The Perfect Prince: Truth and Deception in Renaissance Europeby Ann Wroe
The most intriguing and ambitious pretender in history, this elegant young man was
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.
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The beginnings of his story, as he told it, lay deep in the turmoil of the recent history of England. For three decades, to the astonishment of foreigners, the crown had been wrestled back and forth between the Houses of Lancaster and York. Henry V, the glory of Lancaster and the victor of Agincourt, had been followed in 1422 by a child-king, Henry VI, who grew into a saintly fool at the mercy of his scheming lords. England quickly descended into factional warfare, with extraordinary slaughter of the nobility on both sides. In 1460 Richard, Duke of York, claiming descent from Edward III, tried to proclaim himself king but was rebuffed and, in short order, killed. The next year, his son defeated Henry in battle and was crowned as Edward IV at Westminster.
The claims of Lancaster had been blurred by bastardy in the fourteenth century; but those of York, too, were not secure. Edward was king de facto but not de jure. In recent history, the Yorkist line had passed twice through women; and Henry, besides, still lived. In 1470 Edward IV’s great rival, the Earl of Warwick, forced the king into exile in Flanders and brought the befuddled Henry out of prison. The restoration was short-lived. Edward was back within months, gathered supporters in the north, and early in 1471 recovered the crown. For some years afterward, comforted by this epitome of glorious kingship, the country calmed down. But Edward died in 1483 at the age of forty, leaving in the balance the fate of both England and his two child-sons, Edward and Richard, whose story this young man gave as his own.
He had told it repeatedly, and could do so now if you required it of him, together with the sighs and tears that such a history called for. As a fatherless child of about nine, he and his brother Edward, who was twelve, had been committed to the Tower of London on the orders of their uncle Richard, Duke of Gloucester. Edward was supposed to await his coronation; instead, he had been killed. He himself, however, though tipped for death, had been spared and bundled abroad. He had been forced into wandering “in various countries” without a name or a background that anyone knew, or was allowed to know. In this way, he passed eight desolate years. Toward the end of them, apparently not yet free of aimlessness and poverty, he “spent some time in the kingdom of Portugal.”
Meanwhile, his uncle had been crowned as Richard III. His reign was short. In 1485 Henry Tudor, the Earl of Richmond and a sprig of the House of Lancaster, returned from exile in Brittany to encounter Richard at Bosworth. The king was cut down like a dog in the midst of the battle, and his rival was acclaimed as Henry VII in his place. To try to defuse the claims of York, and to dampen England’s affection for that house, Henry married Edward’s eldest daughter and united their lines. Yet Yorkist claims, true or false, continually dogged him. Every year, risings occurred in some part of England or another. As Henry suppressed them, gradually accustoming the country to his firm and careful rule, the most dangerous claimant of all, this young man, Richard Plantagenet, remained in hiding. He waited only his moment, and the backing of other princes, to cast down Henry Tudor and send him back into the obscurity from which he had come.
So his story stood in most of Europe in 1494. But in 1497, when Henry captured this young man, a different tale eclipsed it. It came in the form of an official confession, already known and publicized in part beforehand, to which he apparently now agreed and put his signature. According to this, he was no prince, but the son of a customs-collector, John Osbeck, who worked up and down the River Scheldt at Tournai, on the border of France and the Burgundian lands. (His own name, though not given in the confession, was established at the same time as Piers Osbeck.) As a very small boy he had been put out to board with his aunt, then sent away to learn Flemish, only to be shuttled back home as war broke out between the local towns and Maximilian, then Archduke of Austria and regent of the Burgundian Netherlands. At the age of nine or ten he went to Antwerp with a merchant of Tournai called Berlo and, almost at once, fell sick. He remained ill for five months, lodged at a skinner’s place beside the House of the English Merchant Adventurers. He was “brought from thence,” still convalescent, to the market at Bergen-op-Zoom, where he stayed two months at a tavern called The Sign of the Old Man. After that he was hired by John Strewe, a merchant, possibly English, of Middelburg in Zeeland, and then by Sir Edward Brampton’s wife, who took him as her page to Portugal. After a year there, restless again, Piers put himself into service with a Breton merchant who took him to Ireland. There, some Yorkist malcontents decided to press him into service as a false Duke of York.
