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Imposter or Pretender?

Picture of royal imposter Perkin Warbeck

In 1491, a well-dressed young man appeared at the port of Cork in Ireland claiming to be Richard of Shrewsbury, son of Edward IV and rightful king of England.  Over the next few years, he challenged Henry VII for the throne until he was finally captured in 1497.  So was he an imposter or a genuine pretender?

The Tudor regime had wasted no time in denouncing him as an imposter.  According to his confession, he was not the long-lost son of Edward IV after all but, rather, a commoner by the name of Perkin Warbeck.

It seems like an incredible story but, in fact, it was not as unusual as you might imagine.  Warbeck was just the latest in a long line of royal pretenders and imposters who’d challenged for the thrones of Europe in the Middle Ages.  Perhaps he stands out as one of the more successful and prominent examples, but in other respects his bid for power was not unremarkable.

The Victor of Bosworth Field

Henry VII claimed the throne after the battle of Bosworth in 1485

When Henry VII took the crown of England on Bosworth field in 1485, the Tudor age began. 

Despite his victory, Henry’s legitimacy was open to question.  His claim stemmed from a rather distant familial connection to the House of Lancaster.  He was descended from Edward III through his mother’s Beaufort family.  However, the Beauforts had been explicitly excluded from inheriting the throne by Henry IV.

Henry shored up his position by marrying Elizabeth of York, Edward IV’s eldest daughter and the most senior surviving Yorkist claimant.  But, even so, there were still many Yorkists who saw Henry as a Tudor upstart from a lesser Lancastrian line.

Nevertheless, Henry benefited from the fact that there was no especially obvious Yorkist alternative left alive to challenge him.  

Richard of York and his sons were all dead.  Richard III died leaving no legitimate children of his own.  Edward IV’s sons, Edward, and Richard had disappeared in 1483 under suspicious circumstances.  Only George of Clarence’s son, Edward of Warwick, remained. Apart from the fact that his claim was inferior to Henry’s wife, he was barred from the succession by the attainder placed on his father.  In any case, Henry soon had Edward safely locked away in the Tower of London.

Many may have resented Henry Tudor but, there was no obvious alternative to rally behind. 

Lambert Simnel

But, if there is no obvious alternative, why not fabricate one? 

Enter Lambert Simnel.

Lambert Simnel was a commoner of relatively humble origins.  When he was about ten years old, he was taken as a student by an Oxford Priest, Richard Simons (or possibly, depending on the source, Richard Symonds, Richard Simon, or even William Symonds).  Richard noticed that the boy bore some resemblance to Edward IV.  At some point, the priest and the boy threw in their lot with some disgruntled Yorkists.  Most notably, the Earl of Kildare and John de la Pole, the Earl of Lincoln. 

Initially, Simnel was presented as the missing Richard of Shrewsbury.  However, this wasn’t ideal since Simnel was 10 and the real Richard would have been 14 by 1487.  At the time Edward of Warwick was incarcerated in the Tower and rumours were circulating that he was dead.  Since Edward was closer in age with Simnel, the conspirators changed their story and presented Simnel as Edward.

Lambert Simnel.  Originally, he claimed to be Richard of Shrewsbury, the missing son of Edward IV.  However, he later changed his story, claiming to be Edward of Warwick (even though Edward himself was still alive)

The ensuing rebellion ended in defeat at the battle of Stoke in 1487.

Clearly Simnel had been an imposter.  The real Edward of Warwick was still alive.  However, Henry recognised the boy had been a pawn, manipulated by the likes of Kildare and Lincoln.  Simnel was pardoned and set to work in Henry’s kitchen as a spit turner.

Richard of Shrewsbury

Henry’s triumph at Stoke secured his position for the time being but a die-hard Yorkist faction remained a potential threat.

Then, in 1491, a young man appeared in Cork claiming to be Richard of Shrewsbury.  He’d come from Portugal, where he said he’d been for the past few years and, before that, he’d apparently been in Flanders. 

