1491-99: Perkin Warbeck


Active eight years

  • In Ireland:        2 sieges of Waterford
  • In England:     3 separate invasions:
  1. Tries to land at Kent 1495
  2. Invades from Scotland 1496
  3. Lands in Cornwall 1497


In Ireland

  • Cork 1491

In England

  • Kent 1495
  • About a mile south of the Scottish border 1496
  • Cornwall 1497


Warbeck was a tool of Yorkist and foreign interests. He received mostly foreign backing:

  • Emperor Maximilian
  • James IV of Scotland
  • Margaret of Burgundy
  • Charles VIII of France
  • Earl of Desmond (Ireland)


  • Landing at Deal in Kent is a fiasco. No local support – Kentish forces rout Warbeck’s army and he doesn’t even land himself
  • Scottish invasion is backed by James IV. It is poorly resourced and ends after a week when the north fails to rise in support and an English army approaches. This Scottish invasion forces Henry to raise the tax which was the cause of the Cornish Rebellion
  • Warbeck fails twice in his attempts to capture the English castle at Waterford in Ireland – total of 11 days of siege. After the second attempt he flees Ireland for Cornwall
  • Despite landing in Cornwall only 3 months after the Cornish rebellion ended, Warbeck failed to attract significant support. He fled, was captured, and – after two escapes – eventually executed.
  • The failure of two imposters was decisive – there were no more serious Yorkist threats to Henry’s throne

Main causes

Dynastic. Attempt by House of York to create a plausible pretender to rally support around

Subsidiary causes

European politics. Warbeck’s extensive foreign support was a product of attempts to neutralise England (the French) or even take it over (the Holy Roman Emperor)

Degree of threat

Medium. Warbeck was active for many years and a more convincing pretender than Simnel. He obtained support from France, Burgundy, Ireland and Scotland. His great failure was to fail to generate significant backing in England – there was no equivalent of the Battle of East Stoke. All his backers, whether kings or Cornish commoners, had motives other than believing in Warbeck as king


The origins of Warbeck’s rising are obscure and historians still argue as to how far he was manipulated by his shadowy backers. He appeared in Cork, Ireland, in 1491 as a 17 year old working for a Breton silk merchant. His dignified bearing attracted attention and when questioned he claimed to be Richard, Duke of York – one of the Princes in the Tower supposedly murdered by Richard III.

His known backers at this stage were humble. However, SB Chrimes, biographer of Henry VII, argues that his appearance and acclamation in Ireland was “no accident”, Chrimes argues that Warbeck was the tool of Charles VIII of France and Margaret of Burgundy, who sought to destabilise Henry VII – Charles to prevent Henry supporting Brittany as he attempted to swallow it, and Margaret because she was a major Yorkist leader.

When Henry became aware of Warbeck, he sent an Irish force to Cork, but the pretender fled to France. It is notable that Kildare had learned his lesson by this point – there was no show of Irish support for Warbeck. This was quite a contrast to his reception overseas. He was received by Charles VIII and later by the Holy Roman Emperor. This reflects not real support for his cause, or belief in his claim to the throne, but cynical political reality – support for Warbeck destabilised England and stopped Henry from attempting to intervene in Burgundy

Henry signed the Treaty of Etaples (1492) to limit the threat. This ended his support for Brittany in exchange for a large subsidy and French agreement to expel Warbeck. The treaty is a sign of how dangerous Warbeck and his backers were – Henry had been sheltered in Brittany while Richard ruled and had been anxious to help the Duke of Brittany.

Warbeck travelled on into Imperial territory, visiting Vienna and Burgundy.

Overall, he was only a pawn in Charles VIII’s attempts to absorb the duchy of Brittany – a distraction to prevent Henry from aiding the Bretons. He received support from Margaret of Burgundy for the same reason – she had not received half her dowry and would only get the money if it was granted by an English king. Maximilian’s support came in exchange for a signed promise that the emperor would be Warbeck’s heir and inherit England if Warbeck died childless.

