The Capture of Catherine Gordon

A woman of the time of Henry VII, taken from English Costume by Dion Clayton Calthrop

Lady Huntley, the wife of Perkin Warbeck, was captured in Cornwall on 7 October 1497.

At the time of the 2nd Cornish Rebellion (September 1497), the pretender to the English Throne, Perkin Warbeck led his army of Cornishmen into Devon and Somerset, leaving behind his Scottish wife Catherine Gordon, Lady Huntley, or as he claimed the “Duchess of York”, in the relative safety in Cornwall.

Following Perkin’s capitulation, capture and imprisonment at Taunton weeks later, Catherine was seized by Henry VII’s forces and taken first to Exeter, then to Sheen Palace (Richmond).  Here is the itinerary of that episode, as best understood.  The story is a jigsaw, some of whose parts are missing, and others scattered across many sources. Many modern accounts contain some error of omission or assumption, and I do not hold myself immune from making the same kind of errors.

7 Sep 1497 Perkin landed his handful of ships at Whitesand Bay, two miles north of Land’s End, in Cornwall (Sennen, to most of us).  With his small force he disembarked and progressed through Cornwall, raising support of the “rude people” [Bacon] along the way, in his quest to overthrow the crown.  Perkin was proclaimed King Richard IV at Bodmin.  Incidentally, the Cornishmen’s beef with Henry VII was a combination of taxes to fund a war with Scotland and disadvantageous changes to their tin-mining tax arrangements.  This was their second rebellion of the year for the same reason.

Bacon’s account is a somewhat partial secondary account, written a century later, but useful nonetheless.

The force grew to several thousand as it walked 122 miles to Exeter over the next 10 days.  There seem to be few accounts of damage along the way, although the Sheriff of Cornwall’s house at Tehidy was “dismantled” around the time of the first rebellion that year, and lay in ruins for generations afterwards.

17 Sep 1497 (Sunday) Siege of Exeter (failed).

21 Sep 1497 Perkin, realising his invasion was futile, and hearing that Henry’s army was approaching, deserted his own army at Taunton.

In the following days,  Perkin rode the 100 miles to Beaulieu, seeking to escape the country.  That plan also failed and he sought sanctuary at Beaulieu monastery (Cistercian).  The Abbot tipped off Henry, who sent 500 men to capture Perkin (according to Bacon). Henry (or his men on the ground) succeeded in coaxing Perkin out of sanctuary through the offer of pardon, which he accepted and Henry honoured.

29 Sep 1497 Henry at Bath.

30 Sep 1497 Henry at Wells, staying at the Deanery.

2 Oct 1497 Henry at Glastonbury (presumably a guest of the Abbey).

3 October Henry at Bridgewater, staying at the Royal Castle.

4 Oct 1497 Henry reached Taunton with his forces and received the surrender of the remaining Cornish army.  The Castle of Taunton not being then habitable, it is probable that the King was received by John Prowse the Prior, at the Priory (Augustine).

On this day, or one of the preceding days, Henry also sent senior members of his royal household to Cornwall with troops in great haste to seek out Catherine Gordon and bring her to him.

5 Oct 1497 Perkin having given himself up at Beaulieu, was brought to Taunton and imprisoned.  He confessed what Henry’s spies had told him some years earlier, that he was not Richard of Shrewsbury, one of the murdered Princes in the Tower. 

A letter from Henry to Waterford (sealed 13 days later on 18 Oct) confirmed: “the said Perkin came unto us to the town of Taunton, from whence he fled, and immediately after his first coming, humbly submitting himself to us hath of his free will openly shewed in the presence of all the lords here with us and of all nobles his name to be Pierce Osbeck, whence he hath been named Perkin Warbeck and to be no Englishman born but born of Toumay and Son to John”

“Three of the king’s most senior and trusted officers … arrived at St Michael’s Mount no later than 5 October,” according to this modern-day article in The Richardian. That would suggest they set off from Taunton at least 3 days earlier.

6 Oct 1497 Henry proceeded to Tiverton, with his prisoner, Perkin Warbeck.  Although unconfirmed, it seems very likely that he stayed here at the residence of Edward Courtenay, 1st Earl of Devon, who had very recently defended Exeter against siege by the Cornish rebels (on 18 Sep).  Courtenay, however can’t have been there (see later). Perhaps his son William was.

