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Set in 1547, the novel tells the story of two young boys who are identical in appearance: Tom Canty, a pauper who lives with his abusive father in Offal Court off Pudding Lane in London; and Edward VI of England, son of Henry VIII of England.
When Tom Canty and Edward VI of England Prince Edward, the son of King Henry VIII and Jane Seymour meet, they switch clothes as a jest. While dressed in the pauper's rags, the Prince leaves the palace to punish the guard who knocked Tom down. However, the boys look remarkably alike and because they switch clothes, the palace guards throw the prince out into the street. The Prince fares poorly in London because he insists on proclaiming his identity as the true Prince of Wales. Meanwhile despite Tom's repeated denial of his birthright, the court and the King insist that he is the true prince gone mad. Edward eventually runs into Tom's family and a gang of thieves and Twain illustrates England's unfair and barbaric justice system. After the death of Henry VIII, Edward interrupts Tom's coronation and the boys explain, switch places, and Edward is crowned King of England.