These People Were The Real Power Behind The Throne
These People Were The Real Power Behind The Throne

These People Were The Real Power Behind The Throne

Khalid Elhassan - July 13, 2023

These People Were The Real Power Behind The Throne
Thomas Stanley, 1st Earl of Derby. British Museum

The Earl Who Held the Balance of Power in the War of the Roses

Thomas Stanley, 1st Earl of Derby (1435 – 1504), effectively ended one dynasty and placed another on the throne in 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, after he named his brother Richard guardian and regent during the minority of Edward’s twelve-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 rival Lancastrian line, Henry landed in England in 1485, after years of exile. Richard gathered his forces, which included a large contingent commanded by Thomas Stanley, 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 positions of power 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.

These People Were The Real Power Behind The Throne
The fall of King Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth. Pinterest

The Betrayal That Ended a Dynasty

Thomas Stanley was stuck between the rock of loyalty, and the hard place of peace and tranquility at home. So he played both sides, and secretly contacted his stepson and King Richard’s rival, Henry Tudor, to explore defection. Richard found out, 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, and waited to see which side looked like a winner. A livid Richard III sent Stanley a message, in which he threatened to execute his son unless he immediately attacked the Lancastrians. The Earl coolly replied: “Sire, I have other sons“.

These People Were The Real Power Behind The Throne
Thomas Stanley crowns Henry Tudor after the Battle of Bosworth. Murrey and Blue

Richard ordered Stanley’s son executed, but the order was not immediately carried out, and soon it was too late. As the afternoon wore on, Stanley made up his mind that Richard was losing, so he ordered an attack – against Richard and the Yorkist forces. That decisively tipped the scales in favor of Henry Tudor. Richard launched a desperate attack in a bid to reach and cut down his rival, only to get cut down himself. After Richard’s death, Stanley found his fallen crown in some shrubs, and personally placed it on Henry Tudor’s head. The newly crowned Henry VII, Stanley’s stepson and new English monarch, ended the Plantagenet dynasty 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.

These People Were The Real Power Behind The Throne
Marble bust of Pompey. Louvre Museum

Pompey the Great Literally Made 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 fell out and fought 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 treachery, greed, and ruthlessness. Pompey’s father allied with the Roman general Sulla, and was killed in a civil war against Sulla’s Marian rivals in 87 BC.

Nineteen-year-old Pompey inherited his father’s vast wealth and, more importantly, his legions. Upon Sulla’s return to Italy from a war against Pontus, Pompey joined him with his inherited legion as he marched on and seized power in Rome. Sulla then sent Pompey to recapture Sicily and Africa from his Marian opponents, which the youngster accomplished in two lightning campaigns by 81 BC. After he executed the captured Marians, Pompey was hailed by his troops as Magnus, or “the Great”. After Sulla’s retirement, Pompey menaced the Senate and got it to appoint 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.

These People Were The Real Power Behind The Throne
Romans under Pompey’s command take on Mediterranean pirates. Pinterest

The Real Power Behind the Late Roman Republic

In 67 BC, Pompey was given authority throughout the Mediterranean to settle a piracy problem that had grown out of control. He did so in a brilliant campaign that lasted only three months. Pompey was then appointed to command a war against Pontus, and granted authority to settle the entire eastern Mediterranean. To accomplish that, he annexed some kingdoms to the Roman Republic, and reduced others to client states. He engaged in wholesale king-making, and removed and appointed kings and rulers throughout a vast territory that stretched from the Danube to the Red Sea. That settlement, Pompey’s greatest and longest lasting achievement, endured with few modifications for over 500 years. When he returned to Italy in 62 BC, Pompey sought land upon which to settle his veterans, and legislation to ratify his settlement of the east. However, political chaos in Rome prevented that.

These People Were The Real Power Behind The Throne
The murder of Pompey the Great. The Ancients

To accomplish his goals, Pompey formed a Triumvirate with Julius Caesar and Marcus Licinius Crassus to divide Rome’s power amongst the trio. To seal the deal, he married 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. They 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. Pompey fled, and sailed to Egypt, where he was inveigled to come ashore. As soon as his feet touched Egyptian soil, he was assassinated and had his head chopped off.

These People Were The Real Power Behind The Throne
Augustus. Encyclopedia Britannica

Augustus Repeated Pompey’s King-making

After his victory over Mark Antony and Cleopatra in 31 BC, Gaius Octavius, better known to history as Augustus (63 BC – 14 AD), reorganized power 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. He was an unlikely kingmaker. 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, engaged in military and academic studies, when Caesar was assassinated in 44 BC. When he returned 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 key figure in a politically powerful but militarily weak faction, sought to manipulate him. He quipped that he would “raise, praise, then erase” Octavius.

