Fake Aristocrat

A Fake Aristocrat is a character who passes themselves off as being higher ranking in the social order than they actually are. Whether it's a commoner pretending to be a Blue Blood, a member of the Minion caste of a Fantastic Caste System pretending to be part of the Leader caste, someone Born into Slavery pretending to be a free man, or a lowly Private pretending to be an Officer and a Gentleman, the Fake Aristocrat is pretending to be part of a "higher" group than they actually are.

This is typically done because the higher ranking group has legal rights that the lower does not. Maybe their Love Interest is higher ranked than they are, so they need to fake their own rank in order to be together. Maybe it's part of The Con or The Infiltration, and their new rank is part of a cover identity. Or maybe it's just that being a commoner sucks, so when the opportunity arises to claim a higher status, they take it.

Whatever their reasons for doing it, a Fake Aristocrat is not generally not impersonating a specific person, but a generic member of a social class. Depending on circumstances, they might not even change their identity, they'll just call themselves "Sir Bob, Lord of Hightower Castle" instead of regular old "Bob". Usually the credentials proving their assumed rank will be Conveniently Unverifiable. A Master of Disguise often has a Fake Aristocrat role in their repertoire.

Note that a Fake Aristocrat is only considered such when dealing with "hard" social ranks — ones where there are thick, clear lines between ranks, and there are legal penalties for acting outside your assigned rank. For "soft" social ranks, see Mock Millionaire. For changing your social status by pretending to be a different gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, etc, see Pass Fail.

Self-Proclaimed Knight and Princess for a Day are specific subtropes. The inverse is King Incognito, when someone pretends to be lower ranked than they are in order to avoid attention. See also Social Climber, for when someone is trying to actually raise their social rank instead of just pretending.

Examples:

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    Anime 
  • Cat Shit One has a Japanese soldier make a photocopy of medals and rank insignias and put them on his uniform. Unfortunately for him, his superior catches him right away.

    Film — Animated 
  • In Aladdin, Aladdin acts as "Prince Ali" in order to woo Princess Jasmine. Of course, given that his "pretending" involved wishing that Genie would make him a prince, his new rank may not actually be "fake". It doesn't affect Aladdin's behavior at all, though, so the trope plays out the same, with a Street Urchin commoner doing his best to act princely.
  • The Anti-Hero of Don Bluth's Anastasia is Dmitri, a con man who convinces orphan Anya that she is the eponymous missing Romanov princess. She is, of course, but Dmitri doesn't realize that at first.
  • In Robin Hood, Little John masquerades at "Sir Reginald, Duke of Chutney" to get close to Prince John.

    Film — Live Action 
  • In Love Me Tonight (1932), Maurice (Maurice Chevalier) is a tailor who is passed off as a baron by the Vicomte de Varèze, who owes him money. When another guest realizes that the "baron's" title is fake, the vicomte hints that he is actually royalty traveling under an assumed name.
  • Trouble in Paradise (1932): At their first meeting, future Outlaw Couple Lily and Gaston introduce themselves to each other as "Countess" and "Baron," respectively. Neither one fools the other, as they each recognize a fellow crook.
  • In Roberta (1935), Polish countess Scharwenka (Ginger Rogers), the toast of Paris's nightclubs, is actually Lizzie Gatz from Indiana. As she explains, "You have to have a title to croon over here."
  • The driving plot of A Knight's Tale is the main character, English commoner William Thatcher, taking on the identity of German knight (and noble) Ulrich Von Lichtenstein after the real Ulrich's death. While Self-Proclaimed Knight does come into play toward the end, much of the movie focuses on his attempts to fit into noble society outside of the tournaments he's competing in, making it this trope as well.
  • In Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Indiana tries to gain entry to the German castle where his father is being held by pretending to be Lord Clarence MacDonald. The castle's butler doesn't buy it.
    Butler: ...if you are a Scottish lord, then I am Mickey Mouse.
  • This is one of the cons that Barbara Stanwyck and her fellow con artists pull in The Lady Eve. When Stanwyck's character finds one of her old friends and fellow con artists posing as "Sir Alfred McGlennan Keith" and ripping off the Idle Rich of Connecticut, she joins the scam as his fake niece, the Lady Eve Sidwich.
  • Lawrence Jamieson, played by David Niven in Bedtime Story and Michael Caine in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, has as his standard con that he's the deposed prince of a European country.
  • David Niven also did this in Separate Tables, combining Fake Aristocrat with Phony Veteran. Major Pollock makes himself out to be a graduate of fancy prep schools as well as the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst, and he peppers his speech with high-class tics like saying "What what?" when looking for agreement. When he's exposed as a plebeian and a poser, he bitterly says that at least he doesn't have to say "what what?" anymore.