Tiverton Castle, as it appeared in July 2020

7 Oct 1497 (Saturday) Henry arrived in Exeter, with Perkin as his prisoner. Henry is known to have taken up residence at the Treasurer’s House (once abutted to Exeter Cathedral, now demolished) and stayed there for the next few weeks, until 2 Nov.

The Treasurer’s House (since demolished) still existed in 1769, as shown in this model by Caleb Hedgeland

Also on this day, Catherine Gordon was discovered at St Buryan’s monastery (SW of Penzance), as reported in a letter by Henry’s Lord Chamberlain, Giles Daubenay:

“I am certain that you are keen to hear our news from over here. That is why I am writing to you. Know for truth that last night the Earl of Devonshire [Courtenay], the grand master of the household [de Broke] and myself came and arrived at this town. And on the next day we were at St Buryan where the wife of Perkin was in sanctuary [franchise]. And they [or we] talked in such a way to her that she was content to renounce the privileges of sanctuary and surrender herself to the king’s grace. And so at her own desire she has come to this town in my company and in security, thank God, before being taken to the king.”

Daubenay. Written on 7 October at Miller’s Row St Michaels Mount.

Several histories (including Bacon) suggest Catherine was originally left at St Michael’s Mount, a former Benedictine Abbey but merely a secular chapel by this time, staffed by three (male) priests.

The Mount in 1582, from Norden’s Speculum Britanniae (published in the 1590s). The mole and causeway were built during the 1420s.

It’s possible that Catherine moved to St. Buryan’s for the sake of taking sanctuary.  Daubenay’s letter makes it clear at least that Catherine was at the St Buryan’s monastery when she was located (the guest of male monks of the Celtic denomination). A few years later, the traveller John Leland wrote of this establishment: “Their longeth to St. Buryens a deane and a few prebendarys, that almost be nether ther.”

Daubenay’s letter had referred to his being with the Earl of Devonshire (Edward Courtenay, mentioned further up) and “the grand master of the household”.  There is confusion over who Daubenay meant by the “grand master”. However, from other missives it is clear that he meant Robert Willoughby, 1st Baron Willoughby de Broke, Lord Steward of the Household and Steward of the Duchy of Cornwall. See this well-informed paper, from the nineteenth century.

There’s further supporting evidence for this: (1) Henry VII wrote to Gilbert Talbot (sealed on 12 Sep 1497) referring to: “our right trusty Counseillour the Lord Broke, steward of our household, by water with our armee on the See now late retourned”.

Also (2) if you need further evidence that it was the Lord Steward, rather than a “grand master”, Henry himself grouped these three offices together at the same time, himself writing that: “our Commissioners the Earl of Devon, our Chamberlain and our Steward of household, have done and do dayly likewise in our County of Cornwall.”

Hence the office referred to by Daubenay as “grand master of the household” is surely what Henry referred to as “our Steward of household” and so Henry had sent two of the three heads of his royal departments to Cornwall, namely the head of the Lord Steward’s department, which provided food and drink, and the head of the Lord Chamberlain’s, which dealt with both ceremony and the king’s personal service.  This is evidence of how important it was to capture and secure Catherine, a distant cousin of King James IV of Scotland and potentially the mother of Perkin’s heirs.

Many of the king’s personal bodyguard the Yeomen of the Guard were former servants of Daubeney, and it’s not unreasonable to imagine he took some of the Yeomen with him to conduct the search, them being “bold men, chosen and tried out of every lord’s house in England for their cunning and virtue.”

Note, however, that Henry did not send representatives of his third royal department, the secret or Privy Chamber. This was a new innovation of Henry’s and had taken over responsibility for the King’s body service since 1493. Its existence separated, differently from previous royal households, the King’s public life from his private one.

15 Oct 1497 (Sunday) Record of a payment “To Robert Suthewell for horses, sadells, and other necessarys, bought for the conveyance of my Lady Kateryn Huntleye, £7 13s. 4d.”  Robert Suthewell was, in effect, an accountant or auditor in the king’s service.  The payment is clear evidence that Catherine was being moved around at the king’s expense, but it’s unclear exactly where she was at the time.

