A servant who switched faiths
Mary Fillis was one of at least 60 Africans who were baptised in Tudor England
Mary Fillis was born in 1577, the daughter of Fillis of Morisco, a Moroccan basket weaver and shovel maker. She arrived in London in c1583– 84, working for John Barker, a merchant and sometime factor (agent) for the Earl of Leicester. She was not the only African servant in the Barker household; Leying Mouea, “a blackamoor of 20 years”, and “George a blackamoor” were also working there by the early 1590s.
By the time of her baptism in June 1597, Mary Fillis had moved to the household of a seamstress from East Smithfield named Millicent Porter. The parish clerk of St Botolph’s Aldgate reported that “now taking some hold of faith in Jesus Christ [Fillis] was desirous to become a Christian”. Millicent Porter encouraged her faith and spoke to the curate on her behalf. Fillis’s conversion was not unusual – hers is one of more than 60 known baptism records of Africans from this period. Although she was likely born into a Muslim family in Morocco, Fillis was so young when she came to England that she may not have retained much of that faith. In London, baptism was mandatory if she wanted to fully participate in the highly religious post-Reformation Tudor society.
Fillis’s mistress, Millicent Porter, died on 28 June 1599 but we do not know what became of Fillis herself. She was, however, present in London during a period that saw a succession of ambassadors arriving in England from her native land in order to negotiate alliances against the common enemy: Spain.