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Diversity in the 1500s

The story of black people in Britain is often seen from two perspectives – slavery and the British slave trade and the communities which made Britain their home from the 1950s onwards making the UK and Sandwell the diverse, colourful exciting place it is today.

However, were there people from across the world living in, or visiting England before the slave trade took hold? Could the residents of Bromwich Hall, such as the Frebody family in the 1400s or the Stanleys in the 1500s have ever met people of colour?

John Blanke was a black musician who regularly played at the court of Henry VII and Henry VIII. It is likely he came to England in 1501 as an attendant to Katherine of Aragon – the Spanish princess who came to England to marry prince Arthur.

In the past either people assumed there weren’t any black people in England in the medieval and Tudor periods or historians just weren’t looking for their stories and studying them.

When historian Miranda Kauffman was asked why the existence of black people in medieval or Tudor times has been unknown, untold and untaught, she replied

“History isn’t a solid set of facts. It’s very much about what questions you ask of the past. If you ask different questions, you get different answers. People weren’t asking questions about diversity. Now they are.”

What she was saying was that researchers weren’t looking for the stories and lives of black people in medieval and Tudor times so any documentation about their lives was left on the shelf or ignored.

In places like London and other large cities and ports the presence of people from other parts of the world would have been reasonably noticable. Merchants and traders brought exotic spices, silks and other fabrics and goods, there were ambassadors, knights, soldiers, sailors, entertainers, cooks, servants and prostitutes and all sorts of people from beyond Western Europe who would have been found going about their lives in medieval and Tudor England (and indeed across Europe, not forgetting that there were Islamic kingdoms on the Iberian peninsula until the late 1400s). Certainly in England most of these were free people and not slaves.

This is a time before the British slave trade took off in the mid to later 1600s. So although there was, at times concerns about ‘the other’, people weren’t seeing different coloured skin in the same way that they did in subsequent centuries. In fact there is evidence for integration including mixed marriages and black people being baptised and buried in the same churches as their white neighbours.

This does not mean that life was easy for people who came from far off lands (or their ancestors had) although life was pretty hard for most people in Tudor England. People’s attitudes to foreigners was, and still is, complex. People of colour were often seen as different, exotic, strange and sometimes unwelcome but evidence suggests that largely they were not seen as inferior.

Towards the end of Elizabeth I’s reign when concern for the number of Black people settling in London was raised (largely due to a large number of people being freed from Spanish ships) discussions took place as to whether people should be re-repatriated to their place of origin. Whether they were or not is not known but it was clear the authorities thought it was their duty to feed and house them before any action was taken. However, it is difficult to know the conditions the former slaves were kept in and this does illustrate that slavery was already becoming prevalent in other European countries.

There are three links below to further reading and more information, examples of specific early black Britons and people living in England and reproductions of some beautiful paintings. All these expand the story giving a greater insight than the short overview I’ve given above.

Here is an interesting article about Black people in London at the time of Elizabeth I.

The article below explores specific examples from art and literature etc which looks at the lives and status of black people in Europe in medieval and Tudor times

Here historian Miranda Kauffman is interviewed about her work exploring ‘Black Tudors’

Chafariz d’el Rey in the Alfama District (View of a Square with the King’s Fountain in Lisbon), by anonymous, c. 1570–80. Berardo Collection Museum.

So could the people living at Bromwich Hall have met a black person? Well probably not in the middle of the countryside but it is certainly possible and it is more likely they met people of colour during their lives if they travelled to larger towns and particular ports!

Finally and sadly inevitably, this leads us to ask, how did we get from a place of tolerance, integration and general acceptance to a place where humans were being traded as possessions and treated appallingly, justified because of the colour of their skin?

Published by Sandwell Museums & Arts

Sandwell Museums & Arts Service is a local authority organisation part of Sandwell Council. We have some fantastic heritage buildings to visit with fascinating stories to tell as well as a lively programme of events, activities and exhibitions each year between April and December.

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