Event report: Black Tudors & the English Reformation

People often assume that Tudor England was entirely white – cut off from the rest of the globe. Recent scholarship has revealed that England has been home to people from all over the world for more than 500 years.

In October, historian and author Miranda Kaufmann shared her research into Black Tudors as part of Sheffield’s annual Off the Shelf festival. 500 Reformations researcher Cat Evans was in the audience:

Last year, when teaching Shakespeare’s Othello, some of my students commented that this play was written and performed for an entirely white audience. This is a common assumption, and one that can be hard to move away from. The way Tudor and Elizabethan authors write about race is certainly disturbing and offensive to today’s reader. However, it’s difficult to know if they ever drew on real world experiences. Would they have encountered anyone with a different skin colour from their own?

MIRANDA KAUFMANN has painstakingly combed parish registers and court records looking for evidence of black African people living in Tudor England. She’s found records of at least 360 people of colour living in England in the 1500s, from diverse backgrounds and different professions. We have categorical evidence that they were not enslaved, as several Africans testified in court during the period, something only “citizens” were allowed to do. Often they were employed for their highly specialised skills, such as the trumpeter John Blanke who played in Henry VII’s court.

Another imported skill was salvage diving: The Mary Rose shipwreck was a disaster of epic portions. When she sank in July 1545 over 350 men drowned, and with them many valuable weapons including cannons. Few in Tudor England could swim–even submerging oneself in water to bathe was considered a health risk. Foreign salvage divers were brought in to rescue what they could from the dangerous waters. Jacque Francis was one such diver, working in a team directed by a Venetian. In England, “blackamoors” (to use the parlance of the time) were renowned for their skill in the water. It is likely that divers like Jacque came from West Africa, where pearls and fish were an important source of trade.

How did the Reformation affect black Tudors?

Kaufmann suggested that following the Reformation, people in England may have cared more about each other’s beliefs than the colour of their skin. She cautioned us against viewing Tudor concepts of race through the lens of England’s later damaging colonial mindset.

Take the case of Mary Fillis, for example. Mary was a Moroccan seamstress living in London. In 1597, she was baptised before a large crowd in St Botolph Aldgate. Why did so many people attend? This congregation may have gathered out of curiosity at the rare sight of a black woman being baptized. Or they may have had more friendly aims of welcoming her into the parish.

We know Mary must have had religious instruction as she was able to recite the Lord’s Prayer and answer questions about her faith. She could have been motivated by romance–once you were baptised you could marry another Protestant. Although there is no surviving evidence of whether or not Mary married, Kaufmann gave several examples of known interracial couples in Tudor England. As readers—and hearers—of the freshly translated English bibles would have discovered: Moses had married an Ethiopian woman.

Going forward, as a student and teacher of literature, I’m now armed with the knowledge that Tudor England was a more diverse place than I’ve often assumed. People from all over the world worked in every space: from diving for shipwrecks, to sewing dresses in East London, to making music in the King’s palaces. And if they conformed with mainstream religion, they could be enfolded into the local community and build their own families.

For more about Miranda Kaufmann and her book, Black Tudors: The Untold Story, visit her website.

This article was originally posted on the 500 Reformations blog. Read the post here.

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