Navigation – Plan du site

AccueilNuméros31II. L’histoire récente, miroir po...Furtive majesty in John Ford’s Pe...

II. L’histoire récente, miroir politique et critique du présent

Furtive majesty in John Ford’s Perkin Warbeck

La Majesté furtive dans Perkin Warbeck de John Ford
John Gillies


Dans Perkin Warbeck de John Ford, un prétendant au trône, doté de charisme et digne d’estime s’oppose au roi Tudor, Henri VII, qui, lui, en est totalement dépourvu. Du point de vue de Perkin, son droit de titre vaut celui d’Henri. Perkin justifie son invasion de l’Angleterre par l’invasion antérieure d’Henri pour libérer le pays du tyran Richard III, auquel il pense qu’Henri ressemble. Dans History of Henry VII de Bacon, le machiavélisme d’Henri est présenté comme acceptable au regard de son efficacité. Si Bacon trouve que la légitimité d’Henri n’en pâtit pas, pour Ford, en revanche, elle est sévèrement compromise, surtout en comparaison avec le vertueux et charismatique Perkin. Au cœur de cette opposition se trouve la tension dialectique entre les tendances Stuart vers l’absolutisme et le concept plus conforme au protestantisme parlementaire anglais d’un régime politique tel que celui d’Henri VII. Cette tension se concentre dans le concept de « majesté ». De fait, onze ans après la publication de la pièce de Ford, par la propagande d’un parlement protestant, Charles I, roi Stuart, sera condamné pour avoir abandonné sa majesté en quittant Westminster et avoir pris la route pour errer sans but comme le vagabond Perkin Warbeck.

Haut de page

Texte intégral

1At his eventual capture by Henry VII, Ford’s Perkin Warbeck recalls Henry’s invasion of England when Earl of Richmond:

  • 1 References to Perkin Warbeck are to Ford 1965.

There was a shooting in of light when Richmond,
Not aiming at a crown, retir’d and gladly,
For comfort, to the Duke of Bretaine’s court.
Richard who swayed the scepter was reputed
A tyrant
then; yet then a dawning glimmer’d
To some few wand’ring remnants,
promising day
When first they ventur’d on a frightful shore
At Milford Haven […]. (my italics, 5.2.59-66)

2Richmond’s intervention is represented as providential, as we gather from the reiterated imagery of light amid darkness. Implicitly, Perkin compares his own invasion to Richmond’s. Like Richmond, Perkin too had sought refuge in “Bretaine”. And just as Richmond had opposed a seeming tyrant (“Richard […] was reputed / A tyrant then”), so Perkin opposes a ruler who might with as much justice be reputed a tyrant now. Dawbney, one of Henry’s followers, moves to silence this impertinence, but Henry is relaxed enough to allow Perkin to continue: “’A does but act. – What followed?” (ibid. 68). Perkin then drives the comparison home:

Bosworth field
Where at an instant, to the world’s amazement,
A morn to Richmond and a night to Richard
Appear’d at once. The tale is soon applied:
Fate, which crown’d those attempts when least assur’d,
Might have befriended others like resolv’d. (my italics, 5.2.69-74)

3Perkin sees himself as another Richmond, the only difference being that “fate” has not smiled on him as it had on Richmond. In this Ford was surely mindful of the representation of Richmond in both Hall’s Union of the Two Noble and Illustre Families of Lancatre and Yorke (1548) and in Shakespeare’s Richard III. In both, Richmond is a gift of providence. Troublesome details – the thinness of dynastic claim, the deal-making, the opportunism and toughness – are smoothed away to leave a portrait of youthful idealism, goodness and courage. Unlike the Perkin we find in Ford’s principal source, Bacon’s History of the Reign of King Henry VII (1622) – a Perkin who is so skilled in fraud as to have hoodwinked himself – Ford’s Perkin perfectly corresponds to the part of the providential historical hero: in his case Richard Duke of York, miraculously delivered from his supposed murder in the Tower to claim his birthright.

4Yet if Perkin’s allegory requires us to see him as a second Richmond, where does this leave Henry – the man who had actually been Richmond a mere five years earlier? Does it not imply that Henry has switched places with Richard III? This is the thrust of Perkin’s suggestion. But it is not what the play would have us think of Henry. In what follows, I want to argue that the play depicts Henry as Machiavellian in a modified sense that actually confirms his title rather than disabling it by comparing him with Richard – but that equally diminishes Henry’s person and majesty alike. The opposition between Perkin and Henry comes down to something more profound than that between a moral pretender and an immoral king.

  • 2 Such readings are intuitive to Ford’s play and seem to have inspired Mary Shelley in 1830, where Wa (...)

5My reading of the play differs from the more usual romantic and/or existential reading.2 The broad outline of that reading might be characterized as follows: like Bacon, Ford pits a pretend king against a real king, but with the complication that Ford does not insist on Perkin’s inauthenticity. Rather, the impostor is in many ways truer or more “authentic” (to use an anachronistic word) than Henry is himself. Perkin’s charisma, self-belief, courage, principle, idealism, magnanimity, his loving fidelity as a husband, his constancy in the face of death, these win our admiration. On all such counts, Ford’s Perkin is superior to his Henry. Henry is victorious in the real world of course. But his victory is due to chronic suspicion, treachery, avarice, bribery, and his unfeudal innovation of operating through lawyers and churchmen (such as the serpentine Richard Fox, Bishop of Durham) rather than through his nobles. Above all, Henry conquers through his Machiavellian grasp of “policy”, the artfulness of which is perhaps clearest in the attainture of his Chancellor, Sir William Stanley; the very Stanley to whom he had owed his life at the Battle of Bosworth. Henry’s policy is also seen in the offer of his eldest daughter in marriage to James IV of Scotland, an offer that induces James to withdraw his support from Perkin. Such readings commonly interpret the agon between Perkin and Henry as an existential drama: where in Bacon’s history Perkin had been the one acting in bad faith, in Ford’s play it is Henry who acts in bad faith, and the entire civil order which collectively conspires in it.

