The Tudor Society

Africans in Tudor and Stuart England by Conor Byrne

African Tudor EnglandOne 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 42 comments Go To Comment

  1. J

    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. C - 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. B

        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 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.

        1. A

          There was next to no “diversity” in 16th Century England though… the number of non-English (specifically black people) living in England was in the thousands at most. England was literally 99% English at the time.

      2. C

        Any time people of colour are mentioned on the Internet and especially in historical situations, at least one commenter, often an account never seen before or afterwards on the site, shows up to explain why mentioning that history is biased towards whites is racist toward whites.

        Their unwritten but extremely clear point is that whites are naturally more human, smarter, and more civilized than people of colour, and that they *deserve* to be at the centre of every discussion. When they are not at the centre, when the world does not revolve around them, when it is not acknowledged that they are the only people worth talking about? They see that as racist.

        1. A

          Literally nobody is saying that though…

        2. D

          truly spoken as
          “A riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma” Careful, your skirt is showing.

      3. A

        It really wasn’t. The population of England, and Britain in general, was overwhelmingly native-born at the time, and that was the case up until very recently (native-born Brits are still the vast majority today mind you).
        I mean the number of non-natives numbered in the thousands at most… in a country of 4+ million.

      4. A

        I am really glad that you said this. People don’t realize that England society vary from upper class to lower class with different races, culture and languages. But when you hear Tudor you think of Henry, his sisters ( especially Margaret),and his sisters. So what was said is true

      5. L

        But the Tudors were swarthy just as the moorish people were. King Henry was known as the dark prince.

        1. C - Post Author

          Henry VIII had a very fair complexion being a redhead. Anne Boleyn’s sallow complexion was commented on and so was unusual.

          1. R

            Anne Boleyn was black! Daughter of Thomas Boleyn and sister of Mary Boleyn also close cousin of another wife of King Henry whose name was Jane Seymour. English propaganda at its finest shows us these people were full pasty white which is just untrue and disgustingly significant in the whitewashing of history. Also for professional historians to still teach this lame false history is sickening and shameful.

        2. D

          Thank you….the dark ages were same as reconstruction period…

          WHITE WASHED!

    2. G

      You can’t be serious

    3. V

      If you are interested in your history, you should be interested in all of it!

    4. W

      It’s a honest and correct comment.

    5. A

      Can someone moderate and remove this ridiculous 5-year-old comment? I came to the comments to see if there were any further links or reading, and this detracts and distracts from the excellent article and an informative website.

      Seeing as Africans were erased from the Tudor narrative, perhaps Jane can be erased from this one.

      I do hope she has learnt the definition of ‘slur’ since 2015. I think her grammar would have been beyond help.

    6. E

      I think the assumption lies in the fact that most modern White people think they have always been the White people or rather the only White people, aside to having an incorrect notion that people with Black skin cannot be White in terms of social status or that they have never been White in terms of Social Status which is contrary to historical fact.

      “Speaking of the difference between modern thought and ancient times, Richard Smith warns that even apparently well-defined categories “like ‘race’ can be confusing”. According to him, Ptolemy placed two peoples, the Leukaethiopes and Melanogaetulians (‘Black Gaetulians’), in the far west of North Africa; namely, in southern Morocco. Smith suggests that the Leukaethiopes, “literally, ‘white Ethiopians’”, could also be described as “white black men” since in ancient times “the term ‘Ethiopian’ referred to skin color”. He further asserts that Pliny the Elder places the Leukaethiopes south of the (Sahara) desert, between the white Gaetulians and the black Nigritae; the closest neighbours would then have been the Libyaegyptians, “literally the ‘Egyptian Libyans’, another oxymoron”. However, Smith indicates that Pliny does not mention any black Gaetulians.”

      Source: What happened to the ancient Libyans? Chasing Sources across the Sahara from Herodotus to Ibn Khaldun. Journal of World History, Vol 14, No 4, pages 459–500. Smith, Richard (December 2003). page 475

      “Edmund Dene Morel, writing in 1902, confirms that both Ptolemy and Pliny speak of the Leucaethiopes, but believes that Ptolemy places them “in the neighbourhood of the Gambia”, whereas Pliny places them “a couple of degrees farther north”. Morel concludes that the Leucaethiopes may have been early Fulani since the first record on West Africa (ca. 300 AD) describes an Empire governed by “white” rulers, which was established by a king whose name contains a Fulfulde affix. According to Morel, this Fulani connection was first made in 1799 by Major Rennel in his Travels in the Interior of Africa, a notebook on Mungo Park’s travels.”

