Africans in Tudor and Stuart England by Conor Byrne

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African Tudor England One often hears of the Tudor period being ‘done to death’. Historians have always revelled, and continue to do so, in studying this exciting and glamorous period, which saw monumental religious change, political development and cultural growth, and ordinary people worldwide cannot get enough of the Tudors, whether reading about them, watching historical films or visiting Tudor palaces. However, it cannot be denied that our obsession with the Tudors is very white-centred. As Onyeka pointedly remarked: ‘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’. Only recently have historians shown an interest in the lives of Africans in Tudor and Stuart England, although, quite rightly, this has now become a major subject of research in its own right.

The Tudor period was significant for black settlement in England. Katherine of Aragon arrived at Plymouth in October 1501 with a multinational entourage that included Moors, Muslims and Jews. The Iberian Moor Catalina de Cardones was one member of Katherine’s entourage, and served her for twenty-six years as Lady of the Bedchamber. She eventually married ‘Hace Ballestas’, a crossbowman who was also of Moorish origin. Alongside the arrival of ‘Black Moors’ from Spain and North Africa, this period witnessed the arrival of black people on a major scale as a result of the burgeoning slave trade. The National Archives at Kew contains a wealth of fascinating resources concerning Tudor Africans. Albeit from a slightly later date, during Stuart rule, on 29 September 1687 a Moor was granted the freedom of the city of York, and is listed in the freemen’s roll as ‘John Moore – blacke’, although he is occasionally referred to as ‘Johannes Moore’. Freedom of the city could be obtained through earning it (through serving an apprenticeship, for example); inheriting it from a parent who was a freeman; purchasing it; or receiving it as a reward for services rendered to the city. In this case, John Moore bought the freedom of the city. He paid two amounts: 20 nobles (equivalent to 13s 6d) to the Common Chamber of the city of York, and £4 to the city council, for his honour. It has been conjectured that John Moore was a wealthy member of the York community, since he was in a position to pay the requisite amount of money to the mayor of York to enjoy all the privileges of freedom of the city. He was able to bear arms and enjoyed the right to fish in the city’s rivers and was also able to graze his animals on the meadows by virtue of his freemen status. While Moore’s experiences seem to have been exceptional – no other black man or woman has been, to date, found in the York rolls – this example compellingly demonstrates the visibility, importance and potential for power of black people in England at this time.

York Rolls

Historian Miranda Kaufmann detailed the experiences of the Africans aboard Francis Drake’s ship The Golden Hind in the late sixteenth-century. His privateering escapades brought him into contact with Africans: over 300,000 were transported across the Atlantic Ocean in bondage, mainly by the Spanish and Portuguese, between 1502 and 1619. As Kaufmann notes, however, ‘Drake would also have encountered Africans in England, where a growing black presence was a notable side-effect of the war with Spain’. Large numbers of Africans arrived at English ports such as Bristol and Plymouth over the course of the sixteenth-century. In 1590, 135 Africans aboard one privateering ship landed at Bristol. According to Kaufmann, at least three Africans joined the Golden Hind in the course of its journey, while one, Diego, was on board already when Drake departed from Plymouth on 15 November 1577. Diego was one of several Cimarrons: Africans who escaped Spanish captors to found, in Panama, their own settlements. Drake met Diego while Drake was launching a series of raids in Central America. Diego acted as the principal point of contact between the Cimarrons and the English. Kaufmann conjectures that there is striking evidence of Drake’s high regard for Diego: he named Fort Diego after his ally. Diego later died of gangrene poisoning in what is now the Maluku Islands in Indonesia, having been hit by an arrow when Drake’s landing party was ambushed n the island of Mocha, off the coast of Chile, in late 1578.

Yet it is not only in the naval context that one finds evidence of Africans in Tudor and Stuart England. Tudor parish records from 1558 note Africans, who were described well into the seventeenth-century as ‘Blackamoores’, ‘Neygers’, ‘Aeothiopians’ and ‘Negroes’. Africans were baptised, buried and recorded in parish records in areas such as London, Plymouth, Bristol, Southampton, Leicester, Barnstaple and Northampton. Africans undoubtedly enjoyed positions of influence at court. John Blanke, the ‘blacke trumpeter’, served both Henry VII and Henry VIII from 1506 to 1512. He had an important role in the Westminster tournament celebrations of 1511 staged to honour the birth of Henry of Cornwall, son of Henry VIII and Katherine of Aragon. ‘A Blackamoore boy’ served in the entourage of Elizabeth I. The queen ordered the clothes-maker Henry Henre to make the boy a ‘garcon coat… of white taphata cutt and lyned… striped with gold and silver with buckeram bayes… knitted stockings and white shoes’. Despite these clear examples of the visible role of Africans in Tudor society, as Onyeka explains ‘Tudor England is often portrayed as being all white’. Onyeka concludes that Catalina de Cardones, John Blanke, Mary Fillis of Morisco and Bastien ‘are as much a part of England’s history as their employers Catherine of Aragon, Henry VII, Henry VIII, Millicent Porter and William Hawkins’.