  • 3 My understanding of this term relies on, Philippe Descola, La Composition Des Mondes (2014). The “c (...)
  • 4 The Tragedy of King Lear, in Shakespeare 2016. All Shakespeare citations are from this edition.
  • 5 Cited in OED, “majesty”, sense 4 a.

6The reading I propose does not contradict these readings so much as complement them. I will consider Perkin and Henry less as opposing characters than as complementary aspects of the larger phenomenon to which both lay claim: the institution of monarchy. In so doing, I hope to get away from the dichotomy of true/false or authentic/inauthentic that drives the romantic reading, and towards a reading that allows us to see both figures as improvising aspects of monarchical power that have, as it were, split apart from each-other at a moment of acute historical pressure. Perkin exercises a non-coercive power, a power of charisma or aura that remains a vital resource of monarchy though stripped of material agency or even legitimacy. An analogy may help us grasp this slightly paradoxical suggestion. Perkin might be thought of as a “chef sans pouvoir”, a variety of Amazonian chief supposed to have been invested with the prestige of leadership but without the hard power; a chief with, “a name and a face but […] paralysed and even a little ridiculous”.3 One thinks too of Lear’s “name and all the additions to a king” (1.1.121), to the exclusion of, “The sway, revenue, execution of the rest” (1.1.122).4 Lear wishes to retain the style of a king without the substance. A more precise term for that style might be “majesty”, which the OED defines in terms of the impression made by the monarch: “greatness, dignity, power”, specifically, “the dignity or greatness of a monarch, sovereign power, sovereignty”. The impression is inseparable from, “the person or personality of a monarch”, as in a “Kingly or queenly dignity of look, bearing, or appearance”; or again, majesty’s traditional association with the possessive pronoun: “your”, “his”, “her”. The OED illustrates with a passage from Sir Thomas Elyot: “The fountaine of all excellent maners is Maiestie, whiche […] is proprelie a beautie or comelynesse in his countenance, langage, & gesture apt to his dignite, and accommodate to time, place, & company”.5 In Stuart iconography, particularly the annual masques at Whitehall, the majesty of the monarch was invested with a sacred and almost magical power independently of its constitutional underpinnings.

7Henry by contrast might be imagined as a “pouvoir sans chef”: his manner of exercising power diminishes his majesty to the point that charismatic pretenders such as Perkin and Simnel are thrown up to to supply what is so signally lacking in him. Henry’s style of power is underlined by civic history. Hence, Bacon plays up Henry’s unmajestical effectiveness, his Machiavellian grasp of policy, his bad faith; while leaving no doubt that these are useful qualities in a monarch. By comparison Ford’s Henry is less enthusiastically endorsed, partly because his Perkin is not the phoney that he is in Bacon. This changes everything. Ford withdraws the endorsement that Henry had enjoyed in Bacon, leaving mainly the bad faith. For all that, Ford’s Henry is far from being a tyrant in the mould of Richard III, hence there is no question of moral illegitimacy. Compared with stage Machiavels such as Richard, Henry’s Machiavellianism is more nuanced, more ordinary, more necessary even to his survival as monarch. For all this, it is fatal to his majesty. The studied hypocrisy amounts to a kind of self-nullification. While it may be necessary, it forecloses any possibility of the king stamping his person on the office, rather than the contingencies of office dictating to and dominating the king. Henry’s continued face-saving loses itself in a wretched comedy of improvisation that stifles his charisma or prevents his face from fully forming. Instead the royal person loses itself in the impersonality of state. While it may be that kings are actually supposed to be devious in civic history of the kind that Bacon writes, and that deviousness is equated with effectiveness, this is not a lasting solution for monarchy and it is not something that Ford endorses. The absolute monarch needs to be just that – absolute. He cannot afford to be just another part of a centralized mechanism of state that can function perfectly well without him. Ultimately the monarch’s majesty cannot be allowed to dissipate entirely into a necessary fiction of state, as – I shall suggest – becomes the case in the contretemps between Charles 1 and the Parliament in the civil war of the 1640s. In this sense, Perkin Warbeck can be read as anticipating the crisis in the dialectic of the king’s two bodies that would erupt less than a decade after the play’s appearance, where the king’s personal body would be displaced by the constitutional body to which parliament could lay claim.

8I shall now examine these linked propositions about Henry and Perkin in turn, and finish by turning to the 1640s or the decade following the play’s initial publication in 1634, when something eerily similar to the split between what I have called “majesty” and effectiveness in Perkin Warbeck actually took place at the level of state: namely the split between Charles I in his private body and Charles I in his constitutional body (or what a Parliamentary newsbook insisted on referring to as his “Majesty”).


