These People Were The Real Power Behind The Throne

These People Were The Real Power Behind The Throne

Khalid Elhassan - July 13, 2023

The power and authority wielded by the mighty has often been delegated to subordinates. Sometimes, those subordinates become mighty in their own right, and evolve into the real power behind the throne of their employers. Or even eclipse their bosses, and outright replace them. Charlemagne’s father was one such. Below are twenty five things about him, and other historic subordinates who became the real power behind the throne of their patrons.

These People Were The Real Power Behind The Throne
Charles Martel, mayor of the palace, divides power between his sons Pepin and Carloman. Gallica Digital Library

The Mayors of the Palace Who Became the Power Behind the Throne of this Dark Age Dynasty

Ancient Roman land magnates employed a major domus (mayor, or administrator of the household) to supervise and oversee their numerous, often scattered, estates. After the fall of the Western Roman Empire fell, the Frankish kings of the Merovingian Dynasty employed a similar functionary known as the major palatii (mayor of the palace) to do the same for their households and properties. While a Roman major domus wielded significant delegated authority on behalf of his employers, the Frankish mayors of the palace took that a step further. Mayors of the palace became a power, or the power, behind the throne of their royal employers, whom they reduced to puppets. They were helped by a series of Merovingian child kings who were crowned in the late sixth century.

These People Were The Real Power Behind The Throne
The coronation of Pepin in 751. The J. Paul Getty Museum

The mayors of the palace, as tutors of the young royals, came to control the government during the minority of their charges. With the passage of time, they began to wield power even after the kings came of age. In the mid-seventh century, members of the Carolingian family began to hold mayoral power in the Frankish kingdom of Austrasia. From there, they expanded their influence until they came to control the Frankish kingdoms of Neustria and Burgundy as well. They also made the position hereditary. Eventually, they tired of the charade, and did away with the Merovingian kings altogether. In 751, Pepin III the Short, father of Charles the Great or Charlemagne, kicked the last Merovingian monarch, Childeric III, off the throne. He took the crown for himself, and established the Carolingian Dynasty, which survived until the twelfth century.

These People Were The Real Power Behind The Throne
Eighth century Turks. Horse Nomads Info

The Mercenaries Who Became the Power Behind the Abbasid Caliphs

The Abbasid Caliphate (750 – 1258) was the second of two hereditary dynasties that claimed suzerainty over the Islamic world. At the height of their power, the Abbasids’ realm stretched from the Atlantic Ocean to the borders of China, and from Central Asia to India’s borders. Things fell apart when shortsighted caliphs hired Turkish mercenaries, then failed to control them. It began in the ninth century, with al Mu’tasim, a younger son of the dynasty’s most famous caliph, Harun al Rashid – a contemporary of Charlemagne and a recurring character in the Arabian Nights fables.

Al Mu’tasim created a private army of Turkish mercenaries and slaves, and formed them into a Turkish Guard that helped him secure power in 833. Unfortunately, the Turks engaged in widespread robberies and assaults that made them hugely unpopular with the civilian population. So in a bid to reduce the friction between his subjects and soldiers, al Mu’tasim relocated his capital in 835 from Baghdad to a new city, Samarra. That calmed things down for a while, but did not solve the core conundrum of how to control the Turkish mercenaries.

These People Were The Real Power Behind The Throne
A Turkish warrior, left, in Abbasid employ. Pinterest

The Slave Soldiers Who Controlled a Caliphate

In 861, things came to a head in what came to be known as “The Anarchy at Samarra”. It began when the Turkish Guard murdered the caliph al Mutawakkil, and replaced him with his brother, al Muntasir. The new caliph lasted for six months, before the Turks did him in. They then held a conference to appoint a successor, al Musta’in. He escaped in 865, but the mercenaries pursued, captured, and put him to death. The Turks then appointed another caliph, al Mu’tazz, but he bucked. So they deposed and killed him in 869, and replaced him with another puppet, al Muhtadi.

Al Muhtadi also tried to assert his authority, only to get murdered by the mercenaries and replaced in 870. The anarchy finally ended with the appointment of a caliph who realized that power no longer lay with himself, and accepted his role as a puppet. The Abbasid Caliphate stumbled on for another four centuries. It survived as a shadow of what it had once been, with its caliphs as playthings of strongmen and sultans. It finally came to an end in 1258, when the Mongols sacked Baghdad. They rolled the last caliph inside a rug, then trampled him to death beneath their horses’ hooves.

