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Perkin Warbeck, the Imposter: was he or wasn’t he?

Perkin_WarbeckIn 1491, a man from Tournai working for a Breton merchant arrives in Cork, Ireland. He has previously served as a servant in a number of households and he barely speaks any English.

Over the next six years, he is publicly recognised as one of the lost Princes in the Tower, Richard of Shrewsbury by many of the European rulers, including the aunt of the lost Princes, Margret of York. He attempts to invade England three times claiming himself to be the rightful heir to the throne, and is finally executed under the order of the King Henry VII.

The true identity of Perkin Warbeck still remains a mystery and his story can be found in abundance in many websites and blog posts. Rather than reciting his biography once again here, I would like to explore the people and the sketchy evidences surrounding this fascinating character.

The Confession of Perkin Warbeck

Let us start from the confession Warbeck made when he was held captive by Henry VII. In this version of the story, he is born to a poor man in Flanders called Jehan de Werbecque and his wife Katherine de Faro.  After being employed as  a boy servant in various places, he eventually ends up with a Breton merchant, Pregent Meno, with whom he travels to Ireland in 1485. Upon seeing this young boy dressed in silk, the people of Ireland believed him to be either Edward, the son of George Duke of Clarence, or the bastard son of Richard III. Warbeck had denied being either of the two but eventually agreed to accept ‘the honour as a member of the Royal House of York’.

The full authenticity of this story is very much doubted, as this confession was procured after interrogation and there is a possibility of Warbeck lying in order to cover his tracks and thus escape a death penalty. Henry’s own historians certainly did not believe this story, nor the historians that followed them several centuries afterwards.

It is incredibly difficult to research the Warbecque family, as the Tournai archives were destroyed by a bombing in a war. However, the names of his father and other relations mentioned in the confession have been found in the municipal records of Tournai, and the official description of them is in line with Warbeck’s statements.

Margaret of York

Being the sister of the previous King, Edward IV, she was the main supporter of the Yorkist exiles and an enemy of Henry VII. It is reported that it was her who brought Perkin Warbeck to her palace and instructed him in the ways of the Yorkist court, effectively grooming him to be the Prince Richard.  She described to him the features and peculiarities of his supposed father, Edward IV and his mother, Elizabeth Woodville; and informed him of the circumstances relating to the family history. Warbeck was then dispatched to Portugal under the care of Lady Brampton, awaiting for the right time for his presentation to the English people.

Her role in the rise of Warbeck has been tremendously significant, and perhaps it was due to her influence that he could be welcomed by various other monarchs such as King Maximilian.


If Margaret of York, also known as the Duchess of Burgundy, did prepare Warbeck to be the imposter, it then raises a speculation that perhaps his appearance in Ireland was strategic. Even under the reign of Henry VII, Ireland continued to be a stronghold for York, and the place already had a history of backing another imposter, Lambert Simnel, who claimed to be the Earl of Warwick, the son of George the Duke of Clarence.  Many of them were ready to jump at a chance to advance the Yorkist cause and Warbeck provided just that.

This would also explain some of the questions raised from the story Warbeck provided King Henry VII. For example, the Patent Roll entries of Cork records that Meno traded in raw fleeces, not silk. In fact there were no silk markets in Ireland at all! So why was Warbeck in silk? If he could not speak English when he arrived in Cork, how did they communicate their insistence in Warbeck being one of the claimants to the throne?

King of France, Charles

There is a record of a Yorkist refugee, John Taylor, being in charge of a small fleet on the dockside in Cork. it was paid for by the King of France (who was one of the European rulers who supported the claim of Warbeck) and was equipped  with a suit of precious white armour, awaiting for the arrival of a Yorkist prince. This suggests that the King of France already knew about the arrival of Warbeck and the claim he brought with.

Warbeck does mention the “French King” a few times on his scaffold, but not in a specific way that would incriminate him.

Sir Edward Brampton

This Portuguese adventurer and an old Yorkist servant provides us with another version of Warbeck’s arrival in Ireland. According to him, Warbeck had spent several years learning the organ in Tournai. Eventually he had run away to Brampton’s wife’s household and eventually served under a knight for four years in Portugal (Warbeck stated that he was in Portugal for a year in his confession).  Then he took a ship to Ireland and dressed himself in the silk robes that he had worn at the court of Portugal. At this princely sight, people in Ireland immediately began to follow him.

Brampton’s account is very similar to the confession of Warbeck in a sense that there are no intermediaries promoting Warbeck’s pretence for political reasons, but Warbeck was acting on his own account.  We should note, however, that Sir Brampton was a famous boaster and his stories may include some exaggeration or fictional additives.

Henry VII & Elizabeth of York

Elizabeth of York was not permitted to have any contact with Perkin – I find this very strange as being the very sister of Prince Richard, she would have been the perfect person to validate or invalidate Warbeck’s claim. Was Henry VII trying to supress the true identity of Perkin in order to preserve his own crown?

If this was the case, then why did he pardon Warbeck’s life when he was first captured?

