Perkin Warbeck – Imposter or ‘The Perfect Prince?’, by Judith Arnopp

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Perkin Warbeck
Perkin Warbeck

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Perkin Warbeck – Imposter or ‘The Perfect Prince?’
Judith Arnopp

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In November 1499 a young man was drawn on a hurdle to Tyburn to suffer the commoner’s death of hanging. His crime was treason against King Henry VII. Before he died he made a confession stating he was not Richard of York as he had claimed but a common-born man, Piers Warbecke, with almost no education. He ‘confessed’ that instead of being raised in the royal palace, he was, in fact, raised in Flanders before being apprenticed to a merchant.

Perkin Warbeck Artist Unknown
Perkin Warbeck

By the age of fourteen he was in Portugal as page to Sir Edward Brampton’s wife, then a servant to another knight until he enlisted with a Breton, Pregent Meno whom he accompanied to Cork in Ireland. It was there, while the boy was modelling some fine silks belonging to his master, that he was mistaken for a Yorkist prince. At first they took him for Edward of Warwick or Richard III’s bastard, John of Gloucester but ultimately they decided he must be Richard, the younger of the York princes. He was pressed into assuming the identity of the Duke of York in order to usurp the throne of Henry VII.

Most people know of the story of the pretender Perkin Warbeck who claimed to be one of the lost princes in the Tower. Whether or not the boy was a royal prince or a common boy from Flanders, his very existence illustrates that Yorkist hopes were alive and well, and the rule of Henry VII very much resented in some quarters.

Belief in the boy seems to have been universally strong. Supporters of  York flocked to the boy’s side and the man whom the Tudors dubbed as ‘Perkin Warbeck’ became a thorn in the flesh of Henry VII for eight years. He had the backing of some of the most powerful heads of Europe; Margaret of Burgundy, the Holy Roman Emperor Maximillian, James IV of Scotland and Charles VIII of France. King James went so far as to allow Warbeck to marry his cousin, the Lady Catherine Gordon, and supplied him with houses, clothes and horses. The Spanish monarchs, Ferdinand and Isabella, fearing the pretender may succeed, stalled in the ongoing treaty with Henry VII. They refused to send their daughter, Catherine of Aragon, to marry the Prince of Wales until Perkin was captured and destroyed.

Much of Henry Tudor’s youth was spent in exile, his claim to the English throne seemingly out of reach. Even after his coronation he was loath to trust anyone which, in the circumstances was probably wise. When Charles VIII refused a request from Henry to hand Warbeck over, the king’s insecurity mushroomed.

King Henry VII
King Henry VII

The Tudor spy network was large and effective but even so, members of the court were slipping away to Europe to join the Pretender. Henry’s chamberlain, Sir William Stanley, who in August 1485 at Bosworth had stepped in to save the day for Tudor, claimed that if the Pretender were indeed one of the princes, he’d not raise a hand against him. Although there is no evidence that he’d had contact with Warbeck, Stanley was executed for his words.

For someone like Stanley to give credit to the boy’s claim suggests the rumours of the princes’ survival were persistent and given credence; even Henry Tudor himself gave it some credibility.

Tudor accounts of the fate of Edward IV’s sons are of a grisly murder in the Tower of London, attributing blame to Richard III but rumours and whispers persisted that they, or one of them, had escaped to Europe, sent to safety during Richard’s reign.

There is no way of determining the truth now but Henry was clearly in the dark. Although he accused Richard III of ‘shedding infants’ blood’ he named no names and could produce no bodies. Perhaps he knew, or feared, they were still alive.

Henry slipped up once or twice in private correspondence, giving Warbeck the title of ‘Duke of York’ – a small detail, a slip anyone could make, but indication nonetheless of how his mind may have been working. There were other imposters during King Henry’s reign and he dealt with them as though they were no more troublesome than a plague of wasps but his pursuit of Warbeck was thorough and determined.

The campaign against the Pretender cost the king a huge amount of money, the war with Scotland alone put a strain on the royal coffers. Henry wasn’t taking any chances and for once didn’t care what it cost. He was determined to get Warbeck and secure the Spanish princess for his son.

Arthur Tudor, Prince of Wales
Arthur Tudor, Prince of Wales

After his capture Warbeck was kept at court for a while; he slept in the King’s closet and kept company with the fools and jesters, held up for ridicule as Lambert Simnel had been some years earlier. But when the Pretender tried to escape he was quickly apprehended at The Charterhouse at Sheen and imprisoned in the Tower.

