8 People Who Impersonated Royals—And Almost Got Away With It

Heavy is the head who pretends to wear the crown.

Don't believe everyone who claims to have royal blood.
Don't believe everyone who claims to have royal blood. / CSA Images/Getty Images (silhouette); debela/DigitalVision Vectors/Getty Images (background)

From fairytales of star-crossed princesses to the dreadful histories of machiavellian kings, there’s something about royalty that sparks the imagination. Sure, we’ve all wondered what it might be like to be a queen for the day or perhaps king of the castle, but for the most part, the daydream stops there. 

But what if it didn’t? What if you could make people believe you were heir to the throne? It sure seems like a lofty idea. And yet, throughout history, there have been countless people who have tried. Whether driven by opportunity, coercion, or simply the desire to belong, here are the unbelievable true stories of eight people who claimed to be royal—and nearly got away with it.

1. Harry Domela

Harry Domela
Harry Domela. / brandstaetter images/GettyImages

Harry Domela fooled Germany’s aristocratic elites for several months in 1926. After falling on hard times, he gained a reputation among police as a swindler and petty thief who traveled from place to place as a vagrant. 

Domela managed to use his wits and charm to fool various upper-crust socialites into believing he was a prince who’d suffered misfortune—a tale convincing enough that the Mayor of Berlin’s wife gifted him a well-made coat.

He traveled to Heidelberg, where he pretended to be Prince Lieven of Latvia, and soon, he was the guest of an elite fraternity designated for the sons of dignitaries. The fraternity treated the “prince” to fencing matches in his honor and invited him to many rowdy parties; Domela later told newspapers how horribly misbehaved the fraternity was.

During his stay, someone started a rumor that he was secretly the exiled Kaiser’s grandson, Prince Wilhelm of Prussia. Domela used this to his advantage and traveled to the city of Erfurt, where things quickly got out of hand.

Upon checking into a local hotel, the proprietor greeted him as “Your Royal Highness,” declaring the Police Commissioner had alerted him of his arrival. Locals—both elite and not—gifted him cash, expensive items, and lavish hotel rooms. Domela enjoyed champagne dinners, hunting parties, private train accommodations, and even sat in the Royal Box at the opera. In one instance, an entire orchestra greeted him with a rousing rendition of the Hohenfriedberg March in his honor.

But Domela knew his fun would have to end. After all, he had a criminal record, and someone would eventually find out who he was. He ditched the whole prince gimmick and took off to join the Foreign Legion in 1927. He was soon arrested by a police inspector who recognized him and sentenced to seven months in a Cologne prison. His court case gained international attention, and while the general public found the whole thing hilarious, the ruling class felt differently.

Domela took advantage of his fame and popularity as a world-class prankster and impersonator and wrote a memoir about his royal escapade called Der falsche Prinz (“The Sham Prince”). He also starred in a silent movie by the same name. 

2. The Royal Family of Oudh

Begum Vilayat Mahal of Oudh at New Delhi Railway Station
The Begum of Oudh at New Delhi Railway Station. / Sondeep Shankar/GettyImages

At the height of the 1970s, a mysterious family settled into the first-class waiting room of a busy New Delhi train station, where they would remain for a decade.

The matriarch, an austere woman in a finely made sari, claimed they were the descendants of the Oudh Dynasty, and she was the Begum (Queen). Her grown children were Princess Sakina and Prince Cyrus; the latter sometimes went by the name of Ali Raza. Surrounded by Nepali servants, ferocious guard dogs, and all their worldly belongings, they became a spectacle for curious journalists and a royal pain for diplomats. But why were they there, and what did they want?

The Begum explained that when the British dethroned the last reigning King of Oudh in 1847, they also stole her ancestral property; now she wanted it back. She claimed her palace in Kashmir had burned down along with her paperwork and said she had no way of proving their royal identities. After writing letters to diplomats and causing a commotion for years about their unfair treatment, the Begum and her children eventually had their request granted (sort of). In 1984, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi permitted them to live at Malcha Mahal, an abandoned 14th-century hunting lodge in central Delhi. 

But who were they really? A constant fascination to locals and journalists for over 40 years, the mysterious family never wavered on their claims to royalty. True descendants of the Oudh Dynasty, however, insisted the Begum and her children were frauds.

