Catherine Gordon and Perkin Warbeck

perkin_warbeckIn November 1495, the Pretender (from the french for ‘claimant’) Perkin Warbeck arrived at the Scottish court, looking for allies in his attempt to win the English throne. Which of course he claimed as Richard IV, younger son of Edward IV.

The Scottish king was James IV (b.1473) who reigned 1488-1513, after seizing the throne from his father. James IV is considered one of Scotland’s more talented monarchs, and pursued an aggressive policy towards England, and an ambitious one towards Scotland’s role in Europe. He seems to have seen Warbeck as an opportunity, supported him financially and militarily – he certainly behaved as though he believed his story.

In January 1496, Perkin was married to a Lady Catherine Gordon. The Gordons were a very significant JamesIVfamily; Catherine was a cousin to James IV, her father George Gordon was the 2nd earl of Huntly with wide estates in the north and north  East of Scotland, and Berwickshire. His attitude to both James III and James IV had been cautious. James IV is unlikely to have allowed the marriage to go ahead unless he was convinced there was a future; he wanted her father’s support. Catherine was born in 1474.

There is a letter which survives in the Spanish State papers which is apparently a letter from Warbeck to Catherine before the marriage:

Most noble lady, it is not without reason that all turn their eyes to you; that all admire love and obey you. For they see your two-fold virtues by which you are so much distinguished above all other mortals. Whilst on the one hand, they admire your riches and immutable prosperity, which secure to you the nobility of your lineage and the loftiness of your rank, they are, on the other hand, struck by your rather divine than human beauty, and believe that you are not born in our days but descended from Heaven.

All look at your face so bright and serene that it gives splendour to the cloudy sky; all look at your eyes so brilliant as stars which make all pain to be forgotten, and turn despair into delight; all look at your neck which outshines pearls; all look at your fine forehead. Your purple light of youth, your fair hair; in one word at the splendid perfection of your person:—and looking at they cannot choose but admire you; admiring they cannot choose love but you; loving they cannot choose but obey you.

I shall, perhaps, be the happiest of all your admirers, and the happiest man on earth, since I have reason to hope you will think me worthy of your love. If I represent to my mind all your perfections, I am not only compelled to love, to adore and to worship you, but love makes me your slave. Whether I was waking or sleeping I cannot find rest or happiness except in your affection. All my hopes rest in you, and in you alone.

Most noble lady, my soul, look mercifully down upon me your slave, who has ever been devoted to you from the first hour he saw you, Love is not an earthly thing, it is heaven born. Do not think it below yourself to obey love’s dictates. Not only kings, but also gods and goddesses have bent their necks beneath its yoke.

I beseech you most noble lady to accept for ever one who in all things will cheerfully do as your will as long as his days shall last. Farewell, my soul and consolation. You, the brightest ornament in Scotland, farewell, farewell.

Golly. There is however, a strong possibility that the letter was pretty formulaic, following a template.

falklandCatherine and Perkin set up home at the rather lovely Falkland Palace in Fife. Perkin did not acquit himself well in the invasion of England in 1496, and it is likely that James IV needed to get rid of him with the failure – to then allow an alliance with England, which did indeed follow. So Perkin traveled south to Cornwall, where a tax rebellion had recently flared in 1497. His attempt to seize the throne was a miserable failure, he was captured and taken to the king in October 1497.

Catherine Gordon followed her husband. It appears they had a son, Richard by the stage, and that she StMichaelsMountwas pregnant with a second. You would think that Catherine, had she wished it, could have stayed in Scotland to await the results of what was a pretty desperate venture. Perkin certainly found a place for her to stay as far away from trouble as he could find in Cornwall – St Buryans. When Henry’s men were sent to bring her to Exeter to meet him, by which time she may have been at St Michael’s Mouint in Cornwall, and was in mourning and wearing black; and Henry’s letters refer to her being ‘in dole’ – mourning. What is really not clear is whether this is for her husband, for her children, or both. She seems to have miscarried of a second child; and Richard disappeared from the record, and therefore presumably also died. This ambiguity follows the whole story. Bernard Andre, the king’s poet, describes a tempestuous meeting where Henry rather fell for Catherine; Catherine is consistently reported as being beautiful, but then that again is rather common. Catherine apparently gave Perkin three degrees of verbal beating for his treachery. It’s not a reliable testimony.