These People Were The Real Power Behind The Throne
A Praetorian guardsman. Short History

The Bodyguards Who Became the Power Behind Roman Emperors

When Augustus replaced the Roman Republic with the Roman Empire, he created a special military unit, the Praetorian Guard. They functioned as imperial bodyguards, secret police, imperial enforcers and executioners. Augustus reorganized the Roman army to permanently station the legions on the empire’s frontiers, and left the Praetorians as the only organized military force in Rome and Italy. He kept them in check, but after his death in 14 AD, the rot set in, as the guards realized the advantages of their swords’ proximity to the emperor’s throat. In 41 AD, a Praetorian tribune tired of repeated insults from Emperor Caligula, and hacked him to pieces. The Senate declared a restoration of the Republic, but the Praetorians had other ideas: as they pillaged the imperial palace, they came upon Caligula’s uncle, Claudius, hiding behind a curtain.

These People Were The Real Power Behind The Throne
A terrified Claudius pleads for mercy, as the Praetorians prepare to enthrone him. Imgur

Claudius, a pitiful figure with a limp and stutter, had only survived the previous emperors’ paranoid slaughter of their relatives because he was deemed feebleminded. On a whim, the Praetorians dragged the terrified Claudius from behind the curtains, and as he begged for mercy, proclaimed him emperor. A relieved Claudius rewarded them with a bonus equivalent to five years’ salary. That set a precedent that all new emperors were expected to follow – or else. In the Year of the Four Emperors, 69 AD, the Praetorians abandoned Emperor Nero after a supporter of Galba, a rebellious general, offered a bribe of 7500 denarius per guard. Galba replaced Nero on the throne, but when told of his supporter’s promise, he balked, quipping “It is my habit to recruit soldiers, not bribe them“. The Praetorians threw their support to his rival, Otho, and murdered Galba.

These People Were The Real Power Behind The Throne
Praetorian guardsmen. Short History

In a Display of Raw Power, the Praetorian Guard Auctioned Off the Imperial Throne

Otho was defeated by yet another contender, Vitellius. He cashiered the Praetorians, and executed their centurions. So the ex-Praetorians joined Vespasian, another contender, who defeated Vitellius, and established the Flavian Dynasty. The cashiered Praetorians got their jobs back. Over the next century, aside from involvement in a plot that murdered Emperor Domitian in 96 AD, the Praetorians behaved themselves. They relapsed in 192, and assassinated the emperor Commodus. His successor, Pertinax, gave the Praetorians a bonus of 3000 denarii, each. That did not stop them from murdering him three months later. The Praetorians then committed their most brazen act: they auctioned off the imperial throne to the highest bidder. That was just too much: the army of the Danube proclaimed Septimius Severus emperor. He marched on Rome, seized the city, fired all the Praetorians, and replaced them with men from his own legions.

The new Praetorians were just as bad as the old, however: in 217, they assassinated Septimius Severus’ son and successor, Caracalla. Then 222, the murdered the emperor Heliogabalus and his mother, and tossed their bodies into the Tiber River. In Heliogabalus’s placed, the Praetorians appointed his cousin, Severus Alexander. Little is known about the Praetorians during a chaotic period that came to be known as The Crisis of The Third Century (235 – 284). That stretch saw the death – often violent – of at least 26 emperors and imperial claimants in a fifty year stretch. The Praetorians murdered at least one emperor in that period: Phillippus II. The Praetorians were finally disbanded in 312 by Emperor Constantine, after they backed his opponent Maxentius and lost.

These People Were The Real Power Behind The Throne
Baron Carl Otto Morner. Wikimedia

Sweden’s Nineteenth Century Crisis

In 1810, Sweden had a serious problem: an old, sick, and heirless monarch, Charles XIII, expected to keel over at any moment. The king’s heirless demise could lead to a succession crisis that would plunge the country into civil war as contenders scrambled for power. It was a particularly vulnerable moment for Sweden. A once powerful kingdom, it had been reduced to a second rate power that needed to play off Europe’s major powers against each other in order to survive. 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 its war against France and Spain to help the Swedes with more than moral support.

It was feared that internal Swedish strife could give next door Russia a pretext to invade in order to “restore order”. Once in Sweden, the Russians would probably install a puppet monarch, 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, he went ahead and offered the Swedish crown to one of Napoleon’s Marshalls, Jean-Baptiste Jules Bernadotte (1763 – 1844).

