Most hereditary monarchies have been plagued at one time or another by impostors. They thrive in societies obsessed by legitimacy. They are creatures of a world in which the transmission of power is determined by legal status. Am I a king who was thought to be dead? Are you a dead monarch’s lost or forgotten heir? Who cares, unless status is the sole qualification for supreme government? Where only power can command loyalty, and only success can claim affection, there is not much point in an unknown or forgotten outsider putting forward a claim. Possession is everything. The Roman Empire was not much troubled by impostors.
Yet something more is required for a successful imposture than a prevailing belief in inherited authority. There has to be a powerful desire to believe in the impostor, powerful enough to overcome the inevitable improbabilities. It is the reason why royal impostors are such an interesting study in mass psychology, belonging more naturally to the world of religion than to that of politics. The more successful ones had a messianic quality calculated to appeal to some of the deepest instincts of credulous humanity. They generally emerged against a background of war, civil breakdown, or natural catastrophe. Their followers were propelled by powerful grievances, intensified by political nostalgia and the perennial unwillingness of men to come to terms with the premature or violent death of heroes, or even potential heroes. In a world that finds the present odious and longs for the appearance of a savior, impostors offer legitimacy and salvation. It is a heady combination.
The classic case is the pseudo-Dmitri, the monastic oblate who passed himself off as the son of Tsar Ivan IV of Russia at the beginning of the seventeenth century. Dmitri was the only impostor in European history to make his pretensions a reality. He actually succeeded in occupying Moscow and mounting the throne for a period of ten months. But he was typical in every other respect. He achieved what he did by exploiting the political divisions of Russia and recruiting support among the country’s foreign enemies. The reigning tsar, Boris Godunov, was widely believed to have usurped the throne by murdering the real Dmitri. His government had been undermined by three years of civil war, harvest failure, famine, and signs of divine disapproval. Although backed by an army consisting mainly of Polish mercenaries, Dmitri was able to make use of the strong apocalyptic streak in Russian opinion and present himself as a savior.
In more advanced regions of Europe, the golden age of the royal impostor was the late Middle Ages. Few periods have combined such a strong belief in political legitimacy with so much human misery. The mass of men looked back to an imaginary golden age before their world had been blighted, and forward to a variety of millenarian fantasies. In England, no fewer than four monarchs were deposed in the course of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, but notions of legitimacy were still strong enough for these events to provoke instinctive resentment. The corpse of Edward II was publicly exhibited after his death in 1327, in order to undermine any impostor who might come forward to claim his mantle. But that did not stop his brother from claiming three years later that Edward was still alive, or William the Welshman from wandering about Germany pretending to be Edward II more than a decade into the reign of his successor.
In 1400 Richard II’s corpse was borne slowly through England from Pontefract to London in an open bier watched by large crowds. It did not stop the Scots from setting up an impostor whose claim to be Richard II was widely believed, even though no one in England had clapped eyes on him. In the right conditions, a pretender did not even have to be plausible. All that was required was that he should bear himself in a suitably regal fashion and that his real origins should be obscure enough not to give the game away. Perkin Warbeck, who famously tried to pass himself off in the 1490s as the Duke of York, one of the murdered princes of the Tower, was not even an Englishman but the son of a Flemish customs clerk.
Giannino di Guccio Baglioni, the subject of The Man Who Believed He Was King of France, was neither the most famous nor the most successful royal impostor of the period. But he must surely have been one of the most unlikely. He was a moderately successful Sienese wool merchant and banker who in the mid-1350s proclaimed himself to be King John I of France. The real King John I had been born in November 1316, five months after the death of his father, Louis X. He died when he was five days old. His marble effigy appears with those of his forebears in the royal mausoleum of Saint-Denis, a plump, cheerful, larger-than-life baby, with an improbably full head of hair and hands joined together in prayer. Louis X’s brother Philip, Count of Poitiers, seized power as soon as the baby’s death was announced and was crowned as Philip V.
France was the ideal setting for a royal impostor. Thirteen Capetian kings of the direct line had succeeded each other from father to son between 987 and 1316, with very little in the way of argument or doubt. A whole sacral mythology had built up around the dynasty as the embodiment of France’s identity and the sole source of political authority. The principles of heredity and legitimacy were probably stronger in France than in any other European state. At no time, not even in the long reign of the pathetic and intermittently insane Charles VI (1380–1422), did the French ever seriously contemplate removing a legitimate king simply because he was pernicious or useless. Their political elite looked with horror across the Channel at the English, who regularly did so. Against this background, any serious doubts about the legitimacy of the incumbent monarch could be expected to have a considerable political impact.
