Perkin Warbeck: The Man Who Would be King

Could Perkin Warbeck have actually been Richard of York, rescued from the Tower of London and returning to England to reclaim the throne usurped by Henry VII? Or was he just a well-school imposter?


On 3 July 1495, a small army landed in Kent, headed by a young man who claimed to be Richard of York, the younger son of Edward IV and rumoured to have been murdered with his brother Edward in the Tower of London ten years earlier. First lauded as the late king’s son in Ireland in 1491, and now with the support of several European monarchs, he had finally arrived in England as Richard IV to claim his throne back from Henry VII.

Henry VII
Henry VII

This was not the first such claimant Henry had faced. Only eight years earlier, another pretender had come out of Ireland, acclaimed as Edward, Earl of Warwick, the son of George, Duke of Clarence, Edward IV’s younger brother. In fact, the real Earl of Warwick, a simple-minded boy, was housed in the Tower of London, and even though Henry paraded the young Earl before the populace, the boy’s supporters clung to their belief in him. On his capture, the boy proved to be Lambert (or John) Simnel, the son of a country artisan. Recognising he had been merely a puppet in the hands of his supporters, Henry pardoned him and put him to work in his kitchens.

Richard’s small army was routed by Henry’s men before he had even disembarked and he retreated to Ireland. There he again found military support, but when his siege of Waterford met resistance, Richard fled to Scotland and the court of James IV. Welcoming the young man as leverage against his arch-rival, James allowed Richard to marry his distant cousin, Katherine Gordon, daughter of the Earl of Huntley. In 1496 they planned an invasion of England together, but James was forced to retreat when the support he expected from Richard’s army did not materialise. Disenchanted, James shunted Richard off back to Ireland while he made his peace with Henry, accepting the hand of his eldest daughter in marriage.

In 1497 Richard landed in Cornwall in the aftermath of a bloody rebellion. The Cornish declared him Richard IV and he was soon at the head of an army of 5,000 men. However, on hearing of the approach of Henry’s, no doubt larger, army, Richard fled and found sanctuary in the Abbey of Beaulieu, from which he was extracted and taken as a captive to Taunton where Henry was then residing.

In Taunton, Richard was privately interrogated by Henry and then paraded before a panel of notable witnesses to whom he confessed he was not the son of Edward IV. Henry had a signed confession that he was instead the son of a Flemish boatman and that his name was Piers Osbeck (though he was later generally known as Perkin Warbeck.) Henry then made him confess the same to his wife, Katherine.

Henry kept the young couple in his household, treating Richard more as a royal hostage than a prisoner, yet parading him before the people and the court as an imposter and traitor, not pardoned by his King but spared. Meanwhile Katherine was made lady-in-waiting to Queen Elizabeth. Though they could often be seen in public together, Henry ensured they never slept together by putting Richard to bed in his own dressing-room behind lock and key. Their son was taken away from them and raised far from the court. Certain Welsh families later claimed to be descended from him.

After several months in this comfortable but humiliating imprisonment, Richard escaped. How is not known, but it could only have been with outside help. Re-captured only a few days later, he was put in the stocks before being imprisoned in the Tower of London in the room beneath that of the Earl of Warwick. Richard fared badly under these conditions and when brought out some months later to be inspected by representatives of his European supporters, they found him chained and shackled, his spirit broken and his face battered.

Before too long conspiracies began to take shape around Richard and Warwick, though Richard was too dispirited to take an active part and Warwick had no understanding of what was happening. Before anything came of it, an alleged plan for them to escape and usurp Henry was discovered. Now Henry had an excuse to execute not only Richard but young Warwick, as well. Both were tried for treason and condemned to death. As a nobleman, Warwick was beheaded in private. Richard was taken out into the city to be hung, drawn and quartered. After again publicly confessing that he was not Richard of York, he mercifully died by hanging before the rest of the horrific ritual could be carried out. Nonetheless, his head was cut off and displayed on London Bridge.

Having never disavowed her husband, despite his confessed imposture, Katherine wore black for the rest of her life. Well-endowed by Henry, but not allowed to leave the court, she continued as Queen Elizabeth’s lady-in-waiting until her death in 1502. Thereafter she remained at court, some believe as Henry’s mistress, though with his health fast deteriorating, she may have simply been a companion. After Henry’s death in 1509, Katherine made the most of her freedom, marrying well three times and becoming a woman of substance. Though her first husband was not mentioned in her will, her perpetual widow’s weeds would attest to his never being far from her mind.

Who was Perkin Warbeck?

These are the bare bones of the story, and interesting as it might be, what makes this story fascinating is the mystery of who this young man actually was. Was he really Richard of York? Or was he, as Henry declared from the outset, an imposter trained up by the Yorkists as a mere figurehead? If he was Richard of York, how had he escaped from the Tower and how had he lived until he resurfaced?

Perkin Warbeck
Perkin Warbeck

Richard himself was rather vague on this question. In his own correspondence with his supporters, he wrote that, after Edward’s death, the lord who was sent to kill him took pity on him and let him live and escape to Flanders, but only after he swore not to reveal his true identity for a number of years. Thereafter he wandered the country in misery until he appeared in Lisbon at the court of King Joao II and was quickly recognised as a prince. This tale raises more questions than it answers.

