The Life and Love of the Pretender

the-life-and-love-of-the-pretender

During the reign of King Henry VII, the “Pretender,” Perkin Warbeck claimed to be Richard, Duke of York, the second son of Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville. At the time it was very significant for Warbeck to come forward as the Duke of York because there were still many Yorkist supporters — Henry VII had only reigned for a short time and some noblemen and subjects alike had hoped for a York resurrection. If he were indeed the son of the late King Edward IV the throne of England should, in many people’s eyes, be his for the taking – regardless of the fact that Henry Tudor won the crown in battle.

When Edward IV died in 1483, his eldest son Edward, Prince of Wales became Edward V. Edward was only a child of twelve at the time and could not rule England outright. His uncle Richard, Duke of Gloucester was the only surviving brother of the late King and was named Lord Protector of the realm until Edward came of age.

Unfortunately this would not be enough for Richard. He had placed both Edward V and his younger brother Richard, Duke of York in the Tower. Richard, Duke of Gloucester claimed it was in preparation of the coronation of Edward V, but the boys would never leave the Tower. That we know of.

The Duke of Gloucester declared the marriage of Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville invalid and therefore their children illegitimate – this meant that Richard, Duke of Gloucester was now the rightful heir to the throne. He became King Richard III (1483-1485) and the boys were never seen or heard from again.

Flash forward to 1490 at the court in Burgundy — Perkin Warbeck claimed to be Richard, Duke of York.  At court he was recognized by Margaret of York, Duchess of Burgundy. Margaret was the sister of the late Edward IV and Richard III. She would surely recognize her nephew, right? That question is one that we will never truly know the answer to.

Hailed as the rightful heir to the throne of England, Richard (aka Warbeck) set out to reclaim his father’s throne. But England already had a king: the first of the Tudors, Henry VII. Henry proclaimed the young man an imposter and nicknamed him “Perkin Warbeck”, but he behaved—not as if the young man was an upstart—but as if he faced the clash of another legitimate claimant. –On the Tudor Trail

A Tale of True Adventure: The Boy Who Pretended He Was King. Original artwork from Look and Learn no. 180 (26 June 1965).
A Tale of True Adventure: The Boy Who Pretended He Was King. Original artwork from Look and Learn no. 180 (26 June 1965).

Warbeck wrote to Isabella of Castile (mother to Katherine of Aragon) in 1493:

“I myself, then nearly nine years of age, was also delivered to a certain Lord to be killed, [but] it pleased Divine Clemency, that lord, having compassion on my innocence, preserved me alive in safety: first, however, causing me to swear on the holy sacrament that to no one should I disclose my name, origin, or family, until a certain number of years had passed. He then sent me therefore abroad, with two persons, who should watch over and take charge of me;  and thus I, an orphan, bereaved of my royal father and brother, an exile from my kingdom, and deprived of my country, inheritance and fortune, a fugitive in the midst of extreme perils, led my miserable life, in fear, and weeping, and grief, and for the space of nearly eight years lay hid…scarcely had I emerged from childhood alone and without means, I remained for a time in the kingdom of Portugal, and thence sailed to Ireland, where being recognised by illustrious lords, the earl of Desmond and Kildare, my cousins, as also by other noblemen of the island, I was received with great joy and honour. -Richard” - British Library MS Egerton 616), as quoted by I. Arthurson in The Perkin Warbeck Conspiracy, P. 49-50

Soon Warbeck would gain support from others including King James IV of Scotland. The Scottish King was not exactly on the friendliest of terms with the English King (Henry VII) and would take this opportunity in an attempt to dethrone him and have the presumptive English King (Warbeck) as an ally. In order for James IV to seal the friendship and alliance with Warbeck he betrothed his cousin Lady Katherine Gordon to the young man.

In December 1495, Perkin Warbeck wrote this letter to Lady Katherine Gordon:

scottish womanMost noble lady, it is not without reason that all turn their eyes to you; that all admire, love, and obey you. For they see your two-fold virtues by which you are so much distinguished above all other mortals. Whilst, on the one hand, they admire your riches and immutable prosperity, which secure to you the nobility of your lineage and the loftiness of your rank, they are, on the other hand, struck by your rather divine than human beauty, and believe that you are not born in our days, but descended from Heaven.

