It’s Black History Month in North America, and in honor of that, I am going out of the planned narrative of war with France, and doing this episode on Black Tudors, and the experience of life for black people in Tudor England. For those of you who prefer reading over listening, the transcript is below.
There have been black people in England since Roman times, and records show them in England throughout the middle ages. During the Age of Exploration, though, the population in London and England grew, so much so that Elizabeth I thought she might have to do something about it. She was unsuccessful, though.
Interestingly, the slave trade didn’t really take off in England until the mid 17th century, and under English law it was impossible to be a slave in Tudor England, so the experience of black Tudors is unique compared to those in Spain and Portugal during this time. In fact, the story is largely how similar to white Tudors their experience was. By that, I mean that their experience ran the spectrum from being poor servants to having important roles at court, and everything in the middle. You’d never know it based on the pop culture interpretations of Tudor England, though.
So join me in this episode to learn about several black Tudors including a black soldier who was made a knight after defeating the Scots.
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Links and More Information
My Episode on the Agora Podcast Network Exchange:
Read the 1596 proclamation that England had a growing population on its own, and didn’t need “blackmoors” in the realm.
The proclamation giving Casper van Senden license to sell black servants to help defray costs associated with returning prisoners from Spain and Portugal. The masters were offered no compensation, but the Queen stated that she wanted them to be served by Christian English people.
The 1601 proclamation
History of the Slave Trade in England
BBC History Extra article on London’s first black neighborhood:
Of Ane Blak Moir – Satirical Scottish Poem
Book Recommendation (amazon affiliate link)
Blackamoores: Africans in Tudor England, Their Presence, Status and Origins
Miranda Kauffman’s essay on blacks in Tudor England
Miranda Kauffman’s essay on Diego, on the Golden Hinde
Miranda Kauffman on Sir Pedro Negro
Pedro Negro’s crest when he was awarded a Knighthood
Hello, and welcome to the Renaissance English History Podcast, a member of the Agora Podcast Network. I’m your host, Heather Teysko, and I’m a storyteller who makes history accessible because I believe it’s a pathway to understanding who we are, our place in the universe, and being in touch with our own humanity. This is episode 68, and I am doing something that I know many of you hate when I do, and I try not to do very often – I told a lie last episode. I was planning on doing the second French Wars episode this week, but with it being Black History Month in North America, I got distracted learning about Black Tudors, and wanted to do an episode devoted to the black experience in 16th century England.
Remember you can get show notes for each episode – this week’s are quite extensive – along with the book recommendations, at Englandcast.com, where you can also sign up for the newsletter list and get extra minicasts, special book giveaways, and other fun stuff. Go to Englandcast.com to sign up.
There are a lot of misconceptions about being black in Tudor England, and I want to try to debunk those in this episode. The first main one would be that there weren’t really black Tudors. When, in fact, there were many black people in Tudor England, some of whom had quite high up positions in the government and at court. Second, you might think that if you were black in the 16th century, you were likely a slave. Also not true. There are parish records of black people being buried in parish graveyards, marrying white English women, and there was even a black knight who helped win a victory against the Scots.
So let’s talk first about the status of black people in Tudor England. The slave trade in England didn’t really take off until the mid 1640’s, so during the reigns of the Tudors, there wouldn’t have been a slave trade, or slavery as we know it. In fact, in English law, it was not possible to be a slave in England. During the 16th century, the black population was mostly free, and there were many intermarriages, as I said before.
There were black people in England from Roman times, and they certainly would have been seen from time to time throughout the middle ages. In 1205, for example, the Close Rolls of king John give a mandate to the constable of Northampton to retain Peter the Saracen, maker of crossbows, and another with him, for the king’s service, and allow him 12d a day.” But it’s really during the Elizabethan period that we saw a large rise in the black population, which eventually led to Queen Elizabeth putting out several proclamations about the number of black people in the country.
Going back to the beginning of the century, in 1501 Catherine of Aragon came to England to marry Prince Arthur. She came from Southern Spain, which had been ruled by the Moors until just recently, and even today still reflects the Moorish history. I live in Andalucia, just a few hours from where Katherine grew up at the Alhambra, and in my town there are Moorish palaces still in existence, with gorgeous tiling and gardens, as well as a medieval wall built by the Moors that has that distinctive north African Moroccan look to it.
