The sad tale of Perkin Warbeck

Posted: July 28, 2012 in Perkin Warbeck, Wroe

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! 😀

  1. Esther says:

    Thanks for the review … I’ve just put this on my “books to buy” list.

  2. His is a very interesting story. The previous book on him almost had convinced he was the younger prince. Well done doco on the ABC TV a few years ago also.
    I seem to remember reading somewhere that Elizabeth of York was never allowed to meet Perkin. Not sure if that is just another myth though.

  3. 1karla says:

    And what if he was… Somehow It seems nobody in the end knew what happened to those boys

  4. mzmelisende says:

    Thanks for the review – I was contemplating purchasing this. Might give it some more thought.

  5. Philippa says:

    If Henry VII knew beyond all reasonable doubt that the Princes has been murdered on the orders of their wicked uncle then why did he not simply dismiss Perkin out of hand or use his arrival in England as a heaven sent opportunity to discredit Richard Plantagenet for all time?

    Both Perkin and Lambert Simnell claimed to be Richard of York which suggests that it was common knowledge that Edward was no longer alive. There would have been no point murdering Edward and leaving Richard alive to carry the Yorkist claim to the throne so there is a view that Edward may have died of natural causes. Was Richard one of ‘the children’ who were at Sheriff Hutton at the time of Bosworth and was he later sent abroad for safe keeping ?. Was Perkin’s role to be the ‘dry run’ to test the strength of the Yorkists attempts to overthrow Tudor, he was expendable if it all went wrong but could be quietly sidelined on the return to England of the true Richard IV. Did Henry not in fact know what happened to the Princes after Bosworth or were the rumours that his own mother or Henry Stafford may have played a part in their disappearence something he could not dismiss out of hand.

    Someone knew what happened to Edward and Richard. Maybe that knowledge was too dangerous to be committed to written record and died with those who knew, maybe it was intentionally supressed as history is written by the victor.

    • anevillfeast says:

      Henry’s actions (sending people to Flanders to try and find out who the ‘Duke of York’ really was) suggests to me that he didn’t know for certain that the real one was dead. Lambert Simnel was being passed off as the young earl of Warwick (in the Tower, where Henry definitely knew he was!), not either of the princes. If Henry had any idea where either of the princes were (dead or alive), he’d not have spent so much time and energy trying to find Perkin’s real family. (I don’t think he did, actually, but he must have been satisfied that he did.) Or that’s how I read it, anyway.

  6. Anerje says:

    I’ve had this book a number of years – and never read it. It’s in my loft so maybe as I’m on a break will fish it out.

    Maybe the reason why these ‘pretenders’ didn’t try and pass themselves off as Edward V was because Edward V would have been seen by more people as the heir to the throne? So they would be more likely have better luck as Richard. I’m sure Henry Tudor was genuinely vexed about Warbeck – he dealt with Simnel in a more generous way. It’s likely he knew the princes were dead, probably by the hand of Richard III, but could produce no bodies. It took him until 1501 to come up with a story, when his eldest son was married to Catherine of Aragon – perhaps a condition imposed by her parents – ie, she was marrying into a secure dynasty. Henry VII ensured that the Earl of Warwick had a ‘legal’ murder – executed after his so-called plot with Warbeck.

    • anevillfeast says:

      It might have been to do with ‘Perkin’s’ age as well, Anerje. And do fish the book out of the attic and read it! Not everyone likes it, though. Some people I’ve spoken to have got quite impatient with aspects of it, I was half expecting to be, myself! I don’t know many writers who could get away with quite so much speculating (about feelings and motivations mostly), but I thought Wroe managed it.

  7. Philippa says:

    When Perkin first appeared on the scene claiming to be Richard of York the most obvious question to ask him has to be ‘but what about Edward?’. That it wasn’t suggests that the absence of Edward was somehow accounted for.

