Trade, religion and diversity: how Tudor London became a global city
During the reigns of the Tudor monarchs of the 16th century, London opened its doors to a diverse cast of newcomers, from Moroccan ambassadors to Native American chiefs. Jerry Brotton reveals what drove people to head to England, and how foreign visitors both shaped, and were shaped by, the Tudor capital
On 2 October 1586, a rather unusual baptism took place at St Katharine’s Church next to the Tower of London. The person being baptised, known as “Chinano the Turk”, was a 40-year-old native of the Mediterranean island of Euboea – and the first known male Muslim convert to Protestantism.
The celebrant at the conversion of Chinano – probably a clumsy Anglicisation of the Turkish name Sinan – was Welsh minister Meredith Hanmer. Earlier that day, he had preached a sermon entitled “The Baptising of a Turke”, informing the congregation that Chinano had been taken captive as a galley slave by the Spanish, then shipped to Cartagena in what’s now Colombia. There he was “liberated” by Sir Francis Drake in 1586, along with another hundred Turks, and brought back to London.
Hanmer announced that Chinano had “renounced Mahomet” and “desired he might be received as one of the faithful Christians, and be baptised”. What happened to Chinano and those other Turks is unknown, because they disappear from the historical record.
The “other” Tudors
The brief appearance of such people gives us an insight into the global world in which Tudor London played its part, and the sheer variety of people from outside England who ended up living, working, marrying, having children and dying in the city. Some were religious exiles, refugees or enslaved people, but there were also visiting diplomats, explorers, physicians and chieftains from all corners of the world: Italy and Portugal, Morocco and Russia, Turkey, central Asia and the “New World” – the Americas.
Some were Muslims, others Jews; some converted from one religion to another; others believed in gods from Africa and the Americas that were unknown to the Tudors. Living alongside white, Christian Londoners, their DNA has long since dispersed, passed down through subsequent generations.
The reasons these people came to London were twofold: money and geography. As an international port facing Europe, London had long been a financial centre and a magnet for European merchants and financiers from as far afield as the Baltic, the Italian peninsula and the Aegean. From the time of Henry VIII, the city’s growth was aided by mercantilist policies that drove the export of the country’s greatest asset – woollen cloth – and limited imports.
New industry was encouraged, with monopolies granted and skilled overseas workers supported. London’s population soared as a result, quadrupling from approximately 50,000 in 1520 to around 200,000 in 1600. The City – defined by the old Roman city walls, today encompassing the financial district centred around Bank and Liverpool Street – spilled out into the “Liberties”.
As an international port facing Europe, London had long been a financial centre and a magnet for European merchants and financiers
These areas, extending beyond the walls and testing the limits of City governance, comprised many often seedier yet vibrant districts in which many foreigners – known to Tudor Londoners collectively as “strangers” or “aliens” – settled, enticed by the laxer prescriptions against “strangers” and the cheap prices.
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Religion in Tudor London
The Tudor break from Rome and the Catholic church in the 1530s, culminating in the official excommunication of Henry VIII’s Protestant daughter, Elizabeth I, in 1570, was a theological Brexit that forced London to look beyond Europe for its economic prosperity. As the city went global, its merchants, factors and sailors travelled to the Muslim kingdoms in north Africa and the Ottoman domains in Asia and the Middle East, to Persia and India, even to the New World.
And such connections went both ways, with an influx of “strangers” and “aliens” arriving in England from abroad. London’s Tudor court also looked to Europe for skilled physicians, musicians and artists. It was probably in 1501 that the black African trumpeter John Blanke arrived in England from Spain, in the entourage of Henry VIII’s future wife, Catherine of Aragon.
Blanke appears, playing the trumpet and wearing a turban, in the Westminster Tournament Roll (above)– a long, lavishly illustrated document depicting the events staged to celebrate the birth of Catherine and Henry’s first living son, also Henry, in 1511. (The baby died just weeks later.) Blanke was not enslaved but, rather, a skilled musician welcomed into the ranks of the Tudor court’s elite. Around this time, he successfully petitioned the king for a pay rise – from 8 to 16 pence a day – claiming that “his wage now and as yet is not sufficient to maintain and keep him to do your grace like service as other your trumpeters do”.
- Read more | Black faces of Tudor England
He was clearly confident in his talents and in his ability to win the ear of the music-loving king. When Blanke married, in 1512, Henry paid for his wedding outfit. We must assume that Blanke converted, to allow him to take Christian marriage vows, and that he probably married a white Englishwoman, though we can’t be sure – as with Chinano and his fellow Turks, Blanke disappears from the record just a few years later.
London: the 16th-century city that never slept
Five districts that offer a flavour of the vibrant, often dangerous, Tudor capital
Smithfield: tournaments and traitors
Smithfield is the site of London’s oldest market, which has operated here since the Middle Ages and is still trading today. During Tudor times the area was home to St Bartholomew’s Hospital and key livery companies including the Haberdashers. It was a venue for popular festivals and tournaments including the annual St Bartholomew’s Day celebrations, but also for the public executions of heretics and traitors. The area attracted a diverse variety of residents, including Jewish physicians.
