Sir Pedro Negro: What colour was his skin?

Contributed Article by Miranda Kaufman.

In a footnote to a recent article, 1 Gustav Ungerer concludes that ‘the career of the Spanish mercenary Pedro Negro under king Henry VIII is quite irrelevant to the study of the ideological conception of Othello’ because none of the available contemporary records‘mentions that Sir Peter Negro was black’. He argues that Negro was more likely to belong to a Genoese family of that name that had settled in Spain and Portugal in the course of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. This contradicts those who have taken this Spanish mercenary, knighted by Protector Somerset in 1548, as evidence that it was possible for a black man to gain prestige and honour in sixteenth-century Britain. The chief protagonist of Negro’s blackness is literary critic Imtiaz Habib, who draws a parallel between Negro and Othello: ‘Shakespeare’s Othello should be considered . . . in the context of black military service in Tudor armies and generally, of the unacknowledged blacks of sixteenth century England’2This is not a straightforward academic disagreement. Habib’s rhetoric is infused with the underlying accusation that evidence of black mercenaries serving in the Tudor army has been suppressed by white imperialists: ‘This [black] presence is the site of suppressive inscription that is the modality of empire building’.

3He has recently remarked: ‘Its also interesting that whenever any claim of historical significance is made for a Black person in early modern Europe, the blackness of the person has to be immediately challenged. It would appear that even though oppressed, and denigrated in life a Black person has to prove her/his blackness for European history to even acknowledge her/his existence, whereas a White person is White by default and all significance is hers/his automatically.’ 4proach is unhelpful, Ungerer’s proof by omission is not sufficient to disprove Negro’s blackness. Contemporary chroniclers may have seen the name Negro as indication enough that the soldier was black. In this article, I will revisit the evidence for the career of Sir Pedro Negro, including discussion for the first time of his will, his coat of arms, and a letter written in 1549 by Marion, Lady Hume, in order to re-examine the question of his skin colour. An anonymous Spanish chronicler tells us how Pedro Negro came to be in King Henry VIII’s service. He writes that more than a thousand Spaniards were waylaid by unfavourable weather in the Downs, and ‘being tired of the sea, sent for the King to know whether he would take them into his service’. Henry does so, and grants ‘to Pero Negro four hundred ducats’.

5 This is corroborated by a letter of 14 January 1545 in which the Privy Council wrote to Sir Philip Hoby concerning ‘the suit of Pedro Negro and other Spaniards for their abode in safety and offer of service’.

6‘Captayne’ Negro, ‘Spaniard’, ‘the king’s servant’, then begins to receive regular payments from the Crown: starting with £25 on 3 July 1545; £75 on 8 August 1546 and £100 that October.7 In the summer of 1546 he travelled into France with ‘diverse other Spanish knights and gentlemen’, under the command of Spanish colonel Pedro de Gamboa. He was with Julian de Romero, an Italian mercenary, when he challenged and beat Captain Antonio de Mora, another mercenary, for deserting King Henry VIII’s service on 15 July, after which all the Spanish captains were awarded lifetime annuities.8When Colonel Pedro de Gamboa was dismissed, Negro was sent north to take charge of his men. He took with him letters of recommendation from the Council.

9 On 28 September1547 he was knighted by the Lord Protector,Edward Duke of Somerset at the camp beside Roxborough, after the taking of Leith.10 As Holinshed recounts it, ‘the same daie after noone, the duke of Summerset adorned with titles of dignitie diverse lords knights and gentlemen’. 11 The most detailed description of the brave deeds of war that made him worthy of knighthood is to be found in the Spanish chronicle. In a chapter dedicated to recounting ‘How by the Industry of Captian Pero Negro, Haddington was not lost that time’, we hear how, when the 6,000 English in the castle of Haddington were outnumbered by 10,000 besieging Scots, Negro suggested and executed a successful strategy to help.

