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Exploring Visual Sources

Watch the Interview with Michael Ohajuru about John Blanke the Trumpeter and the Westminster Tournament Roll.
Hello, I’m Dr. Miranda Kaufmann, author of Black Tudors, and today I’m delighted to be talking to my old friend and esteemed colleague Michael Oharjuru, hello, Michael. Hi, Miranda. Great to be here today to share my passion with you. Tell us more about your work, Michael, and how you came to this subject. Well, as I said this is my passion, the black presence in Renaissance Europe in general, and in Britain in particular, and John Blanke is special to my practice. And the fact that he’s the first Black African, the first person of Black African descent in Britain, for whom we have both an image and a record, which is, it is exceptional. And I want to use the word uniqueness.
He is the first, there may be others, but they’ve not discovered them yet. So, so going to the Westminster Tournament Roll, I think we ought to start by just saying how special and unique a record it is. And we were lucky enough to see it in the flesh, weren’t we, with Bonnie Greer a couple of years ago? Aw that was exceptional, because it’s almost a once in a generation thing. They bring that, they bring it out, because it’s so precious and fragile. And to actually see the real thing, having studied it for almost, almost fifteen years now I’ve been looking at this, looking at the picture. But to see it in the flesh, so to speak.
It’s quite an emotional experience. Yeah, I think you almost cried didn’t you Michael? Yeah, because I’d seem it so many times, and we went to see the real thing. And what’s fascinating about it, there’s two images on there. There’s John Blanke appears in the Roll, because this is, a list of the Tournament is a sensational document, sixty foot long, celebrating the birth of, a joust called to celebrate the birth of Henry the Eighth’s son, to Katherine of Aragon, on New Year’s Day that year, 1511. This is February, it’s winter, st ill a bit cold, but they’re having this joust to celebrate him.
And, I know we’ve had discussions about this Miranda, I argue this is Henry the Eighth, doing Brexit in reverse. Showing how big he is in Europe. He’s celebrating the birth of his son, but at the same time, looking at the magnificence of his court. And in that document, you see it there, in terms of all that majesty and pomp, you know, I love that. I love the analogy, would you say, if it was the Olympic Games, you know, what was it? The opening ceremony will be two weeks. The Games would be one or two days, and the closing ceremony would be a week. So it’s not about the games, or the joust.
It’s about celebrating his court and his gentleman in the court, and all the pomp, to the rest of Europe, you know. Yeah and it’s all that sort of procession feeling, it’s very erm, it’s like that whole idea of precedence, as well isn’t it? Where you came in the procession was very important in terms of your social status. Oh, yes. Literally, here comes the King and John Blanke was part of that, because the King, when the king comes, there’s trumpets, literally the trumpets as here comes the Ling, there goes the King. And John Blanke’s at the front of that.
Well, it’s led by Sergeant at Arms, you know, he’s got the armoury to destroy Europe or the world, or take the world on. But then the trumpets are announced, and that first picture of John Blanke, is the most, the one in least condition, or is the worst state. It’s not the celebrated one, the one we see, it’s the end, or the closing ceremony John Blanke. But that moment, I saw in the flesh, it’s a much more delicate portrayal, and it’s hard to explain, because the photographs do not do it justice, the real thing justice.
Because there’s still something in there, because this is a it’s a manual process, this isn’t a print, you stamp on, someone’s actually taken some time to draw it in, to draw the images, it looks, it looks very real. And I guess we’ll touch on it now, put it up there now, it’s got two hands, the hand you can see is brown. And we’ll talk about that later on, because the hand we see on, in the closing ceremony image is white. We could discuss that. But why? Because is it a glove? Did the artist get, run out of time? What happened? Well yeah, I prefer, and I like your argument, because, no disrespect, only a woman could think of this.
In the sense that, sense that, by the time this had finished, the baby had died. So, this document was of no interest to Henry at all now. So that the quality assurance that they would have done to make sure everything is perfect, it wasn’t done. Because in that closing scene, the closing image of John Blanke, which is the most celebrated one, the most sought after one from the College of Arms, I argue is incomplete. But you argue, and I’ll go along with you, this, this incompleteness, was due, because nobody wanted to finish off, to finish it, because if you look carefully at the, at the at the six trumpeters, the only difference between them and John Blanke, is the head.
The heads of the other six are virtually the same. It’s a stock image that they put on, and the, they change the head for John Blanke. And if you look carefully, it’s not quite in proportion, but at least he’s there, he’s celebrated, there was a black presence there, with that white hand. And I don’t believe it’s a glove, we maybe talk about the glove later on, when we talk about there’s some European elites of the time, the contemporary with them. They would have had those kid gloves, those fine kid gloves. Where they’re so fine you actually see the the skin through them.
But I think what’s interesting there, as you were sort of touching on, is that all the other trumpeters look exactly the same. And, that’s another thing that’s so special about those two images of John Blanke, is that they they feel like they’re a portrait. You know, they’ve made an effort to draw somebody with a real person. And, I think as you’ve said, actually in that whole sixty foot long document, there are only really three people who are really identifiable, portrayed as themselves. And you know, who are the other two? Well, is this a test?
