The Most Ambitious Historical Figures Who Schemed Their Way To The Top

History is full of figures who skillfully manipulated those who loved them for personal advancement. From ancient Rome to early modern England, 19th century Germany to Peter the Great's Russia - these are just some of the most famous gold diggers and schemers in history.

Quite a few of these notorious figures started life humbly. For example, Peter the Great's true love, Catherine I, was born to a Lutheran pastor in Lithuania - and her real name wasn't even Catherine, it was Marta! And it's not just the women. There were plenty of historical men accused of scheming their way to the top. Take Sir John Conroy - an Irish soldier who worked his way into the good graces of Victoria, Duchess of Kent (mother of Queen Victoria) and became her advisor.

Some schemers weren't exactly shy about taking favors from their lovers or manipulating those in their life, either. Alice Perrers, mistress of England's King Edward III during his old age, reportedly extracted every last penny she could from her dying love - she even got her hands on some royal jewels! And while there was no single original political schemer, the Byzantine empress Euphemia certainly reaped the rewards of seducing Justin I.

Discover the stories behind the most interesting and successful schemers throughout history.

Photo: flickr / CC0

  • Theodora Started As An Actor Who Became An Empress
    Photo: Metaweb (FB) / Public domain

    Empress Theodora of the Byzantine Empire, wife of the famed Emperor Justinian (the namesake of the Code of Justinian), didn’t start her life in the imperial purple. In fact, she was the daughter of a bear keeper who trained large animals for the public games! Theodora went off to work as an actor and allegedly a prostitute, meanwhile, using her considerable talents in both fields to gain power in an oppressively patriarchal society. Eventually, after taking up work as a wool spinner, she caught the eye of a rising leader named Justinian who made her his mistress and then his wife.

    Even though Justinian was technically a commoner, his status was still higher than Theodora’s, so a special law was imposed allowing for their marriage. She became Augusta ("Empress") in 527 CE, serving as Justinian’s right hand throughout his reign. Theodora even received ambassadors, negotiated foreign policy, worked to improve women’s rights, and brutally suppressed rebellions.

  • John Conroy Cozied Up To Queen Victoria's Mom

    John Conroy Cozied Up To Queen Victoria's Mom
    Photo: Metaweb (FB) / Public domain

    John Conroy was the bane of Queen Victoria's young life, and he was the number one advisor to her super-strict mother. An ambitious man, Conroy rose from a soldier to serve in the household of Victoria, Duchess of Kent, and rose to power not long after Princess Victoria was born and her father, Prince Edward, died.

    Conroy gained the Duchess's confidence, all part of his plan to gain a royal title himself - which he never did. Conroy helped to organize the restrictive Kensington System (the regimen under which the younger Victoria was raised), and purposefully positioned the Kents against then-King William IV

  • Fredegund Didn't Hesitate To Kill Her Rivals - Or Her Lover's Kids

    Fredegund Didn't Hesitate To Kill Her Rivals - Or Her Lover's Kids
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    This astonishing queen took no prisoners - literally. Fredegund was one of several wives of the 6th century Frankish king, Chilperic I. Unlike her predecessors, however, Fredegund was humbly born, first catching her future husband's eye when working as a servant in his household.

    But she didn't let that stop her - Fredegund convinced Chilperic to kill then-wife, Galswintha, thus igniting a feud between the queen's sister, Brunhilde, and her husband, King Sigebert of Austrasia. Fredegund also ordered the deaths of her stepchildren (Chilperic's children by previous wives), and arranged the murder of Sigebert - and perhaps even Chilperic himself! 

    No matter what, Fredegund continued to work against her arch-enemy, Brunhilde, whom she tried to kill off multiple times. Fredegund's son eventually exacted revenge after her death, torturing Brunhilde for three days and then ordering her to be ripped apart by being tied to wild horses.

  • Anne Hyde Turned A Pregnancy Into A Royal Marriage

    Anne Hyde Turned A Pregnancy Into A Royal Marriage
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    Today, British royals can marry commoners with little problem (hello, William and Kate!), but back in the 17th century, it was typically frowned upon. When King Charles II married the Catholic Catherine of Braganza, a Portuguese princess, the largely Protestant Brits were quite unhappy - and became even more so when Catherine failed to produce an heir. But even worse, Charles's next legitimate heir, his little brother, James, Duke of York, married a commoner!

    Anne Hyde was the daughter of royal advisor Edward Hyde. At the time she and James got together, Anne wasn't even a member of the nobility (it was only after her marriage that her father was made Earl of Clarendon), but that didn't stop the then-maid of honor to James's older sister; Anne and James slept together, and she became pregnant.

    Eager to legitimize his child - who was likely to become a future monarch since Charles, then a ruler in exile, was childless - James quickly wed Anne in secret. A few months later, Charles was restored to his throne and the whole royal family moved to England, including the new English Duchess of York. 

    The child she carried at that time sadly died, but Anne did give birth to other children, including two future queens and the last members of the Stuart Dynasty to rule England: Mary II and Anne, neither of whom had surviving progeny of their own. James later got remarried to a Catholic princess after Anne's death, which also caused a whole host of trouble.

  • Royal Favorite Beltrán de la Cueva Seduced The King's Wife

    Royal Favorite Beltrán de la Cueva Seduced The King's Wife
    Photo: José Luis Filpo Cabana / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0

    Isabella of Castile (later Spain) came to the throne after the death of her half-brother, Enrique IV. But her accession did not go without controversy. Enrique's only child, Juana, strongly disputed her aunt's claim to the Castilian kingship. Isabella denied Juana her royal role, however, in part due to allegations that Juana wasn't even Enrique's daughter, but was his wife's secret love child by nobleman Beltrán de la Cueva!

    Beltrán was one of Enrique's favorite courtiers, who gained a lot of power by flattering the king. But this noble also allegedly seduced the queen (his boss's wife), a former princess of Portugal, and was the real father of Princess Juana, Isabella's arch-rival.

    Juana was dubbed "La Beltraneja" for her dubious paternity, and though she lost the throne to Isabella, Juana still ended her letters for the rest of her life by signing "Yo, la reina" ("I, the Queen").

  • Euphemia Climbed The Social Ladder To Become An Empress

    Euphemia Climbed The Social Ladder To Become An Empress
    Photo: Lawrence OP / flickr / CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0

    Theodora wasn't the only woman to rise from being an alleged prostitute to being a Byzantine empress. Several decades before her ascent, a woman by the name of Euphemia became the consort of Justinian I's uncle, Justin I. Euphemia had previously been called Lupicina, a name associated with prostitutes, so it's entirely possible that, before Justin fell for her, she'd been a sex worker and then became a royal concubine.

    Interestingly, Euphemia was rather conservative once she came into power. And unlike Theodora (writers usually set her in opposition to her eventual aunt by marriage), Euphemia didn't involve herself in politics. In fact, she reportedly didn't even want Justinian to marry Theodora - it was only after she died that her husband's heir married the woman he loved.