I've seen a number of scifi/fantasy stories (most recently the second season of Avatar: The Last Airbender) in which nominally-powerful leaders are insulated from the events of their own countries by their advisors or generals, to the point where they don't even know that a war is being waged beyond the palace walls.

In real history there have been plenty of countries with figurehead leaders whose input was more official than practical, but has there ever been a leader who was supposed to be practically in charge, but whose advisors kept them unaware of a war that they should have been leading?

  • Perhaps there is a difficulty here with defining "a leader who was supposed to be practically in charge". One might exclude from any such definition any leaders who are ever "unaware of a war that they should have been leading". In which case by definition the answer to this question is no.
    – user3521
    Commented Aug 14, 2014 at 1:48
  • I think this should be just like it is worded in the first paragraph: de-jure and nominally leaders that are de-facto unaware. Intriguing question. I imagine in former times this could well have been possible, given the limitations of communication back then. Also it's long known that certain figures behind the scenes were said to have had greater influence than the actual sovereign at a time. Think of courtesans, for example. +1 Commented Aug 14, 2014 at 2:31
  • 2
    Not quite a "war" example, but there were several presidents and attorneys general that were unaware of the FBI's COINTELPRO operations under J. Edgar Hoover. There was tons of illegal spying and acts of intimidation against various citizen groups without the political leadership being aware of what was going on. If I knew of a specific assassination, that would be close enough to an act of war that I would give an answer rather than a comment.
    – Mike
    Commented Aug 14, 2014 at 3:08
  • 3
    Potentially the Chinese Emperor or the Japanese Shogun could have been unaware of conflicts. I'm not sure what differentiates a "war" from a "border conflict", or a "border conflict" from "suppression of internal criminal gangs", or "insurgency". Those are all very fuzzy terms.
    – MCW
    Commented Aug 14, 2014 at 15:13
  • Do you mean like the Showa Emperor (Hirohito) and an undeclared full-scale war between Japan and the Soviet Union / Mongolia (Battles of Khalkhin Gol)?
    – Greg
    Commented May 3, 2021 at 5:20

4 Answers 4


It really depends on what you mean by "supposed to be practically in charge". Supposed by whom ? If the war rages on and the leader does not even know, then one can confidently say that the leader does not hold the actual power, which is instead in the hands of people who perfectly know that the leader is not actually leading.

One situation which is similar to what you are looking for is what happened at the siege of Szigetvár in 1566. On September 6th, the attacking party's leader (none other than Suleiman the Magnificent) died in his tent. We don't really know the actual cause (he was more than 70 at that time, so it may very well have been a "natural cause"). The inner circle of councillors kept that death secret, and the siege kept on; the day after, the Ottomans actually broke through the defences and stormed the city. For a few weeks, the war continued, and the nominal leader was unaware of it because he was already dead at that time.

If you want a situation where the nominal sovereign is kept in his closed palace, pampered by some prime minister or general, and kept aloof of the external world to the point of not knowing what happens at all, then plausible candidates are the late Merovingian kings in what would later on become France. As Wikipedia describes for the last one, Childeric III:

Childeric took no part in public business, which was directed, as previously, by the mayors of the palace. Once a year, he would be brought in an ox cart led by a peasant and preside at court, giving answers preprepared by the mayors to visiting ambassadors.

The power was really held by the mayor of the palace, an hereditary charge held by the lineage from which issued the Carolingian kings, in particular Charlemagne. We don't have day-to-day accounts of the life of Childeric III, but it is quite possible that he was not kept informed of anything except through the yearly ceremonial, in which his role was little more than that of a trained parrot.

  • I suppose a good definition of "supposed to be in charge" would be the person who the orders are supposedly coming from. If a general says "this is from the King," then the King is supposedly in charge. Alternatively, few medieval kings lied and said "this is from the Pope," because they didn't have to: they had the authority themselves. So if someone is consistently in command, but doing so in someone else's name (and not just ceremonially), they could be said to fall under this question. Either way, this was a great answer!
    – Nerrolken
    Commented Aug 18, 2014 at 19:10
  • Your example for Suleiman is quite epic! For Merovagian kings, they were usually informed of war because they had to sign the war declaration and assemble the army. they were supposed to do so at least, Charles Martel (grand dad of Charlemagne) was the first to assemble the army and rally the nobles without the King's support. It's told so in french classroom at least, so Charles Martel's "king" wasn't really knowing what happend
    – LamaDelRay
    Commented Jan 17, 2017 at 10:51

Song chanceller Jia Sidao apparently kept information on the Mongol invasion from Song Emperor Duzong. The story goes that one day a palace maid told the Emperor that Xiangyang had been besieged for years, after which Jia Sidao had the maid executed.

See this source, or Wikipedia's articles on the Battle of Xiangyang, Jia Sidao, and Emperor Duzong.


If you class the coup in the USSR in the later days of the Gorbachev regime there as a civil war, that's probably the latest such incidence (and the only one I can come up with).

Gorbachev was head of state, and not aware of the coup (or the organizing of resistance to it by Yeltsin and the Moscow garrison) until some time after it started, being incommunicado in his dacha in the Crimea.

When communications were cut off with center he started to suspect something was out of the ordinary, but it took hours (and according to some accounts more than a day) until he was fully aware that there'd been a coup and fighting was going on in the streets of Moscow.

Any other recent (as in, since the invention or radio) example would almost have to be under similar circumstances.

And older examples would be most likely border conflicts in remote areas that were over before news of them could reach the government(s). And I seriously doubt you're going to find people admitting to those in the history books, governments don't like it known that they're not in full positive control over their armed forces at all times, however impossible that would be to establish in actuality.


One example, though not quite as drastic, was Andrew Jackson's conquest of Florida from the Spanish.

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