18th Century and Earlier

Who was Perkin Warbeck? About the pretender to the English throne

Note: I wrote this article for another site in 2009. As the site seems now to be defunct, I’m re-posting it here. Since writing it, I’ve developed a small fascination with pretenders to the throne – in the time before photographs, when even nobility may not have been commonly recognized, it seems like a halfway decent strategy to try out, if one had designs on swindling their way onto a throne. I may write about more, later.


During the reign of King Henry VII, Perkin Warbeck claimed a birthright to the English throne, pretending to be Richard of Shrewsbury, son of King Edward IV.

Warbeck’s Claim

Perkin Warbeck claimed to be Edward IV’s exiled younger son Richard of Shrewsbury, the Duke of York. Richard, along with his older brother Edward, were the sons of King Edward IV and the heirs to the English throne. Upon their father’s death, their uncle Richard was appointed “Protector,” as Prince Edward was a mere 12 years old. However, their uncle believed that he had a rightful claim to the throne and placed Prince Edward and, later, Prince Richard into “lodgings” in the Tower of London, where they became known as “the Princes in the Tower.” They were seen in and around the Tower less and less until they seemed to disappear entirely. They were believed to be dead. During this time, their uncle Richard successfully had the princes declared bastards and himself crowned as Richard III.

If Perkin Warbeck really was Edward IV’s son Richard and escaped his confinement in the Tower of London, then he would have a legitimate claim to the throne. Richard’s sister, Elizabeth of York, was married to Henry VII in the 1490s, the time Warbeck came forward with his claim.

Who was Perkin Warbeck?

The year of Perkin Warbeck’s birth is unknown, but he claimed to have been nine years old in 1483. He was born in the Flemish community of Tournai to local official Jehan de Werbecque and Katherine de Faro. In a confession made by Warbeck near the end of his life, he claimed that he worked as a servant in his younger days. In 1491, he served a silk merchant working in Ireland, a country that was then strongly opposed to the rule of Henry VII. In Ireland, Warbeck dressed in his master’s fine silk clothing, causing people to believe him a person of royal descent.

Warbeck Attempts to Take the English Throne

In Ireland, Warbeck was encouraged to take the identity of Richard, the son of Edward IV, by Yorkist supporters. Edward IV’s sister Margaret, Charles VIII of France and James IV of Scotland were among the royalty that backed Warbeck’s claim. Warbeck attempted an invasion England in July 1495, only to retreat to Scotland. Here, his marriage to Catherine Gordon was arranged by her cousin, James IV.

In 1497, Warbeck again attempted to invade England, gaining the support of Cornish citizens who were in revolt against a tax to fight the Scots, 400 miles to the north. Warbeck and the rebels marched towards Exeter. The Queen, Elizabeth of York, fled Eltham Palace with her son Prince Henry. They took refuge in the Tower of London, an event that eerily mirrored the fate of Prince Henry’s uncles Edward and Richard.

At Exeter, Warbeck’s forces were defeated by the royal army. Warbeck himself fled and was soon captured. He was then compelled to confess his true identity. In 1498, Warbeck escaped his captors and was imprisoned in the Tower of London. Here, it is said he and the imprisoned Earl of Warwick, who had a legitimate claim to England’s throne, plotted their escape. Both Perkin Warbeck and the Earl of Warwick were executed in 1499.