‘Have those kindes of people sent out of the lande’: How Racist was Tudor England?

In the United Kingdom, the month of October marks Black History Month. Established in 1987, Black History Month is a time when lots of historical research and reflection occurs with regards to the position and role of people of colour throughout history. Britain and its parts (England in particular) have an especially complicated relationship with race ranging from its role as an imperial power in the slave trade to the alleged encounter between Roman emperor Septimius Severus and a dark-skinned Roman soldier at Hadrian’s Wall in 210 AD. By shining a light on this history, much of which has been conveniently ignored or omitted from popular history (and even academic history) can be appropriately confronted and better understood. In this case, ‘racism’ refers particularly to discrimination against dark-skinned individuals rather than other races such as the Irish or Jews, both of which also have a long history of discrimination (the latter in particular).

Studying this facet of English history and particularly in this case, English Early Modern history is of particular importance if we wish to dispel nationalistic myths of English historical whiteness and openly come to terms with the racist elements of our past. This is inherently beneficial as a process of good-faith historical introspection but also has the advantage of a practical purpose, namely helping us combat modern-day racism (be that systemic or not) by understanding its historical roots. Moreover, a fully-fledged history of England cannot be properly attempted, let alone completed, if the role of black people is ignored. In the same way that involving the working class, women, and children in historical research has helped broaden our knowledge and help form a better picture of English history, so too must we take a look at the nature of race and race relations. Although these endeavours may reveal some uncomfortable truth, it makes no sense to trump truth with patriotism or other emotional instincts.

The question, then, is ‘how racist was Tudor England?’ and it’s an important one to answer. Within the question lies a hidden assumption (or at best an implication): that England was in fact racist, to some degree, during the Tudor era. Within this assumption lies another, much deeper, one: that the notion of ‘racism’ existed back then and thus that the term ‘racism’ can be applied to it. It may seem a moot point, however, a common assumption surrounding medieval England in particular (and therefore one which risks spilling into discourse of early modern England) has been that racism as we know it didn’t really exist. The people weren’t well-traveled enough and the science developed enough, it’s often argued, for the idea of racism to enshrine itself in people’s subconscious. To a degree, there’s some merit here. Science-based racism didn’t and couldn’t exist. However, racism easily pre-dates its (wrong) scientific justifications and it was really, fundamentally about culture and, when it came to black people, skin colour. In medieval Europe, for example, many white Christians viewed sub-Saharan Africans as the murderers of John the Baptist and torturers of Christ. Another common assumption (although not one held by any remotely educated historian or even an amateur who’s looked into it at all) is that medieval and early modern England — and Europe in general — was just white. The expansion of the Roman Empire, complex foreign relations of early modern monarchs, and increasing globalization of the world from the 16th century, all ensured that Europe was far from devoid of people of colour — and England was no exception.

A part of the Westminster Tournament Scroll (1511). John Blanke can be seen in the middle of a group of three trumpeters on horseback.

John Blanke was a black musician of Henry VII’s court. Of African descent, he came to England with Catherine of Aragon in 1501, when she was to be the wife of Henry VII’s eldest son, Arthur. Being from Aragon, Catherine’s servants were frequently not as pale-skinned as one might expect to find in Tudor England. Many Aragonese servants and soldiers were dark-skinned and came from north Africa. Blanke was not high ranking by any means and as a lowly trumpeter it doesn’t mean much on its own that Blanke was allowed to serve the king. Two things, however, suggest that Henry VII and his court didn’t discriminate against Blanke. Firstly, Blanke is depicted not once but twice in the Westminster Tournament Roll of 1511. Whilst this may seem unsurprising as Blanke was there it actually is significant that he’s featured. Had Henry VII felt any shame in the black trumpeter’s presence, he could have arranged for him to not feature, yet he didn’t. Also important is the fact that Blanke was able to successfully get a pay rise after requesting one from the king, suggesting that he had a voice and at least some level of self-determination.

In case Blanke’s story seems insufficient, being of a singular low-ranking black man, then the case of the Mary Rose might suffice. Sinking in 1545, the Mary Rose was England’s famous and symbolic warship. As an historic artifact of English history, one might expect it to have had a majority white, English-born crew: you’d be wrong. Admittedly, the sample size is small, however, of the eight skeletons forensically examined last year, 50% were not of white, English-born men. For example, one man, arbitrarily named ‘Henry’ was clearly of north African origin. Most shocking of all was the discovery that one of Henry VIII’s archer royals (a prestigious, elite, personal bodyguard of the king) was also from north Africa and almost certainly not white. Evidence suggested he came to England as a result of Aragon’s relationship with the country. If Henry VIII was willing to entrust a black man with his life and agree to him being placed as one of the highest ranking crew members then it seems unlikely that there was any systemic issue of racism within the English crown. Likewise, Elizabeth I famously had a black maidservant. In light of this, it seems as though the English monarchs weren’t ‘racist’ at all.

