Post-classical history


Autumn 1495–Summer 1497: The Scots and the Cornish

‘When the news [of the Cornish rising] reached King Henry, he was completely taken by surprise and greatly alarmed, since he found himself being threatened by attack on two fronts at the same time – by a foreign war and by a civil war. The danger on either front seemed equally menacing. For some time he could not make up his mind about which of them to deal with first.’

Polydore Vergil, Anglica Historia1

Fifteenth-century English and Scots loathed each other. The Northerners’ language, spoken or written, was largely incomprehensible to Englishmen, while the entire Border was in a state of undeclared, never-ending war, characterized on both sides by vicious raids and appalling atrocities. Although almost invariably defeated during major hostilities – as recently as 1482 the English had occupied Edinburgh – the Scots were brutally effective at hit-and-run frontier warfare. In addition there was a constant struggle at sea between the privateers who operated from Scarborough or Leith, with captured crews being thrown overboard. Intermarriage never took place between the two countries’ royal families, while for over a hundred years Scottish troops had regularly fought for France.

Born in 1473, James IV, King of Scots, was the most personable monarch in Europe, very different from the mountebank at Vienna or the deformed dwarf at Paris. Handsome and charming, despite a nightmarish childhood during which he had been used as a pawn by the Scottish nobility against his inept father James III (murdered when his son was fifteen), he was an unusually effective ruler, popular not just with the lords but with the poor among whom he was said to wander disguised as a beggar. A portrait of him as a youth shows a cheerful, amused face of a sort that is rare in medieval portraiture.

According to the report of the Spanish envoy Don Pedro de Ayala, who met James in 1498, he had by then grown a beard and long hair he never cut, ‘which suits him very well’. He spoke six languages besides Scots, including Spanish and ‘the tongue of the savages who live in some parts of Scotland’. He adored war but was a poor soldier as he was insanely rash. ‘When he is not waging war he hunts in the mountains.’ Generous to a fault, humane and friendly, he was much loved by his people.2 His great weakness was the sheer poverty of his kingdom, the poorest in Western Europe, with a population two-thirds less than that of England – the Scottish crown’s annual revenues amounted to £30,000 at most.

In regular correspondence with Margaret of Burgundy and the Yorkists, King James was also in touch with the men who fitted out Warbeck’s flotilla, as before the debacle at Deal, the Scots had taken steps to aid his invasion by supplying troops and money.3James now invited Perkin to Scotland. On 27 November 1496, surrounded by the Scottish nobility, James received him at Stirling Palace – probably in the new parliament hall. Escorted by a Scottish guard of honour, together with his more respectable followers, who presumably included Sir George Neville, his chaplain William Lounde and the bankrupt London merchant John Heron, the ‘duke’ was asked to justify his cause.

He struck just the right note, between pathos and drama, in a tearfully eloquent speech that was later reconstructed by Vergil, Hall and Bacon. ‘You see before you the spectacle of a Plantagenet who has been carried from the nursery into the sanctuary, from the sanctuary into the direful prison, into the hand of the cruel tormentor,’ he began. Then Warbeck described his escape from death, and the wanderings during which he had been made to do menial jobs. He said that the defamatory rumours about him were invented by Henry Tudor, ‘calling himself King of England’, who had spent large sums of money on turning friendly courts against him, besides bribing his servants to poison him and persuading advisers like Sir Robert Clifford to abandon him.

Yet ‘the lady duchess dowager of Burgundy, my most dear aunt’ had acknowledged the truth of his claim, and lovingly assisted him. Unfortunately, with no resources other than her dowry, she had been unable to finance a full-scale expedition against the usurper in London, which was why he had come to Stirling to ask for assistance. He reminded his listeners that once upon a time Scotland had given refuge to Henry VI, and ended by imploring the King of Scots to help him recover ‘mine inheritance’. If James did so, he would be able to rely on his lasting gratitude and friendship.4

The bravura performance convinced King James that this really was the son of Edward IV. Although some of his more dour courtiers remained sceptical, James decided to do everything in his power to aid the charming, dignified young man, who was exactly his own age. From now on, he treated the adventurer not only as the Duke of York but as his brother, providing him with an expensive wardrobe suitable for his rank. The duke’s new clothes included a ‘great coat’ for the Scottish winter, a tournament coat made of white and purple damask, and even a ‘spousing gown’ to wear at his wedding.5

In December King James gave ‘Prince Richard of England’ a bride. She was Lady Katharine Gordon, a daughter of the Earl of Huntley, by all accounts a beautiful, accomplished and courageous young lady, who as a great-grandaughter of James I belonged to the Scots blood royal. There could have been no stronger testimony to the king’s belief in him.

