Hitories & Mysteries: “I am not indeed the man I said I was.” Perkin Warbeck and the Siege of Exeter

Tracey Norman
Perkin Warbeck in the pillory

1497 was a turbulent year in the South West. June had seen the Cornish Rebellion against new taxes being levied by Henry VII, while September and October saw a short, unexpected siege on the city of Exeter, followed by a month-long visit from Henry himself.

Both of these events were linked to one man whose very existence was problematic for Henry – Perkin Warbeck, a young Flemish man in his late teens, who arrived in Ireland in 1491 wearing rich silks, despite his ordinary background.

He was taken in by Yorkist rebels who were colluding with the French King Charles VIII to overthrow Henry, with whom relations were becoming increasingly aggressive. Warbeck provided the rebels with a figurehead when they decided to style him as Richard, Duke of York, the younger of the sons of Edward IV who had disappeared without trace from the Tower of London in 1483.

In 1495, James IV of Scotland recognised Warbeck as Richard, and arranged for the young man to marry Lady Catherine Gordon, one of James’s cousins. In the autumn of the following year, Scotland carried out a series of raids on northern England, with the intention of overthrowing Henry and securing the throne for Warbeck. These raids were ultimately unsuccessful, serving only to prompt Henry to increase taxes in order to finance war against Scotland. At this point, Warbeck’s presence in Scotland appears to have become something of an embarrassment for James.

Henry’s tax reforms were hugely unpopular. Existing taxes were to be subsidised in a manner which people felt was excessive and, for those living at the opposite end of the country, extremely unfair. Henry had also suspended the Stannary Parliament during 1496, angering tin miners in Cornwall and on Dartmoor. The privileges of the Stannary Parliament, which dealt with all civil matters, had been enjoyed in both counties since its creation by Edward III in 1337 when he established the Duchy of Cornwall.

The situation came to a head following significant anger at the actions taken by a Penryn tax collector, Sir John Oby. Dissent grew, and an uprising began on the Lizard peninsula in the Cornish parish of St Keverne, led by a blacksmith named Michael Joseph. Support grew, in which Thomas Flamank, a Bodmin lawyer, rose to prominence as a second rebel leader. His father Richard was one of the commissioners collecting the hated subsidy, but Thomas believed that funds for war against Scotland should be levied from the nobility in the north of England, rather than the ordinary people in areas far remote from the troubles.

In June, 1497, Joseph and Flamank led their followers on a march to London, intending to conduct a peaceful protest. However, on arriving at Exeter, they were refused entry to the city and threatened to start a siege. The Mayor, John Atwill, having no resources to counter such an attack, sent word to the local nobility, who were capable of raising an army quickly and could come to the city’s aid. Edward Courtenay, Earl of Devon, was one of the few who responded, and after some negotiation, it was agreed that the rebel leaders and their attendants could walk through the city, while the rest of the men went around the outside. This passed peacefully enough, save for some shouting at the Mayor, and the rebels continued on out of the county towards London, drawing others to their cause as they went. By the time they reached the capital, their numbers had risen to around fifteen thousand.

London was not Exeter and the rebels, lacking weaponry and training, were beaten by a vastly superior military force. Flamank was captured on the battlefield along with Lord Audley, who had joined the cause in Wells. Joseph sought sanctuary in a church, but eventually surrendered. He and Flamank suffered the traitor’s fate of hanging, drawing and quartering at Tyburn, while Audley, as a nobleman, was beheaded. Their heads were displayed on pikes on London Bridge.

James decided to take advantage of this unrest. He and Warbeck masterminded a second invasion plan, which would see Warbeck sail to Cornwall to fan the flames of dissent there, while James led more attacks on northern England. However, the English army responded strongly to James and it was not long before the Scots’ King had distanced himself from Warbeck and entered into negotiations with the English, leaving Warbeck to fend for himself.

Warbeck and his wife Catherine initially sailed to Ireland with around thirty men. They remained there for a month and Warbeck’s force grew to a couple of hundred, then proceeded to Cornwall. The Mayor of the southern Irish river port Waterford sent word to Henry, who immediately ordered ships to intercept Warbeck, but they were unsuccessful, and he landed at Whitesand Bay near Lands End.