The general consensus is that Perkin Warbeck was an imposter afterall, rather than being the actual Duke of York. However, these various accounts and snippets of evidences shed an interesting light to the confession of Warbeck.  A prince he may not have been, but with him lay a powerful sponsorship which Henry VII was keen to conceal.

Further reading:

Following publications are available for further studies on Perkin Warbeck:

Richard of England by Diana Kleyn

Perkin: A Story of Deception by Jonathan Cape

Uncertain Past of Perkin Warbeck’ on (

Mary Shelly, the author of Frankenstein, has also written about Perbeck: ‘The Fortunes of Perkin warbeck’. 

Channel 4 has broadcasted a drama depicting an interrogation of Warbeck: ‘The Princes in the Tower’

BBC ONE: The White Queen Review

Rarely am I satisfied with a dramatisation of a novel. I have yards of checklists constantly comparing it to the original book – does it match the literary style of the author? Does it create the same mood and atmosphere? How historically accurate is the depiction?

What impressed me the most was how well the characters were brought to life. It was as if they had chewed and chewed on the descriptions on the novels’ pages, digested it, and the words had become their very blood and flesh. Jacquetta’s ever brimming eyes full of her shrewdness, and how Warwick calls out ‘Edward!’ in the very first episode, as if a parent is trying to gently persuade a child, but with slight underlying intimidation. So simple, but encapsulating perfectly the Kingmaker’s initial overriding influence over the King Edward IV. It was marvelously done.

The drama combines the three books from Philippa Gregory’s The Cousins Wars series: The White Queen, Kingmaker’s Daughter, and The Red Queen. This has its limitations – whereas the portrayal of each characters on their own merit were fantastic, how these key women (Elizabeth Woodville, Anne Neville, Margaret Beaufort) were emotionally interconnected were only fleetingly shown. The intensity of the terror Anne felt for Elizabeth, or the icy coldness Elizabeth shows to the Warwick sisters is definitely there, but is not tangible enough to be the central driving force of the story.

If you are planning to watch The White Queen to learn more about the Wars of the Roses, you would be slightly disappointed. It doesn’t really bother explaining family lines and why Yorks and Lancasters are both claiming the throne. I haven’t read The Red Queen yet, and even on Episode 6 I am utterly clueless why Margaret Beaufort believes her son would be the the King of England or who the hell is Jasper Tudor.

To make up for this, you can also watch The Real White Queen and Her Rivals, a documentary series narrated by Philippa Gregory herself, that digs deeper into the relationship and history of the three women at the War of the Roses.

Despite a few limitations, I am still thoroughly enjoying BBC’s The White Queen and am gutted to see that it only goes up to 10 episodes.  I give it five stars, without hesitation.

The White Queen

* And here is a show for the ultimate history geeks who are going through The White Queen obsession like I am:

The Time Team Series 18, Episode 7. It’s about Groby Old Hall in Leicestershire which was once home to Elizabeth Woodville.

George Duke of Clarence drowned in malmsey wine: Fact and Fiction

The headsman does it, leaving his axe to one side but wearing his black mask over his face. He is a big man with strong big hands and he takes his apprentice with him. The two of them roll a barrel of malmsey wine into George’s room and George the fool makes a joke of it and laughs with his mouth open wide as if already gasping for air, as his face bleaches white with fear.

-From The White Queen, by Philippa Gregory

Born on 21 October 1449, George Plantagenet was the brother to kings Edward IV and Richard III.

In an attempt to seize the crown for himself, George sides with Earl of Warwick to make an insurrection against King Edward. However, the plot failed and Warwick allies with Margaret of Anjou, and after a successful invasion, the once-deposed King Henry VI is put back on the throne.  At this outright bypassing of George’s chance for the crown, he then goes back to his brother Edward and fights at the battles of Barnet and Tewkesbury, helping him to be restored as the King of England.

Their reconciliation does not last, as George becomes embittered by his brother Richard’s growing influence at court and his wish to marry the Duchess of Burgundy is rejected by Edward. Accused of slandering against the king and preparing a rebellion, George is finally attainted in Parliament of high treason and is executed in the Tower of London in 1478. He was 28.

The circumstances of George’s death is shrouded in mystery. Some said that he was beheaded secretly, and some said he was murdered by his brother Richard. The most widely circulated belief is that he was drowned in a butt of malmsey wine, as it is chillingly portrayed in Shakespeare’s play Richard III and Philippa Gregory’s The Cousins’ War series.

Thanks to the exhumation of his body, we can rule out that George was beheaded. His head was found to be intact with his body confirming that he was not killed in the traditional method of execution of nobility at that time.

A butt of wine is an amount enough to drown a man, equaling 105 gallons, and the fumes from an open butt alone can knock someone unconscious. If George drowning in wine is nothing but a rumour, then a possible explanation of this would be that it had originated from a humourous reference to George’s reputation as a heavy drinker. Another possibility is that his dead body was sent to the Tewkebury Abbey in a barrel of wine for burial, similar to the case of Horatio Nelson’s body being sent home in a barrel of brandy.