If a letter supposedly written by the duke really was addressed to Katherine, it shows he had fallen deeply in love. It also conveys something of his charm. Her ‘face, bright and serene, gives splendour to the cloudy sky, whose eyes brilliant as the stars, make all pain to be forgotten and turn despair into delight: whosoever sees her cannot choose but admire her, admiring cannot choose but love her, loving cannot choose but obey’, he wrote. To him, she seemed, ‘not born in our days but descended from heaven’.6

Through his spies, Henry VII soon heard of the speech at Stirling and of King James’s reaction. No news could have been more disturbing. It meant that all his work in trying to maintain peaceful relations with the Scots had been wrecked. He had been to enormous pains in securing a seven-year truce between the two kingdoms, sealed in July 1493 – largely because he feared an alliance between James and the Yorkists. The implications of Warbeck’s presence in Scotland were alarming: instead of the North Sea as a barrier against invasion, now there was only the Border. The Yorkist power base was no longer Malines but Edinburgh.

One of King Henry’s principal agents north of the Border was Henry Wyatt, father of the poet. Among those who worked closely with Wyatt were two Scottish nobles, Sir James Ramsay, formerly Earl of Bothwell, and James Stewart, Earl of Buchan – both in Tudor pay for many years. Former favourites of James III, the pair were recruited when they took refuge at the English court after their master’s death, but had since returned to Scotland. A sinister, embittered figure, by any standards Ramsay was a traitor, who had already plotted to kidnap the king and his brother, the Duke of Ross, to sell them to the English, although nothing had come of his plan. Although initially driven by a desire to avenge his murdered patron, he was only too willing to be paid for his services by Henry.

Pretending to ignore the presence of the Duke of York at the Scottish court, and hoping to avert a Scottish invasion, King Henry did all he could to stay on peaceful terms. At the same time, with such a fine bargaining counter, James IV put off military action for some months, to see what he could get out of the English through diplomacy. Desperately, Henry offered him the hand of his six-year-old daughter Margaret.

No doubt Henry believed he could benefit from the international situation. The Italian states had formed a Holy League against France that included not only Spain but King Maximilian and his son Archduke Philip, and both sides were vying for English support. As a result, apart from Margaret, after the failure of Perkin’s invasion Flanders had turned against the Yorkists despite Maximilian’s wishes. Charles VIII sent a document to King Henry which helpfully testified that the ‘Duke of York’ was French and the son of a barber, and offered to send his parents over to England, undermining the widely circulated Tudor claim that his father was a Flemish bargee.

By the end of summer 1496 the King of Scots was preparing for war. Briefed by Wyatt, Ramsay and Buchan explored the possibility of kidnapping the duke. Ramsay wrote to Henry in September:

Please your Grace, anent the matter that Master Wyot laid to me, I have been busy about it, and my lord of Buchan takes upon him the fulfilling of it, if it be possible: and thinks it best now in this lang nicht within his tent to enterprise the matter, for he has na watch but [what] the king appointed to be about him.7

In the same report Ramsay warns that potential English supporters had been in contact with the duke: a brother of Lord Dacre from Cumberland as well as men from Northumberland, including Edward Skelton’s brother Michael.

At Berwick on 8 September Ramsay, who had just left the Scottish court, wrote a further report for King Henry, informing him that although he and his friends had done everything possible to persuade James not to give assistance to ‘this fenyt [feigned] boy’, a small Scottish army will assemble on 15 September at Ellam Kirk, ten miles from the Border, and that the invasion will take place two days later. Including the Yorkists, the army numbers about 1,400 men ‘of all manner of nations’, says Ramsay, commenting that he hoped James will be soundly defeated and punished for consenting to his father’s murder. He adds that ‘Perkyn’ has signed a bond to pay the Scots 50,000 marks over two years after he has been restored, besides returning Berwick. Of the king, Ramsay states that ‘he and the boy are every day in council’.

Ramsay also reports that Sir George Neville and others have lost heart and want to change sides. Neville says that if the King of Scots and Henry come to an agreement, he will ‘quit him of Perkin’. Like Ramsay, Neville realized that James was on the brink of bankruptcy – in the spy’s words, he has ‘not a hundred pounds while now that he has coined his [gold] chains, his plate and his cupboards, and there was never people worse content of the king’s government’.

