Margaret of York, Dowager Duchess of Burgundy had every reason to want King Henry VII of England dethroned. Her Yorkist family had lost the throne when the Lancastrian Earl Henry Tudor won the Battle of Bosworth, defeating Margaret’s brother Richard III. Henry had also taken away the lucrative trading licenses her brothers had given her, allowing her to collect huge incomes. When she found an attractive young man who resembled her nephew, Richard, Duke of York, she took him under her wing, training and grooming him to impersonate her nephew in an attempt to regain the throne for the House of York.
Margaret had not seen her nephew in twelve years. He was seven years old when she visited England in 1480 to negotiate an agreement with her brother, King Edward IV. Edward had died leaving his eldest son to become King Edward V and his second son, Richard Duke of York. Their uncle usurped the throne from young Edward, becoming King Richard III. He imprisoned the young princes in the Tower of London and they disappeared from the records. In the last battle of the War of the Roses, Henry Tudor, Earl of Richmond defeated Richard III at Bosworth Field in 1485.
Perkin Warbeck was the son of a French boatman or official in Tournai (now a part of Belgium). He had somehow acquired some grace and manners and became a merchant’s assistant, traveling around Europe. While he was in Ireland in 1491, he proclaimed he was Richard, Duke of York, son of King Edward IV of England and began a campaign of visiting courts in Europe, seeking money and troops to invade England and claim his crown. He found support from Margaret and the German Emperor Maximilian I. In 1492, Warbeck came to meet Margaret in Burgundy, claiming to be her long lost nephew Richard. He resembled her brother King Edward and Margaret embraced him and wrote letters to different heads of state in Europe, proclaiming him to be her beloved nephew and King Richard IV of England. She may have also prepared him by telling him the Yorkist family history. We will never know if Margaret believed Warbeck was really her nephew or not but she was ready to promote his cause.
Margaret negotiated a contract with Warbeck that was finalized at Antwerp in December of 1494. If Warbeck became “king”, he agreed to pay the outstanding debt on her dowry from her marriage contract, he would repay all her expenses (8,000 crowns) for outfitting him for his mission, he would restore all her trading licenses, give her the manor of Hunsdon and the town and castle of Scarborough in England. He then set out for Ireland but Henry VII acted swiftly to obstruct his efforts. As early as 1493, Henry’s agents had discovered the real identity of Warbeck. Warbeck tried several more years to invade England, travelling between Ireland and the Netherlands until he ended up in Scotland in 1495.
Margaret had envoys at James’ court as early as 1488 and James had paid for a herald to travel between Ireland and Burgundy in January of 1490. This may have paved the way for the Warbeck intrigue between Margaret and Scotland. In November of 1495, Warbeck arrived at the court of King James IV of Scotland. He was close to the King in age and James took to the young man immediately. James enjoyed his company and he settled down to await more aid and troops from Margaret. Special taxes were collected in Scotland to pay Warbeck an allowance of £1,200 per year. In January of 1496, James agreed to marry Warbeck to a distant cousin of his, Lady Katherine Gordon, daughter of the Earl of Huntly. The wedding was celebrated with some pomp and display.
Warbeck was to spend nearly two years in Scotland. Whether James believed Warbeck was really Richard or not, he viewed Warbeck as a pawn to be used to recover the castle town of Berwick and in the diplomatic war with England. However, he was unwilling to provide forces. The presence of Warbeck in Scotland led to diplomatic efforts on the part of France and the Holy League who wanted possession of Warbeck for their own purposes. King Charles VIII of France offered to purchase Warbeck from James for 100,000 crowns. The Earl of Buchan and Lord Ramsay of Scotland wanted to kidnap Warbeck so they could sell him to Henry VII. James appeared to enjoy the diplomatic attention he was receiving.
In the meantime, the new Duke of Burgundy had withdrawn his support from Warbeck. A treaty had been signed in February 1496 to restore trade relations between Burgundy and England. The treaty called for Margaret to not interfere by giving aid to Henry’s enemies. Margaret made an outward show of compliance but may have secretly given Warbeck help.
Warbeck was now in real need of forces to invade England. King James had to make a decision. If Warbeck won and became “king” he would be grateful for James’ help. If Warbeck lost, James could sell him to King Henry VII. James decided to provide forces and a contract was drawn up. Warbeck promised to return Berwick to Scotland. He promised to repay all the money and aid he received from Scotland for 50,000 marks payable over two years.
The forces assembled near Edinburgh on September 14th. James and Warbeck offered prayers at Holyrood Abbey. On the 19th of September, the Scottish army was at Ellem and a total of 1,400 troops crossed the River Tweed at Coldstream. Miners set to work to demolish Castle Heaton but soon gave up when they ran out of resources. The Scots considered the expedition more of a border raid than an invasion. They penetrated England by four miles and destroyed three or four little towers or battle houses. When no Yorkist supporters came to Warbeck’s aid, he realized the expedition wasn’t helping his cause and returned to Edinburgh. As the English army approached Newcastle on September 25th, the Scots withdrew. When James returned to Edinburgh, Warbeck complained to James about the cruelty he was showing his own people. James was beginning to tire of Warbeck. It’s possible, when James realized Warbeck couldn’t stomach the ravages of battle, he didn’t believe he was of royal blood.
In the early summer of 1497, the men of Cornwall rebelled against King Henry VII for what they considered excessive taxation. James saw a chance to get rid of the irritating Warbeck and urged him to join the rebellion. He outfitted Warbeck with a ship and promised to help him in the North. Shortly after Warbeck left, James began negotiating peace with King Henry VII.
Warbeck set sail with his wife, landing in Cornwall and attacking Exeter. The attack was unsuccessful. Warbeck was eventually captured and imprisoned by King Henry VII. When he tried to escape, Henry signed an execution order. Warbeck was hanged at Tyburn on November 23, 1499 at the age of twenty-five. Warbeck’s wife Katherine was treated with leniency by Henry and she was appointed to join the household of Henry’s Queen, Elizabeth of York.
Resources: “Blood Sisters” by Sarah Gristwood, “British Kings and Queens” by Mike Ashley, “The Royal Stuarts” by Allan Massie, “Margaret of York” by Christine Weightman, “History of the Life and Reign of Richard III: To which is added the story of Perkin Warbeck from original documents” by James Gairdner