9We can begin with Ford’s portrait of Henry. I suggest that the routine deviousness of his political character owes much to the “dirty hands” paradox as originally proposed by Machiavelli in The Prince and The Discourses, and subsequently fleshed out in articles by Max Weber (1946), Michael Walzer (1973) and Sir Isaiah Berlin (1992). Machiavelli states the dilemma as follows:

[…] there’s such a difference between the way we really live and the way we ought to live that the man who neglects the real to study the ideal will learn how to accomplish his ruin […]. Hence a prince who wants to keep his authority must learn how not to be good, and use that knowledge, or refrain from using it, as necessity requires. (Machiavelli 1992, 42)

10Since politics, far from being bound by morality, is actively resistant to it, political actors must learn “how not to be good,” which is to say they must learn how to get their hands dirty. This is one side of the paradox. The other side is that only a plausibly moral man is capable of having dirty hands, because for the hands to be dirty, the rest of the body needs to be clean. At least plausibly so: it makes no sense to speak of a completely dirty person having dirty hands. Hence the paradox: “Here is the moral politician: it is by his dirty hands that we know him” (Walzer 1973, 168). In my reading of Perkin Warbeck, the “moral actor” is split into two persons: Perkin (whose hands are clean) and Henry (whose hands are dirty). According to Walzer’s version of the dilemma of course, it should not be possible to have a political actor whose hands are clean. But Perkin is less a political actor than a symbol. Politically, historically, he is completely impotent – hence the possibility of his goodness.

11The dirty-handed politician should not be confused with the tyrant. Dirty hands are not blood-soaked. Thus Henry is not in the same category as Macbeth or Richard III. Though the “dirty hands” metaphor is vague enough to describe wrongdoing on a scale anywhere from parish-pump politics to the Wars of the Roses, it is typically only at the latter end of the spectrum that “blood” soaks through the “dirt”. In Shakespeare at least, the tyrant is distinguishable from the “vile politician” (1.3.239) – to quote Hotspur’s reference to Bolingbroke in I Henry IV – by the facts that the tyrant is both inordinately wicked and that he exists in a confessional relationship to the audience. Macbeth has an active conscience to which we are granted privileged access. While it may seem that Richard III is completely unconscionable, he discloses his wickedness to the audience all the same and is conscience-striken the night before Bosworth. Richard and Macbeth thus both contrast with the Machiavellian prince, “who has no inwardness. What he thinks of himself we don't know” (Walzer 1973, 176).

12Ford’s Henry VII is a prince in this precise Machiavellian sense: he never soliloquizes, never confesses, never gives us access to his inward self. In this he resembles the equivocal Bolingbroke, a figure that Ford seems to identify with Henry. The two opening lines of Perkin Warbeck (“Still to be haunted, still to be pursued, / Still to be frighted with false apparitions”) distinctly echo the opening line of 1 Henry IV” (So shaken as we are, so wan with care”).”

  • 6 Robert Johnson, Of Histories (1601), cited in Benjamin 1965, 103.

13Yet if Ford’s Henry never confesses himself to us, how are we aware of the dirt on his hands? Largely, I suggest, through subtext, the theatrical equivalent of the explicit and nigh-impertinent moral, psychological and political commentary to which Henry is subjected in the course of Bacon’s history of him. Bacon leaves no doubt that Henry’s hands are dirty, very dirty. This however does not affect Henry’s legitimacy because Bacon thoroughly grasps the meaning of the dirty hands dilemma; namely that if the ruler’s hands are clean then he has not been doing his job. This is the great difference between a Tudor chronicle history such as Hall’s and a civic history, such as Bacon’s. Whereas the former is fundamentally moral and providential, the latter is, “like labyrinths, relating cunning and deceitfull friendshippes, how rage is suppressed with silence, treason disguised in innocence”.6

14However it may criticize the ruler, civic history understands that he is not to be judged by the moral standards of other men. This said, there is a limit to its tolerance. The portrait of Tiberius in Tacitus (the father of civic history) is perhaps the classic case of such a limit. Tacitus despises Tiberius for his manifold vices, but essentially because he hasn't been doing his job. He also despises him because his personal depravity is cancerous to the state. Hence, to return to the metaphor, it is less that Tiberius’ hands are dirty (hands imply some managerial competence), than the whole body. Even so, Tacitus does not openly oppose Tiberius, for the reason that in the imperial system descending from Augustus, there is no viable alternative – however corrupt or simply mad the emperor may be. Richard is another limit case to the moral tolerance of civic history. In Sir Thomas More’s pioneering civic History of Richard III (the first civic history to have been written in England about an English king), Richard is an entirely negative figure, but he is also entirely Machiavellian in his enigmatic quality: we are never granted access to his psyche. Such impenetrability – as Elizabeth Story Donno has demonstrated – gives rise to a major effect of More’s narrative: its evocation of “a miasma of uncertainty and doubt” (Donno 1986, 423). Uniquely in civic history, More implies that there might be light amid this perpetual gloom, but his account breaks off just as he begins to recount the tentative negotiation – between Buckingham and Henry’s confidant, John Morton, then Bishop of Ely – that will eventually seal Richard’s fate (More 1976, 94-96).

