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14 Oct 2020

Africans at the court of James IV

Written by Jennifer Melville, Project Leader for Facing Our Past
Falkland Palace in autumn, with a large tree in front, its leaves on the ground.
Falkland Palace in Fife
It’s Black History Month and, as we launch the Facing Our Past project, we focus on Africans who were known to be part of the royal Scottish court in the early 1500s.

It’s often assumed that African people arrived in Scotland in the 18th century, or even later. But in fact Africans were resident in Scotland much earlier, and in the early 16th century they were high-status members of the royal retinue. This is clearly recorded at the court of James IV (1473–1513). One African, ‘Petir the Moryen’ (Peter the ‘Moor’) seemed to have had a special relationship with the king – he was free to travel and was given five French crowns at the king’s request for a journey to France.

James IV was an enlightened and cultured ruler who, from 1501, continued the transformation of his old castle at Falkland into a beautiful Renaissance royal palace. Falkland became a popular retreat for the Stewart monarchs. They used the surrounding forests for hawking, and hunting deer and wild boar.

Detail from a tapestry showing a man riding a horse, blowing on a horn.
Detail from 17th-century Flemish tapestries with rural hunting scenes, purchased by Lord Ninian Crichton Stuart in the early 20th century for Falkland Palace

In September 1504, James IV was entertained at Falkland by fiddlers, lutists and an African drummer. The unnamed African drummer also travelled with the king. He had been present on the king’s raid in Eskdale earlier that year and, together with ‘four Italien menstrales’ (Italian minstrels), was taken to provide entertainment at visits to Peblis (Peebles), Dumfreis (Dumfries), Brechin and Faulklands (Falkland), where lodgings were paid for him. The drummer had a family and in the court records there’s mention of a payment to the ‘More taubronaris wif and his barne’ (the African drummer’s wife and child).

On 25 January 1503, James IV married Margaret Tudor (1489–1541), daughter of the English King Henry VII. Three years later, in 1506, when two enslaved African women arrived in Leith, they were presented as ‘gifts’ to King James IV. According to contemporary records they had been rescued (more accurately seized) from a Portuguese ship by Scottish privateers, the Barton brothers. Andrew and Robert Barton were Scottish sailors from Leith who imported valuable cargo for James IV, including blue damask cloth and timber for the ceiling of the chapel at the Palace of Holyroodhouse in 1504. The brothers furthered this royal patronage by presenting the two African women to the king. The ploy worked. In July 1507, James IV revived the practice of issuing a letter of marque, granting the Bartons the right to seize Portuguese ships and their contents (the brothers’ privateering father John Barton had been issued with a similar letter by James III in the 1490s).

The ‘Moorish lasses’ were presented to King James IV, ‘who not only accepted the gift but took the greatest interest in their welfare’ and they were incorporated into the queen’s household. They were later converted to Christianity and baptised as Margaret and Ellen (or Helen), their real names and country of origin lost to history. One of the women, probably Helen, became one of Queen Margaret’s attendants and was described as the ‘Quenis blak madin’. She was awarded the favoured position, reserved for the most beautiful lady of the court, of becoming the lady of the ‘tournament of the black knight’, with King James IV overcoming opponents to win her hand.

No images exist of James IV’s tournaments but we do know that they were magnificent and expensive spectacles. ‘The justing of the wyld knicht for the blak lady’ was held in June 1507 and again in May 1508. The invitation to one of the tournaments that was sent to France was illuminated with gold leaf and gave details of the events to be held at Edinburgh.

In 1507, the ‘Black Lady’s’ gown was made from Flanders damask figured with flowers, bordered with yellow and green taffeta, with outer sleeves of black gauze, and inner sleeves and gloves of black leather, and she wore a drape of the same black gauze about her shoulders and arms. In 1508, the costume was renewed with a green woollen skirt and new leather sleeves and gloves. William Ogilvy and Alexander Elphinstone served as ‘Squires of the Black Lady’ and dressed in white damask they escorted her from Edinburgh Castle to the field of the tournament. James IV himself played the part of the ‘Wild’ or ‘Savage Knight’.

William Dunbar’s contemporary poem Of Ane Blak-Moir immortalised Helen’s role in the tournament. He must have met people of various European nations at the Scottish court, but the presence of an African woman, albeit decreed the most beautiful at court, led him to adopt a mocking and racist tone throughout the five stanzas of this poem, with recurring negative descriptions of her facial features. The poem now serves as not only a window into a bygone courtly life but also as a sad indictment of Scottish perceptions to race revealed in what is possibly the first poem of this type to be written about an African woman in the English language.

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