The evidence to shed clearer light on the circumstances of George’s death is still to be found. Meanwhile, have a closer look at this portrait of Margaret Pole, the daughter of Duke of Clarence. Can you see a barrel on her charm bracelet on her right hand?

Elizabeth of York immortalised as Queen of Hearts?


As I was researching for my recent blog post on the relationship of Elizabeth and her uncle King Richard III, I came across a very interesting trivia about her being the Queen of Hearts on the playing card.

According to some sources, playing cards were invented during Henry VII’s reign and the portrait of his Queen, Elizabeth of York has appeared eight times on every pack of cards for nearly 500 years. (Another rumour has it that the Queen of Hearts represents Anne Boleyn, the second wife to Henry VIII).

I’m a big Tudor fanatic, and to know I have a piece of heritage from the Tudor era right in my living room is enough to get me all jittery with excitement. The head dress under the Queen of Hearts’ crown does look like it belongs to the early Tudor period, does it not?

So here it is, a short history of the English playing cards:

Playing cards first entered Europe in the late 14th century, and different countries employed a variety of suits such as swords, batons and coins.  The four suits used by today (spades, hearts, clubs and diamonds) have originated in about 1480 in France which were the cards England adopted. The first evidence of playing cards in England is from the mid 15th century in an Act of Parliament.

French card makers in the 16th century started to attribute mythological or biblical names to the court cards such as David for King of Spades, and Judith for Queen of Hearts. Despite the English adopting the designs from Rouen in France, there is no evidence naming English court cards after any certain personalities.

The unfortunate truth is, it is nearly impossible to see what the original English court cards would have looked like.  During the passage of time, the designs were copied with a number of errors. If there were any symbols or oddities attributed to the court cards, they became distorted and lost its meaning and significance. To make this worse, the total number of English cards surviving before 1590 does not exceed a dozen, due to paper’s easily perishable nature as well as destruction of thousands of playing cards in the 17th century under the Puritan regime.

As disappointing as it is to know that the Queen of Hearts is actually a nobody, there are court accounts during the reign of Henry VII referring to Elizabeth’s debt at playing cards. I guess this would be as close as cards get to a piece of Tudor history.

For more in-depth history on playing cards, try

Was there a romance between Richard III and Elizabeth of York?

Royalty - English Monarchs - King Richard IIIelizabeth_york

In Philippa Gregory’s The Cousins’ War series, Elizabeth of York falls in love with King Richard III while she is serving as a lady in waiting for Queen Anne Neville. So what? – You may ask. Did I mention that Richard III is her uncle who had declared his brother’s marriage to Elizabeth Woodville invalid and made all their children (including Elizabeth of York) bastards? Did I mention that Elizabeth of York’s brothers (the heir to the throne) had gone mysteriously missing while under the guardianship of him?

It seemed extraordinary that out of all men, Elizabeth would fall for someone who had ousted her family out of their rightful place. And I was dying to know if Richard did flaunted their courtship in order to weaken her family’s alliance with the House of Lancaster who were continuous threat to his throne.

So how much of this is a creation of a novellist, and how much of it is a fact?

The speculation of their incestuous relationship actually dates back a long way – to their very own time.

After Richard’s wife Anne Neville’s death in March 1485, rumours spread that the King intended to marry his niece, Elizabeth. Although a marriage between uncle and niece was not strictly forbidden by the church, it had caused much revulsion among the councilors, and Richard’s most trusted men Ratcliffe and Catesbury warned him that such decision would lose support of Northerners as it would seem Richard had caused the death of his wife in order to marry Elizabeth. Twelve doctors of divinity were also summoned by Parliament to put forward their objections and Richard then publicly denied the accusation.

There is also an account by Sir George Buck, an antiquarian and Master of the Revels to King James I of England, claiming that he has seen a letter from Elizabeth to the 1st Duke of Norfolk asking him:

“to be a mediator for her in the cause of [the marriage] to the king who was her only joy and the maker in the world, and that she was his hart, in thought, and in all, and then she intimated that the better half of Feb was past, and that she feared the queen would never [die].”

Unfortunately the original letter failed to survive and his account cannot be validated.

It is also worth bearing in mind that Richard opened negotiations for himself to be marry Joanna, the sister of the King of Portugla, and Elizabeth to marry Joanna’s cousin, Duke of Beja. The negotiations came to a sudden halt with the news of the Battle of Bosworth.

From my research trudging through resources online, it seems that factual evidences to prove or disprove the speculation is too scarce to draw any assertive conclusion on Richard’s feeling for his niece. The air of unease and suspicion surrounding the supposed romance seems obvious, but again the evidence is only circumstantial. The supposed letter written by Elizabeth may or may not have existed, and Richard’s marriage negotiations with Portugal does not necessarily deny the feelings they may have shared together.

For those of you who would like to read deeper on evidences surrounding this supposed romance, try:

“Yorkists: The History of a Dynasty”  by Anne Crawford or “Elizabeth of York; The Forgotten Tudor Queen” by Amy Licence.



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