Meanwhile Henry was unleashing a sophisticated intelligence operation

  • Agents in England identified possible allies and he required bonds of allegiance (cash deposits) from these men
  • His spies in Flanders were able to show who Warbeck really was – that he was the son of a boatman from Tournai
  • He uncovered a cell of English supporters at court. Sir William Stanley, the former Yorkist who had won Bosworth for Henry with his intervention, was executed

Warbeck’s July 1495 attempt to land a mercenary army at Deal in Kent was a complete fiasco. The landing was opposed by local Kentish forces and the invaders were routed in an initial skirmish. Warbeck never even made it ashore.

Warbeck returned to Ireland, where he found it more difficult now to attract support. Henry was also working actively to deprive him of backing – for example the earl of Desmond, who had received Warbeck but offered little encouragement, was persuaded to swear loyalty to Henry in 1496. (When Warbeck returned to Ireland in 1497, both Kildare and Desmond attempted to capture him, forcing his flight to Cornwall.) An attempt to besiege the royal castle at Waterford failed – Henry had supplied the city with heavy cannon and many rebels were killed. Warbeck had to flee again, and moved on to Scotland.

James IV was his strongest supporter – he had most to gain by placing a puppet on the English throne. He gave him a high born wife, Katherine Gordon. But Scotland was too poor to offer much support. Again, Henry had a spy in the Scottish camp, and he confidently reported that the Scots’ war effort could last no more than a week. This was an accurate assessment – a small Scottish army crossed the border, but it ran short on supplies and as soon as it was clear the locals were hostile, and an army was marching north to meet it, it dispersed. Warbeck had been in England less than a week.

Foreign backers wanted to keep Warbeck alive, as a threat to Henry, but no longer offered money or troops for invasion. He was no use to Maximilian or Charles if he could not generate support in England. In July 1497, hearing that Henry had spent £60,000 equipping an army to invade Scotland, James expelled him from the country.

Warbeck sailed to Ireland – where there was famine and where his chief backer, Ormond, had recently been murdered. He had to go on to Cornwall, aiming for there probably because word of the Cornish rebellion had reached him.

The Cornish rising was over by the time he landed but there was still resentment in the region and a number of minor nobles and gentry

Because of this local connection, Warbeck was able to gather troops – 8,000 by the time he reached Exeter. But their support was more to do with wanting to run their county free from interference as real belief in Warbeck as a king.

Warbeck’s fatal error was to attempt a siege of Exeter. Without siege weapons or supplies, his forces drifted away. Warbeck fled to sanctuary in Taunton.

Henry persuaded him to surrender and treated him generously at first. But Warbeck’s repeated attempts to revive his cause ended the king’s patience. After attempting to escape from the Tower of London, he was hanged in 1499.

Reasons for failure

  • Warbeck depended entirely for others for his power – he was vulnerable to changes in their plans
    • Eg loss of foreign support after failed attempts to invade Kent and from Scotland
    • Support in Cornwall was due to ongoing resentment in aftermath of 1497 Cornish rebellion
  • Henry was much more firmly established on the throne – most nobles saw little point in risking all for Warbeck.
    • Not a single major English figure, or even member of the gentry, backed Warbeck
  • Henry’s intelligence service was very efficient. It found out who Warbeck really was and neutralised potential supporters with bonds before the landing in Kent

Key stats, quotes & views  

If you want to show Warbeck was little threat

  • Despite attempting to seize the throne for 8 years, Warbeck spent a total of less than 50 days on English and Irish soil, and failed to attract the support of a single important English or Irish backer – in stark contrast to the support he received from the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian, Margaret of Burgundy, and Charles VIII of France
  • Warbeck was treated well after his capture – kept at court rather than in prison. This suggests Henry did not see him as a major threat

If you want to show Warbeck was or might have been a threat

  • Warbeck’s threat was his persistence. He attempted five invasions and two escapes from his comfortable captivity. He was executed not for the threat he actually posed, but for he threat he might pose if circumstances changed. Specifically, his actions threatened Henry’s attempt to marry his son Arthur to Catherine of Aragon – the Spaniards complained of England’s instability
  • Foreign backing was substantial until after the debacle in Kent. At one point Maximilian gave his wife as surety for a loan (leaving her with the lender) so he could hire 6,000 mercenaries. Foreign leaders were then deterred by the clear lack of support for Warbeck in England

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s