The Great Pretenders

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The Independent Culture
The true heir of the Romanovs has surfaced in Co Antrim. The King

of Scotland is living in a bedsit and speaks with a Belgian accent.

The two men have not met, but both believe they were born to rule

The tsar of Russia was not what I had expected. For starters, he has an Irish accent and is wearing a blue blazer with gold buttons. By profession, he is a college principal from Co Antrim. By blood, however, he believes himself to be Russian and royal. And not only by blood but also by bones. Skull bones, to be exact. He taps a temple. "It is now a scientific fact that my skull matches the skulls of the tsarina and three of the grand duchesses in the grave in Yekaterinburg. The Russian scientists have carried out tests. There was only a one-and-a-half chance in 100 that that could have happened by chance."

I look at the skull again. It is covered in sensible brown hair. I take a deep breath. The interview is taking place in the Tsar's Room at the Langham Hilton in central London. "How clever of you to arrange this here," says the tsar. But I am not that clever and I have no idea how it happened. We were supposed to meet in the Polo Lounge. And just when things seem to be getting too strange - I keep expecting someone to jump out of the panelling with a sign that says JOKE! - the waiter tells us that the room is named after Tsar Alexander III. I almost tell him that that the man with the fine skull and the blue blazer is the very man's great-grandson. But I don't, because I don't want to look like a loony.

This is not a new feeling. Earlier in the week I had met the man who would be the King of Scotland. He had a French accent and was wearing pressed chinos. He lives in a bedsit in Edinburgh, but grew up in a castle in Belgium and says he is the head of the royal house of Stewart (he doesn't like the other spelling). He referred to himself as HRH quite a bit and, as we sat, I could actually see the women at the next table rubber-necking. I couldn't blame them because HRH was saying some wonderful things. For instance, when I asked about his bedsit, he responded with gusto. "There's nothing wrong with my flat. They may want a castle but they have never lived in a castle. Let me tell you about castles. They are draughty, cold, expensive. If you want a cup of tea from the kitchen, it is cold by the time you get it. Forget it!"

The tsar and the king do not know each other but they have a lot in common. Both are pretenders, of a sort, to long-dead thrones. Both absolutely believe themselves to be royal and both have written huge books to prove their cases.

HRH has written The Forgotten Monarchy of Scotland. In Edinburgh, he took me across to Waterstone's so I could buy a copy and inscribed it with the words "Let Truth Prevail". He thinks Scotland should have a constitutional monarchy and that perhaps such a thing might be in place by the year 2008. He believes he is the heir by virtue of Bonnie Prince Charlie's secret marriage. The idea that the Stuart line died out is a product of Victorian and Georgian propaganda. I asked him how long he has believed this. He looked at me rather sadly. "It's not a question of thinking that you are. It's the fact that I was brought up as such. That is vastly different."

The tsar, on the other hand, has only just discovered his royal links. His book, Blood Relative, was launched yesterday at a press conference amid the splendour of white gladioli and plasterwork at the Foreign Press Association. The editorial director of Gollancz introduced the book by saying that in his 30-year career he had never published anything so fascinating. A TV documentary crew was on hand, as were the nation's press. The editorial director warned us that it is a complicated story. This is not true - it is an extremely and impossibly complicated story.

Even the tsar's name is a problem, in that he doesn't seem to know exactly what it is. Now I had been through a bit of this earlier in the week with the king who bridled at the idea, spread by the ignorant press, that his real name was Roger. His name was Prince Michael of Albany, he said. I asked to see his cheque book. He produced it and the name on his cheques is indeed HRH Prince Michael James Alexander Stewart of Albany. And if the Scots chose him as their king? Alexander IV, he said.

The tsar turns out to have at least three names. He was born and brought up William Lloyd Lavery - his wife and friends call him Lloyd. He wrote the book under the name Michael Gray, which he plucked out of a hat. But now he wants to claim his true identity. "I should change my name. My birth certificate is forged, anyway," he says. His last name will be Romanov. And the first name? "Michael," he says. "Michael Romanov. I think that's actually what it really is anyway."