Ramsay supplied two other important pieces of information in this lengthy report, a shameless piece of treachery. One was that reinforcements for the duke had arrived from Flanders, consisting of Rodrigue de Lalaing ‘with twa little ships’ that have brought 320 German landsknechts, besides ‘sundry pleasant things for the war, both for man and horse’. He had had some difficulty in bringing them over because of Burgundy’s new hostility towards the Yorkist cause. The other was a detailed description of the inadequate artillery at Edinburgh Castle, making the place vulnerable to assault. Ramsay ended by suggesting a well thought out strategy with which Henry could trap his fellow countrymen during the coming campaign.8

Henry may have feared the invasion would be accompanied by widespread rebellion. Messer Aldobrandini from Florence, who had been in London at Easter before going on to Bruges, told a Milanese acquaintance that Henry was hated because of his greed. ‘No doubt the king is powerful enough where money is concerned, but if fortune allowed some lord of the blood royal to rise in revolt and he had to take the field, he would fare very badly owing to his avarice, as his people would desert him,’ said the Florentine. ‘They would treat him just as they did King Richard, whom they deserted, going over to the other side because he put to death his nephews to whom the kingdom belonged.’9 Aldobrandini may perhaps have been repeating gossip he had heard in Flanders, from friends of the Duchess Margaret, yet there is other evidence of Henry’s unpopularity. The king was well aware of it, since spies kept him informed of any signs of disaffection that they encountered. He had every reason to feel uneasy.

Significantly, Vergil says that the king was genuinely terrified when he heard that the Scots were about to invade. ‘He was not only afraid of the enemy but of his own subjects, frightened that the gentry in the area, either from a mistaken belief [in the duke] or because they had been bought by him, would go over to Perkin.’10

As Ramsay had warned, the Scottish invasion crossed the Border on 17 September 1496, led by King James ‘with banner displayed’. According to the ‘reiver’ custom, his troops ravaged the countryside ‘with great boast and brag’, although apart from the usual atrocities the only substantial damage they inflicted was to burn a couple of small peel towers. But the Scottish army was too small because the King of Scots did not have the funds for a larger force. As soon as James heard that an English army 4,000 strong was marching to intercept him, he hastily retreated back over the Tweed on 21 September, having penetrated a mere four miles south of the Border.11 James IV might be as brave as a lion but (as he would prove at Flodden Field) he was hopelessly inadequate as a military commander. Nothing could have been more of an anticlimax.

During this brief campaign, Perkin was horrified by the way the Scots burned, killed and looted, so that in Northumberland ‘nothing was heard but roaring, weeping and lamenting’. Instead of a crusade to restore him to his throne, this was merely a glorified frontier raid.12 He complained to James at the way they were treating his ‘subjects’, receiving the tart reply that while he might call England his kingdom, there was no sign of Englishmen accepting his sovereignty. If some of the North Country people disliked the Tudors and remembered the Yorkist kings with nostalgia, all of them hated the Scots with a passionate intensity – together with anyone who was a friend of Scotsmen.

Although James remained convinced for some considerable time that his guest really was the Duke of York, his political position had deteriorated sharply. Scotland had been the last foreign power to support Warbeck, but after the Scottish invasion’s abject failure and the strange reluctance of the Northumbrians to welcome their rightful sovereign, it was clear that the Yorkist rising which he had promised his hosts was never going to materialize. Henry VII was so angry with King James that he prepared to attack his northern neighbours in the spring of 1497.

Before the English army could march, the Cornish unexpectedly rose in rebellion against the taxes levied by Henry to pay for the war with Scotland and marched on London. Their leaders were Michael Joseph an Gof (in Cornish, ‘the Blacksmith’) and a lawyer from Bodmin, Thomas Flamank. Nobody describes what happened better than Bacon, who rephrases Vergil:

The Cornish being a race of men stout of stomach, mighty of body and limb, and that lived hardly in a barren land … muttered extremely that it was a thing not to be suffered that, for a little stir of the Scots soon blown over, they should be thus grinded to powder with payments, and said it was for them to pay that had too much and lived idly. But they would eat their bread that they got with the sweat of their brows and no man should take it from them.13

The rising was a desperate response to what they saw as unfair taxation – they wanted the dismissal of the members of the King’s Council who were responsible for it. Armed with ‘bows and arrows, and bills, and such other weapons of rude and country people’,14they surged on towards the capital, much encouraged when Lord Audley joined them at Wells and took command, not realizing he had only done so to escape from his creditors.

Londoners were terrified by the news that the Cornishmen were coming. ‘This was their outward colour,’ comments a chronicler from the city, referring to their complaint about the new taxes, ‘What their inward intent was, God knoweth.’ The chronicler added that if they had succeeded, they would have behaved like Jack Straw, Jack Cade and others. The Peasants’ Revolt and Cade’s rebellion had not been forgotten.15

Yet hatred of the new dynasty undoubtedly played a part. One of the heroes in a miracle play written at about this time in the Cornish language, Beunans Meriasek, is a Duke of Cornwall who drives the self-styled Emperor ‘Teudar’ out of the land. Beyond question the movement contained a strong Yorkist element. The sixteenth-century Spanish chronicler Zurita records (in his Anales de la Corona de Aragón) that the Cornish sent a message to the Duke of York in Scotland, offering to help him gain the throne, and an Act of attainder passed after their rising states that they wrote more than once. But he had left for Ireland and if the letter ever reached him, it would have been only after the rising had been defeated. It is also clear that the rebels had many secret supporters who wanted to see the downfall of Henry VII, as during their march through southern England they were given food and shelter on a large scale. However, men of substance were reluctant to join the rebels because there were so few gentry in their ranks.

