On 23rd November 1499, Perkin Warbeck faced his death at Tyburn. He was sentenced to be hanged until he was dead. His crime was attempting to escape the Tower of London where he was held a prisoner, but his story goes back several years and involves a tale of deception, treason and rumours of a young Prince come back to life!
In the Battle of Bosworth on 22nd August 1485, Henry VII had famously defeated Richard III in battle and won the English crown for himself and the future Tudor Dynasty. Richard III was dead and the fate of the Princes in the Tower, young Edward and Richard, sons of the late Edward IV, remained unknown. Many believed that they were dead, having last been seen two years previously. Others, however, hoped that maybe the young Richard, Duke of York, had been smuggled out of the Tower and across the channel to Europe. This is where Perkin Warbeck comes into the story.
Warbeck's earlier years remain a confusing story but it appears that the young man was born around 1474 to Jehan de Werbecque, a poor burgess of Tournai in Flanders, and his wife Katherine de Faro. Warbeck grew up in Antwerp and worked a series of jobs as a servant. After a time, Warbeck was hired by a Breton silk merchant named Pierre Jean Meno and was brought to Cork in Ireland around 1491. It was there that Warbeck learned English and when people saw him modelling his master's fine silks it was suggested that he was an illegitimate son of the late George, Duke of Clarence, or perhaps even Richard III.
The exact details of how Perkin Warbeck ending up claiming that he was Richard, Duke of York, the youngest of the Princes in the Tower, are sketchy. As Richard, Duke of York, Perkin claimed that his older brother Edward had been killed in the Tower of London but that he had been spared because of his young age and innocence. He had then been smuggled to Europe and protected by Yorkist sympathisers and sworn to secrecy.
Several European rulers, including Charles VII of France and Maximilian the Holy Roman Emperor, eagerly grasped onto Warbeck's claims and proclaimed the young man Richard, Duke of York, and true heir to the English throne. Even Margaret, Duchess of Burgundy, the widow of Charles the Bold and sister of the late Edward IV, supported Warbeck's claim that he was the youngest of the Princes in the Tower. Whether Margaret actually believed that Warbeck was her nephew remains unknown. Having not seen him for many years Margaret may have indeed believed that Warbeck was her long-lost nephew or she simply may have grasped at the chance to seek revenge against Henry VII who killed her brother at the Battle of Bosworth. Whatever the exact reason, Margaret took Warbeck in and saw him well educated in the way of the Yorkist clan.
On 3rd July 1495, funded by his "aunt", Warbeck took fourteen ships carrying around 6000 men to England in the hopes of claiming the throne for himself. However, when the ships landed at Kent, Warbeck's men were routed before Warbeck could even get to shore. Warbeck and his men fled first to Ireland and then to Scotland where he was warmly welcomed by King James IV. Since England was aligning itself with Spain in a marriage alliance between young Arthur Tudor and Katherine of Aragon, James IV saw an opportunity to align Scotland with their old friend France. James IV bolstered Warbeck's claim that he was the Richard, Duke of York, and saw Warbeck married to Lady Catherine Gordon, a distant cousin of the King, and granted him an annuity of £1200. It is unclear if James IV actually believed Warbeck's claims or if he just grasped an opportunity to cause havoc in England.
In September 1496, James IV, along with his army and Warbeck, invaded England under the claim of restoring Warbeck/Richard, Duke of York, as the rightful King of England. However, the support they wished to find in the North did not materialise and with his armies defeated Warbeck quickly escaped to Ireland. Then, in September 1497, Warbeck tried again. He and a small group of men landed in Cornwall where they hoped to raise men against Henry VII. Many people in Cornwall were upset over the huge levying of taxes by their King to pay for war. Warbeck was somewhat successful and was soon proclaimed King Richard IV. With an army of around 8000 men Warbeck passed Exeter and then Taunton, yet when he heard that Henry VII's army was close Warbeck fled in panic. He was finally captured at Beaulieu in Hampshire.
Henry VII chose to show kindness to Warbeck's wife, Lady Gordon, and placed her as a lady-in-waiting to his wife, Elizabeth of York. Warbeck was forced to make two public announcements at Westminster and Cheapside in June 1498 that he was not the late Richard, Duke of York, son of King Edward IV, and that he was in fact an impostor. When asked why he was impersonating the late Richard, Duke of York, all Perkin could say was that he blamed Margaret, Duchess of Burgundy.
At first, Henry VII showed some kindness to Warbeck and kept him at court until he tried to escape. Warbeck was quickly captured and taken to the Tower of London. There, he and Edward Plantagenet, 17th Earl of Warwick, son of the late George, Duke of Clarence, planned to escape. Their plan was soon uncovered and finally Warbeck's time ran out. On 23rd November 1499, under the charge of trying to escape from the Tower of London, Warbeck was taken from the Tower of London to Tyburn where he met his end by hanging. While officially the charge was trying to escape the Tower of London, in reality, if left alive, Warbeck posed a threat to Henry VII and his claim to the throne. For Henry VII, it was better to be rid of Warbeck once and for all rather than have him forever looming in the shadows.
Interestingly, Henry VII's wife, Elizabeth of York, older sister of the lost Princes in the Tower, was never called upon to deny the claims of Perkin Warbeck. In fact, there are no records or reports of her thoughts or feelings related to the whole affair. Did she believe that Warbeck was in fact her long-lost brother believed to have died in the Tower all those years ago? Probably not, but the claim that he was must have brought back terrible memories for the Queen. Whatever her lost thoughts were regarding Warbeck, the man from Tournai was dead and now only a memory, yet one that had touched a little too close to home.
Sarah Bryson is the author of Mary Boleyn: In a Nutshell. She is a researcher, writer and educator who has a Bachelor of Early Childhood Education with Honours and currently works with children with disabilities. Sarah is passionate about Tudor history and has a deep interest in Mary Boleyn, Anne Boleyn, the reign of Henry VIII and the people of his court. Visiting England in 2009 furthered her passion and when she returned home she started a website, queentohistory.com, and Facebook page about Tudor history. Sarah lives in Australia, enjoys reading, writing, Tudor costume enactment and wishes to return to England one day. She is currently working on a biography of Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk.
- de Lisle, Leanda (2013) Tudor: The Family Story, Chatto & Windus, London.
- Goble, Rachel (1999) The Execution of Perkin Warbeck, History Today, viewed 13 November 2015, http://www.historytoday.com/rachel-goble/execution-perkin-warbeck.
- Jokinen, Anniina, Perkin Warbeck (c.1474 – 1499), Luminarium: Encyclopedia Project, viewed 13 November 2015, http://www.luminarium.org/encyclopedia/perkinwarbeck.htm.
- Trueman, C. N. (2015) The Perkin Warbeck Rebellion, The History Learning Site, viewed 13 November 2015, http://www.historylearningsite.co.uk/tudor-england/the-perkin-warbeck-rebellion/.