The other day, well, Henry the Eighth, you recognise him, the king, and then Katherine of Aragon on the bed there, still not fully recovered from having the baby earlier in the year. You used the word portraiture, portraiture hadn’t quite happened at the English court. You know, Holbein wasn’t coming, 1520’s still a little way away. So, at this time, to have a recognisable, ordinary person, other than a king, is exceptional. Because at the time, you recognise people in documents by the coat of arms. So, looking more carefully at those two images of John Blanke , erm what can they tell us about him as a person, if we’re reading them closely?
Well, the first thing, I know it’s a trifling, but he was exceptional. Not just because of his colour, but the fact he was allowed to dress differently. You know, that turban, now he’s obviously a Christian, because he wouldn’t have been allowed to be part of the court. And he did get married the following year, and you’d have to be Christian to get married anyroad. Exactly. But the fact that he was celebrated, I’m using the word myself, celebrated, to be allowed to do that. The king, or the court, valued him enough to create some of his own personality. He was good enough to be himself. So we’ve got two things here.
One, the artist portraying, the scribe, righteously portraying differences, the difference, the exception, John Blanke is. But also, the court allowing him to do that, allowing him to be himself. So you have some sense of personality. And when you link that to the petition, when you petition for more wages, a wage increase, and he was quite forthright in his kind of his position and his value to the court. You know, you have a man of some circumstance, who knew who he was and knew he was valued. And in turn, the court respected that. They paid him more and they let him wear that turban, all signs that he was a little bit special.
So do you think the turban can tell us anything about where, in Africa, he might have originated, or what his religion might have been before? The short answer is no. I’m being flippant here, because the turban is Eastern, it’s Mediterranean, it’s African dress. It’s that apparel, that they would have worn. And there’s an Islamic touch to it, because Islam was the religion of North Africa and some of the fashions. But equally, Henry the Eighth used to like to dress up in Eastern, in Eastern fashion.
So, that hat, that, his headwear, was only just for, not quite a fashion thing, for people accepted that you could wear Eastern, Eastern Mediterranean wear, you could have the exoticism that was part of part of the court, so it wasn’t that special. But given that it’s a different colour in each image, do you think he wore one colour on day one of the tournament, and the other colour on day two? I mean, I think that’s just decay in terms of the quality of the inks that they use, when you look at them. Because that’s badly degraded, that first image, it’s gone brown, an ugly. Where, it’s green and bright. It’s still my favourite one, the first one.
I’m with you on that. There’s like some humanity in there, you know . Well, and that’s the magic of art. I think, another thing that struck me when I was gazing at it for hours was that, was that, it would have taken quite a lot of skill to play the trumpet while riding a horse. Miranda, I was introduced to that concept because, I do, I take this John Blanke into schools, colleges, into primary schools, and I get them to draw and imagine John Blanke. And one of the kids made the point, he must have been strong, to actually sit on the horse, holding the horse one hand, and play the trumpet the other. I never thought about that, you’re right.
Just the physical skill, to hold on to the horse and that long trumpet or bugle in front. So yeah, I can talk to you about this for hours, but we don’t have time right this week. But I’m looking forward to speaking to you again next week and putting, putting, this image of that broader European context we were talking about. And looking at some of those images of Africans in European art, and talking about what that can tell us about the broader context of the Black Tudors in Europe. Well, thank you, for sharing my passion. And we only just touched on this. We touched on it. But thank you very much indeed Miranda.
Well, if you want to learn more about Michael’s passion for John Blanke, visit his website John Blanke Project, www. JohnBlacke. Com.

Dr Miranda Kaufmann and writer and art historian Michael Ohajuru discuss John Blanke the Trumpeter and the Westminster Tournament Roll in this video.

In the discussion Miranda Kaufmann and Michael Ohajuru investigate the background to the Westminster Tournament Roll and ask questions about the depiction of John Blanke.

After watching the interview, we’d like you to take a closer look at the images of John Blanke and the Westminster Tournament Roll in the previous steps.


Reflect on anything you noticed after examining the images of John Blanke and the Westminster Tournament Roll more closely.

  • Take a look at detail such as John Blanke’s clothes, turban, horse and his fellow trumpeters. What do these details tell us about John Blanke’s employment, status and freedom?

  • What’s your personal response to the portrait of John Blanke and the background of the Westminster Tournament Challenge?

Later this week you will look in more detail at the manuscript sources which reveal details about the wages and expenses of John Blanke, but first we look at how he might have arrived in Tudor England.

Michael Ohajuru (2020) Before and After the Eighteenth Century: The John Blanke Project, in ‘Britain’s Black Past’, ed. Gretchen Gerzina, Liverpool University Press. pp. 7-26.
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