The Curious Career and Uncertain Past of Perkin Warbeck
Was Warbeck just another in a long line of pretenders to the throne
of England, or did his appearance in Ireland in 1491 prove the innocence
of Richard III, whom most historians accuse of murdering his nephews,
the Princes in the Tower?
by Bruce Heydt
By the time the sun set on 22nd August, 1485, Richard III, the last of the Plantagenet kings, lay dead on the grass of Bosworth Field. His brother, King Edward IV, had died, albeit less violently, two years earlier. Within two more years, the new King, Henry Tudor, cemented his hold on the throne by taking an army to Stoke Field and crushing his few remaining Yorkist enemies.
Except, perhaps, for Edward IV’s sons, the legendary Princes in the Tower. Opinions as to their fate still abound. Tudor accounts attributed their disappearance to a ruthless plot by Richard to secure the throne by murder. Later revisionists have made the same charge against Henry.
Support for these theories rests heavily on interpretations of the character of both Kings, and on their opportunity to implement such a crime. Documentary proof of either man’s guilt is unavailable, and as Sir Thomas More later observed: ‘some remain yet in doubt whether [the Princes] were . . . destroyed or no . . . all things in those days were so covertly managed, one thing pretended and another meant, that there was nothing so plainly and openly proved but that . . . men had it ever inwardly suspect.’
Among the suspicions that have persisted since More’s day is the possibility that Richard simply had the Princes sent to the Continent as a precaution against the plots of the power-hungry Lancastrians. Having done so, he would naturally become vulnerable to accusations of treachery, because he could not produce the children as proof of his innocence without putting them once again in danger.
While Henry made use of Richard’s supposed guilt to enhance his own support, he himself had difficulty proving they were dead, although by doing so he could have strengthened his own claim to the throne. Henry never produced the bodies that would have been proof of the demise of the Plantagenet line. Nor did he ever officially accuse Richard of this specific murder, but only implied it by declaring that Richard was guilty of ‘shedding infants’ blood.’ It seemed almost as if Henry feared the Princes might yet return to haunt him.
Ultimately, one of them did–in name at least. In 1491, a young Flemish merchant named Perkin Warbeck arrived in Cork, Ireland, and declared himself to be Richard, Duke of York, the younger son of Edward IV. Warbeck’s testimony followed an intriguing tradition.
Almost from the moment the Princes disappeared, there had been rumours that Edward, the older of the two, was dead–some said murdered, while others said he died naturally while residing in the Tower–but that Richard was still alive. According to Warbeck’s version of his own past, both he and his brother were to have been murdered. Two men were appointed to carry out the act, but the one responsible for Richard’s death could not bring himself to go through with the crime. Instead, he arranged for Richard to escape to the Continent on the condition that the Duke stay in hiding for several years, thereby protecting his benefactor from punishment.
After Warbeck declared himself to be the Duke of York, he was invited to France by King Charles VIII, who thought the young man might be a valuable pawn in his intrigues against England. Before he found a use for Warbeck, however, Charles signed a treaty with Henry that settled their differences amicably. Among the treaty’s conditions was Henry’s demand that Warbeck leave France. Perkin consequently moved on to the Low Countries, where he joined the Duchess of Burgundy, who was allegedly his aunt.
All the while, Warbeck gained allies. In Flanders he received support from the Archduke of Austria and his father Maximilian, the Holy Roman Emperor, to add to the official recognition already granted by Scotland, Ireland and Denmark.
Warbeck wrote also to Queen Isabella of Spain, who was known to have once desired an alliance with the House of York. Isabella, however, was not favourably inclined towards Perkin’s advances, probably because she suspected that he was no more a Plantagenet than Henry. ‘As for the affair of him who calls himself the duke, we hold it for a jest,’ she later wrote.
By this time, King Henry had already been denouncing the pretender as a ‘feigned boy’ from Tournay, in Flanders. The King did not say on what evidence he based his identification, giving rise to speculation that it was a mere invention to discredit Warbeck’s claim. Henry’s silence on the matter, however, may indicate that the information came from his spies on the Continent, whose continued usefulness required that they be unidentified.
Maximilian’s enthusiastic support of Perkin more than made up for both Henry’s accusations and Isabella’s amusement. By 1494, the Emperor was publicly declaring Warbeck to be King of England and sending him armed men with which to enforce his claim. His sponsors, eager to see a return on the investment they had made in Perkin’s future, hurried him back to England in June, 1495.
