Perkin Warbeck - Imposter or Prince
by Ann Wroe
For those who are committed to re-assessing the career and character of Richard III, the world often seems to end in 1485. There is little interest for them in the scene once Richard, slung bloody and naked over his horse, has gone from it, and Henry Tudor is on the throne. But two young men, now known by the comical-theatrical names of Lambert Simnel and Perkin Warbeck, kept Yorkist hopes going for quite a few years longer. Simnel’s career, as a false Edward, Earl of Warwick, was brief, limited and ultimately mystifying. The career of the young man who emerged a little later, claiming to be Richard, Duke of York, the younger of the Princes in the Tower, was neither brief nor limited. He actively sustained his role, if it was a role at all, for at least six years, and perhaps for a good deal longer. And he was supported in it, at various times, by the Portuguese, the Irish, the Scots, the French, the rulers of the Burgundian Netherlands and the Empire, and the rebellious peasants and tin-workers of the western parts of England. When he surrendered at last to Henry VII, in October 1497, he apparently declared he was Piers Osbeck, otherwise known as Perkin Warbeck, born in Tournai, and the son of a boatman. Almost all historians now take this to be true.
Was it? Given the scarcity of evidence from this period, it is certainly easier to agree. There are so many gaps, and so many matters that cannot be proved conclusively one way or the other. We do not know whether the Princes in the Tower were dead or alive by the end of Richard’s reign, and we may never know. We can glean almost nothing of what went on once ‘Perkin’ surrendered to Henry. For long stretches of time, we have no idea what the Pretender himself was doing, or where he was. As for him, we possess only two of his letters and two or three snatches of his conversation. It is almost impossible to research the Werbecques, his alleged family, because the Tournai archives were completely destroyed by bombing in the last war. And it is very hard for a biographer to know where to start. Perhaps it should be in Tournai, by the wharves along the Scheldt where his ‘father’, Jehan Werbecque, worked; perhaps it should be in Shrewsbury, on the borders of Wales, where Richard, Duke of York, Edward IV’s second son, came squalling into the world; or perhaps this young man saw the light of day in some quite different place, one we will never find.
Nonetheless, I have tried to write the first full-scale account of his life. It is not very orthodox. It neither starts at the beginning of his life---for we don’t know the beginning for certain----nor ends at the end. But it tries to delineate him, and tell his story, in as much detail as Europe’s archives can give me, for I firmly believe that only by sifting those details can we start to consider who he might have been: whether the prince, or Perkin, or neither of these. What we must never do, if we care for the truth, is accept unthinkingly the official version of his life and career that was contained in the confession of 1497.
That confession has always been hard to believe; not so much for its mind-boggling detail of alleged grandfathers and godfathers and uncles and aunts, who were real people, as for the account it gives of how Perkin’s career as Richard started. In this article---since otherwise I might never end---I want to focus on this one central event: the vital moment when the young man either went public, as the prince he was, or took on a role that he had long prepared for, or suddenly had his humdrum low-class life changed in one morning, as he strolled through the streets of Cork in the autumn of 1491.
According to the confession, ‘Piers’ was a boy of almost no education. His childhood had been spent wandering up and down in Flanders. He was farmed out to relatives, then taken home again, then placed in the care of travelling merchants. His only accomplishment was the learning of Flemish with his cousin Jehan Steinbeck. At about the age of 14 he went to Portugal for a year, at first as a page with Sir Edward Brampton’s wife and then as a servant to a Portuguese knight; then, ever restless, he joined up with a Breton merchant, Pregent Meno, and went with him to Cork in Ireland. There, because the handsome young Piers paraded round in ‘some silks of my said Master’s’, the local people, together with a few Yorkist English visitors, thought he must be a Yorkist prince. Perhaps he was Edward, Earl of Warwick; perhaps he was John of Gloucester, Richard III’s bastard son; or perhaps, their last thought,he was Richard, Duke of York, miraculously risen from the dead. Perkin, according to the confession, denied the first two suggesions ‘with high Oaths’. But the English visitors, in particular, were almost brutally insistent, and at length his resolve weakened. They told him ‘not to be afeared to take it upon me,’ and so he agreed. If this was what they wanted, he would act the Duke of York for them.
This story, now given routinely as the truth, was neither believed when it first appeared nor for several centuries afterwards. Henry’s own historians, Polydore Vergil and Bernard André, did not touch it, nor Hall, Grafton, Holinshed, Bacon or Hume, who followed them. That is hardly surprising, for it sounds less like history than mythology: some tale from the legends of Arthur, or a retelling of the story of Tristram, who was also dropped in gorgeous silks in a strange land, in his case Cornwall, and drawn inexorably into the life of a prince.
The ‘random kidnapping’ story makes little sense now and made less at the time. If these Englishmen needed a Yorkist claimant, why should they be looking for one in Ireland, and why on earth should they seize on a foreigner, who would need intensive instruction in English as well as in princeliness? Why, too, was this boy in silk? There was no market for silk in Ireland, and in any case Meno did not deal in it; he traded in mucky raw fleeces, and there are Patent Roll entries to prove it. If this was essentially an argument between some bystanders and a ship’s boy, why did the town authorities get involved, as they did, and bring the town Cross and the gospels down to the dock for a solemn oath-swearing? And if the boy could not speak English, as the confession implies, how was any of this communicated anyway?
