Updated: Oct 30, 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.
In February 1511, Henry VIII held a two-day grand jousting tournament in Westminster to celebrate the birth of his short-lived first son, Prince Henry, who was born on new year's day. It was a huge event, comparable to the World Cup or Olympics in modern times, and of course, the royal trumpeters were paid highly - more than ten times their daily wage.
The event was recorded on the 60 foot long Westminster tournament roll of 1511 which is now held by the College of Arms. John Blanke is depicted twice on the roll, as one of the six trumpeters on horseback in the royal retinue. All six trumpeters wear yellow and grey livery and bear a trumpet decorated with the royal arms; Blanke alone wears a brown and yellow turban, while the others are bare-headed with longish hair. He appears a second time in the roll, wearing a green and gold head covering.
The last time he appears in records is in 1512 when he got married because Henry VIII gave him a wedding present. On the 14th January 1512, Henry VIII issued a warrant to the great wardrobe (the part of the royal household that clothed the King) to deliver to 'a gown of violet cloth, and also a bonnet and hat' as a gift 'against his marriage.'
This is the last time we hear of John Blanke in records as he doesn't appear in the list of royal trumpeters four years later in 1514. We don't know who he married, but it's most likely that she was an English woman and that the ceremony took place in St Nicholas' Church in what is now Deptford. England was still a Roman Catholic country in 1512, so he must have converted to Christianity if he wasn't a Christian already.
"We know that there were black Christians in Renaissance London. For example, burial records from 1618 show that Anne Vause, 'a black-more', was buried at St Botolph's Church, Aldgate. Coincidentally, Anne's husband Anthonie was also a trumpeter."
There is no trace of John Blanke after 1512 in royal records after then. Some historians have suggested that he may have found work in another royal court that paid more or changed occupation - at the time, it was not uncommon for court servants to marry a widow and take on her husband's former trade in London. Another theory is that he may have died in battle, fighting in Scotland or France. Whatever the reason. Blanke is remarkable in that he demolishes the view that Africans living in England at the time were slaves.
"Too often, people assume that all Africans in Europe at this time were enslaved. We are bombarded with images of enslaved Africans, often dating to later periods or other countries, most recently in the film 12 Years a Slave and the TV series Roots. But people at the time made other assumptions. For example, in 1572, Juan Gelofe, a 40-year-old African man enslaved in a Mexican silver mine, told an English sailor named William Collins that England "must be a good country as there were no slaves there." Collins replied, "It was true that they were all freemen in England."
Historian and Author, Dr Miranda Kaufmann
John Blanke is currently the only identifiable African Tudor portrayed in 16th-century British art. He is now featured in teaching resources, including BBC programmes for seven- to eleven-year-olds and an optional module of GCSE History (Migrants to Britain C.1250 to Present). He's also included in the National Archives' guide to black history. His image was the most requested for reproduction of those held by the College of Arms. From 2003 he featured in the National Trust's annual Black History Month exhibition at Sutton House, Hackney.