During the Middle Ages there was no DNA testing to prove paternity, or Photo ID cards to show who you were. Most subjects of a kingdom probably never saw their king or even knew what he looked like. This tempted many people to claim to be someone other than who they were, including royalty. Here is our list of the top ten medieval pretenders, most of whom did not have a happy ending.
On May 30, 1431, Joan of Arc was burned at the stake in Rouen. But there seems to have been doubts that it was the real French maiden: one chronicler from the time wrote, “At last they burned her, or another woman like her, on which point many persons are, and have been, of different opinions.”
Five years later a woman claiming to be Joan was travelling around France, visiting various nobles. She had also married a knight named Robert des Armoises. The two real brothers of Joan of Arc even her supported her claim, and in 1439 the town of Orleans gave her 210 livres in honour of her helping lift the English siege of that city ten years earlier.
The ruse continued until 1440, when Joan met King Charles VII – it was here that she confessed that she was not the real Joan and begged for the king’s mercy. The French ruler granted it and Joan lived out the rest of her days married to Robert.
9. Giannino di Guccio
When Louis X, King of France, died in 1315, his wife Clementia of Hungary was already several months pregnant. On November 15th a son was born – John I, becoming the new King of France. Sadly, the infant died five days later, leaving the monarchy with no clear successor. The dispute over who should have been the next French king would continue on, and would be one of the causes of the Hundred Years War (as Edward III had his own claim to the French throne).
In 1354, Cola di Rienzo, the maverick ruler of Rome, made the astonishing claim that John I never died. Instead, the baby was switched at birth with the son of a Tuscan merchant. That child was taken back to Italy, where he was Giannino di Guccio, now a prosperous merchant in Siena. Giannino would spend the next few years trying to convince anyone who would listen that he was the true King of France, and in 1360 he gathered enough mercenaries and followers to attempt an invasion of the country. His plan failed, and the last we heard of Giannino was while he was a prisoner in Naples. This fascinating story is recounted in The Man Who Believed He Was King of France: A True Medieval Tale by Tommaso di Carpegna Falconieri. You can read our interview with Tommaso here.
8. Tile Kolup
When a man came to Cologne in 1284 claiming to be Emperor Frederick II (who had died in 1250), the citizens of the German town laughed at him and threw him into a sewer. But that did not deter Tile Kolup, and he held his own court and issued his own royal documents. A year later he joined up with some of the enemies of Rudolph I to attack the German king. In turn, Rudolph hunted him down and burned Tile at the stake.
7. False Margaret
Margaret, the daughter of King Eric II of Norway, was only three years old when she became the uncrowned Queen of the Scots – she was the granddaughter to Scottish ruler Alexander III who had died without any other heirs. She was never able to enforce her claim to the Scottish throne, however – she died at the age of seven while in the Orkney Islands, and her remains were taken back to Norway.
In the year 1300 a ship from Lubeck, Germany, arrived in the Norwegian town of Bergen and a woman came ashore claiming to be Margaret – she explained that her custodians in Orkney had married her off to a German noble, but now she had returned to claim her rightful inheritance. Some of the locals believed her, but when King Haakon V (who was the real Margaret’s uncle) came to investigate a year later, he found that the woman was an imposter. The real Margaret would have been 17 years old at this time, and this lady appeared to be at least 20 years older and even had grey hair. The Norwegian king beheaded her and had her remains burned at the stake. You can read more about False Margaret in this article.
6. Tryggvi the Pretender
Medieval Norwegian rulers were infamous for having numerous children out of wedlock, and many rulers had to compete with people claiming to be the long lost son of a former king. Some were successful in their claims, such as with Sverre Sigurdsson (r. 1177–1202). Originally, he was the son of a comb-maker in the Faroe Islands and was trained to be a priest. But in 1175, his mother revealed that Sverre was really the son of King Sigurd Munn of Norway. That is the version that Sverre gave in his own saga, but many people, then and now, have their doubts. He was able to find followers to rally to his cause, and after a series of battles, was able to overthrow the current Norwegian king and hold the throne for 25 years.
Others were not so lucky. In 1033, Tryggvi Ólafsson came from the British Isles with an army to invade Norway. He claimed to be the son of Olaf Tryggvason, while his enemies said he was the son of a priest. He fell into a naval battle with Sweyn Forkbeard and was killed, thus gaining the nickname ‘the Pretender.’
5. Wrong Waldemar
In 1348, an elderly man came to the Archbishop of Magdeburg and told the churchman that he was Waldemar, Margrave of Brandenburg-Stendal, who had died and been buried 29 years earlier. He claimed the burial of 1319 had been staged, and that he had in the meantime been on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land.