Finally, in 2016, investigative journalist Ellen Barry uncovered the truth. The supposed Begum of Oudh was actually an activist and widowed housewife named Wilayat Butt who had been forced to move from India to Pakistan upon the Partition in 1947. She wanted to return to India, but because of political tension, it was nearly impossible. 

Taking on an elaborate royal identity, Wilayat Butt forced her way back into India with two of her five children, Mickey Butt (Prince Cyrus) and daughter, Farhad Butt (Princess Sakina). They had been financially supported by one of her sons, Shahid, a foundry worker who lived in England; the self-proclaimed Royal Family of Oudh also made ends meet by keeping journalists intrigued. 

Sadly, their assumed royal life was anything but easy. Lonely, misunderstood, and struggling with mental health, Wilayat Butt died by suicide in 1993, leaving her grown children to carry on the elaborate hoax until their equally sad and lonely endings.

3. Anna Anderson

Anna Anderson
Anna Anderson. / Hulton Archive/GettyImages

In 1920, a mysterious woman at a Berlin psychiatric hospital dubbed Ms. Unknown (for her refusal to share her identity) spotted a magazine article. It claimed that Princess Anastasia of Russia had escaped the Romanov massacre and was incognito. The unknown patient was spellbound. 

The bodies of Anastasia, her father, Tsar Nicholas II, and the rest of the Russian Royal Family—presumed murdered in 1918—were yet to be discovered, sparking rumors of survival.

Realizing she resembled the missing princess, the mysterious patient decided to own it. From her eyes to her features and even a shared toe deformity, the likeness to Anastasia was surreal.

Under the moniker Anna Anderson, the patient proclaimed that she was Princess Anastasia in hiding. She said she was spared on the night of the massacre by a kind-hearted militant who fell in love with her and ran away to Romania, where they were briefly married before his untimely death. People were enthralled.

But not everyone believed her, including most of Anastasia’s relatives, who quickly labeled Anderson a fraud. When pressed about intimate family details or asked to converse in Russian, Anderson would conveniently blame trauma for clouding her memory. She was released from the hospital in 1922 and moved in with a local Baron and his family who, like many others, continued to believe her royal claims.

Anastasia’s uncle, the Grand Duke of Hesse, uncovered the truth: Anna Anderson was a Polish-born peasant named Franziska Schanzkowska. Despite this revelation, Anderson continued to garner support with several books, plays, and movies made about her. She even went to court in a failed attempt to claim the Romanov family fortune. 

Anderson moved to the United States in the late 1960s and married an eccentric professor named John Eacott Manahan, who believed her royal story until she died in 1991. 

But it wasn’t until 1994 that the mystery of Anna Anderson was finally closed. Researchers compared a sample of Anderson’s DNA to the discovered remains of the Romanov family, revealing once and for all that she was indeed Franziska Schanzkowska.

4. Šćepan Mali

Šćepan Mali
Šćepan Mali. / Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

In 1766, a petite man with a falsetto voice began to make a name for himself in Montenegro. What he lacked in appearance, he made up for in charisma. Known locally as a herbalist and healer, Šćepan Mali, or “Stephen the Little,” was a well-liked figure in his community. But what made the population of Montenegro assume he was Emperor Peter III of Russia is a mystery.

The real Peter III had been assassinated four years earlier, yet rumors began to spread that Peter III was not dead and was instead living in exile in Montenegro to lead the Balkan country against the Ottoman Empire and uphold it as an Orthodox Christian stronghold.

For generations, Montenegro had been a leaderless nation of warring groups. The closest thing to a centralized leader was the Orthodox Metropolitan Arch-Bishop of Montenegro, a position filled by Sava Petrović, a largely disliked individual. 

Leaning into the royal gossip, Mali hatched a plan under the guise of Peter III to unify the warring Montenegrin tribes and protect the land from enemy invaders. Thousands of people gathered to obey Mali’s campaign for peace and stability [PDF]. On November 2, 1767, he was proclaimed Peter III, leader of Montenegro.

Meanwhile, the official head of state, the unpopular Arch-Bishop Sava, scrambled to prove Mali was a fraud. But no one would listen. Arch-Bishop Sava was imprisoned in a monastery; not long after, Mali crowned himself Tsar of Montenegro.

When word finally got around to Catherine the Great, the real Peter III’s widow, she was furious. She sent several dignitaries to Montenegro to notify the population that Peter III was indeed dead. Unfortunately, none of her representatives were ultimately able to complete their mission. In a last-ditch effort, Catherine deployed Prince Yuri Dolgorukov, a powerful Russian military governor, to lay the facts straight about Peter III.