Haddington was a vital fort, 20 miles to the east of Edinburgh, in East Lothian, which gave the English command of the country right up to the gates of Edinburgh.12 It had to be succoured. On 30 June 1548,13 Negro took 200 Englishmen and 100 Spaniards on horseback, each with 10 or 12 pounds of gunpowder hung from his saddlebow. These men took the Scots by surprise, charging through them while firing muskets,and were able to break through to the castle gates. Here they had to sacrifice the horses, as there was no space or food for them in the castle and they could not give them to the Scots. So the price of delivering 3,600 pounds of gunpowder to the beleaguered castle was the slaughter of 300 horses. However, within three days, the siege was broken, as the English fired their newly-fuelled artillery day and night, and the Scots ‘decided not to await the bad smell’ which would come from the horses’ carcasses.

This ‘pretty feat of war’ gained the captain the General’s recommendation that he be given 200 crowns.14 This story is corroborated in the Scottish state papers, when on 7 July 1548,Thomas Holcroft and John Brende wrote to Protector Somerset, detailing how a mixed group of 150 Spaniards under Negro, plus about 210 English, ‘every one of them a bagge of goonpowder and a rolle of mache before them’ were appointed to succour the besieged. The letter goes on to stipulate that if it proves impossible to bring the horses back, they are to kill them. The corresponding detail makes the Spanish chronicler’s supposedly unreliable. 15 account ring true. It was reported throughout Europe: at the end of August 1548, Van der Delft wrote to the Emperor Charles V: ‘These people (the English) have every day been receiving good news from their forces defending Haddington. They Report that the French besieging army were powerless to do them much harm, and that in spite of the enemy the defenders had been reinforced by 3,000 (300?) men each carrying a good stock of powder’.

16 In another escapade, Negro’s men captured M. d’Etauges, Commandant of the Garrison of Dundee when he came too close to the walls of the English fort of Broughty Ferry. 17.Negro and his men had arrived at Broughty from Haddington sometime before 2 March 1549. 18. Negro continued to serve, as evinced in regular payments made to him by the Treasury, until 10 April 1550. 19.He died in London on 15 July 1551, of the sweating sickness.20 As John Strype recounts: ‘July 10, by reason of this new sweat, the King removed from Westminster to Hampton Court: for there died certain beside the Court, which caused the King to be gone so soon.’ ‘Sir Peryn Negroo’ is listed amongst all those who ‘died in July within a few days one of another’. A total of 872 died from 8 to 19 July in London of this sweat. 21 .His funeral was quite a ceremony, with 12 ‘stayffes’, ‘torches burning . . .flute playing’, his flag bourne, and the street hung with black and with his arms. The preacher was one Dr Bartelet and it was attended by the company of Clerks, ‘a harold of armes and mony morners’.22 The executors of Sir Pedro Negro’s will were granted probate from the Prerogative Court of Canterbury on 4 August 1551.

23.It was made in Spanish, witnessed by the Spaniards John de Guyutana, Martyn de Avilla, and Jerome Alamay, and translated from Spanish into English by Thomas Wytton. His executor was Captain Christopher Diaz, who served with him in Scotland, and was also in the pay of the crown. 24 At death, Negro owned a house, and ‘goodes’ including ‘A Chayne of gold that weyeth Seven and twenty ounces of gold’ and was owed ‘fyve hundreth ducatts’ by Philip de Aranda. We learn that he had a young son, whom he made his heir. There is no mention of a wife. Most fascinating is the sentence: ‘And yf by fortune that a dougter that I have in Italy to be approved to be my daughter then I will she have ffiftie ducatts.’ This suggests that his military career had begun in the Italian wars.

It also begs the question of how this girl was to be proved his daughter. Were he black, the dark hue of her skin would be convincing evidence. If not, how would Diaz know whether this girl was Negro’s daughter or not? This new evidence of an Italian connection lends some credence to Ungerer’s suggestion of Genoese origin, but it can just as easily be explained by Negro’s profession as a soldier. Negro’s crest was ‘of a castle broken, and upon the castle a man with a shert of mail and a sword in his hand.’ 25 This seems to be a reference to his siege-breaking prowess at Haddington. The original grant, preserved in the College of Arms, shows such a crest
(Figure 1).