15To return now to Ford’s play: I have suggested that where Henry’s flaws are fully – even exhaustively – elaborated in Bacon’s history, they emerge sparingly and subtextually in Ford’s play. Stanley’s removal is a good example of this. The first Act ends with Henry perusing a letter which brings a blush to his cheeks (“The king’s countenance / Gathers a sprightly blood”, 1.1.126-7). Having enquired whether an unnamed visitor has been securely lodged, Henry abruptly announces the court’s removal to the Tower (a move that surprises Stanley). In 1.3 – after a scene set in Scotland – we infer that the visitor is Sir Robert Clifford, who is treated as a turncoat follower of Perkin. Clifford then “saves himself” by informing against others who have countenanced Perkin’s claim, ending with his naming of Stanley. Henry at this point almost certainly feigns shock and dismay, parading his intimacy with Stanley and the enormity of the debt he owes him.

Sir William Stanley! Who? Sir William Stanley
My chamberlain, my counsellor, the love,
The pleasure of my court, my bosom friend,
The charge and controlment of my person,
The keys and secrets of my treasury,
The all of all I am
[…] ’Twas only he
Who, having rescu’d me in Bosworth Field
From Richard’s bloody sword, snatch’d from his head
The kingly crown and plac’d it first on mine.
He never fail’d me (1.3.104-9; 114-18)

16Plaintively, Henry concludes: “what have I deserv’d / To lose this good man’s heart, or he his own?” (1.3.118-19). In 2.1 (after another scene set in Scotland) we hear that Stanley has been condemned. Henry hints that he may still reprieve Stanley, at which Durham argues that sparing Stanley would be equivalent to admitting that York’s title is better than Lancaster’s. This apparently convinces Henry who offers a closing observation:

Stanley was once my friend, and came in time
To save my life; yet to say truth, my lords,
The man stay’d long enough t’endanger it. (2.2.27-30)

17Ford here puts into Henry’s mouth a cynical thought attributed to Henry by Bacon: “the king’s wit began now to suggest unto his passion that Stanley at Bosworth-field, though he came in time enough to save his life, yet he stayed long enough to endanger it” (Bacon 1998, 114).

18My point is that Ford’s subtext economically does the work of Bacon’s commentary in suggesting the depths of Henry’s hypocrisy. There is, however, a significant change of register. Ford’s Henry is forever pretending to hold himself to scrupulous standards of justice, whereas Bacon’s Henry feels no need to justify himself at all. Indeed, he does not exist in an intersubjective relationship to either the reader or the historian. Bacon’s relationship to Henry is merely that of an approving eavesdropper. By contrast, Ford’s Henry is a compulsive self-justifier. The king’s actual unscrupulousness is suggested a little later, as – in a moment of Ford’s own invention – Stanley confronts Clifford and “makes a cross on Clifford’s face with his finger”:

Wear, Clifford, to thy grave this painted emblem.
Water shall never wash it off; all eyes
That gaze upon thy face shall read there written
A state-informer’s character, more ugly
Stamp’d on a noble name than on a base. (2.2.87-91)

19Clifford is no mere turn-coat, but the “state-informer” that he very probably is in Bacon; the well-oiled part of an obscure machinery of entrapment. It is the worst form of institutional corruption, a kind that Tacitus had attributed to Tiberius.

20Though subtext is capable of hinting at an endless variety of hidden motive (as in Chekhov for instance), in the civic history play it invariably suggests motivation of a dastardly kind. The fact therefore that Perkin’s dialogue is completely without subtext (not to mention soliloquy or confession) suggests an identity of public persona with inner person. With Perkin, what you see and hear is what you get. Perkin’s dialogue is equally devoid of “policy”, or cunning plans for deluding the opposition or preying on the vulnerable. To conquer, Perkin relies on magniloquence, not by visiting shock and awe (like Marlowe’s Tamburlaine) but by arousing pathos. Yet while Perkin conquers hearts, he is incapable of conquering minds. His greatest and most enduring conquest is the heart of Lady Katherine Gordon (a part that Ford expands out of all proportion to the slender hint he finds in Bacon). Perkin’s essential innocence and political naivety are suggested by the simple honour of his humble followers who follow him dutifully to the scaffold; and again by his abhorrence of the decision of James IV to abandon his invasion of England for a spree of plunder: “Forage through / The country; spare no prey of life or goods” (3.4.54-5). The fact that Perkin’s hands are clean and his dialogue completely untroubled by political subtext suggests something else about his characterization. In civic history or in plays modelled after it, life is political through and through; rather as Sir Isaiah Berlin observes in respect of Aristotle and the Greek polis: “political activity is intrinsic to being a human being at a certain stage of civilization, and what it demands is intrinsic to living a successful human life” (Machiavelli 1992, 213). Yet politics is unclean by definition. Thus to be clean is not just to be apolitical but not to be fully alive. Perkin is strangely flat and stylized. He challenges the world of civic history but more in the manner of a theorem than an actual man. Perkin is alternative reality incarnate: the wish-dream that a male heir of York patterned on an obsolete historiography might arise to challenge the slow suffocation of the Plantagenet line by Henry Tudor.

  • 7 Chairs of history were founded at Oxford (in 1623 by William Camden) and Cambridge (in 1624 by Fulk (...)
  • 8 “From Liturgy to Legal Science” in, Kantorowicz 1997, 87-97, 87.

