The landowner’s enforcer

Ed­ward Swarthye’s role in a vi­cious fam­ily feud landed him in court

BBC History Magazine - - Black Tudors - BBC His­tory Mag­a­zine

In 1596, a black man called Ed­ward Swarthye whipped John Guye, the fu­ture first gover­nor of New­found­land. They were both ser­vants in the Glouces­ter­shire house­hold of Sir Ed­ward Wyn­ter: Guye man­aged the iron works, while Swarthye was the porter. This was con­sid­ered shock­ing and “unchris­tian like” at the time, but not for the same rea­sons we might as­sume to­day. It was the fact that such a high-sta­tus, ed­u­cated ser­vant as John Guye had been pub­licly hu­mil­i­ated that up­set the on­look­ers, not the colour of Swarthye’s skin.

Swarthye had likely been brought to Eng­land by Wyn­ter after he cap­tained the Aid on Fran­cis Drake’s Caribbean raid of 1585– 86, as one of many Africans who fled their Span­ish en­slavers to join the English.

The whip­ping was just one in­ci­dent in an on­go­ing fam­ily feud be­tween the Wyn­ters and their neigh­bours, the Buckes. (Guye had re­cently mar­ried James Bucke’s daugh­ter Anne, thus di­vid­ing his loy­al­ties). Bucke ac­cused Wyn­ter of a raft of crimes, from en­clos­ing the com­mon land to hav­ing had him as­saulted. Ed­ward Swarthye ap­peared as a wit­ness in the en­su­ing court case of 1597, his tes­ti­mony con­firm­ing that he, a black Tu­dor, had whipped a white man be­fore a crowd as­sem­bled in the Great Hall at the Wyn­ters’ home, White Cross Manor.

The fact that Swarthye was al­lowed to tes­tify in court demon­strates that he was viewed as a free man in the eyes of the law. En­slaved peo­ple have been pre­vented from giv­ing ev­i­dence through­out his­tory: the Ro­mans would only ac­cept such tes­ti­mony if it had been ob­tained us­ing tor­ture, while in 1732 the state of Vir­ginia de­clared that black men and women were “peo­ple of such base and cor­rupt na­tures that their tes­ti­mony can­not be cer­tainly de­pended on”. By con­trast, Swarthye’s tes­ti­mony was taken by the Court of Star Cham­ber without de­mur.

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