16 People in History Who Schemed and Plotted Their Way to the Top

16 People in History Who Schemed and Plotted Their Way to the Top

Trista - November 22, 2018

We all know someone who has committed some act of treachery – betrayal, lying, seduction, maybe even nepotism – in order to get what he or she wants. Moreover, people who use unfair means and step on top of other people in their bids for power are discovered; sometimes they are found too late to stop their grasp at power, but their reputations remain ruined.

Below are 16 historical figures who suffered the fate of people you may know who was a little bit too ambitious for their own good. Many of them were found out and punished during their lifetimes, but all of them have gone down in history in ignominy for their treacherous deeds. Maybe their lives can serve as a warning to you against scheming and plotting your way to the top.

16 People in History Who Schemed and Plotted Their Way to the Top
Sir John Conroy by Henry Thomas Ryall, after Henry William Pickersgill mezzotint, published 1840. National Portrait Gallery, London/npg.org.uk.

16. John Conroy May Have Had an Affair With Queen Victoria’s Mom

John Conroy was the ambitious son of the Irish-born John Ponsonby Conroy and Margaret Wilson. Born in 1786, he became the senior horse attendant of the Duke of Kent, the father of Queen Victoria. Following the duke’s death in 1820, John Conroy managed to become the comptroller of the royal household. As such, he had much influence over the early years of the girl who would become Queen Victoria. That influence was often heavy-handed. She was raised with incredible strictness and was not allowed to have any friends or playmates other than Conroy’s daughters.

However, where did this high level of influence come from? In 1829, a rumor circulated that the Duchess of Kent, Queen Victoria’s mother, was the mistress of John Conroy. Perhaps he was trying to make his own grab at power, not only over the royal family but the country. With a firm grip on the duchess, John Conroy was able to establish himself as Victoria’s private secretary with virtually full freedom in controlling the household as Conroy saw fit. He would parade the heir presumptive around the country on royal tours, leading her to become sick with typhoid. When Victoria ascended to the throne in 1837, one of the first things that she did was fire him.

16 People in History Who Schemed and Plotted Their Way to the Top
Bust of Antinous. Wikimedia/Commons.

15. Antinous Seduced an Emperor and Was Deified

The Roman emperor Hadrian is one of the few (along with Caesar and a few others) whose name is easily recognizable to a modern audience. He married Sabina, whom herself was known to be conniving within the murky, too-close-knit world of Roman politics. However, it was Hadrian’s homosexual lover, Antinous, who really went down in history as a schemer. Despite his heterosexual marriage, Antinous fell in love with the young Greek and elevated him to social heights unheard of for someone not born into Roman nobility. Few details are known about the life of Antinous, but the circumstances surrounding his death and subsequent elevation to the status of a god raise questions about the sincerity of his relationship with the emperor.

In 130AD, Antinous was with Hadrian in a flotilla of boats heading down the Nile River in Egypt. He drowned unexpectedly; some accounts suggest that he committed suicide, while others suggest that he may have become a (willing or unwilling) human sacrifice. Whatever the case, Hadrian went into a period of unequivocal, intense mourning for his young male lover and commissioned many images of him. In fact, he may have tried to raise Antinous to the level of a god, which would have meant that the Greek man would have been worshipped after his death. Maybe that had been the plan all along.

14. Anne Hyde Married Her Baby Daddy – the Future King

Charles II, the heir apparent to the British throne in the seventeenth century, earned the consternation of the entire country when he courted a commoner, Anne Hyde. The two could often be seen in public engaging in public displays of affection, such as hugging and kissing, something considered extremely inappropriate at the time. To make things even more scandalous, though, the couple engaged in premarital sex. When Anne discovered that she was pregnant with the heir apparent’s son, the couple quickly became married. The child died soon after birth, but Anne was now in a position of power and prestige in what was becoming the most powerful nation in the Western world.

Samuel Pepys, a navy administrator and member of Parliament, said of the marriage, “… that the Duke of York’s marriage with her hath undone the kingdom, by making the Chancellor so great above reach, who otherwise would have been but an ordinary man, to have been dealt with by other people …” The couple went on to have seven more children, all but two of whom died in infancy. Anne II and Mary, their two surviving children, went on to achieve their historical prominence as British rulers. Following Anne’s premature death, due to advanced breast cancer, the royal court would not let him marry another commoner.

