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Perkin Warbeck Essay

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Explain why Perkin Warbeck remained a threat to the security of Henry VII for so many years.

Perkin Warbeck was the second Yorkist pretender to the English throne after Lambert Simnel was defeated at the Battle of Stoke in 1487. Between the years 1491-99, he posed a significantly destabilising threat to Henry VII in dynastic terms, impersonating Richard of York, the younger son of Edward IV. The successes of Warbeck, which led him to remain a threat to the King’s security, may be largely categorised into the support from foreign powers during this period and discontent existing in England due to Henry’s methods of ruling with relation to sustaining an authoritative and respected status both within his own country and abroad.

Whilst it is possible to challenge such a concept of a threat, Warbeck was eventually executed in November 1499, demonstrating in a modern context that the King’s perception of this pretender was one of great concern for his position.

Steven Gunn has suggested that ‘Henry was a usurper and carried with him the problems of this title’. Upon taking the English throne, it was inevitable that Henry would face opposition to his rule, particularly in consideration of his lack of familiarity with English politics and those supporters of the Yorkist claim. With the knowledge that Richard III intended John de la Pole to inherit the crown and having already fought at the Battle of Stoke to secure his position, it would seem almost equally likely that Henry would be a paranoid character by the time that Perkin Warbeck came to attention, and he could not predetermine the reactions of the De la Pole family, who were largely responsible for the pretenders.

It is significant not only that Warbeck was the second embodiment of discontent within Henry’s reign, but also that political unsettlement had been apparent under his predecessor – also a usurper. Henry is likely to have feared reaching the same fate as Richard III, whose reign had been plagued with suspicions surrounding the Princes in the Tower controversy and indeed, the dating of his coronation to appear three days before his victory at Bosworth suggests paranoia existing even before his rule. Thus Warbeck is best viewed in one sense as a non-military threat, being an encouragement of this paranoia through the exploitation of Henry’s potentially weak position. He reminded the King of the existence of dissatisfaction within his own country and later among foreign powers.

The princes had never been seen again and were presumed murdered by their uncle, Richard III. In this way, there was an immediate simplicity for Warbeck to exploit the lack of clarification as to what had happened to them. Whereas Lambert Simnel’s claim was flawed in that Henry was able to parade the true Earl of Warwick through London during the crisis, Warbeck was imitating Edward IV’s younger son, Richard of York. Hence this crisis was much more serious, for Henry was unable to prove the existence of the true Richard and if Warbeck truly was the prince he impersonated, his claim to the English throne would have been superior to that of Henry. The threat of Warbeck was enlarged by the context in which it occurred – those behind the pretender were able to follow a potentially fatal method by which Henry’s position could be destabilised.

In order to ascertain why any pretender to the throne would become a prolonged threat, the nature of the monarch’s rule must be evaluated. The view of Steven Gunn could be expanded upon to maintain that Henry’s rule naturally had characteristics of that of a usurper: unlike a hereditary monarch, he required more stringent methods of discipline to enforce his position as a ruler. In addition to passing attainders against those involved with the pretenders (Edmund de la Pole was fined �5000 to inherit some of his brother’s lands and never inherited the dukedom of Suffolk for his involvement with Simnel) Empson and Dudley greatly assisted in coordinating the increased use of bonds and recognisances against subjects.

Then in 1497, Perkin Warbeck’s forces rallied the rebels during the second Cornish Rising in protest against raised taxes to support the invasion of Scotland and together, they nearly took the city of Exeter. In this way, it can be observed that Warbeck becoming a threat was in a paradoxical sense – Henry needed to use more powerful methods of rule to secure his own position and dynasty than an ordinary monarch due to his status, though the discontent which such methods brought about led to resentful individuals turning to the diversion of Warbeck.

Threats in military terms from Perkin Warbeck during this period may be largely attributed to foreign support. Indeed, Warbeck potentially had concern also from nobility such as Sir William Stanley, as Margaret of Burgundy, sister of Edward IV, proclaimed him as her long-lost nephew. The role of France was crucial in causing Warbeck to remain a threat to the security of Henry’s position. In 1491, he moved to the French court and was treated similarly to a prince by Charles VIII, which illustrated to Henry a possibility of an invasion – the French had funded his own invasion of England in 1485 to overthrow Richard III, and the case could potentially have been that this claimant was genuine.

The threat was heightened by Charles’ discontent in 1492 after Henry’s assistance of the Duchess of Brittany in an attempt to retain her independence from France, whilst the 1489 Treaty of Medina del Campo with Spain led the French to encourage James IV of Scotland to invade England. It was Henry’s invasion of France in 1492 which appeared to be a very drastic action with regard to this pretender – it was clear that with foreign military backing, his position could be significantly threatened. However, in this respect, it must be noted that the threat was not Warbeck as an individual, but rather the concept of the proceedings and those supporting him. He became a focus for French discontent with Henry VII in the same way that he had been a Yorkist focus in England.

A prolonged threat from any pretender to any throne can always be attributed to discontent with a monarch’s rule. Conformingly, Perkin Warbeck was often able to exploit this to enlist support and increase opposition to the King. It is clear that the level of foreign support given to the pretender ultimately was the greatest contributing factor in threatening Henry’s security due to the possibility of a successful invasion, though the paranoia and the methods of rule enlisted to secure his dynasty were equal factors in causing Warbeck to remain a threat. In contrast, it is very significant that Warbeck was never a primary threat as an individual, but merely a strong secondary threat behind the foreign powers and nobility that supported him – it was the concept that destabilised the position of Henry VII.

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