16 Oct 1497 The king wrote to one of his servants: “We wol and charge you for the diete of Catrine, daughter to therl of Huntlye from Bodman to our dearest wife the queene [Elizabeth of York] wherever she bee, ye deliver to our trusty servant Thomas Englishe, sergeaunt, of our pulterie, the sum of £20 sterling upon a prest and rekenyng by him to be declared.” 

Simply, this is evidence of Henry arranging to pay for Catherine’s food, for a time when she would join his wife Elizabeth’s household (and asking for a receipt). Taken with the payment on the previous day, it looks like Henry had met her by now, and she was likely in Exeter at this time.

While Catherine was in Exeter, it seems that her husband Perkin was brought before her, to confess that he was an imposter.  There are various accounts of this tearful moment. Bernard André wrote a second hand but contemporary account of the meeting between Henry, Perkin and Lady Katherine, which is clearly partial.  By his account, in Latin, Catherine says to her husband: “Why, oh most untrue of men, after you seduced me with your false stories, did you take me, miserable woman, away from my home, my country, my parents and my friends, into the hands of enemies?”

Catherine, in her late 20s, allegedly made a strong impression on Henry, who was in his early 40s at the time. They remained close friends after his being widowed, right through to his death in 1509.

18 Oct 1497 Henry’s letter to Waterford states “Perkin’s wife is in good surety for us, and trust that she shall shortly come unto us to this our City of Exeter as she is minded”. 

Which, despite the previous conjecture, seems clearly to suggest that Catherine was still not in Exeter, 11 days after being captured in St Buryan’s.  Hence, I have wondered if the letter sat around for a few days before it was sealed and sent to Waterford, and maybe this information was slightly out of date at the time. Such a long delay can’t be easily accounted for by the distance: the journey from St Michaels Mount (source of Daubenay’s letter) is only 113 miles, which could relatively easily be covered by horse in 4-5 days.  The hagiographer William Worcestre had covered a greater distance on horseback in five days in September 1478 (Bridgwater-Okehampton-Launceston-Bodmin-Truro-Marazion).

Incidentally, purely for interest, Worcestre noted that 18 October, St Luke’s Day, was dog-whipping day, “when all strays are to be whipped out of all Churches, and young girls like to dream about their future husbandmen.”

In the interval which followed, Henry sent Catherine under the protection of Windsor Herald (Richard Slacke, Esq.) to reside at the court of the Queen “with a goodly sort of sad matrons and gentlewomen,” [André, Gristwood]. His recognition of her senior rank as the daughter of the Scottish Earl Huntley continued when she became one of Elizabeth of York’s ladies-in-waiting.

28 Oct 1497 (Saturday) At “…Shene, [Catherine] to her Grace [Queen Elizabeth of York] was brought, the Saterday before Saynt Symon and Jude, the wif of Perkyn aforsaid ; which said wif was a Scottissh woman and doughter vnto the Erie of Huntley of Scotland.” – Chronicles of London III Vitellius A XVI

There has to be an error in his record, because the feast of Saints Simon and Jude was on Saturday Oct 28, so “the Saturday before” would have been 21 October, and most historians take this at face value.  However Exeter-Sheen is 180 miles, and unless Catherine had a helicopter I don’t believe she was likely to have covered that distance in four days.  Henry himself did the journey in 12 legs between 3-18 Nov, with a few pauses along the way. He may have had more baggage and indulged in more hunting excursions as he went. But I suspect Catherine’s arrival was more likely the “Saturday of” the saint’s day not the “Saturday before”.

18 Nov 1497 Henry arrives at Sheen Palace (again, with Perkin his prisoner).  It’s possible that Catherine saw her husband on this day, for the first time since their tearful encounter in Exeter.

Catherine went on to be a favourite of both the king and queen and served in the royal court for many years. Commonly known as the “Fair White Rose”, she married twice more after Perkin was hanged in 1499.

Incidentally, I realise the irony of the picture of the lady holding a *red* rose at the top of the page. It’s taken from English Costume by Dion Clayton Calthrop and shows the typical costume of this time, and not Catherine Gordon herself, of whom there are no known surviving images.

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