A year later his story was endorsed by Margaret, the Dowager Duchess of Burgundy.  Her support was important, in no small part because she was Edward IV’s sister and, therefore, Richard’s aunt.  The boy also had a physical resemblance to Edward IV.  Could he really be Richard of Shrewsbury?

Of course, there was a problem with his claim.  Specifically, the year is 1491, Richard of Shrewsbury disappeared in 1483.  No one in England had seen or heard anything of Richard for years.  Many suspected he and his brother had been murdered in the Tower of London by Richard III.  Whether this was true or not, the fact was that no one had seen anything of either boy since 1483.  It seemed most unlikely that either one was still alive.

So, what had happened to Richard in the time between his disappearance in 1483 and 1491?

Richard’s story

Richard claimed his brother Edward V had been murdered.  He was not clear on who the murderers were, only that he had been spared due to his young age.  Forced to go into hiding, he concealed his identity, under the protection of Yorkist loyalists on the continent.  He claimed he’d been under the protection of Sir Edward Brampton, a supporter of Richard III.  Brampton frequently travelled to the continent during Richard’s reign and did indeed take refuge in Flanders after Richard’s defeat.

After appearing in Cork in 1491, Richard established himself as an effective figurehead for Yorkist dissent.  However, Richard’s efforts to foment rebellion and overthrow Henry VII were unsuccessful.  In the end he was never able to muster enough support to topple the Tudor monarch.  He was finally captured at Beaulieu Abbey in Hampshire in 1497 after mounting another failed insurrection. 

At first Henry was inclined to be merciful, imprisoning the pretender rather than executing him.  However, Henry’s patience ran out in 1499 when the would-be Richard IV tried to escape.  He was caught and hanged at Tyburn.

Perkin Warbeck

Of course, Henry VII’s regime denounced the young pretender as an imposter.

After questioning, an alternative story of the boy’s life began to emerge.  In this version he was not Richard but Perkin Warbeck.  He’d been born in Flanders in 1474 (hence around the same age as the real Richard).  His father had been a town Burgess in Tournai, by the name of John Osbeck (also Jehan de Werbecque).

Warbeck himself had earnt a living as a cloth trader, travelling extensively.  During his travels he picked up some English.  Then, on a business trip to Dublin in 1491, local Yorkists had remarked upon his resemblance to the old king, Edward IV.  With their encouragement that he’d assumed the identity of Richard of Shrewsbury. 

Warbeck’s claim to the throne had ultimately been backed by powerful Yorkist interests, hostile to Henry VII.  A key supporter had been Margaret of Burgundy, who’d identified him as her nephew.  There is no doubt that Margaret’s support was heavily motivated by her own political ambitions.  But, setting this aside, was it possible that she genuinely believed Perkin was her nephew?

Was Perkin Warbeck the real Richard of Shrewsbury?

Margaret left England for Burgundy before the real Richard had been born.  She returned to England only once, in the summer of 1480, when Richard would have just turned 7.  It is quite possible she met him then.  However, she never saw him again until 1492, by which time he would have been 19.  Realistically, it would have been very surprising if she’d been able to positively identify her nephew after such a long time.

However, the biggest problem with the boy’s story is the poorly explained gap between Richard’s disappearance in 1483 and his supposed re-appearance in 1491.  If, as he claimed, he’d fled to the continent after Edward V’s murder, why not seek refuge with his aunt in Burgundy straight away?  His only explanation for not revealing himself sooner was, that he wanted to protect the man who’d spared him from retribution.  However, it is not at all clear why revealing himself in 1491 was really any less dangerous than doing so in 1485.

Furthermore, when he initially appeared in Cork, in 1491, he did not speak English especially well.  This strongly supports his confession; that he was indeed a Flemish imposter who’d picked up English in his travels.

A pawn in a game

Perkin Warbeck was almost certainly an imposter.  His original story was flimsy to say the least.  However, his confession was probably obtained under torture (or the threat of torture) so cannot necessarily be taken at face value.  That said, it is far more credible than his original story.