    Literature 
  • Mistborn has a Fantastic Caste System with peasant "skaa" strictly separated from the nobility. Virtually all of the protagonists are skaa who present themselves as nobles for a variety of reasons: as part of various cons against nobles, because nobility it a prerequisite for any lifestyle above "grinding poverty", and because skaa with allomantic powers (like most of the protagonists) are summarily executed when they're discovered.
  • In Rookwood, Dick Turpin, a Highwayman of humble origins, poses as a Gentleman named Palmer to gain access to the noble's social circle.
  • In The Lies of Locke Lamora, Locke pretends to be an aristocrat as part of a scheme to con actual aristocrats out of their money.
  • In The Woman in White, this turns out to be Sir Percival's guilty secret: He's been fraudulently claiming an aristocratic title and estate based on a forged marriage certificate.
  • In The Twelve Chairs, Ostap Bender starts a fake movement for restoration of Tsarism in Russia as a scam to gather some money. Naturally, it involves him preseting himself as a nobleman and a former White Guard officer (he manages to give off this impression without ever making a verbal claim to status, he's that good an actor).
  • In A Song of Ice and Fire, the mercenary captain Vargo Hoat proclaims himself the Lord of Harrenhal without any good reason (mostly because the King in the North who could make his claim real or denounce him as a fake is preoccupied with more pressing matters at the moment). Even before he received control over Harrenhal Castle he insisted on being called "Lord Hoat" despite ruling exactly squat.
  • Volle is a spy from a rival kingdom whose cover story presents him as the illegitimate son of a long-dead and heirless lord whose estate has been conveniently vacant for some time.
  • In the original book of The Eagle Has Landed, Harvey Preston of the British Free Corps is a petty con artist who, when captured by the Germans, was posing as an officer of aristocratic extraction. He was loosely based on the real-life traitor Douglas Berneville Claye (see below under Real Life).

    Live Action TV 
  • In order to get Walter "Radar" O'Reilly into an Officers' Club near the 4077th M*A*S*H unit, Captain Pierce appended his captain's bars to the corporal's uniform. When questioned about this, Pierce explained that the Army was field testing a new intermediate rank: Corporal Captain.note 
  • On the Touched by an Angel episode "For All the Tea in China," Lady Penelope Berrington (Angela Lansbury) confesses to her grandson that she's not British nobility at all. She's actually an orphan with a stolen name who built up the tea business telling stories of growing up in England and losing money in the War. Because the records were such a mess after the War, no one was really able to figure out the truth before. This leads to a great moment where her long-time butler asks if "your Ladyship" wants some tea.
    Penelope: You don't have to call me that anymore, Edmund. I'm not a lady.
    Edmund: I beg to differ. My Lady.
  • In the first episode of Fawlty Towers, the con-man who persuades the snobbish Basil Fawlty he is a member of the nobility, and charms him into a personal loan, leaving a briefcase full of "valuable jewels" as surety for repayment. Basil is conned and fawning... until the case is opened and shown to contain only bricks.
  • An episode of Thunderbirds has Parker pretend to be an English Lord and get everyone in the hotel to play Bingo with him. This was part of a scheme where in the event a fire broke out (thanks to a dish falling off a building and lodging itself on a mountain in a position where it would project the sun's rays at the town where the hotel was) everyone would be awake to fight the fire.
  • In the TV miniseries Casanova with David Tennant and Peter O'Toole playing the role, Casanova mingles with the aristocracy to acquire wealth and to pursue the love of his life who grew up in poverty and needs to marry a wealthy man for security. At first he just attempts to blend with the aristocracy or to be of service to them. He then comes close to acquiring a title when he befriends a priest. Later in the miniseries though, he plays the trope straight by flat out lying about his identity and the titles he can supposedly lay claim to.
  • In British military comedy-drama Soldier Soldier, the battalion rogue, fusilier Dave Tucker (Robson Greene), is persuaded by some of the unit's junior officers to put on the mess dress of a lieutenant and bluff his way into a rival unit's officers' mess. Tucker carries off the deception, much to the delight of the officers concerned, but while sneaking back into barracks, he is clocked by the Regimental Sergeant-Major, who is outraged to see a private soldier wearing officers' uniform he has no right to. Tucker ends up in the cells, but is only mildly reprimanded by the Colonel, who appreciates his junior officers are the ones at fault. They get a right royal bollocking later.