    It would make no sense for anyone to murder Edward and not Richard; in fact it makes more sense to kill Richard first thus ensuring that Edward has no heir. What if somehow Richard alone had been rescued or managed to escape from the Tower? the fate of Edward is still the crucial issue for whilst he lived Edward was the Yorkist heir not Richard. Just as it suited the agenda of some to believe that Perkin was Richard so it probably suited the agenda of others to accept that Edward was dead. Whether that was due to natural causes or at the hands of another and whether or not there was any supporting evidence may not have been as important as it accounted for Edward’s removal from the stage. Only then could Perkin’s claim to be Richard be taken seriously.

    • anevillfeast says:

      He did tell that story, Philippa. He claimed that Edward was murdered on Richard III’s orders, but that the murderer took pity on young Richard and spirited him away. It’s currently half past midnight here, but I’ll have a look through the book and give you more information in daylight.

  8. Philippa says:

    I’ve just finished reading Loyalty Binds Me by Christopher Rae. The story is told through the voice of Francis Lovell with some interesting but different insights into the events of Summer 1483 that a writer of good historical fiction is permitted to make. The final chapters that make up Part Three just add a new dimension to those questions we’ve already raised in this thread, I recommend reading it.

  9. Philippa says:

    The official reason for Edward of York being set aside as Edward V was that his parents were not validly married and so he was a bastard. In his novel, Christopher Rae provides an explanation that allows people to accept this is true. At that point neither Edward or Richard are of any use to those who seek to restore Lancaster nor do they pose any threat to Uncle Gloucester because everyone accepts that a bastard cannot be king.

    If Edward died of natural causes shortly afterwards then it is possible that young Richard was sent to live away from London quietly but safely. Could he have been placed, say, in the care of Francis & Anna Lovell or one of Anna’s Fitzhugh relatives? Richard of York wasn’t a threat to the Yorkist succession, that was instigated by the death of Edward of Middleham in 1484 and the knowledge that the king & queen could have no more children. After the death of John de la Pole at Stoke the Yorkists had no effective leader and perhaps at that point, in their desperation situation, someone remembered young Richard?

    • anevillfeast says:

      Interesting theory. I have some problems with that. First is the story that Perkin told – that the man who murdered his brother, on Richard’s orders, had spared his life. Second, the boys may not have been a threat when they were young, but they weren’t going to stay young forever. Having learned the lesson re Henry VI – still a rallying point 10 years after Edward IV took the throne – Richard may well have thought that it was better for him if the boys didn’t pose that potential future threat. Personally, I like the idea of the boys being in the Fitzhughs’ care, but I just can’t see that being the case. The Fitzhughs walked a fine line, and if they had the princes, or knew where they were, they might have been tempted to use that as a bargaining point for the pardon for Lovell they tried to hard to secure. With Anne’s brother, Richard, in a position of trust and authority in the north, they had a great deal to lose if they got on the wrong side of him.

  10. Stephen says:

    I have this book – signed by AW at a meeting in Witham. The three possible hypotheses: that “Warbeck” was Richard of Shrewsbury, a conscious fraud or just confused are surely equally probable.

  11. Esther says:

    It just got delivered yesterday; will start in as soon as I finish my current book. A few other points … Henry VII didn’t execute Edward (son of Duke of Clarence) until he was older, when he was charged with plotting to escape and executed. Couldn’t Richard (or Henry) have done the same thing with the Princes? Also, did Henry have Vergil, et. al. start in on the “Richard did it” works before or after Warbeck? That Warbeck had followers (and/or Henry’s investigation into the background) seems to indicate that Richard’s guilt was not as widely accepted as perhaps Henry hoped.

    • anevillfeast says:

      Unfortunately, Perkin’s story that his brother was murdered on Richard III’s orders, and that the man sent to kill them both took pity on the younger boy and helped him escape, would suggest otherwise – that the general public had no problems with the concept of Richard’s guilt. I really can’t state categorically one way or the other.

      • Esther says:

        Just started it today … it is fascinating. The part about kings miraculously surviving answered part of my question (which concerned the strength of belief in the death of the boys more than the cause).

