The Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool is currently featuring the story of John Blanke, a royal trumpeter pictured above in a 1511 depiction of a tournament celebrating the birth of a son to King Henry VIII of England. How did a man of African descent come to acquire this position at the royal court, and what was the experience of Black people in Tudor England? In other words, what does he reveal about the overlooked multiracial aspects across the Blanke canvas of early modern English society?
As Miranda Kaufmann has related in her work on Black Tudors, not all Africans in Britain were enslaved before the abolition of the slave trade in 1833, especially in the earlier periods of English contact with the non-European world. In the 16th century, England fell far behind maritime empires such as those of the Portuguese and Spanish in terms of establishing colonies or engaging in chattel slavery. Although Elizabethan sea dogs like John Hawkins and Francis Drake did trade in African slaves, such inhumane commerce was at a far, far smaller scale than that of their Iberian counterparts. Only in the 17th and especially 18th centuries would the British create a network of plantations in areas like the West Indies and transport African slaves across the Atlantic as forced labour. During the Renaissance, the English were sla-very late in the colonial game.
Kaufmann points out that the small numbers of Africans who ended up on England’s shores in the Tudor period were not necessarily enslaved. Pedro Alvarez was a Portuguese slave who was freed by Henry VII in 1490. Similarly, a man named Diego, captured by an English pirate in 1614, declared to the Portuguese Inquisition that he was a free man once he set foot on English soil. Other Africans in Britain in the 16th and 17th centuries, including John Blanke, the Dover sailor John Anthony, and servants like Harry Domingo employed by British aristocrats, were paid wages for their labour; baptised, married, and buried as members of the Church of England; and allowed to give testimony in the law courts, unlike medieval serfs or slaves in the American colonies. Black people were very much part of the connective Bri-tissue of society.
How did John Blanke, the most famous of Black Tudors, end up working for the court of Henry VIII? Kaufmann and others surmise that he was originally one of many Africans in Spain, and who ended up as a black trumpeter in the entourage of Katherine of Aragon, Henry’s first wife. His turban, as in the picture above, suggests a North African or Andalusian origin. When Katherine initially came to England in 1501 to marry Henry’s brother Arthur, John Blanke may have accompanied her then. In 1507, he is recorded as having received a payment of 12 shillings in one month, which would add up to a yearly salary of ₤12–several times above the annual wages of the average servant at the time. After Henry’s accession in 1509, Blanke asked the king for a raise in his daily payment on the grounds that the current level was ‘not sufficient to maintain and keep him’. The request for twice his former salary was granted. He also received presents from the king for his wedding in 1512, which is the last of the sparse records of John Blanke–who is not listed as one of the royal trumpeters in 1514. Despite this limited information, that he was the king’s servant, blowing his trumpet at fanfares and tournaments, reflects a not insignificant status in English society. Given his generous salary, merchants and creditors could surely rely on Blanke cheques from someone to whom the king himself gave Blanke endorsement. He is an important counter to Blanke-t generalisations about the enslaved status of all Africans in early modern Britain.
Till next time,
Early Modern Point Blanke Studies Program