I’ve just finished reading Ann Wroe’s beautifully written biography (such as is possible) of the man we know now as Perkin Warbeck. This is not a ‘straight’ biography by any means. Wroe fills the pages with emotion, and occasionally with that thing that non-fiction history writers must NEVER do – speculation. But for the most part, she speculates, to my mind, intelligently. She left me feeling desperately sad for everyone involved: Perkin himself, of course, who ended his days at the end of a rope after daring to aim so high; his wife, Katherine Gordon, who stood by him and failed to repudiate him, even when it was clear he wasn’t who she believed him to be; Margaret of Burgundy, a childless woman, loved by other women’s children, who more than anyone believed in Perkin and the rightness of her actions; James IV of Scotland who stubbornly refused to believe (or admit to believing) Perkin was anything other than he said he was. Even Henry VII, who could have had Perkin quietly despatched the moment he surrendered. Henry spent years trying to find out just who this self- (and other-) styled Duke of York really was. He settled on an identity for him, a boatman’s son from Tournai, but even that may not have been the truth.
The crux of Perkin’s problem (and, in the end, the young Earl of Warwick’s problem as well) is that he wasn’t effectively or intelligently supported. Every scheme, except the first – to pass him off as Edward IV’s younger son – was halfbaked, illplanned and doomed. Many men died for it. King Henry kept a tight grip on his crown and it would have taken a carefully planned, perfectly timed and seriously backed campaign – with money, weapons and men – to oust him. His continuing obsession with finding out just who this faux Duke was is enough to convince me (though I hardly needed it) that Henry VII wasn’t responsible for the deaths, or disappearance, of the Princes in the Tower. All he needed to do to collapse the Perkin Plan before it even began was to produce the bodies, or a confession from whoever it was he might have given the task of killing the boys. The other thing that might have put the story to bed was to put the young man in front of the sister he claimed – Elizabeth of York, Henry VII’s queen. She surely would have been able to confirm or deny his identity. If Henry knew the real Duke of York was dead, he’d have risked nothing in that. There’s no record of Elizabeth and Perkin meeting, or even setting their eyes on each other. Henry couldn’t be sure the boy wasn’t who he claimed to be and couldn’t take the risk that the eyes of the Queen would fill with tears as long parted siblings embraced each other.
I didn’t have any more sense of who Perkin might really have been at the end of the book than I did at the start. Wroe identifies the contradictions in the Warbeck story. A missing son, a grieving family – these might simply have been convenient points for Henry to hang the story. That Perkin confessed, and repeated that confession before his execution, doesn’t make that story true. He was used to repeating another man’s history as if it were his own.
Fascinating to think what might have been had Perkin (Richard IV) succeeded in toppling Henry VII. Whatever Perkin’s true ancestry and history, the heir to the throne of England, the son he had with Katherine Gordon, would have had firm ties with Scotland. We wouldn’t have had to wait till the death of Elizabeth I for a Scot to wear the English crown! That, in itself, may have made the whole thing worthwhile! 😀