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The term Pretender, in historical contexts, usually labels an unsuccessful claimant to a throne, or some other title or form of property. In this sense, the term comes from a meaning of pretend older than the prevalent modern sense of 'to feign', 'to claim falsely'; 'to make others believe that something which is not true is the truth': a pretender to a throne, or an estate, was originally 'someone who put (Latin tendere) forward (prae) a claim, [which did not succeed]'. Its failure may have been because of legal arguments, good or bad; for political reasons; or from circumstance; as well as through deliberate falsity. There are currently several pretenders to the thrones of various former kingdoms: in Eiuropoe alone, there are as many as four descendants of different previous dynasties pretending to the French crown, two Romanovs in Russia, and several Balkan states have pretenders extant, all with impeccable genealogies: unfortunately for them, the states to which they pretend are now republics.

  • In British history, two are particularly labelled:
    • the Old Pretender, as his opponents called the Jacobite James Francis Edward (1688-1766); his supporters called him James III and VIII.
    • The Young Pretender, his son, Bonnie Prince Charlie (1720-1788), whom his supporters call Charles III.
      • Two certainly fraudulent pretenders were two who challenged the right of Henry VII to the throne, claiming to be the Princes in the Tower: Perkin Warbeck (Pierrechon de Werbecque, pretending to be Richard Plantagenet, duke of York, (c.1474-1499), and Lambert Simnel ((b. 1476/7, d. after 1534), pretending to be Edward VI; born probably in Oxford, son of a carpenter, organ maker, or cobbler.
  • There is also a pop song, 'The Great Pretender', first recorded by The Platters, with Tony Williams as lead singer in 1955. The words and music are by Buck Ram. There have been many cover versions recorded since.
The historical sense of Pretender is categorized as an essentially contested concept largely on the grounds of the thought contained in the following verses: first, a Jacobite rhyme, adopted as a toast, and the second rather older:
God bless the King, I mean the Faith's Defender;
God bless - no harm in blessing - the Pretender;
But who Pretender is, or who is King,
God bless us all - that's quite another thing.
Byrom, John (1692-1763) 'To an Officer in the Army, Extempore, Intended to allay the Violence of Party-Spirit' (1773)
Treason doth never prosper, what's the reason?
For if it prosper, none dare call it treason.
Harington, John (1561-1612) Epigrams (1618) bk. 4, no. 5