In the fourteenth century, there was plenty of room for doubt. Even if John I was dead, Philip V’s claim to succeed him had been controversial. In point of law it depended on the principle that Louis X’s daughter Joan was excluded from the succession as a woman. This rule was justified a century later by reference to a forged text of the so-called Salic Law of the Franks. But at the time it was supported by neither precedent nor authority. It was also contrary to the practice in other countries and to the rule governing the transmission of the great territorial principalities of France itself. When, in 1328, the third French king in a row died without leaving a male heir, the crown passed to the Valois, a collateral branch whose claim depended on the principle that a woman could not even transmit a right of succession to her son. The truth was that Philip V had succeeded in 1316 by the force of his personality and the strength of his support within the royal family. Philippe de Valois succeeded in 1328 because the closest male heir was an Englishman, Edward III, an outsider in everyone’s eyes but his own.
If France was the ideal place for an impostor, then the mid-1350s were arguably the ideal time. In 1340, Edward III of England had claimed the crown of France for himself in a makeshift ceremony in the Friday Market at Ghent, attended by a crowd of Flemish townsmen and English and German soldiers. Edward’s claim never had much support in the political heart of France. But it was plausible enough to find supporters in Flanders, and among disaffected groups with other reasons for defying the Valois monarchy.
Failure in the Middle Ages was readily interpreted as a sign of divine disfavor. The Valois kings suffered many failures. Philip VI was defeated by Edward III in the disastrous Battle of Crécy (1346). Ten years later his son John II was captured at the Battle of Poitiers by an Anglo-Gascon army commanded by Edward’s son, the Black Prince. John II was destined to spend the next four years of his life in prisons in Bordeaux and England. The Dauphin Charles proclaimed himself regent. But Charles’s authority was undermined by the widespread, if rather unfair, belief that he had contributed to the disaster by fleeing from the field at the critical point of the battle. He was also challenged by a popular revolution in Paris led by the plebeian demagogue Étienne Marcel, and by a formidable coalition of aristocratic enemies organized by his cousin Charles “the Bad,” Count of Évreux and King of Navarre.
We do not know when or how Giannino di Guccio first claimed to be John I of France. Giannino invented most of the early records of his life. His own account, written some years later from his prison cell, is a medley of fact and fantasy that survives only in a fifteenth-century recension. Some of it is clearly true. None of it can be trusted without corroboration.
The earliest unquestionably authentic document that survives is an entry in the register of deliberations of the Commune of Siena, dated October 27, 1359. This records that Giannino had recently been elected to the governing council of the city, known as the “Twelve.” However, his election had been quashed and he had been debarred from ever holding office again, because he was going about claiming to be king of France and exhibiting to all who would listen bogus documents apparently recognizing his claim. The good citizens of Siena thought that Giannino could be town councillor or king of France, but not both. The timing and the tenor of one of these documents suggest that Giannino’s claims were recent. The strong probability must be that they had emerged some time after the news of the battle of Poitiers reached Tuscany.
Giannino’s claim was based on a variant of the story of the babies switched at birth. The type will be familiar to modern readers from the romantic tales of Hans Christian Andersen and Mark Twain and from one of Verdi’s noisier operas, but it already had an established literary pedigree in the fourteenth century. According to Giannino’s version, in 1316 his father was living in France, where his firm had business with the royal court. He had recently married a young French noblewoman called Marie de Cressay. The couple had a son called John at about the same time as the other John was born to Louis X’s queen, Clémence of Hungary. Marie de Cressay was engaged as the royal wet nurse. One day, some courtiers came to collect the infant king, so that he could be exhibited at court. But the courtiers suspected that the baby’s wicked old aunt, Mahaut, Countess of Artois, was about to do away with him. So they switched the two babies, with the result that it was Marie’s own son John who was murdered. Frightened by the prospect of making an enemy of Philip V, the courtiers connived with Marie in covering up the truth.
Some years later, the story continued, Giannino’s father, believing the child to be his own, took him back to Italy, leaving Marie behind in France. But on her deathbed in 1345, she revealed all to a Spanish friar, charging him to find her son and tell him who he really was. The friar, who was getting on in years, delegated the task to another friar. He in turn delegated it in 1354 to the Roman demagogue and seer Cola di Rienzo, who had recently seized power in the papal city. It was Cola, according to Giannino, who revealed to him the secret of his birth and urged him to claim his rights. This was presumably what Giannino told his supporters.
