Historical examples of a “power behind the throne”

The concept of a “power behind the throne” refers to an individual or group who, without being a formal leader themselves, exerts significant influence on the leader and effectively controls the government’s policy and direction. This concept has manifested in various forms throughout history across different cultures and regimes.

In the article below, World History Edu explores a few notable historical examples that illustrate the dynamics and impact of such figures.

Agrippina the Younger – Roman Empire

Agrippina the Younger was a prominent figure in the Roman Empire, born on November 6, 15 AD, into the influential Julio-Claudian dynasty. Image: A bust of Agrippina, located at the National Museum in Warsaw, Poland.

Agrippina the Younger was a powerful figure in the Roman Empire, initially as the sister of Emperor Caligula, then as the wife of Claudius, and finally as the mother of Nero.

Through a series of calculated moves and eliminations, she positioned herself as an essential advisor and controller of Claudius, influencing decisions and ensuring her son Nero’s ascension to the throne.

Her manipulation of imperial power showcased her as a formidable power behind the throne, although her influence waned after Nero came to power.

In 59 AD, Nero ordered his mother’s assassination, a dramatic and brutal end reflective of the ruthless political landscape of the Roman Empire.

Agrippina’s legacy is complex; she is often portrayed as a power-hungry and manipulative figure, typical of the elite women of her time who operated within the constraints of a patriarchal society. Despite the negative aspects of her reputation, her political acumen and determination to secure power and influence for herself and her son are undeniable.

Claudius: The Roman Emperor who conquered Britannia

Empress Theodora – Byzantine Empire

Another famous example of a power behind the throne is Empress Theodora, the wife of Emperor Justinian I of the Byzantine Empire in the 6th century.

Theodora’s origins were humble and somewhat scandalous for the time, as she was the daughter of a bear keeper and had worked as an actress, which in that era often included roles that were socially disparaged.

Empress Theodora was not only Justinian’s consort but his closest advisor, deeply involved in state affairs and policy making. Despite her controversial past as an actress, Theodora’s intelligence, political acumen, and persuasive skills enabled her to influence legislation and court decisions.

Her involvement was critical during the Nika riots, where she famously convinced Justinian to stay in Constantinople and suppress the revolt, a move that arguably saved his reign.

Empress Theodora was one of the most influential and powerful empresses of the Byzantine Empire. She was the wife of Emperor Justinian I, and her reign alongside him in the 6th century AD marked one of the most significant periods in Byzantine history. Image: A mosaic work depicting Theodora. 

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Cardinal Richelieu – France

Cardinal Richelieu, born Armand Jean du Plessis in 1585, was a prominent French clergyman and statesman who played a crucial role in consolidating royal power in France under King Louis XIII. Image: A painting of Richelieu by French artist Philippe de Champaigne.

Cardinal Richelieu, the chief minister to King Louis XIII of France, is another classic example of the power behind the throne.

Richelieu used his position to strengthen the central authority of the king at the expense of the nobility and the Huguenots, thus reinforcing the absolute monarchy that characterized the French state.

His political acumen helped France navigate through internal and external challenges, and his policies laid the groundwork for his successors, including Cardinal Mazarin, to continue consolidating royal power.

Rasputin – Russia

Grigori Rasputin, a Russian mystic, became an influential figure in the late Russian Empire, particularly to Tsar Nicholas II and Tsarina Alexandra. His ability to seemingly heal their hemophiliac son, Alexei, earned him the trust and favor of Alexandra.

Rasputin’s influence grew to the extent that he began to interfere in military and governmental affairs during World War I, which many historians consider as one of the factors leading to the fall of the Romanov dynasty.

The phrase “power behind the throne” describes someone who informally wields the real authority of a high office, often influencing a figurehead leader through significant influence or manipulation, typically as a relative, aide, or supposed subordinate. Image: Grigori Rasputin

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Eunuchs in the Chinese Dynasties

In various Chinese dynasties, eunuchs—who were castrated males serving in the imperial palaces—frequently amassed considerable power that they wielded behind the scenes.

By controlling access to the emperor and managing communication between the emperor and his subjects, eunuchs such as Wei Zhongxian during the Ming dynasty and Li Lianying during the Qing dynasty manipulated court politics and influenced the affairs of state disproportionately to their official roles.

Several centuries before the Qing dynasty, Zhao Gao came to notoriety for his services in the court of the Qin Dynasty (221–206 BC). He is best known for his role in the manipulation and control of the young Emperor Qin Er Shi, following the death of Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of a unified China. Zhao Gao’s machinations contributed significantly to the rapid collapse of the Qin Dynasty.

Emperor Qin Shi Huang: Major Accomplishments and Facts

Sir Francis Walsingham – England

Sir Francis Walsingham served as Secretary of State to Queen Elizabeth I and is often considered her spymaster. He constructed an extensive network of spies at home and abroad, which played a crucial role in securing the queen’s reign.