It has even been suggested that he might have been groomed for his task in advance by Margaret of Burgundy.  That is pure speculation, although there is no denying both Simnel and Warbeck received considerable financial and military support from Margaret.  Like Lambert Simnel before him, Warbeck served as a politically expedient pawn through which Margaret and other die-hard Yorkists could act. 

But there was nothing especially unique or unusual about Simnel or Warbeck.  Throughout the Middle Ages imposters and pretenders of this sort regularly popped up to challenge unpopular or unstable regimes.  In fact, it was a common phenomenon.

Pseudo-Richard II

Portrait of Richard II
Richard II was deposed in 1399 and died sometime early in 1400.  His body was put on public display in London and was seen by thousands.  Despite this a man claiming to be Richard II showed up at the Scots court in 1402

Perkin Warbeck was not the first imposter who’d claimed to be a royal Richard. 

Nearly a century before, a man showed up in Scotland, claiming to be the ‘real’ Richard II.  The actual Richard II was dead, and his body had been displayed to thousands of people in London but that didn’t stop Pseudo-Richard.

It was an identity he would maintain until his death in 1419 and for most of this time he’d enjoy the support of the Scottish court.  Once again, his claims were primarily supported for political reasons.  In this case it was the animosity between the Scots and Henry IV.

Henry IV’s court identified this pseudo-Richard as Thomas Warde of Trumpington.  He’d been encouraged in his claims by William Serle, a former supporter of the real Richard II. 

But whoever he truly was, he was a poor Richard II impersonator. Pseudo-Richard was described as foolish and showed little interest in religion or attending mass.  The Richard II of the late 1390s had been intelligent, deadly serious, and very religious. 

Jean Creton, who’d met the real Richard just three years before, travelled from France to Scotland in the hopes of verifying his identity.  He was forced to report to the French court that, to his “great disappointment”, this man was not Richard II.

False Frederick

The Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II died in 1250.  However, during the years that followed things did not go well for the Empire.  By the 1280s, Rudolf I was attempting to stamp his authority over the Germans but with only limited success.  Many people longed for the return of the old Emperor Fredrick. 

If only Frederick could come back and put things right…

Then, in 1284, in Cologne, a fellow by the name of Tile Kolup claimed that he was, in fact, Emperor Frederick II, returned to put things in order.  Initially his claims were not taken that seriously.  Indeed, the citizen of Cologne mocked him, threw him into a sewer and drove him from the city.

This did not deter him.

The genuine Emperor Frederick II – if he had still lived in 1284, as his imposter claimed, he would have been a venerable 90 years old

Later that year he showed up in Neuss, issuing documents under a fake seal.  At around this time he appears to have found some patrons amongst those dissatisfied with Rudolf I’s reign.  The contemporary Magdeburger Schoppenchronik names these men as the landgrave of Thuringia, the margrave of Meissen, and their brother-in-law, Duke Henry of Brunswick.  With their financial and political support, Kolup even managed to establish a court at Wetzlar.  

But then his luck finally ran out.  Rudolf captured him at Wetzlar and had him burnt at the stake for heresy.

Fake Margaret

the real Margaret, maid of Norway, Queen of Scots

The life story of Margaret, maid of Norway, is a sad one.  She was the daughter of King Eric II of Norway and another Margaret, the daughter of the king of Scotland. 

Following the death of Alexander III, Margaret, still only a little girl, became heir to the Scots throne.   So, in 1290, at the age of just 7, she was sent to Scotland, destined for a political marriage.  Sadly, she grew ill enroute and died shortly after her arrival in Orkney. 

Her father died in 1299, to be succeeded by his brother, Haakon V.  However, within a year, a woman showed up at Bergen claiming to be the real Margaret.  She claimed she’d been betrayed and sold into servitude in Germany.  Now she had returned to claim her rightful heritage.

A few people believed her claims and she even received support from the clergy.  This is despite the fact that the real Margaret had been publicly buried by her own father.  There was also the small problem that the real Margaret would have been just 17 years old in 1299 but this Margaret was a woman in her forties.

