Perkin Warbeck, who claimed he was Richard, Duke of York, younger son of King Edward IV, who escaped from the Tower after his older brother was murdered, was executed by Henry VII on November 23, 1499. Historians and historical authors have been fascinated by Warbeck ever since.
There are some people who argue that Warbeck was the Duke of York, and that Henry VII knew the truth and killed him anyway to keep the throne. A guest article by Sandra Worth (whose novel The Pale Rose of England had Perkin make an appearance) posted at the website On The Tudor Trail did an excellent job of summing up why this theory can’t quite be shaken:
“Was this most intriguing and charming pretender a true prince? The greatest European monarchs of the age seemed to have thought so, and that includes Henry VII. They either used him as a pawn, championed his cause, or took him under their protection. The King of France wouldn’t deliver him up to the King of England; Isabella and Ferdinand wouldn’t send their daughter to England to marry Prince Arthur while he lived; and the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian backed the young man without reservation. James IV went one better and gave him not only support, but the hand of his dazzlingly beautiful royal cousin, Lady Catherine Gordon, daughter of the Earl of Huntly. Margaret of York, Duchess of Burgundy, Richard’s strongest supporter, never deserted the one she called her nephew … Nor did the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian of Austria ever abandon him, though the young man was of no further use to him. Maximilian did all he could to free Richard, and even considered going to war against Henry until civil strife in his own land made that impossible. Then he made Henry the astounding offer to resign in perpetuity—for himself, and for Richard, and for all their descendants—their claims to the throne of England. All Maximilian wanted in return was to have the young man back safe, and whole … Henry refused all Maximilian’s offers. In this, and every possible way, the Pretender’s great rival, Henry VII, behaved as if he, too, believed the young man to be the lost prince, referring to him in private correspondence as the Duke of York and expending vast sums of money to defeat his cause (sixty thousand pounds alone for war with Scotland because James IV wouldn’t relinquish his support of “Perkin”). After his capture, Henry used “Perkin” as a bargaining chip to effect peace treaties, gain better trade advantages, and win political and economic concessions, especially from James of Scotland and Maximilian of Austria. When James IV demanded that Henry ameliorate the treatment of his cousins, Lady Catherine Gordon and her husband, Henry responded that if he wished better treatment for them, he should consider marrying his daughter Margaret … Ultimately, the actions and behavior of those most closely involved in the drama of the princes in the Tower, including the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian, and Margaret, Duchess of Burgundy, James IV of Scotland, and Henry VII himself seem to evince a belief bordering on conviction that the young man called “Perkin” was the true prince. The fact that he was not only of the right age and appearance, but also exhibited an exceptional talent for music—just as little Prince Richard had done!—makes it very difficult to dismiss his claim. To find all these qualities combined in a fraud defies probability, and therefore it is highly likely that the Pretender was King Edward’s son, Richard of York, executed by Henry VII as “Perkin Warbeck.”
If you want to read a book arguing the evidence that Perkin Warbeck was indeed Richard of York, I recommend Ann Wroe’s The Perfect Prince.
Most historians, however, dismiss Warbeck as a very good conman.
The History Learning Site explains that Warbeck was actually the son of “Jehan de Werbecque, was a poor burgess from Tournai in France. Warbeck was born around 1474. As a boy he served as a servant in a number of households. In 1491 Warbeck was working for a Breton silk merchant called Pierre Jean Meno. Warbeck arrived in Cork in the autumn of 1491 on one of Meno’s merchant ships selling silk.”
History Today reports that “In his confession to Henry at Taunton on October 5th, 1497, Warbeck admitted that he was the son of a bourgeois of Tournai. He said he had come to Cork in 1491 as a merchant’s apprentice and had been ‘recognised’ as a Yorkist prince. Though some of the ringleaders of the Cornish rebellion were executed, Warbeck was merely taken into custody until he tried to escape in June 1498. He was then sent to the Tower.”
For myself, I agree with the historians who declare Perkin Warbeck to have been an imposter used to tweak the nose of the new monarch on the block, Henry VII. For more details, I recommend Dr. Ian Arthurson’s book The Perkin Warbeck Conspiracy: 1491-1499.
Whether Perkin Warbeck was just what he seemed – a pretender used as a political pawn – or if he really was Richard of York, his death facilitated Katherina of Aragon’s marriage to Arthur Tudor. The Spanish monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella weren’t sending their youngest daughter to marry Henry VII’s son until they were assured his rule was stable. Theoretically, this death-before-betrothal upset Katherina. She was later reported to have said that either her marriage to Henry VIII was doomed or her children died as a “judgment of God, for her former marriage was made in blood.” Perkin Warbeck’s blood, to be exact.