These People Were The Real Power Behind The Throne
‘Bernadotte and Napoleon’, by Chevalier Fortunino Matania. University of Michigan

The Fortunate Bernadotte

Jean-Baptiste Jules Bernadotte had risen rapidly through the ranks in the French Revolution. He went from sub-lieutenant in 1792 to brigadier general in 1794. As he campaigned in the Low Countries, Germany, and Italy, Bernadotte developed a reputation as a disciplinarian who kept his troops under tight control. In 1796, he saved the French army in Germany from destruction after 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 that eventually ended because of rivalries and misunderstandings. While relations were still good, however, Napoleon recognized Bernadotte’s talents, and in 1804, appointed him a Marshal of France. Napoleon went further in 1805, and made Bernadotte Prince of Ponto Corvo in Italy.

Relations began to sour amidst the Prussian campaign in 1806. Napoleon severely criticized Bernadotte for his failure to bring his corps to the hard-fought battles of Jena-Auerstadt, and nearly court-martialed him for dereliction of duty. The relationship collapsed at the 1809 Battle of Wagram, after which Napoleon relieved Bernadotte of command for ineptness. Fortune smiled on Bernadotte soon thereafter, however, when Baron Morner paid him a visit. While Bernadotte had not been a great general under Napoleon, he had been a humane one. After one battle, he treated Swedish prisoners kindly enough that, when they returned to Sweden, they reported good things about him. That took place just when Sweden was in search of a crown prince.

These People Were The Real Power Behind The Throne
Carl Otto Morner. Kunglia Samfundet

The Baron Who Unexpectedly Made a King and Became a Power Behind the Throne

Baron Morner was a Swedish envoy in Paris, when he offered power and the crown of Sweden to Bernadotte in 1810. The Swedish government, surprised and affronted by Morner’s unauthorized offer, had him arrested. However, the more the Swedes thought about it, the more they liked Bernadotte, and the French marshal’s candidature gradually gained favor. In August, 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.

These People Were The Real Power Behind The Throne
Marshal Bernadotte, now King Charles XIV John of Sweden, in 1843. Wikimedia

He got his chance 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 and helped 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.

These People Were The Real Power Behind The Throne
Ricimer. Wikimedia

The General Who Became the Power Behind Rome’s Imperial Throne

Flavius Ricimer (died 472) was a Romanized German general who wielded significant power behind the throne in the Roman Empire. From 456 until his death in 472, he effectively ruled the western half of the Empire. He was born into Germanic tribal royalty, his father a king of the Suebi tribe, while his mother was a daughter of the king of the Visigoths. Ricimer joined the Roman military, and served under Flavius Aetius, the Western Roman Empire’s last great general, who saved Western Europe from Attila the Hun. After Aetius’ murder in 454 by an ungrateful Emperor Valentinian III, a period of chaos followed.

Valentinian was murdered in turn, his successor was torn to pieces by a street mob, and Rome was sacked by Vandals in 455. A Visigothic king then proclaimed the Roman military commander in Gaul, Avitus, emperor. The newly enthroned Avitus promoted Ricimer to a high military rank. When he demonstrated his ability with a victory over the Vandals in 456, Avitus promoted Ricimer to the empire’s second highest military rank. Ricimer however used his new power to plot with a friend, Marjorian, to depose Avitus in 457.

These People Were The Real Power Behind The Throne
Majorian. I-Collector

If You Can’t Have the Throne, Become the Power Behind the Throne

After the deposition of Avitus, the Eastern Roman Emperor Leo I appointed Ricimer the Western Roman Empire’s magister militum – the late Roman Empire’s highest military command position. Ricimer wanted to become Western Roman emperor, but that was not an option. Ricimer was seen as a Germanic barbarian, and a heretic: although Christian, he was an Arian Christian, and that was the wrong kind of Christian, far as the Romans were concerned. By the end of the fourth century, the Roman Empire had officially become a Christian empire. As it cemented its hold in the empire, Christianity spread to the Germanic tribes, both within and without Roman frontiers.

However, those tribes were converted by missionaries from the Arian sect, whose teachings were deemed heretical by the Roman Empire’s orthodox Christians. Ricimer’s Arianism was thus a serious strike against him, and capped his imperial prospects. In the era’s political and religious environment, even a powerful Arian such as Ricimer, who made and unmade emperors at will, lacked the necessary religious legitimacy to become an emperor. Since he could not become an emperor, Ricimer set out to become an emperor maker and the power behind the imperial throne, instead. He decided to use his friend Majorian as a puppet, and had him declared emperor in 457.