Whatever Warbeck’s status, Henry had no power to annul the marriage. They seem to have been able to see each other, but not to sleep together. But by 1499, Warbeck had (possibly duped) tried  to escape, been put in the stocks and publicly humiliated, savagely beaten and displayed to the Spanish ambassadors, dragged through the streets of London and hung from the Tyburn tree.

Catherine meanwhile was very well treated by Henry, and despite his deserved pitiless reputation, Henry in many circumstances was well able to be generous – and so he was in this case. He made it clear that Catherine was to be considered the victim of rape and abduction. He supported her financially, and placed her in the household of his wife the queen Elizabeth. Henry continued to support Catherine; in 1501 she was given clothes of cloth of gold with ermine, a gown of purple velvet and a black hood in the French style for example.

Catherine and Elizabeth appeared to have got on very well; she was the chief mourner at Elizabeth’s funeral in 1503. And for a while after the death, Catherine remained at the English court and was supported by Henry, she played cards with him – Henry was a keen card player and gambler.

CatherineandAshtonWallMonuimentAfter Henry’s death, Catherine continued to be supported – she became an English citizen, and was given grants of land in Berkshire; and at some point before 1512 finally married for a second time to James Strangeways; she’s still only 38 years old of course. The gap of 1497 to 1512 is curious and interesting; it feels like a complicated situation for Catherine to be in, could be nothing in it of course. But her later life seems to indicate no aversion to marriage. James Strangeways died in 1516, and in 1517 she married Matthew Craddock of Swansea, thought they spent their time at court; Catherine was the head of Princess Mary’s privy Chamber until 1530.

Matthew died in 1531, and finally Catherine married Christopher Ashton of Fyfield in Berkshire; she died in 1537 and was buried in the church at Fyfield.  In her will, Catherine referred to herself as the “sometime wife” of James Strangeways, to Craddock as her “dear and well beloved husband” and Ashton as her “beloved husband”. Into these standard phrases is often read that two at least of these marriages were love matches. It could be so – but certainly not conclusive. What she really thought of Warbeck and regarded her marriage to him is also unknowable. Which is irritating. I’d like to know.




20 thoughts on “Catherine Gordon and Perkin Warbeck

  1. A sad ending for ol’ Perky. But hardly unexpected.
    It is easy to pass judgement, from our comfy modern sofa-chairs, yet it never fails to surprise that rebel leaders manage to self-delude well beyond the point where it is obvious they have no chance. For some, they literally have no option but to do or die. But it seems like Perkins had ample opportunity to sail, surf or swim from Cornwall for a permant vacation to the Costa Brava before the noose closed round his neck. Or even earlier, from Ireland. Having a comely wife and child would make me more likely to run than persist in a regal cause so forlorn.
    But it seems in history, as at the gambling tables, people usually push their luck to far.

    Good podcast, as usual. But especially good because the final paragraph of the write-up contains the name “Ashton”. An uncommon name in these parts, so a mention -even so trivial- is a boost to the ego. 😉

    1. I don’t think he could step off the carousel, even if he’d wanted to. I’d have found the deceit unbearable – maybe he’d had enough, and so rather than running again after Exeter closed it’s gates he just kept going to face the music. And always glad to boost an ego!

    2. After watching White Princess, I agree completely with Brian Ashton about ol’Perky. He had lots of chances to leave England with his wife and perhaps son. I just hope that he wasn’t really Prince Richard of York. That would have been a senseless tragedy. On the other hand, Queen Elizabeth and King Henry V11 had to think about their own children’s future.

  2. Hi David,

    you say “Richard disappeared from the record, and therefore presumably also died.” There is also a presumption that closing off this line of pretenders, was in everyone’s interest. Did anyone point the finger at Edward?

    1. Not that I’m aware of. A bit like the Princes in the Tower – no-one seems to suspect Henry of doing the deed. However, as in the previous situation, you really don’t hand out accusations against kings if you value your neck, so I don’t think the absence weighs either way…

  3. David, I didn’t know where else to post this, but I am curious where to find the Anglo Saxon History podcast.. Is it attached to this site? Thanks

    1. Hi Liam. The original Anglo Saxon posts are in here, but not the new ones. For the moment to get those and the associated stuff you need to go to

      HOWEVER, I am coming to the end of the new Anglo Saxon series as a separate entity; I have put right most of the hideous wrongs of the original, in the paucity of coverage of the migrations. So after I have buffed up Athelstan in a few week’s time, I am going to transfer all the new series into this site,and delete the old series, so it’s nicely integrated.

