John Blanke the black trumpet
There is much that is remarkable about the image in the sixty-foot long Westminster Tournament Roll of 1511 in the College of Arms, of a black trumpeter on horseback. The most striking is that we know his name, John Blanke, and there are payments recorded to him over a decade, and he seems to have been shown particular favour by King Henry VIII. These payments make it clear that he was not a slave but a salaried member of the court . In any case he lived before Britain’s entry into the slave trade initiated in 1562-63 by Sir John Hawkins.
So where did John Blanke come from and how did he get to England? The short answer is that we do not know, but it is likely that as a skilled musician he would have made his way through court circles which were always interacting with each other. It is possible he started his career in Spain, to which he could have crossed from Africa, and through more northern courts. The other possibility is that he could have come directly from Spain in the retinue of Catherine of Aragon, who is known to have had at least some black women with her when she first arrived in 1501. There were also blacks mentioned at the Scottish court at the time so that is another possibility.
In a way the most unusual thing about John Blanke is not that he was a musician or that he was at the English court or that he was thought well of, but that he was pictured at all. He was not the first black person to be depicted in English art; there are images of the black Magus in the Adoration of the Magi in stained glass and manuscript illuminations of the 15th century but nothing else is known from the first half of the 16th century. But the fact that John Blanke was a real person with a profession and a name makes the image of him a priceless survival and a national document of the highest importance.
Emeritus Professor of the History of Art at University College London
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