16 People in History Who Schemed and Plotted Their Way to the Top
Fredegund and Rigunth, steel engraving from Mme de Witt, Vieilles histoires de la patrie, 1887. Thomas Körner 2007/Wikipedia/Public Domain.

13. Fredegund Tried to Kill Her Daughter

Fredegund lived in the sixth century and was a servant to the wife of the Merovingian king, Chilperic I. As a servant, she won the king’s affection and persuaded him to divorce his wife and send her away to a convent. He then married Galswintha, so Fredegund strangled her to death. The king later married Fredegund. She quickly developed a reputation for being cruel and heartless, and Gregory of Tours immortalized her cruelty. However, she had a bit of a conscience. When a dysentery epidemic broke out and affected her two young sons, she was convinced that it was the result of her sins. To atone for what she had done, she burned tax documents and any other incriminating evidence. Sadly, the young boys died anyway.

Fredegund also had a daughter, Rigunth, with whom she had a somewhat stormy relationship. According to Gregory of Tours, “She was jealous of her own daughter, Rigunth, who continually declared that she should be mistress[6] in her place. Fredegund waited her opportunity and under the pretense of magnanimity took her to the treasure-room and showed her the King’s jewels in a large chest. Feigning fatigue, she exclaimed, “I am weary; put thou in thy hand, and take out what thou mayest find.” The mother thereupon forced down the lid on her neck and would have killed her had not the servants finally rushed to her aid.”

16 People in History Who Schemed and Plotted Their Way to the Top
Beltran de la Cueva. Mariano Carbo/Wikipedia.

12. Beltran de la Cueva Caused a Royal Family Feud

Queen Isabella, the famous Spanish queen who, with her husband, Ferdinand, funded Christopher Columbus’ voyage to the New World, may not have had a claim to the throne without the dubious dealings of Beltran de la Cueva. Her half-brother, Enrique IV (referred to in English as King Henry) had a daughter, Juana, who should have been next in line for the throne. However, when Enrique died, Isabella insisted that Juana not be the legitimate son of Enrique but was actually the love child of her mother’s lover, Beltran de la Cueva. The result was the War of Succession, a bloody civil war that lasted for four years.

As a boy, Beltran de la Cueva was brought to the court by the king, who wanted to show his gratitude to the boy’s father. De la Cueva used his influence to deceive and manipulate the king, and also to win the heart of the king’s wife. His affair with her led to the war that claimed many, many lives. However, Juana never claimed that de la Cueva was her birth father, even though her dubious parentage cost her the throne. For the rest of her life, she signed her letters as, “I, the Queen.”

16 People in History Who Schemed and Plotted Their Way to the Top
Photographic postcard of Mathilde Felixovna Kschessinskaya (1872-1971). Imperial Mariinsky Theatre. St. Petersburg, Russian Empire. Photographic postcard owned and scanned by MrLopez2681/Wikipedia.

11. Mathilde Kschessinska Slept Her Way to Becoming Prima Ballerina

Mathilde Kschessinska was a Polish-born ballerina who grew up in St. Petersburg and danced for the highly esteemed Imperial Ballet. During her first performance in 1890, she danced so splendidly that Emperor Alexander III sought her out at the post-performance dinner and told her that she was the glory of the ballet. She went on to attain influence in the Russian imperial court and even seduced the future tsar, Nicholas II before he fell in love with Alexandra. Their relationship lasted for three full years and ended with his marriage to Alexandra. Her consorts didn’t stop there, as Mathilde also seduced two grand dukes, one of whom fathered her son, who was born in 1902.

When she was named the prima ballerina – an envious title, indicating that she was the first and most crucial dancer – of the Imperial Ballet in 1896, Marius Petipa, the maestro of the ballet, did not give his consent. He insisted that though she was a talented and skillful dancer, she attained her prestige within the ballet as a result of her consorting with the royal family. He may have been on to something, given that she might have married Nicholas and become tsarina had she been of the same royal pedigree as Alexandra.
Photo: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nell_Gwyn#/media/File:Nell_gwyn_peter_lely_c_1675.jpg
Portrait of Nell Gwyn by Peter Lely

16 People in History Who Schemed and Plotted Their Way to the Top
Nell Gwyn circa 1675 by Peter Lely. Wikipedia/Public Domain.

