Power behind the throne

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The phrase "power behind the throne" refers to a person or group that informally exercises the real power of a high-ranking office, such as a head of state. In politics, it most commonly refers to a spouse, aide, or nominal subordinate of a political leader (often called a "figurehead") who serves as de facto leader, setting policy through possessing great influence and/or skillful manipulation.

The original concept of a power behind the throne was a Medieval-era figure of speech referring to the fact that the king's policies could be set by a counselor not seated in the throne but standing behind it—perhaps whispering in the king's ear—out of common sight. Among the earliest examples of such powerful advisors were the Mayors of the Palace under the Merovingian kings.

In history[edit]

Historical examples of a "power behind the throne" include Diego Portales of Chile; Chancellor of Germany and Minister President of Prussia Otto von Bismarck, with German Emperor and King of Prussia William I as a de facto figurehead; Martin Bormann of Nazi Germany; General Hideki Tōjō of Japan, who was influential in the military's actions leading up to World War II and later became Prime Minister of Japan in 1941. He served under Emperor Hirohito, who ruled as a deified figurehead. Another example is the rule of Pol Pot in Cambodia from 1975-78, who led the Khmer Rouge to victory following a devastating civil war. King Norodom Sihanouk returned to reign over Cambodia, but held no executive power. In the United States, Edith Wilson – the second wife of President Woodrow Wilson – took over many of the routine duties and details of the government after her husband had been incapacitated by a stroke. Another modern example was Deng Xiaoping in China, who was recognized as China's paramount leader without holding the position of either General Secretary or President.

In Latin America, a good example was Joseph-Marie Córdoba Montoya during the Presidency of Carlos Salinas de Gortari (1988–1994). Córdoba Montoya, a French naturalized Mexican, was the Head of the Office of the Presidency, and was considered the second-most powerful man in Mexico at the time.[1] Another example in the same region is the one of the former general Manuel Noriega, who was the military leader and the de facto chief of state of Panama from 1983 to 1989.

In fiction[edit]

In The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, the second of the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy series, it is revealed that the Galactic President, supposed leader of the Galaxy, is nothing more than a decoy meant to provide an illusion of democracy, while the real power is held by an old man who lives alone on a deserted planet and does not believe anything really exists outside his imagination. He is regarded as the only suitable candidate since he is the only person who completely and honestly doesn't care about having power. His will is executed by mysterious visitors who visit him to ask him questions about how events should play out, and then return to presumably ensure that events transpire as the Old Man orders. It can be assumed that as the Old Man doesn't really believe in anything (or indeed, anyone), he does not sincerely consider the issues which are laid before him and merely answers philosophically, thereby answering the question of why the universe is in the terrible state that it is in.

Related terms[edit]

A related term is éminence grise (French: "gray eminence"), a powerful advisor or decision-maker who operates secretly or otherwise unofficially. This phrase originally referred to Cardinal de Richelieu's right-hand man, François Leclerc du Tremblay (also known as the Père Joseph), a Capuchin friar who wore grey robes. Because the Cardinal de Richelieu, the power behind the throne of King Louis XIII of France, as a Catholic cardinal was styled Son Eminence ("His Eminence"), his alter ego Père Joseph was called l'éminence grise (which is also the English title of his biography by Aldous Huxley). Martin Bormann was referred to as the Brown Eminence, brown referring to the brown uniform of the Nazi Party.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Jane Bussey, "Joseph Marie Córdoba Montoya" in Encyclopedia of Mexico vol. 1, p.344. Chicago: Fitzroy and Dearborn 1997.