A puppet prince

Perkin: a story of deception

Ann Wroe <em>Jonathan Cape, 550pp, £20</em>

ISBN 0224069705

Perkin Warbeck was the name given to the young man who, in the 1490s, challenged Henry VII's right to the English throne. He claimed to be Richard of York, the younger of Edward IV's two sons, known to history as the Princes in the Tower, and as such rightful king of England. His brother had been murdered, the young man said, but he had been smuggled abroad to await his chance to return to his crown. What really happened to the princes when their uncle, Richard III, seized the throne in 1483 is still a mystery (not satisfactorily solved by the much later discovery of two small skeletons in the Tower of London's walls), and at the time no one, least of all Henry VII, knew for sure whether the golden-haired young man who claimed kingship was lying or not. No one, that is, except Richard - or Perkin - himself. Who he was did not matter much, though, in the end. Henry Tudor, ruthless as a lion in this as in all his dealings, caught his rival, toyed with him for a while and then had him killed.

This sideline of history, glossed over by Henry VII himself in his accounts of his reign, is transformed here into a magnificent evocation of medieval Europe. From a distant cast of astrologers and hired assassins, spies and boat-boys, black friars, heralds and pining princesses, Ann Wroe has conjured up a whole world, exploring the medieval mindset with fluent erudition and showing how, for instance, the act of remembrance was thought to keep a dead or absent person alive.

Wroe challenges every scrap of evidence and every assumption about the story she is telling. Just as she questions Richard/ Perkin's claims, so she questions Henry's hold on power, and the concepts of majesty and identity that sustained them both. One of the reasons people were drawn to Richard/Perkin, she explains, apart from there being no proof of the real Richard's death, was the contemporary fascination with wandering princes in literature and legend. When a strange boy clothed in silk, his bright hair glowing like a crown, came from across the sea to claim his lost throne, people thought of Tristan and Arthur. Henry Tudor himself had played on these associations when he won the throne, naming his first-born Arthur to reinforce them in his subjects' minds.

Despite the strength of his claim, despite the support he received from Europe's royal houses, a sense of insubstantiality lingers around Richard/Perkin. His very name - if Perkin really was his name - is diminutive, that of a "doll-prince", a puppet, a prince from a story book. However charming and convincing he was as Richard, he lacked the stamina an invader needs, rightful claimant or not; he was, as Wroe puts it, "a prince for chambers and gardens".

In these chambers and gardens, Richard/ Perkin won himself a princess whose love for him is the most poignant aspect of this book. James IV of Scotland married Richard to his fair cousin Lady Katherine Gordon in 1496. She was waiting for Richard in Cornwall when Henry VII finally captured him two years later, and witnessed his confession and collapse. After his death, always clothed in black, she spent the next few years at Henry's court as maid of honour to his queen, Elizabeth of York, her lost prince's sister. In Katherine's will, written many years later, there is a revealing bequest: her first beneficiary was her "cousin", a granddaughter of Edward IV. As far as we can know it, she never lost faith in him.

Nor, in her own way, does Ann Wroe. The germ of this book was her childhood obsession with Perkin Warbeck's story and she has triumphantly succeeded in giving him if not an identity, then a world to inhabit, infused with understanding and humanity. This is one of the best books that I have read on the Middle Ages.

Lucy Moore's most recent book is Amphibious Thing (Penguin)