Blanke History: The untold story of the Black Tudors
The Tudors: morbid, mighty and magnificent. Of almost all the periods of English history, it is the Tudors that the public seem to have a never-ending insatiable appetite for. However, in spite of this public fascination with this transformative period in English history, there is little acknowledgement of the Black Tudors. Summarised neatly by the Guardian’s Black History timeline which noted only three entries in the sixteenth century: ‘1562: First English slave trade expedition,’ ‘1596: Elizabeth I expels Africans’ and ‘1604: Shakespeare and Othello,’ the presence of Africans in Tudor England has often been assumed as one of racial discrimination and enslavement. To go even further, in her 1995 book Things of Darkness the historian Kim Hall minimises the African narrative in Early Modern England as ‘too accidental and solitary to be given a historical statistic.’ However, black people played prevalent roles in England from Jacques Francis, the salvage diver, to John Blanke, a trumpeter in the court of Henry VII and Henry VIII between 1501-1511. It is John Blanke’s story in particular that is key to understanding Black Early Modern history and, more importantly, defying Hall’s dismissal.
Africans in Europe
In order to understand how and why African people came to England, some wider European context must be provided. Whilst England was fighting among themselves in the War of the Roses, Spain and Portugal had colonised the New World with the Treaty of Tordesillas of 1492 with Spain laying claim to South America and Portugal dominating Africa and the East Indies. By 1502 the trans-atlantic slave trade had begun and over the next century over 37,000 Africans had been scattered over South America and Europe, enabling Black Tudors to arrive not just from Africa but also Europe, America and all the places in between. England had limited contact with African people and thus did not have these rigid race laws that were prevalent in Europe and was primarily governed by social standing. When Africans were ambassadors, the English received them as such. When they were aboard a captured ship, they were at the bottom of the hierarchy with only their skills to aid any social mobility. Those like John Blanke, who had craft or musical skills, often fared better than most of Tudor society whose lives have commonly been deemed short, hard and brutish, thus accounting for his rise in society.
John Blanke – The Musician
It is in the Westminster Tournament Roll of 1511 John Blanke is first introduced to us, the lone black trumpeter on top of his horse. This tournament followed the birth of Henry VIII’s second son by Katherine of Aragon. Trumpeters were vital in the King’s performative role; from tournaments to funerals to weddings and coronations, they were required to bolster the grandeur of the King’s entrance. African musicians had been playing for European monarchs since the twelfth century and were often a sign of cosmopolitan wealth with James IV of Scotland and Eleanor, Queen of Portugal hosting many African musicians. Henry VII’s employment of John Blanke in 1501 upon his arrival in England, like the marriage he negotiated between his son, Arthur and Katherine of Aragon, was another of his attempts to enhance his international prestige through emulating European powers. Though there is no record of how John Blanke came to be working at the Tudor court, it is commonly believed that he came as part of Katherine of Aragon’s entourage to England. Indeed, Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabelle of Castille were known for having a large Moorish courtly presence including Catalina who also came to England as part of Katherine’s retinue and was commonly described as ‘esclava que fue’ – or ‘the slave that was.’ If we are to judge John Blanke by Catalina’s experience, then we can assume that he too experienced better status in England than in Spain. His musical skill allowed him a comfortable position as a court museum and, in England, he was free – or at least freer with life being dictated far more by social class as opposed to his skin colour. Indeed, records from the king’s Chamber Treasury show John Blanke’s monthly wages to be 20 shillings or £12 a year – twice the amount of an agricultural worker and three times the amount of a typical servant. This position also provided John Blanke with board, lodging and a clothing allowance. John Blanke’s presence in Tudor courts was not restricted only to Henry VII’s reign. John Blanke was a noted trumpeter in Henry VIII’s coronation and, following the death of a fellow trumpeter, petitioned for an increase of pay to 16d a day. What this was for has yet to be explained, historian Miranda Kauffman suggests it was for the upkeep of his horse or perhaps new clothing. Whatever his motivation was, the petition worked with the new king granting his request, demonstrating the significance of court musicians in the Tudor court, regardless of their skin colour.
John Blanke as an example for Black Tudors
John Blanke was only one of around 200 African people in early sixteenth century England and, though he cannot account for every African experience in England, his ability to rise in the ranks of English society, as a result of his musical skill, suggests that the African presence was not unwelcome. However, his different skin colour did not go unnoticed with his surname, “Blanke,” indicating a witty reference to his skin colour by his English counterparts that was not uncommon amongst other African people in England in all levels of society. John Blanke was also not the last African person to serve in the English courts with them being noted in the courts of Elizabeth I and James I as well. Black Tudors continue to play important and personal roles (although unnamed) to Henry VIII in particular who is noted to have “turned to them as please him from peace to war and from war to peace” by French diplomats. Blanke’s recent acknowledgement by recent historians as a key part of Tudor courts has opened up a new, more diverse narrative for black British history that goes beyond slavery and is vital to everyone’s understanding of Britain’s global history.
Written By: Charlotte Small
“Black History: The Timeline.” Black History Month. The Guardian. Oct 13, 2008. Accessed June 2, 2020.
“John Blanke.” Significant People. The National Archives.
Bidisha, “Tudor, English and black – and not a slave in sight.” Black History Month. The Guardian. Oct 29, 2017. Accessed June 2, 2020.
Hall, Kim. Things of Darkness, New York: Cornell University Press, 1995.
Kauffman, Miranda. Black Tudors: The Untold Story. London: One World Publications, 2017.