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The Africans Who Called Tudor England Home

The Tudor dynasty that ruled England from 1485 to 1603 had plenty of drama, but the peculiar institution of slavery was not one of them. And neither was the population totally white, as depicted in historical dramas. People from Africa and their descendants were a small minority, but during that period, they lived among various social classes in England: servant, tradesman, craftsman, farmer, and even part of the royal staff.

At the College of Arms in London on a 60-foot-long vellum manuscript sits an image of a man atop a horse, with a trumpet in hand and a turban around his head. This is John Blanke, a black African trumpeter who lived under the Tudors. The manuscript was originally used to announce the Westminster Tournament in celebration of the 1511 birth of Henry, Duke of Cornwall, Henry VIII’s son. Blanke was hired for the court by Henry VII. The job came with high wages, room and board, clothing, and was considered the highest possible position a musician could obtain in Tudor England.

Blanke was no anomaly, but was one of hundreds of West and Northern Africans living freely and working in England during the Tudor dynasty. Many came via Portuguese trading vessels that had enslaved Africans onboard, others came with merchants or from captured Spanish vessels. However once in England, Africans worked and lived like other English citizens, were able to testify in court, and climbed the social hierarchy of their time. A few of their stories are now captured in the book, Black Tudors by author and historian Miranda Kaufmann.

So what changed? The age of exploration and the lucrative new colonies that relied on slave labor to enrich those who claimed them. Read about the changing status of black people in England at Atlas Obscura.

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