In Proteus Stephen thinks of Ireland, "then and now," as a "Paradise of pretenders." In the 14th, 15th, and 16th centuries a number of quixotic pretenders to English and Irish thrones used the island as their stage. The "then" part of Stephen's judgment is clear enough, but it is harder to say what contemporary relevance he may see in the stories he calls up.
"The Bruce's brother" was Edward Bruce, younger brother of Robert the Bruce, the Gaelic-Norman chieftain who became King of Scotland in 1306 and won independence from the English at the battle of Bannockburn in 1314. Edward supported his brother in the Scottish wars, and then in late May 1315 invaded Ireland in an effort to engage the English on another front and aid O'Neills in Ulster who were being attacked by Anglo-Irish forces. The Bruce brothers had entertained pleas for assistance from Domhnall (Donnell) Ó Néill, and they agreed to invade on the condition that Irish Gaelic lords would support Edward in his ambition to become King of Ireland. (The two brothers, despite their Norman roots, apparently envisioned a pan-Celtic array of kingdoms encircling England.)
After the invasion and some minimal conquests, a dozen lords swore fealty to Edward as High King of Ireland. Other Irish kings nominally recognized his supremacy, but Edward did not control more than parts of Ulster. Over the next two years he waged some successful military campaigns, expanding his territorial reach somewhat but alienating much of the population through massacres. His supporters sent a request to the Vatican, asking the Pope to revoke the Laudabiliter bull that had recognized the Plantagenets as the overlords of Ireland and instead acknowledge Edward as King. The Pope did not comply, and in 1318 Edward was defeated at the battle of Faughart by Sir John de Bermingham, an Anglo-Irish leader. Reinforcements from Robert were only days away, but Edward apparently rushed the battle in order to gain more glory for himself. His unpopular body, it is said, was quartered and distributed throughout Ireland; the head went to King Edward II in England. (How this may cohere with his having a grave in Faughart, Lord knows.)
The other three stories concern the FitzGeralds or "Geraldines," Anglo-Norman lords mentioned in Wandering Rocks. "Thomas Fitzgerald, silken knight," the 10th Earl of Kildare, is the only native Irishman in Stephen's list. He was called Silken Thomas because his followers wore silk badges on their helmets. In 1534 his father Gerald was called to London, leaving his son, age 31, behind as his deputy. Thomas received inaccurate information that his father had been executed in the Tower of London, and responded by publicly renouncing his allegiance to Henry VIII—news which greatly vexed and saddened the old man. Thomas attacked Dublin Castle, unsuccessfully; Gifford notes that "his power was limited and he had no powder and shot, at that time modern and necessary military supplies." His power dwindled through a series of further strategic miscalculations, including the execution of an archbishop that cost him the support of the clergy. Late in the summer of 1535 he submitted to Henry's representative in Ireland, Lord Grey, and was sent to the Tower in London. Grey had given him assurances of his safety, but in February 1537 he and five of his uncles were hanged at Tyburn. In Wandering Rocks Ned Lambert tells the Rev. Hugh Love that "We are standing in the historic council chamber of saint Mary's abbey where silken Thomas proclaimed himself a rebel in 1534. This is the most historic spot in all Dublin. O'Madden Burke is going to write something about it one of these days."
The last two men in Stephen's list were pretenders in a more familiar sense, both of them supported by Thomas' grandfather, the so-called Great Earl, in their claims against the rule of King Henry VII. Perkin Warbeck, York's false scion, in breeches of silk of whiterose ivory, wonder of a day," falsely claimed to be Richard of Shrewsbury, Duke of York, the second son of Edward IV—one of the two "Young Princes," heirs apparent to the throne of England, whom Richard, Duke of Gloucester (afterward Richard III), the boys' uncle and Lord Protector, committed to the Tower for safekeeping when their father died in 1483. The boys disappeared, but some people believed that they had escaped assassination.
Little is definitely known about Perkin Warbeck's early life, but according to the account of it that he later gave while imprisoned, he was born to a Flemish mercantile family. He was about the same age that Richard would have been, and struck many people as bearing a resemblance to Edward IV. At some point he conceived the idea of claiming that the murderers in the Tower had spared him, the younger brother. Shuttling back and forth between various noble supporters in France, Scotland, and Ireland (where the The Great Earl supported the Yorkist cause), he staged three different military expeditions into England, all of them abysmally unsuccessful. In the last, at the head of a Cornish army in 1497, he panicked at the appearance of Henry VII's forces, deserted the field, and was captured. Henry released him from the Tower when he confessed to being an impostor, but, Gifford notes, "he couldn't leave well enough alone and got involved in another conspiracy, thereby earning his ticket to Tyburn."
"Lambert Simnel, with a tail of nans and sutlers, a scullion crowned," alludes to yet another Yorkist conspiracy against the new Tudor dynasty, slightly before Warbeck's. Very little is known about Lambert Simnel, including even the accuracy of those two names, before the age of about 10, when an Oxford-trained priest named Richard Symonds or Simons removed the boy from his working-class family, adopted him as his ward, gave him a good education, and tutored him in courtly manners, apparently hoping to pass him off as a royal. The initial plan was to claim that the boy was Richard, Duke of York (just like Perkin Warbeck a few years later). But another young Yorkist heir, Edward, the Earl of Warwick (son of the Duke of Clarence, Edward IV's brother) had also been imprisoned in the Tower and disappeared, and Simons decided to imitate him instead. He ferried Simnel to Ireland, where The Great Earl (who had been installed as the Lord Deputy of Ireland by the Yorks) decided to support the pretense.
In 1487 Simnel was carried through the streets of Dublin on the shoulders of a massive man called D'Arcy of Platten, taken to Christ Church Cathedral, and there crowned Edward VI. An Irish army, joined by a mostly Flemish army raised by the English Earl of Lincoln, invaded Lancashire and was defeated by the army of King Henry at the battle of Stoke on 16 June 1487. Instead of being executed, Simnel was put to work in the royal kitchen as a spit-turner. (Hence, it would seem, Stephen's fancy of the young pretender as a "scullion," or menial kitchen servant, trailed by "nans and sutlers," English serving maids and army provisioners.) The priest Simons was imprisoned for life. The Great Earl had remained behind in Ireland and was pardoned. When Warbeck came along seeking his support a few years later, he was much more cagey. King Henry's comment on the Warbeck conspiracy was, "I suppose they will crown an ape next."