If you take a close look at the 1511 Westminster Tournament Roll, you might spot one man who stands out from all of his counterparts. Sat atop a dark horse with brightly coloured green and yellow headwear is John Blanke - a trumpet player in the court of Henry VIII.
Appearing twice on the scroll, John might seem like an unassuming figure to begin with, but his inclusion is actually a significant moment in British history. Not only is he the first visually recorded person of African descent in Tudor England, of whom we have two identifiable images, but he is also one of the earliest recorded black people living in the UK since the Roman period.
What was the 1511 Westminster Tournament Roll?
The illuminated scroll was created to document the details of a 1511 jousting tournament held by Henry VIII and his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, to celebrate the birth of their son, Henry Duke of Cornwall.
60 feet wide and nearly 15 inches tall, the roll depicts the events of the tournament. From the opening ceremonies and the arrival of the jousting contestants to the joust and Henry VIII leaving at the end, the illuminations on the roll provide a snapshot of what life was like for the royal household.
Who was John Blanke?
John Blanke was one of several musicians employed in the Tudor court. While there is considerable speculation about what first brought John to the court of Henry VII, there is very little that we know about him for sure. It’s believed that he came over as part of Catherine of Aragon’s entourage when she arrived in England to marry Henry VIII’s older brother, Prince Arthur. However, with no definitive record, it’s hard to know how or when John first came to England.
What do we know about John Blanke?
The earliest evidence of John’s arrival can be found in 1507 when he received payment from Henry VII of 20 shillings (eight pence per day) for being one of eight trumpeters in the King’s employ. Eight pence daily wasn’t a low wage for the time, especially as John’s job would have included room, board and his royal livery, which he would have worn as part of the Royal household.
We know that John stayed in the Tudor court after the death of Henry VII, as not long into the reign of Henry VIII we see the next official record of him. He successfully petitioned the King for a pay rise and doubled his income.
The next time we hear about John is in the 1511 Westminster Tournament Scroll. Appearing in both the opening and closing ceremony, John can be seen amongst the King’s retinue playing his trumpet atop a horse.
John’s final appearance in history came just one year later when he received a very special wedding gift from Henry VIII. The gift, a violet wedding outfit that included a matching hat, showed that John held considerable royal favour and was more than just a musician - he was a valued member of the court.
Why was John Blanke so important?
John Blanke would have witnessed some incredible history during his time in the Tudor Court. His contributions as a musician might not have changed the course of history, but his legacy is incredibly important.
While John’s image in the Westminster Tournament Roll is the only visual example of a black person living and working in Tudor England, his story helps us better understand what life was like for black Tudors.
We can see that John was a valued member of the court who remained on staff through the death of one monarch and was awarded a considerable pay rise without any contestation. He was a real and recognisable person who existed and, while not the only black person to live in Tudor England, John helps to show the often-overlooked stories and contributions of people of colour throughout British history.