It happened today - November 23, 2015
On this day in history, Nov. 23, back in 1499, Perkin Warbeck was executed for not being Richard IV. Or for trying to escape. Or for being in the Tudors’ way. Or for not grasping that someone named Perkin cannot seize a throne. Or for actually being Richard of Shrewsbury, younger son of Edward IV. It’s not entirely clear.
It’s not clear because here we have one case where the victors did write the history. And the victors were the Tudors, specifically the cold, cunning and ruthless King Henry VII, who seized the throne by killing Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485. Part of Henry’s claim to the crown, bolstered by propaganda from the brilliant playwright William Shakespeare, who I admire in virtually every other way, was that Richard III had himself usurped the throne by murdering his two nephews, Edward V and his younger brother Richard, sons of Edward IV.
It is not clear that Richard III did any such thing. Josephine Tey makes a convincing case to the contrary in my opinion in The Daughter of Time. And it’s also not clear that Perkin Warbeck was Perkin Warbeck. He originally claimed to be Richard and only changed his story under torture by Henry VII’s henchmen.
Of course he might have been a fake, whether he really had the unroyal name of Perkin and came from Tournai in Flanders or was Bob from Bristol or anything else. The fact that Henry VII said a man wasn’t king of England doesn’t automatically mean he was, though on at least one occasion it did. (Nor does the fact that Warbeck/Richard was declared the real deal by Richard’s aunt, Margaret of York, who may have been lying ot try to get rid of Henry VII before he got rid of her. She also supported the claims of Lambert Simnel, whose name alone was again surely a bar to any hope of royal achievement.)
Likewise, the fact that “Perkin Warbeck” he was executed for trying to escape from the Tower of London doesn’t mean he really was trying to escape, or that he wasn’t. But basically all we have is Henry VII’s word for it, which I trust as far as I can comfortably spit a rat.
Still, if his name was Perkin, he should have found some other ambition. No one has ever been crowned King Perkin and no one ever will be. If he was Richard IV, it just compounds Henry VII’s villainy which to my mind would be absolutely in character for the man.
I do feel that there’s a certain pitiful haplessness about this particular lunge for the crown. If he really was Richard IV, it’s a sad comedown. If not, it’s a predictable comeuppance. As for Henry VII, well, he got away with it, and wrote the history of it as well.