History is filled with examples of ambitious swindlers who took on the identities of kings, queens and other royals—and it’s not always as easy as one might think to distinguish a king from a con artist. Some of these impostors sought to gain political power and wealth by masquerading as real monarchs, but others went so far as to invent fraudulent titles and even fake countries. Find out more about seven royal impostors who managed to con their way into the history books.
In 1918, Bolshevik revolutionaries murdered the Russian princess Anastasia, along with the rest of her family. However, rumors persisted of her alleged survival for decades and, over the years, several different impostors claimed to be Anastasia Romanova. None gained as much fame as Anna Anderson. The would-be royal first surfaced in the early 1920s in a Berlin mental asylum, where she announced that she was Grand Duchess Anastasia, the youngest daughter of the deceased Czar Nicholas II. Although most of the surviving Romanovs dismissed her as a fraud, the girl bore a striking resemblance to the princess and even knew many personal details of her life. She soon won the support of a coterie of wealthy Russian emigrants, many of whom believed she was the legitimate heir to the throne.
The supposed princess eventually moved to America in 1968 and took the name Anna Anderson. But while her story inspired several books and even a Hollywood movie, she failed to win recognition in court due to a lack of evidence. Her story remained the source of much debate until 1994, when a posthumous DNA test finally proved she was not related to the Romanov family. Anderson likely a Polish factory worker who disappeared in 1920, but her true identity has never been confirmed.
In the early 1820s, a dashing Scotsman named Gregor MacGregor rose to the top of London’s high society on the basis of a most unusual claim. A former soldier and mercenary who had fought in South America, MacGregor presented himself as the “cazique,” or prince, of a small Central American country he called Poyais. As evidence, the faux royal produced several maps, drawings and even a book, all of which described the mysterious country as a fertile paradise with a working government and friendly native population. MacGregor’s tiny principality seemed the perfect destination for European settlers, except for one small detail: It didn’t exist.
Far from being a “cazique,” MacGregor was actually a con man who had cooked up a fairy tale country as a way of bilking investors out of huge sums of money. He eventually sold thousands of pounds worth of land rights for his phantom nation, and in 1822 the first would-be “Poyers” set sail across the Atlantic Ocean. Arriving in Central America and finding only unsettled jungle, the pioneers—many of whom had converted their life savings into phony Poyais currency—soon realized they had been swindled. The stranded colonists were eventually rescued, but not before some 180 people perished from disease. Not surprisingly, MacGregor fled the country soon after the news reached England. He later resurfaced in France, but was arrested after he tried to set up a second Poyais-related scheme.
The man known as False Dmitry I not only successfully posed as a prince, he managed to con his way onto the royal throne of Russia. The pretender first became known to history in the early 1600s, when he appeared in Poland declaring himself to be Dmitry, the youngest son of the deceased Ivan the Terrible. The real Dmitry had supposedly been assassinated as a boy, but the imposter claimed he had escaped his would-be murderers and fled the country. The alleged royal went on to charm the Russian people, eventually riding a wave of public support all the way to Moscow.
False Dmitry was crowned czar in July 1605, but his rule was ultimately short-lived. The pretender’s policies proved too radical for Russia’s elites, and he was overthrown and assassinated less than a year later. Many have since speculated that his real name may have been Grigory Otrepyev, but this has never been proved. Amusingly, he was not the only impostor who claimed to be the real Dmitry. Two more pretenders emerged over the next decade, though neither succeeded in winning the throne.
Not only did young Perkin Warbeck masquerade as a prince, he nearly succeeded in overthrowing King Henry VII of England. In 1491, Warbeck appeared in Ireland claiming he was Richard of York, the youngest son of the former King Edward IV. The real Richard was most likely murdered in the Tower of London as a boy, but at the time there was still much speculation about his fate. Capitalizing on this mystery, Warbeck presented himself as the missing prince, and eventually won support among Henry VII’s political enemies, who included such powerful figures as James IV of Scotland and Maximilian I of Austria.
Warbeck landed in Cornwall in 1497, and he soon galvanized his supporters into a rebel army of several thousand men. But when faced with the possibility of a battle with the king’s forces, the pretender lost his nerve and fled to the coast. He was eventually captured, and later admitted he was an impostor before being executed by hanging in 1499. Warbeck is widely regarded as a famous fraud, but some historians have noted that Henry VII could have fabricated the pretender’s backstory in an attempt to discredit him. With this in mind, there remains at least a small possibility that Warbeck may have actually been Richard of York.
For several months in 1817, the village of Almondsbury, England fell under the spell of a phony island princess. The young woman had first appeared in the town clad in a black turban and speaking a mysterious language. Through a Portuguese translator, she identified herself as Princess Caraboo, a member of the royal family of Javasu, a small Indian Ocean atoll. Even more astonishing, she claimed she had been kidnapped from her homeland by pirates, and had only escaped by plunging into the freezing Bristol Channel and swimming ashore.
The story of Princess Caraboo quickly took the town by storm. People flocked to get a look at the visiting royal, who slept on the floor, swam naked in a nearby lake and climbed trees to pray to a god called “Allah Tallah.” The fascination continued until a woman from a neighboring town noticed that her highness Princess Caraboo was in fact Mary Baker, an English girl who had previously been employed in her house as a servant. Baker later admitted that she had invented the princess and her bizarre language as part of an elaborate con, and the story of the hoax went on to become a minor sensation in the British press.
In 1773, a royal impostor sparked one of the largest revolts in Russian history. Capitalizing on his striking resemblance to the murdered Peter III, a former soldier named Yemelyan Pugachev took on the identity of the late emperor and incited a massive peasant uprising against Catherine the Great. As Peter III, Pugachev promised populist reforms including autonomy for Russia’s Cossack population an end to the feudal system, and soon thousands of serfs had rallied to his standard.
Initially catching the empress by surprise, Pugachev’s army laid siege to the city of Orenburg in late 1773, and then proceeded to raze Kazan the following year. But despite these early successes, by late 1774 Catherine’s generals had started to turn the tide of the conflict. Following a decisive defeat at Tsaritsyn, a group of Pugachev’s lieutenants betrayed him and turned him over to the empress. The impostor was executed in early 1775, and his revolt crumbled soon thereafter.
Although he spent his life as a watchmaker and clock salesman, German swindler Karl Wilhelm Naundorff went to his grave insisting he was the rightful king of France. Naundorff arrived in Paris in the 1830s claiming to be Prince Louis-Charles, the son of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, both of whom were beheaded during the French Revolution. Naundorff was only one of several men who professed to be the long-dead dauphin, but he soon succeeded in winning the confidence of many high profile figures including the prince’s former governess.
Despite having several physical characteristics in common with the Prince Louis-Charles, Naundorff never provided sufficient evidence for his assertion, and he was eventually branded a fraud. Even Princess Marie Therese—his supposed sister—refused to meet with him. After being expelled from France, Naundorff lived out his later years in the Netherlands, where he was recognized as Louis-Charles until his death in 1845. The mystery of his true identity would endure for another 150 years, but Naundorff was finally exposed as an impostor in the early 21st century, when DNA evidence proved he was not related to Marie Antoinette.