Somebody disappears. What could be more painful or unsettling? A ghost which cannot be laid to rest can threaten to re-appear at any time.
So it was with the Princes in the Tower, heirs to the English throne, who were “disappeared” by their uncle, Richard III, as part of his ill-fated power grab. With no bodies, was there really a murder? It was a national scandal, with echoes even today.
So it was also, that the 30-year long Wars of the Roses threatened to re-ignite when Richard of Shrewsbury, the younger of the two princes, seemingly re-appeared to claim his inheritance, seven years later. He was now a tall and personable seventeen year-old.
Of course, during his absence the power struggle between his uncle Richard III and the rival Henry Tudor had been resolved. Richard III was killed on the battlefield of Bosworth. Henry, claiming the crown by right of conquest, was now Henry VII. Although memories of the years of civil war were still fresh and raw in many people’s minds, they were getting used to peace. And Henry VII was making babies with Elizabeth of York, older sister to the princes.
With the perspective of history, we see the Tudor dynasty as ushering in the English Renaissance, uniting the houses of York and Lancaster, healing the wounds of the civil war which they ended and establishing England as a power on the world stage. In truth, the first ruler in that dynasty, Henry VII, was desperately searching for the bodies of the princes in order to bolster his wobbly claim to the throne and raising armies to protect from invasion.
There were losers in the power struggle which Henry had won, Yorkists within and outside England who were willing to support the new Pretender to the throne. Equally, there were foreign interests who wished to tear down the new royal house. For them it was convenient to back the new Pretender to the throne, whether or not they were convinced of his story, and so the new player became a pawn in the game of international diplomacy.
The first of these was in the court of Burgundy, situated in modern-day Belgium. At that time it was under the de facto rule of Richard’s aunt, Margaret, (sister of his father Edward IV, and his uncle Richard III, and so a Yorkist by definition). The enmity between Margaret and the Tudors was personal, of course. Margaret probably never met Richard before this later appearance, around 1490, but was willing to vouch for his identity. She proved highly influential. It’s been suggested he may have received coaching from her, to improve his “memory” of being a Prince of England as a boy, and to learn courtly manners.
The next harbour for enemies of the Tudors was Ireland, where Richard was first publicly “recognised” in Cork in 1491. By most accounts his visit there, in the company of a merchant, was arranged mainly for the purpose of unveiling his challenge. Large parts of the island consisted of English-allied earldoms, among whom many individuals were still loyal to the ousted House of York. Four years earlier, an imposter named Lambert Simnel had launched his campaign in Ireland, impersonating Richard’s elder brother Edward in a bid to secure support. He had since been exposed.
So Ireland is where Richard’s story began to emerge into the public domain. His older brother Edward V had been murdered, he said, but he had been allowed to escape, owing to his age and innocence. He was next in line to the throne after his murdered brother, and claimed the right to be King of England. There was little appetite to support Richard’s claim in Ireland, as things turned out, but that was far from the end of his story.
England had another enemy, France. The recent invasion of Brittany by France posed a strategic threat to the English Channel. Henry VII owed personal favours both to Brittany, his hosts during his exile, but to France as well, who had supported his invasion of England and Wales. His hand was forced and he supported Brittany, and so he had been at war with France from 1489.
The French ruler, Charles VIII, saw that playing host to a rival claimant to the English throne was a diplomatic playing card, and invited Richard to attend his court. However, when the war between France and England ended with a peace treaty the next year, in 1492, Richard, the Pretender, was expelled from France.
Richard was obliged to return to Margaret’s court in Burgundy. His fame was spreading, however, and a growing number of English nobles began leaning towards support for his cause, or at least offering passive non-intervention.
Henry VII had to counter Richard’s claim, of course. He sent spies to Burgundy to monitor activities there, imprisoned and questioned the suspects in the murder of the Princes, hoping to prove they were dead and sent a diplomatic mission to complain to the Holy Roman Emperor, whose grandson was the Duke of Burgundy. These preparations met with varying success. Some of the traitors were seized and beheaded. Some of the story of the murdered princes was uncovered. What Henry failed to do was to prevent a foreign-backed invasion of England.
Two years later, Richard invaded England.
Margaret had funded a small flotilla of ships, which carried several thousand mercenaries to land at Deal in Kent, part of the Cinque Ports confederation, in July 1495. The invasion was a debacle, in which most of the troops never landed. By some accounts, Henry VII may have been a hidden hand in allowing this landing. The Kentish militia attempted to lure the invasion force onto land, but with the intention of capturing Richard. Their loyalty to the Tudors was not in doubt. Fighting broke out on the beach, but Richard never landed and the invasion force was driven off.
Richard had failed in his invasion attempt and his money was running out. Desperate to establish a power base, he returned to Ireland and sought the Earl of Desmond’s support. Together they attempted to capture Ireland’s second city, the fortified town of Waterford. That was another failure, and the invasion force began to break up.
That could have been the end of his story, but England had yet another enemy, Scotland. Before the year was out, James IV of Scotland[xi] had accepted Richard as his guest. His hospitality even extended to arranging the marriage between Richard and the daughter of the Earl of Huntley, Katherine Gordon, which took place during the winter of 1495-96. Her father was subsequently appointed High Chancellor of Scotland. The dynamics of this almost-but-not-quite-forced marriage were dramatised in John Ford’s play. In the event, it seemed to be a happy marriage and Katherine had a child, albeit not long-lived.