This Waldemar soon gained enough supporters that Emperor Charles IV had to return to him control of the Mark of Brandenburg. He would rule that territory for two years before he was exposed as a fraud – most likely he Jacob Roebuck, a miller who may have been employed by the real Waldemar. Although ‘Wrong Waldemar’ was stripped of his title and power, he was not executed and lived on for several more years.
4. Pseudo-Alexios II
Even the Byzantine Empire had its share of pretenders. There were at least three men who claimed to be Emperor Alexios II Komnenos, who had been murdered in 1183. The most successful of these was a young man who bore a strong resemblance to the deceased emperor – he had an audience with the ruler of the Seljuk Turks and gained his support. In 1191 he marched on Byzantium with 8000 men, capturing and plundering cities. It seemed that he might have been able to defeat the current sitting emperor, but his good fortune ran out when a priest, upset over the alliance with the Muslim Turks, murdered him. When one Byzantine general saw the remains of the fake Alexios and noticed how similar he looked to the real Alexios, he reportedly said, “Those who followed him may be innocent after all.”
3. John Deydras
King Edward II had his share of troubles in trying to rule England – he was not a popular monarch at home, and his military prowess was questioned after his defeat by the Scots at the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314. However, the king was slightly amused when he learned that another man was going around England claiming to be the real King Edward. John Deydras, also known as John of Powderham, came to Beaumont Palace in Oxford in early 1318 and said this castle rightfully belonged to him. Deydras looked very similar to the English king, and was tall and good-looking. But he was also missing an ear – John explained that he was actually the son of King Edward I, but one day a pig bit off his ear. His nurse, terrified by the possible wrath of the king for letting this happened, decided to switch the injured baby with another similar looking boy. To prove his claim, John challenged Edward to personal combat.
Instead, the king had Deydras brought before him, and jokingly said, “Welcome, my brother.” John angrily replied, “Thou art no brother of mine, but falsely thou claimest the kingdom for thyself. Thou hast not a drop of blood from the illustrious Edward, and that I am prepared to prove against thee.”
Instead, Deydras was imprisoned and put on trial. He eventually confessed that he made the whole story up and that he was told to do it by his cat, which was actually the devil in disguise. Edward then had John and the cat hung from a gallows and their bodies burned to ashes.
2. Lambert Simnel
One of the most famous mysteries in English history is what happened to the Princes in the Tower. In 1483, Richard, Duke of Gloucester, imprisoned his two nephews, Edward V of England (age 12) and Richard of Shrewsbury (age 9). Soon after, Richard took the English crown for himself as Richard III and the two boys disappeared.
Four years later, after Richard III was killed at the Battle of Bosworth and Henry VII had come to the throne, a boy named Lambert Simnel was being presented to be the true heir to the English throne, either as Richard of Shrewsbury or as Edward Plantagenet, another young boy that was currently being held in the Tower of London.
Apparently, a priest named Richard Simon had come across this boy and believed that he was some kind of royalty. The priest started to spread rumours that Lambert had somehow escaped the Tower of London. It attracted various supporters of the Yorkist cause, as well as those disgruntled by the rule of Henry VII. On 24 May 1487, Simnel was crowned in Ireland as King Edward VI, and an army was organized to invade England.
However, when the army landed in England, they found little support from the local residents. Henry VII led his forces to confront the rebellion, and at the Battle of Stoke Field on June 16, 1487 he crushed Lambert’s supporters, killing most of its leaders. Lambert himself was captured, but Henry, realizing the boy was just a puppet being controlled by others, pardoned him. Lambert would go on to be a servant in the royal household, rising to the position of Falconer, and was still alive in 1525.
A more serious threat to Henry’s reign came in 1490, when a young named Perkin Warbeck claimed to be the real Richard of Shrewsbury. This man spent most of his time in mainland Europe, where he convinced the King of France and the Holy Roman Emperor that he indeed was the long lost son of Edward IV.
Starting in 1495 he made three invasions of England, including one with a Scottish army, but all of them failed quickly. In his third and final invasion, Warbeck managed to recruit 6000 men to his cause, but once he heard that Henry VII’s royal army was closing in on him, he abandoned his troops and was captured while trying to flee. He was eventually brought to London, where he was “paraded through the streets on horseback amid much hooting and derision of the citizens”.
Perkin spent a couple of years in the Tower of London, where he made a confession that explained he was actually Flemish. Some historians still believe that Perkin Warbeck was the real Richard of Shrewsbury, and that his confession (made under coercion at the very least) was false. Whoever he really was, he only survived until 1499, when he was hanged.
Listen to the podcast Lambert Simnel and Perkin Warbeck: Pretenders to the Throne? from Footnoting History