The Warbeck Rebellion was Henry VII’s second rebellion to deal with after the Lambert Simnel Rebellion of 1486-87. The rebellion led by Perkin Warbeck was a long drawn out affair and lasted between 1491 and 1499. Whilst the rebellion was a curious affair it did show the fragility of Henry’s position in the first half of his reign.
Perkin Warbeck’s father, Jehan de Werbecque, was a poor burgess from Tournai in France. Warbeck was born around 1474. As a boy he served as a servant in a number of households. In 1491 Warbeck was working for a Breton silk merchant called Pierre Jean Meno. Warbeck arrived in Cork in the autumn of 1491 on one of Meno’s merchant ships selling silk. Whilst not a humble occupation, it hardly linked him to a rebellion.
Ireland had been a stronghold of the York family for some years and many in Ireland grasped at any opportunity they had to advance the York cause. For whatever reason, the people of Cork believed that Warbeck (who spoke poor English) was the Earl of Warwick – no one was still sure as to where Warwick was. Warbeck denied that he was the Earl of Warwick. Instead he claimed that he was Richard, Duke of York – one of the princes in the Tower. It was assumed that he was dead but no one had ever been able to prove this. While it may seem strange that a silk seller from France should suddenly manifest himself into the Duke of York, Professor S B Chrimes believes that Warbeck’s appearance in a stronghold of the York family was no coincidence but was planned all along. Chrimes believes that two European players were behind the scheme in an effort to undermine Henry. Chrimes believes that Charles VIII of France and Margaret of Burgundy were behind the plot – Margaret had already played a part in the Simnel Rebellion of 1486-87. On the scaffold Warbeck did mention the “French king" on a number of occasions but never in a specific way that would have incriminated him.
Charles VIII did welcome Warbeck to Paris in 1492 and about 100 supporters of the House of York gathered around him. From Paris he moved to Flanders where Margaret of Burgundy took him in as her nephew. This was seen as such a threatening move by Henry that he broke off all trade with Flanders in 1493. The cloth trade with Flanders was worth a great deal – but such were the measures Henry was willing to take. Warbeck then gained another supporter – the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian. Such a powerful backer greatly increased the pressure on Henry. The Holy Roman Emperor on paper was the most powerful man in Europe. Maximilian recognised Warbeck as Richard IV of England. However, Henry had two lucky breaks. Maximilian was far less powerful in reality and had difficulties in enforcing his authority across his empire so his ability to influence English politics was even less. Charles VIII also lost interest in Warbeck and directed his attention and finance towards north Italy, which he invaded in 1494.
Henry had also set up a very good spy network across England and mainland Europe. He quickly got to know that Warbeck’s support was not as strong as it seemed to be. Henry also knew who his supporters were in England. The 1495 Parliament passed a number of acts of attainder including one for Sir William Stanley whose army had made such an impact at the Battle of Bosworth. Stanley also held the position of Chamberlain – one of the most trusted of positions in the king’s court. Stanley was executed and his estates passed to the king. Lord Fitzwalter, Henry’s steward, was also executed. One of the plotters was Sir Robert Clifford but it seems that he was working for the king all along and informing him of those who were plotting to betray Henry. Clifford received a full pardon for his conspiracy and a reward.
In July 1485, Warbeck attempted to land at Deal in Kent. Here he hoped to gather around him supporters so that he could march on London. It was a disaster and Warbeck sailed for Ireland while leaving some of his men stranded in Deal to await their fate. Here he laid siege to Waterford – a town loyal to Henry – but was unsuccessful. From Ireland, Warbeck sailed for Scotland. Here James IV gave Warbeck refuge and a pension of £1200 a year. James saw Warbeck as an opportunity to disrupt England though it is doubtful if he ever believed that he was Richard, Duke of York. Using his pension to finance it, Warbeck attempted an invasion of England. It was a disaster as no one south of the border was willing to support him. However, while Warbeck stayed in Scotland he remained a potential threat. Henry offered his eldest daughter’s hand in marriage to James, which James believed had far more advantages to Scotland than Warbeck could ever offer. Warbeck sensed that his time in Scotland was coming to an end and in July 1497 he went back to Ireland. However, even in a country that had supported the House of York, Warbeck was not welcome and he sailed for Devon.
Here only a few thousand people joined him and the people of Exeter and Taunton drove him out. Warbeck fled to Beaulieu Abbey where he hoped to find sanctuary. In August 1497 he was persuaded to give himself up. As a foreigner Warbeck could not be tried for treason so would not have faced the butchery of being hung, drawn and quartered.
Henry allowed Warbeck to remain at court where he could be watched. However, he foolishly tried to run away which seemed to emphasise his treachery. Warbeck was put in the stocks, humiliated and sent to the Tower. Clearly after being generous to the pretender, Henry’s patience had run out. In 1499, Warbeck was charged with trying to escape for a second time, found guilty and hanged on November 23rd 1499.
The execution of Warbeck may also have been ordered for another reason. Henry was determined to marry his eldest son, Arthur, to the daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain. The bringing together of the two nations would have had many advantages to both. However, with Warbeck lurking in the background, there was always the chance that Henry could have been challenged and such a disruptive possibility did not enhance Henry’s position. If Warbeck was permanently removed, Henry could claim that his kingdom was strong and stable. The marriage of Arthur and Catherine of Aragon went ahead.