When Dolgorukov finally succeeded in arresting Mali as a fraud, Montenegro staggered back into territorial chaos within weeks. Frustrated, Dolgorukov felt he had no option but to reinstate the false Tsar, who at least knew how to keep the peace [PDF]. Mali went on to successfully rule Montenegro for another five years until his assassination in 1773 at the hands of the Ottomans. 

5. Mary Carleton

Mary Carleton
Mary Carleton. / Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Witty and cunning, Mary (Moders) Carleton was a legendary figure in 17th-century England. She was married to a Canterbury shoemaker named Thomas Stedman, but was unhappy with her working-class lifestyle—so when her husband went off to war, Mary took off to Dover.

She started a new life for herself and married a wealthy surgeon. The only problem? The shoemaker was still her husband. When she was taken to court for bigamy, Moders claimed Stedman was dead (he wasn’t). But when he failed to appear in court, she was acquitted. 

After the trial, Mary went to Germany, where she caught the fancy of a wealthy nobleman who showered with gifts, clothes, and money. She promised him her hand in marriage. But, then, just as mysteriously as she arrived, she disappeared—this time, with plenty of valuable goods. 

Mary returned to London, dressed in fine clothes and dripping in jewelry, and pretended to be Princess Henrietta Maria de Wolway from Cologne. She met John Carleton, a well-to-do clerk, and spun a sad tale of misfortune, claiming she had escaped a forceful union with an elderly count. She forged elaborate letters “proving” she had an aristocratic family. At one point, Mary even conceded that if she were a man, she’d have been heir to the Danish throne.

John believed her hoax. He married her in a lavish ceremony in 1663 and supplied her with an extravagant lifestyle. After all, her hefty inheritance would surely cover the cost—or so he thought. But the whirlwind romance soon came crashing to an end when an anonymous letter revealed Mary as a fraudster. It wasn’t long before Mary found herself in front of a judge again.

Amid a packed courtroom full of curious onlookers, John and Mary went head to head. They even published lengthy handouts detailing their side of the story, with Mary claiming John had lied about being a Lord. Surprisingly, Mary found a way to get acquitted, something she seemed to have a knack for.

Mary continued to benefit from her stardom as a self-made German princess, acting in a play about her ordeal before returning to her life of lies and theft. She was arrested for stealing in 1671 and was shipped off to the Caribbean, where she survived as a sex worker before illegally returning to England. Once back in England, Mary was hanged for breaking her sentence in 1673.

6. Mary Willcocks

Mary Willcocks
Mary Willcocks. / Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

An unusual young woman appeared in a small English village in 1817. She approached a local cobbler and began speaking in frenzied gibberish. Assuming it was a foreign language, the kindly man brought her to the local Magistrate’s house. After all, he had a servant who could speak several languages.

But they had no luck—the servant had no clue what the girl was saying, and the Magistrate and his wife were dumbfounded. Unsure what to do next, they helped the girl find accommodation at a local inn before escorting her to a hospital for vagrants in Bristol the following day. 

The girl continued speaking and writing in an unknown language while in the hospital. Stranger still, she refused to sleep in a bed, preferring the floor, and wouldn’t eat or drink. The Magistrate’s wife sent a sample of the writing to the University of Oxford for further linguistic analysis; the Magistrate’s family also called upon anyone who might understand the girl. Finally, a Portuguese sailor named Manuel Eynesso responded, claiming he knew her language. 

Spinning an exciting tale of epic proportions, Eynesso informed everyone that the mystery patient was Princess Caraboo from the island of Javasu. He claimed that she had been abducted by pirates and traded at sea before she jumped ship and swam ashore in England. 

The Magistrate’s wife took the “princess” under her care as an honored guest and gave her fabric to create an outfit from her homeland. For three long months, the girl kept up an incredible act. She elaborately danced for guests, followed an unknown religion that included praying on the rooftop, and was said to swim naked. She even proved her prowess in archery. It wasn’t long before she became a national curiosity. 

That fame likely led to her downfall. After recognizing the girl’s image in a local newspaper, a former landlady identified her as Mary Willcocks, who was indeed English. Willcocks had worked various service jobs, and also commonly begged for money wearing a French-styled turban.

