Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Question from Dan - Slaves in Henry VIII's England

Did Henry VIII, or any of his courtiers, have slaves?


Foose said...

Some of the scholarship on Catherine of Aragon indicates that the queen brought at least a few slaves in her train to England - Thomas More noted some in her train who were "pigmy Ethiopians ... like devils out of hell." Originally he was thought to be describing the Christian Spaniards from a xenophobic point of view, but more current is the belief is that these individuals may have been captive enslaved Moors (Spanish Muslims of North African origin).

I'm not quite sure whether these individuals, who arrived in England as Catherine's slaves, would have passed into Henry's (or Prince Arthur's) ownership under English marriage laws or the terms of the marriage treaty negotiated with Spain. In Letters & Papers one Catalina is described in 1531 as "the Queen's slave and bedmaker"; she is being sought as a witness in Henry's Divorce:

"The interrogatories, which are sent separately, must be put to a woman called Catalina, who was slave to the queen of England, and served her in her chamber. She was married at Valdazcaray to a man who made crossbows, named Oviedo, and afterwards lived at Malaga, where her husband died. She then went to live with her two daughters at Motril, her native town..."

Perhaps Catalina was freed, or perhaps was sent to Spain, still a slave, after Catherine married Henry (the document notes "she was present at the second marriage"). She's the only actual slave I can find mentioned inL&P but there may have been others. Perhaps the absence of other mentions suggests that the slaves all were sent back to Spain after Catherine's marriage to Henry.

Cardinal Wolsey, Sir Anthony St. Leger, Geoffrey Pole, Sir Clement West and Princess Mary have letters extant in L&P where they describe themselves or sign their letters as Henry's "slave," but of course this is rhetorical grovelling rather than an actual legal status.

Laura said...

While Britain profited greatly from the slave trade in later years, and slavery was permitted in English colonies and territories, slavery was not legal in mainland England. As Foose notes, Catherine brought a few slaves in her train, and certainly visiting diplomats and other foreigners were allowed to retain ownership of slaves brought to England, but there was no slave trade in Tudor England and no way for Englishmen to have slaves. So, in answer to your question, no, HVIII and his courtiers did not own slaves.

Foose said...

There is another category of the "unfree" that existed in England under Henry VIII - the bondmen, also called serfs or villeins.

An essay by Diarmaid MacCulloch, "Bondmen Under the Tudors" (in Law and Government Under the Tudors, ed. Claire Cross, David Loades, J. Scarisbrick) offers some interesting snippets:

"For serfdom was an institution surprisingly tenacious and widespread during the early Tudor age...

"There is no doubt that letters of manumission were still being commonly granted to villeins by royal and private lords throughout the sixteenth century ...

"I can say that on the day that King Richard III was alive and dead" (Bosworth, I assume) "there was a minimum of four hundred manors in thirty English counties and in Wales which retained serfs. In the first decade of Elizabeth's reign, there were still one hundred manors in twenty-one English counties and in Wales ..."

Per the question of which courtiers might have owned these unfree individuals, MacCulloch mentions:

"...in 1485 well over half the manors known to retain villeins were in the hands of the crown or private lay lords" (the clergy, presumably, accounting for the rest)

"...Among secular lords, the Howard family was as tenacious of villeins on its manor as any ecclesiastic" (there apparently has been a traditional scholarly belief that the clergy was particularly reluctant to free their serfs, although MacCulloch disputes this)

So perhaps Henry VIII did own slaves, in a sense, although the bondmen's legal status was likely to be superior in rights and social mobility (MacCulloch includes examples of villeins earning knighthoods and other honors) to that of the traditional "slave" we typically think of as a foreigner kidnapped from their native country.

Laura said...

I agree, Foose, and certainly debtor's prisons and poorhouses were another sort of slavery. I'm not sure if they were as common during HVIII's reign as they were a century or so later. When you think of whole families incarcerated because they couldn't pay debts, it's disgusting. But if we are talking about slavery in terms of the buying and selling of people, of HVIII and his courtiers did not own slaves.