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John Blanke, Black Trumpeter

It appears that John Blanke, a Black trumpeter, was a regular musician at the courts of both Henry VII and Henry VIII. Musicians' payments were noted in the accounts of the Treasurer of the Chamber, who was responsible for paying the wages. There are several payments recorded to a 'John Blanke, the blacke trumpeter'. This trumpeter was paid 8d a day, first by Henry VII and then from 1509 by Henry VIII.

On New Year's Day 1511 King Henry VIII was presented with a son by his wife, Catherine of Aragon. As was the tradition to celebrate major festivals such as coronations and royal births and marriages, Henry held a great tournament at Westminster.

Trumpeters in the Westminster Tournament Roll showing John Blanke - opens new window
The Black Trumpeter
at Henry VIII's Tournament

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Exchequer payment to John Blanke - opens new window
Pay Day for
John Blanke
Document | Transcript


Tournaments were a continuation of a tradition that gained popularity during the Roman era. They were originally a form of military training: games and exercises designed to instil discipline into young men and teach them the art of bearing arms. Tournaments later developed into an art form, combining elements of drama, music and poetry.

By the early 12th century across northern Europe, tournaments had become a kind of team game. Each team comprised a company of knights under the leadership of the lord whom they followed and served in times of war. Tournaments also had a chivalric and romantic side. Ladies in the tournament audience had a chance to see their heroes prove their prowess, strength and courage (or not, as the case may be), and the knights in their turn hoped to win over the affections of the ladies by their displays.

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The Westminster Tournament Roll

From the 15th century there was a growing desire to depict spectacles and ceremonials and record them for posterity. Henry VIII wanted such a pictorial record made of his tournament to mark the birth of his male child. He commissioned the Westminster Tournament Roll, a unique treasure held at the College of Arms. It is a pictorial illuminated manuscript, a continuous roll approximately 60 feet long. It is a narrative of the beginning, middle and end of the tournament, which took place over two days.

In the Westminster Tournament Roll, the king occupies a prominent position. Henry is shown surrounded by a host of footmen, officials and dignitaries, a mace bearer, a crowd of nobles, the officers of arms and six trumpeters. Among the latter is a Black man. He appears twice on the Roll: once on the way from the court and again on the way back. According to the historian Sydney Anglo, he is almost certainly John Blanke, the 'blacke trumpeter' mentioned in the Treasurer's accounts.

Henry VIII's tournament was a costly extravaganza, and here we find a Black man included in one of the most magnificent pageants of his time, dressed formally as a mounted musician, perhaps also belonging to the equestrian corps of the court.


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References and Further Reading

Anglo, S., The Great Tournament Roll of Westminster: Historical Introduction, Oxford, 1968

Anglo, S., The Great Tournament Roll of Westminster: A Collotype Reproduction of the Manuscript, Oxford, 1968

Barber, R. and Barker, J., Tournaments: Jousts, Chivalry and Pageants in the Middle Ages, Suffolk, 1989

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