      Source: Morel, Edmund Dene (1968) [1902]. Affairs of West Africa. Library of African Study. Routledge. ISBN 978-0-7146-1702-2, pages 141–142

      “The Jacobean playwright Thomas Middleton invented the concept of ‘white people’ on 29 October 1613, the date that his play The Triumphs of Truth was first performed. The phrase was first uttered by the character of an African king who looks out upon an English audience and declares: ‘I see amazement set upon the faces/Of these white people, wonderings and strange gazes.’ As far as I, and others, have been able to tell, Middleton’s play is the earliest printed example of a European author referring to fellow Europeans as ‘white people’.”


      “When the first Africans arrived in Virginia in 1619, there were no “white” people, nor, according to colonial records, would there be for another sixty years. In his seminal two-volume work, The Invention of the White Race, Allen details the creation of the “white race” by the ruling class as a method of social control, in response to labor unrest precipitated by Bacon’s Rebellion.”


  2. B

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

  3. b

    Very interesting research!

  4. J

    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. C - 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.

      1. S

        Hi Ms. Ridgway, I am replying to your comment here, although quite old, as I very much enjoy your YouTube videos and have read some of your books on Anne Boleyn, who I am (also) quite obsessed with! Having just finished the Spanish Princess on TV (I had read all the books already), and I found the character of Lina, the Moorish attendant in KOA’s retinue, very fascinating. Perhaps because the actress was so enchanting. But I was hoping to find more information about her. Have you come across any good resources? Or books? I love a good read, even if it is peppered with some poetic license! My mother was a history teacher and I often take my kids on trips abroad and tell them of things I have read or heard, adding of course, “some say…” so they know it isn’t fact.. but it helps them remember the tales of kings who cut off his wives heads, etc. Our trip to London and the Tower is still their favorite! Thanks for helping me add color to their history lessons!
        Be well!

        1. C - Post Author

          Hi Suzanne,
          I’m so glad you enjoy my videos and my books, thank you!
          I haven’t watched The Spanish Princess, is it good?
          There is an article on Lina on the History Extra website – She was a real person,
          London is such a wonderful place to visit and it’s lovely that your children have such good memories of it.

  5. L

    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. C - Post Author

      Hi Lorna,
      The Westminster Tournament Roll of 1511 shows a black trumpeter who is believed to be John Blanke – see

  6. L

    I love discovering new things in history about all people. I’m am delighted to see this article, it’s fascinating, especially, when my DNA shows a percentage of England and Wales, could it be from my white ancestors or could it be from my black ancestors? Quite interesting, indeed.

  7. A

    I have recently finished reading ‘ Black Tudors’ by Miranda Kaufmann, a book I received as a Christmas present. It is a fascinating history of the lives of Africans in 16th century England. I recommend it.

    1. A

      Highlighting the fact there were some non-native English living in Tudor England is all well and good; what annoys me is the constant social and political agendas leftists push along with it.

    2. J

      Well said Ms Tamba.

  8. C

    Here it is 2019 and I’ve just discovered this interesting article because I was Googling a black character, Catalina (“Lina”) de Cardones, in the television miniseries The Spanish Princess. I hope the success of the series leads others to this excellent snapshot of Tudor history. Thanks.

  9. n

    Hi, there is a mistake in this text that continues a very long misunderstanding. The high-ranking Doña Catalina de Cardones/Cardenas is is not the same woman as Catalina of Motril, who was the moorish slave who acompanies Queen Catherine. This confusion seems to have arisen from the 1874 work of Mariano Roca de Togores, Marques de Molins, who indexes ‘Cardones’ as a slave girl in Catherine’s chamber, but contemporary Spanish references to Catalina the slave never accorded her a surname. As there were several Catalinas, there was an easy mistake to make, and the noblewoman Catalina and the slave Catalina were mixed into the same person, but please, let´s fix it.

  10. A

    Hello Claire,

    I enjoyed reading your post, please let me know who the subject of the portrait is? I have never seen a portrait of African gentlemen (or lady) from 16th century. Do you know the painter?



    1. C - Post Author

      Hi Anna,
      The portrait accompanying this post is Portrait of a Moor by Jan Mostaert and we don’t know his name, unfortunately. There’s a black trumpeteer depicted in a tapestry of the Field of Cloth of Gold, and John Blanke is pictured on the Westminster Tournament Roll – see's_Tournament_CROP_(no_source).jpg

  11. S

    Moors were not African blacks!! Just like 500 years ago they are still Arabs, or Muslim Europeans as well as Berbers. African blacks would have never been allowed to be with any European royalty at the time. It is undeserving what Hollywood is doing to blacks today while trying to be PC. A pity since in reality blacks are killed each day by Yanks for not reason.

