Story of Henry VIII’s Black trumpeter to be told at Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool | Art


He is the most famous Black person from the Tudor era, a court trumpeter who performed at important regal celebrations and was highly rewarded for his skill by Henry VIII.

Now the story of John Blanke, one of the first people of African descent to have both a visual and written record in Britain, will be told at a major exhibition at the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool.

It will be the first time in almost 20 years that members of the public will have a chance to see Blanke’s portrait, which appears on the Westminster Tournament Roll – a fragile 511-year-old manuscript that is rarely on display and has never before been exhibited outside London.

Blanke, who performed at the funeral of Henry VII and the coronation of Henry VIII in 1509, is believed by some historians to have arrived in England from Spain a few years earlier, as a member of Catherine of Aragon’s entourage.

He is pictured twice on the roll, playing the trumpet at the opening and closing ceremonies of the great tournament of Westminster in 1511. Trumpet players were often referred to as the “heralds of the gods”.

“It’s extraordinarily rare to see a Black Tudor,” said Kate O’Donoghue, curator of the forthcoming exhibition, The Tudors: Passion, Power and Politics, which opens on 21 May. “This is one of the earliest known portraits of a named African living in Tudor England.”

The tournament was held by Henry VIII to celebrate the birth of his son Henry – who died in infancy just nine days later – and the delicate vellum roll, which is 17.9 metres long, records the spectacle and grandeur of the Tudor court in all its chivalric pageantry.

As well as appearing twice on the roll, written records suggest that Blanke – who is known to have been a court trumpeter to both Henry VII and Henry VIII – was a highly regarded member of the royal retinue. “We know a bit about John Blanke’s relationship to Henry VIII, which is really extraordinary,” O’Donoghue said.

For example, when Blanke was married in 1512, the King gifted him with “very fine clothing”. And when one of his fellow trumpeters died, “Blanke asked Henry VIII for a considerable pay rise”. The King granted him his wish, doubling his pay from eight to 16 pence a day.

She hopes the exhibition will challenge some of the misconceptions many people still hold about England in the 16th century. “I think many people probably still think of Tudor England as somewhere that was very white.” But as well as John Blanke, evidence from baptism, marriage and burial records shows there were “a lot of other Africans living in England during this period”, she said.

“Tudor society was actually quite ethnically diverse, and Africans were part of that society. John Blanke is just one example, because we have that visual record of him at the court, but he’s a hint to the wider African presence in England and across Wales, Scotland and Ireland at this time.”

The exhibition will also present 24 artworks produced by artists as part of the John Blanke Project, a contemporary art and archive project which celebrates Blanke’s presence at the Tudor court.

Michael Ohajuru, director of the John Blanke Project, said: “In highlighting the role of John Blanke within this exhibition, and presenting responses from contemporary artists and historians, we’re able to tell a real, inclusive Tudor story. In this way, history, art and the imagination can work together to make connections between Black British history, then and now.”

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