Clerkenwell: ale and ill repute
The Knights Hospitallers of St John originally had their headquarters at Clerkenwell Priory. This area lay outside the City walls, and became notorious for its alehouses, bowling alleys and dicing houses. Turnbull Street (now Turnmill Street near Farringdon Station) was regarded as one of the most disreputable thoroughfares in London, infamous for its thieves and brothels – as mentioned in Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part 2.
Southwark: sex and stages
Today home to Shakespeare’s Globe theatre and Tate Modern gallery, in Tudor times Southwark was an infamous liberty – an outlying district of the City of London – under the jurisdiction of the bishop of Winchester. Brothels and bear-baiting pits flourished here; local sex workers were known as “Winchester Geese”. Shakespeare himself lived and worked here, and it was the site of many of the first large open-air theatres. Londoners would cross the bridge or take water taxis to experience this dangerous yet exciting area south of the river – and it’s still a popular destination for tourists and locals.
Austin Friars: Dutch denizens
This district, north-east of the current site of the Bank of England, took its name from an Augustinian friary founded in the 13th century. Some years after its dissolution in 1538, Edward VI invited religious and economic migrants from Germany and the Low Countries to settle there and use the friary’s church, which became known as the “Dutch Church”. By 1600, the area’s Dutch community numbered more than 5,000, and Austin Friars was also home to many other European and African settlers.
Bishopsgate: crossing boundaries
As its name suggests, this area – now on the edge of the City and bordering London’s East End – was the site of one of the ancient Roman city gates, and as a result during Tudor times straddled London’s civic jurisdictions. Bishopgate’s four churches were all dedicated to Botolph, the patron saint of boundaries, travel and trade. Sited just outside the City walls yet close to the river, the district drew migrants from abroad, many of whom settled and worked here, and were also converted and buried in its churches.
The rise of foreign trade
New arrivals were not always welcomed with open arms. In 1517, the Evil May Day Riots erupted in London when about a thousand apprentices turned on “strangers” including French and Flemish artisans and Italian merchants in Lombard Street. This fracas exposed a faultline in London’s economy: skilled workers from abroad were needed to bolster trade but, at times of famine, disease or social tensions, outsiders were vilified and attacked – as has, sadly, so often been the case throughout the centuries.
International trade and the rise of joint stock companies brought to London others from even farther afield. In 1560, the Muscovy Company agent Anthony Jenkinson returned to England from trading in Russia and central Asia, where he met the woman he called “my wench, Aura Soltana”. Reflecting one of the more disturbing aspects of Tudor trade, Jenkinson appears to have bought this unfortunate woman in Astrakhan, in the Volga Delta.
Indeed, he boasted that he “could have bought many goodly Tartar children… a boy or a wench for a loaf of bread worth six pence in England”. On his return to London, Jenkinson gifted the young woman to Elizabeth I, whose court records gave Aura the classically inspired name “Ippolyta the Tartarian”.
Other records from that year note that she was christened – presumably another conversion – and given gold jewellery by the queen, who referred to her as a “dear and well beloved” servant. Records also survive of Elizabeth giving Ippolyta clothes of silk, velvet and satin, and suggest that the young woman introduced her to the Spanish fashion for leather shoes.
- Read more | Tudor women: what was life like?
Lives of ordinary settlers
Many who settled in Tudor London had no connection with the court at all, instead leading relatively humble lives as skilled workers. One such was Reasonable Blackman, a silk weaver working in Southwark in the 1580s, who may have made costumes for the Bankside playhouses where plays by William Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe were performed. Probably born in west Africa, he came to London via the Low Countries, where he had learned his craft.
Skilled workers from abroad were needed to bolster trade but, at times of famine, disease or social tensions, outsiders were vilified and attacked
We know even more about a woman named Mary Fillis, because parish records from St Botolph’s Aldgate, just east of the city centre, record her baptism in 1597 and her background in fascinating detail. These records note that Fillis was “about the age of 20 years and having been in England for the space of 12 or 13 years, and as she was not Christened, and now being become servant with one Millicent Porter a seamstress dwelling in East Smithfield, and now taking some hold of faith in Jesus Christ, was desirous to become a Christian”.
Born in Morocco in 1577, and presumably of Islamic heritage, she had first come to London to work as a servant in St Olave’s parish, in the Hart Street household of a merchant named John Barker, who had links to the Barbary Company that traded in Morocco. By the late 1590s, the parish records note, she was working as a seamstress with Millicent Porter. As a skilled worker, and someone who may have wanted to marry and have children, Fillis needed to convert – which she duly did, just like at least 60 other black and/or Muslim women whose stories are found in local records.