Precedents in British history seemed to offer Warbeck and his small army fair hope of success. In 1399, Henry Bolingbrooke had sailed to England with only ten ships and about 300 men-at-arms. By convincing the population of the righteousness of his cause and drawing them to his side, he was able to usurp the throne. Henry VII had duplicated Bolingbrooke’s feat in 1485 by defeating Richard’s larger army at Bosworth after winning the support of some key noblemen.
Warbeck was not so fortunate, however. When 300 of his own men-at-arms landed near Deal, in Kent, the local militia attacked with such vigour that they routed the invaders without the least help from the King’s royal troops. Warbeck, with the remainder of his supporters, sailed on to Ireland, where he received further aid.
Taking refuge next in Scotland, Warbeck received such an enthusiastic reception by King James IV that he was married to the King’s cousin, Catherine Gordon. Theorists have cited this marriage as proof that James, at least, had no doubts as to the truth of Warbeck’s claim. It is uncertain, however, whether offering a cousin in marriage to a pretentious merchant would have been a prohibitive price to pay in return for a substantial political gain. James’s own subsequent marriage to Henry VII’s eldest daughter demonstrates his willingness to take advantage of fortuitous opportunities.
In September, Warbeck again tested the English waters by marching across the border in the company of a Scottish army of about 1,400 troops. After a few days of pillaging, Warbeck and his allies turned around and returned to Scotland. James, it was said, ‘twitted him with the fact that though he called England his country, not a single Englishman would join him in it’.
Not long after the disappointing foray into England, Henry and James signed a truce and, with the prospects of further Scottish support dim, Warbeck changed bases again, though whether he left Scotland willingly or was sent away by a wary King James is uncertain.
On 7th September, 1497, he landed in Cornwall, which had recently been the scene of a rebellion over Henry’s tax policies. Here Warbeck finally found some token support among the citizens of England. Arriving with only about 100 men, his ranks quickly swelled to as many as 8,000, but most of this ‘army’ was unarmed and seemingly just a rabble enjoying the excitement of being roused.
With his newfound support, Warbeck unsuccessfully assaulted Exeter; then, when news arrived that royal forces were on the way, he fled to Beaulieu Abbey, where he momentarily claimed sanctuary before eventually giving himself up–some versions of the story claiming that he willingly put himself at Henry’s mercy, while others record that Henry enticed him from Beaulieu with false promises of a pardon. Legally, Henry would have required neither a capitulation nor deceit to arrest Warbeck, because the Church did not extend sanctuary to persons accused of treason.
Warbeck was taken to London and put under guard. He confessed that his alleged identity was a deception, but this statement has often been viewed with suspicion because it was made while he was at the King’s mercy. Perkin ‘admitted’ that he was the son of a Flemish official of the town of Tournay. He had travelled to Ireland in 1485 in the service of a Breton merchant, he said, and was received by the people of Cork who, because of his resemblance to the Royal Plantagenets, convinced him to assume the identity of the Duke of York.
Henry confined Warbeck in London. Perkin ended his life by unwittingly serving the purpose of the King he had sought to supplant. Henry’s agents feigned sympathy for him, and encouraged him to plan an escape, thus giving Henry a convenient, if rather flimsy, excuse to execute him.
So goes the traditional history of Warbeck’s life. But there is reason to suspect the reliability of this ‘official’ story. Audrey Williamson, in her book The Mystery of the Princes, justifiably questions the likelihood that a stranger arriving unexpectedly in Cork could spontaneously be hailed as the supposedly dead Duke of York and then convinced on the spot to go along with a treasonous masquerade, the thought of which had never before entered his head. Almost certainly Warbeck’s confession misrepresented this episode. But was the whole story fabricated by Henry to hide the truth–that Warbeck was who he claimed to be? Or did Henry truthfully report a story that Warbeck himself concocted to avoid implicating co-conspirators?
Warbeck’s often-noted resemblance to Edward IV might seem to indicate that the two men were indeed related; however, a physical similarity to the dead King should be expected even of an imposter. Any pretender that did not have at least a superficial resemblance to Edward would not have risked his life on such an implausible claim. It is even possible that Warbeck was recruited by others precisely because of his fortuitous appearance.
If this was the case, however, it is necessary to explain how the pretender maintained his deception for so long, and, if he was enlisted by others, to identify who might have done so. The first problem is by far the easier, though many writers have struggled over the question of where Warbeck, if a fraud, could have obtained the knowledge needed to convince doubters.