  12. Kathleen Hestand says:

    I have always thought that Perkin may have been an illegitimate son of Edward IV conceived during his stay in the Netherlands region in 1470-71. Perkin’s age could not have been questioned as his birth date couldn’t be verified, and Richard of York would have been a young man by this time if he were alive. Margaret of Burgundy’s interest in him would be understandable, and in her mind any Yorkist was better than a Tudor on the throne. It’s hard to believe she would have recognized her nephew Richard as a man when she last saw him as a small child, and even then only once. She also eventually was persuaded to abandon her support of him. I don’t think she would have done this if he were really Richard. A final point: If the princes were illegitimate and were not a threat to Richard III, why would they have been a threat to Henry VII? Apparently one accepted their supposed bastardy, and they remained a threat to Richard III. Their disappearance triggered Buckingham’s rebellion and Richard’s subsequent loss of critical Yorkist support.

    • anevillfeast says:

      Hi Kathleen. I’d love to think that one day there would be answers to this mystery, but I’m not holding my breath!

    • Esther says:


      Regarding your final point …. Henry VII secured support by promising to marry Elizabeth of York. When he repealed the “Titulus Regius” (the act of Parliament declaring Edward IV’s children illegitimate and stating Richard III’s claim), he gave the boys the legal rights they lost under Richard. So, it was Henry himself who made the boys a greater threat to him than they may have been to Richard. Also, it is not certain that the disappearance of the boys triggered Buckingham’s rebellion, since a case can be made that Buckingham did it himself.

      I agree with you and Karen, though, that it would be nice to have an answer … but I’m not holding my breath, either.


  13. Kathleen Hestand says:

    I know, it’s a shame, isn’t it?

  14. Thanks for this post Karen, it makes a lot of sense. I don’t think Perkin was the real deal but he definitely convinced some people that he was or had their support for his claims. I wonder though if he had a passing resemblance to the Duke of York – our faces change as we age and it could be there was a “hint” of something that triggered a memory in Margaret of York for example?

    • anevillfeast says:

      His origins are so shadowy, it’s hard to even guess how it all came about. Maybe someone just spotted him and though “There’s a lad who could pass for a son of Edward IV!” and it all just took off from there.

  15. Dawn Likha says:

    Reblogged this on A Passion for History and commented:
    Sounds like a truly excellent and meticulously researched biography of Perkin Warbeck — I’ll be sure to check it out soon when I think it’s possible to get my hands on it! 😀

  16. Susan Abernethy says:

    “The Perkin Warbeck Conspiracy 1491-1499” by Ian Arthurson is a definitive work on the life of Warbeck, the conspiracy to put him on the throne and how it all played out. Arthurson answers all the questions about his identity, how he came to impersonate the prince, Henry VII’s motivations for seeking his true identity, James IV’s motivations for supporting him, etc. This book is thoroughly researched and a great read.

  17. Mary joseph says:

    Actually the point of fact is that Elizabeth of york had contact with Piers Warbeck And never stated one way or the other who she believed him to be. Both Elizabeth and Henry’s and those of their children were at stake and Elizabeth was not a beloved queen but a political pawn used to legitimized Henry’s position And end the war of roses. it was Henry who gave Piers his identity and his identity could not be tracked back to his birth. It looked like he appeared around the age of 9….the same age as the young prince. Ask yourself this what mother especially a mother who had 2 sons in line to the throne place both of them in the same location during tenuous times at best. Another perplexing question is why was it necessary to execute a non British subject for treason as Henry did. Henry removed Piers and Edmund who was also in the York line for the throne after Richard of Shrewsbury (Piers Warbeck). This would have removed Arthur and the future Henry Vii I from the immediate line of succession .In addition after his execution Piers was buried in a Dutch Church in London where nobility was buried. This was highly unusual behavior for a person executed for treason. The simple solution would be to test Elizabeth of Yorks DNA and Piers Warbeck DNA to determine if they are full siblings or half siblings or no relationship at all. FULL sibling would mean it was Richard of Shrewsbury that was executed..half sibling would mean that he was one of Edward the IV illegimate sons.

