The Missing Tudors: black people in 16th-century England

They were baptised and buried in parishes across the country, and even attended queens at court. So why, asks Onyeka, do we continue to airbrush black Africans out of Tudor England?

This article was first published in the July 2012 issue of BBC History Magazine

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The Westminster Tournament Roll - College of Arms

When we think of Tudor England, we don’t immediately imagine black Africans being part of that society. Yet there were Africans here at that time, and they were considered numerous enough in Tudor towns and cities to inspire the phrases “to manie” and “great numbers” in two letters signed by Elizabeth I in July 1596.

Both letters sought to have groups of these Africans treated as slaves and exchanged for white English prisoners held captive in Spain and Portugal. Yet it appears that the letters’ authors – an English merchant Thomas Sherley, Sherley’s son of the same name, and a Dutch slave-trader from Lubeck in Germany called Casper Van Senden – were to meet with disappointment. They failed, in their own words “to get any” of the Africans – perhaps because Robert Cecil, the most influential man in Elizabeth’s court, did not like a “commission of that nature”.

Cecil’s view was probably shaped by the likelihood that most Africans were integrated members of the parish communities they lived in, and it would have been  difficult to extract them from their homes and families. 

Africans are described in Tudor parish records from 1558 (when most official records began) until well into the 17th century by terms such as “Blackamoores”, “Neygers”, “Aethiopians” and “Negroes”. Meanwhile, in True Discourse (1578), the English traveller and writer George Best refers to them as being as “black as cole”, “so blacke” that when a “faire [white] English woman” engages in a relationship with them they “begat a sonne in all respects as blacke as the father was”.

These Africans were baptised, buried and recorded in parish records in London, Plymouth, Southampton, Barnstaple, Bristol, Leicester, Northampton and other places across the country. They include men, women and children such as “Christopher Cappervert, a blackemoore”, who was 28 years old when he died. He was buried in the St Botolph without Aldgate area of London on 22 October 1586.

We also have the baptismal record of Mary Fillis, dated 3 June 1597, who was “a black more… dwelling with Millicent Porter, a semester”. Mary had been in England since she was six years old and had originally come with her father from “Morisco” (Andalusia) in Spain.

Piracy and adventure

In Plymouth, there are records for “Bastien, a Blackmoore of Mr Willm Hawkins” who was buried on 10 December 1583. William Hawkins was the son of William Hawkins the elder and the brother of John Hawkins, all of whom practised piracy and adventuring along the Barbary coast, west Africa and beyond. Bastien may have arrived in England as a result of these voyages.

Other Africans buried in England include “Anthony John, a Neyger” on 18 March 1587. There are also baptism records for Africans such as “Helene, daughter of Cristian the negro svant to Richard Sheere, the supposed father being Cuthbert Holman, illeg.” on 2 May 1593.
The recorder has chosen to identify Cristian, Helene’s mother, by a racial epithet, and Cuthbert Holman, her “supposed father”, without one. This probably means that Helene was of mixed parentage.  

Yet Africans weren’t just found in England’s provinces. In fact, some rubbed shoulders with the country’s most powerful figures – in the Tudor court. One such was the Iberian Moor Catalina de Cardones, who arrived in England in 1501 with her employer Catherine of Aragon, later Henry VIII’s wife and queen. Catalina served her mistress for 26 years as the lady of the bedchamber and was married to a “Hace ballestas”, a crossbowman also of Moorish origin.

Other Africans who inhabited the court include John Blanke, the “blacke trumpeter”, who was employed by Henry VII and Henry VIII from 1506–12. Blanke had a prominent role in the Westminster Tournament celebrations of 1511 staged to commemorate the birth of Prince Arthur, the son of Catherine of Aragon and Henry VIII. Blanke appears twice on the Westminster Tournament Roll, a contemporary manuscript that shows the procession to and from Westminster Abbey.   

Elizabeth I also had at least one African in her personal entourage – “a Blackamoore boy”, who is mentioned in a warrant dated 14 April 1574. The warrant states that the queen ordered the clothes-maker Henry Henre to make the African boy a “garcon coat… of white taphata cutt and lyned… striped with gold and silver with buckeram bayes… knitted stockings [and] white shoes”. This boy was employed until at least the following April, when a further warrant granted this “littel black a More” another set of fine clothing.  

The fact that Africans were not just living in Tudor parishes but were employed inside the royal court helps us to understand that they were part of the anatomy of that society. However, we tend to have a rather romantic view of our history and, as a result, our perceptions of our identity are unwittingly distorted. This revisionism  means that Tudor England is often portrayed as being all white.

Going missing

This is reflected in some of the best-known depictions of Tudor England on television, in film and even in books written by both popular and academic historians. In The Tudors (2007–10) and the BBC-commissioned series Elizabeth R (1971), for example, Africans are not only absent from English society, but almost entirely missing from the 16th-century world.

An African does appear in Elizabeth R, in a scene set at the French court. Yet he is on camera for just a few seconds before disappearing altogether, as if an apparition. His presence seems tokenistic and – since he does not speak, and his existence is unexplained in what is otherwise an entirely white society – this makes him seem like a stranger and a curiosity.

Africans are entirely absent in Elizabeth (1998), and Elizabeth: The Golden Age (2007) – though, in the latter, two Native Americans arrive in the English court with Walter Ralegh. These characters are probably based on the real Wanchese and Manteo who came to England with Ralegh in 1584 and who are described in John Stow’s written account of the times, The Chronicles (1615).

Interestingly, in the same chapter of The Chronicles, Stow also talks about a famous African needle-maker living in Cheapside, London during the reign of  Mary I. However, this African has never been portrayed in film or on television.

The most worrying consequence of our failure to discuss diversity in 16th-century England is that it influences how we develop public policies on a range of important political matters, and it affects how we educate children in schools.

As the historian Marika Sherwood warns us, many black people rightly state that: “In this curriculum I don’t exist.” Yet their absence from modern accounts of the past can’t be explained by the fact that they didn’t live in Tudor England. Rather, we are ignorant of their existence – or have decided to forget or trivialise it.

Of course, Catalina de Cardones, John Blanke, Mary Fillis of Morisco and Bastien did exist. They are not mere footnotes in our history. Indeed, they are as much a part of England’s story as their employers Catherine of Aragon, Henry VII, Henry VIII, Millicent Porter and William Hawkins.  

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