Wednesday, 25 February 2015

Perkin Warbeck by John Ford.

I've been reading some of John Ford's plays for Fanda's Renaissance Month (part of the Literary Movements Challenge) and so far I've read:
Perkin Warbeck is my final play, and whilst I can't say I thoroughly dislike John Ford, reaching the final play in my book has rather come as a relief! That said, there are still plenty of other Ford plays I've yet to read:
  • The Witch of Edmonton (written with Thomas Dekker and William Rowley; printed 1658)
  • The Sun's Darling (written with Thomas Dekker; printed in 1656)
  • Love's Sacrifice (1633)
  • The Fancies Chaste and Noble (1638) 
  • The Lady's Trial (1639)
  • The Queen (dubious authorship; printed 1653) 
  • The Spanish Gypsy (dubious authorship; printed 1653)
I won't rule out reading these one day. For now, though, to Perkin Warbeck.


Perkin Warbeck is John Ford's fifth solo play and was published in 1634. It's a historical play based on Perkin Warbeck, a pretender to the English throne.

The Princes in the Tower by John Everett Millais
Perkin Warbeck (1474 - 1499) claimed, from 1490, that he was Richard of Shrewsbury, the Duke of York, and so the son of Edward IV who died in 1483. Edward IV was succeeded by Edward V, his son, who died, uncrowned in the same year. Following Edward V was Richard III, and next Henry VII who reigned from 1485 to 1509 (to be succeeded by Henry VIII). It was, in short, Henry VII's claim to the throne that Warbeck threatened.

Richard of Shrewsbury, along with his brother Edward (who was to become Edward V), was imprisoned in the Tower of London when Edward was 12 and Richard 9 (they have subsequently been dubbed 'The Princes in the Tower'). It was claimed that this was in order to prepare Edward for his duties as King, however the Lord Protector, Richard of Gloucester (Edward IV's brother) who was caring the boys claimed the right to the throne and he became Richard III. The fate of the two brothers is a mystery, though, in 1674, the skeletons of children were found in a stairway within the Tower of London, and King Charles II, believing that they were of Edward and Richard, ordered that they be buried in Westminster Abbey. Later, in 1789, the coffins of two children were found within the vault of Edward IV and his wife Elizabeth Woodville. It was believed that these were the coffins of the two other children, George, Duke of Bedford, and Mary of York, however their remains were later discovered elsewhere (St George's Chapel in Windsor Castle, I believe), so these two coffins in the vault of Edward IV are unknown.

Perkin Warbeck.
So there is a very potted history of Richard of Shrewsbury, whose identity Perkin Warbeck assumed from 1490 (and those who have read William Shakespeare's Richard III, 1592, will already be familiar with this story). At this time, the fate of Richard of Shrewsbury was unknown and so Warbeck was able to convince some people and even gain support and followers; Margaret of York (the sister of Edward IV and Richard III) was one supporter (she was against the new House of Tudor headed by Henry VII, and, wishing to see the House of York continue to rule England, she also backed another pretender - Lambert Simnel). Warbeck was also received by James IV of Scotland, Charles VIII of France and other European monarchs, so his claim to the throne and his threat to Henry VII was very plausible. And it is this period that John Ford writes about in Perkin Warbeck.

It was written at a time when historical plays were out of favour. Ford writes in the Prologue:
Studies have, of this nature, been of late
So out of fashion, so unfollowed, that
It is become more justice to revive
The antic follies of the time that strive
To countenance wise industry....
Unlike some of Shakespeare's histories, Ford is credited with presenting a fairly accurate portrayal of events (though there is an instance where Warbeck meets Simnel, the aforementioned other 'pretender', which is unlikely to have happened), however the character Perkin Warbeck is rather romanticised and presented as a sympathetic character.

The play opens with King Henry VII discussing the state of affairs - how he is rightfully King, yet his position is frequently challenged and his reign is unsafe. He talks of Perkin Warbeck and Margaret of York (or Margaret of Burgundy), at which the Earl of Oxford observes
Margaret of Burgundy
Blows fresh coals of division.

It is a dark and unsettled opening, almost like Shakespeare's Hamlet (1603); Ford paints these troubled times very well.

