Perkin Warbeck

Perkin Warbeck first came to international attention in 1490, when he showed up at the court of Burgundy claiming to be Richard of Shrewsbury, Duke of York, the second-born son of King Edward IV.  He said he had miraculously escaped from the Tower after his older brother, King Edward V, was murdered because his captors took pity on his youth. This was almost certainly a load of tosh, but historians and historical authors have remained fascinated by the would-be Yorkist scion.

Margaret of Burgundy, widow of Charles the Bold, was King Edward IV’s sister but had never met her nephew Richard of Shrewsbury. Nonetheless, she declared that Warbeck was indeed the Duke of York, and therefore rightful monarch of Britain, and paid for his attempted invasion of England to win back his crown in on 1495.  Did Margaret truly believe that Warbeck was her nephew? That isn’t know, but what IS known is that Margaret hated King Henry VII, who had killed her brother Richard III and usurped his throne, with a purple passion. She would have happily eaten Henry VII’s heart in a marketplace, let alone funded a pretender to overthrow him or at least disrupt his kingdom. Margaret purportedly gave Warbeck the low down on the inner workings of the Yorkist family and court, then let him loose on Europe to stir up all kinds of trouble for the struggling Tudor king. 

Or did Warbeck not need the help to know about the Duke of York’s life?

There are some people who argue that Warbeck really was the Duke of York, and that Henry VII knew the truth and killed him anyway to keep the throne. Historical novelist Sandra Worth argues that:

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 … 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 … Ultimately, the actions and behaviour 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.

Most historians, however, dismiss Warbeck as a very good conman, an impostor used to tweak the nose of the new monarch on the block, Henry VII. There is, in my opinion, just too much implausible about Warbeck’s tale for him to be anything other than a pretender. Were the men ruthless enough to murder King Edward V really going to cavil at killing his little brother? Why wouldn’t Warbeck name them, or name the man who sent them to assassinate his sibling? How was he smuggled out of the Tower? Why was he under the protection of Sir Edward Brampton, an opportunist and supporter of Richard III? Why not take the Duke of York to one of the rebels against Richard III, several of whom hated Richard because they were loyal to Edward IV and his heirs? Why not bring him to his grandmother, Elizabeth Woodville, who would have recognised him instantly? Why did he keep his oath not to reveal his true identity for “a certain number of years” even though it was clearly made under duress, and thus invalid? Most importantly, since the people Warbeck would eventually admit were relatives showed up in the municipal archives of Tournai, how did the Duke of York just happen to know these lower-middle-class bourgeois Frenchmen and women by name so he could use them as his false relations in his forced confession?

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 was one of those that sealed the engagement between Katherina of Aragon and Arthur Tudor. The Spanish princess’s parents, Isabella I of Castile and Ferdinand II of Aragon, Ferdinand weren’t sending their youngest daughter to marry Henry VII’s son until they were assured his rule was stable. Initially, King Henry tried to preserve stability by keeping Warbeck in the Tower of London with the other legitimate Yorkist claimant, Edward, Earl of Warwick. Alas, Warbeck kept escaping and the last time he did it, in 1499, he took the Earl of Warwick along with him. Warwick was a genuine threat to Henry VII’s throne, and Warbeck had proven himself to be troublemaker. Something more permanent had to be done about the rivals to the Tudor king’s crown.

Thus, on 23 November 1499 Perkin Warbeck was taken from the Tower to  Tyburn, where he read out a confession of his duplicity and was thereafter hanged. A few days later, on 28 November, the Earl of Warwick was beheaded on Tower Hill. The primary threats to Henry VII’s stability and throne were no more. Katherina of Aragon would now be wed to the Prince of Wales.

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 sons had died as newborns as a “judgment of God, for her former marriage was made in blood.” Perkin Warbeck and the Earl of Warwick’s blood, to be exact.

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