So Catherine would have been exposed to Moors, and to Africans in general. In her retinue when she came to England there were several black people; maids, and musicians. One, John Blanke, was a famous trumpeter. Little is known about his life, other than that he was in Catherine’s retinue. But he petitioned Henry for a raise in 1507, which was successful, and he was also part of the celebrations for Henry VIII’s only son with Catherine of Aragon, Henry Duke of Cornwall, and he is portrayed in paintings from that event. The Iberian Moor Catalina de Cardones was another member of Katherine’s retinue, and served her for twenty-six years as Lady of the Bedchamber. She married someone called ‘Hace Ballestas’, a crossbowman who was also of Moorish origin. Later on, Robert Cecil would have a black servant called Fortunas.
One story I want to tell you is about the first black Tudor made a knight. Sir Pedro Negro was a Spanish mercenary soldier. In 1546, during one of Henry VIII’s wars with France, he traveled into France with other Spanish fighters under the command of Colonel Pedro de Gamba.The Spanish mercenaries won a great battle against the French, and were awarded annuities. Negro was awarded 75 pounds in August and 100 pounds in September that year. In September of 1547 he was knighted by the Duke of Somerset at Roxoborough after taking Leith castle. In 1549 the Scots were besieging Haddington Castle; this was during a period of rough relations with Scotland when Edward VI started the Rough Wooing again to get Mary Queen of Scots to marry into England. So the Scots were besieging Haddington Castle, and Negro led a charge through the Scots to reinforce Haddington with gunpowder, which allowed them to continue to defend themselves longer. Sir Pedro Negro died in 1550 of the sweating sickness, and his funeral was a huge occasion with the street hung with black, and with his arms, and all sorts of musicians and parades honoring him.
As early as 1558 there are parish records mentioning Africans being buried in full Christian sanctified land in the graveyards. They were called Blackamoors, Blacks, Moors, Negroes, and Ethiopians. And they often intermarried. One James Allen Gronnio saw an African prince, who had been enslaved at 15, served in the British army, and later settled near colchester marry an English woman. He wrote, “I have seen myself and Ethiopian black as coal taking a fair English woman as wife. They begat a son in all respects as black as the father.”
As the slave trade from Spain and Portugal grew, and English pirates like Francis Drake came into contact with them, more and more Africans would have been appearing in England. This is reflected in Shakespeare with characters like Othello, which showed that there were plenty of black people in London at the time. There was an African on board the Golden Hinde when Drake left London, and three others joined the ship during its voyage.
There actually were enough black people in England so that Elizabeth thought she had to do something about it. By this point many wealthy landowners would have had one or maybe two black servants, and they were also common servants throughout society.
In 1596 Elizabeth issued a proclamation writing to the mayors of major cities that there were, “of late, divers backmoors brought into this realm, of which kind of people there are already here too many” She ordered that “those kind of people should be sent forth of the land.” At the same time she made an arrangement for a merchant, Casper van Senden, to deport black people. It seems that the aim was to either sell them to get money to ransom, or do an even trade, with Spain to get English prisoners held by them. Problem was that Elizabeth offered no compensation to employers to part with their servants, and so most refused to let them go.
In 1601 she issued another proclamation saying she wasn’t happy with the number of blackmoors which are “crept into this realm.” She again gave Senden a license to deport them, but it doesn’t seem that it was any more successful than the first attempt. Like it or not, it seems that black people had found a home in Tudor England.
But why did Elizabeth suddenly want to deport the black people? As we’ve talked about in this podcast before, the 16th century saw the breakdown in many things that had been taken for granted in society before, such as a very clear class system based on old money and land ownership. The ruling classes became worried about poverty and vagrancy as the feudal society basically died a slow death. They of course feared disorder, societal breakdown, and basically anything else that would challenge them. So they came up with a series of poor laws to deal with their fears.
