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The Missing Tudors: black people in 16th-century England
[From BBC’s HistoryExtra.com] They were baptised and buried in parishes across the country, and even attended queens at court. So why, asks Onyeka, do we continue to airbrush black Africans out of Tudor England?
When we think of Tudor England, we don’t immediately imagine black Africans being part of that society. Yet there were Africans here at that time, and they were considered numerous enough in Tudor towns and cities to inspire the phrases “to manie” and “great numbers” in two letters signed by Elizabeth I in July 1596.
Both letters sought to have groups of these Africans treated as slaves and exchanged for white English prisoners held captive in Spain and Portugal. Yet it appears that the letters’ authors – an English merchant Thomas Sherley, Sherley’s son of the same name, and a Dutch slave-trader from Lubeck in Germany called Casper Van Senden – were to meet with disappointment. They failed, in their own words “to get any” of the Africans – perhaps because Robert Cecil, the most influential man in Elizabeth’s court, did not like a “commission of that nature”.
Cecil’s view was probably shaped by the likelihood that most Africans were integrated members of the parish communities they lived in, and it would have been difficult to extract them from their homes and families.
Africans are described in Tudor parish records from 1558 (when most official records began) until well into the 17th century by terms such as “Blackamoores”, “Neygers”, “Aethiopians” and “Negroes”. Meanwhile, in True Discourse (1578), the English traveller and writer George Best refers to them as being as “black as cole”, “so blacke” that when a “faire [white] English woman” engages in a relationship with them they “begat a sonne in all respects as blacke as the father was”.
These Africans were baptised, buried and recorded in parish records in London, Plymouth, Southampton, Barnstaple, Bristol, Leicester, Northampton and other places across the country. They include men, women and children such as “Christopher Cappervert, a blackemoore”, who was 28 years old when he died. He was buried in the St Botolph without Aldgate area of London on 22 October 1586.
We also have the baptismal record of Mary Fillis, dated 3 June 1597, who was “a black more… dwelling with Millicent Porter, a semester”. Mary had been in England since she was six years old and had originally come with her father from “Morisco” (Andalusia) in Spain.
Piracy and adventure
In Plymouth, there are records for “Bastien, a Blackmoore of Mr Willm Hawkins” who was buried on 10 December 1583. William Hawkins was the son of William Hawkins the elder and the brother of John Hawkins, all of whom practised piracy and adventuring along the Barbary coast, west Africa and beyond. Bastien may have arrived in England as a result of these voyages.
Other Africans buried in England include “Anthony John, a Neyger” on 18 March 1587. There are also baptism records for Africans such as “Helene, daughter of Cristian the negro svant to Richard Sheere, the supposed father being Cuthbert Holman, illeg.” on 2 May 1593. The recorder has chosen to identify Cristian, Helene’s mother, by a racial epithet, and Cuthbert Holman, her “supposed father”, without one. This probably means that Helene was of mixed parentage.
Yet Africans weren’t just found in England’s provinces. In fact, some rubbed shoulders with the country’s most powerful figures – in the Tudor court. One such was the Iberian Moor Catalina de Cardones, who arrived in England in 1501 with her employer Catherine of Aragon, later Henry VIII’s wife and queen. Catalina served her mistress for 26 years as the lady of the bedchamber and was married to a “Hace ballestas”, a crossbowman also of Moorish origin.