Some suspected she had been put up as a pretender by Haakon’s political opponent, Audun Hugleiksson.  In any event she was burnt at the stake for treason in 1299.

Bogus Olaf

Olaf II was king of Denmark until his death in 1387.  He had died at an unexpectedly young age (just 16).  There were rumours that he may have been poisoned by his mother, Margaret I, so that she could rule in her own name.  Certainly, his death was viewed as a great loss at the time.

Fifteen years later, in 1402, an impoverished man living in the vicinity of the village of Graudenz was spotted by visiting merchants.  These merchants remarked that he seemed to bear a resemblance to the sadly missed Olaf II. 

One thing soon led to another.  There were those all too willing to believe that Olaf had been betrayed by his mother and forced into hiding.  Perhaps, somehow, Olaf had survived after all?  And now he’d returned to claim his birth right.

Queen Margaret herself wrote to ‘Olaf’ and told him she would accept him if he could prove he was her son.  Of course, when it came to it, he could not.  For one thing it turned out that he couldn’t even speak any Danish.  In the end he admitted to being nothing more than a German peasant.  He was condemned and burnt at the stake.

The incredible tale of Pseudo-Edward II

It is one thing to impersonate a royal after they are dead or missing but quite another to do it whilst they are still on the throne. 

In 1318, John Deydras decided to claim that he was Edward II.  Edward II may have been unpopular in 1318, but he was still very much alive and leading a very public life.

In fairness John bore some resemblance to the king, so in that sense it was not entirely unbelievable.  However, he only had one ear while Edward had two. 

Deydras explained this by saying that, as a young boy, a pig had eaten his ear in an accident. The servant who’d been tasked with his care had known she would get into trouble if the king found out.  So, she swapped the young Prince with a carter’s son.  Deydras claimed he’d been raised by the carter and, since he was good at fighting, that proved he was Edward I’s real son. 

He was arrested and brought before the real Edward.  In his trial he confessed that he had made the story up.  However, he pleaded that it was not his fault because that whole thing had been masterminded by his pet cat, who was, in fact, the devil in disguise.  His excuse did not cut it with the king, who had him hanged.

The Royal Imposter Phenomenon

As we’ve seen, royal imposters, far from being aberrations, were quite common during the Middle Ages.  But why?

Part of the explanation lies in the fact that so much power resided in the hands of monarchs.  The incentive to wield such power, or to have some control of it, was therefore enormous.  Such an incentive would not exist in a democracy where possession of power does not simply depend on being someone’s son or daughter.

It was also the case that imposters often had a physical appearance that was consistent with their claims.  Simnel and Warbeck bore some physical resemblance to Edward IV.  False Olaf bore a resemblance to the real Olaf.  This was undoubtedly co-incidence although, in the case of Simnel and Warbeck, there is a very slim chance there may have been an actual familial connection.  Edward IV was a notorious womaniser who is known to have had at least one illegitimate son.  So, perhaps either Simnel or Warbeck was actually one of Edward IV’s sons – just not a legitimate one.

But the appeal of royal power and a vague resemblance alone is not a fully adequate explanation as to why an imposter might emerge.

A product of instability

If we consider the examples from English history:

  • Pseudo-Edward II appeared in 1318, at a time when the king’s popularity was in steep decline.  Edward had suffered defeat at Bannockburn in 1314.   This had been followed by the Great Famine of 1315-1317 and criticism of Edward’s favouritism was growing.
  • Pseudo-Richard II appeared in 1402, at a time when dissatisfaction with Henry IV’s new regime was mounting.  The shock of usurpation was beginning to sink in and, crucially, the Scottish court was looking to take political advantage of Henry’s apparent weakness.
  • Lambert Simnel and Perkin Warbeck appeared within the first five years of Henry VII’s reign.   Henry’s claim to the throne was questionable.   There was no shortage of former Richard III supporters and other Yorkists who resented his regime.  Crucially, in Margaret of Burgundy, Henry had a powerful enemy willing to provide tangible support to anyone wanting to undermine the Tudors.