All look at your face, so bright and serene that it gives splendour to the cloudy sky ; all look at your eyes as brilliant as stars, which make all pain to be forgotten, and turn despair into delight ; all look at your neck, which outshines pearls ; all look at your fine forehead, your purple light of youth, your fair hair ; in one word, at the splendid perfection of your person ;—and looking at, they cannot choose but admire you ; admiring, they cannot choose but love you ; loving, they cannot choose but obey you.

I shall, perhaps, be the happiest of all your admirers, and the happiest man on earth, since I have reason to hope you will think me worthy of your love. If I represent to my mind all your perfections, I am not only compelled to love, to adore, and to worship you, but love makes me your slave. Whether waking or sleeping, I cannot find rest or happiness except in your affection. All my hopes rest in you, and in you alone.
Most noble lady, my soul, look mercifully down upon me your slave, who has ever been devoted to you from the first hour he saw you. Love is not an earthly thing, it is heaven born. Do not think it below yourself to obey love’s dictates. Not only kings, but also gods and goddesses have bent their necks beneath its yoke.

I beseech you, most noble lady, to accept for ever one who in all things will cheerfully do your will as long as his days shall last. Farewell, my soul and my consolation. You, the brightest ornament of Scotland, farewell, farewell. -‘Spain: December 1495’, in Calendar of State Papers, Spain, Volume 1, 1485-1509, ed. G A Bergenroth (London, 1862), pp. 72-79

In 1497 Warbeck traveled again with two or three small vessels – he was accompanied by his wife, Katherine. After departing Scotland Warbeck crossed to Ireland. When he arrived he found no allies and was being pursued by the Earl of Kildare. In a country that had supported the House of York Warbeck was sadly not welcomed, so he sailed to Devon. On 7 September, he was joined by a crowd of people who had recently revolted against excessive taxation. He continued to Exeter, but was unable to master the town. As Henry VII’s troops approached Warbeck deserted his followers and ran for refuge to the sanctuary of Beaulieu in Hampshire where he surrendered.

Henry VII receives Lady Katherine Gordon
Henry VII receives Lady Katherine Gordon

After Warbeck’s capture his wife Katherine was treated kindly and placed in the household of Queen Elizabeth of York – the queen of Henry VII. Who, if Warbeck was indeed the Duke of York, was her sister-in-law. I often wonder what Elizabeth of York thought of all of this.

“Henry allowed Warbeck to remain at court where he could be watched. However, he foolishly tried to run away which seemed to emphasise his treachery. Warbeck was put in the stocks, humiliated and sent to the Tower. Clearly after being generous to the pretender, Henry’s patience had run out. In 1499, Warbeck was charged with trying to escape for a second time, found guilty and hanged on November 23rd 1499″.– The History Learning Site

hanging of perkin warbeck
The hanging of Perkin Warbeck, the “Pretender”

The ultimate fate of Perkin Warbeck came about because of his own choice to try to escape. I often wonder what would have happened to him if he had not done so. I tend to romanticize things, and in doing so I honestly believe that Warbeck was indeed Richard, Duke of York. I like to believe that he was who he said he was. That he was sent away from court (and replaced with a local boy) by his mother Elizabeth Woodville so that she could make sure at least one of her sons were safe. We can all understand why Elizabeth wouldn’t trust Richard III after he claimed her marriage to his brother was invalid – oh, and the part where he had her son Sir Richard Grey and brother Anthony Woodville, Earl Rivers executed on 25 June 1483.

It’s possible that we may never know who Perkin Warbeck truly was, and until then we can only speculate. Were the skeletal remains of the two young boys found in the Tower of London indeed the Princes in the Tower? Was Perkin Warbeck really Richard, Duke of York? Did Elizabeth of York recognize her younger brother, and was she unable to do everything in her power to save him from certain death?

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