It appears that John Blanke, an African trumpeter, was a regular musician at the courts of both Henry VII and Henry VIII. Musicians’ payments were noted in the accounts of the Treasurer of the Chamber, who was responsible for paying the wages.
There are several payments recorded to a ‘John Blanke, the blacke trumpeter‘. This trumpeter was paid 8d a day, first by Henry VII and then from 1509 by Henry VIII.
On New Year’s Day 1511 King Henry VIII was presented with a son by his wife, Catherine of Aragon. As was the tradition to celebrate major festivals such as coronations and royal births and marriages, Henry held a great tournament at Westminster.
Tournaments were a continuation of a tradition that gained popularity during the Roman era. They were originally a form of military training: games and exercises designed to instil discipline into young men and teach them the art of bearing arms. Tournaments later developed into an art form, combining elements of drama, music and poetry.
Across northern Europe, tournaments had become a kind of team game by the early 12th century. Each team comprised a company of knights under the leadership of their lord whom they followed and served in wartime. Tournaments also had a chivalric and romantic side. Ladies watching the tournament audience had a chance to see their heroes prove their skills, strength and courage. Knights hoped to win the affections of the ladies by their outstanding displays.
John Blanke in The Westminster Tournament Roll
Since 15th century therebecame a growing desire to record spectacles and ceremonials by depicting them in artwork or embroidery. Henry VIII wanted such a pictorial record made of his tournament to mark the birth of his male child. He commissioned the Westminster Tournament Roll, a unique treasure which is held at the College of Arms. The Tournament roll is a pictorial illuminated manuscript, a continuous roll approximately 60 feet long. It is a narrative of the beginning, middle and end of the tournament, which took place over two days.
In the Westminster Tournament Roll, the king occupies a prominent position. Henry is shown surrounded by his footmen, officials and other dignitaries, a a crowd of nobles, the officers of arms and six trumpeters. Among the trumpeters is a Black man. He appears twice on the Roll: once on the way from the court and again on the way back. Historian Sydney Anglo, believes he is almost certainly the same “John Blanke”, the ‘blacke trumpeter’ mentioned in the Treasurer’s accounts.
Henry VIII’s tournament was a costly extravaganza, The roll shows us that a Black man was included in one of the most magnificent pageants of his time, dressed formally as a mounted musician, perhaps he belonged to the mounted troops of the court?
Staying Power: The History of Black People in Britain (1984), Peter Fryer
John Blanke – National Archive