Perhaps Henry was predisposed to be lenient, or perhaps it was always his long-term plan to kill Warbeck, we cannot tell, but Spain stubbornly continued to refuse to allow Catherine to journey to England. This added impetus to the situation.

In the Tower a plot was hatched, possibly at Henry’s connivance, and both Warbeck and another Yorkist thorn in the king’s side, Edward of Warwick, were ‘caught’ attempting to escape. They both suffered the death penalty; Warbeck was hung, while Warwick, due to his undisputed status, was executed. All claimants to Henry’s throne, bogus or otherwise, were now destroyed, Spain was happy and the marriage between Arthur and Catherine of Aragon could go ahead.

We will never know Warbeck’s true identity but the confession he made is full of holes. It doesn’t stand up to a logic examination. We should also remember that any pre-death speech against the king would have undoubtedly impacted on Warbeck’s surviving family. In agreeing he was an imposter perhaps the Pretender was thinking of his wife who thrived at Henry’s court after her husband’s death.

Catherine Gordon believed whole heartedly that her husband was Richard of York. She was loyal to him but remained at court, serving in the queen’s household, ultimately becoming a favourite of Henry’s. Some say she became the king’s mistress but, beyond favours and gifts, there is no evidence for this.

The main objective for my novel A Song of Sixpence is the effect Warbeck (imposter or not) must have had upon Elizabeth of York. Elizabeth was born into a large unconventional family. Apart from the elder of the princes, Edward, who had his own household in Ludlow, the children were raised in close proximity to their parents, Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville.

From his birth Elizabeth was in the company of her brother Richard. She will have played with him, read to him, wiped his nose, and dried his tears. On the day he left to join his brother Edward in the Tower to await the coronation, she may have been proud, perhaps tearful. But, presuming she wasn’t party to it, what was her state of mind when the boys disappeared just a few weeks later? How did she live with the possibility that they had been horribly slain? Even if she heard the rumours of an escape she must have worried, thinking of them exiled and alone in a strange country?

Queen Elizabeth of York
Queen Elizabeth of York

So, when in 1492 the Pretender turned up claiming to be one of her brothers, Elizabeth’s emotions must have been conflicted. Now Queen of England, with her own sons taking on her brother’s dynastic role, her loyalty was necessarily divided.

As queen, Elizabeth is well-recorded. As queen the historical record follows her movements and actions; all I needed to do to bring her to life in my novel was interpret and imagine her thoughts. The boy Warbeck, who in my fictional account is indeed the younger of the York princes, was a more complex figure to draw.

Since I am not convinced by Warbeck’s confession, I disregard it. It was a theory the Tudors wanted us to believe but that doesn’t mean he was the prince either. For the sake of the novel I imagine that the boy is indeed who he claims.

The first part of the boy’s story in A Song of Sixpence is imagined. I concentrate on his loneliness, his isolation, his fears and his fluctuating determination to win back his rightful crown. For the second part, once Warbeck declared himself to be the Duke of York, I turn again to the historical record which follows his steps to Tyburn.

I have written A Song of Sixpence with a dual narrative; we follow Elizabeth’s intimate journey through fear, uncertainty, turmoil and grief, and simultaneously trace the boy, Richard, through his long exile, his battles and defeat, to his degrading end. An end that was necessary to facilitate the birth of the Tudor dynasty.

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a song of sixpence

  To Purchase A Song of Sixpence: the story of Elizabeth of York and Perkin Warbeck, 

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A Song of Sixpence

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Judith Arnopp
Judith Arnopp

Judith Arnopp is the author of seven historical novels all available in paperback or on Amazon Kindle. A Song of Sixpence is available now in Paperback and on Amazon Kindle.

A Song of Sixpence: the story of Elizabeth of York and Perkin Warbeck

Intractable Heart: the story of Katheryn Parr

The Kiss of the Concubine: a story of Anne Boleyn

The Winchester Goose: at the court of Henry VIII

The Song of Heledd

The Forest Dwellers

Peaceweaver

For more information please visit:

Her webpage: Judith Arnopp Historical Fiction Author

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You can read more about Perkin Warbeck in:

Ann Wroe, Perkin: A Story of Deception

Ian Arthurson, The Perkin Warbeck Conspiracy 1491-1499

D.M. Klein, Richard of England

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Beth von Staats

is the owner and administrator of QueenAnneBoleyn.com. The author of "Thomas Cranmer in a Nutshell", Beth specializes in writing magazine articles, online historical articles, short stories, and flash fiction.

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