What was the cultural makeup of Tudor and Stuart England? If one were to judge on readily available sources—portraits from the time period—it would seem that everyone was white and wealthy. This is not the case at all. Yes, the majority of English society was white, but England had been trading with other countries for centuries, and as a consequence, people of other nationalities, religions and races were part of the fabric of Tudor society. But how did they fit in with the native English? The answers may surprise you.
Today, we often focus on race and ethnicity as the primary differentiator among people, but for the Tudors, it was religion that divided a good Englishman from his enemies. Thus, Africans appear to us to be the most different from white, early modern English people, but as long as they were Christians, the English had little problem with them. Yes, many were employed in households of noblemen, but they were employed, not enslaved- a critical difference. While there are documented incidents of slave trade during the Tudor period, England’s active engagement in the slave trade did not begin, in earnest, until the end of the 17th century. Africans worked in Tudor England in a variety of skilled jobs including tradesmen, royal trumpeter, and salvage diver. While racism towards those with a different skin tone existed, it had not yet been codified by writers and statesmen into baseless logic spouted by future generations. Black people, often called ‘blackamoors,’ a reference to the dark-skinned Spaniards of Islamic descent, were often baptized into the Anglican church and married (white) English people. Tudor Englishmen may have considered Africans as “other”, but their most fervent discrimination on people who looked a lot more like Englishmen.
Looking at English history, it becomes very obvious, very quickly, that the English did not like most of their neighbors—most notably, the French, Spanish, and Irish. England distrusted Spain for a myriad of reasons. First of all, Spain was a powerful country, bent on world domination. They had an excellent navy and were willing to sail to new, unknown ports and conquer them in the name of Spain and God. Equally important was the fact that Spain was a wholly Catholic country. Once England split from the Catholic Church split during the reign of Henry VIII, Catholics became the enemy. These fears culminated in the greatest English fear of all: that Spain would take over the country and insist on a return to the Catholic faith. Consequently, the two rival nations were at war with one another from the 1585-1604 (this included the defeat of the Spanish Armada), and then again, at regular intervals until 1840. This constant warfare contributed to England’s negative perception of Spain and propaganda against Spain shaped public perception about the country and its people. It may, in turn, have contributed to some prejudice against Africans, many of whom came to England by way of Spain.
Even closer to home was another Catholic threat: Ireland. Made a part of the English kingdom in 1541, the intense hatred English people felt towards Ireland resulted in violent campaigns to quash rebellions, resulting in tens of thousands of men, women, and children being murdered through state sanctioned violence. This was an attempt to control a population which was seen as backwards, animal-like savages. The English had outlandish ideas about the Irish people which made them seem racially inferior. The Irish’s primary sin was their fervent Catholicism, but it was far from their only one according to the English: they were all thieves, the men were abusive to the women, but, somehow at the same time, the women controlled the men, they were incestuous, polygamists, alcoholics and worse. Ireland’s alliance with Spain was another mark against the country. Overall, England believed itself to be the civilizing power while Ireland was the other. As Irish civilians tried to gain more power for themselves, English lords stationed in Ireland began using negative propaganda, illustrating the Irish people as barbaric savages, to turn the English against the Irish. Irish uprisings were met with a violently murderously response. No number of exactly how many Irish men, women and children were killed in these uprisings is recorded, but, on the low end, it is estimated to be at least 45,000. Other groups of people and areas of the English kingdom rebelled, but only in Ireland did the Crown employ a ‘scorched-earth’ policy to take care of any uprisings. This makes it obvious that there was a deep-seeded hatred towards the whole of the population.
By the end of Queen Elizabeth I’s reign, England had made contact with various cultures throughout the world. Under King James I, England would make its first forays into the New World, settling areas with previously unknown groups of people. Colonizers often had violent and deadly reactions to these unknown people, perceived as lesser, the ‘other,’ or ‘barbaric, as they spoke different languages, had different skin tones, and, generally, lived in a totally different way than to what early modern Englishmen were accustomed. Furthermore, England’s involvement with slave trade and its use of Black slave labor in its colonies negatively impacted its attitudes towards Blacks. This was racism at its finest, culled from decades of violence towards the Irish and intense hatred towards others closer to home. However, during the early modern era in England, these opinions had not yet crystallized. Your skin color was not what made you different; it was your nationality and religion that marked you as lesser and ‘other.’ All proof that attitudes can change.