It’s good to be king. At least, that’s what they say. At one time or another, many of us have wanted to be a ruler—a king or queen, a prince or princess. For most of us, the vicissitudes of growing up have reminded us that so much publicity and responsibility is more trouble than it's worth. But that kind of political power is nonetheless always a tempting factor. Indeed, there are plenty of people who would kill to sit on the throne—and have, over the years.
There are also people who will lie to do it, as well as those who may genuinely believe that they belong in the halls of power, even if the current institutions don’t recognize their claim. In fact, as you go back through history looking for “pretenders to the throne,” you’ll find more people with legitimate claims to fallen monarchies than you will people who are trying to pass themselves off as someone they’re not. The vast majority of pretenders to the throne are legitimate heirs to dynasties that have simply been deposed, conquered, or fallen out of favor.
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Those stories aren’t the ones we’re here to talk about, though. We’re here to hash out three of the weirdest and most scandalous cases of someone claiming a position of power to which they were not (necessarily) entitled, from the identity and fate of the children of executed monarchs to the literal corpse of a pope being put on trial.
The Romanovs, the last reigning family of imperial Russia, were murdered in 1918 by communist revolutionaries. However, the body of one child, youngest daughter Anastasia, was not immediately accounted for. This led many to believe that she had in fact survived, and was living in hiding.
In 1920, an unknown young woman attempted suicide in Berlin by plunging from the Bendlerstrasse Bridge into the waters of the Landwehrkanal. She was admitted to a mental hospital, where she refused to reveal her identity and spoke with a Russian accent. Some people came to believe that she was the lost Anastasia.
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The woman herself agreed with the rumors, making claims not so much to the throne—imperial Russia had fallen by then, after all—as to the title and identity of the deceased girl. These claims continued for much of her life, though investigations by the surviving extended family members of the Romanovs and lengthy court cases all determined that the claims were unsubstantiated.
This mysterious woman eventually moved to America, where she went by the name Anna Anderson. Anderson died in 1984, and her remains were DNA tested in 1994. The results found that her DNA did not match those of the deceased Romanovs. Instead, it is widely accepted that she was really a Polish factory worker with a history of mental illness named Franziska Schanzkowska. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the body of the real Anastasia was eventually discovered in 2007, laying to rest one of the most persistent mysteries in royal history.
The Many Louis XVIIs
King Louis XVI was the last king of France before the French Revolution, during which he was one of many aristocrats to be executed by guillotine. He left behind a son, Louis XVII, who was only eight years old at the time of his father’s death. As the heir apparent, Louis XVII was held, along with the rest of his family, in the tower of the Square du Temple during the course of the Revolution. He died of tuberculosis in 1795, at the age of 10.
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By then, there had been several attempts by royalists to free the remaining members of the monarchy from prison and whisk them away to freedom in other countries, none of which were successful. However, there were many who believed that Louis XVII had been carried away to safety, and that the body that was autopsied and interred was that of another child, swapped in to take his place.
As such, once the monarchy was restored in 1814, there were many men who claimed to be the “Lost Dauphin,” as he came to be called. In fact, more than 100 claimants appeared, and more popped up throughout the decades. One of the most persistent imposters included a German clockmaker named Karl Wilhelm Naundorff, who pled his case so consistently throughout the years that even his descendants continued to claim that they were the rightful heirs of the French monarchy. However, subsequent DNA tests on the preserved heart of the child who was buried as Louis XVII in 1795 would confirm that the young prince really did die that day.
Pope Formosus and the Cadaver Synod
The pope certainly doesn't occupy a throne in the traditional sense, but as the head of the Roman Catholic Church, the world's oldest and largest continuously functioning international institution, the title has carried a significant amount of political power over the years. The papacy is therefore far from immune to political machinations. In fact, there have been numerous “antipopes,” or claimants to the position whose claims are considered illegitimate. The papacy has seen instability at times as claimants fought over the position; between 896 CE and 904 CE there was literally a new pope every year.
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Perhaps the most bizarre such case isn’t so much about a pretender or an antipope, as it is about a pope whose claim was declared illegitimate not while he was alive, but some seven months after his death. Pope Formosus held the position from 891 CE until his death in April of 896. His immediate successor was Pope Boniface VI, whose reign lasted only 15 days.
Boniface’s successor, Stephen VI, then had the corpse of Pope Formosus disinterred. He put the dead man on trial for ruling illegally, propping his remains up on the stand in his papal vestments. When Formosus was found guilty, all his acts as pope were annulled, the three fingers from his right hand that he had used to confer blessings were cut off, and his corpse was thrown into the river, where it was retrieved by a monk. Years later, however, these annulments were reversed, Formosus’ papacy reinstated, and his body reinterred in St. Peter’s Basilica. Today, the Cadaver Synod is universally disregarded by the Catholic Church since it was politically motivated.