These People Were The Real Power Behind The Throne
Majorian’s campaigns almost reunited the Western Roman Empire. Wikimedia

The Man Who Made and Unmade Emperors

Ricimer discovered that Majorian was an unsuitable puppet: he proved himself a capable ruler and military commander. Majorian subdued the Visigoths in Gaul, and brought the province back under imperial control. He then marched against the Vandals in Hispanis, and left Ricimer behind in Italy. The Vandals defeated Marjorian, however, and while he was gone, Ricimer convinced the Senate to depose him. When Majorian returned to Italy, Ricimer had him arrested, tortured, and executed. In his place, Ricimer appointed Libius Severus as Western emperor in 461. He ruled through Severus until the latter’s death in 465, after which the Western Roman throne remained vacant for two years.

These People Were The Real Power Behind The Throne
A bronze coin with Ricimer’s monogram. Medievalists

Ricimer finally acquiesced to the Eastern Emperor Leo I’s appointment of Anthemius as Western emperor. In exchange, Ricimer married Anthemius’ daughter. However, after Anthemius led a major expedition against the Vandals to catastrophic defeat, Ricimer turned on his father in law, and besieged him in Rome. When the city fell, Anthemius tried to flee, disguised as a beggar. It did not work, and he was caught and beheaded in 472. Ricimer then replaced him with Olybrius, an envoy sent by the Eastern emperor to try and mediate between Ricimer and Anthemius. Ricimer did not enjoy his new puppet for long however, and died only six weeks later from a hemorrhage.

These People Were The Real Power Behind The Throne
Richard Neville, 16th Earl of Warwick. Imgur

The Original “Kingmaker”

The term “Kingmaker” was first coined to refer to Richard Neville, 16th Earl of Warwick (1428 – 1471), the wealthiest and most powerful English nobleman of his era. He was also a capable military commander during the Wars of the Roses between the Yorkist and Lancastrian branches of the royal Plantagenet family. Warwick began the conflict on the Yorkist side, but then switched his support to the Lancastrians, and his role in the ouster of two kings earned him the nickname “Warwick the Kingmaker”.

The conflict began when Richard, Duke of York, backed by the Nevilles, made tried to seize the crown from his cousin, the mentally incapacitated King Henry VI. However, the Duke of York, along with Warwick’s father, were slain in battle. The struggle passed on to the next generation of Yorkists, Warwick, and the Duke of York’s son, Edward. Warwick helped secure victory for the Yorkists, who broke the Lancastrians at the Battle of Towton in 1461. Henry VI was deposed and imprisoned, and his place was taken by York’s son, who was crowned as Edward IV.

These People Were The Real Power Behind The Throne
Warwick cornered at the Battle of Barnet. Look and Learn

The Kingmaker Became the Power Behind the King

The newly crowned King Edward IV was a formidable warrior and military genius. However, he had little interest in governance, so Warwick became the power behind the throne, and ran England on the king’s behalf. Things soured when Edward impulsively married a commoner. That ruined years of negotiations by Warwick for a treaty between England and France, that was to have been sealed by Edward’s marriage to a French princess. Matters finally came to a head in 1470, when Warwick, with the help of the king’s younger brother, George, Duke of Clarence, deposed Edward.

The Yorkist monarch was forced to flee England, while the deposed Lancastrian Henry VI was dusted off and restored to the throne. Warwick’s triumph was short lived, however: Edward returned to England in 1471, and raised a counter rebellion. At a critical moment, Warwick was betrayed by the Duke of Clarence, who had a change of heart and defected back to his brother, Edward. The two sides met in the Battle of Barnet in April of 1471, a Lancastrian defeat in which Warwick was slain.

These People Were The Real Power Behind The Throne

The Saxon Earl Who Made Kings

Godwine of Wessex (1001 – 1053) was a nobleman who dominated England in the first half of the eleventh century. Although an Anglo Saxon, Godwine won the favor of the Danish King Canute after the latter conquered England in 1016, and made Godwine Earl of Wessex in 1018. When Canute died in 1035, his demise triggered a succession crisis. His son Harold Harefoot fought for the English throne against Alfred the Aethling, son of Canute’s predecessor, Ethelred the Unready. Godwine became a kingmaker – and not for the last time – when he secured the throne for Harold.