There is, in fact, no mention in any account of Warbeck’s career of his ever winning over a reluctant sceptic by disclosing some intimate detail of the Duke of York’s life. His support came entirely from people who found it politically expedient to acknowledge him, whether or not they truly believed his claims. On his first two invasions of England, he apparently failed to convince anyone that he was the lost Duke; in fact, he seems hardly to have made any effort to do so. The army that gathered around him in Cornwall can almost certainly be numbered among those for whom it did not matter whether or not Warbeck was a fraud, but who were ripe for revolt given any convenient excuse.
More difficult to explain is why any of the Yorkist exiles, such as Margaret of Burgundy, would have supported Warbeck if they knew him to be an imposter. One would think that even the most devoted Yorkist would prefer to leave Henry on the throne of England, rather than replace him with a Flemish merchant.
However, there was a precedent for such a plot. In 1487, Yorkists apparently sponsored the pretender Lambert Simnel, claiming that he was the Earl of Warwick. In this case, there is no doubt the claim was false, because Henry already held the Earl prisoner, and displayed him in public as proof of Simnel’s deceit.
The Yorkists seemingly planned to use Simnel only as a means of winning popular support and would have replaced him once Henry was forced from the throne. There may have been similar plans to supplant Warbeck if he had defeated Henry, but there is no firm evidence of such a plan.
Another intriguing possibility was put forward by Williamson, who recalls that a contemporary writer made the statement that in his early years Perkin Warbeck was raised by a converted Jew. Edward Brampton, one of Richard III’s most reliable supporters, was also a converted Jew. Brampton fled to Flanders after the Battle of Bosworth, and thereafter his name occasionally reappears during the course of Warbeck’s history. If Brampton was the mysterious converted Jew, he may have been commissioned by Richard to look after the Duke of York and perhaps to arrange for him to assume the identity of a member of Tornay’s Warbeck family until he was old enough to make his true identity known.
The idea that Warbeck may have been all that he claimed is attractive to many revisionists, because if the Duke of York was alive in 1491 then surely Richard could not have killed him in 1483. However, it can also be argued that the reverse is true and that Warbeck’s confession is as beneficial to Richard’s reputation as it was to Henry’s.
Allowing that Perkin Warbeck really was the Duke of York opens the door to some interesting consequences. First, his identity as the true Duke would validate his original testimony, made before his capture, that his brother was, in fact, murdered–not sent to a safer location or dead of natural causes. In addition, his own life, he said, was due to the spontaneous compassion of an un-named executioner, not to the foresight of either Henry or Richard.
We can only guess what the Duke’s anonymous benefactor would have done after helping him to escape, but the logical course, if he had been in Henry’s service, would have been to send the reassuring news of the boy’s true fate to Richard, under whose protection he lived. Richard would thus have had certain proof of a despicable crime perpetrated by his most dangerous enemy–a piece of intelligence so shocking on both moral and political levels that he would surely have made an immediate public disclosure of the plot. Instead, Warbeck claimed that his benefactor insisted on secrecy so as to avoid retribution.
The two men appointed to kill the princes, whatever their secret allegiance may have been, must officially have been in Richard’s service, since they were able to enter and exit the Tower at will. The supposition that the benefactor needed protection in such circumstances again implies that Richard was the plotter. also, if Henry was behind the murders, it would have been a great risk to send the Duke to Flanders, on the same side of the Channel as Henry, when one of Richard’s castles in the North of England would have adequately shielded him from prying eyes. Only if Richard was the murderer would the Prince need to leave England immediately. The benefactor in this case would have had no reason whatsoever to inform Henry or anyone else of his deed, because his continued enjoyment of royal favour, as well as his life, was at stake.
Strangely, although Warbeck claimed to have been the victim of an attempted murder, he never specified who was behind the crime. There seems to be no reason, if his story was genuine, why his benefactor should not have given him this information, so presumably, the Duke simply chose not to disclose the murder’s identity. By accusing Henry, Warbeck could have weakened the King’s hold on the throne considerably and given his own cause an undeniable stamp of justice. The only reason for not making use of this tactic can be that Warbeck, and everyone else, knew that it was simply not true. If, however, Richard was behind the crime, the confirmation of his guilt would have made little impact and might actually have exposed Warbeck to censure for plotting to overthrow the man who had avenged his brother’s murder.
While such speculation, following from the assumption that Perkin Warbeck was really the young Duke, renders him of dubious value in exonerating Richard, it can hardly be considered conclusive evidence of his guilt. And if Warbeck was not Richard–and the weight of the evidence indicates that he was not–then he casts even less light on the fate of the Princes in the Tower. So while his appearance makes a fascinating act in the drama of history, he is a witness of little value in penetrating the mystery behind the missing Princes.