10. Nell Gwyn Slept Her Way Into the Royal Court

Nell Gwyn was born in London to a mother who ran a brothel, then known as a “bawdy house.” Growing up amidst men who were keen for female entertainment, Nell became a bit of an actress and comedian, with all of the poise that one might expect from a modern-day celebrity. This happened during a time of unmitigated prudishness, so it was even more scandalous that a young child was growing up with these kinds of behaviors. As a teenager, she began to take on her own lovers and had so many that by the time that she had worked her way to being one of King Charles II’s mistresses; apparently, she called him Charles III because he was the third Charles that she had had sex with during her life.

Unlike other political schemers, Nell was forthright and open about her relationship with Charles and how she was benefitting from him. She openly called herself “the Protestant whore” and was not ashamed about how her relationship with him brought her out of her youthful bawdy-house poverty. She had two sons with him, one of whom survived, Charles Beauclerk, who became the First Duke of St. Albans. After the death of King Charles, he implored his brother, James, to take care of Nell. She received a pension for the rest of her life.

16 People in History Who Schemed and Plotted Their Way to the Top
Lola Montez (1847), painted by Joseph Karl Stieler for Ludwig I of Bavaria and his Schönheitengalerie. Wikipedia/Public Domain.

9. King Ludwig I of Bavaria Lost His Throne Because of Lola Montez

In the 19th century, Eliza Gilbert was an Irishwoman who, as a child, earned a reputation for being wild, quick-tempered, and unruly. She reportedly ran through the streets naked as a child and even took the wig off a senior man at church. Eliza Gilbert grew up in multiple boarding schools before eloping at the age of 16 and becoming a professional dancer in India. When her marriage ended five years later, she took the exotic stage name Lola Montez and danced throughout Europe, eventually into the hearts and courts of European nobility.

She had an affair with the pre-eminent composer Franz Liszt, and also was known to such iconic figures as Alexander Dumas and the eponymous writer George Sand. However, she would go down in history for the wiles that she played on King Ludwig I of Bavaria, who made her a noblewoman. He reportedly asked her in public if her breasts were real, so she took off her clothes to prove that they were. She became so influential in his court that he would scarcely make any decisions without her advice or consent. She used her influence to advance reforms aimed against conservativism and particularly against the Jesuits. His relationship with her was so egregious that in 1848, popular displeasure at him forced him to abdicate.

16 People in History Who Schemed and Plotted Their Way to the Top
Princess Victoria. Wikipedia/Public Domain.

8. Alexander Zoubkov Took Princess Victoria For All She Was Worth

Queen Victoria’s granddaughter, Princess Victoria, was born into a life of unimaginable privilege. After growing up under her prestigious grandmother’s wing, which included spending long periods of time with her at the famous Balmoral Estate in Scotland, she married Prince Adolf of Schaumburg-Lippe, brother of Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm. Everyone in the British royal family approved of this marriage, none more so than Queen Victoria herself. The union was short-lived, though, and Victoria found that courtly life on the continent did not suit her. She decided that the next time she married, it would be for love.

In fact, Victoria went so far in the opposite direction of marrying another nobleman that she fell for a broke Russian waiter named Alexander Zoubkov. No member of her family was present at the wedding, which they undoubtedly disapproved of, and for good reason. What Zoubkov lacked in money and class, he made up for in wiles. He took Victoria for all she was worth so that when Victoria died in 1929 at the age of 63, she was wholly destitute and alone. She died in a dingy room that she had shared with the woman who had once been her servant. Doctors claimed that she did not even try to fight the disease that took her life, as she had nothing to live for anymore.

16 People in History Who Schemed and Plotted Their Way to the Top
Portrait of Karin Mansdotter. Staticflickr.

7. Karin Månsdotter Was Accused of Witchcraft for Seducing a King

Karin (known in English as Catherine) Mansdotter was the daughter of a vegetable seller and a jailer in Stockholm, Sweden. Fortunately for her, kings who decided that they want to marry out of love usually went for commoners rather than nobility, something that the people primarily disapproved of doing. Through some form of intrigue, she began a formal relationship with the heir apparent, Erik IV of Sweden. She became his first and primary mistress, though he had other mistresses before her. Some suggested that her influence was due to witchcraft or besotting the king through love potions.

Karin was given all kinds of expensive clothes and finery as befitted a Scandinavian princess. She soon had her staff, the members of which were given their own beautiful wardrobes. Her daughter, Sigrid, was treated as a legitimate princess. Shortly after Karin gave birth, the king decided to marry her. The extent of her political influence was unknown, but she was often seen as one of the king’s advisors, indicating that she had political importance. She also was known to give lavish gifts, including two royal estates, to her friends. Not bad at all for someone who came from the streets of Stockholm. Unfortunately, the people of Erik’s kingdom were so taken aback with his infatuation with Karin that he was deposed shortly after that.