Despite being victim to the ridiculous shtick, the Magistrate’s wife pitied Willcocks and gifted her a ticket to Philadelphia. Willocks started a new life in America, where she used her fame as Princess Caraboo to launch a stage career until her spot in the limelight fizzled out. She returned to England and eventually made a living selling leeches for medical use. 

7. Lambert Simnel

Lambert Simnel
Lambert Simnel. / Culture Club/GettyImages

When Richard III died on the battlefield at Bosworth, so did the York dynasty. A new king, Henry VII, had risen to power. It was the dawn of the Tudor era.

Yorkist supporters were unhappy. Not only was their new king a Lancastrian, but some viewed him as a low-born usurper. They wanted nothing more than a return to Yorkist power. But unfortunately, no suitable heirs to the House of York were left—or so they thought.

The rightful king, 12-year-old Edward V, and his brother, 10-year-old Richard of Shrewsbury, Duke of York, had mysteriously disappeared two years earlier. Placed in the Tower of London by their usurping uncle Richard III, they were never seen again and presumed murdered. Next in line was their cousin, Edward Plantagenet, 17th Earl of Warwick. But he had also disappeared and was presumed dead.

The Yorkists knew they needed to find a puppet king to push their agenda. 

They turned to Lambert Simnel, the 10-year-old son of an Oxford tradesman who loosely resembled the missing heirs. He began training to be a king under the tutelage of an ambitious Yorkist-backed priest named Richard Symonds.

The Yorkists initially presented Simnel as the missing child-king, Edward V, then changed their minds and decided the boy would have better luck playing Edward Plantagenet, 17th Earl of Warwick. But there was one little problem: The real Earl of Warwick wasn’t dead. King Henry VII had locked him away indefinitely, knowing he was a political threat.

Yet Simnel, posing as the Earl of Warwick, was carted off to Yorkist-backed Ireland and crowned the long-lost King of England at Dublin’s Christ Church Cathedral on May 24, 1487. In response, Henry VII dragged the real Edward, Earl of Warwick, out of confinement to prove Simnel was a fraud. Even still, the Yorkists carried on their elaborate plans to place Simnel on the throne.

They were ultimately unsuccessful. King Henry VII led his army to victory against thousands of Yorkist militia in the Battle of Stoke Field, the final conflict of the Wars of the Roses. As for Simnel, it appears he went on to live a rather ordinary life. Henry VII forgave him, and he found work in the royal kitchen as a spit-turner and grew up to be a falconer.

8. Perkin Warbeck

Perkin Warbeck
Perkin Warbeck. / Hulton Archive/GettyImages

Although the plan to replace Henry VII with Lambert Simnel failed, the Yorkists wanted to try again. They just needed to find someone more convincing to fill the role. And that someone was Perkin Warbeck, who bore an uncanny similarity to Richard of Shrewsbury, one of the lost princes of the tower.

Warbeck arrived in Cork, Ireland, in 1491 alongside a fleet of merchants. Yorkist supporters jumped on the opportunity to proclaim him the missing heir to the throne of England—a proclamation Warbeck went along with. After all, if a crowd of people says you’re the long-lost King of England, why not roll with it?

Positioning himself as Richard of Shrewsbury, Warbeck began a campaign to overthrow King Henry VII. He wined and dined his way through the courts of Europe, spinning a harrowing story of survival. Warbeck said that though his brother Edward V was murdered in the Tower of London, he had been sent to Belgium to live out his childhood in hiding.

At first, many supported his claims, including the King of France, the Holy Roman Emperor, the Archduke of Austria, and the King of Scotland; the Scottish king even allowed Warbeck to marry his cousin, Lady Catherine Gordon, in 1497. Their Edinburgh wedding was a celebration fit for a royal. Even his supposed aunt, Margaret of York, believed the story. Queen Isabella of Spain, however, wasn’t buying any of it; she laughed at anyone who believed Warbeck’s story.

Warbeck continued his charade for six years, despite Queen Isabella’s ridicule and waning support for the pretend prince brought on by King Henry VII’s trade embargoes. After a failed siege in Cornwall, he  finally surrendered in 1497, forced to declare himself a fraud and the son of a Belgian boatman. King Henry VII spared the pretender’s life and imprisoned him at the Tower of London. Warbeck was hanged for treason in 1499 after attempting to escape.

Read More Stories About Royals Here: