Africans in Tudor England

From what we can tell, Africans living in Tudor England lived quiet lives in a range of occupations, including court trumpeter, shoemaker, needlemaker and servant. We also know that some came from North Africa.

After the Reformation, when King Henry VIII rejected the Catholic Church, relations between the English and North African Muslim governments were good because they had a common enemy: the Catholic Spanish monarchy, whose forces had re-conquered Spain from its previous Moorish Muslim rulers.

Other African immigrants were Moors who had come directly from Spain. They may, like one of the attendants of Queen Catherine of Aragon, have been Muslims who converted to Christianity.

Portrait of Sir John Hawkins
Sir John Hawkins

Although the state-sponsored pirates Hawkins and Drake had begun to be involved in the Portuguese trade in enslaved Africans, black people living in England were free. Racist attitudes existed but were not yet dominant and there are lots of examples of black people being treated fairly at this time:

  • when a Dutch sea captain tried to do a deal with Queen Elizabeth I to deport black people from England, the order was drafted but never issued
  • when lawyers objected to a black diver giving evidence in court, his rights were upheld
  • when John Blanke, one of King Henry VIII’s trumpeters, asked for a pay rise the King granted it. Henry also gave Blanke and his bride a wedding gift

Religious difference mattered far more than ‘racial’ difference in Tudor England and it may have been far easier to be black than to be Catholic.