16 People in History Who Schemed and Plotted Their Way to the Top
Basil I, AV Solidus. Constantinople mint. Classical Numismatic Group, Inc./Wikipedia.

6. Basil I Usurped the Throne and Nearly Blinded His Son

Basil was born into humble conditions in the Byzantine Empire. He later disputed his peasant parentage by creating an elaborate genealogy that connected him to the great kings of Armenia and even Emperor Constantine of Rome, but that was after he had deposed the king and usurped the throne. First things first: his early years are unclear, mainly because he tried to change his own history. However, at some point, Basil I earned the attention of Michael III, then the emperor of the Byzantine Empire. He convinced the emperor that his uncle, Bardas, was anxious to get the throne for himself, then killed Bardas with the emperor’s blessing.

The following year, when Basil became concerned that his position of influence with the emperor was being undermined, he organized the emperor’s assassination and usurped the throne. Still, Basil harbored rage and resentment against the late Michael III. He raised his oldest sons to the position of co-emperor, but his son Leo did not earn his favor. Far from it. In fact, Basil suspected that Leo was the illegitimate child of Michael and even imprisoned him. Public riots forced him to release his son, but he then contemplated blinding him. Fortunately, he was dissuaded from doing this. However, Leo’s resentment against his father lasted after he took the throne: he reburied the remains of Michael III.

16 People in History Who Schemed and Plotted Their Way to the Top
Catherine I of Russia by Nattier. Jean-Marc Nattier/Wikipedia.

5. Empress Catherine I Of Russia Seduced and Controlled Peter the Great

When Marta Skowronska was three years old, her parents died in the plague of 1689, leaving her and her four siblings as orphans. They were raised by Johann Ernst Gluck – a Lutheran pastor – and his wife, but Frau Gluck became jealous of Marta’s beautiful appearances. So jealous, in fact, that she forced the 17-year-old Marta into a marriage with a soldier, bringing her into a relationship with the military and eventually the Russian royal family. Marta worked in the homes of members of Russian nobility and their friends and finally found her way to the court of Peter the Great.

The problem was that Peter was already engaged. Not a problem. Marta became his mistress and bore him a son, named after his father, before marrying him and taking on the Orthodox Christian name of Catherine I. They had to be married in a secret ceremony and spent several years living together in a cabin. In 1724, though, Catherine was crowned and became co-emperor of the Russian Empire. She heavily controlled who had access to her husband, thereby wielding control over a crucial aspect of the Russian monarchy. When Peter died, she continued to rule as empress and even named her four siblings as counts and countesses.

16 People in History Who Schemed and Plotted Their Way to the Top
Alice Perrers. Staticflickr.

4. Alice Perrers Extorted King Edward III

Royals don’t usually have much of a reputation for marital fidelity, but Edward III of England was inordinately devoted to his wife, Philippa. However, after she died, he made the tragic mistake of taking himself up with her lady in waiting, Alice Perrers, who was already married to a court dignitary. She supported him in his vulnerable state of grief, and he was ever grateful for her kindness. Too bad she was already married. However, that didn’t matter. She knew an opportunity when she saw one, and she was not going to let the possibility to have an affair with the king slip away.

Alice soon had Edward under her spell and used her influence over him to empty the royal treasury for herself, quickly becoming the wealthiest woman in all of England. Historians ascertain that from 1370-1376, she effectively ruled the country vis-à-vis her profound influence on the king. She also extended legal favors to her friends, usually contrary to the law. Edward died in 1376, and she is said to have taken the rings off of his hands as he lay on his deathbed. However, that is when her fortunes changed, as newly enacted laws meant that she could be punished for subverting the law to her own ends.

16 People in History Who Schemed and Plotted Their Way to the Top
Mosaic of Empress Theodora. Meister von San Vitale in Ravenna – The Yorck Project (2002)/Wikipedia.