Pedro Negro Coat of Arms
Author’s sketch of the crest of Sir Pedro
Negro, granted 1547, College of Arms manuscript
2H5, f. 62.

26.The face of the man atop the castle is white. His arms, below the crest, show a tree, bearing fruit, with a bird sitting atop its branches, with a sword above it and surrounded by stars. The bird is identified in the grant as a ‘faucon’ or falcon, the fruit as ‘pommes purfle vert’. Literally this translates as green textured or studded apples.

27.Whether the herald was thinking of pine-cones or The grant of arms made by Sir Thomas Hawley, the Clarenceaux King of Arms, in 1547, describes the knight as ‘Pedro Negro de civitate Bisvista in Regno Castillis’.

28 The Rutland MSS also describes Negro as ‘Spanish’. 31 But his being Spanish does not rule out him being black. As Edmund Spenser noted ‘the Moores and barbarians breaking over out of Africa, did finally possess all Spaine’,32.and despite the reconquest, there were still many of darker complexions living in the Iberian Peninsula. The black population of Spain in the mid-sixteenth century has been estimated at 100,000.

33.A more famous Moor of this time, Leo Africanus wrote: ‘when I heare the Africans evill spoken of, I wil affirme my self to be one of Granada: and when I perceive the nation of Granada to be discommended, then will I professe my selfe to be an African.’ 34.As Ungerer rightly notes, none of the sources directly state Negro’s skin colour.

However, a letter written to Mary of Guise from Marion, Lady Hume on 28 March 1549 provides some strong circumstantial evidence: “Als sua I beseik your grace to be gud prenssis to the Spangyarttis and lat them cum again, for tha do lyk noble men, and als suay the Mour. He is als scharp a man asrydis, besking your grace to be gud prenssis”
unto him. . .
35.This was the third letter Lady Hume had written in the month. Hume Castle had been retaken by the Scots on 16 December 1548.

36 By March, Lady Hume appears to be sending intelligence to the Queen Dowager. On 9 March, she writes from Home:

‘Pleis you to be advertesit that thar is cumit serten of Inglis men to Beryk ma nor wes of befor, bot I belef tha well nocht all be thre thousand men. She warns: ‘caus my son and all uder Scottis men that ye may forga to cum in this cuntre, for ther welbe besynes about this toun or ellis in som uder part in this cuntre’. 37. On 20 March, she writes: ‘the hors men of ther parttis of Ingland that wes at Hatingtonpast by this plas on Tysday.’

38Cameron glosses these horse men as ‘the convoy that had escorted Wilford to Haddington’, but this makes no sense, as James Wilford, the governor of Haddington had been in command there since the previous spring. 39Could it in fact refer to the soldiers who had been at Haddington until quite recently, that is, Pedro Negro’s party?

The letter in which Lady Hume refers to a Moor is written a week later. By then, she is complaining about the villainy of the English who:

‘dystrow all this cuntre’. Strangely it seems the Spaniards, and ‘the Mour’ behave better, ‘lyk noble men’. They owe money to the ‘pur wyfis in this toun for ther expenssis’.

It seems then, that the English and Spanish, who had been at Haddington, passed through Hume on 19 March, and were billeted there, leaving debts. Yet, Lady Hume seems to show special favour to the Spaniards, and especially the Moor, urging Guise to be ‘gud prenssis’ to them. Perhaps her favour was won the year before, when the Spaniards were involved in a failed attempt to take Hume castle from the English. Lord Grey reported to Somerset that ‘the Queen has bought the Spaniards at Hume to sell the castle and kill the captain’.

40This attempt was unsuccessful, but it may help to explain why Lady Hume saw the Spaniards as potential allies. Whether this Moor was Pedro Negro is not certain. Sadly Lady Hume does not mention him by name. But the circumstantial evidence is striking. There was clearly at least one Moor in Berwickshire in 1549: if it was not Pedro Negro, then who was it? If not Pedro Negro, then perhaps Jacques Granado, another mercenary, knighted by Somerset a week after Negro on 1 October 1547, at Newcastle, 41whose name suggests he was from Grenada, and whose arms include ‘a Blackamoor’s head couped Sable, wreathed argent’.

