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The Perfect Prince: Truth and Deception in…

The Perfect Prince: Truth and Deception in Renaissance Europe (2003)

by Ann Wroe

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It’s usually considered praise if a historical work is said to “read like a novel”. That description fits Ann Wroe’s The Perfect Prince; the language Wroe uses is elegant and the story is absorbing. Wroe resists what must have been a nearly overwhelming temptation to turn this into a refutation or advocacy of a glamorous conspiracy theory by providing all the available data and letting the readers spin webs themselves.

The theories about Perkin Warbeck are:

* He was Richard, Duke of York, the youngest son of Edward IV, who had somehow escaped from his wicked uncle Richard III and made his way to the Continent (in 1483, at age 9). He had remained incognito until 1490 when he appeared in Ireland in the entourage of a merchant. He was recognized by former acquaintances and encouraged to reclaim his rightful throne from Henry VII; his attempts to do so, supported to varying degrees by various European monarchs.

*He was an otherwise unknown illegitimate son of Edward IV posing as Richard. Everybody willing to comment, even supporters of Henry VII, seemed to think Warbeck had the “appearance” of nobility and did somewhat resemble Edward IV; nobody claimed he spoke English poorly or with an accent. He never claimed to be anybody except Richard or Perkin Warbeck, even under considerable persuasion.

* He was Perkin Warbeck (variously “Peter” or “Piers” or “Perkincinno” for the first name and “Warbeque” or “Osbeck” or all sorts of other variants for the second), the son of a boatman in Tournai in Flanders (Tournai is now in Belgium but at the time Perkin lived there it belonged to Burgundy and thus indirectly to France). Perkin ran away from home and somehow made his way to Portugal, where he became a page to the English merchant Sir Edward Brampton. He was “pretty” boy, fair-haired, fond of his appearance and of elegant clothes; when he accompanied his master to Ireland in 1490 disaffected Yorkists noted his vague similarity to Edward IV and decided to claim he was Edward’s miraculously escaped son. Warbeck fell in with the plan and, supported to varying degrees by various European monarchs, made several usurpation attempts.

* A sort of combination of the above. Warbeck really was the son of the Tournai boatman, but his handlers were so persuasive that he eventually really came to believe he was Richard of York; sixteen-year-old boys (that was his age in 1490) can be persuaded of a lot, especially if it involves becoming King of England. Although he confessed he was Warbeck when Henry VII captured him, he continued to act as if he were royalty (even when doing so didn’t work out well for him).
Whoever he was, he confessed to being Warbeck in 1499, on the scaffold before he was hanged; he was left dangling long enough to be dead before the disembowelment part of the proceedings and some of his advocates suggested his confession was a deal to arrange this act of mercy.

That’s one of the simultaneously interesting and annoying things about The Perfect Prince; Wroe is not an advocate – at least not an overt one – for any of these theories, just presenting the facts as known. The interesting part is the way she goes about it; as I said, this reads like a novel. The annoying part is there’s no introduction and no summary; no recapitulation of the data for or against each position. The “no background” part makes the work flow smoothly right into Perkin’s story but requires the reader to know the whole chronicle of the Lancastrian-Yorkist-Tudor conflict in the 15th century in order to figure out what’s going on. Well, I know it from previous history books, Shakespeare, and from years of playing Kingmaker; perhaps Wroe is counting on casual readers picking things up from Wikipedia – or maybe she isn’t interested in casual readers at all. The “no recapitulation” part is just a little unfortunate; there are so many aspects of Perkin’s story that are open to speculation that it must have taken iron discipline to avoid wallowing in them. Well, I don’t have iron discipline so I’m going to wallow away.

The big question is whether or not Perkin Warbeck was Richard of York; although it’s probably of some interest for psychiatrists nobody else cares that much if the son of a boatman suffered from delusions of grandeur or if he was a cunning opportunist. The answer to that question pretty certainly “No” – but there’s just enough doubt that 15th century websites must have be incandescent with flame wars between true believers on one side or another. There were a number of people around in 1490 who had seen Richard of York before his disappearance; in the absence of Tudor age-progression software, how reliable could they be at identifying him seven years later – even if they were completely uninterested in the outcome? His ostensible aunt, Margaret, Dowager Duchess of Burgundy, positively identified Warbeck as her nephew – but she obviously had considerable reason to support the Yorkist cause. His ostensible sister, Elizabeth of York, never made any recorded comment one way or the other – especially interesting because Elizabeth was married to Henry VII and thus presumably would have been subject to considerable pressure to denounce Warbeck as an impostor. Similarly, the man who was generally believed to have killed the Princes in the Tower – Sir James Tyrell – was available; he had been pardoned by Henry VII and was serving as Governor of Guînes in France – but was not called to testify (admittedly it might have been a little awkward to have him show up and say “No, that’s not the boy I smothered”). Various court functionaries that had encountered Richard of York were recruited by both sides to give opinions (when Warbeck was finally captured, everybody Henry VII called to testify agreed he wasn’t Richard – but one might assume their judgment wasn’t unbiased). Warbeck himself claimed there were various “marks” on his body that proved he was Richard but never volunteered what they were and there’s no record of anybody else mentioning them.