3. Theodora Started As An Actor Who Became An Empress

Empress Theodora is remembered as one of the most powerful and influential leaders of the Byzantine Empire, possibly one of the most powerful women in history since the fall of Rome. Like so many other schemes, she came from humble origins, with her father working as a bear keeper at the hippodrome in Constantinople. As a young woman, Theodora worked in a brothel for low-paying, low-ranking clients. She also worked as an actress, albeit one best befitted for more sultry roles that required her sexual prowess. She set sail for Alexandria in Egypt a few years later, where she was converted to Christianity and came into contact with the man who would become Emperor Justinian.

Justinian went on to marry Theodora, who by that point had an illegitimate daughter. Theodora wore the title of the empress and came to wield considerable cultural and political power over the empire, more than other emperor’s wives customarily did. Some believe that her undesirable actions as empress led to the Nika riots, which threatened to dethrone them. She brutally suppressed the rebellions. Following the riots, she became meticulous about how others should behave in her presence, forcing people to prostrate themselves before her and her husband.

16 People in History Who Schemed and Plotted Their Way to the Top
Bust of Mark Antony. Eyewitnesstohistory.

2. Cleopatra Seduced Mark Antony to Gain Power

Cleopatra, who ruled Egypt during the first century BC, was a seductive woman who used her prowess to expand her power and influence in ancient Rome. She began her career by seducing Julius Caesar, and her relationship with him only ended with the latter’s assassination. Fortunately for her, Rome was in peril following the assassination of Julius Caesar, and his former colleague, Mark Antony, was desperate to obtain money and power to expand his military might. He met with her in Tarsus, a city in modern-day Turkey, to discuss a plan that would put Antony back at the forefront of Roman power.

Cleopatra was prepared to use Antony’s needs as a means of securing more power for herself, a la the most tried and true method: seduction. When her boat arrived in Tarsus, she was reclining on its deck, surrounded by flowers and exotic scents. Antony was immediately smitten. He was already married, but his wife was in Rome taking care of the empire. The two entered into a relationship that has made its way into history books. Cleopatra was able to solidify her rule of Egypt and more significant portions of the Roman Empire in return for continuing to befuddle Mark Antony with her charms.

16 People in History Who Schemed and Plotted Their Way to the Top
Portrait of Eusebius. Wikipedia/Public Domain.

1. Eusebius Yessed Himself Into Constantine’s Good Favor

Not all conniving schemers who disgraced themselves into the good graces of those in power were seductive women. Eusebius was a theologian in the fourth century who was keen to use religion to legitimize his views with Emperor Constantine. He was excommunicated from the church in 325AD at the Council of Antiochia and was undoubtedly eager to restore himself, both to the church and to the Roman Empire. Enter Constantine, an ambitious young ruler who was seeking to solidify his grasp over a land that was more and more leaving the traditional Roman religions in favor of Christianity. The stage was ripe for Eusebius to make his move.

Eusebius became the court theologian for Constantine. Before him, the prevailing attitude among Christians was that the Roman Empire was wicked for its mass persecutions of Christians, often using incredibly cruel and torturous means. To cozy up to Constantine, though, Eusebius advocated that the Roman Empire and the Church be both the products of God’s blessings for humanity and would be used to bless the world. He took that idea further by decreeing that the church should be organized into a polity that resembled the political structure of the Roman Empire (which explains the system of popes, cardinals, and so on within the established church).

However, Eusebius’ influence went further than that. Constantine allegedly converted to Christianity before the Battle of Milvian Bridge after seeing a cross in the sky. However, architecture that he commissioned to commemorate the successful battle indicated that the emperor was still firmly pagan. It was actually Eusebius who came up with the story that Constantine became a Christian and was therefore given victory by God. Also, that is the story that is still told in history textbooks today. Talk about a yes man.


Where did we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“Sir John Posonby Conroy, first baronet (1786-1854),” by Elizabeth Longford. HistoryHome. 1993.

“Antinous.” Wikipedia.

“Anne Hyde.” Wikipedia.

“Fredegund.” Wikipedia.

“Beltran de la Cueva.” Wikipedia.

“Mathilde Kschessinska.” Wikipedia.

“Nell Gwynn.” Wikipedia.

“Lola Montez.” Wikipedia.

“Princess Viktoria dies ‘lonely and alone.'” November 13, 1929.

“Karin Mansdotter.” Wikipedia.

“Basil I.” Wikipedia.

“Catherine I of Russia.” Wikipedia.

“Alice Perrers.” Wikipedia.

“Theodora.” Wikipedia.

“Cleopatra Seduces Antony, 41 BC.” Eyewitness to History. 2006.

“Eusebius.” Wikipedia.