Book Review – Black Tudors: The Untold Story by Miranda Kaufmann

By Nathen Amin

Black Tudors by Dr Miranda Kaufmann is an ambitious book loaded with little-known Tudor trivia that has long been overdue in the study of 16th century England, and fortunately for the future of this little-explored topic, the result is a fascinating production of the utmost quality that takes a close look at ten individuals who could, quite accurately, be considered Black Tudors.

There is a common-held belief that these British Isles were inhabited by a native, white population before the rise of Slavery, the Industrial Revolution, and the onset of twentieth century globalisation with the voyage of the Empire Windrush from the Caribbean, that people of colour quite simply were unknown to our Tudor-period ancestors. Yet, as Dr Kaufmann shows in this illuminating and extraordinarily in-depth publication, such a view is quite simply nonsense. As the author notes in the blurb, people of colour were christened, married and buried by the church in England, and were paid wages just like any other 16th century person. They formed integral parts of the communities they lived in, and provided services that were often welcomed, and in many cases, essential.

A Black Tudor presence is first explicitly noticed shortly after the arrival of Katherine of Aragon in England for her wedding to Prince Arthur, around the turn of the 16th century. The Spanish princess brought her own servants across the Channel, which included a woman of a Muslim Moorish background named Catalina, whose duty included making the future queen’s bed. Perhaps more famously is the arrival of a trumpeter to the Tudor court who became known, ironically one imagines, as John Blanke, a man who would serve both Henry VII and Henry VIII with distinction, and for which he was handsomely rewarded. Henry VIII even footed the bill for Blanke’s wedding, ordering a gown of violet cloth, a bonnet and a hat as a gift for ‘our trumpeter’

For even the most ardent of Tudor readers and students, there will be much within Black Tudors that you simply didn’t know, and this is where the true value of this work can be found. Dr Kaufmann is not simply covering well-trodden ground, an issue which has often plagued the study of the sixteenth century, but instead is revealing information that most of her audience will be coming across for the first time. The results are astounding.

Who knew, for example, that Africans were the predominant divers of their day, a fact which witnessed the recruitment of an African named Jacques Francis to try and salvage some items from the sunken Mary Rose in 1450s, over four hundred years before the ship was eventually raised from the sea bed. Sir Francis Drake was just one prominent figure of his day who employed a person of colour, in his case Diego, a freed slave from Panama who would go on to circumnavigate much of the globe with his English captain, often working as an interpreter.

Of course, the history isn’t always joyous, as discovered by the tragic tale of Black Maria, a woman aboard one of Drake’s ships who was raped, impregnated and then abandoned on an island when she presumably had outlived her usefulness. We are also treated to the curious tale of a black porter named Edward Swarthye, who in 1596 in rural Gloucestershire was employed to whip a white member of the gentry named John Guye, perhaps an incident unfathomable to our preconceived ideas of enforced black subservience in the past. A particular entry which I thoroughly enjoyed reading involved the wonderfully-named Reasonable Blackman, who was able to take advantage of his freedom in England to become a successful silk weaver in Southwark, counting many wealthy aristocrats and merchants amongst his clientele.

I was also astonished, more through my own ignorance of the subject as it was so poorly documented elsewhere before this book, that although black people existed as slaves in Spain, bought and sold on cathedral steps like inanimate objects, slavery was not recognised in England so that once these men and women arrived in England, they were considered free. For example, when Pero Alvarez, an African man who arrived in England from Portugal during the reign of Henry VII, he was instantly considered a free man, no longer subject to the shackles of slavery. The subject of slavery arose in an English court of law in 1569 when it was comprehensively determined that no man could be subject to slavery upon entering the kingdom, for ‘England has too pure an air for slaves to breath in’. Two decades later, William Harrison noted proudly;

‘as for slaves and bondmen, we have none; nay such is the privilege of our country by the especial grace of God and bounty of our princes, that if any come hither from other realms, so soon as they set foot on land they become as free in condition as their masters, whereby all note of servile bondage is utterly removed from them’

The author is an expert in her field, a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies and an Oxford graduate, where her doctoral thesis was based on the presence of Africans in Britain between 1500 and 1640. The subject couldn’t be in safer hands. Dr Kaufmann’s research is impeccable, and has to be for such a detailed if specific study of those people who for so long have been disregarded by centuries of historians. She treats each of her subjects as individuals in their own right instead of just a community, exploring each life with a delicate warmth and respect that endears those individuals to the reader. We are gripped by their story.

Black Tudors is essentially a fascinating and concise microhistory of a small but important community in 16th century living their everyday lives amidst the much greater socio-political matters occurring around them, from the Great Matter and Reformation of Henry VIII to the threat posed by Spain against Elizabeth I. This book has no filler, and is wholly focused on its objective, a heavily-researched, well-referenced and pioneering, production. At 34-pages, her bibliography is possibly the most exhaustive I have seen. Kaufmann succeeds in her project, and succeeds well.

In her introduction, Dr Kaufmann notes ‘the misconceptions surrounding the status of Black Tudors are part of a wider impression that any African living outside Africa before the mid-fifteenth century, be it in Europe of the Americas must have been enslaved’, further pointing out in her conclusion that Africans were seen and heard across England, from Hull to Truro. This book will hopefully go some way to dispelling this misguided belief that many of us hold. Kaufmann also states confidently “for all those who thought they knew the Tudors, it is time to think again”. She’s right.

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Dr. Miranda Kaufmann is a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, part of the School of Advanced Study, University of London. She read History at Christ Church, Oxford, where she completed her doctoral thesis on ‘Africans in Britain, 1500-1640’ in 2011. As a freelance historian and journalist, she has worked for The Sunday Times, the BBC, the National Trust, English Heritage, the Oxford Companion series, Quercus publishing and the Rugby Football Foundation. She is a popular speaker at conferences, seminars and schools from Hull to Jamaica and has published articles in academic journals and elsewhere (including the Times Literary Supplement, The Times, The Guardian, History Today, BBC History Magazine and Periscope Post). She enjoys engaging in debate at the intersection of past and present and has been interviewed by the BBC, Sky News, Al Jazeera USA and the Observer.

John Blanke, the Tudors ‘blacke trumpeter’

By Nathen Amin

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.

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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.

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Nathen Amin grew up in the heart of Carmarthenshire, West Wales, and has long had an interest in Welsh history, the Wars of the Roses and the early Tudor period. His first book Tudor Wales was released in 2014 and was well-received, followed by a second book called York Pubs in 2016. His third book, the first, full-length biography of the Beaufort family, the House of Beaufort,  is scheduled for release in the summer of 2017. He is the founder of the Henry Tudor Society and has featured discussing the Tudors on BBC radio and television, as well as in print and online media across the UK. He has a degree in Business and Journalism and now lives in York, where he works as a Technical Writer.