Games of the throne; history’s courts

Reception of the Grand Condé at Versailles by Louis XIV of France (r.1643-1715)

While we now take our school pupils on trips to Versailles, and go on holiday to trudge over the seven hills of Rome that now hold only the ruins of the once splendid ancient imperial palaces, these sorts of places used to be the powerhouses of their societies. Throughout many of history’s ‘great’ (always a subjective term) civilisations, kings and conquerors governed kingdoms ranging from tiny ones to huge empires such as Rome. Their courts often played pivotal roles as the centres where it all came together: bland administrative business; juicy power dynamics; policy- and decision-making; avenues of influence that included the royal bedroom and shady back-corridors; and lots and lots of Game of Thrones-worthy scheming and plotting. Not the cleverest position to take on if you were interested in living a long and unencumbered life, the job of ruler.

Times have obviously changed, and though there are plenty of powerful men and women to be found in the world, our modern (first, western) world likes to think it has evolved into a ‘better’ (another subjective term) shape. However, the appeal of power will never quite go out of fashion. Luckily, investigating court dynamics throughout history can teach us heaps about power, so I’m afraid this blog post might end up being a sort of guidebook for the home-megalomaniac. Either way, I have hand-picked some examples to illustrate this topic with. To dodge some chaos I’ll refer to the rulers as male, so just keep in mind there were some female rulers as well throughout history.

In order to successfully govern one’s kingdom and have all of the court’s eyes focused on you it wasn’t the best idea to habitually snooze through the entire day and throw incessant parties, all the while devoting no time and energy to the actual business of ruling at all. The first keyword to successfully preside over a court was Personality with a capital P. Ambition, a conscientious work attitude, and a strong backbone obviously helped your cause. A good example is Louis XIV, the Sun King of France (r. 1643-1715), who was only four years old when he became king, so first a regency council headed by his mother ruled on his behalf, with most of the daily policy being concocted by chief minister Cardinal Mazarin. Usually such a slow start is quite disadvantageous to the ruler, because all the important connections and ties are made to run through different persons and offices. However, after Mazarin’s death in 1661, Louis began his personal reign and took to ruling like a duck to water by instantly announcing he could do perfectly well without a chief minister. Furthermore, Louis liked being in control: he consulted with his advisors but made sure to always have the final word, and he was determined not to let any favourites influence his decision-making. Louis’ court at the Palace of Versailles was a splendid (or vomit-inducing, if you dislike the over the top baroque style, like I do) environment in which he kept the nobility close so he could keep somewhat of an eye on them, and in which he manifested himself as a powerhouse of a ruler.

Throughout history, the nobility, and other such meddlesome persons surrounding the king, could be a real drag. However hard-working and strong-willed a ruler might have been, he was always connected with, limited by, and supported by the existing courtly hierarchy. The English King Henry III (r. 1216-72), for example, became increasingly subjected to the power and will of the barons, who seized power a couple of times during his reign and scribbled down their rights in the Great Charter of 1225 and the Provisions of Oxford (1258). Henry ended up with nothing much to say at all – not exactly ideal from his perspective. At all times, the various officials who supported our kings throughout history made up the formal sphere of influence at the court, in which a ruler could be approached. For example, at the court of the (Eastern) Roman Emperor Theodosius II (r. 408-450) in Constantinople, a system of suggestiones (proposals) that could inspire imperial decisions was in place. They could come from both outside and inside the palace and varied from personal interests to stuff such as whining about church matters. Imagine someone who wanted the emperor to call a council or arrest an enemy of yours handing a proposal to an official who was in a position to pass it on to the emperor himself, either directly or through yet another pair of hands. Officials with good positions in this chain through which information was conveyed to the emperor through the corridors of the court were obviously well-placed to influence matters; as always, knowledge was power.

So much for a taste of the formal sphere; it is time to explore the informal sphere a bit. This is where all the juice is at. Holding a high-ranking office could certainly lead to a decent deal of influence on the ruler, but it wasn’t the only (and not always the most effective) way. Anyone who had the king’s ear could feasibly have some sort of effect on him – ranging from the far-reaching political kind to which colour pants he wore on Tuesdays. And of course, anyone who had the king’s ear was valuable to outsiders seeking influence, which of course further enhanced their own positions. There are a couple of standout relations to the ruler that offered great megalomaniac potential.

