Perkin Warbeck was born around 1474 and his youth is clouded in mystery. According to his later confession, procured under duress, his father was John Osbeck, the Flemish comptroller to the city of Tournai. At 10 he was taken by his mother to Antwerp to learn Dutch. He served several masters before being employed by a local English master, John Strewe, for some months before being hired by a Breton merchant, who took him to Cork when he was about 17. There he learnt to speak English. Dressed in silk clothes, he was approached by Yorkists who saw a resemblance to the younger son of Edward IV, Richard, who had died in the Tower.
He returned to the Continent and first claimed the English throne at the court of Burgundy in 1490. He went back to Ireland in that guise hoping to raise support as Lambert Simnel had done four years earlier. He impressed few and was forced home. He was received by Charles VIII of France in 1492, but expelled by the French king under the terms of a treaty in which he agreed not to shelter English rebels. It was back at the Burgundian court, a hotbed of Yorkists, that his fortunes changed. He was officially recognised as Richard of Shrewsbury by Margaret of York, now the widow of Charles the Bold, who cynically tutored him in the ways of the Yorkist court. Simnel’s mentor, Margaret of Burgundy, also opportunistically hailed the young man. Warbeck’s claims echoed around the European courts and Henry imposed a trade embargo on Burgundy. At the invitation of Duke Philip’s father, King Maximilian I, he attended the funeral of Emperor Frederick III in 1493 and was recognised as King Richard IV of England. Warbeck in turn promised that if he died before becoming king, his claim would fall to Maximilian. The determined and vengeful Margaret of Burgundy funded another invasion attempt.
In July 1495 Warbeck landed at Deal in Kent, hoping to spark an uprising behind his bogus banner. Instead, his small army was routed and 150 of his troops killed before Warbeck even managed to step ashore. He retreated immediately to Ireland where he was supported by the Earl of Desmond. He laid siege to Waterford but strong resistance forced him to flee again, this time to Scotland.
Warbeck was well received by James IV of Scotland, who knew the political leverage to be had from having an English pretender at his court. Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain in particular were inclined to help him in his struggles with England, in order to prevent the situation escalating into war with France. Warbeck was permitted to marry James’s distant cousin, Lady Catherine Gordon, a daughter of the Earl of Huntly. The marriage was celebrated in Edinburgh with a tournament. James gave Warbeck clothes for the wedding and armour covered with purple silk. So clothed, he may have fought in a team with the king and four knights.
In September 1496 James IV prepared to invade England with Warbeck. A red, gold and silver banner was made for Warbeck as the Duke of York; Roderic de Lalanne, a Flemish knight arrived with two little ships and 60 German soldiers. Two great French guns, 10 smaller cannon and 30 iron breech loading ‘cart guns’ were rolled out with 16 wagons for the munitions. An English spy in Edinburgh estimated that the invading army would last just five days in England before it ran out of provisions. His assessment was to be proved correct.
The Scottish army assembled near Edinburgh and James IV and Warbeck offered prayers at Holyrood Abbey on 14 September. Seven days later the army crossed the River Tweed at Coldstream. Miners set to work to demolish the tower of Castle Heaton on 24 September, but the army quickly retreated when resources were used up, and hoped-for support for Perkin Warbeck in Northumberland failed to materialise. In all, the invading army marched just four miles into England, destroyed four small defensive towers and burnt a few of Henry’s royal banners. They retreated to Scotland on 25 September when an English army commanded by Lord Neville approached from Newcastle. James’s allies, including Spain, pressed him to make peace with England.
Warbeck was now an embarrassment rather than an asset and James provided a ship, the Cuckoo, and a hired crew under a Breton captain, which returned him to Waterford in shame in July 1497. James IV did indeed make peace with England. Once again, Warbeck laid siege to Waterford, but this time his effort lasted only eleven days before he was forced to flee Ireland, chased by four English ships. He was left with only 120 men on two ships.
In September 1497, Warbeck landed at Whitesand Bay in Cornwall hoping to take advantage of Cornish resentment at the defeat of their own rising three months earlier. Warbeck proclaimed that he would put a stop to extortionate taxes levied to help fight a war against Scotland and was warmly welcomed. The Cornish fell for his rhetoric because they wanted to believe it. He was declared Richard IV on Bodmin Moor and his Cornish army of around 6,000 entered Exeter before advancing on Taunton. Henry sent his top general, Giles, Lord Daubeney, to attack the Cornish and when Warbeck heard that the king’s scouts were at Glastonbury, he panicked and deserted his army. Warbeck surrendered himself at Beaulieu Abbey in Hampshire.
Henry reached Taunton on 4 October 1497, where he received the surrender of the remaining Cornish army. The ringleaders were executed and others fined. Warbeck was imprisoned, first at Taunton, then at the Tower of London, where he was, according to an eyewitness, ‘paraded through the streets on horseback amid much hooting and derision of the citizens’.
Warbeck was held in the Tower alongside Edward, Earl of Warwick. Both tried to escape but were quickly re-captured. Unlike the boy Simnel, the 25-year-old Warbeck could not claim that he had been the pawn of unscrupulous adults. It is estimated that Henry spent £13,000 on countering Warbeck’s adventures, putting a strain on the royal finances and making him disinclined to mercy. On 23 November 1499, Warbeck was drawn on a hurdle from the Tower to Tyburn. On the scaffold he read out his confession before being hanged.
Many historians credit Henry’s victory at Bosworth as marking the beginning of the modern nation. Others qualify that judgement. Nicholas Vincent wrote:
… by the time that Henry Tudor placed a crown upon his head, England had acquired both a history and a national identity. Wealth and the bounty of nature were England’s birthrights, a consequence of geography, of the constant presence of the sea, and of the toil of those who first cleared the land, dug the mines and tilled the soil. From at least the age of Bede, as far back as the eighth century, came an idea of Englishness and of united destiny united under Christian kingship. For all the shattering uncertainties and usurpations of the fifteenth century, the kingdom of England, unlike the kingdom of France or the empire of Germany, remained a united and indivisible whole.
Attempted invasions, hopeless though they were, helped to cement that birthright, that national identity.