Brampton himself, a Portuguese-born merchant, soldier and royal servant, gave a different version of this young man’s life before he had resurfaced as a prince. He told it to Spanish investigators in Setubal, in Portugal, in 1496. Again the boy came from Tournai, the son of a boatman called Bernal Uberque. He had not, however, gone into trade, but had been placed with an organist in the city. There for some years he had learned el oficio, the profession of playing music, especially at the Mass, but eventually he had run away. His age then, according to another Setubal witness who said he had talked to his father, was “fourteen going on fifteen”: still a tender child, by current thinking. He was a moço to Brampton, the Portuguese for a servant boy, though once or twice he used the word rapaz for him, slang for a youth. Typically for the time, Brampton did not use his name at all. But he too thought that he was called “Piris,” or Piers.
Ending up in Middelburg, Piers became an assistant to a man who sold purses and needles. His shop was opposite the house where Brampton’s wife was staying, taking refuge from the plague in Bruges, and the boy became friendly with the French children who were kept in her service. When he heard that they were all going to Portugal, Brampton said, Piers pleaded to go with them and join their family. In the end—almost, it seemed, to stop his pestering—they took him. But he was not with them long before he suddenly announced that he wanted to go home. When next heard of, he was being followed as King Edward’s son in Ireland.
All these stories, ostensibly so different, were linked by wandering and jeopardy. The prince had roamed for years, in desperate sadness, in countries he scarcely knew. The boy of the confession had traveled widely under multiple masters, always vaguely discontented, wanting to move on. In Brampton’s testimony, he deliberately ran away from Tournai toward the sea; once in Middelburg, he begged to go to Portugal. He desired, his confession said, “to see other Countries.” Polydore Vergil thought his poverty and baseness, oppressing him from childhood, had impelled him to wander, like the “land-loper” Henry called him. He longed constantly for the strange and new.
John Mandeville, in his book of travels, described such restlessness as a characteristic of northern Europeans. The moon, the mother of the waters, was their planet of influence, and they wandered as she did, lightly about the world. Unlike the natives of broiling India, stilled by Saturn’s dryness and passivity, they could not stay unmoving or uncurious. Possibilities impelled them: of profit, fame, love, escape. Their longing could be summed up in the phrase per adventure, which meant, then, “perhaps.”
This notion of adventure ran all through life. A young man’s sexual equipment was his denrées d’aventure, the gear with which he hoped to take a chance with girls. Ordinary men and women “put their honor in adventure” when they picked a quarrel with someone violent or implacable. Merchants were “venturers,” their adventure a part-share in the ship in which they hazarded their cargoes and their profits. The precarious foundation of the career of Jacques Coeur, high steward and argentier of France, was summed up by the chronicler Georges Chastellain as galées vagans par les estranges mers, galleys wandering on foreign seas. The hunt, every man’s favorite exercise, was high adventure hazarded in local fields and forests. The deer, bounding into the trees and disappearing, was sent perhaps to lure the hunter into a land he did not know. He followed the quest as he was impelled to, though it might lead to the loss of his hounds, his horse or himself.
Venturers could also be found in every city and down every lane: traveling salesmen, itinerant priests, musicians, ex-students, way-walking beggars, mercenary soldiers dismissed from campaigns. They journeyed in the hope of sudden generosity or a lucky chance around the next bend in the road. Some looked for a new “good lord” whose device they could pin on their hats. They would live by their wits, casting off old ties and loyalties, inventing names and histories as needed, and see how far that got them. Such wanderers often carried the tools of a spurious trade, a halberd, a rosary or a diploma, in the expectation that some sponsor or some dupe would appear on the horizon. If that hope failed, they would make for the next chance.
