History explainer: John Blanke in Tudor Britain

The Westminster Tournament Roll is a huge painting created in 1511 to record a special event held by King Henry VIII and Katherine of Aragon. The roll shows all sorts of activities, including trumpeters playing music. One of these musicians is John Blanke. His image in the roll is the earliest-known image of a Black person living in Britain whose name is known.

This video focusses on certain details in the roll that help us discover what the Westminster Tournament was. We also discuss what historians know about the life of John Blanke, why he was an important person in the Tudor period, and why he holds a significant place in British history.

 

  • John Blanke in Tudor Britain

    The Tudors ruled England, Wales and Ireland between 1485 and 1603.

    It was during the Tudor period that painted portraits became more and more popular.

    The Westminster Tournament Roll was painted in 1511.

    It shows an extravagant festival celebrating the birth of King Henry VIII and Katherine of Aragon’s son, who was born on New Year’s Day, and who was also called Henry.

    Baby Henry was the new heir to the throne, so his birth, and the tournament festivities, were very important events.

    London was filled with celebrations, which we can see on the Westminster Tournament Roll.

    There were trumpeters, there was jousting and extravagant gowns. Guns were fired, the city bells were rung and beacons were lit across the country.

    Sadly, the royal baby died just over a month later.

    The Westminster Tournament Roll is made up of 36 individual pieces of stretched animal skin, called vellum, that was sewn together.

    It’s over eighteen metres long – that’s about the same length as two buses.

    The Westminster Tournament Roll is an important visual record of Tudor life.

    It also includes the oldest picture we have of a named Black person living in Britain.

    Who was John Blanke?

    John Blanke was a royal trumpeter who worked at the courts of King Henry VII and King Henry VIII.

    He may have come to Britain with King Henry VIII’s wife Katherine of Aragon, in 1501.

    He’s shown in the Westminster Tournament Roll twice.

    Although written records show Black people in Britain as far back as Roman times, John Blanke’s portrait in the Westminster Tournament Roll is the earliest known image of a named Black person living in Britain, and it is the only known portrait of a Black Tudor.

    Trumpeters played an important role in court ceremony, as they announced the arrival of the king.

    Blanke must have been an excellent musician to have been selected to play for the king, especially at such an important event.

    He must also have been a skilled horseman to be able to control his horse while playing the trumpet.

    Written records show that in 1509, Blanke managed to negotiate a big pay rise. And three years later, the king gave him some fine violet cloth and a hat to wear at his wedding.

    These things suggest John was important in the king’s court.

    There are no other known portraits of the many Black people living and working in Britain during the Tudor period.

    This is one of the reasons why John Blanke and the Westminster Tournament Roll are so important in British history.

Learning objectives

  1. Explore who John Blanke was, and why he is important.
  1. Discover what the Westminster Tournament Roll is, and why it is a useful source.

Watch and discuss

    • The Westminster Tournament was a festival held to celebrate the birth of King Henry VIII and Katherine of Aragon’s son Henry.
    • Baby Henry was heir to the throne, so his birth and the tournament were very important.
    • The roll was painted to record what happened.
    • John Blanke was a trumpet player who worked for King Henry VII and King Henry VIII.
    • In his time, John Blanke had an important job, working for the king. He was skilled at playing a trumpet while riding a horse and was given a pay rise and wedding gifts by King Henry VIII.
    • John Blanke is also important to historians today. This is because there are no other known portraits of any of the many Black people who lived in Tudor Britain.
    • John Blanke’s portrait on the Westminster Tournament Roll gives us a unique insight into the life and work of a Black person in Tudor Britain.