  12. G

    So why are they often referred to in medieval records as “blackamoors” ? Why did the Field of Cloth of Gold tapestry maker depict a black African ? Why would a black trumpeteer be recorded on the Westminister roll ? Why does household expenditure records for Mary, Queen of Scots and James VI of Scotland reflect black servants serving the royal household ? Why did Elizabeth I refer to an alarming presence of blackamoors in her kingdom ? I guess these historical accounts and artists are lies and liars ? You are applying modern ideas of race to a world you did not live in. You are assuming Europeans of this era were just as racist as contemporary Whites. Why did Queen Charlotte’s personal physician refer to her as having a perfect mulatto face ? She obviously looked mixed race to him in the late 18th century when he examined her. For him to compare her to a mulatto indicates he had seen many to compare her with. Where had the royal physician seen so many mulatto faces before to make the comparison ? Look at all the portraits of Queen Charlotte. She appears to have been a descendant of someone who was mixed race. We see this all the time in African American families. Some siblings maybe darker skinned and then there’s one or two throwbacks from a white ancestor from the slave era, probably a white male ancestor. Whites seem uncomfortable with the idea of whites having sex with blacks, so they try to deny fairer skinned blacks as anomalies that have no genetic link to the European race. They cannot see themselves doing this in modern times, so they assume no one before them did. Got news for you. It happened quite a lot in those times. Seems through Charlotte’s portugeese ancestry there was a link to a black African ancestor. It is what it is. Blacks have probably been present in Britain since Roman times. I mean really…what would make you think that ALL North Africans (moors) were caucasian at any period in history ? What imaginary line crossed subsaharan Africa from Northern Africa that forbid black Africans from traveling further North ? They have always been there.

    1. C - Post Author

      Yes, and that’s what Conor says in the article. He even mentions the trumpeter that you refer to.

    2. D

      The mistake you and many people make is that when an “African” is referenced that they are assumed to be black. Fact is North Africa has been a homeland to Caucasians for thousands of years. The Berbers were the main occupants of North Africa and they are caucasian. I have been to North Africa and visited Berber tribes and yes they are white. The Romans named Africa after a Berber tribe called the Afri . The Egyptians called the inhabitants of North Africa the “Libyans” who were also Caucasian. Black Africans were being enslaved by the Arabs and Berbers for thousands of years. There is no imaginary line in Africa there is a real one. It is called the Sahara desert which was almost impossible to cross without having a guide. When Blackmoors are referenced they are talking about a person of a swarthy complexion. The English: variant spelling of Moores. Dutch: nickname for a man of swarthy complexion or ethnic name for a North African, from moor ‘Moor’. The queen Charlotte myth was started by an afrocentric Jamaican American writer J. A. Rogers who said “she must have a “Negro strain” because of her “broad nostrils and heavy lips”. There is no evidence she has any black African DNA. We should make our opinions on FACTS not what we feel or would like. I also disagree with your that whites are uncomfortable with the idea of whites having sex with blacks, which is a very racist statement. You seem to think all whites think alike. I am white and love having sex with black women and Asian women and every ethnicity there is. Most whites are not racist. This is the reason people of all cultures migrate to what were historically white countries, white countries are the least racist in the world.

  13. C

    There were black slaves and Arab slaves in Europe at the time. I watched the Spanish Princess and it was a debacle on actual history. The series shows Henry viii as a young teenager who wrote love letters to Catherine of Aragon instead of Arthur. Henry was only 10 when Catherine brought entourage to England. I also cannot see any English king -Tudor or otherwise-allowing Muslim prayer in England! They executed Protestants for believing differently. Charlotte Hope did an excellent job playing the part of the tragic Catherine. In America today, the press states how racist whites are. White Americans are not racist. This is a narrative from the left. If you look at entertainment, there numerous very talented blacks-Sidney Poitier, Lena Horne, Sammy Davis Jr, etc. we had black sitcoms in the 1960s. Where it true that blacks have experienced unfair treatment in the past, we must not judge them by today’s standards. European kings finally stopped beheading people. Blacks are free in our society. To bring up slavery as their hate for whites is ludicrous. There is not a ethnicity or race that has not been held in slavery during history. I believe all people who were involved in history is very interesting. It matters not there race. Tudor history is white because-the Tudors were white! Times change-people don’t. If you look at any royal medieval court and switch the names and titles to modern history.

  14. L

    I am researching my family history back to ABD Rahman I of Andalusia, and Hazrat KhalifaUMair, Uthman are all Arab leaders from the C7th century. My family are more German than, British, with a splash of Hungarian. this is unbelievable to me. the link seems to be King James II. IT is reflected in the current royal family in UK.

  15. L

    I recently discovered through my DNA that on my mother’s side 13 generations back there was Nigerian Ancestry. I found this interesting article and would like to read more about it. I am mostly Scottish but have ancestors in the English nobility. I believe the native inhabitants of Tudor England were originalky white Vikings, so, of course, any Africans would have been very much in the minority in those times. The discussion was both enlightening and a reflection of the times in which we live.

  16. R

    There was Black nobility in king Henry viii times in Tudor England and if you believe otherwise your beliefs lies in ignorance!

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Africans in Tudor and Stuart England by Conor Byrne