Even so, when summoned to join the royal army, George Neville, Lord Burgavenny, thought of joining the Cornish instead. ‘If a man will do ought, what will ye do now it is time?’ he asked the Earl of Suffolk. He was saying that if they were going to topple Henry, this was their chance. The earl was of a different frame of mind, however, and hid Neville’s shoes to keep him at home, before riding off himself to fight for the king. There may have been other peers who thought like Burgavenny.16

King Henry was in a very ugly situation. About to embark on a full-scale war with Scotland and threatened by the Yorkist underground, he now found himself faced by a totally unexpected challenge from a large army determined to overthrow his regime. Hastily he cancelled the invasion, patching up relations with the Scots, and brought south as fast as possible the troops he had assembled in the North.

Although disappointed that the notoriously unruly Kentish men did not join them, the rebels marched on until confronted by a royal army at Blackheath on 17 June. Here, Lord Daubeney nearly lost the battle for the king by charging too rashly and being captured, but was rescued by his troops. Badly led and poorly armed, without cavalry or artillery, the Cornish fought ferociously none the less and there was a moment when they very nearly triumphed. Eventually, however, they were forced to surrender after 2,000 of their number had been killed and their leaders taken prisoner.

Had Perkin landed in Cornwall to lead them, they might have attracted crucial support and defeated the royal army. The king was lucky, too, in that James IV did not take advantage of the situation and try to redeem his recent humiliation. Henry was so alarmed by the revolt that he pardoned most of his Cornish prisoners – only three were executed: Audley, Flamank and the Blacksmith – and cancelled preparations for war with Scotland. Warned that Cornwall ‘was yet unquiet and boiling, he thought [it] better not to irritate the people farther’.17

Having dealt with the Cornish – as he supposed – King Henry sent ambassadors to negotiate a peace with James IV. His first demand was that the ‘Duke of York’ must be handed over to him, soothing the argument by adding that the King of Scots need feel no embarrassment at doing so because the young man was an impostor. However, a seven-year truce was agreed at Ayrton in September 1497, without the surrender of the duke.

During the negotiations Perkin left Scotland, sailing from the port of Ayr in July in a ship provided by James, with his wife and child on board. The vessel, ironically called the Cuckoo, was a merchant ship belonging to a Breton merchant named Guy Foulcart who had been hired by the king. It looks as though James had lost none of his liking for the young man, despite realizing at last that he was an impostor. He ignored his value as a bargaining counter and the high price, diplomatic and financial, that he might have got by handing him over. On the king’s instructions, his boat was escorted out of port by Scotland’s two most formidable privateers, Andrew and Robert Barton.18

Henry’s spies soon informed him of the Cuckoo’s departure from Ayr. Yet it was impossible to intercept her as nobody knew where she was bound. Could her destination be Cornwall, whose inhabitants had such good reasons for disliking King Henry? Once again, the ‘duke’ had baffled his opponent.

9. Autumn 1495–Summer 1497: The Scots and the Cornish

1. Vergil, op. cit., p. 92.

2. CSP Sp, op. cit., vol. I, 169.

3. Gairdner, History of the Life and Reign of Richard the Third, p. 300.

4. Vergil, op. cit., p. 84; Hall, op. cit., p. 474; Bacon, op. cit., p. 127–8.

5. LP Hen VII, op. cit., vol. II, pp. 325–6.

6. W. Busch, England Unter Den Tudors, vol. 1, ed. J.G. Cotta, Stuttgart, 1892, trans. A.M. Todd as England under the Tudors, vol. 1, Henry VII, London, 1895, p. 105.

7. H. Ellis, Original Letters Illustrative of British History, 1st series, London, 1824, vol. 1, p. 23.

8. Ibid., vol. 1, p. 25.

9. Calender of State Papers and Manuscripts … at Milan (1385–1618), London, 1912, vol. I, p. 490.

10. Vergil, op. cit., p. 88.

11. Chronicles of London, op. cit., p. 210.

12. Hall, op. cit., p. 475.

13. Bacon, op. cit., p. 135.

14. Bacon, op. cit., p. 137.

15. Chronicles of London, op. cit., p. 215.

16. I. Arthurson, The Perkin Warbeck Conspiracy 1491–1499, Stroud, Sutton, 1994, p. 165, quoting TNA, PRO KB9/441/6.

17. Bacon, op. cit., p. 142. 18. Gairdner, Richard the Third …, op. cit., p. 317.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!