At some stage, Giannino set about lending plausibility to this farrago of nonsense by collecting impressive-sounding endorsements. We have the texts of two letters dated September 1354, in which Cola summons Giannino urgently from Siena to hear a great secret that had been entrusted to him. Then there are two versions of the deathbed revelations of Marie de Cressay, one of them much more detailed and circumstantial than the other. Both versions bore a brief codicil verifying the facts, which was supposedly written by Cola di Rienzo and authenticated with his seal. Tommaso di Carpegna Falconieri, the director of medieval studies at the University of Urbino, thinks that these documents are genuine, apart from the longer version of Marie de Cressay’s revelations, which he acknowledges to be a forgery. Some historians have taken all of them at face value.
Cola di Rienzo was a man of unbounded vanity and self-importance, who was certainly mad enough to promote a rival candidate to the French throne on a whim. However, the overwhelming probability is that all the documents bearing his name were forged. There are problems about their dating. The existence of two versions of the legend, each bearing a seal, one of which was clearly written much later in order to address the gaps and improbabilities of the other, tends to cast doubt on both. However, the main difficulty about the documents is their inherent implausibility.
Like all fables, the legend of Giannino’s royal birth has some elements of truth. He almost certainly was born in France. His ostensible parents were Guccio Baglioni and Marie de Cressay. Whoever made up the story must have known these things. If we are to accept that Cola told the tale to Giannino, which is what the documents appear to say, we have to accept one of the most unlikely parts of Giannino’s story, namely the transmission of Marie de Cressay’s deathbed confession to Cola by the friars. Of course nothing like this happened. Giannino made it up himself, mixing known facts with large fictions.
At the end of 1357, Giannino traveled to Hungary to obtain the endorsement of the Hungarian king, Louis the Great. We have only Giannino’s own word for this, but his account of his travels contains a good deal of circumstantial detail that can be verified from other sources. Why should he have lighted on Louis of Hungary as a potential patron? One reason may have been that Louis was the nephew of Clémence of Hungary, and therefore the real John I’s first cousin.
But one can guess that Giannino’s bid for Hungarian support had more to do with current tensions in the politics of the Italian peninsula than with any desire to call on cousinly affection. In the fourteenth century, the ruling families of Hungary and Naples were both descended from cadet branches of the French royal family, and were in the throes of a powerful vendetta. Jeanne d’Anjou, Queen of Naples and ruler of southern Italy and Provence, had married Louis the Great’s brother and then, in 1345, had him murdered at the door of her bedroom. The event had already provoked two invasions of her kingdom by Hungarian armies and inaugurated half a century of intermittent civil war in southern Italy and Provence. The Neapolitan branch of the house of Anjou was closely allied to the Valois kings of France. Giannino probably thought that he would get a better reception from his quasi cousin in Buda than from any of his other adopted relatives.
As it turned out, he was wrong. Giannino hung about Buda for more than a year trying to get an interview, without success. In the end he had to make do with a letter of endorsement in which Louis apparently commended his claims on the French throne, and urged the world at large to support them. The document is an obvious forgery, authenticated with a stolen copy of Louis’s seal, which Giannino obtained, as his memoirs show, through a con man with influence at court.
The interesting question is who Giannino’s backers were. It is hardly conceivable that an ordinary Sienese businessman could suddenly have taken it into his head to lay claim to the kingdom of France unprompted. Apart from anything else, the later and more elaborate of the two versions of his story shows signs of having been edited with the assistance of someone who was extremely well informed about the ways of the French court and the events of 1316. Unfortunately the sources do not enable us to identify who this was. Falconieri, whose grasp of French politics in these years is rather insecure, speculates that Giannino’s cause was promoted by Charles the Bad of Navarre, or possibly by his fanatical younger brother Philip, Count of Longueville. At least one known supporter of Charles’s rebellion was to be found from time to time in Giannino’s entourage. But it is unlikely that this man was acting with the authority of either brother. They were backing the claims of Edward III for much of this period. Besides, it could not have escaped Charles of Navarre that if Giannino was really John I, he was the heir not just to the kingdom of France but to Navarre as well.
A more plausible hypothesis (but it is no more than that) is that Giannino’s claims were embellished and promoted in association with politicians in Naples and Provence who were supporting the Hungarians against Jeanne d’Anjou. This view is at least consistent with the way in which Giannino’s venture ended. In about 1360, as the Anglo-French war was drawing to a close, he traveled to Provence and appeared in Avignon, then the seat of the popes. He applied for an audience with the Pope, but got no further than a cardinal. He set about raising political support among the princes of southern France. He had brought with him a large sum of money, which appears to have been his own, and some louche companions. With these he began to recruit soldiers among the international bands of professional brigands then active in the region. One of these was an English mercenary captain called John Verney. He was no doubt happy to accept the veneer of legitimacy which Giannino’s claim conferred on his band of looters. He may even have been paid.