21In many ways, the agon between Perkin and Henry corresponds to the contrast between the moral-providential chronicle history (that must have looked very old-fashioned in 1634 when Perkin Warbeck was printed, and the civic history that had taken its place a decade earlier.7 Perkin’s channeling of Shakespeare’s Richmond must have seemed equally quaint, as too his suggestion that Henry VII was a re-edition of Shakespeare’s Richard III. Blood-boltered Machiavels had been outmoded by the more nuanced Machiavellianism of civic history in which only the hands got dirty, and dirt was a measure of effectiveness. To a significant degree, Henry’s competence expressed itself in the unfeudal innovation of ruling through churchmen and lawyers: canny operators such as Richard Fox and John Morton. What had thus been the weakness of Henry’s reign at its beginning – his alienation of large parts of the feudal nobility loyal to the House of York – came in hindsight to seem a much-needed modernization. His Tudor son Henry VIII and grand-daughter Elizabeth I would continue in his modernizing footsteps, barricading themselves against feudal privilege behind the walls of administrative machinery and parliament. This is certainly the thrust of Bacon’s history: Henry succeeds because of his shrewdness, his command of state resources, his suspicion, his avarice, his ability to disarm competition through bribery and browbeat subjects otherwise inclined towards Perkin. He succeeds too, Bacon implies, because he systematically prevents Perkin from allying with the English nobility. Though Bacon regards Perkin as a fake, the emptiness of Perkin’s claim plays no role in his defeat. In Ford too, Perkin is defeated through a failure to forge effective alliances, though Ford treats Perkin’s claim as provisionally true in the absoluteness of his self-belief. Perkin’s majesty may be in the eye of the beholder (having no real effect on adherents like Huntley, Dalyel and Frion), but it is never unimpressive. In harking back to the blessedness of Shakespeare’s Richmond indeed, not to mention the pathos of Richard II, it is intangibly more than merely personal. In the eery and sanctified flatness of Perkin, there is a hint of the medieval nimbus or what Kantorowicz describes as a “liturgical” idea of monarchy in which the king was “human by nature and divine by grace”, an earlier and medieval phase of “the king’s two bodies”, that preceded the juridical version of Tudor doctrine.8 In this phase, Kantorowicz explains, the king, “was liturgical […] in so far as he represented and ‘imitated’ the image of the living Christ.” (Kantorowicz 1997, 87) Though classical rather than Christian in its idiom, pre-war Stuart iconography invested the monarch with a comparable halo-effect. In Ford only, Perkin’s downfall is martyrological, on the one hand recalling the late medieval saint’s play, and on the other anticipating the “royal martyr”, Charles I. It would not have escaped Ford that Stuart ideology – especially under Charles I – tended to vest divine right in the monarch’s person – his “majesty” – and so pushed against the current of protestant civic theory which emphasised a polity-centred kingship.


  • 9 Cited in Kantorowicz 1997, 21. The italics are Kantorowicz’s.

221634 is but eight years removed from 1642, by which time something very like Ford’s agon between monarchical charisma and official competence emerged at the climax of the struggle between Charles I’s personal rule and parliament’s polity-based concept of monarchy. The topicality of Ford’s play was clearly grasped at the time as we shall shortly see from an explicit reference to the play in a parliamentary newsbook of 1645, and a flurry of closely related references in other issues of the newsbook. The precipitating historical act was Charles’s removal from Whitehall, his raising of the royal standard against parliament. In a “Declaration of the Lords and Commons” of May 27, 1642, “the King body politic was,” in the words of Kantorowicz, “retained in and by Parliament whereas the king body natural was […] frozen out.” (Kantorowicz 1997, 21) While acknowledging that “the King is the Fountain of Justice and Protection,” the Declaration insisted that these, “are not exercised in his own Person, nor depend upon his pleasure, but by his Courts and his Ministers who must do their duty therein, though the King in his own Person should forbid them.9 Parliament and the centralized state machinery cultivated by Tudor monarchs had effectively turned the king’s person into a cipher of his constitutional body. Ironically, Bacon had dedicated the history of Henry VII to Prince Charles, in hopes of his proving a second Henry:

He was a wise man, and an excellent King; and yet the times were rough and full of mutations […]. I have not flattered him, but took him to life as well as I could […]. It is true, your Highness hath a living pattern, incomparable, of the King your father. But it is not amiss for you also to see one of these ancient pieces (Bacon, 1998, 3).

23By 1645 however, Charles I was being likened not to Henry VII but to Perkin, and in a complex way that bespeaks Ford rather than Bacon. A passage in Mercurius Britannicus, a parliamentary newsbook for January 20, 1645, reads:

  • 10 Mercurius Britannicus, 67, 20 Jan-27 Jan., 1645, 527-28. I have retained the italics as indicating (...)

What Rebels still? As sure as can be King Charles is dead, and yet we never heard of it: I wonder we have not his Funerall Sermon in Print here, and the young Prince sent up to London; and how came it to passe, that the Sexton never rang the great Bell at Westminster, that the Kingdom might take notice of it, and the Parliament put on mourning, and Britannicus write an Epitaph, or an Elegie, and the City lie down in Sack-Cloth, and Ashes? Can the Cavaliers be so impudent, as to play the second part of Perkin Warbeck, and carry one up & down in his likenesse? Or is it possible, that his Majesty should be living, or that we should believe him to be so, when Aulicus dares to write thus against the very life and being of his honour? To write his Parliament with whom he is now Treating) under the infamous notion of Rebels? Sure as can be (I say again) King Charles is dead; at least his Majesty is dead, or will be, if he suffer his Parliament (the very life, fountaine, and Spheare of Majesty) to be thus wounded with reproach and infamy.10

  • 11 Mercurius Britannicus 85, 26 May-2 June, 1645, 770.
  • 12 In response to the continental jurist Ulpian’s dictum that the law was “what pleased the king” (quo (...)

