Pretender to the throne: Perkin Warbeck

Bust of Henry VII

The bust of Henry VII of England, by Pietro Torrigiano, at the Victoria and Albert Museum - Credit: Val_McG - CC

Delving into the past with Chris Hallam.

Chris Hallam

Chris Hallam - Credit: Chris Hallam

It must be fun to pretend to be someone else every now and then. Actors, of course, do this all the time.

But back in the 15th century, two young men both pretended to be someone else in a bid to seize the throne from King Henry VII. Neither of these ‘pretenders to the throne’ were successful.

The first, Lambert Simnel, at least survived the experience. I discussed him in this column a few weeks ago. He even later found employment in the King’s kitchens, where he was given the important, if presumably quite boring job of turning the spit.

The second, Perkin Warbeck was less lucky. He was hanged in 1499.

Although he seems to have been born in Tournai in Belgium, Warbeck, a humble merchant’s apprentice, first started kicking up a fuss in the Irish city of Cork in 1491 when he started claiming to be Richard, the younger of the two princes in the tower.

According to Warbeck, he had escaped when his older brother (not really a prince at all but the short-lived King Edward V) had been murdered. In reality, both the boys had probably both been killed by this point.

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By all accounts, young Perkin did look very like poor Prince Richard or at least how people imagined Richard would look had he lived for a few more years. In some ways, his appearance didn’t matter.

Most of the people he was speaking to would never have seen Richard before anyway. The fact is, he was about the right age and lots of people wanted to believe he was Richard, Duke of York i.e. the ‘rightful’ Yorkist King Richard IV.

To cut a long story short, Warbeck spent the next few years consorting with England’s enemies and launching several unsuccessful attempts to invade and overthrow Henry VII. Henry had been King since 1485 when he had defeated Richard III at Bosworth. In 1495, Warbeck attempted to land in Deal in Kent with Burgundian support before attempting to besiege Waterford in Ireland.

When both of these efforts flopped, he retreated to the court of King James IV in Scotland. As another of England’s traditional enemies, the Scots King was keen to help in any way he could, financing Warbeck and letting him marry his cousin, Lady Catherine Gordon.

But this support only went so far. When an attempted Scots attack led by Warbeck descended into chaos, the Pretender was forced to go elsewhere.

Henry VII’s grip on the English throne remained fragile, however. In 1497, Warbeck attempted to intervene in a local tax revolt in Cornwall in the hope of exploiting the uprising to achieve his own ends.

This time, Warbeck did well. Despite arriving at Land’s End with very low numbers of men, Warbeck attracted plenty of popular support as he advanced across the south-west.

Things came to a head at the Devon city of Exeter which Warbeck and his men soon besieged. But despite a monumental effort, Warbeck couldn’t break through into Exeter. Defeated for a final time, Warbeck gave himself up in Hampshire.

He suffered the humiliation of being paraded through streets of jeering hostile crowds before being imprisoned in Taunton and then the Tower of London.

Things looked bad for Perkin Warbeck, but even then, as with Lambert Simnel, Henry VII treated him with a surprising degree of leniency, particularly bearing in mind, Warbeck’s

escapades had cost the generally frugal King, over £13,000, the equivalent to over £10 million today.

But ultimately Warbeck pushed the first Tudor King too far, plotting and scheming either on his own or with the imprisoned Earl of Warwick as well as attempting to escape. In the end, Henry VII simply ran out of patience. On 23rd November 1499, Perkin Warbeck, still only in his mid-twenties, went to the gallows.