Perkin Warbeck – Prince or Pauper?

By Will Barber Taylor

Perkin Warbeck is perhaps one of the most well known but reviled aspect of Tudor history. He has become part of the accepted myth of Tudor sovereignty and a gift to conspiracy theorists; was he truly the missing boy prince, sent to a cruel fate by Henry VII? Warbeck’s very existence was an anathema to the Tudors and as such they were desperate to rid themselves of him. For many, it didn’t matter whether Warbeck was who he claimed he was it mattered more what he represented – a link to the past, to a time before Henry Tudor broke the back of the English aristocracy and began transforming England into a modern nation.

In discussing Perkin Warbeck, it is important to talk about what came before him. Henry Tudor, scion of a illegitimate line of Edward III came to power as a result of the War of the Roses and his coronation in 1483 had marked the end of the power struggle between the houses of York and Lancaster. Yet, they also marked the end of baronial power in England. Devastated during the war by the deaths of many of their numbers, the lords of England were weak, and Henry used this weakness to further his own ends. In many ways, Henry VII was a self-made man; unlike many Kings of England he had fought for his place in life and hadn’t been born into it. Partially because of this and also because he feared the wrath of the barons, Henry moved away from the usual aristocratic circle that had supported previous kings and cultivated merchants and money lenders, helping them to rise to a more prominent position in society. This would be carried on under his son Henry VIII and though the aristocracy would still play a pivotal part in the history of Britain, they had to compete with the emerging “mercurial class” for wealth and status.

This is what Perkin Warbeck represented for many of the nobles of England – a way back. For centuries, from the Anarchy to Magna Carta, from Edward II to Richard II to the Wars of the Roses, they had represented a counter balance to the absolute power of the English monarch. In theory, the King was ordained by God and thus could do whatever he liked but in practise, he had to walk a fine line between doing whatever he wanted and not upsetting the barons.

Yet, with the Wars of the Roses and the accession of Henry VII this all changed, and the lords would do anything to retain power. In 1487, the Yorkists had attempted to put Lambert Simnel on the throne. Simnel was nowhere near royal; he was a servant who had been taught by an Oxford educated monk to act like a King and aside from his resemblance to the children of the House of York, he had no claim on the throne. Initially touted as Richard Duke of York before rumours of the premature death of Edward IV’s nephew the Earl of Warwick made Simnel’s puppet masters change their story – now he was the “escaped” Earl of Warwick, ready to claim his rightful place as King of England. Of course, Warwick was, in fact, not dead and was still in the Tower of London and soon enough Henry destroyed Simnel’s army at the Battle of Stoke Field in June 1487. Simnel, an innocent in the matter, was allowed to live by Henry VII. Henry would not be so lenient on the next pretender to try to take his throne.

Perkin Warbeck’s rebellion against Henry VII stemmed from the remaining Yorkists desire to place someone, anyone on the throne of England who would revert England back to the baronial hub it had been previously. Warbeck himself, like Simnel, was a from a lower middle or working-class background, though such labels would not have been used at the time.

According to Warbeck’s confession, which is partially suspect as it was obtained under torture, he was originally from the Dutch city of Tournai, his father Jehan de Werbecque was a port controller in the city. As with many young boys of his station, Warbeck was put into service, initially in the employ of Sir Edward Brampton. Brampton is a fascinating but generally unheard-of figure in the War of the Roses. Born in Lisbon in 1440 as Duarte Brandão, Brampton was the son of a Jewish blacksmith. Or, rather as he later claimed the result of an affair between his mother and Fernão Rodrigues Alardo, a Portuguese nobleman who could trace his ancestry back to the 1100s when his ancestor had helped the King of Portugal repel the Moors from Lisbon.

