Monday 12 December 2011

Mystery People of History – Perkin Warbeck, Prince or Pretender?

Few mysteries of history have fascinated us as much and prompted so much speculation as the mystery of the disappearance of the Princes in the Tower.  Were the two young princes really murdered in their beds, and if so who by and why? Or were they somehow spirited away from the Tower of London in secret and taken to a safe place to live out their lives in obscurity?  Against the chaos and political instability of that period of English history known as the War of the Roses, it is perhaps not surprising then that several figures came forward during the reign of King Henry VII claiming to be one of the lost princes and becoming a focus for rebellion, and one of the most famous of these royal pretenders was a young man know as Perkin Warbeck.

After Henry VII defeated King Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485 and claimed the English throne by right of conquest, his main tasks were to secure his kingdom and win the loyalty of his nobles and people.  He married Elizabeth of York, the eldest daughter King Edward IV, in an attempt to further legitimise his claim to the English crown and unite the Lancastrian and Yorkist factions, even though to do this he had to overturn the ruling that had declared that she and all her siblings were illegitimate due to their father’s alleged pre-contract of marriage with Lady Eleanor Talbot.  But if Elizabeth of York and her sisters were once again recognised as being the legitimate children of Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville, then so too were her two brothers, King Edward V and Richard, Duke of York.  Many historians consider that to have overturned this ruling, Henry VII must have believed that the two young princes were indeed already dead, as if either of the two boys were still alive, they had a much greater claim to the throne than Henry himself, and he knew that there were still powerful forces both in England and across Europe who would back a Yorkist claimant to the throne.

Perkin Warbeck

One of these powerful forces was Margaret of Burgundy, the sister of the two dead kings Edward IV and Richard III and the aunt of the Princes in the Tower, and it was at her Court that Perkin Warbeck first came to public attention and claimed the throne of England. It is not known whether Margaret of Burgundy genuinely believed that Perkin Warbeck was her nephew or whether she was fully aware that he was a fraud and groomed him in the ways of the Yorkist Royal Family in order to create a focus of rebellion against Henry VII.  The other major European player to get involved was King Charles VIII of France, and both he and Margaret officially recognised Perkin Warbeck as King Richard IV of England.  For a while Perkin Warbeck was feted across Europe, attending the funeral in Vienna of the Holy Roman Emperor, Frederick III, and gaining the recognition of his successor Maximilian I, spending time at the French Court in 1492 and then residing at the Court of Burgundy. However, in 1492 Charles VIII signed the Treaty of Etaples with England to prevent a threatened invasion of France and part of the treaty was an agreement to expel Perkin Warbeck from French territory.  Warbeck’s presence in Burgundy rattled Henry VII so much that he imposed a trade embargo on Flanders in 1493, even though this would lose England a great deal of revenue.

Perkin Warbeck’s first foray into rebellion against the English crown had been in 1491 when he arrived in the Irish city of Cork, which had long been a Yorkist stronghold. The good people of Cork thought that Warbeck was actually the Earl of Warwick, the son of the hapless George, Duke of Clarence, who had been attainted for treason and executed in the Tower of London after trying the patience of his brother Edward IV one time too many, who was currently being held captive by Henry VII.  Warbeck’s English was apparently not very good, but he managed to deny his being the Earl of Warwick and declare himself as Richard, Duke of York. However, little became of this rebellion and he was forced to return to Europe.

With the support of Margaret of Burgundy, he tried his hand again in 1495 and landed with a small force in Deal on the Kent coast.  His small force was effectively routed and Warbeck was forced to sail on to Ireland without even disembarking onto English soil.  Once in Ireland, he gained the support of the Earl of Desmond and laid siege to the town of Waterford, but was once again unsuccessful.  He fled to the Court of King James IV of Scotland, where he was graciously received, given a pension of £1200 a year and the hand of the Scottish King’s cousin, Lady Catherine Gordon, in marriage.  At that time James IV was happy to use any means at his disposal to rile Henry VII, so he encouraged Perkin Warbeck to use his pension for funding for attempting to mount an attack across the English border.  However, Warbeck received no support whatsoever from the English and was forced to retreat back into Scotland.  Henry VII may still at this point in his reign have felt insecure on his throne, but he had set up an effective network of spies and had rooted out and dealt with any English supporters of Perkin Warbeck.  In 1495, Sir William Stanley was tried and executed for treason due to his support of Warbeck and the Yorkist cause, which is ironic in the light of the fact that he was the very same William Stanley who switched sides at the Battle of Bosworth ensuring the defeat of the Yorkist King Richard III. Henry VII’s steward Lord Fitzwalter was also attainted and executed and it seems that they were being informed on by one of their co-conspirators Sir Robert Clifford, who was secretly working for Henry.  Clifford’s reward for his participation in the conspiracy against the crown was not the more usual short trip to the scaffold but a full pardon and a hefty reward.