His efforts were instrumental in uncovering plots such as the Babington Plot, which sought to replace Elizabeth with Mary, Queen of Scots. Walsingham’s intelligence network and his manipulation of court politics ensured that Elizabeth’s power remained unchallenged by internal and external threats.

Death of Mary, Queen of Scots

The “power behind the throne” signifies an individual or group subtly controlling a high office, often manipulating a figurehead leader through influence or strategic maneuvering. Image: Sir Francis Walsingham (c. 1532 – 6 April 1590), Queen Elizabeth I’s “spymaster.”

Jafar al Barmaki – Abbasid Caliphate

In the early Abbasid caliphate, the Barmakid family, particularly Jafar al Barmaki, rose to prominence by serving as advisors and ministers to Caliph Harun al-Rashid.

Jafar’s influence was such that he was often seen as a co-ruler, involved in almost all aspects of governance, from administrative reforms to cultural patronage. However, the Barmakids’ power became so threatening to Harun that he eventually executed Jafar and dismantled their network.

The phenomenon of the power behind the throne highlights the complexity of leadership and governance. It underscores the fact that authority and influence can come from positions other than the formal leadership roles, shaping the course of a nation’s history profoundly. Image Jafar al Barmaki (c. 767 – c. 803).

The Mayor of the Palace under the Merovingian Kings in Francia

In the early medieval period, the Merovingian dynasty in Francia saw the rise of the “Mayors of the Palace,” who were initially stewards of the royal households.

Over time, their role expanded significantly. By the seventh century, figures such as Charles Martel, who held the title of Mayor, wielded more military and political power than the Merovingian kings themselves.

This culminated in Martel’s grandson, Charlemagne, founding the Carolingian Empire, effectively ending Merovingian rule and illustrating the ultimate ascendancy of a power behind the throne to the throne itself.

The Köprülü Family in the Ottoman Empire

The Köprülü family provided a series of Grand Viziers who were critical in restoring the fortunes of the Ottoman Empire during the mid-17th century.

Beginning with Köprülü Mehmed Pasha’s appointment in 1656, the family’s members held the empire’s reins, instigating military and administrative reforms that revitalized its structures and expanded its territories.

The Köprülü viziers exercised substantial authority, often overshadowing the sultans they served, and were instrumental in the empire’s brief resurgence as a dominant power.

Read More: Top 10 Ottoman Sultans and their Accomplishments

Otto von Bismarck – Germany

In the late 19th century, Ottovon Bismarck served as the Chancellor of Germany and Minister President of Prussia under Emperor William I. Despite William’s position, Bismarck was the architect of German policy and strategy.

Chancellor Bismarck masterminded the unification of Germany through wars against Austria and France and manipulated European affairs to Germany’s benefit, with William I often serving more as a figurehead in these maneuvers.

Bismarck’s deft political skills and forceful diplomacy shaped the German Empire’s early years, underscoring his role as the real power behind the nominal authority of the emperor.

The concept of a “power behind the throne” represents figures or groups who, while not officially the sovereign ruler, exert substantial influence over the true leader of a state, directing policies and major decisions from the shadows. Image: Otto Von Bismarck, the Chancellor of Germany.

U.S. First Lady Edith Wilson

Edith Wilson’s role following US President Woodrow Wilson‘s severe stroke in 1919 is a striking example of a “power behind the throne” in modern American history. After the president suffered a debilitating stroke that left him partially paralyzed and severely limited in his ability to govern, Edith Wilson stepped into a quasi-executive role, significantly influencing the day-to-day operations of the presidency.

Though she never officially held a government position, her actions during this period effectively made her a gatekeeper to the President. Edith decided which documents and matters of state were important enough to bring to her husband’s attention, and she relayed decisions back to his advisors and the Cabinet. Her intervention was crucial not only in managing Woodrow Wilson’s official duties but also in maintaining the appearance of his capability to govern.

Her involvement has been described by some historians as a “stewardship,” where she saw her role as protecting both the president and the presidency. Critics, however, argue that her unofficial control over executive decisions bordered on usurpation of presidential power, as she operated without any constitutional authority.

This period of American history highlights the significant impact that an unelected and unofficial advisor can have, controlling access to the president and managing governmental affairs during a critical time. Edith Wilson’s case is often cited as a prime example of the potential power dynamics behind the scenes, especially when the official leader is incapacitated.

In contemporary settings, the “power behind the throne” role is often played by family members or both official and unofficial advisers who similarly steer the leader’s actions and policies. Image: U.S. First Lady Edith Wilson.

Did you know…?

The term “power behind the throne” originated in medieval times as a metaphor describing how a monarch’s counselor, standing unseen behind the throne and perhaps whispering guidance, could significantly influence royal decisions. This figure, typically a trusted advisor or confidant, wielded considerable power indirectly by shaping the monarch’s policies out of public view.

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