To accomplish that, Godwine feigned loyalty to Alfred, and lured him to London, where he was seized in an ambush. Alfred was then blinded, and died in captivity soon thereafter. However, Harold died in 1040, and his heir was his half-brother Harthacanut, King of Denmark. That was awkward for Godwine, because Harthacanut also happened to be a half-brother of the betrayed Alfred. The Earl of Wessex managed to worm his way out of Harthacanut’s vengeance when he claimed that he had acted under Harold’s orders. As seen below, it worked.

These People Were The Real Power Behind The Throne
Godwine returns from exile. Historic UK

The Real Power Behind the Throne of Edward the Confessor

Between Godwine’s protestations, his lavish gifts, and offers to smooth his path to the English throne and help him secure power, Harthacanut let the Earl of Wessex off the hook. Instead, he dug Harold’s corpse and beheaded it. However, Harthacnut’s died shortly thereafter in 1042, and his demise triggered yet another succession crisis. This time, power was fought over between King Magnus the Good of Norway, and Edward the Confessor, the betrayed Alfred’s brother and the last surviving son of Ethelred the Unready. Godwine, now well established as a power behind the throne, played kingmaker once more. He secured the throne for Edward, and thus restored to England the royal house of Wessex and Saxon rule, after decades of Danish domination.

Godwine became the most powerful nobleman in Edward the Confessor’s court. However, kingmaker and king fell out in 1051, because Edward, who had grown up in Normandy, increasingly relied on Norman advisors. Godwine was stripped of his earldom and banished, but he returned with an army, raised a rebellion, and set Edward right. The king was forced to restore Godwine’s earldom, and he became the most powerful man in the kingdom. He remained the key power behind the throne, until his sudden death in 1053. Godwine’s son Harold Godwinson succeeded him as England’s most powerful figure. He was crowned king after Edward’s death in 1066, and reigned until his defeat by William the Conqueror at the Battle of Hastings later that year.

These People Were The Real Power Behind The Throne
Farrukhsiyar receives Syed Hussain Ali Khan, circa 1715. British Library

The Brothers Who Became the Power Behind the Moghul Throne

In the 1710s, two Indian courtier siblings, Syed Hassn Ali Khan Bahra and Syed Abdullah Khan, became the power behind the Moghul Empire’s throne. They effectively appointed and deposed emperors at will. The Sayyid brothers became extremely influential – when they did not outright rule through puppet emperors – and dominated the empire until the early 1720s. They were born into a military family, sons of a general who faithfully served the Emperor Aurangzeb, the Moghul Empire’s last powerful and effective ruler. The Sayyid brothers followed in their father’s footsteps, served as officers in the Moghul army, and grew steadily more influential in the Moghul court. However, they quit the court over a slight by an imperial prince, Jahandar.

When Jahandar became emperor in 1712, the Sayyid brothers remembered the slight. To pay back the newly-crowned emperor, they backed one of his nephews, Farrukhsiyar, who rose up in rebellion against his uncle. With the Sayyid brothers’ help, Farrukhsiyar defeated Jahandar in 1713, and became Moghul emperor. Jahandar was captured, imprisoned, and murdered soon thereafter. As a reward, Farrukhsiyar appointed the Sayyid brothers to high positions in his court and government. However, the emperor’s gratitude began to wane within a few years. When he began to favor other courtiers over the Sayyids, the relationship soured.

These People Were The Real Power Behind The Throne
Syed Hussain Ali Khan. British Museum

9. The Sayyid Brothers Made and Unmade Emperors Seemingly at Will

Open warfare finally erupted in 1719, and ended when the Sayyid brothers removed Farrukhsiyar from power. Not in a mood to forgive and forget, they imprisoned, blinded, and finally murdered him. The brothers replaced Farrukhsiyar with Rafi ad Darajat, a grandson of a previous emperor. They then proceeded to rule the realm, with the new emperor as their puppet. It was a short-lived puppet show, however, and ended with the new emperor’s death within a few months. So the Sayyids elevated his younger brother Rafi ad Dawla to the throne, and continued to rule through their new puppet emperor.

However, just like his brother, Rafi ad Dawla died only a few months after he was crowned. So the Sayyids picked a new emperor, the third appointed by the brothers in 1719, Muhammad Shah. Unfortunately for the siblings, the new emperor was made of sterner stuff than his predecessors, and refused to act as anybody’s puppet. Muhammad Shah had Hassan Ali assassinated in 1720, then defeated his brother Abdullah in 1722, after the latter gathered an army to avenge his brother. Sayyid Abdullah was captured, and executed in October of 1722.

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