A ser­vant who switched faiths

Mary Fil­lis was one of at least 60 Africans who were bap­tised in Tu­dor Eng­land

BBC History Magazine - - Black Tudors -

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.

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