Who Was Deceiving Whom?

Russian National Library, St. Petersburg/Erich Lessing/Art Resource
The Battle of Crécy in 1346, when King Philip VI of France was defeated by King Edward III of England; from Les Grandes Chroniques de France, fifteenth century

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…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account.