Given the circumstances, it seemed wise to avoid calling him any name at all. His story is extraordinary and all the more so because his previous life was invented for the word humdrum. He was brought up an only child just outside the village of Waringstown in Northern Ireland. He did a degree in history, got married, had two children and became a college principal. Then, on 27 April 1993, he had lunch with a local museum curator. "We went back to my office for coffee and my agenda was to get finished as quickly as possible," he says. "He started up out of the blue about this mysterious Russian prince who lived during the last war at a large country house a few miles away. He also mentioned that this prince was a haemophiliac. Obviously I couldn't miss that allusion."

For two years, he pieced bits of the tale together. Eventually, he became convinced that the prince was really Alexei Romanov, the only son of the last tsar. Nicholas II and his wife and children had been murdered by Bolshevik guards 80 years ago, but Alexei's body had never been found. Over the years, mystery and myth have intertwined into a thousand theories and now another one was forming. This was that Alexei was flown down to the Caucasus and given a new identity as Nikolai Chebotarev. In 1918 he escaped by ship to the West, settling finally in the British Isles. He had a love affair with Princess Marina, the widow of the Duke of Kent and mother of the present Duke, and they had a son in 1947 or 1948. Nikolai Chebotarev lived in Paris, Ireland and England and worked as a private secretary and UN diplomat. He died in 1987 and is buried in Holt in Norfolk.

It seemed necessary to get back to the man in front of me. So when did it get personal? When did he link Alexei to himself? It is, he says, complicated. In 1995, three things occurred. The first is that he lost his job. The reason for this seems to involve a plot of some kind to get him to stop researching the book. If true, then it backfired because now he had much more time. He also had the means, because both his parents died at around the same time. He had long suspected he had been adopted and then, while clearing out their house, he found some photographs that directly linked him as a baby with the Tsarevich.

"This seemed to be a bridge between those two stories that I had treated separately until then. It had been suggested to me, back in 1993, that my son looked very much like the Tsarevich. But I wasn't going to indulge in any flights of fancy about any of that. There were other indications. I was told that I had his mannerisms. But I tried to be rational. It wasn't easy. None of it has been easy, to be honest," he said.

Nor for us, I think. There we were, happy in the knowledge that we would never know what happened to Alexei and that the only thing that is true about Romanov stories is that they are all not true. What, I asked him, makes this any different? The photographs, he says. When he found who was in them, he felt electrified.

"There was something inside of me that recognised what was happening. It's very hard to explain. It's one of those experiential things. You know what I mean. It's difficult to put into words. You know the way you have a moment of Gestalt, a moment when something becomes very clear, not just intellectually, but in a feeling sense too. You realise that this really is the case."

Yes, I say, I know the feeling. Like when you realise that the man who would be tsar might, in fact, really be the tsar. But it still doesn't make it any easier to explain to others. If I were to go round the Tsar's Room and tell people that the man in the blazer would be the tsar himself, they would all laugh. How would that make him feel? "I suppose I am not used to people doubting my word. I'm a straightforward sort of person. I don't have any hidden corners in me. To be honest there are several things to say. I think the most important is that I am not claiming to be the tsar. I am claiming to be the son of Alexei Romanov. That's it. It is a coincidence that Alexei Romanov is also the son of Nicholas II."

But isn't that splitting hairs? "Not really, because there is no throne of Russia. The Russian people have a democracy. That's a good thing. The people of Russia do not need outsiders telling them what to do."

He does not know what the future might bring. Will he go to Russia? He might, but not as anything royal. It occurs that he is trying to be a non-royal royal. This is not easy and he might get some tips on this from the man who would be King of Scotland, Prince Michael of Albany. He is a royal, but of the people, and is excoriating about the Establishment (many of whom throw scorn on his claims): "I don't care what they say about me. I don't give a hoot. Why should I? I wasn't born to look after these people. I was born to look after a nation of five-and-a-half million people, not the two per cent who don't give a damn about the people in any case."

Now there is a man who knows his cause, but then again he's had a lot more time than Michael Romanov to figure out how to be, yes, a Great Pretender. Where are the Platters when you need them?