24The analogy drawn here between Charles and Perkin is multifaceted and far reaching. Most obviously, the king is said to have become existentially split from his constitutional body. That it is to Ford’s play specifically that Britannicus refers, is suggested both by the conceit that a “second part” of Perkin Warbeck (the italics are suggestive of a play title) is being got up, and also the idea of the cavaliers parading “one” (an actor in the role of Perkin/Charles) around the country. The elaborate burlesque of Charles’s death and funeral is driven by the thought of his flight from London and the parliament. Uprootedness has killed Charles because it has been fatal to his “Majesty”, an entity that Stuart iconography had insistently vested in the monarch’s person, but whose very “life, fountain and Sphaere” is now said to reside “really and eminently in the throne at Westminster”.11 Britannicus takes a brutal liberty here. That the king’s constitutional body is vested in parliament and thus Whitehall would not have surprised Henry of Bracton (1210-1268), the lawyer who was the first to have clearly (though not disrespectfully) stated that the king was “under the law” (Kantorowicz 1997, 147).12 But to equate the king’s constitutional body with his “Majesty” is to strip Charles of the royal persona which had been the theme of Caroline iconography for his entire reign up to 1642. His “Majesty” is the face that gazes serenely from the portraits of Van Dyke; it does not translate baldly into a constitutional body. It is here that the full force of the analogy of Charles with Perkin is felt, but it is the runagate Perkin of Bacon rather than the constant Perkin of Ford that the pamphleteer has in mind.

  • 13 Mercurius Britannicus No.92, 28 July-4 August, 1645, 825; No.85, 26 May-2 June, 1645, 769; No.56, 2 (...)
  • 14 In Issue 92, a mock “Hue and Cry after him” is printed: “if any man can bring any tale or tiding of (...)

25If there is a “rebel” in this scenario, the newsbook goes on to insist, it is not the Parliament but Charles himself. Charles’s vagrancy is a commonplace in other issues of the newsbook. Thus in issue 92, we read that he, “ran away to his dearly beloved in Ireland”; in issue 85, we read of “The King […] a rambling abroad”; in issue 56, we read that, “never did any great tennis-ball of passion and fortune roll about more than he has done”.13 This motif – component of a burlesque “Hue and Cry” after Charles– also resonates with the Perkin that Bacon describes as “such a landloper” (Bacon 1998, 96).14

  • 15 Two further examples can be found in Mercurius Britannicus, 85, 26 May to 2 June, 1645. Thus, “The (...)
  • 16 Ibid. 770.

26The distinction between the King’s person and his “Majesty” – that we have just seen above and reiterated in various other issues15 – is undergirded by two converging developments that the newsbook also reports on. In the first place, Britannicus refuses to dignify Charles with the title of “Majesty” until he returns to Westminster “and re-possesse it.”16 The distinction is not merely rhetorical. As Joyce Macadam points out, the Presbyterian lawyer William Prynne had already argued that parliament held the power of deposition in The Soveraigne power of parliaments and kingdoms (1643) (Macadam 2011, 474). A parallel distinction between person and office was already underway in the “self denying ordinance” of the New Model Army, introduced to parliament in December 1644 and passed on its second reading on the 3rd of April, 1645 (thereby immediately preceding and following the January 20-27 edition of the newsletter containing the Perkin Warbeck reference). The ordinance declared that members of the House of Commons or the Lords could not hold commissions in the army – and vice versa. Effectively this meant that men of rank (or “persons”) could not hold office in the army. The Earls of Manchester and Essex were thus required to resign their commissions.

  • 17 Mercurius Britannicus 81, 28 April-5 May, 1645, 738.

27These separate applications of the distinction between person and office – at the levels of state and army respectively – converged in the commission of Essex’s successor as army commander. As Joyce Macadam points out, Sir Thomas Fairfax’s commission – in contrast to that of his predecessor – “omitted any mention of protecting the king’s person” (Macadam 2011, 486). The rhetorical opposition between “king” and “majesty” in Britannicus has thus taken palpable legal form. Later that same month (28 April), Britannicus is obliged to defend the new position against an attack by the royalist newsletter Mercurius Aulicus to the effect that, “our Rebellion is come to its full ripenesse, and that we care not who knows we intend to sheath our swords in the sacred body of our Soveraigne Lord the King.” This bloody-minded inference is drawn from the fact that, “the Clause of Exception for respect to the Kings person which was formerly in the Earle of Essex his Commission) is now omitted in Sir Thomas Fairfax’s.”17 Unembarrassed by this charge, Britannicus bluntly replies that “if the King will continue so perverse, as to hazard his Person in Battell among Traitors and Rebels to his State, it is not ours, but his own fault”. Hence if, “any misfortune befall him. He had best take then”. Britannicus then advises Charles to peruse the Old Testament Books of Kings, where (a marginal note informs us), he will read that, “King-fighters against God shall perish” (738).

  • 18 Eikon Basilike 1649, 36.

