Black Tudors: The fascinating lives of Africans living in Tudor England

A group of African musicians from the painting, the Engagement of St Ursula and Prince Etherius
A group of African musicians from The Engagement of St Ursula and Prince Etherius from 1522 | Wikimedia | Public Domain

There is a general assumption that Black people came to England only through the slave trade in the 17th century or through immigration during the middle part of the 20th century, such as with West Caribbean migrants who arrived on the SS Empire Windrush boat at Tilbury Docks in June 1948.

Misconceptions arise mainly through popular culture and how people of colour, both in Britain and America, have been portrayed in films and TV dramas over the last fifty years. School history books often focus on England’s notorious ‘Triangular trade route’ that was at its height in the 18th century. This route saw British ships exchanging goods for enslaved people in West Africa to transport and sell in America.

A little known fact is that Black people and people of colour were living as ‘free people’ in the Tudor times, coming to its shores through a variety of ways, mainly through trade with countries such as Morocco. But it wasn’t just in Elizabethan England that Black people were making their presence known. The Congolese ambassador Don Miguel Castro to the Netherlands in the 1640s was African and others such as Alessandro de’ Medici, Duke of Florence had a mother who was an African woman called Simonetta. Other notable Black figures were members of Margaret of the Netherlands’ court, as well as many other non-slave Black men and women, some of high status and ranking who were socially integrated in northern European cities. Rembrandt’s 1661 painting ‘Two African Men’ is one of the Dutch old master’s enigmatic works.

This article presents some of those characters, who in a few unique cases are captured in rare paintings and images.

England’s free soil

In England during the 16th century there was a concept, most likely theoretical, of ‘free soil’ which translated as meaning that if anyone set foot on England’s soil, they become free. The only court case to discuss slavery in this period concluded in 1659 that ‘England had too pure an air for slaves to breathe in’.

Possibly the main reason why England had this reputation was that in the 1500s there were still no English colonies before 1607 and in the West Caribbean not until 1623. Before the infamous trade in human cargo in which England became a main player during the 17th and 18th centuries, most enslaved African people were transported by Spanish and Portuguese merchants to Europe and later to their respective colonies in the Caribbean. Spanish colonists first began importing enslaved Black people from the Iberian Peninsula in Spain to their Santo Domingo colony on the island of Hispaniola in 1501. The Portuguese however were the first traders in enslaved Africans and the first to engage in the Atlantic slave trade as early as 1526.

When England was at war with Spain and Portugal its warships recruited enslaved people from Spanish and Portuguese ports to fight alongside the English. Some Africans found passage back to England where they were considered free. Although most Black people in England lived and worked within the lower echelons of Tudor society they were not enslaved but worked as servants or had a trade such as carpenters, needle makers and silk weavers, along with other craftsmen who were considered to be free.

However, less than a century later Britain’s role in the transportation of West Africans to its colonies would become an infamous part of English history which saw over 3.1 million Africans transported across the Atlantic. These enslaved people were forced to work producing raw materials for England’s manufacturing industries or contributing to its international trade in sugar and tobacco. Half the entire slave trade took place during the 18th century with the British, Portuguese and the French being the main carriers of nine out of ten enslaved people abducted in Africa.

Free Africans in Elizabethan England

Before England’s appalling contribution to the slave trading industry in the 18th century Black residents and other characters of ethnic origin could be considered free people, protected from the shackles of slavery and ownership. The following characters represent a diverse group of Black Tudors and Elizabethans, whose histories are recorded in rarely acknowledged or well known documents.

Mary Fillis of Morisco

Born in Morocco in 1577 by a mother only known as Fillis of Morocco who was a basket weaver and shovel maker, Mary Fillis is an example of a Black women who was not enslaved in England. She is noted for an extraordinary act of risk taking where she decided to leave one house of secure employment for another to gain invaluable skills. Mary came to London as a child to live in Mark Lane in the parish of St Olave’s, Hart Street near the Tower of London as a servant in the household of merchant John Barker and his wife Anne. It is possible that Mary came to England through Barker’s occupation as a merchant agent involved in trade between England and Morocco, bringing the young girl back with him to England.

The most striking aspect of Mary’s story is that at some stage when she was about 19 or 20 years-of-age she left the Barker household to live with her new mistress Millicent Porter, a seamstress. It was in this more modest household that Mary learned seamstress skills, most likely to raise her status in Elizabethan society as a woman with skills to earn a living. In 1597 with Porter’s assistance and help Mary was baptised at St Botolph’s Aldgate church in London where her baptism record in the parish clerk’s memorandum book. The entry which covers three pages describes her as a ‘Blackamoor’. From that auspicious day, possibly one of the first Black women to be confirmed into the Christian faith in England, she became a free woman, afforded the rights of any free-living citizen on par with English people during the 16th century.

It is fascinating to think that Mary Fillis took the brave initiative to leave the relative comfort of Barker’s affluent household with all its luxuries to take up service in mistress Porter’s modest home. Here as well as undertaking a variety of household duties she was able to learn skills to better herself and earn a living that would have helped her to integrate more fully in Elizabethan England.

