The main plot of the first season of Starz’ The White Princess (based on the novel by Philippa Gregory) is the two military challenges to the rule of Henry VII (Jacob Collins-Levy). The show is generally not very interested in the things that are actually important about Henry’s reign, such as his efforts to re-establish the monarchy as dominant over the nobility or his administrative efforts (which, let’s be honest, would probably be a rough sell in a tv series), so it milks far more drama out of two comparatively small incidents than they really deserve.
Henry VII was a political upstart with a rather weak claim to the throne who found an opening in the weak political position of Richard III. Both the Yorkists and the Lancastrians had stronger claims to the throne, but the Lancastrian line was extinguished and Henry had succeeded in co-opting the Yorkist claim by marrying the oldest daughter of Edward IV, a woman who arguable had a better claim than her husband did. This weakness left him vulnerable to challengers who could tap into the Yorkist claim somehow.
Not long after Henry became king, he moved against the most obvious challenger to his claim, his wife’s cousin Edward Plantagenet, the Earl of Warwick, a ten-year old boy. Warwick was the only surviving son of Duke George of Clarence, the middle brother between Edward IV and Richard III. George had been arrested in 1477 on charges of treason against Edward. Edward leaned on Parliament to pass an Act of Attainder declaring George a traitor, so he was executed in 1478. The Act of Attainder meant that Warwick could not inherit the throne through his father’s line, but despite that Richard III may possibly had declared Warwick his heir after the death of Richard’s only son.
Warwick had a strong claim—if Richard was an illegitimate usurper as Henry insisted, after the death of Edward IV’s two sons, the Yorkist claims passed to Warwick. The Act of Attainder severed that transmission of the claim, but the Act could have been reversed by Parliament if Henry had been unseated, so Warwick was an obvious focus on opposition to Henry. So Henry did the smart thing and threw the kid into the Tower of London, where he lived most of the rest of his unfortunate life.
However, because Warwick was a young boy out of sight, it was easy for a rumor to spread that he had escaped from the Tower and was trying to unseat Henry. And that’s what happened in 1487. A university-educated priest, Richard Simon or Symonds, decided to put forward a young boy named Lambert Simnel as being Warwick (although he initially claimed that Simnel was Richard of York, Edward IV’s vanished younger son). Simnel was the son of a baker or organ-maker and had no connection with nobility whatsoever. His exact motives for this are unknown, but it was probably a combination of Yorkist sympathies and the ambition to position himself as tutor to the king. Symonds managed to win the support of John de la Pole, the Earl of Lincoln, the nephew of Edward IV and Richard III by their sister Elizabeth. It’s not clear whether Lincoln genuinely believed that Simnel was his cousin Warwick or whether he figured that Warwick’s was more likely to rally support than his own. Lincoln was able to raise a force of about 2000 Dutch mercenaries by getting support from his cousin Margaret of Burgundy, who hated Henry.
Then he sailed with Simnel to Ireland, raised some Irish troops, and landed in northern England, hoping to seize control of York. But York remained loyal to Henry, perhaps because people disliked the idea of using the Dutch and Irish as kingmakers, but also perhaps because Henry had done the smart thing and brought the real Warwick out of imprisonment to prove he wasn’t wandering around northern England. Rebuffed at York, Lincoln headed south and encountered Henry’s larger and better equipped forces at the Battle of Stoke. Trapped against the river Trent, Lincoln and his forces were wiped out.
Stoke is frequently referred to as the last battle in the Wars of the Roses, because it marked the last time the English nobility had a chance (albeit a rather poor one) to assert control of the kingdom by deposing the king in favor of a rival claimant. Henry treated Simnel with great clemency, giving him a position in the royal kitchens and later making him the king’s falconer.
Henry forced his mother-in-law, the Dowager Queen Elizabeth Woodville, into a genteel retirement at Bermondsey Abbey on the southeast edge of London right about this point, causing some to suspect that she had supported the revolt in some way. Her holdings were transferred to her daughter’s control, effectively eliminating her ability to do anything more than cheer from the sidelines.