28In Eikon Basilike (1649), Charles I purportedly addresses the reader from beyond the grave to excuse “His Majesties retirement from Westminster” in a chapter under that title. Here Charles argues that moral integrity outweighs his parliamentary incorporation: “Better for Me to die enjoying this Empire of my Soul, which Subjects me only to God […] then live with the Title of a King, if it should carry such a vassalage with it, as not to suffer me to use my Reason and Conscience.”18 Reason and conscience cancel the requirements of the coronation oath: “So farr am I from thinking the majesty of the Crowne of England to be bound by any Coronation Oath in a blinde and brutish formalitie, to consent to whatever its subjects in Parliament shall require” (ibid. 39). In his nigh solipsistic integrity, Charles virtually echoes Perkin: “here I am, and ever shall be fixt and resolute, nor shall any man gain my consent to that, wherein my heart gives my hand or tongue the Lie” (ibid. 39).

29To conclude, the Parliamentary Declaration of 1642, the Perkin complex in Mercurius Britannicus and Charles’s essentially personal idea of monarchical sanctity in Eikon Basilike together cast a revealing backward light on the dialectical quality of Ford’s play: its mutual interrogation of polarised monarchical values (largely in the way that divine kingship and competence-based kingship interrogate and expose each other in Shakespeare’s Richard II). While the traditional monarchical values of charisma, chivalry and majesty are romanticized by contrast with the soilure of Henry’s political competence, they are also quietly emptied of political content, just as Charles is noisily emptied of political legitimacy in the pages of Britannicus. Though Henry’s claim is more solid than Perkin’s by virtue of his competence in manipulating the levers of state, it too is contingent in amounting to little more than that. Ford’s play is then mixed up with a shifting conception of the relationship between person and “office” profound enough to affect the constitution of both. In 1645 the office was waiting to be occupied by a person completely unconnected to the Stuart bloodline. Perkin Warbeck does not so much intervene in history, or comment upon it, as anticipate or embody a profound historical dynamic before the fact.

Haut de page


Anon. Eikon Basilike: The Pourtracture of His Sacred Majestie, in His Solitudes and Sufferings. London, 1649.

Anon. Mercurius Britannicus 1-130 (1643-1646). EEBO.

Bacon, Francis. The History of the Reign of King Henry VII. Ed. Brian Vickers. Cambridge: CUP, Cambridge Texts in the History of Political Thought, 1998.

Benjamin, Edwin. “Bacon and Tacitus”. Classical Philology, 60 (1965): 102-10.

Berlin, Sir Isaiah. “The Question of Machiavelli”. In Niccolo Machiavelli. The Prince. New York: Norton, 1992. 206-36.

Descola, Philippe. La Composition Des Mondes. Paris : Flammarion, 2014.

Donno, Elizabeth Story. “Thomas More and Richard III”. Renaissance Quarterly 35:3 (1982): 401-47.

Ford, John. Perkin Warbeck. Ed. D. K. Anderson. London: Edward Arnold, Regents Renaissance Drama Series, 1965.

Hopkins, Lisa. “Perkin Warbeck and Massinger”. EMLS 26(2017): 1-14.

Kamps, Ivo. Historiogaphy and Ideology in Stuart Drama. Cambridge: CUP, 1996.

Kantorowicz, Ernst, H. The King’s Two Bodies: A Study in Medieval Political Theology. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1997.

Macadam, Joyce. “Mercurius Britannicus on Charles I: An Exercise in Civil War Journalism and High Politics, August 1643 to May 1646”. Historical Research 84.225 (2011): 470-92.

Machiavelli, Niccolo. The Prince. Trans and ed. Robert M. Adams. 2nd ed. New York: Norton, Norton Critical Editions, 1992.

More, Thomas, St. The History of King Richard III and Selections from the English and Latin Poems. Ed. Richard S. Sylvester. New Haven & London: Yale UP, 1976.

Neill, Michael. “Antique Pageantrie: The Mannerist Art of Perkin Warbeck”. Renaissance Drama 7 (1976): 117-50.

Nicosia, Marissa. “’To Plant Me in Mine Own Inheritance’: Prolepsis and Pretenders in John Ford’s Perkin Warbeck”. Studies in Philology 115.3 (2018): 580-97.

Peacey, Jason. “The Struggle for Mercurius Britanicus: Factional Politics and the Parliamentarian Press, 1643-1646”. Huntingdon Library Quarterly 68:3 (2005): 517-43.

Shakespeare, William. The Norton Shakespeare. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt et al. 3rd Edition. New York and London: Norton, 2016.

Shelley, Mary. The Fortunes of Perkin Warbeck (1830). A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook. EBook No: 060641h.html., 2006.

Taylor, Miles. “The End of the Engish History Play in Perkin Warbeck”. SEL, 48:2 (2008): 395-418.

Walzer, Michael. “Political Action: The Problem of Dirty Hands”. Philosophy and Public Affairs 2 (1973): 160-80.

Weber, Max. “Politics as a Vocation”. In Hans H. Gerth & C. Wright Mills, trans. And ed. From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology. New York: Oxford UP, 1946. 77-128.

