In 1491, a young man appeared in the courts of Europe with an explosive claim – that he was none other than Richard, Duke of York, the younger of the two ‘princes in the Tower’. That young man later became known as Perkin Warbeck.
The princes in the Tower
The story begins with one of the great mysteries of British history: the disappearance, in sinister circumstances, of two young boys – the 12-year-old prince of Wales who, on his father Edward IV's sudden death on 9 April 1483, became king as Edward V, and his younger brother, the 10-year-old Richard, Duke of York.
Their uncle Richard, Duke of Gloucester, intercepted Edward’s entourage as they made their way to London, killed the young king’s supporters and escorted him to to the Tower, where he was soon joined by his brother. On 25 June, Parliament declared the two boys illegitimate and invited Gloucester to take the throne as Richard III.
The two boys were last seen playing in the grounds of the Tower at around the time they were declared illegitimate. It has been presumed that they were murdered on Richard III’s orders, but to this day, nobody knows for sure.
Enter ‘Richard Plantagenet’
In 1491, six years after Richard III was slain at the battle of Bosworth Field, the apprentice of Pregent Meno, a Breton merchant, arrived in the Irish city of Cork, modelling the silks that his master was selling. The locals first insisted that the good-looking 17-year-old with the princely manner must be Edward, the Earl of Warwick, son of the Duke of Clarence, Richard III’s executed brother.
The young man denied that he was Warwick, claiming instead to be Richard Plantagenet, Duke of York, the younger of the two ‘princes in the Tower’. He told how he had been spirited out of the Tower after his brother had been murdered, and hidden on the continent – a story plausible enough to be accepted by those who wanted to believe it. The Cork townsfolk managed to persuade him to embark on a conspiracy against Henry Tudor, who had succeeded Richard III as Henry VII.
Support in Europe
‘Richard’ began a long migration around the courts of Europe in search of support. Eventually, he was received as Richard of York by Charles VIII of France – then at war with Henry VII – who gave him a guard of honour. However, when the conflict ended, Charles asked the pretender to leave.
‘Richard’ then travelled to Malines (now Mechlin, Belgium) where he was taken in by his most important supporter - the formidable Margaret, Edward IV’s exiled sister, widow of Charles the Bold, Duke of Burgundy. Anxious to rid the throne of the hated Henry VII and return the House of York to power, she acknowledged the pretender as her nephew, declaring that his detailed recollections of life at the English court and birthmarks on his body were proof of his true origins. In return, ‘Richard’ promised that all the lands she had lost in England would be restored to her once he gained the throne.
Henry VII sent protests to Philip of Austria, under whose protection Margaret operated, but the 15-year-old archduke said that she could do as she liked in her own lands. In 1493, ‘Richard’ also attended the funeral of Holy Roman Emperor Frederick III at the invitation of his son, Maximilian I.
The enemies within
The pretender attracted supporters in England, too. Henry VII's chamberlain, Sir William Stanley, said that, if the young man was really the prince, he would not fight against him. Stanley was arrested and executed even though there was no proof that he was actually involved in any conspiracy with the pretender.
Henry VII may have defeated Richard III, but his vow to bring peace to the country with a rule of iron was neither easily achieved nor popular. Deep divisions remained. Disaffected Yorkists, once supporters of the slain king, now rallied round the new ‘Richard’ and threatened the Tudor dynasty before it had even started.
Henry pressed his extensive spy network into action to find evidence of a conspiracy among his enemies to restore the House of York – with this ‘puppet prince’, whom he dismissively called ‘the garçon’, at the centre.
‘Richard’ made his first attempt to invade England with the help of both Margaret of Burgundy and Maximilian I, who fitted out the expedition. The latter bragged to the Venetian ambassador that the ‘Duke of York’, as he called him, would very soon conquer England and then would turn against the French king.
The pretender’s small force landed near Deal in Kent on 3 July 1495, hoping for a show of popular support. However, despite the fact that Henry had still not succeeded in securely establishing his authority over England, the ‘invasion’ was routed and 150 of the pretender’s troops were killed.
Without even disembarking, ‘Richard’ abandoned the venture and made for Ireland. There, with the support of the Earl of Desmond, he besieged Waterford, but when the town resisted, he was again forced to withdraw, this time to Scotland.
At the Scottish court
‘Richard’ was well received in Scotland, and proceeded to exploit the natural antipathy between the Scots and the English to mount a strategy for Henry’s overthrow. He also married (in what appears to have been a love match) Lady Katharine Gordon – grand-daughter of the Earl of Caithness and a cousin of James IV – and was granted a monthly pension of £112, an indication that James accepted his claim to the English throne.