      Hope that all makes sense!

  4. Hi David. So they were married in January 1496 and their first child arrived “by September” . That is an time span of 8 months or less. Perhaps James was using Warbeck as a convenient way to marry off a mistress who was too highborn to treat poorly? Just a wild speculation. It would explain why she was treated so well after Warbeck’s fall.

      1. hmm, yes, it’s a theory; I think one of the problems is that it’s a bit difficult to be definitive about dates. Having said that you might say rather than it being remarkable that that James IV would throw a cousin to the wolves; that if you think about Perkin as Richard IV, king of England, then marriage to a junior Scottish noblewoman would not be a good match for a king of England. It;s a different perspective.

        1. Well, theoretical maybe someday king of England. That’s got to knock a bit of the shine off.

          I’ve always wondered about Warbeck’s accent. Did he really sound like a native English speaker?

          1. I do not know the answer I have to say; but I doubt very much that he sounded like an English speaker. But then, although by 1500 language is more standardised in England that it might have been in the 12th, it’s still a patchwork, and the nobility would still be expected to be able to speak French. I suspect it would not have been remarkable.

    1. Now that’s a tricky question. I’ve always hankered after doing a regional history of England. So; Cornwall was, and some would argue is, undeniably different. It has the Celtic tradition (language that only finally disappeared in the 18th century); it has it’s own creation myth (given by Brutus to Corin); it was integrated much later into England (after Hingston Down in 838 earliest, 936 more likely under Athelstan); it has a neat physical boundary in the river Tamar. But there’s really not much evidence that it was anything other than loyal to the crown – it has less history of rebellion than Kent and Essex in the Middle Ages. At one period it was turned into a sort of appannage for royal sons, and so has a tradition of much more direct rule by the monarchy. And the wealth of its Tin and to an extent silver meant it was highly valued; and it is a long way from Westminster, and effectively therefore with all these things had a deal of autonomy. In conclusion, despite it’s difference, it seems no less loyal than anywhere else!

  5. Fascinating! I have read Ann Wroe’s “Perfect Prince” and she suggests Catherine and Richard/Perkin had at least one child, a son called Richard, but I can’t for the life of me track down her primary source for this. I have found nothing else in the record to suggest this and always thought her to be childless but I do wonder if this Richard Jr did exist.
    Is there anything to suggest she was Henry’s mistress? Could that explain why she didn’t remarry until his death? What do you think? A Scots Chronicler writing decades later suggested that “one would think they married.” The many gifts to her are interesting. And cloth of gold? For a minor noblewoman? I have always been surprised Henry would allow her to wear that. Wasn’t it a violation of sumptuary law?

  6. Sorry, I’m bit of a Jonny-come-lately to this message board.
    I’m fascinated by the whole Perkin Warbeck story. A medieval version of a confidence trickster?
    It never occurred to me that as the English nobles spoke French, he could have got away with accented English. I think Horace Walpole makes much of Warbeck’s perfect English, which ‘proved’ that he could not be a boy from the low countries and was Richard of York, who therefore could not have been murdered by his uncle.
    A pedantic point, but I think there’s a typo regarding Catherine’s age when she married Strangeways. I think she was 38 not 28, but I’m basing this on Wikipedia and the fact that if she’d been 28 in 1512 should could only have been 12 when she married Warbeck in January 1496.

    1. It’s extraordinary isn’t it? And how did he carry it off for so long? Almost enough to make you believe him. I’d not come across the Walpole thing, thanks for the mention. And yes, I have corrected the typo.

  7. There is rumour that the Gordon family of the Gower descend from Catherine Gordon or one of her trail . This is mentioned by bulloch and in a pamphlet llwyn y bwlch. The bulloch book is the name of Gordon. Page 34/35 it’s online with electric Scotland

  8. I’ve just read “Song of Sixpence” authored by Judith Arnopp. She makes a sound and convincing case of Warbeck actually BEING Richard. Perusing this novel provided great entertainment and her plot line imparts an appreciation of the old adage…”What If”? Cheers!

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