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Perkin Warbeck, the Imposter: was he or wasn’t he?

August 11, 2013

Perkin_WarbeckIn 1491, a man from Tournai working for a Breton merchant arrives in Cork, Ireland. He has previously served as a servant in a number of households and he barely speaks any English.

Over the next six years, he is publicly recognised as one of the lost Princes in the Tower, Richard of Shrewsbury by many of the European rulers, including the aunt of the lost Princes, Margret of York. He attempts to invade England three times claiming himself to be the rightful heir to the throne, and is finally executed under the order of the King Henry VII.

The true identity of Perkin Warbeck still remains a mystery and his story can be found in abundance in many websites and blog posts. Rather than reciting his biography once again here, I would like to explore the people and the sketchy evidences surrounding this fascinating character.

The Confession of Perkin Warbeck

Let us start from the confession Warbeck made when he was held captive by Henry VII. In this version of the story, he is born to a poor man in Flanders called Jehan de Werbecque and his wife Katherine de Faro.  After being employed as  a boy servant in various places, he eventually ends up with a Breton merchant, Pregent Meno, with whom he travels to Ireland in 1485. Upon seeing this young boy dressed in silk, the people of Ireland believed him to be either Edward, the son of George Duke of Clarence, or the bastard son of Richard III. Warbeck had denied being either of the two but eventually agreed to accept ‘the honour as a member of the Royal House of York’.

The full authenticity of this story is very much doubted, as this confession was procured after interrogation and there is a possibility of Warbeck lying in order to cover his tracks and thus escape a death penalty. Henry’s own historians certainly did not believe this story, nor the historians that followed them several centuries afterwards.

It is incredibly difficult to research the Warbecque family, as the Tournai archives were destroyed by a bombing in a war. However, the names of his father and other relations mentioned in the confession have been found in the municipal records of Tournai, and the official description of them is in line with Warbeck’s statements.

Margaret of York

Being the sister of the previous King, Edward IV, she was the main supporter of the Yorkist exiles and an enemy of Henry VII. It is reported that it was her who brought Perkin Warbeck to her palace and instructed him in the ways of the Yorkist court, effectively grooming him to be the Prince Richard.  She described to him the features and peculiarities of his supposed father, Edward IV and his mother, Elizabeth Woodville; and informed him of the circumstances relating to the family history. Warbeck was then dispatched to Portugal under the care of Lady Brampton, awaiting for the right time for his presentation to the English people.

Her role in the rise of Warbeck has been tremendously significant, and perhaps it was due to her influence that he could be welcomed by various other monarchs such as King Maximilian.

Ireland

If Margaret of York, also known as the Duchess of Burgundy, did prepare Warbeck to be the imposter, it then raises a speculation that perhaps his appearance in Ireland was strategic. Even under the reign of Henry VII, Ireland continued to be a stronghold for York, and the place already had a history of backing another imposter, Lambert Simnel, who claimed to be the Earl of Warwick, the son of George the Duke of Clarence.  Many of them were ready to jump at a chance to advance the Yorkist cause and Warbeck provided just that.

This would also explain some of the questions raised from the story Warbeck provided King Henry VII. For example, the Patent Roll entries of Cork records that Meno traded in raw fleeces, not silk. In fact there were no silk markets in Ireland at all! So why was Warbeck in silk? If he could not speak English when he arrived in Cork, how did they communicate their insistence in Warbeck being one of the claimants to the throne?

King of France, Charles

There is a record of a Yorkist refugee, John Taylor, being in charge of a small fleet on the dockside in Cork. it was paid for by the King of France (who was one of the European rulers who supported the claim of Warbeck) and was equipped  with a suit of precious white armour, awaiting for the arrival of a Yorkist prince. This suggests that the King of France already knew about the arrival of Warbeck and the claim he brought with.

Warbeck does mention the “French King” a few times on his scaffold, but not in a specific way that would incriminate him.

Sir Edward Brampton

This Portuguese adventurer and an old Yorkist servant provides us with another version of Warbeck’s arrival in Ireland. According to him, Warbeck had spent several years learning the organ in Tournai. Eventually he had run away to Brampton’s wife’s household and eventually served under a knight for four years in Portugal (Warbeck stated that he was in Portugal for a year in his confession).  Then he took a ship to Ireland and dressed himself in the silk robes that he had worn at the court of Portugal. At this princely sight, people in Ireland immediately began to follow him.

Brampton’s account is very similar to the confession of Warbeck in a sense that there are no intermediaries promoting Warbeck’s pretence for political reasons, but Warbeck was acting on his own account.  We should note, however, that Sir Brampton was a famous boaster and his stories may include some exaggeration or fictional additives.

Henry VII & Elizabeth of York

Elizabeth of York was not permitted to have any contact with Perkin – I find this very strange as being the very sister of Prince Richard, she would have been the perfect person to validate or invalidate Warbeck’s claim. Was Henry VII trying to supress the true identity of Perkin in order to preserve his own crown?

If this was the case, then why did he pardon Warbeck’s life when he was first captured?

The general consensus is that Perkin Warbeck was an imposter afterall, rather than being the actual Duke of York. However, these various accounts and snippets of evidences shed an interesting light to the confession of Warbeck.  A prince he may not have been, but with him lay a powerful sponsorship which Henry VII was keen to conceal.

Further reading:

Following publications are available for further studies on Perkin Warbeck:

Richard of England by Diana Kleyn

Perkin: A Story of Deception by Jonathan Cape

Uncertain Past of Perkin Warbeck’ on Historynet.com (http://www.historynet.com/uncertain-past-of-perkin-warbeck-march-93-british-heritage-feature.htm)

Mary Shelly, the author of Frankenstein, has also written about Perbeck: ‘The Fortunes of Perkin warbeck’. 

Channel 4 has broadcasted a drama depicting an interrogation of Warbeck: ‘The Princes in the Tower’ http://www.channel4.com/programmes/princes-in-the-tower/4od)

From → History

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