Catherine of Aragon, whose marriage to Henry VIII brought many foreigners into England.

I’ll come back to this later but for now wish to change my angle of approach. Until now, the only possible racism looked into has pertained to the English royalty but this is far from a comprehensive view of the matter. The vast majority of English inhabitants at the time were, of course, not royalty and therefore are excluded from that discussion. Unfortunately the nature of racism, insofar as it’s a subjective prejudice which is privately held (albeit often publicly expressed), means that it’s hard to work out just how much of a role race played in the daily lives of the average person (or their view of others) due to high illiteracy rates. The most useful primary sources for discovering personal thought, diaries and letters, are therefore not available. However, certain events and even actions of the English crown can nonetheless shed some light on the matter. It’s very clear that the English people at the time had in the best of cases a subconscious fear of foreigners threatening their livelihood and in the worst cases a very active and instinctive tendency to blame foreigners (often known as ‘aliens’) for their woes. A notable example of this is the Evil May Day riots of 1517 where over 2,000 people rioted in London against foreigners — some poor and others rich merchants — and were only stopped by the threat of Thomas Howard, 2nd Duke of Norfolk, and his 1,300 troops. Whilst the xenophobic rhetoric around the event makes it clear that the causes were not purely economic, that did have a part in it. Indeed, the reason Henry VIII wanted to execute the riots — far from a socially progressive recognition of civil rights — was because the targets included rich merchants who benefited the country’s economy and Henry VIII’s coffers, through his import duties. More importantly, whatever the xenophobic tone, the riot wasn’t against black people but rather mainland Europeans, mainly Flemish workers, who were predominantly white.

Elizabeth I’s 1596 open letter to the Lord Mayor of London, Thomas Skinner.

So were there examples of money-based hostility towards black people? Yes, but you have to wait a bit. Indeed, many historians note the surprising lack of racism and xenophobia during the reign of Mary I in particular due to her Spanish marriage and the arrival of Spanish people into England as a result. However, as historian Lien Luu noted in her 2010 article on xenophobia in early modern London, tensions started to increase following 1580 and by the 1590s, ‘threats of violence, molestation, complaints and expulsion attempts’ became common fears of immigrants — black and white — living in Elizabethan England. The main cause of this was money and food. Bad harvests in the 1590s led to food shortages, increased vagrancy, homelessness, and famine. The people suffering wanted something to blame and for both the queen and ruling classes, black people were an excellent scapegoat. Elizabeth I began corresponding with Casper van Senden, a German merchant who promised to return 89 English captives from Spain and Portugal in return for black people who he could help deport, possibly for later use in the nascent slave trade at the time. Importantly, as has been frequently misunderstood, Elizabeth never actually ordered that any black man be forcefully expelled from the country (although she arguably came close to in 1601) and the most extreme measure was an open letter to the Lord Mayor of London in 1596 which allowed royal officials ‘to take up suche Blackamores as he shall finde w[i]thin this Realme w[i]th consent of their masters, who we doubt not considering her Ma[jesty’s] good pleasure to have those kindes of people sent out of the lande & the good deserving of the stranger towardes her Ma[jesty’s] subiectes, and that they shall doe charitable and like Christians rather to be served b y their owne contrymen then with those kynde of people, will yilde those in their possession to him.’ In other words, masters could give consent for their black servants to be deported. Unfortunately for van Senden, those said masters didn’t offer up their black workers and so the agreement ultimately came to little.

However, whether they knew it or not, much of the general English population (particularly those poorer people who were worst affected by bad harvests) had been turned — through cunning deception and the employment of a ‘false consciousness’ — against the black community, not just all foreigners. Thus, for the over 360 African individuals living in England between 1500 and 1640 racism did exist. It didn’t exist because of pseudo-scientific theories, as it does today, but rather because for the ruling classes who desired to keep order and divert criticisms from themselves, scapegoating foreigners and people of colour proved itself a useful and effective strategy.

Interested in History. Specifically, Tudor History and the Middle Ages in England.

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