Official record, complete with supporting evidence, states that Warbeck was a pretender to the English throne, the son of a customs‘ officer from Tournai in Belgium who was taken up by Yorkists when his resemblance to the younger of the missing princes in the Tower, Richard Duke of York, was noticed during a visit to Ireland.
He was the apprentice of Pregent Meno, a Breton merchant and when he arrived in Cork in 1491 his princely looks and manners were spotted whilst modeling the silks that his master was selling.
Perkin’s first stop in Europe in 1491 was at the court of Margaret of Burgundy where the aunt of the princes in the Tower recognized Perkin as her younger nephew. She claimed to recognize him from his knowledge of life in the Royal Household and from birthmarks. Perkin said that he should have been murdered but that the would be killer took pity on him. Whether she believed that Perkin was Richard is another matter entirely. The ‘diabolic duchess’ as the Tudor chroniclers labeled her offered sanctuary to erstwhile Yorkists and funded a variety of pretenders to the crown. So depending on the version of history you wish to believe she was either an aunt grateful for the return of her lost nephew or a hater of Henry VII grooming young Perkin for the role of a lifetime.
Perkin became a royal pain in Henry VII’s neck with a grand tour of Europe including a visit to the court of the Holy Roman Emperor and King James IV of Scotland touting for support. All of Henry VII’s treaties include a clause whereby the other country agrees not to support Yorkist claimants to the throne. Perkin’s journey around Europe culminated in a disastrous invasion of England via Ireland when he’d worn out his welcome at the court of James IV of Scotland in 1497.
There was little in the way of a popular uprising. Warbeck was forced to take sanctuary in Beaulieu Abbey and then to surrender. For a year Henry VII treated Warbeck almost like a guest, although he did have to sleep in Henry’s wardrobe ( a whole room rather than a cupboard) when the court was travelling and nearly burned to death on one occasion in an accidental fire.
Then in June 1498 Warbeck attempted to escape to claim sanctuary in Sheen. His freedom didn’t last long. He was put in the stocks at Westminster and Cheapside. From there he was sent to the Tower. Early in 1499 another pretender sprouted and the Spanish refused to send Catherine of Aragon to England until all Yorkist would-be kings were removed from the equation.
Edward, earl of Warwick (son of George duke of Clarence- the one who drowned in a vat of Malmsey) and Warbeck were placed in adjoining rooms. Their gaoler was an ex-rebel. Before long both Warbeck and Warwick were plotting to burn down the Tower, to escape abroad and to set Warwick up as a Yorkist king. Unsurprisingly, they were both found guilty of treason and executed. Warbeck was hanged at Tyburn whilst Warwick had his head chopped off – a reminder that Warbeck was a common man rather than a prince.
So who was Perkin?
There are a number of theories:
- Richard, Duke of York Given the existing primary evidence it is unlikely that Perkin was Richard, Duke of York. Ian Arthurson’s text looks at Perkin’s impact upon Henry VII as well as evaluating the evidence. Having said that there’s sufficient circumstantial evidence not to entirely dismiss the idea out of hand.
- Elizabeth of York never met with Perkin Warbeck in public. If he was an imposter surely there would have been no risk in this?
- Warbeck demonstrated such musicality that Henry VII’s court musician was jealous. The real Richard of York was noted for his musical skills as a child.
- Even Polydore Vergil, Henry VII’s official historian acknowledged that popular rumour said that the princes had been spirited away to a ‘secret land.’
- Would King James IV of Scotland really have allowed his cousin Katherine Gordon to marry someone he believed to be a pretender or unknown provenance?
2. Perkin Warbeck was the son of a Tournai Customs official
Perkin’s confession of 5th October 1497 confirmed that he was the son of John de Werbecque and his wife, Katherine de Faro. Henry spent rather a lot of time and money finding out every last dreg of information about Warbeck. The existence of the Werbecques can be confirmed in the Tournai archives.
- Henry himself was never satisfied with the evidence. He kept picking at the information as recorded by the sums of money paid out and recorded in his accounts books.
- One of the difficulties was that Henry could never find out anything about Perkin’s childhood below the age of nine.
- Warbeck’s confession was made and recorded with Henry VII in a position of power over Warbeck’s life. Henry needed a ‘feigned lad’ not the rightful heir to the throne.
3. Historians have hypothesised that Warbeck was the illegitimate son of Edward IV. There is no evidence for this other than the fact that Edward IV had many mistresses and one night stands as well as several illegitimate children including Arthur Plantagenet, Viscount Lisle who served as a cupbearer in Elizabeth of York’s household. This would account for Warbeck’s looks and musical skills.
4. Other historians have suggested that Warbeck was actually the illegitimate son of Margaret of Burgundy.
A final twist in Perkin’s tale
Warbeck spent time in Portugal in the service of Edward Brampton. Brampton was not an Englishman as the name would suggest but a Portugese Jew called Duarte Brandão who converted to Christianity. He was also a suspected murderer and a loyal supporter of his nominal godfather King Edward IV and then of Richard III. Did Brampton groom him for the role of prince? Or did Brampton secure a safe hiding place for the youngest son of the English king who’d elevated him from fugitive to wealthy man?
Evidence for Warbeck having Plantagenet blood of any description in his veins is lacking. It is entirely based upon speculation. Speculation is not history but it is a good story.
Arthurson, Ian. (2009) The Perkin Warbeck Conspiracy 1491-1499 Stroud:The History Press
Wroe, Ann. (2003). Perkin A Story of Deception London: Jonathan Cape