Although in the English translation of this letter, Edward is described as being ‘put to death’ the original French word he used was ‘extinguere’ which means ‘to be extinguished’, which does not specify execution or, in fact, any specific cause of death. Nor does it give any detail of the circumstances which suggest he might have witnessed, or even mourned Edward’s death. Neither did Richard ever name the man who took pity on him, nor explain how he escaped to Flanders and who took care of him there. I cannot imagine a prince could really have survived on the streets. Was the truth harmful to his cause, or was he trying to protect those who had helped him?

Official history accepts the signed confession at face value and declares him to be the imposter, Perkin Warbeck. The confession gives chapter and verse of his parents, John and Katherine, as well as his grandparents and family associations. The Warbeck family can be traced in Tournai even today, and an independent deposition describes a Jehan Warbeck searching for his missing son Piers. Yet Henry never brought his prisoner face to face with the Warbecks to verify the confession and a letter purporting to be from Perkin Warbeck to his mother has proven to be a concoction. Even though he may have signed the written confession, in his public statements Richard never said he was Perkin Warbeck, only that he was not Edward IV’s son.

While Henry publicly declared that his prisoner was nothing more than the son of a boatman, he did not treat him as such, as he had in the case of Lambert Simnel. Rather than say, putting him to work as an oarsman on the royal barge, he, at first, treated him with all the courtesy due to a prince. This may well have been because Richard still had powerful supporters in Europe whom Henry did not want to antagonise, but it may well have been because he himself harboured doubts.

It is interesting to note that in both attempts to free Richard, he had outside help, and both attempts gave Henry an acceptable excuse to imprison and then execute him. Were these attempts actually engineered by Henry himself for his own purposes? Was he trying to justify to himself or to outside observers his treatment of his prisoner? Did Henry believe he had executed an imposter and rebel leader, or one more member of the House of York as he would execute many others?

Henry was right to be wary of Richard’s friends who were among the most powerful European rulers and Henry’s most dangerous antagonists. They included Maximilian, King of the Romans (later Holy Roman Emperor), Charles VIII of France, James IV of Scotland and Joao II of Portugal. All had met the young man and found his claim and his demeanour convincing, though in some cases, their desire to provoke Henry may have lent some strength to Richard’s claims.

Margaret of York
Margaret of York

Richard’s greatest supporter was Margret of York, Dowager Duchess of Burgundy, sister to Edward IV, aunt to Richard of York and virulent in her hatred of the usurper, Henry Tudor. Tournai, where Perkin Warbeck was said to originate, was within Burgundy’s sphere of influence. Henry claimed all along that Margaret was the initiator of the conspiracy and it was she who plucked Perkin up and trained him to impersonate Richard of York. The fact that Margaret had been one of Lambert Simnel’s supporters lent some credence to this claim.

However, Henry himself threw doubt on his own narrative of Perkin Warbeck’s childhood as there were two versions of the confession, the one circulated in England, and a French version circulated on the Continent. While the English version sees Perkin as a lazy and rebellious boy who runs away from home and wanders the street until a soft hearted English merchant picks him up and takes him to Lisbon, the French version sees him as a young man with promise being educated by a well-placed sponsor to enter the church, a young man who may very well have been recommended to the Duchess of Burgundy as a good candidate to impersonate a prince.

So far, we have two likely scenarios. The man sent to the Tower to kill the two princes kills Edward but takes pity on little Richard. He organises for him to escape to Flanders for safe-keeping, just as his uncles Richard and George had been sent during the Wars of the Roses. There he is protected by his aunt, the Duchess of Burgundy, who hopes one day to send him back to England to reclaim his throne, throwing her support behind Lambert Simnel to test the strength of the Yorkist cause. An alternative scenario is that after the failure of the Lambert Simnel rebellion, Margaret seeks out a likely young man to be trained up to impersonate her nephew.

However, historian Anne Wroe has identified a third possibility.

Despite all her prayers and penances, Margaret of York had remained childless, and there is evidence that in September 1478, after the death of her husband, she adopted a little boy who was to be raised in some luxury and well-educated in an isolated country retreat. He was then six years old, the same age as Richard. There is no record of who the boy might have been. He could well have been a neglected boy from Tournai who showed particular promise. However, there is evidence that in the summer of 1478 there was unusual activity at Edward IV’s court which involved communication with Flanders.

Could the child have been one of Edward’s by-blows sent to Margaret for his protection and to ease her loneliness? The child disappeared from the records in 1485 when he would have been twelve and about the time the Princes in the Tower were rumoured to have been killed. Had the boy been sent into service or to be raised in some noble household? Or had he been sent into even further isolation for his protection, to be brought forward in due course as ‘Richard of York’? Richard himself, even when confessing he was not Edward’s son, never called himself an imposter, but a substitute.

Meanwhile, historian Matthew Lewis champions another, perhaps surprising scenario: that both the Princes in the Tower survived, were sent to the Continent for their protection and both returned to attempt to reclaim their rightful crown.

We’ll examine this possibility more closely in a follow up to this article.


Pauline Montagna © 2014/2022



Ann Wroe, Perkin: a Story of Deception (published in the US as The Perfect Prince), Vintage (2003)

Originally published at on April 16, 2014.



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