Popes and Pretenders

On December 17, 1767, Ann Hulton relayed her brother Henry’s description of Boston’s most recent 5th of November: “the Mob carried twenty Devils, Popes, & Pretenders, thro the Streets, with Labels on their breasts, Liberty & Property & no Commissioners.” This holiday was of particular interest to the Hultons because Henry was one of those Commissioners, sent from London to collect more Customs duties.

The “Devils” we know, but who were the “Popes” and “Pretenders”?


Four Popes led the Roman Catholic Church during the heyday of Pope Night in Boston:

These were, presumably, the Popes that the processions’ effigies were supposed to represent. However, it is unlikely that Boston’s revelers thought of these men as individuals. Massachusetts newspapers hardly ever mentioned Roman pontiffs by name. When new popes were selected in 1758 and 1769, only three newspapers reprinted any remarks from Europe about the choice, and they dwelt on the topic of corrupt church politics.


A “Pretender” means anyone who claims the throne of a country rightfully belongs to him or her, but never manages to assemble the political and military might to force that claim. (Successful pretenders become “monarchs.”) In the eighteenth-century, the Stuart Pretenders were the direct male descendants of King James II, who was forced from the British throne in 1688. From their homes in Catholic Europe, they insisted that they, not more distant Protestant relatives, deserved the crown.

James Francis Edward Stuart (1688–1766) was a baby when his father, James II, was driven from England. He spent his entire life in exile in Europe trying to regain that throne, but was never willing to give up his Catholic faith to do so. Called “James III” by his supporters and “the Old Pretender” by his enemies, he outlived five British monarchs and never walked on British soil.

Charles Edward Stuart (1720-1788), eldest son of James Francis Edward Stuart, is remembered as “Bonnie Prince Charlie.” In 1745 he landed in Scotland and led an army of supporters toward London, hoping to gain the crown for his father. He came within 120 miles of the capital, but was defeated at the Battle of Culloden. The Stuart heir was willing to adopt the Protestant religion in order to win support in Britain, but never got the chance to be “Charles III.”

Henry Benedict Cardinal Stuart (1725-1807) was Charles Edward Stuart’s brother and heir. He became a Catholic priest and eventually a cardinal, and was happier in that role than in pressing his claim to be “Henry IX.” After losing his property during the wars that followed the French Revolution, he accepted a pension from George III. Henry’s death ended the line of Stuart claimants to the British throne.

Most descriptions of Boston’s Pope Night, like Ann Hulton’s, said that an effigy of the Pretender was on the wagon alongside the Pope and the Devil. However, none of the pictures from the 1760s show such a figure. It is possible that “Pretender” came to be a generic term for a man being hanged in effigy on one of those wagons.

Quotation source: Hulton letter from Ann Hulton, Letters of a Loyalist Lady (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1927), 8.

Image sources: Woodcut detail from “Extraordinary Verses on Pope-Night,” An American Time Capsule, American Memory Collection, Library of Congress. Thumbnail portraits of the Stuarts in the public domain via Wikipedia.

Text copyright © 2007 by J. L. Bell and The Bostonian Society.