Henry VIII’s Black Favourites : Jacques Francis & John Blanke

King Henry VIII (1491 - 1547) is perhaps a surprising figure to be associated with two Black Tudors who represent vital evidence of Africans holding important positions in 16th century England. Both men were respected for their formidable skills that were acknowledged by one of the most influential and powerful kings in history.

Jacques Francis : Salvage Diver

Black African, Jacques Francis, became famous as the salvage diver of one of the Tudor period’s most ill-fated warships, the Mary Rose. Francis was brought to England and employed by Henry to dive down into the wreck of the king’s most valuable 600 tons warship which boasted state-of-the-art maritime technology and weaponry. On 19 July 1545 the Mary Rose set out from Portsmouth to defend England against an invading force of 30,000 Frenchmen in what was to become the battle of the Solent. After having only just left port the colossal ship sank, watched by King Henry himself and who was said to have wept at the sight of the tragedy.

The guns on the ship were marked with Henry’s royal crest and were worth each more than £1.7 million in today’s money. Realising that it was impossible to raise the ship from the depths of the Solvent, King Henry decided to try and salvage some of the expensive weaponry. One problem with this plan was that most Europeans couldn’t swim, let alone dive great depths. The only people known in the early modern world who could swim and dive and hold their breath for long periods were Africans.

Henry hired a Venetian to put together a team of divers led by Jacques Francis, who with his team, possibly other Africans, also salvaged valuables from sunken ships the Santa Maria and Sanctus Edwardus.

Born around 1527 in the Portuguese colony on Arguin Island off the western coast of Mauritania in 1528, the island’s treacherous waters were an ideal training ground for Francis to acquire the skills of salvage diving. He would have learned to dive to great depths without any equipment and what is known today as free diving. By the time Francis was 18 he was living in Southampton and frequenting a pub called The Dolphin for his meals and drink before his royal calling.

Court testimony

The reason why we have details about Francis’ life is because he testified in a court case as a witness for his employer Pierso Corsi who had been accused of theft. Because Francis’ English wasn’t good enough to be heard in court, a translator was employed to assist as Francis testified of his own free will. Interestingly three Venetians maintained that Francis was a ‘slave’ and a ‘heathen’ and that his testimony should be discounted. One reason for this disparagement was due to the claim that Francis had not been baptised and was therefore not a Christian.

Jacques Francis didn’t define himself as an enslaved person, arguing that he was paid wages. He described himself as a ‘famulus’, a Latin term for servant or attendant, which the court in England accepted and therefore his testimony. In the eyes of the law Francis was acknowledged as a ‘free man’, the same as other Black Tudors and Elizabethans during this period. One impediment to citizens not being afforded the same rights as other free men and women, and being allowed to give testimony in court was if they were considered to be slaves. Throughout history, going back to Roman law, enslaved people were not allowed to give testimony in court and could only be taken under torture. In colonial America legislation was passed to bar Africans from testifying. The fact that Africans’ testimonies could legally be heard in English courts is evidence that they were not enslaved in England.

John Blanke: Royal Trumpeter

John Blanke, known as the Black trumpeter during the court of King Henry VIII is mentioned in wage documents relating to his time in employment, at first with Henry VII and later with his infamous son Henry VIII. Besides wage documents some Africans appeared in legal papers, as in the case of Jacques Francis who acted as a witness giving testimony in court. John Blanke however is one of the few if not the only African whose identity is recorded in a rare painting now held in the College of Arms.

Blanke is identified, possibly twice in different costumes, among other trumpeters in the ‘Westminster Tournament Roll’, a sixty-foot record of the moment when Henry VIII celebrated the birth of his first ill-fated son by Catherine of Aragon in 1511 who would die aged just 52 days old. Blanke, along with other prized trumpeters is seen in the roll playing at this prestigious royal event and his presence along with other chosen royal trumpeters indicates his status and prestige. Blanke’s reputation is further enhanced by evidence that he also asked his boss Henry VIII for a raise and got it, increasing his wages from 8d to 16d.

Blanke’s image is the only known portrait of an African in Tudor England. Besides John Blanke, Africans lived and worked all across the country from Edinburgh to Hull down to Truro in Cornwall and southern port towns like Southampton, Bristol and Plymouth, while a third existed in London.

Edward Swarthye : Gloucestershire Porter

Edward Swarthye, a porter in the village of Lydney in rural Gloucestershire was a Black Tudor employed as a servant by his master and godfather Edward Wynter. The name Swarthye meant ‘dark skin’ and he most likely came to England due to Edward Wynter’s voyage to the Caribbean with Sir Francis Drake to raid Spanish ports where Swarthye may have been recruited to fight alongside the English. During the 1600s over 300,000 Africans were transported by the Spanish to their colonies in the Caribbean to work in silver mines. English ship captains fighting the Spanish on the high seas would recruit enslaved Africans to fight the Spanish. In many cases enslaved Africans would seize the opportunity to escape their Spanish masters and board English ships, which may have been how Edward Swarthye made his way to England.

