Henry VIII’s “black trumpet”
The Tudor king lavished gifts on his long-serving musician John Blanke
The popular perception that people of African origin first arrived in England aboard the Empire Windrush in 1948 is misplaced – by at least 400 years. Scores of black men and women set up home in England as early as the 16th century – many arriving from Iberia, as the Spanish and Portuguese laid claim to swathes of Africa.
Africans could be found in the houses of prominent Tudors, such as Robert Dudley and Francis Drake, and in the royal court. Unfortunately, we have a portrait of just one. His name was John Blanke, and he can be seen (above) in the Westminster Tournament Roll of 1511, sounding his trumpet at the festivities marking the birth of a short-lived son to Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon.
Blanke also performed at Henry VII’s funeral and Henry VIII’s coronation (both 1509), plying his trade at the English court from at least 1507.
He may have sailed to England with the Spanish princess Catherine of Aragon in 1501, when she came over to marry Henry VIII’s older brother, Prince Arthur. While many of the Africans in Spain were enslaved, Blanke – like all Africans in England – was a free man. He received 8d a day from Henry VII (twice the figure most servants would expect to earn), before successfully petitioning Henry VIII for a pay rise, doubling his wages to 16d.
Another indicator of Blanke’s free status is the fact that he married in January 1512. Henry VIII showed his esteem for his “black trumpet” by giving him a generous wedding present: a gown of violet cloth, a bonnet and a hat.
The warrant describing the king’s gift is the last mention of Blanke in the records. Perhaps he died in the fire that struck the Palace of Westminster in 1512, or at one of the two battles fought in 1513: at Spurs and Flodden.