42There is concrete evidence of a man of African descent serving in the Tudor army twenty-seven years earlier in Exeter, where a Military Survey of 1522 lists in the Parish of St Petrock, as one of the ‘Billmen able for the war’: ‘Peter Blackmore, a moren borne . . . worth in goods nil’.
43The evidence I am drawing together for my thesis shows a considerable black presence (of around 300 individuals) in Britain in the period 1500–1640. That only fifteen of these are present in the period 1500–60 is perhaps a reflection of the fact that Parish Registers (the dominant source) only began in 1538, and often do not survive from that early. At the very least Lady Hume’s letter means that we cannot yet entirely dismiss the idea of a mercenary soldier of African descent serving in the Anglo Scottish wars of the mid-sixteenth century.

This  Article was first published in June 2008 as: Miranda Kaufmann, ‘ Sir Pedro Negro: what colour was his skin?, Notes and Queries, 253, no. 2 (June 2008), pp. 142-146. Thanks to Notes and Queries and Oxford University Press for permission to reproduce it here.

Link to the Original Article:
Miranda Kaufman


1Gustav Ungerer, ‘Recovering a Black African’s Voice in an English Lawsuit: Jacques Francis and the Salvage
Operations of the Mary Rose and the Sancta Maria and Sanctus Edwardus, 1545–ca 1550’, Medieval and Renaissance
Drama in England, xvii (2005), 255, n. 4.
2 I. Habib, ‘Othello, Sir Pedro Negro and the Blacks of Early Modern England: Colonial Inscription and Postcolonial Excavation’, Literature, Interpretation, Theory, ix (1998), 15. The argument is repeated in his book: Shakespeare and Race: Postcolonial praxis in the early modern period (2000), 129–30.
3 Ibid., pp. 15–16.
4 I. Habib, ‘Was Sir Peter Negro Black?’ Black and Asian Studies Association Newsletter, xlvi (November 2006), 5
6 M. A. S. Hume, Chronicle of King Henry VIII of England, written in Spanish by an unknown hand (1889), 123, 128.

6 Letters and Papers, Foreign and Domestic, Henry VIII [hereafter L&P], ed. R. H Brodie and J. Gardiner (1905),
XX, Part I, 27.
7 Acts of the Privy Council [hereafter APC], ed. J. R. Dasent (1890), I, 208, 511; L&P (1910), XXI, Part II, 156.
8 G. J. Millar, Tudor Mercenaries and Auxiliaries, 1485–1547 (Charlottesville, 1980), 170; C. Wriothelsey, A Chronicle of England during the Reigns of the Tudors from AD 1485 to 1559, ed. W. D. Hamilton, Camden Society, 11, 20 (1875–1877), I: 173–4; Hume, Chronicle of King Henry VIII, p. 128.
9 Hume, Chronicle of King Henry VIII, pp. 201–2.
10 Millar, Tudor Mercenaries, p. 191; W. A. Shaw, The Knights of England: A complete record from the earliest time
to the present day of the knights of all the orders of chivalry in England, Scotland and Ireland, and of Knights Bachelors, 2 vols (1906), II, 62.
11R. Holinshed, Chronicles: England, Scotland and Ireland, ed. J. Johnson (1965), V, 888.
12A. F. Pollard, England Under Protector Somerset (1900), 171.
13 G. Phillips, The Anglo-Scottish Wars 1513–1550: A military history (1999), 225.
14 Hume, Chronicle of King Henry VIII, pp. 203–5.

15 According to Millar, Tudor Mercenaries, p. 170, n.13:‘This fascinating, but totally untrustworthy, account of events contains much confusing information on the role of Spanish mercenaries in Tudor service—which, like much else in the work does not hold up when compared with other sources.’ I do not entirely agree with this assessment, but have attempted to corroborate all material from this source.

