John Blanke the royal trumpeter
Updated: Oct 31, 2022
Black History Month UK 2021 'Black to the Past' campaign - African Tudors & Stuarts in Britain
John Blanke is probably the most well-known African from Tudor England. He has been traced through both written records and pictorial images of him at a Tudor event. He was a royal trumpeter in the courts of Henry VII and Henry VII, making his first recorded appearance there in 1507.
Not much is known about his early life, but research suggests he came to England as part of the entourage of Katherine Aragon in 1501. She came to England to marry Prince Arthur, eldest son and heir of Henry VII, and older brother to Henry VIII.
Many Africans were living in Portugal during the period of 1400 to 1500. In the city of Seville, they represented 7.5% of the population, so much so that the city was described as 'a giant chessboard containing an equal number of white and black chessman.' So it's not surprising that Katherine's royal court included an African trumpeter. It's likely that Catalina of Motril, a Muslim Moor and one of Katherine's servants of the bedchamber, was also part of her entourage.
John Blanke first appears in records when receiving a payment from Henry VII in December 1507. He was one of eight royal trumpeters under the leadership of Peter de Casa Nova between 1507 and 1512. The entry shows that he was paid 20 shillings (or 8d. in old pence) each day for his service in November. Monthly payments for the same amount continued throughout the following year.
Sometime after the death of Prince Arthur in April 1502, he joined the household of King Henry VII. Katherine, deprived of her dowry and short of money, was reported to have complained that she couldn't even afford to pay her servants. Perhaps John was forced to find employment elsewhere.
John Blanke was part of a long medieval and renaissance tradition of African musicians serving at European royal courts. In the 12th century, the Holy Roman Emperor Henry VI had African trumpeters in his entourage. While in the 16th century James IV of Scotland employed a drummer who was a Muslim Moor.
Historic Royal Palaces website
When King Henry VII died in April 1509, Blanke was one of the trumpeters who played at his funeral, dressed in black. He would have had an important part to play in the ceremonies that followed, accompanying the procession from Richmond to burial in Westminister Abbey. A month later, he played at the coronation of Henry VIII on 24th June, dressed in scarlet livery. A colour reserved for higher-ranking royal servants.
Written evidence of John Blanke is found again when he petitioned King Henry VIII for a promotion and pay rise after the death of a fellow trumpeter. Blanke was well paid for those times, and his wage of 8d. (old pence) each day was the equivalent of a skilled craftsman. In addition to his wages, he also received room and board. On occasions that these were not required, he could have claimed an additional allowance called 'boardwage.' Later, in 1526, it was decreed that the royal trumpeters' 'boardwage' was to be 4d. each day.
However, ambitious John wanted more, and after the death of a more senior trumpeter called Domynck Justinian, he petitioned the King for his former colleague's position. He argued that his wages were not sufficient to serve the King properly 'as other your trumpets do' and noted that he intended to serve the King for the rest of his life. The petition was a success, and his wages were doubled to 16d (old pence) each day. The petition still survives today and is now held in the National Archives.