This part of the confession, then, was long judged absurd on its face. But documents need more than their inherent absurdity to condemn them; and fortunately there are several other accounts of the moment when the young man arrived in Ireland. Perhaps the most interesting comes from Sir Edward Brampton, a Portuguese adventurer and old Yorkist servant who was certainly, at one stage, very close to the Pretender, though we may never know quite how close. Brampton gave his version to Spanish investigators in Portugal in 1496; it was meant to go to Henry VII, but it is not entirely clear that it ever did.
According to Brampton, this ‘boy’ as he always calls him, was far from uneducated. He had in fact spent several years learning the organ in Tournai, but eventually he had run away and attached himself, rather persistently, to Brampton’s wife’s household. Eventually they all went to Portugal, where the boy went into service with a knight not for a single year, as the confession says, but for almost four years. The boy, Brampton said, then wanted to go home again to Flanders, and took a ship that called in on Ireland. When it docked, he robed himself again in the silk clothes he had worn for the fiestas at the court of Portugal; and at the sight of him, people immediately took him for a prince and began to follow him.
Brampton’s story needs a pinch of salt, of course. He was a famous boaster and embroiderer, of his own life as well as other people’s. Nonetheless, the way he tells it, this ‘boy’ made his own decision to disembark in Ireland dressed as a prince, and drew people to him without the need for intermediaries. This is close to how the boy himself tells it when, as ‘Richard Plantagenet’, he writes to Isabella of Spain in August 1493: that he sailed to Ireland on his own initiative and was received as Prince Richard by his cousins, the Earls of Desmond and Kildare, when he got there. And it is close to how Henry VII tells it, too, in a letter to Gilbert Talbot written a month earlier: on his first landing in Ireland, the king wrote, the ‘feigned lad’ ‘called himself’ a Yorkist prince. No one forced him. More evidence comes from later historians, who refer to letters, extant until the 18th century, that had been sent from ‘Richard Plantagenet’ to Desmond and Kildare before his voyage to Ireland. When, in 1496, Desmond at last made his peace with Henry, he promised no longer to receive, or suffer to be received, rebels in his territory, strongly implying that he had formally received this boy in 1491. A formal reception would naturally mean that the Cross and town relics were brought to the visitor, as the confession said they were.
Other things, too, were going on in Cork at the time. The confession mentions a Yorkist refugee, John Taylor, as one of the kidnappers loitering on the dockside. But Taylor was not there by chance. He was in charge of a small fleet, equipped and paid for by the King of France, which had been sent apparently to fetch a Yorkist prince, or an imitation of one. Taylor hoped thereby to foment a rebellion in favour of the Earl of Warwick, but the prince who had arrived was already, it seems, proclaiming himself as the Duke of York. Some debate may have followed about which name the young man was to take, if he was not truly the prince. But in the hold of one of Taylor’s ships lay a suit of precious white armour already made for him. In short, he was expected.
Just by taking this single scene, this pivotal moment in the story, and testing the account in the confession against other evidence we have, it is clear that the version Henry VII made this young man agree to was not what really happened. Where there is already some measure of invention, there will probably be more. This sort of playing with the facts does not prove that ‘Perkin’ was the prince, of course. But it distinctly raises the possibility that he may have been; or that, at the least, a story of long sponsorship lay behind him that Henry was keen to conceal. And all through the story of ‘Perkin Warbeck’ the sifting of the evidence produces unexpected and thought-provoking insights, changes of light and perspective, which suggest that this young man’s career neither began, nor proceeded, in the way historians would have us believe. It is high time we looked at him properly again. Full references to these events and the documents in which they are included can be found in my book, ‘Perkin: A Story of Deception’, published on April 3rd by Jonathan Cape in the UK and in the autumn by Random House in the US (under the title ‘The Perfect Prince’).
About the Author
Ann Wroe is the Special Features Editor of the Economist. Ann has a doctorate in medieval history from Oxford University. She is the author of three previous non-fiction books, of which the most recent was on Pontius Pilate.
Perkin’s confession is given in Chronicles of London, ed. C. L. Kingsford (Oxford, 1905), pp. 219-22.
Brampton’s testimony appears (in Spanish) in La Politica Internacional de Isabel la Catolica, ed. Luis Suarez Fernandez, 5 vols (Valladolid, 1965-72), vol. 4, pp. 526-9.
Henry’s letter to Sir Gilbert Talbot is in J. O. Halliwell, Letters of the Kings of England, vol. 1, p. 172.
For letters from Richard Plantagenet to Desmond and Kildare, see Francis Bacon, The History of the Reign of King Henry the Seventh, in Works, ed J. Spedding, 10 vols (1858), vol. 6, p. 137; Sir James Ware, The Antiquities and History of Ireland (1654, printed 1705), p. 22.
Desmond’s bond: Agnes Conway, Henry VII’s Relations with Scotland and Ireland, 1485-1498 (Cambridge, 1932), p. 223.
For John Taylor and the French connection, see Alfred Spont, “La Marine Française sous Charles VIII”, Revue des questions historiques, no. 55 (1894), pp. 418-20.
©Article appeared in the March 2003
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