Amazing story of Britain’s first Black community in Henry VIII’s London

Freed slaves from Spanish ships later faced prejudice from Elizabeth I

The multiculturalism of modern day London is just one aspect of what makes this city so great. Yet London’s diversity isn’t a new phenomenon – far from it.

Even during the times of Henry VIII’s court, North and West Africans lived in London. Early in the 16th Century, a manuscript recounting Henry VIII’s royal retinue features a Black musician, John Blanke, among the six trumpeters.

Court records also show Blanke, who is listed by the Treasurer of the Chamber records as ‘John Blanke the Blacke Trumpet’, successfully petitioning the King for a wage increase from 8 pence to 16 pence a day. The community grew considerably during Shakespearian times under Queen Elizabeth I’s reign.

Records from parishes across the city show Black people employed predominantly as domestic servants, but also within what was then a growing entertainment industry, including musicians and dancers. Church records highlight a number of both men and women in mixed marriages. For example, Anne Vause was “a Black-more wife to Anthonie Vause, Trompetter”.

Parish records from “St. Botolph’s outside Aldgate” reveal 25 Black Londoners living in the area. The detailed records highlight how most were employed as servants to individuals working as merchants or tailors. Queen Elizabeth I herself employed a number of Black servants, as detailed by historians Ian Mortimer and Liza Picard detail in their separate studies on the Monarch and her court.

Yet that doesn’t necessarily mean that politicians nor the masses were particularly welcoming to the immigration of Black Africans to England, which saw a considerable boom during the Anglo-Spanish War of 1585-1604. The captured Spanish ships saw many slaves freed, the majority of which were from North Africa.

In documents dated to 1601 named the ‘Cecil papers’ and held at Hatfield House, it is recorded that “The Queen is discontented” with the number of Black people “which are crept into the realm since the troubles between her Highness and the King of Spain.”

It concludes with “they are fostered here to the annoyance of her people”.