These People Were The Real Power Behind The Throne
Bronze bust of Augustus. British Museum

From a Power Behind the Scenes, to Top Dog

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, cut a deal 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, defeated them, and exacted revenge. The duo swore friendship, and to seal the bargain, Antony married Octavius’ sister. They then divided the Roman Empire: Antony ruled the east, while Octavius stayed in Rome and ruled the west. Things soured when Antony fell in love with Queen Cleopatra in Egypt, married her, and abandoned 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, and finally brought the entire Roman realm under his control. After his victory, Octavius engaged in a round of king-making in the Eastern Mediterranean, nearly as extensive as that of Pompey the Great a generation earlier.

These People Were The Real Power Behind The Throne

The Indian Philosopher Who Became a Power Behind the Throne

Kautilya, also known as Chanakya or Vishnugupta (flourished in the fourth century BC), was an Indian philosopher, teacher, and royal advisor. He pioneered the field of political science when he penned the Arthashastra (“The Science of Material Gain”), history’s first political treatise on statecraft, economic policy, and military strategy. It was a compilation of all that had been written up to his time about artha (economics, property, or material success). Kautila was also a kingmaker who played an instrumental role in the rise of Chandrugupta and the establishment of his Mauryan Empire.

Kautilya was a Brahmin priest, who had the misfortune of being ugly as sin. One day, a king named Dhana Nanda, disgusted by Kautilya’s appearance, ordered him thrown out of a ceremony. Understandably upset, Kautilya vowed revenge, and set out to find a substitute monarch. He managed to recruit the king’s own son, Pabbata, and also came across a promising youth, Chandragupta. With Chandragupta and Pabbata, Kautilya had two potential contenders. So to choose between them, he devised a test.

These People Were The Real Power Behind The Throne
Kautilya and Chandragupta, as depicted in modern media. Pinterest

The Power Behind the Mauryan Empire

Kautilya gave each of Pabbata and Chandragupta an amulet, dangling from a thread to be worn around the neck. One day, while Chandragupta slept, Kautilya asked Pabbata to remove the amulet from his neck without waking him. Pabbata tried, but failed when Chandragupta woke up. A few days later, while Pabbata slept, Kautilya asked Chandragupta if he could remove the amulet without waking him. Chandragupta came up with a simple but ruthless solution: he chopped off Pabbata’s head. Kautilya had his man. For the next few years, until Chandragupta reached adulthood, Kautilya instructed him in royal duties and the art of governance.

When his charge came of age, Kautilya raised an army and marched against Dhana Nanda. After an initial setback, kingmaker and would-be king emerged victorious, and killed Dhana Nanda. Kautilya then anointed Chandragupta the new king. He remained by the new monarch’s side as chief advisor, while Chandragupta expanded his realm to create the Mauryan Empire. After Chandragupta’s death, Kautilya continued in his role as chief adviser to his son and successor, Bindusara. Thanks to Kautilya, the Mauryan Empire under Chandragupta, and later Asoka (reigned circa 268 – 232 BC) became a model of good administration and efficient government.


Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading

Barton, Dunbar B. – The Amazing Career of Bernadotte (1930)

BBC History – Augustus

Bedoyere, Guy de la – Praetorian: The Rise and Fall of Rome’s Imperial Bodyguard (2017)

Encyclopedia Britannica – Carl Otto Morner

Encyclopedia Britannica – Thomas Stanley, 1st Earl of Derby

Flomen, Max, McGill University Classics – The Original Godfather: Ricimer and the Fall of Rome

Glubb, John Bagot – A Short History of the Arab Peoples (1969)

Gordon, Matthew – The Breaking of a Thousand Swords: A History of the Turkish Military of Samarra, AH 200-275/ 815-889 CE (2001)

Greece & Rome, Vol. 22, No. 66 (Oct., 1953) – Decline and Fall of Pompey the Great

Historia, Bd. 44, H. 3 (3rd Qtr., 1995) – The Birth of Ricimer

Historic UK – Warwick, the Kingmaker

History Collection – The 10 Women Behind 10 of the Most Influential Men in History

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

India Netzone – Sayyid Brothes in Later Mughal Politics

Leach, John – Pompey the Great (1978)

Lumanriaum Encyclopedia Project – Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick, ‘The Kingmaker’

Mason, Emma – The House of Godwine: The History of a Dynasty (2004)

Mookerji, Radhakumud – Chandragupta Maurya and His Times (1966)

News Nine – Sayyid Brothers: Know About the Siblings in Mughal Court Who Dictated the Course of the Empire in Early 18th Century

Oman, Charles – The Dark Ages, 476-918 AD (1914)

Singh, Upinder – A History of Ancient and Early Medieval India: From the Stone Age to the 12th Century (2008)

Spectator, The, March 4th, 2017 – Who Will Guard the Guards?

Suetonius – The Twelve Caesars: Life of Augustus

Traditio, Vol. 28, 1972 – Earl Godwin of Wessex and Edward the Confessor’s Promise of the Throne to William of Normandy

World History Encyclopedia – Pompey

World History Encyclopedia – Praetorian Guard