16 Calendar of State Papers, Spanish, ed. M. A. S. Hume and R. Tyler (1912), IX, 287. The query is Hume’s. From the other accounts, 300 seems the more likely number.
17Jean de Beague, The History of the Campagnes 1548 and 1549, tr. P. Abercrombie (Edinburgh, 1707), 84.
18The Scottish Correspondence of Mary of Lorraine, ed. A. I. Cameron (Edinburgh, 1927), 309; APC, II, 261.
19APC, I, 208, 511; II, 183, 261, 275, 279, 419.
20H. Machyn, The Diary of Henry Machyn, Citizen and Merchant-taylor of London, 1550 to 1563, ed. J. G. Nichols (Camden Soc., 42, 1848), 320.
21 J. Strype, Ecclesiastical memorials; relating chiefly to religion, and the reformation of it, and the emergencies of the Church of England, under King Henry VIII. King Edward VI. and Queen Mary the First, 3 vols (Oxford, 1822), II, 493.
22Machyn, The Diary of Henry Machyn, p. 8.
23T.N.A., PROB 11/34.
24E.g. APC, Vol. I, p. 511.
25:Machyn, The Diary of Henry Machyn, p. 320.
26College of Arms manuscript, 2H5, f.62. See Figure 1.
27:J. Parker, A Glossary of Heraldry (1894), 480, defines‘purfled’ as: ‘garnished: a term applied to the studs of armour, the trimmings of robes, arrows, bird bolts (q.v.)’.

28While the pineapple might initially seem to point to an exotic origin [in 1602, Michael Hemmersham wrote that in Guinea ‘The Moors consume quantities of Ananas, as they call this fruit which is like an artichoke’], it was the Portuguese who had brought that fruit, which originated in Brazil, to Africa. In fact a pineapple might even have been a reference to Spain, as in 1492 Christopher Columbus found pineapples growing at Guadeloupe and carried some back to Spain to King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella. It became the king’s favourite fruit, as recounted by Peter
Martyr in De Orbo Novo, I.262: ‘the king prefers (this fruit) to all others’. The pineapple did not come to England until the time of Cromwell. See: F. Beauman, The Pineapple: King of fruits (2005), 31–2, 42, 44.
29Beauman, The Pineapple, p. 44.
30College of Arms manuscript, 2H5, f.62. This is my transcription of the text. Alternately, it may read ‘Birvista’. Unfortunately I have been unable to locate such a city in Castile. The closest I could find was Bijvesca in Aragon, south west of Zaragoza.
31The manuscripts of His Grace, the Duke of Rutland, G.C.B., preserved at Belvoir Castle, Historical Manuscripts Commission, 4 vols (1888–1905), I, 37.
32E. Spenser, A View of the Present State of Ireland, ed.W. L. Renwick (1934), 57.
33J. Lawrance, ‘Black Africans in Renaissance Spanish Literature’, in T. F. Earle and K. J. P. Lowe (eds), Black Africans in Renaissance Europe (2005), p. 70. See also D. Blumenthal ‘ ‘‘La Casa dels Negres’’: Black African solidarity in late medieval Valencia’ and A. Martı´n Casares, ‘Free and freed black Africans in Granada in the time of the Spanish Renaissance’, in the same volume.
34Leo Africanus, The History and Description of Africa, trans. John Pory (1600), ed. R. Brown, 3 vols
(1896), I, 190.
35Scottish Correspondence of Mary of Lorraine, 296.
36Pollard, England under Protector Somerset (1900), 265.
37Scottish Correspondence of Mary of Lorraine, 291–2.
38Tuesday 19 March: Scottish Correspondence of Mary of Lorraine, 295.
39J. D. Alsop, ‘Wilford, Sir James (b. in or before 1517, d. 1550)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography,
(Oxford, 2004), accessed 11 Oct 2007.
40 J. Bain ed., Calendar of State Papers, Scotland, I:1547–1563, (Edinburgh, 1898), Grey to Somerset,9 February 1548, 75.

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