    • anevillfeast says:

      Hi, Mary. I have never come across anything that states as a point of fact that Elizabeth of York ever met Perkin or even set eyes on him. If you have a reliable source for this, I’d be most pleased if you could share it with us.
      Ask yourself, what mother with one boy in the Tower and another cooped up with his sisters in sanctuary wouldn’t be prepared to believe the person who gave constant reassurances that her son, the King, was about to be crowned? Far from seeing into the future and somehow managing to swap her younger son for a double and smuggling him out of the country, Elizabeth Wydeville trusted the duke of Gloucester to keep his word, and gave Richard duke of York into his custody. Was she wrong to have done this? Should she not have trusted him to keep her sons safe? Should she have assumed, at that early stage, he was planning to depose Edward V, and possibly even have him and his brother killed? That’s the only scenario I can think of that might make Elizabeth Wydeville take such an extraordinary step. Seems to me, it’s convenient for those who desperately want Richard III to be innocent to believe the young Duke made it to Burgundy, but as that would be a damning indictment of him, I’m surprised anyone actually entertains the idea. Think it through – the mother of the uncrowned King so distrusts her brother-in-law, so fears for her sons’ lives and safety at his hand that she sets in place an extraordinary conspiracy in order to get one of them out of England! That chap sounds like a bit of a monster to me!
      Another thought that rarely occurs to those who want Perkin to have been York in order to clear Richard III of murder – Perkin’s own words, his explanation of how he get out of the Tower, condemn Richard as his brother’s murderer. If Perkin was York, then his testimony has to be taken into account, and not dismissed as a forgery or the ubiquitous ‘Tudor propaganda’. That’s the story Perkin told and he was the one it happened to… if he was the duke of York. If he wasn’t (and I tend to think he wasn’t) it was a plausible fabrication to explain why a young prince, last seen in the Tower, suddenly turns up in Burgundy. There is no reliable evidence – actually, no evidence of any kind – that places the younger of the princes anywhere near Burgundy.
      I would suggest most strongly you read Anne Wroe’s excellent book on Perkin. It doesn’t answer the big questions, like who was he, really?, because it can’t. It’s doubtful anything can. But it will answer questions like, why was he executed? (Because he attempted to escape custody for the third time, implicating Edward (that’s Edward, not Edmund) Earl of Warwick, who was also executed for his part in the escape attempt. Henry VII might not have been the most cuddly king in history, but this myth that he cleared the decks of all the ‘Yorks’ has been debunked more times than I can count.)
      Here’s a question for you: Why would Henry Tudor have come to England to attempt to take the throne – been invited to England and promised support by many who had been loyal to Edward IV – if either Edward V or his brother were known to be alive? Surely, under those circumstances, any invitation to England would have included the words ‘to help restore Edward V’. Or perhaps a good chunk of the nobility of England, including the princes’ mother, simply didn’t care one way or another if they were still alive or not. Just wrote them off. Said, “Oh, well, they might be in the Tower, who knows? Let’s give this Henry chap a shot at the crown!”
      Unfortunately, I don’t think either Elizabeth of York or Perkin’s dna is available for testing. And, frankly, this recent mania for wanting bones to be dug up simply to test them to satisfy people’s curiosity is a little tasteless. Richard III’s bones were uncovered from a deconsecrated grave during an archaeological dig, which is far cry from opening a known tomb on consecrated ground and subjecting the remains within to testing. (I don’t believe Perkin’s remains are available for the curious, anyway. My understanding is his tomb was destroyed during or after WW2. If I’m wrong about this, I’m sure someone will correct me.)