Whipping scandal

An event on the 3 December 1596 involving Swarthye when he whipped a white man on his master’s orders shocked witnesses at the time, not because he was Black, but because the beaten man was of higher status. The story is perhaps a more shocking revelation to contemporary readers due to the history of slavery and the preconceived notion of white men whipping the Black men in less enlightened and brutal times.

The whipping, ordered by Swarthye’s employer Edward Wynter was carried out on servant John Guy in front of twenty men. The crowd were shocked, not because of any racial element but because Guy was of high rank and standing than Swarthye. Guy had also worked as a servant for Wynter and been brought up in his household. At the time of the beating he was in charge of Wynter’s iron works and on high wages. Wynter accused Guy of running off to Ireland while he was away and leaving the ironworks unmanaged. Wynter believed this desertion deserved physical punishment. An alternative explanation for the vicious punishment could have been to do with a personal feud because Guy had married the daughter of Wynter’s enemy James Bucke. When the incident reached the Star Chamber Court, Swarthye himself gave a deposition, largely supporting his master’s actions and maintaining that the whipping had not been premeditated.

The fact that Swarthye, a Black man, testified, showed that, like Jacques Francis, he was seen as a ‘free man’ in the eyes of the law. The humiliated John Guy went on to become the Mayor of Bristol and the governor of the first English colony in Newfoundland.

Baptisms, racial integration and marriages

During the Tudor period it was essential for Africans or other non-English residents - be they from Morocco or the south Caribbean - to become baptised to be able to fully integrate in society. At the time of Mary Fillis and her baptism in 1597 there was a general view among the English that African people in England could become Christians, even if it meant just learning the Lord’s prayer and some of the psalms. Mary’s baptism was one of sixty baptisms of ‘Blackamoors’ during that time where there existed a progressive view that Africans and other non-European races were created after the image of God and therefore able to become true Christians.

Citizens like Millicent Porter, who acted as godmother to Mary Fillis encouraged the baptism and religious education of Africans. One such benefactor was Paul Bayning, a merchant and privateering magnate. After Bayning died in 1616 he left £5 to the minister of St Olave’s, Hart Street in London for instructing his African servant ‘Anthony’ in the principles of the Christian faith and religion, to be baptised.

As baptism and instruction into the Christian faith legitimised Africans’ acceptance in Tudor society, it also led to marriages between English citizens and Africans. Records show marriages taking place between English Christians and Africans, be they between African men and English women, or African women and English men. A man called George Best wrote in 1578 ‘I have seen an Ethiopean as Black as coal brought to England who taking a fair English woman to wife, begat a son in all respects as Black as the father’. In 1600 in Bristol, an African woman called Joan Maria married a man called Thomas Smith whose job was manufacturing weapons.

Servants vs slaves

But not everyone respected the notion of ‘free soil’ and people being free of slavery in England during the Elizabethan age. In 1587 Portuguese merchant Hector Nunes, who had left Portugal for London to escape anti-Semitism submitted a petition to the Court of Requests over a matter relating to an ‘Ethiopean Negar’ who was working for him and had most likely come from Santo Domingo in modern day Dominican Republic where he had been enslaved by the Spanish. Having traveled to England as part of Sir Francis Drake’s fleet after fighting the Spanish he was sold illegally to Hector Nunes.

Nunes’ petition was in the form of a document complaining that the Black man in his employment refused to carry for him and serve him. Nunes assumed that the law in England was the same as in his native Portugal but was to learn that the common law in England had no remedy to offer him with his situation. Such legislation meant that Nunes couldn’t force the Bman to work for him. In an earlier case of slavery being challenged by England’s ‘free soil’ principle an African man called Pero Alvarez told the king of Portugal that he had been set free in England by Henry VII. The King of Portugal accepted this explanation and Alvarez continued to live a free life in Portugal.

There were at least 350 Africans in England during the Tudor and early Stuart period (1500 – 1640) who mostly came from North and West Africa. None were regarded as being enslaved by law. Underlining an atmosphere of modest toleration of ‘foreigners’ and marriages between races in English society was possible due to the influence of biblical texts such as in the Geneva translation of the Bible where there is a reference to Moses taking an Ethiopian wife. Tragically this brief welcoming view was to change drastically in the 18th century when there developed a stark contrast in society’s attitudes towards people of colour just a century later.

In 1562 Captain John Hawkins was the first known Englishman to include enslaved Africans in his cargo. Queen Elizabeth approved of his journey, during which he captured 300 Africans. He then sailed across the North Atlantic and exchanged them for hides, ginger and sugar. This appalling chapter in England’s history, in which millions of Africans were transported to be enslaved its colonies in the name of international commerce, lasted over 200 years. This trade in human misery wasn’t abolished until 25 March, 1807 when King George III signed into law the Act for Abolition of the Slave Trade, banning trading in enslaved people in the British Empire. Enslaved people were not set free in British colonies until an act of Parliament in 1834.

Written by:

Richard Bevan

Richard Bevan is an MA Screenwriter/playwright and freelance writer specialising in history and crime investigation writing.  He is currently contributing to Sky HISTORY channel. Represented by WGM Atlantic agency.