During Richard’s almost two years of residence in Scotland, Henry VII achieved some success in digging dirt and diplomatically. He began advertising details of the Pretender’s “true” background. He was a Flemish-born imposter and his name was Pierrechon de Werbecque or Perkin Warbeck as Henry called him (among other names).
While concluding peace with France, Henry had also been busy arranging a strategic trade and military alliance with what would shortly become a re-united superpower, Spain. The Spanish and English policy aims were similar: to contain and isolate France. Both powers saw Scotland’s Auld Alliance with France as an impediment to that, and a possible cause of a renewed and unwanted war with France. Spain sent a special ambassador to Scotland, Pedro de Ayala, in a mission to avert a Scottish invasion of England. Henry VII also attempted to undermine the Scots-French alliance and the hospitality James offered to Perkin Warbeck by offering his own daughter Margaret in a marriage alliance with James IV.
James did, eventually, support a half-hearted invasion of England, led nominally by the Pretender, in September 1496. It was a small force, not well-provisioned, possibly sent to test Northumbrian support for a Yorkist challenge. Such support was lacking and the raid turned to looting. Perkin allegedly complained to James about the despoiling of his country, and then the Scottish force retreated with its loot before an English army led by Ralph Neville could engage with them.
In any case, not only had the Pretender failed to inspire support in the north, but Henry looked strong, and now threatened to invade Scotland if provoked further. James IV, losing faith, saw Henry defeat a Cornish rebellion over taxes in the south in the summer of 1497 and encouraged Richard/Perkin to leave Scotland, which he did in July 1497. Perkin had outlived his usefulness and overstayed his welcome. He embarked on a ship named Cuckoo at Ayr, with his wife Katherine and a small group of comrades and set off once again for Ireland, his third trip there. He made a second abortive bid to capture Waterford.
The Pretender may have run out of friends abroad, but one final opportunity now presented itself, in the form of the Cornish rebels. Having been put down once that year had not dissuaded them from rebelling again. Certain leaders invited Perkin Warbeck to lead a second rebellion, and he accepted, landing in Cornwall in September 1497 with a small force.
Several thousand Cornish rebels marched first on Exeter, which closed its gates to them and mounted a determined defence, with the aid of the local aristocracy. The rebel force was largely unarmed but laid siege to the city unsuccessfully for a few days, before abandoning that attempt and moving north towards Cullompton and then Taunton. Knowing that a proper army was marching towards them, Perkin Warbeck must have foreseen the inevitable and fled towards Southampton. His reputation as a coward was sealed. He was overtaken by the King’s forces and sought sanctuary at Beaulieu Abbey in Hampshire, but was persuaded to give himself up in exchange for a pardon and mercy.
He was taken prisoner to meet Henry VII at Taunton, who also had his wife brought up from St Michael’s Mount near Penzance. The king’s own chronicler, the blind abbot Bernard Andre, described a meeting between Henry VII, Warbeck and Katherine, where Henry poured scorn on the Pretender and voiced sympathy for her.
Henry may have had a soft spot for Katherine (who always remained loyal to her husband). In mid-October, he sent her up to the royal palace at Sheen, near London, where she became a favoured lady-in-waiting to his queen, Elizabeth, who was the older sister of the real Richard of Shrewsbury.
Henry made his way back more slowly, touring the southern counties which had allowed the Cornish rebels to march through them unmolested, and imposing heavy fines. He reached Sheen on the 18th of November. There’s no record of Elizabeth being brought to see Perkin or issuing a proclamation regarding him: it may have been seen as unnecessary. Henry paraded Perkin through Cheapside and Comhill before jeering crowds, to the Tower London and then again to the royal palace at Westminster.
Surprisingly, perhaps, once he had extracted and published Warbeck’s full confession, Henry kept Perkin at his court and treated him well. Henry had also been merciful to the previous imposter, Lambert Simnel, who became a falconer in his service.
Perkin Warbeck’s fate was not to be so lucky. Around June the following year, 1498, he attempted to escape. Having no plan, he only got as far as the neighbouring Sheen Abbey. After his recapture, and a spell in the stocks, he was imprisoned in the Tower. The Spanish Ambassador to London, De Puebla, saw him in chains in July 1498 and commented: “he is so much changed that I, and all other persons here, believe his life will be very short. He must pay for what he has done.”
Indeed he did. His presence was an ongoing embarrassment and his cause, however benighted, was of concern to the Spanish monarchs who were still negotiating Katherine of Aragon’s marriage to Henry’s son Arthur (and later, of course, to Henry VIII). Perkin (quite likely set up for it) made another escape bid from the Tower, with a fellow prisoner Edward, Earl of Warwick. They were captured very quickly. According their rank, Perkin Warbeck was drawn on a hurdle to be hanged at Tyburn Tree (the public gallows for common criminals, near today’s Marble Arch) and the Earl was beheaded on Tower Hill a few days later.
Cool links for further reading
History of the Reign of King Henry VII, by Francis Bacon – online book, compelling reading. Beware of certain opinionated biases!
Margaret of York was not one of the so-called she-wolves, but a powerful and deft ruler (possibly a nice person too). Bacon said she “had the spirit of a man and the malice of a woman,” but we don’t say things like that nowadays.
Notes on the previous imposter, Lambert Simnal
Examples of the jeton coins which Margaret struck for Richard of Shrewsbury, probably dated 1494.
For a relic of the siege of Waterford, see Ireland’s Oldest Cannon at irisharchaeology.ie
For another account of the Scottish episode, see The Scottish Strategist
Devon Perspectives: an account of the Cornish Rebel’s assault on Exeter and its defence
The Life of Lady Katherine Gordon on thefreelancehistorywriter.com