A man who put his body or goods in adventure, whether by trade or traveling or claiming a throne, was not entirely without defenses. He kept, between his body and disaster, the thin surety of his own talents, like the well-caulked hull of a boat. A free and open heart, dwelling on future possibility and not constrained by what was feasible, was especially disposed to receive God’s grace and turn adventure to good use. Nevertheless, in general parlance, the word carried more fear than hope. The sense of risk and jeopardy was strong. “Unhappy adventure” was not mishap, but catastrophe: Icarus with his wax wings or Phaeton in his father’s chariot, desperately losing control of the bucking and flaming horses of the sun.
The date of the boy’s journey to Portugal, where all the versions of his life met, seemed to be sometime after Easter in 1487. He accompanied the wife of Brampton and possibly Brampton himself, who had come to fetch his wife from Middelburg. Bruges was no longer a good place to be, seething with political unrest, infected with plague and with trade so depressed that “such men as be of any substance . . . steal daily away.”
Brampton played down the boy’s presence on the trip. He had tagged along, he thought, mostly because he hoped to insinuate himself into Brampton’s household. Piers, on the other hand, was thrilled. His excitement showed through even in the stiff, fractured phrases of the official confession: “I went into Portugal in the company of Sir Edward Brampton’s wife in a ship that was called The Queen’s Ship.” Whether prince or servant, or both at once, this was his first long voyage.
It was not necessarily an easy one, as Richmond Herald found when he went on an embassy to Portugal in 1489. The party left Southampton on January 19th, but bad weather forced them into Plymouth and kept them there until February 1st. They then sailed again, but the wind was so contrary that they had to make for Falmouth. There they landed “in a great tempest of wind, rain and bad rough weather.” Ten days later they attempted to sail again, managing a night and a day before “there was such a great storm of wind and rain that it was a marvel.” On February 15th came such a gust of wind that “the said ship took in . . . so much water that she was quite under water and all on one side for a while, and the great sail almost entirely steeped in the sea, and remained so a long time, about a quarter of an hour. And all the ambassadors cried to God, and to all the saints of Paradise . . . ”
Richmond had sailed in the winter; the boy sailed later, when the weather should have been kinder. There may have been balmy days, skirting the enormous ocean, with the sun warm on the decks. The smell of Portugal was probably already on the ship, heavy in the perfume of the malagueta pepper Brampton imported. Malagueta grew in the steaming jungles of Cape Mesurado on the Guinea coast, where natives would barter a bushel for a bangle of brass. These “grains of paradise,” ground up in wine with sugar, ginger, mace and cinnamon, made hippocras, deeply aromatic and sexually stimulating, which Venus was said to serve lovers on their first visit to her tavern. It was just the sort of thing a fourteen-year-old page might try, having carried it round carefully to the adults with wafers, comfits and ground spices before they went to bed; several steps up from the weak wine and beer he drank routinely, and carrying deep in the beaker the smell of Africa and the Spice Islands.
Yet, according to Brampton, Piers had not found a haven in this household. He had been taken along out of impatience, with nothing particular to offer except, perhaps, a talent for music, and Brampton averred that he did not want him to be either his page or his wife’s. When they got to Lisbon, he broke the news to Piers, and seemed to assume he took it badly. Brampton’s wife was open to keeping him, but Brampton himself wanted no more French brats. He handed him on.
The handover was so swift that, in Portugal, no one seemed to associate the boy with Brampton, only with his wife. Yet their connection may not have been as slight as both implied. When Brampton gave his testimony, in the spring of 1496, he may well have been seeking to ingratiate himself with Henry VII (who was supposedly going to see it) by stressing how insubstantial the boy was and, especially, how little he himself had had to do with him. Bernard André, Henry’s court poet, said Brampton had kept the boy close for a long time, educating him in Yorkist lore. There is no proof of this. But Brampton claimed to know a lot about the boy, including his name, his father’s name, his address and his history in general. As for Piers, on this evidence at least, he seemed strangely taken with Brampton, to the point of deciding to leave Portugal when he realized Brampton did not want him.
Meet the Author
Ann Wroe is the author of Pontius Pilate, a finalist for the Samuel Johnson Prize, and A Fool and His Money, the acclaimed story of a scandal in a small French town during the Hundred Years War. She received her doctorate in medieval history from Oxford and is a senior editor at The Economist. She lives in London with her husband and their three sons.
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