Portrait of a wealthy African man ca.1540s

Portrait of a wealthy African man ca.1540s

Our perception of an historically all-white Europe is utterly false.

In 2012, while researching a historical novel, I came across Imtiaz Habib’s book, Black Lives in the English Archives, 1500-1677. I’ve wanted to blog about it for awhile, then yesterday I saw this article: “The Missing Tudors: black people in 16th century England” posted at BBC History Magazine’s website, historyextra.com.

There have been discussions and blogs about this popping up everywhere. It seems that medieval multiculturalism is having its own Renaissance. And it’s long overdue.


ca.1609 by Peter Paul Rubens

ca.1609 by Peter Paul Rubens

Our perception of an historically all-white Europe is utterly false, but as the BBC History article recently stated, it still persists. I even see these kinds of complaints about historical fiction at writing websites: “I hate when writers try to be ‘PC’ so they add non-white characters where only white people lived.” Oy.

Kongolese Nobleman, ca.17th century

Kongolese Nobleman, ca.17th century

Tumblr account  MedievalPOC is doing a wonderful job unearthing visual evidence of the diversity of Europe, stretching both far before and long after the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade began. Many of the paintings featured on the blog had been cropped in art and history texts, cutting out people of color. Art history students and even professors write to the blog’s creator saying they never knew about the missing people in the works.

The Walters Art Museum in Baltimore hosted an exhibition called “Revealing the African Presence in Renaissance Europe” from October 2012 until January 2013, which I hope will travel to other museums around the country. In the meantime, there’s tons of information about it at the website.

The Catalan Atlas, created by a Jewish book illuminator in 1375, depicting trade between Europe and North Africa

The Catalan Atlas, created by a Jewish book illuminator in 1375, depicting trade between Europe and North Africa

queen charlotte

Queen Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz (b.1744-1818), wife of George III


It’s sad that any of this is seen as revolutionary or controversial, but the Western world’s exaltation of fair skin and frantic need to portray POC as “exotic Other” has effectively erased its colorful past. Now many people think that portraying POC in Western history as anything other than slaves is anachronistic.

Travelers, traders, invaders, and nomadic peoples from all over the world have always carried their cultures and genes back and forth across constantly-changing borders. It is nothing new. And this extends to Europe’s royal families.

Today, Princess Angela of Liechtenstein, wife of Prince Maximilian of Liechtenstein, is known as Europe’s “first black princess.” Their son is in line for the throne. But this is not the first time Europe has had royals of African descent.

For example–some people claim Queen Charlotte had African ancestry; it is a fact that Alessandro de’ Medici did. Alessandro’s mother was Simonetta da Collavechio, “a black serving woman in the Medici household.” His biological father was probably Cardinal Giulio de’ Medici, later Pope Clement VII, though at the time it was claimed that Lorenzo II de’ Medici was. Alessandro was the Duke of Penne and the Duke of Florence. Queen Charlotte’s disputed ancestry is based on rumors about her 16th great-grandmother being a Moor, which even if true, wouldn’t account for much of her genes. Still, there was certainly more ethnic variation in royal circles than is acknowledged.

Alessandro de' Medici (b.1510-d.1537)

Alessandro de’ Medici (b.1510-d.1537)

There were black employees at the royal courts of Europe for some time. Catherine of Aragon brought African attendants with her to England in 1501 when she married Prince Arthur, the future Henry VIII’s older brother. (She became Henry’s first wife after Arthur died.)

One of these was the trumpeter ironically named John Blanke (blanco, white), who was paid 8d. a day for his services and was depicted twice in the Great Tournament Roll of Westminster (1511). In 1523 it is recorded that Fraunces Negro was working in the Queen’s stables.

Miranda Kaufman

Trumpeters including John Blanke ca.1511

Trumpeters including John Blanke ca.1511

There was also a man recorded as “Peter the Moor” working at the Scottish court in the first decade of the 16th century, along with a drummer, his wife and child, and two women referred to in documents as “black Elen” and “black Margaret.” These were paid positions that came with many envied perks of court life, indicating that the type of racism we see in the next century wasn’t quite embedded yet.

In the mid-1500s, a Spanish soldier named Pedro Negro (I know, this name is offensive to American ears) was knighted in England:

In 1549 Marion, Lady Home, wrote to Mary of Guise requesting her to be good to an unnamed ‘Mour’ who is ‘als scharp ane man as rydis’ [‘is as sharp a man as rides’]. Mentioned in the same breath as the Spanish mercenaries, at a time when Hume Castle was occupied by the English, this may be reference to Sir Pedro Negro, a Spanish mercenary soldier who may have been the first African ever to receive an English knighthood.

In 1546 Pedro Negro travelled into France with ‘diverse other Spanish knights and gentlemen’, under the command of the Spanish colonel Pedro de Gamba. They won a victory on 15 July and were all awarded lifetime annuities. Negro was awarded £75 in August and £100 that September. On 28 September 1547 he was knighted by the Duke of Somerset at Roxborough, after the taking of Leith. On 7 July 1549 he led a charge through the Scots that were besieging the strategically important castle of Haddington, to provide the castle with vital gunpowder, which allowed the English to defend themselves against the more numerous enemy. According to a Spanish chronicler, it was necessary to kill the 300 horses so as not to let the enemy take them, which he calls a ‘pretty feat of war’. He died in London on 15 July 1551 of the sweating sickness. His funeral was quite a ceremony, with twelve ‘staffes’, ‘torches burning’, ‘flute playing’, and the street hung with black and with his arms. The preacher was Dr. Bartelet, and it was attended by the company of clerks, ‘a harold of arms and mony morners’ [‘a herald and many mourners’].