A substantial number of European monarchs and nobility backed Warbeck’s claim; Margaret of Burgundy, of course, but also Holy Roman Emperor Maximillian, James IV of Scotland, and miscellaneous minor German princes. James IV went so far as to marry Warbeck to Lady Katherine Gordon, daughter of the Earl of Huntly. Lady Katherine was the most eligible bride in Scotland at the time; daughter of a major nobleman and reportedly (alas, no portrait survives) exceptionally beautiful. Naturally all of the backers had cynical reasons to discomfit the King of England – but they also had reasons not to casually support usurpers to a throne.

Warbeck’s initial attempt was in Ireland in 1491 but he didn’t attract any supporters; he returned to the continent. In 1495 he made another stab at it, landing a force of mercenaries in Kent; they were slaughtered on the beach and Warbeck didn’t even get off the boat. He sailed to Ireland and besieged Waterford, but got nowhere there either; then sailed to Scotland where he became friends with James IV and married the beautiful Katherine. However, a brief invasion of England (the force penetrated four miles) ended without much accomplished – nobody flocked to Richard’s cause. James IV put him on a boat (perhaps aptly named the Cuckoo) with Katherine and (maybe) a son and sent him off; Warbeck eventually ended up in Cornwall in 1497. Here things initially went better; Cornwall was in the middle of one of the frequent peasant revolts and Warbeck was able to organize an army/mob and march on Exeter. This ended badly; Warbeck fled to an abbey for sanctuary but “voluntarily” agreed to surrender.

Henry VII initially treated him fairly well – he appeared at court, dressed nobly. However, he was also closely watched – which makes the next event fairly strange. Warbeck reportedly slept in the same bed as two of his warders – but was able to get up in the middle of the night without disturbing either of them, climb out a window, and run away. This, again, is real fodder for Tudor conspiracy theorists – it sounds a lot like Henry VII set up the escape to give him an excuse to treat Warbeck more harshly. Warbeck was captured out of sanctuary again, and this time lodged in the Tower in a room below Edward, Earl of Warwick (who had been there since 1485, when he was 10 years old). Warwick was George of Clarence’s son (George was the guy drowned in the butt of Malmsey) and thus Richard of York’s cousin and the most plausible “real” Yorkist heir. He and Warbeck supposedly conspired to escape yet again (the evidence for this supposed escape attempt is extremely thin); they were quickly convicted (observers noted that after enthusiastic interrogation, Warbeck’s face no longer resembled Edward IV’s). Both were sentenced to the traditional hanging, drawing and quartering. This was a minor problem for Henry VII, since if Warbeck was really a boatman’s son from Tournai he couldn’t be a traitor to the King of England because he wasn’t an English subject; this technicality was quickly brushed aside by accusing Warbeck of being an “enemy of the King”, a charge which apparently was never used before or since.

As mentioned, Warbeck confessed he was not Richard of York on the scaffold and was left hanging until dead. Warwick’s sentence was commuted to a simple beheading. Henry VII paid for Warwick’s funeral and he’s in his family church; however, there’s no trace of Perkin Warbeck. His body was taken to the nearby Austin Friars church (the head went to London Bridge) but there was no record of it when antiquarian John Stow visited the church while preparing his Survey of London (published 1598). Part of the church was demolished in 1600; the remainder burned in 1862. It was reconstructed but the Luftwaffe demolished it again in 1941. The church currently on the site is still another reconstruction; thus the chance that whatever remains of Perkin Warbeck could be located for DNA testing is extremely small. There’s a Perkins family in Wales that claims descent, and his widow Katherine did move to Wales; but despite various rumors there’s no proof that she ever had children by him. Poor Perkin doesn’t really come across as a romantic here – but his widow didn’t remarry for years, and always wore black.

The amount of research necessary for this is amazing, involving not only English but Flemish, Burgundian, French, German, Scots, Irish and Portuguese archives. There are some pictures or the participants (the one of Warbeck is a chalk sketch copy of a lost portrait, but he does look a little like Edward IV – although, then again, maybe the artist emphasized that). As usual, I could have used a couple of maps. The references are extensive but unfortunately not cross-referenced to the text by note numbers, but just organized by chapter and topic. The bibliography is also extensive and polyglot. The index seems a little sparse, and is idiosyncratically organized; for example Margaret of Burgundy is not listed under “Margaret” but as “Burgundy, Margaret of York, Duchess of” which is not what I was expecting based on how she’s referred to in the text; however I was eventually able to find everything I was looking for.