In all these cases political instability and a climate of dissent and sedition is present.  This may arise from the unpopularity of the reigning monarch, from questions regarding the legitimacy of the regime, through strong political opposition or, indeed, all three.

The Patrons

The most successful imposters require the support of patrons.  These were powerful political actors, willing to aid the imposter from behind the scenes.

Perkin Warbeck and Lambert Simnel enjoyed the patronage of disgruntled Yorkists and former supporters of Richard III.  People who, by and large, had lost out under the new Tudor regime.  They also benefited from the patronage of Margaret of Burgundy, one of Henry’s most powerful enemies on the continent.

Margaret of Burgundy, sister of Edward IV, Dowager Duchess of Burgundy from 1477. Clever, ambitious, and capable, she remained a dominant power player in Burgundian politics until her death in 1503.  Both Simnel and Warbeck had relied heavily on her patronage.

Thomas Warde enjoyed the support of William Serle, a man who’d lost significant influence because of Richard II’s downfall.  He also enjoyed the patronage of the Scots court, which had a strong vested interest in destabilising Henry IV’s regime.

John Deydras was perhaps the exception.  He had no obvious political patron although, for this reason, he was more easily dealt with than Warbeck, Simnel or Warde.  He did, however, emerge at a time of significant popular dissatisfaction with Edward II’s regime. 

On the continent, the same pattern is apparent.  The impersonators of Frederick and Margaret both appeared to have enjoyed some behind the scenes political support.  In each case this was born out of dissatisfaction with the incumbent regime.

Politics by Proxy

Overt political opposition to an incumbent medieval regime was a dangerous business.  Acting through an imposter provided a means of distancing oneself from direct confrontation. 

It was one thing for Margaret of Burgundy to use Lambert Simnel or Perkin Warbeck as her proxies to undermine Henry VII.  But for Burgundy to have declared open war on England and actively attempted to depose Henry by military force would have been an escalation too far.

In the early 1400s, Scotland did not want a long, protracted war with England.  However, using a royal imposter to promote instability in Henry IV’s fledgeling regime was another story.  If things went well, the Scots court could take advantage.  If they went poorly, the risks were low.

Almost any regime suffering from instability, unpopularity, or significant political dissent, could be (and often was) at risk of being challenged by a royal imposter.  The emergence of an imposter, especially if they were able to garner significant support, was therefore a symptom of this instability.

In more ways than one, it was a common feature of medieval political life.

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References & further reading

Death of an imposter – article by JR Whitehead

Death of a Pretender: “King Richard II” at Stirling – Weaving the Tapestry

False Olaf – Wikipedia

False Margaret – Wikipedia

John Deydras – Wikipedia

‘Man in the Iron Mask’ motif the wrong option for Margrete I movie – Article by Richard Cole, Assistant Professor of Medieval History at Aarhus Universitet

Margaret of Burgundy – article by JL Laynesmith

Perkin Warbeck – article by Sarah Bryson

Perkin Warbeck – article by Dr Anne Wroe

The Fears of Henry IV: The Life of England’s Self-Made King, Ian Mortimer, Vintage, 2008 

The “Resurrection” of Frederick II of Hohenstaufen – paper by James K Otte


Perkin Warbeck – 15th century anonymous sketch (from Wiki Commons)

Lambert Simnel being carried by a crowd – Encyclopaedia Britannica, 11th Ed Vol XXV, Cambridge University Press (from Wiki Commons)

Richard II at prayer – Henry Shaw 1843 (from wiki commons)

Frederick II – from De arte venandi cum avibus Biblioteca Vaticana Pal lat 1071 fol.1 late 13th century (from Wiki Commons)

Margaret Maid of Norway – photo of stained-glass window by Colin Smith (from Wiki Commons)

Margaret of York – Anonymous portrait (1468), Paris, Musée du Louvre (from Wiki Commons)

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