Monday, September 13, 2004


I am, at present, reading Ann Wroe’s fascinating biography of Perkin Warbeck. Warbeck led a rebellion against King Henry VII, first Tudor monarch of England, claiming to be Richard, Duke of York, last of the House of York and one of the ‘Princes in the Tower’ allegedly murdered by Henry’s deposed predecessor Richard III. One of the key arguments of the Ricardians who seek to rehabilitate Richard’s name is Warbeck’s success in garnering support for his claim – this success suggests that the fate of the princes at the time was unknown and the subsequent consensus putting the blame on Richard was as a result of the propaganda campaign of Tudor historians to bolster Henry VII’s right to the throne by conquest. Most surprisingly of all, Warbeck managed to secure the support of Margaret of York, aunt to the princes and widow to Charles the Bold. Supposedly the son of a poor boatman of Tournai, Perkin Warbeck (aka Piers Osbeck) somehow managed to acquire sufficient well-spoken English and manners to deceive a number of noble and royal supporters. Or was it deceit? Two contradictory versions of his supposed confessions were circulated by Henry VII. One described a childhood of little education, spent in preparation for a possible career in trade, whilst another describes time spent in a variety of Tournai schools and an apprenticeship to a church musician. Whether Perkin was an incredibly skilled rogue of a chameleon working alone, the pawn and pupil of Margaret or some other noble sponsor seeking to destabilize the Tudor monarchy or even the genuine Richard of York will probably never be definitively known. (Incidentally, I note that Wroe’s other historical biography is about an even more inaccesible character: Pontius Pilate.)
In one of her asides, Wroe gives a description of what Perkin’s life as a choirboy in Tournai cathedral might have been:
Once a year too, on the feast of the Holy Innocents at the end of December, the choirboys woulod deck themselves as little priests, dance in the sanctuary and pretend to say Mass. Then, on a special stage on the cathedral porch, they would dress up one of the priests or minor canons as the Bishop of Fools, in full pontificals and take him on a wild and jeering progress round every tavern in town. Such observances were seen elsewhere, but the show of the small counterfeit priests sometimes lasted as long as a week in Tournai, performed so boisterously that in 1462, just for that year, the town banned the foolish bishops, “or abbots, or anyone else like them”.
(Puts giggling altar servers and whispering in the choir loft into perspective…)

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