The Scottish invasion in support of the pretender in September 1496 was a fiasco. Some 1,400 men of various nationalities crossed into England in what was essentially a border raid, with ravaging, burning and killing. No public backing for ‘Richard’ materialised in Northumberland, and after three days, the Scots withdrew without even meeting the English in battle. The episode simply gave Henry an excuse to raise taxes for defence. As for ‘Richard’, he begged James to be more merciful to ‘his’ subjects, sick of the cruelty and the devastation carried out by his ally.
Now an embarrassment to the Scottish king, in July 1497 ‘Richard’ and his wife went to Ireland once more. There he discovered that he had lost support and soon realised that he had to leave or risk being taken prisoner. A rebellion in Cornwall two months earlier against Henry’s tax increases encouraged 'Richard' to expect backing there, so that’s where he and Katharine now sailed.
On 12 September, ‘Richard’ arrived near Land's End with just 120 men and two ships. This final invasion was by far his most successful. As a result of a proclamation that he would put a stop to extortionate taxes, his forces had grown to 3,000 by the time they reached Exeter, and his supporters declared him ‘Richard IV’ on Bodmin Moor. However, they were unarmed, and when Exeter resisted, the rebels were forced to move on. When Henry's army reached them, the pretender realised that there was no hope and fled for the coast. He took refuge in Beaulieu Abbey in Hampshire, where he surrendered.
The leaders of the pretender’s forces were hanged and the rest of his followers were heavily fined. ‘Richard’ himself was imprisoned – first, at Taunton in Somerset, then in London, where he was ‘paraded through the streets on horseback amid much hooting and derision of the citizens.’
Escape, the Tower and execution
Surprisingly, Henry treated ‘Richard’ more like a royal guest than a prisoner. In June 1498, exploiting the king’s hospitality, the pretender escaped from Westminster, but was recaptured within hours after taking sanctuary at Sheen Priory (in what is now south London). ‘Richard’ was put into stocks and exhibited, and was finally (and ironically) consigned to the Tower, from which he had supposedly been rescued as a child.
Early in 1499, yet another false Warwick appeared as a pretender to the throne. Although the plot was quickly suppressed, it may have convinced the king that it would be wise to dispose of the real Edward, Earl of Warwick, as well as the other, longer-lived impostor.
‘Richard’ and Warwick were placed in neighbouring cells, and the two young men (Edward was just 24 and ‘Richard’ only about a year older) began to talk and, it was said, to plan. An informer gave away their plot to burn down the Tower, escape to Flanders and place Warwick on the throne.
The false pretender and the true pretender were found guilty of treason. On 23 November, the supposed commoner ‘Richard’ was drawn on a hurdle from the Tower to Tyburn, where he read out a ‘confession’ and was hanged. His co-conspirator Edward, the last Plantagenet, was beheaded on Tower Hill six days later.
The tale of Perkin Warbeck
Henry's problem was that he was unable to prove that ‘Richard’ was not the prince – he had no dead body that he could produce to expose the lie. So he had had to try to prove that the young man was actually somebody else. He had sent his spies to the continent and, in the end, they had come up with the story of Perkin Warbeck.
After he captured ‘Richard’ in Hampshire in 1497, Henry himself managed to get the pretender to ‘confess’ that he was actually a Flemish boatman's son called Perkin Warbeck (or Pierquin Wesbecque or Piers Osbeck), of Tournai, born in about 1474. According to the confession, he had made his way to Portugal where, perhaps with the help of powerful individuals, he had been transformed into Richard of York, including, some said, with coaching from Margaret of Burgundy herself. This ‘confession’ was read by Warbeck from the scaffold before his execution.
Copies of it were distributed around Europe. Its real purpose? To establish Henry's own right of succession, which was still quite shaky. Even if Warbeck’s story was not true, it had to be seen as such, and his confession was all that Henry needed.
‘Victim of his own deceit’?
Both Polydore Vergil (writing in the 1530s) and Francis Bacon (published a century later) suggest that, by this stage, the pretender had played the role for so long that he scarcely knew what was true. Vergil, Henry's historian, wrote that ‘having twisted falsehood into truth and truth into falsehood, [Warbeck] fell at last from the scaffold, a victim of his own deceit.’ Francis Bacon summed up Warbeck's life: ‘What he feigned, he believed.’
When the man we now know as Perkin Warbeck was proclaiming himself the rightful heir to the throne, England was exhausted by war and weary of dynastic struggles. Henry VII offered the prospect of peace and prosperity. However, many in England and, especially, abroad were prepared to keep up the pretence of a living Richard, Duke of York, even if they knew the truth. On balance, it is likely that he was an impostor, but there is no final proof one way or the other.