Our next post in ‘The Voices of the People’ symposium (full programme here) is by Michael Ohajuru, an art historian with an interest in the history of Black Africans in Renaissance Europe. Michael provides us with an example of the considerable potential of petitions as a source for uncovering difficult to find voices in the past, as he dissects a petition sent to Henry VIII by a black trumpter at his court.
It was my colleague Dr Miranda Kaufmann who introduced me to John Blanke’s Petition to Henry VIII. We collaborated on IRBARE – Image and Reality in Black Africans in Renaissance England, a joint project in which she discussed the lives of over 350 real Africans she had found in the records, while I considered the images of black Africans from the period. The star of our research was John Blanke, the black Trumpeter to the Tudor courts of Henry VII and Henry VIII, as uniquely there is both an image and supporting records of him in the archives.
I was on my way to the National Archive to study a thirteenth century image of a black African in the Archives when I had a call from Miranda. She said she had come across a reference to a John Blake, a trumpeter who had petitioned Henry VIII. His name and function were too close to John Blanke not to consider further. Once at the National Archives I ordered both items. Miranda’s petition came first so I photographed it and emailed the images to her then went off to look at my image. Before I’d completed photographing my image I had an email back from Miranda – she had transcribed the complete petition!
(1)To the kyng our soveraigne lorde
In most humble wise besechethes your hyghnes your true and faithfull servant John Blake oon of your Trompets (2) That where as his wage nowe and as yet is not sufficient to mayntaigne and kepe hym to doo your grace lyke service as other your trompeters doo. (3) It may therefore please your hyghnes in consideracon of the true & faithfull service whiche your servant dailie doeth unto your grace (4) and so during his lyf entendeth to doo to geve and graunte unto hym the same somme/ persome Of Trompete whiche Domynyc desessed late had to have (5) and enioye the said Reward to your said servant from the fyrste day of December last passed during your moost gracious pleasure which wage of xvi d by the day (6) And that this bill signed with your most gracious hand may be sufficient warrant and discharge unto John Heron treasurer of your Chamber for the payment of the said wage accordingly (7) And he shall dailie pray to god for the continuation of your most noble and royall estate longe to endure
Prior to this document we only knew of John Blanke indirectly through references to him in the courts’ household accounts. It is suggested that he came to England in the entourage of Katherine of Aragon in 1501. In 1507 he is recorded in Henry VII’s household accounts by the Treasurer of the Chamber, John Heron, being paid 8 pence a day, playing at Henry VII’s funeral in May 1509 and Henry VIII’s coronation in June of that year. He is depicted in the 1511 Westminster tournament roll where he appears twice. His last mention in the household records is an order in January 1512 by Henry VIII to the ‘great wardrobe’ for him to be given a wedding gift. That is the last reference to him we have in the royal records as he is not found in the full list of trumpeters dated 31 January 1514.
Those entries in the court records document facts about John Blanke: nowhere do we hear his voice or gain any sense of the personality behind the name. The petition is as close as we have come to date to having any sense of the man that was John Blanke. For, amongst the conventional language of the sixteenth century petitions written by professional scribes, we can detect the voice of John Blanke – the petitioner.
Giving an exact date to the petition is problematic. We know that both John Blanke and Dominic are recorded in 1509 as playing at both the funeral in May of Henry VII and the coronation of Henry VIII in June so the earliest date of the petition would be Jan 1510 and the latest 1514 when John has disappeared from the inventory.
The text is written in the third person perhaps for some intermediary to stand before the king and read the petition on behalf of John. This petition follows many of the conventions of early modern petitions [which will be described further in subsequent posts], such as opening with a formal acknowledgement of the king and king’s position.
(1)To the kyng our soveraigne lorde
In most humble wise besechethes your hyghnes your true and faithfull servant John Blake oon of your Trompets
John, through the scribe, elevates Henry and belittles himself, clearly establishing the importance of the king as John implores Henry to notice his request. The language is not quite what we would hear if we had met John in the street and asked him to tell us his story. Clearly we do not have power to grant him his wish so he must use appropriate language, addressed to the correct person, in this case the king, if his petition is to have any chance of success.
Here his scribe plays an important role as English was unlikely to have been John’s first language. Further, he probably could not read or write in any language, so he would have been wholly reliant on the scribe to effectively transmit his appeal to Henry using the explicit and implicit conventions and expectations of the day.
Having formally and suitably ingratiatingly introduced himself through the scribe’s conventional opening words, John Blanke then goes through a carefully structured, reasoned argument as to why the king should grant him a pay rise, closing with two conclusions: the first the conclusion of his argument for the pay rise, the second a conventional close from the scribe’s stock endings.
Having considered the formal opening I shall now analyse the petitions contents which opens with John stating his problem:
What is John Blanke’s problem?