Their first target, however, was not France but the Provençal domains of the Queen of Naples. Giannino and Verney joined forces with some of Queen Jeanne’s local enemies and captured some fortresses in the Rhône valley. Some of these were shortly recaptured by Jeanne’s representatives with the aid of French troops. Giannino himself was eventually arrested, sent to Marseille, and shipped in chains to Naples. There he was imprisoned in progressively more uncomfortable conditions in the Castel dell’Ovo, the great state prison overlooking the harbor. Here, he wrote the extravagant account that constitutes the main source for his life, and compiled an inventory of his remaining possessions. They included a gold crown with enameled relief figures of the kings of France.
The inventory, which is dated April 1362, is the last reliable evidence of Giannino’s existence. How and when he met his end is not recorded. What is clear is that he had become an embarrassment. He was derided in his home city of Siena. The Pope was demanding satisfaction for Giannino’s behavior from the court of Naples. The King of France, by now released from his English prison, was demanding Giannino’s extradition to France. His supporters in France, such as they were, had melted away. His supporters in Provence were no friends of the government of Naples. The probability is that he was either executed or obscurely killed in his prison cell. Even in the eighteenth century, the tale of Giannino di Guccio could still make a loyal courtier shudder. The French royal historiographer Louis de Bréquigny, coming by accident upon the meager documentation of his case, stopped work at once for fear that his researches might cast doubt on the legitimacy of Louis XV.
The fate of impostors is a good measure of the threat that they represent. The Earl of Kent, who had spread reports that Edward II was alive and well three years after his death, was sentenced to death and butchered by an amateur executioner. William the Welshman was arrested in Germany and handed over to Edward III. He was never heard of again. The controversies surrounding the deposition and murder of Edward II were too damaging to his successor to be ignored.
Exemplary savagery remained for many years the treatment reserved for those impostors who were caught. The man who claimed to be the last native king of Portugal at the end of the sixteenth century was regarded by the Spanish officials who arrested him as a harmless madman, and initially treated as a joke. But as soon as it became apparent that there were people prepared to rise in his name in Lisbon and throw off Spanish rule, he was shipped to Seville and publicly mutilated and hanged. The Pseudo-Dmitri was thrown from a high window and shot as he lay injured on the ground. His body was publicly desecrated. The self-styled “Francis III of France,” who claimed to have a better right to the throne than Henry IV, was hanged in 1596 from a high scaffold specially constructed in front of Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris. These men had all courted death by publicly challenging the legitimacy of the reigning monarch at a time when he was far from secure on his throne.
Only a more self-confident regime could afford to be merciful. Lambert Simnel, the first of the line of pretenders to challenge Henry VII of England, was punished by being paraded about the streets of London. He then received a royal pardon and a job in the palace kitchens. Perkin Warbeck was put in the pillory. His wife was given a job at court. William Featherstone, the Dorset miller who claimed to be Edward VI during the reign of Mary, was sentenced in 1555 to be carried about the City of London in a cart dressed as a clown. Legitimacy is all in the mind, and mockery proved to be the best response of injured majesty.
In the case of the pseudo-Francis III and the various pseudo-Dukes of York, we can be sure that the impostors knew what they were doing. But in Giannino’s case, who was deceiving whom? The thesis of Tommaso di Carpegna Falconieri, encapsulated in his subtitle, is that Giannino was an honest victim of circumstances who truly believed himself to be king of France. He was taken in by the supposed revelations of Cola di Rienzo. He really believed in the authenticity of the endorsement of the King of Hungary.
It is a pretty picture, but in the end a completely unconvincing one. No one could have invented the legend of Giannino di Guggio other than Giannino himself. No one could have invented the account of Cola di Rienzo’s endorsement of it other than Giannino himself. As for the King of Hungary’s letter, Giannino was experienced enough in the ways of the world to know that a king who would not even meet him was unlikely to have regarded him as his long-lost cousin. Falconieri points out that Giannino had a lot to lose by claiming to be king of France, which is true. He sacrificed his political ambitions in Siena and much of the fortune that he had made there. This was not a rational way to behave if he knew his claim to be nonsense. But how much rationality can one really attribute to a man whose entire history shows him to have been a nut?