Whether this was true, or Brampton invented it to avoid antisemitism is impossible to tell. In the 1460s Brampton was forced to leave Lisbon after being involved in a fight in which it is alleged he killed a man. Travelling to England, Brampton had to make a choice – convert to Christianity or find another haven. Since the time of Edward, I, Jewish people were not officially allowed to live in England and as this would not be overturned until Cromwell’s time, Brampton had little choice. With the newly enthroned Edward IV as his godfather, Brampton changed his name from Duarte Brandão to Edward Brandon, though this was only temporary as a few years later he became Edward Brampton. Brampton soon repaid Edward IV’s patronage by serving under his new King at a sea battle against the Earl of Oxford. For his bravery in this action, Edward gave Brampton a form of British citizenship and helped arrange his marriage to Isabel Peach, a wealth Northamptonshire widow.  Brampton accompanied Edward IV to France and helped him barter witg the French into negotiating with the new King.

Brampton took advantage of this by opening his own wool trading business, helping him increase his wealth to such an extent that he was able to bail the penniless King of Portugal, D Afonso V a prisoner of the French due to his failure to pay for their help. Brampton returned to Portugal with the King and was awarded Portuguese citizenship and swathes of land that helped increase his wealth. Returning to England, Brampton was given the Governorship of Guernsey by Edward IV and after Edward’s death was knighted by Richard III. After Henry VII took the throne, Brampton’s estates were confiscated, and he was forced to flee back to Portugal where he met Perkin Warbeck. Warbeck’s maternal lineage is thought to be Portuguese in origin and this is perhaps how he ended up in Brampton’s service. Regardless, Brampton as a godson and protegee of Edward was certain to have provided Warbeck with information as to what the young Richard, Duke of York was like. Yet, unlike any other conspirators, Brampton was exempt from Henry VII’s wrath and indeed was eventually pardoned by him, leading some to suspect he may have sold Warbeck out before he even landed in England – relations between the King and Brampton were so pleasant that Brampton’s son was knighted by Henry in 1500.

Warbeck, like many servants went between different jobs. After Brampton, he was employed in the service of a one-eyed adventurer called Peter Vacz de Cogna before becoming the servant of a man from Britany named Pregent Meno. It is unknown whether the latter two were part of the web of Yorkist intrigue in the same way as Brampton, but it seems likely. Arriving in Ireland, Warbeck was hailed as the rightful King of England and initially supported by the Earl of Desmond. However, the general populace of Ireland held not a great deal of truck with the young pretender; they had been fooled once before by Lambert Simnel and did not want to be taken for a ride twice. Warbeck was, however, embraced by the likes of James IV of Scotland and the King of France though a threat from Henry VII soon ensured that the French King dropped any support for Warbeck. Educated by Edward IV’s exiled sister, Warbeck was soon ready to continue his pretence.

Warbeck’s initial attempt at invasion, like that of Bonnie Prince Charlie centuries later, was somewhat successful. However, he was fought off by Henry VII’s superior forces and eventually forced to flee. Though initially supportive, the King of Scotland did not want to bring the wrath of the angry English King upon his head and so, like the King of France before him, dropped his support for Warbeck.

Warbeck was now left alone. He still had the support of the few remaining Yorkist lords but, perhaps, deep down he knew he was finished. His last punitive attack on England, landing in Cornwall in 1497 ended in disaster when Warbeck’s army was shattered, and he was captured. Warbeck was initially treated well but after two escape attempts, including one with the ill-fated Earl of Warwick, Warbeck was recaptured and hanged at Tyburn.

The mystery and myth of Perkin Warbeck has fascinated many. Unlike Lambert Simnel, his story remained consistent up to his capture – that he was Richard, Duke of York, son of Edward IV and that he had returned for his crown. Some, like Horace Walpole, believed that Warbeck really was Richard. Others have claimed he was an illegitimate son of Edward IV or an illegitimate son of one of Edward’s brothers. The truth is that Warbeck was probably none of these things. His confession, though obtained under torture, does reveal his family story and contains people and characters that really existed in Tournai and have been verified by other sources. With the death of Perkin Warbeck so died the Middle Ages and any hope of the return of the full power of the barons. He represented the last great hurrah of struggle for power that used him as a pawn to gain its own ends.

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