In 1491, as Machiavelli advised popes and princes and Leonardo da Vinci astonished the art world, a young man boarded a ship in Portugal bound for Ireland. He would be greeted upon arrival as the rightful heir to the throne of England. The trouble was, England already had a king.
The most intriguing and ambitious pretender in history, this elegant young man was celebrated throughout Europe as the prince he claimed to be: Richard, Duke of York, the younger of the “Princes in the Tower” who were presumed to have been murdered almost a decade earlier. Handsome, well-mannered, and charismatic, he behaved like the perfect prince, and many believed he was one. The greatest European rulers of the age—among them the emperor Maximilian, Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain, and Charles VIII of France—used him as a diplomatic pawn to their own advantage. As such, he tormented Henry VII for eight years, attempting to invade England three times. Eventually, defeated and captured, he admitted to being Perkin Warbeck, the son of a common boatman from Flanders. But was this really the truth?
Ann Wroe, a historian and storyteller of the first rank, delves into the secret corners of the late medieval world to explore both the elusive nature of identity and the human propensity for deception. In uncovering the mystery of Perkin Warbeck, Wroe illuminates not only a life but an entire world trembling on the verge of discovery.
Many readers who know the English War of the Roses through the plays of Shakespeare will be interested in the coda Wroe offers to that history: several years into the reign of Henry VII, a young man called Perkin Warbeck claimed to be one of the sons of Edward IV, consigned as boys to the Tower of London and supposedly murdered by order of their uncle, Richard III. Invading England with support from both commoners and princes, Warbeck challenged the legitimacy of the first Tudor king. Wroe nicely evokes the ephemera of image and manners that, along with lineage, enabled a prince to rule. Holding out the barest of possibilities that Warbeck was indeed who he said he was, she recreates the shifting sands of identity that confounded his contemporaries. Prominent figures, including Margaret of York and James IV of Scotland, encouraged the young man based not so much on their belief in his story as on how well it fit their own diplomatic ambitions. Contemporary narratives of lost princes and the desire for leadership made Warbeck's claims reasonable to others. In the end, his successes indicate that the Tudor dynasty was initially no more secure than its predecessors, while his ultimate defeat all but ended the conflicting royal claims that had torn England apart in the previous century. Wroe (Pontius Pilate), a senior editor at the Economist, occasionally digresses in the rich cultural and political context of her story, but amateurs of English history will find a highly readable and fascinating new story among names and events they already know. (On sale Oct. 21)