A vivid, if overlong, biographical study of identity and deception in Tudor England.
In the gallery of the world’s grand impostors, the handsome, twentysomething young man who sought the English throne as Richard, Duke of York, may have been the most audacious. He claimed to be the son of King Edward IV and the younger of the two princes imprisoned in the Tower of London by their uncle, Richard III. Miraculously, he said, he survived a murder attempt and would now take back the throne from usurper Henry VII. Was it true? Although English opinion assumed the princes died, definitive evidence has not emerged to this day. Yet several key members of Europe’s royalty—including Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain, Emperor Maximilian, Charles VII of France, and Duchess Margaret of Burgundy—backed the “Duke of York.” After eight years in which he allied with James IV of Scotland and even invaded England three times, “Richard” was finally captured, confessed that he was Perkin Warbeck, the son of a Flemish boatman, and was hanged in 1499 as a common criminal. Economist senior editor Wroe (A Fool and His Money, 1995, etc.) sorts out Warbeck’s conflicting stories, as well as Henry’s shifting efforts to counter this phantom menace to his rule. Best of all, she fills in the margins of this scantily documented episode with intriguing analyses of 15th-century courting customs, fashions (wearing silk, at a time when no one below the rank of knight could wear it, bolstered Warbeck’s credibility), and, most crucially, a cultural atmosphere that encouraged make-believe. (“Navigators often did not know which country they were in, what adjoined it, where the rivers led, or what its nature was; but, not knowing, they pretended to.”)
One of the great, nearly forgotten enigmas of English history, presented, more often than not, with verve. Still, even Henry VIII—a more controversial and consequential figure—doesn’t always get such in-depth treatment.