The 1580s in particular were a time of great social mobility, when “aliens” came into London from across the globe as Elizabethan foreign and commercial policy reacted to the political threat from Catholic Spain. The decade saw voyages to Virginia in the New World, the establishment of a diplomatic and trade embassy with the Ottomans in Constantinople (now Istanbul), agents scattered across the Mediterranean, and further incursions into north Africa and central Asia.
In 1584, two Croatan Native American elders travelled to London with returning English colonists from the Roanoke colony in what’s now North Carolina. Their arrival in the city caused a minor sensation. Walter Ralegh, who had financed the voyage, hosted the two men in Durham House on the Strand. During their visit, one of them – Manteo, a senior member of the tribe that lived in the region of Roanoke – worked with the scientist Thomas Hariot, who learned his Algonquian language.
The Native Americans were presented at court, and helped Ralegh attract further financial investment in the ill-fated colony. Manteo returned to Roanoke, where he became the first Native American to be baptised into the Church of England in 1587. In 1603, later Croatan visitors to London provided rowing demonstrations, paddling their canoes along the Thames.
A new life in a new town
Conversions to Protestantism weren’t restricted to people regarded by the Tudors as “pagans”. Jews who were baptised were labelled “Marranos”, “conversos” or “New Christians”, supporting their status as “denizens” – residents with most of the rights of citizens. England’s entire Jewish population had been expelled in 1290 on the orders of Edward I, and would not be readmitted until 1656 – officially, at least.
But evidence survives of a community of at least 100 Portuguese Jewish physicians and merchants living in London. These included Roderigo Lopez, a skilled physician and Portuguese converso of Jewish heritage. Lopez had fled his home country after facing accusations by the Portuguese Inquisition of secretly practising Judaism, and settled in London in 1559, shortly after Elizabeth’s accession.
- Read more | The persecution of Jews in medieval England
He converted to Anglicanism, married the daughter of a London grocer and lived in Holborn, where he is described in its 1571 census of “aliens” as “Dr Lopez, Portingale, householder, denizen [who] came into this realm about 12 years past to get his living by physic”. Lopez was admitted as a fellow to the College of Physicians, and appointed physician at St Bartholomew’s Hospital. In 1581, he rose to become physician to Elizabeth I.
Unfortunately, Lopez became a pawn in courtly political intrigue, and was accused of trying to poison the queen as part of a Spanish plot. Before his execution at Tyburn in June 1594, he protested that he “loved the queen as well as Jesus Christ”, a desperate yet probably sincere affirmation of his loyalty to church and crown. The crowd responded with derision as they watched him being hanged, drawn and quartered.
Roderigo Lopez, a skilled physician and Portuguese converso of Jewish heritage, rose to become physician to Elizabeth I
Today, most historians believe there was no evidence to convict Lopez: just a few years later the Spanish ambassador acknowledged as much. There was only one document at Lopez’s trial that mentioned his Jewish heritage, and historians are split about how far antisemitism played a part in the case against him.
Finding a common enemy
Although Lopez met a tragic end, other well-connected “strangers” who operated within the upper echelons of the Tudor court fared far better. In the summer of 1600, Mohammed al-Annuri, also known as Abd el-Ouahed ben Messaoud ben Mohammed Anoun, arrived in London to negotiate an Anglo-Moroccan alliance against a common enemy: Catholic Spain. He did so on the orders of his Moroccan ruler, Moulay Ahmed al-Mansur, and spent six months living on the Strand as an honoured guest of the Barbary Company, alongside an entourage of 16 other Muslims.
Contemporary reports observed that they were “strangely attired” and “killed all their own meat within their house” (presumably to ensure it was halal). The diarist John Chamberlain wrote that it was “no small honour to us that nations so far remote, and every way different, should meet here to admire the glory and magnificence of our queen”.
Al-Annuri had his portrait painted, watched Elizabeth’s Accession Day Tilts at Whitehall in November 1600, and met the queen at Nonsuch Palace and Oatlands Palace for the diplomatic negotiations that would unite English Protestants and Moroccan Muslims. Ultimately the plan failed, and al-Annuri returned to Morocco in 1601 – but he was certainly not the first nor the last cosmopolitan figure to spend extended periods of time in Tudor London.
These stories of Tudor London and its diverse citizenry from around the world continue to grow in number, as historians from a diverse range of backgrounds approach the city’s manuscript records in new ways, identifying traces of what I have called “the other Tudors”. Many such figures have already been identified in the Tudor archive: more than 500 have been pinpointed as living in London during the years between 1500 and 1670, at various times welcomed, assimilated, rejected and attacked.
These are stories of the Tudors for our own uncertain times – the age of the Black Lives Matter movement, when xenophobia rubs shoulders with cosmopolitanism. In identifying these people, historians enhance and deepen our understanding of the Tudor period, and what it means for English national culture today.
This article was first published in the May 2023 issue of BBC History Magazine
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