We know what they wore. We know what they ate. We know the details of their monarchs’ sex lives and how they caused seismic changes in our country’s religious and political history.
But what about black Tudors?
Until now, the story of the Africans who lived and died in 16th century England has remained untold, but a new book from Flintshire-based historian Dr Miranda Kauffman aims to change all that by revealing the tales of 10 Africans who made their way through the Tudor and Stuart eras with varying success.
“I’ve always been into the Tudors for as long as I can remember,” says Miranda, 35.
“I grew up in London and have always been interested in travelling and fascinated by the interaction between different cultures around the world.
“I realised the Tudors were beginning to sail around the world and I read a bit about their encounters with Native Americans, but nothing about their meetings with Africans who they started trading with from the 1550s.”
Miranda, 35, who fittingly lives in a Tudor house in Pontblyddyn, began to find out more about the growing influence of Africans on Tudor society, but with only scraps of evidence to work with, the task wasn’t easy.
“Sometimes the references would be one line in a parish register or a tax return so I ended up choosing 10 individuals for the book which I was able to find more about often because they’d been involved in a court case as a witness,” she says.
“Through those 10 people I’ve tried to answer bigger questions about how they got here, what they were doing and how they were treated.
“It’s exciting as a historian to try and dig out stuff and try and discover something no one else knows about.
“You have the odd eureka moment. I remember being in Southampton and finding this reference to a burial of an African in the parish register.
“I shouted ‘yes!’ really loudly in this quiet records office.”
Among the fascinating subjects uncovered by Miranda are John Blanke, who came to be the royal trumpeter to Henry VII and Henry VIII and Jacques Francis, who worked as a salvage diver on the wreck of the Mary Rose.
“These people were not just domestic servants,” says Miranda.
“Unlike the majority of Africans across the rest of the Atlantic world, in England they were free.
“They lived in a world where skin colour was less important than religion, class or talent and before the English became heavily involved in the slave trade, and before they founded their first surviving colony in the Americas.
“One fact that jumped out at me was that before 1620 there were more Englishmen in North Africa than there were in North America.
“There were diplomatic and trade links with Morocco and a trade link with what was then known as Guinea so their stories challenge the traditional narrative that racial slavery was inevitable.”
Since this formative period of relative freedom, racism and slavery has continued to blight our society with today’s debates about immigration and Brexit showing things haven’t moved on quite as much as we might have thought.
“I didn’t really find much evidence of any prejudice against these Africans,” says Miranda.
“People were more prejudiced against your social class or your religion rather than skin colour and with the Africans there was more curiosity than ill feeling.
“They were accepted into the Church of England through marriage, baptism and burial, which says an awful lot.”
Miranda, who read history at Christ Church, Oxford, is hoping that her book can shift the focus of black history away from slavery and challenge people’s perceptions.
“There is a long history of black people being in Britain that has been overlooked and if people learn that in some cases with the Romans they’d actually been here longer than the English then that’s important,” she says.
The recent stage, screen and literary success of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall shows that Britain’s obsession with the Tudor period shows no sign of stopping.
So what’s the continued appeal of a dynasty that only really flourished for three generations and a mere 118 years?
“The fascination is really with the Royal family of that period,” agrees Miranda. “It’s a great drama that has everything: sex, religion, violence and politics.
“It was stories about Henry and his six wives and Elizabeth the virgin queen that first drew me to it, but then you find about the social history and there’s all sorts of things like witchcraft and other fun stuff!
“It’s an important period too in our national story because of the Reformation. It’s central to our national identity and it’s also the period when merchants and sailors are travelling and having their first encounters with the New World.”
Miranda, a mother-of-two whose own mother is from the area, came to Flintshire after inheriting her house and deciding it was the right place to bring up her family as opposed to London.
“We thought a countryside childhood would be nicer for the kids. We think the house was built in about 1589 and it has some of the original features including a bread oven and what might be a priest hole,” she says.
“I’m still learning about the area, but I’ve been to most of the
castles which I love and it’s a place where you can feel the history all around you.”
Miranda wrote the book while pregnant with her five-month-old daughter, which certainly provided an added challenge to her literary debut.
“I tried to time the birth but it didn’t quite work,” she laughs.
“I was heavily pregnant while writing the final draft and two weeks later I was going through the proofs and final edit so it was pretty full on!”
l Black Tudors: The Untold Story, was published by Oneworld on October 5. Miranda will be talking about the book at the Meryseyside Maritime Museum in Liverpool on Saturday, October 28. For more information visit www.mirandakaufmann.com
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