Handsome Perkin Warbeck had delusions of grandeur

Posted in Historical articles, History, Royalty on Saturday, 9 March 2013

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This edited article about Perkin Warbeck originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 180 published on 26 June 1965.

Perkin Warbeck, picture, image, illustration

The Irish folk in Cork amuse themslves with the aristocratic-looking Warbeck

There was nothing very special about the stout-timbered sailing ship that weighed anchor in the harbour of Cork in Ireland. Nor was there anything remarkably unusual in the company of foreign merchants who trooped down the gangplank on to the quayside and dropped their wares from aching shoulders.

At that moment nobody – except, perhaps, a silk buyer – would have given a backward glance at the Breton silk merchant jostling with his tousle-haired servant boy among the newcomers as they walked along the waterfront in search of suitable lodgings before they began to trade.

The right apartments found, the room hired, the Breton silk merchant handed some of his best wares, as fine a suit of silk clothes as was made in France, to his servant boy.

“Put these on, Perkin,” said he, “and walk the streets in them. Tell all the folk who admire them where they can find me to buy a suit like this.”

Thus it was in that year of 1491 that Perkin Warbeck, a 17-year-old youth from Tournay in Flanders, first set about attracting attention to himself – a quality which, in the next eight years, he brought to such perfection that he made himself a unique corner in history for it.

When the citizens of Cork saw Perkin it was not his fine suit of clothes that attracted their attention so much as Perkin himself.

“Why, how like the young Duke of York he looks,” they exclaimed, nudging each other. “In fact, he surely must be the Duke of York, for he is the same age that the Duke would be if he were alive.”

Listening to these often repeated exclamations set young Perkin thinking. He had heard of Richard Duke of York. That young nobleman, it was said, had been murdered in the Tower of London with his older brother, Edward the Fifth of England, in the reign of the last king, Richard the Third.

That had happened eight years ago, in 1483, but people still talked in whispers about the little Princes in the Tower: how their Uncle Richard the King had lodged them in that grim fortress and how they had never been seen again since that summer.

At the time everybody had hinted that King Richard had ordered the little Princes to be foully murdered, so that his own claim to the Throne was unquestioned. But no one in fact seemed to know for certain whether the little Princes had died, for no bodies had been found; no hastily dug grave uncovered.

“You could be the Duke of York, young sir!” exclaimed a bold Irishman, seizing Perkin by the shoulder after looking him over. “Therefore, a good morrow to you, Your Grace!”

Your Grace! Perkin liked the sound of that. If he had read a little more of recent history, though, he would have known that these Irish people hated the English King Henry the Seventh, who now ruled them, for the strictness and severity of his methods and the harshness of his taxes, and that they were prepared to believe anything that might embarrass the King.

And the sudden “discovery” of Richard Duke of York, whom everybody suspected had died at the age of nine, would embarrass King Henry, for if Richard were alive his claim to the Throne through the House of York would be much stronger than Henry of Lancaster’s: why, it would be enough to start the Wars of the Roses all over again!

Small wonder, then, that the tale spread through Cork that the Duke of York, the rightful King of England, was in town in a fine suit of silk clothes. The more Perkin Warbeck heard the gossips, and the more they came to shake his hand and bow their knees, the more convinced he became that he could exchange his servant boy’s wages for the crown of England.

For two months Perkin stayed in Ireland. He was a bright lad and he studied all the books which he asked to be brought to him – grammar books from which he could perfect the scanty knowledge of English he had learned from his father, who had lived once in England. His master, meanwhile, sailed back to Brittany, shaking his head sorrowfully, convinced that his servant had gone quite mad, calling himself a Duke and learning a foreign language.

In between his studies Perkin wrote letters. Two of them went to two of the most distinguished earls in Ireland and several more went to noblemen in England. As the days went by and the post brought no replies Perkin began to realize that it was easier for a servant boy to imagine he was a King than it was to become one.

But what he lacked in judgement he made up for in determination. The Irish thought that he was the Duke of York, so the Duke of York he would be!

Then one day a gentleman of obvious means knocked on the door of Perkin’s lodging house. Perkin recognized from the clothes he wore that the gentleman was from France.

“I have been sent to you by King Charles the Eighth of France,” announced the visitor. “He is making war upon the usurper King Henry of England and he is anxious that you, as rightful King of England, should reside in his royal palace in Paris.”

Perkin gave a very unnoble whoop of glee. His private fairy tale was coming true at last. Hastily he packed his bags and skipped down to the waiting ship in the harbour.

Perkin must have been a little taken aback when he saw the King of France for the first time. Charles was a short, ill-shapen fellow with as little of the look of a King about him as Perkin had. But he was as high spirited as his young guest, fond of travelling, holding merry jousts, tilting in tournaments; in fact, it was said that “he thought of nothing else.”

Moreover, he greeted the impostor boy with outstretched arms, like a true Prince of the blood. Like the Irish, thought Perkin, he believes me.

In the next few weeks Perkin’s star ascended dramatically. Several Englishmen appeared at the court of King Charles and respectfully bowed their knees before him. They, too, they said, were Yorkists, and were filled with hate for King Henry of Lancaster.

But then the star waned just as speedily. The war that Charles of France was making on England turned out badly for him. A peace had to be arranged and that meant that King Perkin would have to leave France. King Henry had himself stipulated that such a clause must be written into the treaty – a point which showed that Perkin’s story had reached the royal court in London. Charles was sorry: he believed that Perkin was right, he said, but for the moment might was in the saddle.

At this stage a lesser lad might have given up the masquerade. Not so Perkin Warbeck, alias King Richard the Fourth of England. Already he had an invitation and now he mounted his horse and headed north-east for the Netherlands and his home country. His home country, Perkin reminded himself, was still Flanders, and not England.

But Perkin was not going home – he was going instead to the court of the Duchess of Burgundy. She was an Englishwoman, the sister of old King Edward the Fourth of England, and if Perkin was the Duke of York then the Duchess was in fact his own Aunt Margaret.

Whatever the Duchess thought of Perkin when he arrived she apparently hid from his view. She was quite prepared to pretend that he was her nephew, for she, too, hated King Henry the Seventh, who had robbed her family of York of its birthright.

And it occurred to the artful Duchess that if enough people could be made to believe in Perkin she might even launch him upon an invasion of England that would play havoc with Henry’s throne. . . .

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