The 1590’s saw a series of bad harvests, and suddenly there was more poverty and vagrancy than ever. Elizabeth seemed to be trying to place blame on the black people for the social problems. In the 1601 proclamation she said that black people were “fostered and relieved here to the great annoyance of the Queen’s own liege people, that want of relief which those people consume.” It also said that “most of them are infidels, having no understanding of Christ or his gospel.” Of course, as I said before, this isn’t true since many parish records show Christian burials for Africans, and there is no evidence to show that they were any poorer than any other group of people in Elizabethan society. But as those of you who listened to the xenophobia episode will remember, this was a time when it didn’t take a lot to make someone feel threatened. That’s not a political commentary. It’s just what was.
I want to close with the story featured in the BBC History Extra magazine in 2012 on London’s first black neighborhood. The parish records of St. Boltolph’s outside Aldgate show 25 black people in the later part of the 16th century. They are mainly servants, but one, who was next to the bell foundry off Whitechapel road likely worked at the foundry. Some were given very high status funerals with black cloth, which showed the high rank they were given by employers, neighbors, and colleagues.
Among the names are these:
Christopher Cappervert [ie from Cape Verde] – “a blacke moore”
Domingo – “a black neigro servaunt unto Sir William Winter”
Suzanna Peavis – “a blackamore servant to John Deppinois”
Symon Valencia – “a black moore servaunt to Stephen Drifyeld a nedellmaker”
Cassango – “a blackmoore servaunt to Mr Thomas Barber a marchaunt”
Isabell Peeters – “a Black-more lodgeing in Blew Anchor Alley”
“A negar whose name was suposed to be Frauncis. He was servant to be [sic] Peter Miller a beare brewer dwelling at the signe of the hartes horne in the libertie of EastSmithfield. Yeares xxvi . He had the best cloth [and] iiii  bearers”
Among later names, we find:
Anne Vause – “a Black-more wife to Anthonie Vause, Trompetter”
John Comequicke – “a Black-Moore so named, servant to Thomas Love a Captaine”
And, the saddest in this list:
Marie – “a Blackamoor woman that die in the street”
Sometimes the detail in the Botolph’s register is very revealing.
In 1597, for example, Mary Fillis, a black woman of 20 years who had been the servant of Widow Barker in Mark Lane for many years. She had been in England 13 or 14 years, and was the daughter of a Moorish shovel maker and basket maker. Never christened, she became the servant of Millicent Porter, a seamstress living in East Smithfield, and now “taking some howld of faith in Jesus Chryst, was desyrous to becom a Christian, Wherefore shee made sute by hir said mistres to have some conference with the Curat”.
Examined in her faith by the vicar of St Botolph’s, and “answering him verie Christian lyke”, she did her catechisms, said the Lord’s Prayer, and was baptised on Friday 3 June 1597 in front of the congregation. Among her witnesses were a group of five women, mostly wives of leading parishioners. Now a “lyvely member” of the church in Aldgate, there is no question from this description that Mary belonged to a community with friends and supporters.
But the Aldgate records also show the difficult side to the lives of black Tudors.
Some black women worked alongside their white counterparts as prostitutes, especially in Southwark, and in the brothel area of Turnmill Street in Clerkenwell. Lucy Negro, a former dancer for the Queen, ran an establishment patronised by noblemen and lawyers. Lucy was famous enough to be paid mock homage in the Inns of Court revels at Gray’s Inn.
Her area of London was notorious. “Pray enquire after and secure my negress: she is certainly at The Swan, a Dane’s beershop in Turnmil Street,” wrote one Denis Edwards in 1602. Shakespeare’s acquaintance, the poet John Weaver, also sang the praises of a woman whose face was “pure black as Ebonie, jet blacke”.
So this article from History Extra shows a microcosm of what life was like for black Tudors, which is that it was pretty much the same as life for white Tudors. Some were knights, lived at court, worked for advisors, worked for the Queen, had very high status. Others were prostitutes. Some ran the brothel, showing a certain entrepreneurial spirit.
The point is, that the black experience, at least in this point in English history, before the slave trade really began in earnest in England, was very similar to the white experience, and while certainly black people were seen as “other” and often scapegoated, they still had a role in Tudor society, and the pop culture that leaves them out are doing a disservice to the accurate history of the time.
The book recommendation this week is Onyeka Nubia’s Blackamoores: Africans in Tudor England, their Presence, Status and Origins. Remember there are show notes, everything like that, at englandcast.com. Thanks so much for listening, and I’ll be back next week with more on France, now with Henry VIII in charge. Thanks so much for listening!