After Warbeck’s failed attempt to enter England, James IV of Scotland gave up on the idea of being a thorn in the side of the English King, and signed the Treaty of Ayton that brought him peace with England and Henry’s daughter Margaret Tudor as a bride. Warbeck was once more expelled and returned again to Ireland to make another attempt at laying siege to the town of Waterford.  This attempt was swiftly defeated and he was chased from Ireland by four English ships.  Left with only a handful of supporters, Perkin Warbeck sailed to Cornwall, where he hoped to capitalise on the discontent still fomenting there after the uprising that had taken place only a few months earlier. The Cornish people welcomed him and declared him King Richard IV on Bodmin Moor.  The support of the Cornish swelled his army by 6000 and he marched on Exeter and then on to Taunton.  Henry sent an army to counter Warbeck’s rebellion, and when Warbeck heard that this force had sighted he fled to Beaulieu Abbey in Hampshire, where he was captured. Henry VII was initially merciful to Perkin Warbeck, allowing him to stay at Court under supervision.  However, he attempted to run away, so was removed to the more secure environment of the Tower of London.  In 1499 he allegedly tried to escape again, this time supposedly in the company of the real Earl of Warwick, and was hanged at Tyburn.

So was Perkin Warbeck really Richard, Duke of York?  It is popularly believed that he was actually a Fleming born in Tournai in around 1474, the son of a French official called John de Werbecque and his wife, Katherine de Faro, and that he had spent his boyhood years working as a servant in several different households. He then became an apprentice for a fleece merchant called Pregent Meno, and it was while he was working for Meno that he first arrived in Ireland and declared himself to be Richard, Duke of York.  Perkin Warbeck also supposedly bore a strong resemblance to the dead Yorkist monarch, Edward IV, and it has been speculated that Warbeck could actually have been Edward’s illegitimate son. But what of Margaret of Burgundy’s support of Perkin Warbeck.  Would she really have supported an imposter as her nephew?  Would she really have wanted a non-royal foreigner on the throne of England, however much she despised Henry VII’s regime?  She declared that she recognised Warbeck as Richard of York because of certain birthmarks on his body and his supposedly detailed knowledge of what life had been like living in the English Royal Household.  In return for Margaret’s support, Warbeck had to promise to return all her lands in England to her that had been confiscated after the Battle of Bosworth when he gained the English crown. But was this enough to make her support an imposter? 

Moreover, if Perkin Warbeck really spoke such poor English and was uneducated, would sophisticated monarchs like Maximilian I and Charles VII even have deigned to let him into their presence, let alone backed him as a pretender to the throne of England? In the 15th century class was all important, and people rarely moved out of the milieu into which they had been born.  There was also a mystique and a reverence surrounding royal blood, and preserving royal bloodlines and family ties was regarded as all important, so encouraging someone who had worked as a servant to make a bid for a crown would have been almost unthinkable.  After all, the real Richard, Duke of York had been excluded from the possibility of ever sitting on the throne of England purely because his father might have made a pre-contract of marriage with another woman before he married Richard’s mother Elizabeth Woodville.

Like all great historical mysteries, we shall never probably really know the truth about Perkin Warbeck.  Perkin Warbeck made a confession before his execution that gave his parentage and early history, some of which has been backed up by documentary evidence.  But was he forced into this confession by Henry VII, who would have been very eager to ensure that there was no doubt in anyone’s mind that that Perkin Warbeck was an imposter and not a Yorkist prince? Most likely he was just an apprentice from Flanders, who by chance bore an uncanny resemblance to a dead king and was in the right place at the right time, but there is always the chance, however slight, that he really was Richard of York and that he had been spirited away from his imprisonment in England and brought to Europe for safety.

Image Wikimedia Commons Public Domain

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