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?

Portrait of an African man, c1530. (Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

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.

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