Blacks in Tudor England

Marika Sherwood reveals the state of our knowledge – and ignorance – about a period of our multi-racial past.

In 1577 Elizabeth I issued an order for a ‘Garcon coate of white Taffeta, cut and lined with tincel, striped down with gold and silver … pointed with pynts and ribands’, for her ‘lytle Blackamore’. But was the Queen alone in having a Black servant, or were there black people in other princely households, and maybe even in the households of the less exalted? Were all black people in Tudor England servants? Were black people, however defined, a relatively common sight in England in the sixteenth century?

No research has been done about the descendants of the black troops in the Roman armies; or about the possible visit to Britain of any of the so-called ‘Moors’ who ruled the Iberian Peninsula for some 700 years. Did any of them come to Britain to trade or to sell their expertise? Quite possibly they did: the Close Rolls of King John, July 1205, gives a ‘mandate to the constable of Northampton to retain Peter the Saracen, the maker of crossbows, and another with him, for the King’s service, and allow him 9d a day’. Some North Africans certainly visited England. The King of Morocco’s ambassador, who arrived with a retinue of fifteen ‘Moors’, was given a warm reception by Elizabeth in 1600. Nevertheless, they had trouble obtaining housing. When they did find accommodation, they lived alone and were ‘strangely attired and behavioured’, and reputedly slaughtered their own animals (presumably to fulfil religious requirements). 

Some fifty years earlier, Thomas Windham gave passage to ‘two Moores being noblemen whereof one was the king’s blood’ to North Africa. Had they come as ambassadors or traders? We don’t know. But what do we know of black people living in Britain, of where they had come from and why, and how they were treated? Little research has been done into such questions.

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