When one considers the people of Tudor England, one aspect often not given much thought is the presence of a non-white community. It is often assumed that fifteenth and sixteenth century England and Wales was solely inhabited by a white, European race. It is certainly understood that London and other large settlements were frequented at various points by citizens of France, Spain, Flanders, Burgundy and other European states but again the assumption is that these were people of white colour.
The truth is that Tudor England did have a burgeoning black community which first became notable during the reign of Henry VII and continued under his successors. In particular a black community began to flourish during the reign of Queen Elizabeth and their presence can be found in official records of the era. What is important to consider is that this community were not slaves beholden to their white masters but generally free men with the same rights as any other Englishman. The earned honest wages, traded with other citizens and in some cases inter-married with the native population. They were often referred to as Blackmoores, Black-mores or some other variation, the designation applied to them deriving from the Moors of North Africa from whence they presumably originated. Shakespeare was also noted to include black characters in some of his plays, including the Prince of Morocco in The Merchant of Venice and Othello. It is probable that he enjoyed some level of personal interaction with the black community during his time in London and utilised first-hand knowledge in creating his characters.
The community must have been of a significant size towards the end of the Elizabethan period for concerns are known to have emanated from the government of the day. The recent conflict with Spain and capture of Spanish ships had seen an increasing influx of freed black slaves gratefully settling in England. One quote found amongst governmental papers exhibits the rising tensions in 1601. “The queen is discontented at the great numbers of ‘negars and blackamoores’ which are crept into the realm since the troubles between her Highness and the King of Spain, and are fostered here to the annoyance of her own people”. This came five years after the queen had written to the lord mayors of certain cities lamenting “blackmoores brought into this realm, of which kind of people there are already to manie” before ordering that such people should be “sent forth of the land”.
Plans were initiated for the repatriation of black people although whether this was carried out or whether it even applied to those who had previously integrated is not clear. The queen did after all employ musicians and dancers from the black community for her own entertainment. The 1590’s were a time of hardship for the English people with a drastic rise in poverty and hunger, culminating in the Elizabethan Poor Relief Act 1601 which legalised a degree of poor relief. The difficult period saw a rise in cultural friction and many sought to place blame at the door of the black community, which included attacking the presumably Muslim Moors for “having no understanding of Christ or his Gospel”. Whilst the plan to deport part of the black population doesn’t appear to have been successful what is clear is that as English and then British exploration expanded around the globe over the following centuries the influx of foreign nationals into the kingdom certainly increased, leading to the diverse, multicultural Britain of today.
Arguably the most famous member of the black community during the Tudor period was one of the first known to record, namely John Blanke, who rose to prominence during the first decade of the sixteenth century. It is generally thought that Blanke arrived in England as one of the North African attendants of Catherine of Aragon when she arrived in England as the wife of Prince Arthur in 1501. The Spanish mainland neighboured Moorish Africa and had a long history of cooperation and conflict with both the region and the people. Islamic Iberia only ceased to be in 1492 after the Moors were expelled from Granada by Catherine of Aragon’s parents, Ferdinand and Isabella. His name Blanke is probably in reference to his skin colour, either a bastardisation of the word ‘black’ or derived from the French word ‘blanc’ or white.
Although little is recorded it is understood he was a trumpeter who must have been distinguished in his art to have received a degree of royal patronage. He was paid the not insubstantial amount of 8d a day by Henry VII and on one occasion in November 1507 received a payment of 20 shilings from the Treasurer. Blanke’s employment continued under the Henry VIII when he acceded to his father’s throne in 1509, the trumpeter present at the coronation in a professional capacity.
The sixty-foot Westminster Tournament Roll in the College of Arms also depicts a black person in two separate locations, often acknowledged to be John Blanke. The illuminated vellum manuscript was created to commemorate the events that occurred on 12 and 13 February 1511 when King Henry VIII held a tournament to celebrate the birth of his son Prince Henry which had occurred a fortnight previously. Naturally the ebullient king featured prominently in the roll, surrounded by his closest advisors and officials. Amongst this intimate royal retinue are six mounted trumpeters, bearing instruments decorated with the royal arms of England. One of the trumpeters is black, intriguingly depicted wearing a turban whilst his white counterparts remain bareheaded. The same figure complete with turban appears elsewhere in the roll as part of the procession. This was a position of prestige and honour and would surely have only been bestowed upon a man of great professional talent who the king personally enjoyed. Some secondary sources indicate that Blanke was married in 1512 and apparently received a wedding gift from his sovereign but I have not been able thus far to verify this. After his appearance at the great Westminster Tournament Blanke disappears from record and nothing is known of his later life.