(2) That where as his wage nowe and as yet is not sufficient to mayntaigne and kepe hym to doo your grace lyke service as other your trompeters doo.
John’s problem is that he is not being paid enough to maintain the standards expected of him by the king and in comparison with his other Court trumpeters. One can only speculate as to why John’s wages were less than others.
Why should Henry say yes?
(3) It may therefore please your hyghnes in consideracon of the true & faithfull service whiche your servant dailie doeth unto your grace
John deserves more money because daily he gives ‘true and faithful’ service to the king.
Why did he consider his petition reasonable?
(4) and so during his lyf entendeth to doo to geve and graunte unto hym the same somme Of Trompete whiche Domynyc desessed late had to have
John’s logical argument continues as he argues that he should have the same wages that Dominic had before he died, as he is doing the same job as Dominic.
How much does John want and when?
(5) and enioye the said Reward to your said servant from the fyrste day of December last passed during your moost gracious pleasure which wage of xvi d by the day
John is direct as he states how much he wants and when he wants the increase to take effect. He wants his wages to be doubled from 8d to 16d per day and back dated. We know his wages were 8d per day from the Exchequer roll of 1507 which shows the first payment to John Blanke, the Black trumpeter, of 8d per day.
What should Henry do?
(6) And that this bill signed with your most gracious hand may be sufficient warrant and discharge unto John Heron treasurer of your Chamber for the payment of the said wage accordingly
John asks respectfully for the king to sign his petition, in doing so instructing the treasurer to pay him the increase. This is John’s conclusion to his argument for the pay increase.
What does Henry receive for answering this petition?
(7) And he shall dailie pray to god for the continuation of your most noble and royall estate longe to endure
Should the king agree to John’s request than he will daily pray that the king’s reign is ‘long to endure’
Did John receive his pay back dated rise?
John asked the king to sign the instruction to the Treasurer of the Chamber, John Heron, and the king did just that, as his signature is seen on top left of the petition.
Having considered the petition’s contents and argument I would now like to consider what they might have meant at the time.
The first thing to note is that John was paid wages indicating he was a free man not a slave, like many of those of black African descent in other parts of Europe notably Spain and Portugal, as both had been trading in slaves from sub Saharan Africa since the mid fifteenth century. Further we can infer he was a Christian from his reference to praying for the king.
From the tone and directness of the petition, as he develops his argument we can sense that John knew his value. He considered himself the equal of Dominic so should be paid the same. Henry must have held John in some regard as he gave time to considering and granting his petition. John’s value to Henry’s court is seen not only in the time the king gave to considering his petition but two of his other occurrences in the records.
Firstly, his skill as a trumpeter was valued. As pointed out by Professor Kate Lowe, John stands out on the Westminster Tournament Roll not only on account of his skin colour but his head-gear. While all the other trumpeters are bareheaded John’s hair is hidden out of sight in a multicolored hat. That concession was perhaps on account of his skill that he was allowed this deviance in dress. This is a very rare are case of a black African in Renaissance Europe in a court setting not wearing standardised court attire, indicating his value to the court.
Secondly, Dr Miranda Kaufmann describes when John married in 1512, Henry VIII instructed the great wardrobe in a warrant dated 14 January to deliver to ‘John Blak our trompeter’ a gown of violet cloth and also a bonnet and hat ‘to be taken of our gift against his wedding’. Thus John was valued enough by Henry to be given a wedding present.
However, the ultimate proof of his value was Henry’s signature of approval on the petition!
To conclude, John Blanke’s petition gives us a unique insight into him as a character: an opportunity to hear his voice and understand more about the man and his times, reflecting the importance of petitions in helping us hear ‘The Voices of the People’.
I would like to thank Dr Miranda Kaufmann for her unselfish assistance and support in preparing this post.
Dumitrescu, T., The Early Tudor Court and International Musical Relations (Aldershot, 2007).
Kate Lowe, Thomas Earle (eds), (2005) Black Africans in Renaissance Europe, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press
Miranda Kaufmann, Blanke, John (fl. 1507–1512) Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2014, (http://www.oxforddnb.com/public/dnb/107145.html accessed 11th June 2015).
Onyeka (2013) Blackamoore: Africans in Tudor England: Their Presence, Status and Origins (Narrative Eye and the Circle with a Dot,
Richard Rastall (1964), ‘The Minstrels of the English Royal Households, 25 Edward I – 1 Henry VIII: An Inventory’ R.M.A. Research Chronicle, No. 4, pp. 1-41
John Blanke’s Petition to Henry VIII
TNA, E101/217/2, no.150
The king’s Book of Payments
[by John Heron, Treasurer of the Chamber]
E 36/214 f109
The Black Trumpeter at Henry VIII’s Tournament
Westminster Tournament Roll, 1511, College of Arms, London