Miranda Kaufman

"Portrait of an African Slave Woman", Attrib. to Annibale Carracci, 1580's. Tomasso Brothers, Leeds, England. Courtesy of the Princeton University Art Museum.

Attrib. to Annibale Carracci, ca.1580’s.

That’s not to say everyone had such a positive experience (far from it!), but the point is, we have to challenge the idea that the first contact between Europe and Africa was somewhere around 1492, and that Europeans were just so ignorant of different-looking faces that they enslaved them until they knew better four centuries later. That excuses what was in fact a purposeful act, justified by creating a new narrative about “primitive” and “inferior” people in order to turn a profit.

Similar court records exist well into Queen Elizabeth I’s reign (1558-1603). Her New Year rolls (lists of every gift given and received by the Queen at the New Year) include presents of gowns and money to black musicians and ladies in her service.

Abd el-Ouahed ben Messaoud ben Mohammed Anoun, Queen Elizabeth's "Moorish Ambassador"

Abd el-Ouahed ben Messaoud ben Mohammed Anoun, Queen Elizabeth’s “Moorish Ambassador” who may have been the inspiration for Shakespeare’s Othello ca.1600

Imtiaz Habib found hundreds of  extant parish records which indicate a fairly large black community spread across in Tudor England. How large? Unfortunately we don’t know for sure, though Queen Elizabeth I referred to it as “too many” by 1596 when she signed an ultimately useless expulsion order against “blackamores”. (Apparently there was resentment among the white English that black residents were taking their jobs; the order also had a lot to do with the ongoing conflict with Spain. A fuller discussion is available here.) And those are just the ones that still survive. Parish records were not kept by law until 1538 or later, so there is no doubt that many births and marriages weren’t officially recorded before that (and many weren’t even after).

Habib combed the records for blatant references to skin color (for instance, something like, “John Smith married to Sarah, a blackamore”–and yes, there were multiple instances of  interracial marriages). At some point it seems that rather than identify someone as “a blackamore”, it was used as a last name, i.e. Sarah Blackamore.

“Moor” and “Blackamoore” were both used as surnames for people who would have fallen under the ethnic category of “Moor.” The problem is, anyone who was Muslim (of any race), Indian, or African (of any religion) could be called “Moor” in the Tudor era. The term “Indian” was also used liberally and sometimes interchangeably with Moor–concepts of race the way we think of it did not exist yet. So it is difficult to discern exactly what an individual’s background was just based on these labels.

That is not to say that all people with the last name Moore or Black are descended from these groups either, which adds to the confusion. Sir Thomas More was not a Moor. “Black”, like “Smith”, could be short for blacksmith, as many people took on surnames from their trade, or the area in which they lived. “Moore” (in various spellings) is derived from Gaelic and Middle English and had a number of meanings, including “open land or bog”. Wikipedia says it “possibly originated from early references to persons who worked with boats at a wharf or Moorage.” It makes sense then that armies that crossed the Strait of Gibraltar would also be called Moors, especially taking into account that the Roman name Maurus meant “dark-skinned”, probably a reference to Saint Maurice, a Roman soldier who was born in Egypt and died in Switzerland.

Saint Erasm and Saint Maurice ca.1517-23

Saint Erasm with Saint Maurice

Though Spain and Portugal had already been deeply involved in human trafficking for some time, things took a definite turn for the worse in England under King James I. He ramped up English involvement in the Americas beginning with Jamestown (Queen Elizabeth’s single attempt, Roanoke Colony, was an infamous failure and she didn’t try again) and issued the first English patents to companies wishing to “trade” in Africa–the first being the Royal Africa Company. There were slave traders operating during Queen Elizabeth’s time, like Sir John Hawkins, but from what I’ve read she had never officially sanctioned it, and they didn’t operate on a mass scale, if only because the Spanish Armada had control of the seas.

It is during King James’ reign that racism begins to evolve into the form we know today–mean-spirited caricatures and stereotypes, a codified racial hierarchy. In 1605, a play, or masque, was performed at King James’ court called The Masque of Blackness. The performers, including Queen Anne, wore blackface and had to be “cleansed of their blackness” as part of the plot. This seems to be a distinct change from the past, when skin color may be noticed, remarked upon, or identified as a distinguishing feature, but was not necessarily directly associated with being unclean or inferior. (Shakespeare’s portrayals of race, on the other hand, though sometimes jarring to a modern audience, are a little more nuanced and open to debate regarding his intentions–but that’s a whole post of its own.)

Of course, the problem is that once again we are focused on world history from a European standpoint. I do think it is vital that we stop whitewashing Europe in order to have a more complete sense of the past, but we also need to examine histories of POC in their own context, not only through their contact with Europeans. How many of our history classes focus on the empires of Mali? The fact that movable type was being used in China 500 years before the Gutenberg press? Or that while Europe was in the midst of what would be known as the Dark Ages, the Middle East was already having its own Golden Age? Very few.

black renaissance


If you’re interested in reading more, please check out the links in this entry. And here are some additional print sources I’ve used:

The Oxford Companion to Black British History editors David Dabydeen, John Gilmore, and Cecily Jones

Staying Power: The History of Black People in Britain by Peter Fryer

Black Africans in Renaissance Europe editors T.F.Earle and K.J.P.Lowe

Black Lives in the English Archives by Imtiaz Habib

Shakespeare and Race: Postcolonial Praxis in the Early Modern Period also by Imtiaz Habib

Shakespeare, Race, and Colonialism by Ania Looma



Written by Stephanie

Lit lover, history aficionado, baked goods enthusiast, INTP, writer of many things, mom to three.


nouveau maillot bayern munich

nouveau maillot bayern munich

Hola! I’ve been reading your blog for a long time now and finally got the courage to go ahead and give you a shout out from Houston Texas! Just wanted to mention keep up the good job!


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