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  • Print publication year: 2020
  • Online publication date: July 2020

Chapter 11 - Pretenders and Returners: Dynastic Imposters in the Middle Ages

from Part II - A Sense of Dynasty


This chapter looks at a recurrent feature of the dynastic world, the appearance of men (and on one occasion a woman) claiming to be long-lost rulers. Because political legitimacy was in the blood, such pretenders based their claim on their supposed descent, which their supporters would maintain and their opponents deny. Alongside stories of kings who survived their supposed death and lived on as hermits, there are numerous cases of returning dynasts who posed major threats to the established powers and came close to success – if they had been successful historians would no long judge them to be “pretenders”. Baldwin of Flanders, in the 1220s, and Woldemar of Brandenburg, in the mid-fourteenth century, are two examples. The returners had to produce a good story of where they had been and why they had not returned before, and they and their enemies engaged in a debate about who they really were, a debate that throws light on how contemporaries sought to establish identity. Scars, quality of voice, and extent of knowledge, especially private knowledge, could be applied as tests. Even when these pretenders were defeated and killed, many continued to wonder if they really had been who they claimed to be.