Haut de page


1 References to Perkin Warbeck are to Ford 1965.

2 Such readings are intuitive to Ford’s play and seem to have inspired Mary Shelley in 1830, where Warbeck really, “was, in reality, the lost Duke of York” (Preface, Shelley 1830). See also, Kamps 1996: “the drama portrays Henry VII and Warbeck side by side and submits that it is virtually impossible for a commoner to distinguish the founder of the Tudor line from the supposed pretender” (146); Hopkins 2017: “In Perkin Warbeck, the motif of the supposedly lost king who emerges from the west strikes an […] unmistakably Arthurian note” (1); Neill 1976: “The play opposes the ethos of traditional honor […] to the self-sufficient politics of renaissance individualism – Henry’s Machiavellian pragmatism […] and Perkin’s stoical histrionism” (119).

3 My understanding of this term relies on, Philippe Descola, La Composition Des Mondes (2014). The “chef sans pouvoir” was seen, “comme un mécanisme destiné à prévenir l’émergence de l’État” (Descola 2014, 53). My discussion follows this passage: “elle confère un titre de chef à un individu, avec le prestige attaché à la fonction, tout en le privant des moyens coercitifs qui lui permettraient de commander effectivement à autrui. De la sorte, le pouvoir avait un nom et un visage, mais il était paralysé et même un peu ridicule […], cet exorcisme empêchait toute évolution future vers un pouvoir effectif, une domination de l’un sur le multiple, une séparation entre la société et l’État.” (Descola 2014, 53)

4 The Tragedy of King Lear, in Shakespeare 2016. All Shakespeare citations are from this edition.

5 Cited in OED, “majesty”, sense 4 a.

6 Robert Johnson, Of Histories (1601), cited in Benjamin 1965, 103.

7 Chairs of history were founded at Oxford (in 1623 by William Camden) and Cambridge (in 1624 by Fulke Greville). Camden stipulated “that the lecturer must limit his lessons to civic history” (Taylor 2008, 396).

8 “From Liturgy to Legal Science” in, Kantorowicz 1997, 87-97, 87.

9 Cited in Kantorowicz 1997, 21. The italics are Kantorowicz’s.

10 Mercurius Britannicus, 67, 20 Jan-27 Jan., 1645, 527-28. I have retained the italics as indicating important thematic oppositions, and for the sense of grand-guignol they create.

11 Mercurius Britannicus 85, 26 May-2 June, 1645, 770.

12 In response to the continental jurist Ulpian’s dictum that the law was “what pleased the king” (quod principi placuit), Bracton argued that this actually meant, “not what has been rashly presumed by the [personal] will of the king, but what has been rightly defined by the consilium of his magnates, by the king’s authorization, and after deliberation and conference concerning it…” (cited in Kantorowicz 1997, 152). See also, the wider treatment of Bracton in Kantoriwicz 1997, 143-64.

13 Mercurius Britannicus No.92, 28 July-4 August, 1645, 825; No.85, 26 May-2 June, 1645, 769; No.56, 28 October-4 November, 1644, 529.

14 In Issue 92, a mock “Hue and Cry after him” is printed: “if any man can bring any tale or tiding of a Willfull King, Which hath gone astray these foure yeares from his Parliament, with a guilty Conscience, bloody Hands, a Heart full of boken Vowes and Protestations […] Then give notice to Britanicus, and you shall be well paid for your paines: So God save the Parliament” (825).

15 Two further examples can be found in Mercurius Britannicus, 85, 26 May to 2 June, 1645. Thus, “The King we know He is a rambling abroad […] but as touching his Majesty, He is here in Parliament” (769); and “Charles is abroad, but His Majesty really and eminently in the throne at Westminster” (770).

16 Ibid. 770.

17 Mercurius Britannicus 81, 28 April-5 May, 1645, 738.

18 Eikon Basilike 1649, 36.

Haut de page

Pour citer cet article

Référence électronique

John Gillies, « Furtive majesty in John Ford’s Perkin Warbeck »Sillages critiques [En ligne], 31 | 2021, mis en ligne le 15 janvier 2022, consulté le 28 mai 2022. URL : ; DOI :

Haut de page


John Gillies

University of Essex

John Gillies is Professor in Literature in the Department of Literature, Film, and Theatre Studies, University of Essex. He is the author of Shakespeare and the geography of difference (Cambridge, 1994), and various essays on Shakespeare, Milton and early modern literature and drama. He is co-editor of: Performing Shakespeare in Japan (Cambridge, 2001); Playing the Globe: genre and geography in early modern drama (Associated University Presses, 1998); and several multimedia packages on theatre history, including: Performing Shakespeare in China, 1980-1990 <>. Articles include: “The problem of original sin in Hamlet”, SQ 64:4 (2013); 396-424; “Calvinism as tragedy in the English revenge play”, Shakespeare, 9:4, (2013), 1-26; “The Conversational Turn in Shakespeare”, Études Epistémè, 33 (2018); “The god called Nothingness”, Büchner, Shakespeare and Original Sin”, The Shakespeare International Yearbook, 2018. He is working toward two books, Complicity, a cultural history, and Holy Conversation in Shakespeare.

Articles du même auteur

Haut de page

Droits d’auteur

Licence Creative Commons
Sillages critiques est mis à disposition selon les termes de la licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

Haut de page
  • Logo Lettres Sorbonne Université
  • Logo SUP – Sorbonne Université Presses
  • Logo VALE – Voix anglophones, littérature et esthétique
  • DOAJ - Directory of Open Access Journals
  • OpenEdition Journals
Rechercher dans OpenEdition Search

Vous allez être redirigé vers OpenEdition Search