Firstly, royal women – wives and their importance for securing the succession, mothers who often acted as regents for their underage sons, sometimes sisters, etc. – were usually pretty damn close to the ruler. Some of them did so well at whispering into the ruler’s ear that we are now quite aware of who these women were, which is relatively rare seeing that history wasn’t usually kind in recording the deeds of women. Although the accounts are most likely quite exaggerated and perhaps quite untrue altogether, ancient sources such as Suetonius describe how in the first century AD Agrippina the Younger wheedled her way into her uncle, emperor Claudius (r.41-54), his lap, became his (fourth) wife, and manipulated the hell out of him to the extent that he adopted her son, who then became his successor, the notorious emperor Nero. She also allegedly (falsely) accused those who stood in her way of things like witchcraft and incestuous relationships; her husband Claudius rather blindly followed her lead in these things and forced these people to resign from office, or had their property confiscated. To top it off, when Claudius began to favour someone else over Agrippina’s son for the succession, Agrippina is said to have killed him by poisoning his food. It’s an impressive bunch of conveniently bad press stemming from dynasties that came after her, but she must at least have been an interesting woman to have gained this amount of press in the first place.

Secondly, if you were an unhappy outsider stranded outside the gates of a splendid court while urgently needing to convince the ruler of something hugely important, you might approach one of the ruler’s personal attendants to help your cause. Any such attendants were usually well-placed to exert some influence through their proximity to the ruler, as they could control the informal flow of information as well as control access to the ruler. It’s a bit harder to figure out whether these figures personally influenced the ruler in actual political matters, though. Either way, controlling access meant you could be a power-broker, and that sounds kind of cool. Eunuchs often functioned as such; imagine high-pitched whispers from behind the inner court’s curtains. Because they obviously would have had an unnaturally hard time posing any kind of threat to the royal succession, by courtesy of having (at the very least) no balls, eunuchs often had a very high level of access and could often transcend the boundaries within the court. In Achaemenid Persia (559-331 BC), for example, eunuchs functioned as intermediaries between the king and the royal women and could be employed by both to gather information and relay messages and gossip back and forth between the outer and inner courts. During the reign of Theodosius II (r.408-450), who I mentioned earlier, the eunuch Chrysaphius plotted and schemed to isolate the emperor from those closest to him, succeeding in arguably driving both the emperor’s (powerful) sister Pulcheria and the empress into exile. Of course, he stepped in to fill their void and became quite the (figurative) man around the court. I’m rooting for George R. R. Martin’s character Varys, from his A Song of Ice and Fire series (AKA Game of Thrones on the telly), the eunuch master of whispers, will turn out to be an absolutely pivotal character in the series, pulling at puppet strings from the shadows.

Lord Varys, ‘the spider’, the eunuch master of whispers, and Lord Petyr Baelish – two shadowy puppet masters from George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, here portrayed on HBO’s Game of Thrones. 

All in all, if you had a strong personality and if you were determined to micromanage the hell out of everything all by your onesies, you stood the best chance not to be overcome by trifling office holders and meddlesome wives while ruling your kingdom from the cosy walls of your court. The existing hierarchy and rules of the time, as well as the whole sometimes very shady informal sphere, could be serious impediments, of course, and if you were unsuspectingly poisoned by a seemingly devoted wife there wasn’t much you could do to keep power from slipping away from you. I’ve portrayed the way in which both the formal and the informal sphere could gain power, but of course a ruler’s connection with these spheres could just as well be to his advantage – just something to keep in mind.

A sad example of how far personality – be it good or bad – can still get you these days is the straw-haired loudmouth Donald Trump. In my opinion, he’s taking a clever approach at being incredibly dumb; he shouts his stupid and angry nonsense from the rooftops because it’s what stupid and angry people want to hear. And it’s working. Which terrifies me.

The media obviously plays a big part in all of this modern power nonsense too. In our courts throughout history, access to information tended to put you in a position of leverage. Nowadays, information can be shared and broadcast in such a way – not only scale-wise but also with regard to the manipulation of stories – that it can destroy tables completely rather than simply turning them. I find it hilariously sad how the Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff was chucked out of her palace, arguably for making some political mistakes. She definitely didn’t do everything entirely by the book, but everything was spun in such a way that her (more) corrupt opponents managed to depose her and take her place, all the while making it seem as if they were saving the day. Now Brazil is stuck with a ministerial squad who between them add up to an impressive sum of corruption, money-laundering and election fraud charges – if that’s even the worst of it.

Whichever way you look at it, power will always create interesting circumstances and dynamics, where the underlying rules of the game are often unwritten. I’d wager that power has an incredulous amount of skeletons in its closet, and I’d sleep with two eyes open at night to keep one eye on opportunities and the other on possible threats, be they of the physical or of the informational kind. Good luck!


For further reading see for example my thesis. I also highly recommend Suetonius’ De vita Caesarum (best known as The Twelve Caesars) for juice on the first bunch of Roman emperors.


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