Perkin Warbeck, the Great Pretender

British History | March 20, 2019

Pretender to the English throne Perkin Warbeck marches his rag-tag army up and down, 'The Comic History of England' by Gilbert Abbott A Beckett, John Leech, illustrations. [Bradbury, Agnew & Co, London, 1897]. Source: (alamy.com)

A great mystery in English royalty is the fate of the “two princes in the Tower.” Edward and Richard, ages 12 and 10, were both too young to take over the English throne when their father, King Edward IV, died in 1483, so the crown was to go to the King’s brother, Richard, Duke of York until the true heir became of age. The Duke had his nephews placed in the Tower of London to keep them safe until coronation day. But sometime in the summer of 1483, the young princes disappeared. Their fate remains a mystery. Several years later, however, a man showed up claiming to be the long-lost younger prince, Prince Richard. His name was Perkin Warbeck and he turned out to be a great pretender with ulterior motives. 

The two princes of the Tower, the missing sons of King Edward IV, Richard and Edward. Source: (historic-uk.com)

A Royal Claim

Perkin Warbeck showed up at the royal court of Burgundy in 1490 and made a fantastic claim. He said he was the younger of the two lost princes, Richard, and he was ready to reclaim the English throne. He told a plausible story, that his older brother had been murdered long ago, but he was spared because of his tender age. The assailants sent him to live on the European continent with a Yorkist loyalist but instructed him to not reveal his true identity until much later. But his guardian had gone to England, leaving him alone. It was then that Warbeck decided to announce to the court who he really was. 

Margaret of Burgundy. Source: (prisonersofeternity.co.uk)

Was He Really the Missing Prince?

For people who were clinging to the hope that the young princes were still alive, the emergence of Perkin Warbeck was the miracle they were looking for. Warbeck’s supporters were quick to point out his “regal” appearance. Edward IV’s sister, Margaret of Burgundy, who would have been the aunt of the young princes, formally recognized Warbeck as Prince Richard. She even helped tutor him in the ways of the court. There was one problem, though. When she married the Duke of Burgundy, Margaret left England well before either prince was born. 

King Henry VII of England, the first Tudor king. Source: (thefamouspeople.com)

Battle for the English Throne

Prior to Warbeck’s claim to be the missing prince, his uncle, Richard III of the York family was made the king of England. But when he was killed in battle, the crown passed to Henry VII, a Tudor. Yorkist loyalists wanted to oust King Henry VII and longed for a York heir to retake the throne. Warbeck was just what the loyalists were looking for. But was he a legitimate heir? 

King Maximillian I. Source: (thefamouspeople.com)

Warbeck Hobnobbed with European Royalty

Perkin Warbeck socialized with many of Europe’s royalty and was recognized as the missing prince. He was called the Duke of York. The Holy Roman Emperor, King Maximilian 1 even declared that Warbeck was to be recognized as King Richard IV of England. This attention angered King Henry VII, who publicly labeled Warbeck an impostor. 

Perkin Warbeck. Source: (murreyandblue.wordpress.com)

Warbeck Found Supporters in Scotland and Ireland

The rulers of Scotland and Ireland vowed to support Warbeck’s plan to invade England and seize the crown from Henry VII. They made troops available to him, not because they truly believed him to be the lost prince, but because have a York king, one who was indebted to them, was in their own best interest. In all likelihood, they knew Warbeck was a fraud, but they hoped to remove Henry from the throne any way they could. 

Source: (theconsultingdetectivesblog.com)

Warbeck Invaded England

In 1497, Warbeck and his troops landed at Cornwall and rallied the support of the townspeople who were upset about recent tax increases. From there, Warbeck traveled on to Taunton and Exeter but was unable to seize control of these towns. In August of that year, Warbeck’s campaign fizzled out. He surrendered to the King’s men and was taken to London to meet Henry VII. 

Source: (pinterest.com)

Back to the Tower of London

King Henry VII declared that Warbeck was an impostor who had been backed by Yorkist loyalists in an attempt to gain the throne. But Warbeck was a foreigner, and as such, he could not be charged with treason. Henry ordered him to be locked up in the Tower of London. If Warbeck was really the lost prince, this would have been a place he was familiar with. Warbeck tried a brazen prison escape in 1497 but was caught. This finally gave Henry VII the opening he needed to permanently get rid of the impostor. Warbeck was charged with prison escaping and sentenced to hang. He was executed on November 23 of 1499. Historians largely believe that Warbeck was a great pretender, but there are still a few who think he may have actually been telling the truth about being the lost prince. 

Tags: King Edward IV

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Karen Harris


Karen left the world of academic, quitting her job as a college professor to write full-time. She spends her days with her firefighter husband and four daughters on a hobby farm with an assortment of animals, including a goat named Atticus, a turkey named Gravy, and a chicken named Chickaletta.