Black History Month series - part 2

22 October 2020

October is Black History Month and Jason, a member of Independent Futures, our consultants with lived experience, is exploring what it means and shares the stories he has picked up along the way. Today he tells us more about the black Tudors. 

Black Tudors: an insight into a book I have not read.

When I think of black history, the first thing that comes to my mind is slavery (especially with all the recent talk of Colston and what is going on in Bristol lately) and the Windrush Generation (my dad arrived from Jamaica in the 1950's).

One of the last things I associate black history with is Henry the Eighth and the War of the Roses, although weirdly enough part of my early childhood was living within a stone's throw of Hever Castle. So, I was pleasantly surprised when I came across a photo of a black man in Tudor dress online. This led me to a book called Black Tudors: The Untold Story by Miranda Kaufmann published in 2017. 

I have to be honest and say that I have not read the book but I did research it, and Google generated some amazing information and unearthed a number of newspaper articles about ‘black’ Tudors - I did read these! 

The positive feelings this evoked made me reflect on my time at school, because as interesting as the War of the Roses was to me, it had no texture at the time. It feels empowering now to learn that long before the story of slavery came to dominate our version of British Black history,  there were West and North Africans living in the UK as free people. 

Africans arrived in England in the 1500 and 1600’s via Spanish ships and Portuguese trading boats (some of which did carry slaves) and were an accepted part of the communities they lived in - from the Royal courts to the rural farming areas of the South West.

Although records from the time are scarce, the book asserts that black people were “respected members of Tudor society.” It also mentions that this society was divided up far more by class, than by ethnicity.  Evidence was found that the black Tudor's were members of the Church of England (a guaranteed way of ensuring your place as a legal person), were able to testify in a court of law and generally work and live like everybody else.

I found out that in 1569 an English court ruled “England has too pure an air for slaves to breathe in,”. This set a legal precedent essentially outlawing slavery in England. The book Black Tudors: the untold story - states that Britain was known by slaves as a place of freedom. The book recounts a meeting (circa 1572) between Jaun Gelofe, an African slave working in a Mexican silver mine, and William Collins, an English sailor. Juan tells him that England “must be a good country as there are no slaves there.”

On my ongoing journey of discovery, there as many questions as answers. My ignorance is no excuse, because people such as Miranda Kaufmann have opened a window and shone a true light on our shared stories, which can be accessed via many platforms. I urge myself and anybody who reads this to explore their cultural history, as uncomfortable or inspirational as it maybe. 

Bob Marley sang “ In this great future... you can't forget your past“

The book tells the stories of a number of different Africans living in the UK - black Tudors. Here is a list of a few of the people whose histories are documented.

1.John Blanke - Henry VIII’s musician aka “black trumpet”.

2.Reasonable Blackman (what a name!)  - a silk weaver living in London.

3.Mary Fillis - a servant who it was assumed was born a Muslim but converted to Christianity and was baptised in London in 1597.

4. Edward Swarthye - the landowner’s enforcer - who publicly whipped a John Guye - a man that later became the first Governor of Newfoundland. 

5. Anne Cobbie - who worked as a prostitute in 1620’s Westminster.

6.Cattelena of Almondsbury - who was described as a ‘single woman’ aka unmarried and independent.  

All of these people were fascinating, and I plan to learn more about each of them. For this piece I have decided to tell you a little about Catelena of Almondsbury. I choose her partly as she lived not far from Bristol and partly because she seems so ordinary. 

Described as a single woman of independent means, I have not found much about her online. Most of what is known about her appears to come from an inventory of her possessions. Nothing in the inventory is particularly interesting but what it does show is that as an owner of property, she was not a slave and made a living for herself by selling milk and butter from the cow she owned. Maybe I am being judgemental, but I was surprised that a single woman, particularly of colour, was able to make a good life for herself in the Tudor countryside. To me, this is an outstanding achievement, I didn’t think that a Person of Colour, particularly a woman, would have lived an ordinary or could I say “normal" life in rural England, accepted by her peers. As no furniture was listed in her inventory, it is thought that she may have lived with a friend called Helen Ford.

Anyway I hope these stories peak your interest, and create conversations that are shared far and wide.