The Yorkist/Lancastrian conflict known as the War of the Roses is filled with interesting stories from battles to execution by drowning in a butt of malmsey. Because the two young sons of King Edward IV disappeared in the Tower of London there was a lot of speculation about what happened to them. This left the door open for pretenders to appear. Whether or not you believe Perkin Warbeck was Richard, Duke of York, his story is intriguing, fascinating and nearly unbelievable. He managed to maintain his identity and travel the courts of Europe for eight years, soliciting money, troops and ships in an attempt to take the English throne.
Perkin Warbeck was the name he was called later in his adventures. Pierrechon de Werbecque was born c. 1474 in Tournai, in what is now Belgium. He was the son of John Osbek, a boatman and comptroller of the town and Catherine de Faro. In the nineteenth century, historian James Gairdner had access to the records of Tournai and identified Warbeck’s parents as Jehan de Werbecque and Nicaise Farou and his grandfather as Diericq de Werbecque. These records confirmed what was written in the printed confession of Perkin before his execution in 1499. The Werbecques were prominent members of Tournai’s prosperous class of civic officials, artisans, and small merchants.
When Perkin was about ten years old, his mother took him to Antwerp where he lived with a cousin for about half the year. Due to wars in Flanders he returned home but about a year later, a Tournai merchant named Berlo took him back to the mart in Antwerp. After an illness that lasted about five months he traveled to Bergen op Zoom and finally Middleburg. During this time he became accomplished in speaking Flemish and working for merchants in the cloth trade. By April or May of 1487, he traveled to Portugal in the company of a Yorkist supporter named Margaret Beaumont, the wife of Anglo-Portuguese Jewish convert courtier and international trader Sir Edward Beaumont. Warbeck spent about a year at the Portuguese court alongside the royal councilor and explorer Peter Vacz de Cogna. Finally he was in the employ of Breton merchant Pregent Meno who took him to Cork, Ireland in 1491.
Warbeck was parading around Cork in silk clothes belonging to his master, most likely as an advertisement for his employer’s wares. About four years earlier, a young man named Lambert Simnel impersonated Edward, Earl of Warwick, the son of George, Duke of Clarence and had been crowned king in Dublin so the Irish had accepted a pretender before. The citizens of Cork thought Warbeck could also be the son of Clarence but he denied this by swearing an oath before the mayor. Two other persons then declared Warbeck was the illegitimate son of King Richard III but again, he denied this. Finally, he was assured by some Yorkist adherents, led by the former mayor of Cork John Atwater and the English exile John Taylor that if he took on the character of Richard, Duke of York, second son of King Edward IV who disappeared from the Tower, he would garner support.
These Yorkist promoters found backing from the earls of Desmond and Kildare. Warbeck was given training in speaking English and acting as royalty. Letters were written to James IV, King of Scots as if he were “King Edward’s son”. But the greatest support was gained from the French King Charles VIII. Charles had funded Taylor’s trip to Ireland in a last ditch effort to distract the Lancastrian King Henry VII of England from defending Brittany against French annexation. Charles sent a fleet to bring Warbeck to court in France in March of 1492 where he stayed until November when Charles made peace with Henry. Warbeck and his supporters made their way to the court of Margaret of York, sister of King Edward IV and King Richard III and now dowager Duchess of Burgundy in Mechelen.
Margaret enthusiastically welcomed her miraculously resurrected nephew and sent letters to many heads of state declaring his authenticity. She had no love for King Henry VII as he had taken away lucrative trading licenses she had received from her brothers, thereby reducing her income. Margaret may have trained Warbeck in Yorkist family history and his education was complete. Henry protested vigorously to Philip the Fair, Archduke of Austria about Margaret harboring Warbeck in Flanders. Philip replied he had no control over Margaret. Henry stopped all trade between England and Flanders, causing riots in London.
Perkin traveled to Vienna and the court of Maximilian, King of the Romans and attended the funeral of Maximillian’s father, Holy Roman Emperor Frederic III. Maximilian enthusiastically embraced Warbeck as Richard, Duke of York going so far as to accompanying Warbeck back to the Low Countries in the summer of 1494 and recognizing him as King of England. Henry sent messengers remonstrating against this and declaring Warbeck was the son of a boatman from Tournai. In October of that year, Warbeck was present in Antwerp when Archduke Philip took his oath as Duke of Brabant, displaying the arms of the family of York on the house he was staying in.
Now things were turning dangerous. A series of conspiracies, espionage and counter-espionage began. Henry offered pardons to two men in Flanders who were backing Warbeck and one of these men accepted the pardon and informed on some Warbeck supporters who were arrested and put to death, including Sir William Stanley whose actions at the Battle of Bosworth turned the battle to Henry’s favor, gaining him the crown of England.
In December of 1494, Warbeck signed an agreement with Margaret of Burgundy. She agreed to fund an expedition to England, aiding Warbeck in his effort to take the throne from King Henry. In return, when Warbeck became king, he would restore her trade licenses, complete the payments of her dowry, and give her the manor of Hunsdon and the town and castle of Scarborough. In addition, Maximilian agreed to supply financing. Warbeck sailed for England in July of 1495. While Warbeck was aboard one of his ships, an advance party of soldiers went ashore at Deal in Kent only to be overwhelmed by the locals. Warbeck could only watch with horror as one hundred and sixty three of his men were captured and one hundred and fifty were killed. The dead lay on the beach full of arrows and appallingly wounded.