Notes and Sources

Conor Byrne, author of Katherine Howard: A New History is a British undergraduate studying History at the University of Exeter. Conor has been fascinated by the Tudors, medieval and early modern history from the age of eleven, particularly the lives of European kings and queens. His research into Katherine Howard, fifth consort of Henry VIII of England, began in 2011-12, and his first extended essay on her, related to the subject of her downfall in 1541-2, was written for an Oxford University competition. Since then Conor has embarked on a full-length study of qyeen Katharine's career, encompassing original research and drawing on extended reading into sixteenth-century gender, sexuality and honour. Some of the conclusions reached are controversial and likely to spark considerable debate, but Conor hopes for a thorough reassessment of Katherine Howard's life.

Conor runs a historical blog which explores a diverse range of historical topics and issues. He is also interested in modern European, Russian, and African history, and, more broadly, researches the lives of medieval queens, including current research into the defamed ‘she-wolf’ bride of Edward II, Isabella of France.

There are 10 comments Go To Comment

  1. Jane /

    Reading that article, and what stood out was these words
    “it cannot be denied that our obsession with the Tudors is very white-centred”
    What a very racist thing to write, how do you get away with it? oh yes, its because its a slur against the white people so its allowed!

    1. Claire Ridgway / Post Author

      I don’t believe that Conor was meaning it as a slur or being racist. He was simply saying that popular Tudor history usually focuses on the white population, which it does. It’s like saying that something is Anglocentric, that’s not a slur on English people.
      Tudor history does tend to focus on the white population, and actually the white upper classes. I love social history and enjoy reading about all the people who made up Tudor England – upper classes, middle and lower, the German immigrants in London, Afrucans etc. Tudor society was much more diverse than many people realise.

      1. Beth von Staats /

        I also do not view that comment as racist. In fact, I find it an honest acknowledgement of the existence of racism throughout history in the sense that although many people of color lived in Tudor England, we know very little about them, the history erased.

        I found the article fascinating, and I concur with Claire’s comments above. Coincidentally, in a recent correspondence with historian Catherine Fletcher, she also told me that the prevalence of people on color in Western Europe was far greater than most people, including historians, are aware of. For example, she notes in a recent interview on Queenanneboleyn.com the following… “But what’s also intriguing is that we think Alessandro’s (de’ Medici) mother – a servant in the Medici household – was mixed-race, of African descent. People often assume early modern Europe was all-white but that’s a long way from the truth.”

        My immediate family is multi-racial, and my granddaughter is a child of color. No one in my family found Conor’s commentary racist in any way, and in fact we applaud him for teaching us that in the 16th century people of color led vibrant lives not only in Africa, but in Western Europe as well,

        Thank you Conor for celebrating the diversity that was 16th century England. It is my hope research will continue to unfold this to long hidden story.

  2. Barbara Boothe Loyd /

    This is so interesting! The inexhaustible supply of fabulous history brought to life by your researches is amazing.

  3. bea /

    Very interesting research!

  4. John Boulter /

    Not racist at all, it because people never worried about the colour of a person much that unless you dig you have no idea of the colour of the person.

    1. Claire Ridgway / Post Author

      I remember the dig in Ipswich, Suffolk, a few years ago when they found the remains of an African man buried in the late 12th century in the cemetery of a friary. Analysis of his bones told the team that he was from North Africa. It was very interesting with all the questions it raised about what he was doing at a Christian friary in Suffolk.

  5. Lorna Wanstall /

    If my lousy memory serves me right H7 had a coloured musician in his household?
    KOA would have experienced a very different religious culture in Spain too. Until the Moors were driven out of Spain, by Ferdinand and Isabella, K.O.A would have seen and heard, the Moors practising their religion. I wonder what she must have actually thought about it? Did she think that the Moors were evil or simply misguided in their beliefs?

    1. Claire Ridgway / Post Author

      Hi Lorna,
      The Westminster Tournament Roll of 1511 shows a black trumpeter who is believed to be John Blanke – see http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/pathways/blackhistory/early_times/docs/john_blanke.htm.

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Africans in Tudor and Stuart England by Conor Byrne