Act II.
It is not until Act II where we meet Warbeck himself. The scene is in Scotland where King James IV is to receive Warbeck at the Duke of York. Warbeck wins King James over to his cause, whilst King Henry struggles to deal with rebels. As this is going on, King James arranges a marriage between Warbeck and his distant relative Lady Katherine Gordon (Lady Catherine Gordon, daughter of George Gordon, 2nd Earl of Huntly). Naturally great tension is caused between Scotland and England, and there are threats, all at the time when there are already uprisings in Cornwall. Warbeck, now married to Katherine, travels to Cornwall in order to gain their support and hopes he will ultimately take the throne.

Most of us know there has never been a King Perkin of England, so the end should come as no surprise, but I won't go into any details so as not to spoil the play for new readers. This period was a very complex time, and so the play is rather complicated. I did enjoy it but it was a struggle and I think I might have done better to know more about the time before I read it rather than read up about it afterwards. But the period itself was fascinating, full of darkness, treachery, and excitement, so it's hard not to enjoy Perkin Warbeck. It is one of the best of the four I've read, though my favourite has to be 'Tis Pity She's a Whore. The other two, The Lover's Melancholy and The Broken Heart were not such good reads. All the same it's been very interesting to read these four plays by John Ford.

And so my Renaissance February comes to an end! Next month is the Enlightenment and I'm planning on reading Voltaire's Letters on England. That's not such a long book so I may look for one or two more books: I'm even considering Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith, though this is one of my most intimidating reads on my Classic Club list! I think I should, though... 


  1. If I correctly recall theater history, English stages during Ford's time still did not have actresses portraying women's roles (i.e., all roles were performed by males, but this changed after the Commonwealth Era with the Restoration). Well, given that production limitation, do you notice any differences in the range and quality of characterizations (i.e., Shakespeare's women v. Ford's women)? I'm just curious.

    1. Ford's women are far stronger, far more rebellious, and far more interesting! Ford seems more interested in the place of women in society and how they may react. Shakespeare doesn't come close in my view :)

  2. I was just reading someone - already forgotten who - saying that when he started specializing in early modern English theater, his adviser told him that there are only 200 extant plays, so just read them all. I am sure the corpus has expanded a bit since then, but it still must be an achievable task, even if a grind sometimes. Some of those lesser Ford plays would be a chore.

    I have only read the more famous plays, so only 'Tis a Pity by Ford. It's been fun to read about some of the others.

    That Voltaire book is so much fun that you will fly through it, so you are right, you'll need more.

    1. I think it may be a bit of chore. One day I might try and give it a go!

      I was looking at Adam Smith last night - I remembered you said to me a while back not to get too into the chapter on silver - is that right? I should read it, this is a good opportunity.

      I think I'll enjoy the Voltaire, though!

    2. Even specialists in monetary theory find the "Digression on Silver" to be a drag now. Take a look - if you find it to be not so bad to read, you can count that as an accomplishment.

    3. I took a glance - the 'silver' bit seems quite a hefty chunk, though the actual "Digression" doesn't seem to be desperately long... I'll let you know when I get to it!

  3. Since Richard III was the uncle of the Princes and his skeleton is believed found, are there any plans to try to determine if the unknown children in the vault of Edward IV are related and therefore probably the Princes?

    And thanks for the history lesson! This year is rich with learning about English counties, and now, English Kings! I'm trying to get through my Shakespeare Project before I delve into any other plays of that period. Marlowe would probably be next but I'm interested in Ford's It's a Pity ....

    1. The last I heard was the Church of England are refusing to allow forensic tests. There's an article in The Guardian from 2013: Why the princes in the tower are staying six feet under. Apparently the Queen and the then Home Secretary Michael Howard thought it best. Intriguing, eh? Very intriguing.....

      I'm thinking of Marlowe too - Fanda wrote a post which I read this morning (going to revisit to comment) on a Marlowe play, got me thinking of reading one. I do want to maybe make a project out of re-reading Shakespeare's histories, though.... have you heard of Edward III possibly written by Shakespeare? I was just reading about that yesterday, I'd never actually heard of it. It's online to read (I hate reading online but I will for this!) :)

    2. Interesting article! If they have so much power to refuse to allow tests on the children in the tombs, they would have enough power to stop others even if this one was done, so their excuse of it leading to other Royal disinterments doesn't make sense. And they aren't sure if the bones are those of the princes in any case, so wouldn't you want to make sure? If they aren't, is it a crime to leave the bones where they are? In any case, it is certainly intriguing. Their reasoning doesn't make complete sense.

      I hadn't heard of this play. I'm going to add it to my project! Thanks for the tip!

    3. No problem, I'd like to see what you make of it :)


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