In the middle ages, a time where there was no “capital city” for the Scottish kingdom, the royal court served as such. Emerging in the tenth century, the Scottish Royal Court became the political, administrative, cultural and artistic center of the Kingdom of Scotland occupied by several consecutive kings. However, when James VI inherited the throne, the kingship of Scotland was merged with the kingship of England and Ireland, and the Royal Court of Scotland no longer remained a separate institution to its equivalent in England and Ireland.
In 1488, King James IV inherited the throne of Scotland. James IV was known as a fun-loving enthusiastic king with a myriad of interests. He welcomed and enjoyed the company of popular artists and singers, which was stated in his official records through the accounts of “lively entertainment” that took place in the royal court. He had a large assortment of foreign people among his court, many of whom were from Italy, which at the time had more Africans than any other European country. A considerable number of the people in his court were indigenous African Europeans, who were renowned scholars, alchemists, astrologers, poets and a wide range of musicians including both African and Italians musicians and dancers. Some were present in the court as hired employees while others were invited as honourable guests.
Africans frequented the Scottish Royal Court not as servants but rather, as skilled employees. To the ruling class, musicians and entertainers were highly valued over all other skilled workers. In 1505, James IV employed in his court several African drummers and choreographers for he appreciated their exotic skills in music and dancing. The person referred to as the” Moor Taubroner” or the “African drummer” is repeatedly mentioned in the accounts of James IV, which only shows how important he was to the king as we will see when we discuss it in the Treasurer’s accounts later in the article.
Similarly, the Royal Courts of England under the reign of King Henry VII and Henry VIII had African employees; the most famous among them was John Blanke (1500s). In the “Westminster Tournament Scroll” which can be found in the UK National Archives, it is stated that Blanke was a skilled musician who was paid on a daily basis, and it was also stated that he played the trumpet at one of the most important royal ceremonies in 1510 which is portrayed in the image below.
One of the noted festive events that took place in the Scottish Royal Court and displays the strong presence of Africans in the court is the “Tournament of the Wild Knight and the Black Lady”. The tournament would normally last for five weeks and was held for several years. In the tournament, the king would disguise himself as the wild knight to demonstrate his swordsman skills, and the winner of the tournament (which was usually the king himself) was to receive a kiss from the black lady who was dressed in a lavishly beautiful attire and was carried around in a chair and courted by four people; two squires and two girls.
Among the records that relate to James IV, there are many references to African people whose exact jobs are not clearly stated, but we do know that they had jobs and were given generous wages too. These include Peter the Moor, Helen Moor, Margret Moor and the Moor Lasses. It is recorded that a doctor attending to a Moor Taubroner (drummer) for a couple of weeks was paid 35 shillings, while Peter the Moor was paid £3 for his services in the court. The clear difference in the amount of paid compensation clearly shows how much the king valued the court’s African employees.
King James IV’s Treasurer’s accounts contain entries for payments given to African people in the Scottish Royal Court. Some of these are listed below;
- In 1505, for the Shrove Tuesday celebrations, an African taubronar and an African choreographer were hired, as well as twelve dancers (some of which were Italians) who performed in black & white costumes, specially made at a cost of £13 2s 10d.
- In 1504-5, the African taubronar was given 28 shillings to get his drum painted.
- James IV bought this African taubronar a horse costing £4 and 4 shillings, in order to accompany him on his tours to the northern parts of his provinces.
The Treasurer’s accounts also contain entries of gifts given to African ladies, which indicates that they were people of high rank in the society since items such as satin-made gowns, slippers, gloves and ribbons were gifted by the king himself.
- In 1512, blak Elene was given 5 French crowns, costing £3.5.
- In 1513, blak Margret was given a gown, costing 48 shillings.
- In 527, blak Helenor was given 60 shillings.
- The blak maiden attending to Queen Margaret was given 4 ¼ ells (about 18 inches) of French russet.
- Two blak ladies who were staying at the Scottish Court, were presented with a New Year gift of 10 French crowns, costing £7.
Accounts also mention the variety of fabrics that were used to make garments for African people. The fact that they were paid for by the King’s treasury and that they were made of well-chosen materials such as velvet ‘wellus’ , wollen kersey and fine Holland linen makes it more likely that they were not servants clothing but rather, they were gifts for invited guests who were welcomed to stay at the royal palace.
Even after the ceasing of the Scottish Royal Court, references to Africans still appeared in some accounts. During the reign of James VI, it is stated that in the celebrations of the birth of his eldest son, Henry Fredrick, a handsomely-attired African man living in Edinburgh was hired to aid in pulling the chariots during the ceremonial event.
In medieval Europe, it was quite rare to see such a vivid cultural interaction, however it did exist and as opposed to common knowledge, major European countries were never homogenous, but rather, a wide range of people of all shades were present almost all the time. In another article called the King’s Fountain we highlight the presence of Africans in 16th century Portugal, in Lisbon.
- R. A. Houston, Scottish Literacy and the Scottish Identity: Illiteracy and Society in Scotland and Northern England, 1600–1800 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), ISBN 0521890888
- Dalyell, John Graham, ed., The Chronicles of Scotland by Robert Lindsay of Pitscottie, vol. 1, Edinburgh (1814)
- K. M. Brown, Noble Society in Scotland: Wealth, Family and Culture from the Reformation to the Revolutions (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2004), ISBN 0-7486-1299-8