    Tabletop Games 
  • Paranoia has "clearance levels" that are theoretically merit-based rankings where greater skill is rewarded by more authority and higher quality of life, but in reality it's a Fantastic Caste System where the only merit that counts for anything is the ability to manipulate Friend Computer. It's not uncommon for citizens to be forced to forge higher clearance credentials in order to complete missions assigned to them by Friend Computer, given that failure of a mission is punishable by summary execution. Of course, so is faking a higher clearance, so it's a choice of what you want to be executed for more than anything else. It's that kind of game.
  • Dungeons & Dragons campaign setting Al-Qadim (Arabian Adventures). All people in the land of Zakhara have Station, a measure of social rank/status. Normally, anyone who looks at another person realizes what their Station is automatically. However, it is possible for a character to appear to have a different Station by disguising themselves or using illusion magic.

    Theatre 
  • In Die Fledermaus, Falke invites his friend Eisenstein, Frank the prison governor (i.e. warden), and Eisenstein's wife Rosalinde to Prince Orlofsky's ball. He gives them each a disguise: Eisenstein pretends to be a French Marquis named Renard, Frank goes as Chevalier (French knight) Chagrin, and Rosalinde is a masked Hungarian countess. All this is a part of his plan to pay Eisenstein back for his humiliation a year ago, involving a bat costume. Neither Eisenstein nor Frank speak French and try to engage in conversation using the few French words they're familiar with. Rosalinde manages to get away with not speaking Hungarian by singing to the tune of "Czardas".

    Video Game 
  • Lord Palethorn from MediEvil 2 is actually a working-class cockney named Reggie Palthrop, trying to portray himself as a member of the aristocracy.

    Western Animation 
  • Avatar: The Last Airbender: In order to meet the Earth King of Ba Sing Se, Katara and Toph disguise themselves as members of high society. Too bad the very helpful man who seemed to buy their sob story and let them into the party is in fact the leader of the State Sec.
  • One of Daffy Duck's go-to aliases in The Looney Tunes Show is Count Leopold von Leichtenstein. It's a mighty transparent ruse, since Daffy shows no signs of culture or manners. This guise occurs in the episodes "Jailbird and Jailbunny," and "Reunion."
  • In one episode of Arthur, Muffy brings a sapphire necklace that was given to her great-grandmother by Irina Katrina von Hapsenburg, the Archduchess of Moldavia. At the roadshow, Muffy finds out that not only is the necklace a fake, but the archduchess was actually a con artist impersonating nobility (and apparently a Creepy Crossdresser to boot).

    Real Life 
  • The Goon Show founder Peter Sellers first realised he had a gift for impressions when, as a lowly Leading Aircraftsman in the Royal Air Force, he was dared to impersonate an Air Vice-Marshal — effectively a private soldier dressed as a general. In a borrowed uniform and made up to look thirty years older, Sellers carried off the deception so flawlessly that a real AVM bought him a drink in an RAF Officers' Mess.
  • A common 419 Scam is for an individual to claim to be a Nigerian prince. Typically, they want you to send them seed money to help them retake the throne. They'll then theoretically send you a hefty bonus from the country's coffers. While Nigeria has a multitude of traditional rulers, they wield little to no power at all.
  • Lord Gordon Gordon, who arrived in America in 1870 claiming to be a wealthy landowner from ancient Scottish nobility. He managed to swindle his way into the inner circles of railroad leadership, bilk one of the wealthiest men in the country out of a million dollars, and almost spark a war between the United States and Canada. His real identity is still a mystery.
  • The noted British traitor Douglas Berneville Claye conned his way into a commission in the British Army by changing his name to the Honourable Douglas St Aubyn Webster Berneville-Claye and claiming to have been educated at both Oxford and Cambridge, before promoting himself to "Lord Charlesworth". After being captured by the Germans and changing sides, he was put in charge of the British Free Corps; he reportedly claimed at the time that he was the son of an Earl, and a captain in the Coldstream Guards (he was a Lieutenant in the West Yorkshire Regiment).

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