BBC News Magazine

Page last updated at 14:21 GMT, Monday, 15 March 2010

What is a 'kingmaker'?

The Magazine answers...

Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg says he doesn't want to be a "kingmaker", but where does this term originate from and why does it have negative connotations?

Britain's Queen Elizabeth II's crown is carried out of The House of Lords after the State Opening of Parliament
A typical kingmaker possesses the power to bestow the crown but cannot take it himself

The first person to be accorded the term kingmaker, in English at least, was Richard Neville, the 16th Earl of Warwick.

Warwick was instrumental in the deposition of Henry VI during the Wars of the Roses and his replacement with Edward IV. But Warwick later turned against Edward and deposed him, restoring Henry. He was killed in battle as Edward again took power.

The power that allowed him to topple two kings came from his immense wealth, extensive connections with other powerful people and his ability as a commander.

It is from Warwick that we get the term, although he is simply the best example in a long line of historical figures who, while they were not able to take the ultimate mantle of power for themselves, were able to choose who did and so perpetuate their power and influence.

First applied to Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick
Term first used in 1599, 128 years after his death
But not in common usage until the 19th Century

In the case of Warwick, there was no way he could become king himself.

"He had royal blood but it was rather distant," says Prof Michael Hicks, head of history at Winchester University, and author of both Warwick the Kingmaker and the upcoming work The Wars of the Roses.

Instead Warwick had to settle for ruling through others, Henry and Edward. We can see similar figures right back to antiquity. In the last years of the Western Roman Empire, real power was often wielded by powerful barbarian generals like Ricimer.

Their Germanic blood stopped them claiming the title of emperor, but they picked young and often inexperienced proteges who would be easily manipulated. Few citizens would have been in any doubt who was in charge.

Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg
Nick Clegg says voters are the kingmakers

This idea of someone ruling from the shadows might go some way toward explaining why there is a negative connotation to the term "kingmaker". But this was certainly not the case when it was applied to Warwick.

"The interpretation has changed quite abruptly," says Prof Hicks. "Looking at the historiography, they approved of him until 1750 and then they started disapproving of him. It was a plus then it became something that one should condemn. People felt for a long time he was justified in what he did."

The post-1750 attitude towards the idea of a non-royal baron picking kings and exercising real power may have something to do with changing attitudes towards the role of the nobility.

"Nowadays people are generally hostile to the idea of the aristocracy. [But Warwick] was an extremely popular figure and a demagogue in support of the causes he advocated and he gets rather a good write up in the literature of the time.

The Earl of Warwick
The Earl of Warwick had lots of money but little royal blood

"The point with the Wars of the Roses was that the situation was absolutely terrible. It was extremely difficult for any king to sit on the throne. There was a great slump therefore there was enormous popular discontent. The government is more or less bankrupt throughout the period, incapable of raising forces and subject to constant foreign intervention."

But that it is not to say that contemporaries called Warwick a kingmaker. The term did not come until later.

"Something not very different was used by the Scottish chronicler John Major in 1520. He talks about the 'creator of kings'," says Prof Hicks.

And despite "kingmaker" being first used in 1599, according to the OED, it took a long time to be common usage. In the 17th Century the term was generally "make-king", and it did not become "kingmaker" until the 19th Century.

Question mark floor plan of BBC Television Centre
A regular part of the BBC News Magazine, Who, What, Why? aims to answer some of the questions behind the headlines

It has been commonly used of politicians since then, but with a slightly more nuanced meaning. The original kingmakers wanted to be king, but were unable for legal, cultural or political reasons to press a claim.

Now the term is also applied to people who choose not to press a claim. Sonia Gandhi might be viewed as an example of this. She was widely expected to become Indian prime minister in 2004 after her party won the election, but chose not to.

It is also often applied to people who while exercising a degree of influence, and being in a position to help a person to power, are not able or do not attempt to exercise a significant level of control over the picked king.

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