There was nothing to do but turn sail and head for Ireland. His party joined the earl of Desmond in the siege of Waterford which was ongoing at the time. Waterford failed to capitulate and Warbeck found his way to Scotland arriving at Stirling Castle on November 20 where he received a warm welcome and the patronage of James IV, King of Scots. Whether James really believed Warbeck was the Duke of York or not, he saw him as a pawn in his relations and negotiations with other nations. Indeed, in September of 1496, the ambassador of the French king offered James a hundred thousand crowns to send Warbeck to France.
Warbeck would spend two years at James’ court. James gave him his cousin Lady Katherine Gordon as a bride and would fund attacks into England. These sorties were nothing more than border raids and no one seriously came to support Warbeck’s cause. On one occasion, after one of these raids, it is said that Warbeck complained to James about the barbarity of the attacks and asked him to spare his own subjects. James may have become disillusioned with Warbeck at this point. He was trying to negotiate a treaty with King Henry to marry his eldest daughter and may have considered Warbeck a hindrance to the proceedings.
In the meantime, King Henry had raised taxes in England to fund a war against the attacks from the Scots. The citizens of Cornwall found the taxation excessive and rebelled. The rebels invited Warbeck to join forces with them and King James gave him a ship. Warbeck and his wife sailed for Ireland where they stayed for a month, seeking support. They were unsuccessful in gaining any aid and in fact, the citizens of Waterford wrote King Henry informing him Warbeck was in Ireland. Warbeck was spirited out of Cork by his ally John Atwater. While he was escaping, his ship met up with three other ships, one of which was Spanish. The citizens of Waterford fitted out vessels at their own cost which sent a patrol out to sea in search of Warbeck. The captain of one of these ships boarded the Spanish vessel and gathered its crew and captain to address them.
The patrol captain informed the Spanish crew of the new friendly alliance between Spain and England which had been cemented by the betrothal of Arthur Prince of Wales to the Infanta Katherine of Aragon. He went on to say they were searching for the pretender to the English throne, Perkin Warbeck, asking them to surrender him if he was aboard. He produced a letter from King Henry offering a reward of one thousand marks for Warbeck’s capture. The master of the ship denied ever hearing of such a person. The whole time, Warbeck was hunched inside a wine pipe in the prow of the ship. The patrol eventually let the ship pass.
Warbeck landed at Whitesand Bay in Cornwall, proclaimed himself king and gathered forces estimated in the thousands. They laid siege to Exeter but when King Henry’s troops approached, he withdrew to Taunton. He learned the king’s forces were marching full force against him and in the dead of the night, Warbeck stole away with sixty horsemen. These were soon abandoned and with only three men, Warbeck made his way to Beaulieu Abbey in Hampshire taking sanctuary there. They were recognized, surrounded and forced to surrender.
Warbeck was brought to King Henry at Taunton and confessed he was an imposture. Henry made him confess to his wife as well. He promised to treat them both with leniency. Katherine Gordon was sent to the household of Henry’s queen Elizabeth of York at Sheen.
The country was finally at peace and the king took Warbeck with him to London where he was paraded through the streets and lodged in the Tower. But he was soon released and allowed to reside at court, closely guarded, until he tried to escape on June 9, 1498, perhaps with the king’s collusion. He was found in the Charterhouse at Sheen and surrendered on promise of pardon. On June 15th, Warbeck was placed in stocks atop a scaffold made of empty wine barrels in front of Westminster Hall and then the process was repeated again on the 18th in Cheapside. He was forced to repeat his confession and after five hours, was taken to the Tower and placed in shackles. The whole tale of his imposture, as written and read by himself was printed and disseminated at the king’s command.
In the summer of 1499, an absurd plot arose to blow up the Tower and free Warbeck along with Edward, Earl of Warwick who had been in the Tower since he was a young child and place one of them on the throne. How involved Warbeck was in the plot is hard to assess. The plot was discovered and Warbeck, along with his original supporters Atwater and Taylor who had been recovered from Ireland and France were tried on November 16 at Westminster Palace and found guilty and condemned to death. On November 18th, eight other prisoners were indicted at the Guildhall for their involvement in the plot. On the 21st, the Earl of Warwick was tried and condemned.
On November 23rd, Warbeck and Atwater were taken to Tyburn Hill. Warbeck confessed once again he was no Plantagenet. Both men were hanged. On November 28th, the Earl of Warwick was beheaded on Tower Hill. Warbeck’s adventure as Richard, Duke of York has many fantastical elements to it, from being the guest of kings to escaping detection at sea, to hanging at Tyburn. In his wake, there was much death and destruction. Perhaps the one good element of the story is Warbeck’s wife Katherine was treated with kindness by King Henry and Queen Elizabeth, remaining a valued member of the Tudor court the rest of her life. She went on to become wealthy and marry three more times. She had no surviving children and outlived Warbeck by thirty eight years.
Further reading: “The Perkin Warbeck Conspiracy 1491-1499” by Ian Arthurson, “History of the Life and Reign of Richard III: To which is added the story of Perkin Warbeck from original documents” by James Gairdner, entry on Perkin Warbeck in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography 1885-1900, Volume 59 written by James Gairdner, entry on Perkin Warbeck in the current Oxford Dictionary of National Biography written by S.J. Gunn