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John Blanke: Black British History Matters

This Black History Month in, we remember and celebrate John Blanke. 


John Blanke was a royal trumpeter in the courts of Henry VIII and remains the only Black Tudor for whom we have an identifiable image. It is possible that John was of North or West African heritage and that his parents were Africans living in Southern Europe.


The early life of John Blanke is not fully known, but it is believed that 'Blanke' may not have been his birth name. Historians have suggested that his surname 'Blanke' may have been attributed to him due to the colour of his skin, derived from the word 'black.' 


Historians surmise that the musician arrived as part of Catherine of Aragon's entourage in 1501. Back in Shakespeare's day, you could have met people from west Africa and even Bengal in the same London streets.


Of course, there were fewer, and they drew antipathy as well as fascination from the Tudor inhabitants, who had never seen black people before. But we know they lived, worked, and intermarried, so it is fair to say that Britain's first black community started here.


Shakespeare himself, a man fascinated by "the other," wrote several black parts. Indeed, two of his greatest characters are black. The fact that he put them into mainstream entertainment reflects the fact that they were a significant element in the population of London.

Famously, the fictional character Othello is one of Shakespeare's named Black characters. 


The soon-to-be Queen of England had two enslaved attendants when she arrived from Spain, one being Catalina of Motril, her bed chamber servant.


Catalina was enslaved by Catherine before arriving in England. While slavery was not a recognised status in England at the time, unlike Blanke, there are no records she was ever paid for her service.


John Blanke is depicted on the 60-foot-long Westminster Tournament Roll. It is a painted manuscript depicting a tournament held in 1511 by King Henry VIII to celebrate the birth of his first son. Trumpet players were often referred to as 'heralds of gods.' Blanke appears twice in the painting. 


The earliest arrival of John Blanke was documented in a payslip dated 1501 by Henry VIII. He was one of eight royal trumpeters under the leadership of Peter de Casa Nova.


Black musicians also had a lengthy presence in medieval and renaissance Europe before the English King Henry VII court. France also had a Black trumpeter around the same time as Blanke. 


Burial records from 1618 show that Anne Vause, 'a black-more', was buried at St Botolph's Church, Aldgate. Black trumpeters and drummers are recorded in other Renaissance cities, including a trumpeter for the royal ship Barcha in Naples in 1470, a trumpeter recorded as a galley slave of Cosimo de Medici in 1555, and black drummers in the court of James IV in Edinburgh.


Blanke also performed at the funeral of Henry VIII in 1509 and is believed to be a highly regarded member of the Tudor royal family. When Blanke married in 1512, the King gifted him what is believed to be 'very fine clothing.' 

We do not know who John Blanke married, but it is believed it was an Englishwoman who would have needed to convert to Catholicism.


When one of his fellow trumpeters died, Blanke asked Henry VIII for a pay rise, which the King granted. 


Tudor historian Kate O'Donoughue described Tudor society as 'quite ethnically diverse, and Africans were part of that society... he's [John Blanke] a hint to the wider African presence in England and across Wales.' 


Most Black British history centres around black people who came to Britain after the war: Caribbeans on the Empire Windrush in 1948, Bangladeshis after the 1971 war, and Ugandan Asians after Idi Amin's expulsion in 1972. However, Black people have a long history across Britain, shown in the life of Blanke.


On the tournament roll, John is shown wearing special silver and a Turban. The latter may be a sign of his Islamic faith. Blanke and his fellow men are also depicted on horsebacks with their trumpets. However, historians note that King Henry VIII liked to dress himself and his court in styles and fashions from across the globe, so Blanke's headwear might have been purely for aesthetics.


Another factor Black history mainly focuses on is pain, slavery, and exploitation. Of course, Black people are immensely proud of their history and their ancestors' struggles, but we must also celebrate Black love, Black joy, and Black excellence. 


What happened next to Blanke is unknown, but his legacy lives on as one of the first people of African descent in British history to have both a visual and written record.

The musician challenged authority, fought for equal pay, was held in royal favour, and was such a talented musician he had played for two monarchs.


Blanke was a civil rights activist ahead of his time and stars in an important chapter in Black British history as the face of diversity in Tudor England.


An American-centric understanding of race often masks Britain's legacy of racial exploitation and empire. Black British civil rights leaders and those who fought back against imperialism are often whitewashed from our history books. This October, we should spotlight Black British history. 


There have been various depictions of John Blanke. My personal favourite is that of Chila Kumari Burman, produced as part of the John Blanke Project. 


The John Blanke project was created in 2016 by British historians to commemorate the life and celebration of Blanke and highlight Black history. 


John Blanke would also have become free when he arrived in England if he was not free already. The fact that he was paid wages and was able to marry further indicates his freedom. Although we may never know what came of Blanke, his life should also be celebrated and explored in understanding the rich history of Black Britons. 


John Blanke remains the earliest recorded Black person in the United Kingdom after the Roman period.


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