Three years later, in 1490, another pretender arose, one who became known to history as Perkin Warbeck (or Osbeck). Most of what we know about Warbeck comes from a confession he signed after his capture, which means that its contents are suspect. But Warbeck appears to have been the son of John Warbecque, the comptroller of the Flemish city of Courtrai. When he was 17 he was hired by a merchant who took him to Cork in Ireland, where the local population, staunchly Yorkist, declared that he must be either the still-imprisoned Earl of Warwick or the still-missing Richard of York, younger son of Edward IV. Whether that’s actually where Warbeck got the idea for his imposture or not is impossible to say.
He traveled to the Burgundian court, where Margaret of Burgundy supported his claims. Margaret gave him money and helped him get support from the Holy Roman Emperor Maximillian I. They helped keep his cause alive for more than half a decade, making him a thorn in Henry’s side.
In 1491, Warbeck tried to raise a rebellion in Ireland, but failed. In 1495, Henry received intelligence about a small group of nobles who supported Warbeck’s claims, chief among them Sir William Stanley. Stanley was the Lord Chamberlain and thus a key figure in the government. He was also the brother of Henry’s step-father Thomas Stanley and a man who had helped him win at Bosworth Field. The conspirators (although it doesn’t seem to have been a highly-organized plot) were generally executed.
Soon after the ‘conspiracy’ was revealed, Warbeck landed a small force at Deal, in Kent, but local forces repulsed him, forcing him to withdraw. So he sailed to Ireland and tried to seize control of Waterford, but was again repulsed. So he sailed to Scotland, where James IV realized he would be a useful weapon against Henry. James pretended to believe Warbeck’s claims and married him off to a distant cousin of his, Cathy Gordon
A year later, in 1496, James made a desultory invasion into northern England, using Warbeck’s cause as the excuse. He had hoped the Northumbrians might have rallied to Warbeck’s banner, but they didn’t, and when an English army approached, James retreated back to Scotland. A year later, James decided to be rid of Warbeck and gave him a ship that dropped the pretender in Ireland. Warbeck sailed to Cornwall, where the Cornish had recently rebelled because Henry had withdrawn a centuries-old tax exemption from them. Warbeck was able to raise a force of around 6,000 men, but when an English army approached, he panicked and fled to Beaulieu Abbey, where he and his wife surrendered.
Henry initially treated Warbeck with the same leniency he had treated Simnel. He made a full confession of his imposture and lived as a guest of the king. His wife became one of the queen’s ladies-in-waiting and served faithfully for about two decades before being allowed to get married again. But early in 1499, Warbeck fled court, only to be quickly recaptured. This time Henry sent him to the Tower. In August of that year, Warbeck and Warwick somehow escaped from the Tower and sought to raise the cause of the White Rose again. But Warbeck was once again captured and both he and the unfortunate Warwick were executed.
The Rebellions in the Show
The series does a reasonable job with the Lambert Simnel’s rebellion. The only major thing it gets wrong is that it presents Margaret of Burgundy (Joanne Whalley) as masterminding the rebellion. She is shown looking over several candidates to pretend to be Warwick and settling on Simnel (Max True) and orchestrating his rebellion. In reality, Richard Simons chose him. Margaret supported him, but it is just as likely that she believed Simnel’s claims to be Warwick as that she knew he was an imposter.
But beyond that, the show does a reasonable job of setting up Henry’s decision to imprison the real Warwick (who is presented as so simple-minded that as a ten-year old boy he cannot understand why people calling for “King Warwick” might be a bad idea). Margaret Beaufort (Michelle Fairley) is shown maliciously scheming to have people call out for “King Warwick” entirely so she can have Henry throw the kid in the Tower. There is absolutely zero evidence for this.
But when it gets to Perkin Warbeck’s rebellion, the train goes badly off the rails. To start with, the show (and The White Queen before it) makes it very clear that Perkin Warbeck actually is Richard of York. Early in the first episode, after Henry has defeated Richard III at Bosworth field, Henry’s men show up to Elizabeth Woodville’s residence to take the queen and her children into custody. Elizabeth (Essie Davis) gives her young Richard instructions to hide in the attic and then flee the country. At this point she has already nicknamed him ‘Perkin’.