  18. JE says:

    My personal belief is that Perkin Warbeck was an impostor, most likely an illegitimate son of Edward IV. I believe that Richard Duke of York and Edward V were killed in the reign of Richard III, buried in the Tower and then later, Richard III secretly moved their bodies to St. George Chapel, much like Richard III did with Henry VI in 1484, moving his body from Chertsey Abbey to St. George Chapel (various reasons, to control the growing cult of Henry VI and minimizing it by having him buried near Edward IV; to show repentance to Henry VI’s death by the Yorkist King, Edward IV who Richard served etc.). In 1789 as the workers repaired the paving in St George Chapel, where under the northern quire has sunk, they found the entrance to the burial vault of Edward IV. In the vault they found Edward IV’s lead coffin and then Elizabeth Woodville’s wooden coffin on top of Edward’s. Next to this vault was another vault with two coffins, supposed at the time to be their children George, Duke of Bedford and their daughter Mary. However in 1810, work done in the Abbey discovered two more coffins at the Albert Memorial Chapel. One of the coffins had the inscription “serenissimus princeps Georgius filius tercius Christianissimi principis Edvardi iiij” implying that this was the coffin of George, Duke of Bedford. When George died in 1479, the St George Chapel was under construction and thus George could not be buried in the Quire but south of the high alter of the old church. In the written account of Mary’s funeral, it states that she was “buried by my Lorde George, her brother”. In 1813, both of these coffins were moved to the vault near Edward IV.

    So we must assume that the coffins found with the inscriptions in 1810 were those of George, duke of Bedford and Mary his older sister. That leave the question of what two children were buried in the vault next to Edward IV’s and Elizabeth Woodville’s vault found in 1789? I point to the fact that these have to be the buried remains of Edward V and Richard Duke of York who were killed during the reign of Richard III. IF you say Richard III is responsible (my personal opinion) whether he ordered their deaths or because in the act of seizing the throne he ensured that someone killed them during his reign, or someone else killed them ie Buckingham or Margaret Beaufort, I say that it fits with Richard’s personality to have had his nephews bodies removed and buried next to their father. This would explain why no one knew where their bodies were, why the bodies were not found and even IF Richard III had not ordered their deaths, he knew he could not proclaim them dead as he would bear the burden, but as a religious man, he honored them with a burial fit for their position. It would mean that knowledge was lost and not passed to Henry VII and thus when the impostors of Piers and Perkin showed up, he was unsure. Perkin to me is probably an illegitimate son of Edward IV passed off as Richard Duke of York who laid next to his father in St George’s Chapel.

    I base my information on this post from St George’s chapel from Tuesday, May 15th, 2012 at this link:

    Some will reject this theory and that is fine. The only way to probably prove it would be to enter the second vault where the two unidentified coffins are, open them and obtain material for a DNA test. Could it be that Richard III moved their bodies from the Tower to the vault by Edward IV? Yes, I say. I believe that is in Richard III’s character. Once found out that his nephews were dead, either by his order or by the order of someone else, after a period of time, as he moved Henry VI’s body in 1484 I believe he moved the princes remains next to their father Edward IV. This would allow him to control the growing cult of Henry VI, minimize it by associating Henry VI with Edward IV since they are now buried together, and finally the reburial of all three show Richard’s attempt to atone for their deaths since they Yorkist family and regime were responsible for their deaths. I, personally don’t believe that Richard felt bad that they were dead (Henry VII and Henry VIII had youth killed to secure their position on the throne and Richard would have been the same in thinking and to think not, minimizes Richard as a product of his day) but that in accordance with his religious beliefs, he would minimize that impact by having a proper burial and tedums sung for them with prayers. Those who reburied the princes were probably kept in the dark and by the time of Henry VII, had passed on themselves or wouldn’t discuss what they had done for fear of retribution. Thus Henry VII never knew of their burial and it wasn’t found out. Margaret of Salisbury’s Or if Henry VII did know and his mother had been involved and he didn’t want it out in the open of Tudor involvement, he endured the impostors. I don’t believe that but I do believe that Perkin was merely an illegitimate son of Edward IV used by those in power to challenge the reign of Henry VII. In the end, Henry VII and the Tudors survived and reigned for over a 100 years and laid the foundation for the Stuarts, their descendants who succeeded them.

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