There is a black face on this tapestry. Is it John Blanke?
The tapestry is part of an exhibition at Hampton Court Palace called ‘Gold and Glory: Henry VIII and the French King’. The exhibition celebrates the 500th anniversary in 2020 of the Field of Cloth of Gold.
This was a grand festival designed to improve relations between the two kingdoms of England and France and their monarchs Henry VIII and Francois I. It was held in a field just to the south of Calais and started on 7th June 1520.
It is known that there were about 200 black people living in England during the Tudor period. It is possible that the black trumpeter is John Blanke who once played at the court of King Henry VIII. So who was John Blanke? Possibly born in North or West Africa or in Southern Europe to African parents, he was a black trumpeter who is believed to have arrived in England in 1501 as part of the retinue of the Spanish Princess Katherine of Aragon who was to marry Prince Arthur, eldest son of King Henry VII.
The earliest mention of him was in the household books of King Henry VII where the entry read; wages paid to ‘John Blanke the blacke Trumpet’. It was dated December 1507 and confirmed that he was paid 20 shillings which was at 8d (old pennies) a day in November of that year. However, he petitioned the King for a raise and is now paid 16d a day.
John Blanke served at least two kings; we don’t know when he transferred from one to the other but we do know that he played at the funeral of King Henry VII in spring of 1509; we know that black cloth was purchased to make uniforms for the trumpeters and then later in the year, he was dressed in scarlet for the coronation of King Henry VIII.
In 1511 John Blanke was one of several trumpeters to players at the Westminster Tournament which was held on the 12th and 13th February in front of the Palace of Westminster. This was to celebrate the birth of a son to King Henry and Katherine. Their son named Prince Henry, the Duke of Cornwall was born on 1st January but only lived for 52 days.
The Westminster Tournament Roll which is stored in the Royal College of Arms, shows John Blanke seated on a black horse. He is wearing a uniform of yellow and grey and is the only trumpeter wearing a flat, green hat. The other trumpeters are bare-headed.
John Blanke appears in records again in 1512 when King Henry orders a gift of violet cloth, a bonnet and hat to be sent to John Blanke as a wedding present. However, after this date there is no further mention of John Blanke so what happened to him? Did he remain in the employ of King Henry or did he move on?
It is possible that he moved over to France and sought employment in the court of King Francois? The black trumpeter’s flag shows the fleur-de-lys, the symbol of the French monarchy. The answer to the question of the identity of this black trumpeter is still to be confirmed but we like to think that it is our John Blanke!