Leaving Catherine safely at St Michael’s Mount, Warbeck and his men marched to Bodmin, where he declared himself Richard IV, drawing around three thousand supporters, mostly commoners. Warbeck consulted his three advisors and it was decided that they should immediately attack Exeter, a walled city which would offer protection as well as, he hoped, a supply of unhappy locals to join his cause.

Warbeck’s men marched to Exeter and assembled themselves to the north of the city at around 1pm on Sunday, 17th September. As it happened, they arrived while Courtenay was staying in the city with his son William, at the house of the Black Friars in what is now part of Princesshay. There were calls for the city to surrender, which were ignored, so Warbeck’s men began attacking the North and East Gates. Despite having no artillery, they managed to breach the North Gate, attacking it with boulders, iron bars and fire.

Having entered the city, they were fiercely repelled and forced to retreat, turning their attention to the East Gate and breaching that in a similar manner. The ensuing battle reached as far as Castle Street, not far from where the Courtenays were staying, and they immediately joined the fight, Edward taking an arrow to the arm. Once more, the city beat back the rebels, forcing them beyond the city walls.

Instead of making attempts to restore the gates, the citizens used Warbeck’s own tactics against him. Huge bonfires were built just inside the gates, which served both to prevent further incursions by the rebels and to stop any citizens from leaving. Warbeck then tried using ladders and scaling the walls, again without success. Guns were fired on the rebels, and Warbeck, having nothing with which to answer them, instead pleaded with Courtenay for permission to assemble his men and retreat peacefully. Courtenay agreed and the rebels moved off, heading for Cullompton. They had suffered the loss of about two hundred men, whereas Exeter’s force, while sustaining some injuries, had not lost a single soul.

After reaching Cullompton, Warbeck found that his men were deserting in droves and he was forced to seek sanctuary in Beaulieu Abbey, prompting the remaining men to leave also. Henry and his troops arrived in Taunton on 4th October and tracked Warbeck to Beaulieu, where he surrendered to the King. Henry continued on to Exeter, where he intended to personally thank his loyal subjects, as well as re-establishing his authority in the South West.

He stayed in the city for a month, lodging in the house of the cathedral treasurer, which was situated near the cathedral’s north tower and the street which now runs towards Southernhay.
Warbeck was displayed as Henry’s prisoner on the King’s triumphant arrival into the city, and his wife Catherine Gordon was sent for from St Michael’s Mount. She found favour with the King, and soon became part of the Queen’s household. While she was in Exeter, the King forced Warbeck to make his confession in front of her, a humiliation which included the words, “I am not indeed the man I said I was”.

While Henry was in Exeter, rebels in the city, who had taken part in the siege, were paraded daily in Cathedral Close, wearing halters around their necks and pleading for clemency from the King. In order to ensure that Henry had a good view of this spectacle, several trees were felled, and a new window was put into the treasurer’s house. Henry had the ringleaders executed, but chose to spare most of the men.

Henry’s mark was soon felt throughout the South West, as those who had provided any kind of assistance to the rebels were fined heavily by a group of specially-appointed commissioners, who investigated and dealt with them accordingly. For Exeter, however, there was a special honour.
Henry presented the city with his own sword and cap of maintenance, a ceremonial cap of velvet and ermine which was worn by the nobility and those to whom special honours had been awarded.

As well as being used to keep a crown or coronet in place, caps of maintenance are often found in coats of arms, such as that of Edward, the Black Prince, where it can be seen below his lion crest and above his helm. Today, these treasured items are still carried before the Lord Mayor in processions, and are housed in the Guildhall.

Perkin Warbeck was paraded through London as Henry’s prisoner and was initially held at court. He managed to evade his guards and escape, although he was soon recaptured. He suffered the indignity and humiliation of the pillory at Westminster before being transferred to the Tower of London.

Warbeck and his fellow prisoner the Earl of Warwick, the last of the Plantagenets, who had been imprisoned by Henry for many years, escaped from the Tower together, thus sealing their fate. They were re-captured and Henry, keen to be rid of the two main threats to his throne, seized his opportunity. Both men were found guilty of treason and were hanged, drawn and quartered at Tyburn, like so many others before them.