This is absurd for several reasons. First, Richard of York had already been taken into Richard’s custody almost three years early. When he husband Edward died, Elizabeth had sought sanctuary with Richard at Westminster Abbey, but was persuaded to hand her younger son over to Richard of Gloucester. Within a year, Richard, like his older brother, had already disappeared from sight and was probably a rotting corpse somewhere. In The White QueenElizabeth passes off a young male servant as Richard and had her son smuggled out of England. So the show is just being counter-factual.
Second, it appears that Elizabeth’s entire household is taken into custody. So how did a 10 year-old boy who knows pretty much nothing about the world escape to the Continent with neither help nor resources? The show just hand-waves this issue and hopes you won’t notice.
Third, ‘Perkin’ roughly means ‘Pierre’s kin’ or a bit more loosely, “Peterson”. Why the hell would Elizabeth give her son Richard that as a nickname. ‘Dick’ or ‘Dickon’ would have been far more likely. Even if we grant this improbability, how would Henry VII’s people have gotten this right a decade later when they decided to fabricate a name and biography for him?
Eventually, however, the adult Richard (Patrick Gibson) shows up at the Burgundian court, where he immediately wins the support of Margaret of Burgundy. It’s not entirely clear whether she believes him to actually be the missing prince or not, but damn near everyone else who meets him is quickly persuaded he’s the real thing. He manages to convince Margaret Plantagenet (Rebecca Benson) who flatly says she never met Richard but still comes away won over by his knowledge of details of the court. Elizabeth of York (Jodie Comer) comes to believe it. Even his mother becomes magically convinced that her son has returned, despite not seeing him or having any way to know the truth. Basically, the show absolutely stacks the facts in favor of Warbeck’s claim. It ignores, for example, that historians have been able to confirm many of the facts of his statement admitting his true identity. The show doesn’t want there to be any ambiguity at all about this.
The show also emphasizes that all the royalty in Europe believe his claims except Ferdinand and Isabella. He meets the Holy Roman Emperor! He marries a close relative of James of Scotland! In fact, there’s very little evidence to suggest that most rulers accepted the claims. Instead they threw a few minor resources at him in hopes that if his improbable rebellion succeeded, he would feel obligated to them. Yes, James IV married him to a cousin, but Cathy Gordon was a third cousin (they shared a great-grandfather). The fact that James gave him a distant relative rather than someone closer is actually pretty good evidence that James didn’tbelieve him.
The adult Perkin is depicted as almost saintly, forgiving everyone who refuses to accept his claims, nobly enduring imprisonment, and rejecting a plan to enable him to escape. He is so convinced of the rightness of his claim that he’s incapable of recognizing that his cause is completely lost. Cathy (Amy Manson) is depicted as being completely devoted to him, which seems implausible, given that she served loyally as Elizabeth’s lady-in-waiting and seems to have reverted quickly to a version of her maiden name (although since this evidence of this comes from English court records, it may not reflect her personal choice). In the show, the couple have a baby. In fact, she doesn’t seem to have had any children at all by any of her four husbands.
Henry VII (Jacob Collins-Levy) is depicted as being driven almost to insanity by Richard’s purity and refusal to admit the truth. He chews the scenery fiercely as a demonstration of his inability to admit he’s not the rightful king. In reality, Warbeck was little more than a thorn in Henry’s side who enjoyed little support and was at best a minor problem for him. Had Henry actually been upset about Warbeck, he would have simply executed the man, whereas in reality he treated the pretender with mercy and gave him a job.
So, essentially, almost everything the show offers us about Perkin Warbeck is fiction, even more so than usual for the show.
Want to Know More?
The White Princess is available on Amazon, as is the novel it’s based on. But if you’re looking for something historically reliable about Henry and Elizabeth, skip Philippa Gregory. For Henry VII, take a look at Sean Cunningham’s Henry VII or Thomas Penn’s Winter King: Henry VII and the Dawn of Tudor England.