John Blanke the black trumpet
John Blanke’s double inclusion on the Westminster tournament roll of 1511 invites a riff on the intriguing issue of changing attitudes to difference. It shows that there is no straight line over time leading from non-acceptance to acceptance of difference; the present is not necessarily more accepting of difference than various other periods in the past.
The most striking and interesting aspect of the portrayal for me is how John Blanke is depicted wearing a multicoloured hat or ‘turban’. Not only is his skin colour different to that of his ‘white’ colleagues – a difference about which no choice could have been made either by him or by others – but in addition a major form of difference that is of his own choosing – his head-gear – also sets him apart from his fellow trumpeters. Many layers of behaviour and attitude are revealed by this representation.
He is what would now be called of a different race but then was seen as being of a different skin colour, he has chosen to wear (insisted on wearing?) a head covering instead of being bare-headed, he has been officially sanctioned to do this not in the private sphere but as a salaried member of a royal corps processing publicly at Westminster, the seat of English monarchical power, in celebration of the birth of the heir to the throne, and to top it all the image of him wearing this major marker of difference was recorded twice at the time, and has survived for 500 years.
The multicoloured (brown and yellow/green and gold) patterned cloth of the head-gear is a religious and cultural, rather than a fashion, statement, and must signal that John Blanke was a Muslim, or at least had been raised in a Muslim cultural context.
In the roll the head-gear is not shown as a piece of folded and twisted cloth (which is what a turban is) but as a hat; that is, the illuminator seems to have focused on the decorative traits of colour and pattern instead of representing how the cloth was wound around the head. This prioritising is in line with the function of the roll as an heraldic record of an event, where an accurate representation of style takes second place to an accurate representation of heraldic features.
The roll allows us to glimpse an occasion on which the Tudor court permitted one of its employees to wear a marker of Islamic religious and cultural difference that contravened the normal insistence on the homogeneity of livery in quite an extraordinary fashion.
Emeritus Professor of the History of Art at University College London