. Almost straight away, they bonded. More than that, they both saw enormous potential in the other man. Four years later, Roosevelt appointed Farley his campaign manager when he ran for New York governor. FDR won, of course. And then he won again in 1930, with Farley’s astute analysis of key voters and tactics widely credited with being a main cause of Roosevelt’s success at the polls. In 1932, FDR decided to go for the big job. Farley, the son of brick-making immigrants, was dubbed the presidential ‘kingmaker’ as the nation went to the polls.

In return for his invaluable help, President Roosevelt named Farley the U.S. Postmaster General. He also appointed him the chairman of the Democratic National Committee as well as the New York State Democratic Committee, giving him a huge amount of influence. At the same time, Farley’s position on the board of Coca-Cola meant that he cashed in and made a small fortune when the American Army decided to make the fizzy drink an essential item for troops serving overseas in the Second World War.

For a short spell prior to FDR’s initial election to the White House, and then during his re-election campaign four years later, Farley was arguably the most powerful political figure in the whole country. According to some scholars, he was pulling the strings and had the power to make or break the presidency. But his power could only last for so long. In 1940, he and Roosevelt clashed head-on. FDR wanted to run for a third term. Farley believed a President should be restricted to two terms (and, it’s believed he also had presidential ambitions of his own). In the end, FDR ran again and won. The Kingmaker’s hold on American politics was over.

But perhaps Farley did have one last trick up his sleeve. When his old friend Harry Truman became President, Farley worked with him to alter the 22nd amendment of the Constitution. From that point onwards, no President would be allowed to serve for more than two terms.

17 Notable Figures Who Really Wielded the Power in the Shadow of those They Were Sworn to Serve
Ricier was so powerful, he even had coins minted in his honor, like an Emperor would have. Alchreton.

7. Flavius Ricimer pulled the strings as the Roman Empire faded, installing and then deposing Emperors at will

The decline and ultimate fall of the Roman Empire was a messy time. Emperors came and went, territory was lost and sometimes regained, and over the period of just a few decades, the once-dominant global superpower vanished for good. Pulling the strings for several decades was Flavius Ricimer. Though his family background meant he was unable to become Emperor himself, he maneuvered himself into such a position of power that he was able to act as such. He used, and discarded, several puppet rulers before he died of natural causes.

Ricimer was born into wealth and privilege in around 405AD. While his ancestors were all European royalty, they were members of tribes and kingdoms conquered by Rome. As a result, Ricimer would never be able to stake a claim to the Emperor’s throne. But that didn’t stop him from aiming for the very top. As a young man, he joined the Roman Army. While serving as an officer, he befriended Flavius Julius Majorianus, a member of one of the leading families in the Western Empire. In 457, he was named Emperor, due in no small part to the fact he listed to the sage political advice of Ricimer. In return for his help, the new Emperor made Ricimer magister militum, literally the master of his soldiers.

It was a position the young man took full advantage of. When Majorian was defeated in battle by the Vandals, Ricimer convinced the Senate to have him deposed. What’s more, he made sure his former friend was arrested and executed. Ricimer then used his position to appoint a new Emperor. This time, the new man, Libius Servus, would be his puppet. He ruled from 461 to 465, with Ricimer in the background pulling the strings. Even when a new Emperor, Anthemius, came to power with the backing of the Eastern Roman Empire, Ricimer maintained his power simply by marrying the new man’s daughter.

Anthemius also fell foul of Ricimer. When he failed in his campaign against the Vandals, Ricimer had his own father-in-law arrested and beheaded. He then appointed another of his own men, Olybrius, as Emperor. Soon after, however, Ricimer, who was in his mid-60s, died. A few months late, Olybrus followed him. The Western Roman Empire was at an end, with a new King of Italy declared to replace the old system.

17 Notable Figures Who Really Wielded the Power in the Shadow of those They Were Sworn to Serve
Zhou Enlai was argaubly the most powerful man in China for 30 years. South China Morning Post.

8. Zhou Enlai concentrated on running China while Chairman Mao concentrated on matters of ideology

He was, for around three decades, Mao’s right-hand-man. Some scholars of Chinese history even believe that Zhou Enlai was even more powerful and influential than the infamous Chairman himself. Indeed, to many, he was the ultimate example of someone being the true ‘power behind the throne’. Flying largely under the radar, he wielded significant influence and used his unique position at the very top of the Chinese Communist Party to shape the country’s economic policy, as well as shaping the nation’s foreign policies.

Born in 1898, Zhou was a prize-winning student as a young boy. Then, as a young man, he studied in Japan and became interested in politics, and in particular in the Russian Revolution of 1917. He returned to China and became active in student politics, joining the nascent Communist Party. Ever-ambitious, Zhou worked his way up to the very top and became the first Premier of the People’s Republic of China in 1949. It was a role he would hold right up until his death in January 1946.

Zhou served directly alongside Chairman Mao. The extent of his influence and power has long been the source of much debate. Certainly, he was in control of China’s foreign policy, and it was perhaps thanks to him that the Communist state embarked on a policy of peaceful coexistence with the capitalist West from the late-1940s onwards. It’s also likely that he had a big say – perhaps the biggest say – in domestic policies during the 1950s and 60s. Zhou was one of the few figures to emerge unscathed from the Cultural Revolution, and after this, it’s assumed he was in control of day-to-day affairs while Mao concerned himself with matters of ideology.

Zhou died in 1976, just months before Mao’s death. Looking back, scholars of China have called him a true ‘King Whisperer’. Undoubtedly, Zhou had the ear of Mao and almost certainly used his unique position to have a say in the making of history.

17 Notable Figures Who Really Wielded the Power in the Shadow of those They Were Sworn to Serve
Diego Portales was a true dictator, even if he was never President of Chile. Pinterest.

9. Diego Portales ruled over Chile with an iron fist, but he was a dictator who never held the top political office in the country

He never the office of President of Chile. In fact, the highest political office he held was that of Minister of the Interior. But nevertheless, Diego Portales was undoubtedly the most powerful man in all of Chile during one of the most significant periods in the country’s history. Indeed, he effectively ruled as dictator, having his way over a range of issues, from religion through to politics and the economy. Despite being a hugely controversial figure during his own lifetime, Portales is held in high regard by a significant proportion of the Chilean public and his legacy can still be seen in the country to this day.

Portales was born in 1793 into relative wealth. He then made himself a fortune as a young man, having been awarded a monopoly on tea, tobacco and alcoholic liquor. Though the arrangement was short-lived, it was enough to set him up for life, and more than enough to establish two newspapers. Portales used these newspapers to put forward his political views. Quite simply, he believed in strict authoritarian rule, with power restricted to a handful of rich and powerful individuals. And so, when the Conservative Party came to power in 1830 and he was invited to become a minister, he saw the chance to put his beliefs into action.

Using the new-look 1833 Constitution as the basis for his actions, Portales became the de facto dictator of Chile. He barred both Liberals and members of the military from holding any power. What’s more, he even had his Liberal opponents jailed and their media shut down, with his own newspapers supporting such intolerant actions. Though Presidents came and went, Portales held the real power in the country. So much so, in fact, that he even started a war, in part to protect his own business interests. In 1836, Chile went to war with Peru and Bolivia. Though Chile emerged victorious, Portales himself was killed by enemy assassins. His days of ruling the country single-handedly were over, though the reforms he pushed through as a strongman would lay the foundations for Chile’s social and economic progress over the next century.

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:

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“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.