Recommended highly, but with the caveat that you better have at least some knowledge of 15th century English history. The complexities and personalities of the time are fascinating; you could probably make a bunch of good novels or maybe a TV series about it. ( )
  setnahkt | Dec 28, 2017 |
Great book - a wonderful, concise history of one of the greatest mysteries to come out of one of the greatest unsolved mysteries of all time. While reading it, I couldn't get Mark Umbers' portrayal of Richard, Duke of York from "The Princes in the Tower" out of my mind.
Thoroughly recommend this book if one is interested in the years following Richard the Third's death at Redmore Plain. ( )
  ELEkstrom | Jun 6, 2013 |
Ann Wroe has written a fabulous book, bringing to life the personalities and politics of the Middle Ages, and given the relative lack of primary sources at her disposal, has done well to flesh out this story to the extent that she has. She is to be congratulated on her extensive use of contemporary European sources which show a very different view of the Pretender to the usual English sources.

Engish sources were sure of the Warbeck story from as early as 1493, but Europeans were far less sure, and Wroe shows European monarchs such as Holy Roman Emperor Maximillian and Spanish monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella referring to Richard as the Duke or even as the King of England until a late date - and in Maximillian's case, until the end of his life. Whilst various European rulers certainly had political reasons for supporting a pretender, and may have known that this one was an imposter, their correspondence gives no clue of such knowledge; at times there was doubt and uncertainty as to whether he was Richard of York but they also had doubts that he was Perkin Warbeck. And in the case of Maximillian, Wroe shows him attempting to intevene to save Richard's life long after any political advantage could possibly have been gained from it - not something the Holy Roman Emperor would generally do for boatmen's sons from Tournai.

Wroe is also excellent at sorting the surviving documents and references into the possibly / probably accurate and those constructed or amended for propaganda and political purposes and is good at emphasising the likely sub texts in all of these, including Perkin's Confession which she demonstates to have been, at the very least, amended by other parties

I highly recommend this book for anyone wanting to know more about a great story and interesting footnote to English history. But be warned - Wroe, probably wisely, does not attempt to come to a conclusion about Perkin Warbeck's identity despite some sources (such as Wikipedia) stating that she thinks Warbeck actually was Richard of York. Rather , Wroe shows that even now we can't be sure who he was - and perhaps its not important.

Perhaps the story is better read as a conflict between 2 constructed identities - the Richard, Duke of York identity constructed by disaffected Yorkists and the Perkin Warbeck identity constructed by Henry VII and his supporters. Probably he was neither of these people but Wroe shows why it was that the Perkin identity became accepted, depite its flaws, and how close he came to reaching the tipping point of being accepted as Richard of York. ( )
1 vote Opinionated | Jan 28, 2012 |
What a disappointment. Repetitive and over-written, but obviously a work of deep research and scholarship. This story had all the elements of a fascinating window into a different aspect of a period of English history which otherwise has been well covered. A book of the movie would probably produce a much more pacy tale. ( )
  broughtonhouse | Jun 9, 2011 |
It has taken me a month to plough my way through this book, which is far too long and could easily be 250-300 pages instead of 500. The author is clearly very literate and has done her research, but the end result is mostly very dull and at the same time excessively flowery - the writing style is like wading through treacle much of the time. Disappointing. ( )
1 vote john257hopper | May 8, 2009 |
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Introduction -- This book is about a mystery. It has remained unexplained for so long that most people believe it has been solved; but not so.
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This book is available under three titles: "The Perfect Prince: Truth and Deception in Renaissance Europe", "The Perfect Prince: The Mystery of Perkin Warbeck and His Quest for the Throne of England" and "Perkin: A Story of Deception". They are all the same work, do not separate them.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0812968115, Paperback)

In 1491, as Machiavelli advised popes and princes and Leonardo da Vinci astonished the art world, a young man boarded a ship in Portugal bound for Ireland. He would be greeted upon arrival as the rightful heir to the throne of England. The trouble was, England already had a king.

The most intriguing and ambitious pretender in history, this elegant young man was celebrated throughout Europe as the prince he claimed to be: Richard, Duke of York, the younger of the “Princes in the Tower” who were presumed to have been murdered almost a decade earlier. Handsome, well-mannered, and charismatic, he behaved like the perfect prince, and many believed he was one. The greatest European rulers of the age—among them the emperor Maximilian, Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain, and Charles VIII of France—used him as a diplomatic pawn to their own advantage. As such, he tormented Henry VII for eight years, attempting to invade England three times. Eventually, defeated and captured, he admitted to being Perkin Warbeck, the son of a common boatman from Flanders. But was this really the truth?

Ann Wroe, a historian and storyteller of the first rank, delves into the secret corners of the late medieval world to explore both the elusive nature of identity and the human propensity for deception. In uncovering the mystery of Perkin Warbeck, Wroe illuminates not only a life but an entire world trembling on the verge of discovery.

From the Hardcover edition.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:19:33 -0400)

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