Reasonable Blackman: the story of a Black silk weaver, based on the book Black Tudors by Miranda Kaufmann
Black history is a much-neglected part of British history, and we do not often hear about Black weavers when researching silk mills, so we were fascinated to discover a black silk weaver living in Tudor London. Miranda Kaufmann’s book Black Tudors (2017) explore the untold stories of Black Tudors she has uncovered from the Tudor period. This is the story of Reasonable Blackman.
Reasonable Blackman was a silk weaver living in London in the area of Southwark, which at that time was known for its alehouses and brothels. Kauffman supposes that his unusual name could have been a nickname due to his ‘reasonable’ prices. His surname may have been a nod to his skin colour, as last names such as ‘Blackmore’ and ‘More’ were often taken by Africans living in England, but they are not a true indicator of ethnicity as they were also used by men who were not of African descent. However, we can be sure that Reasonable was Black as he was described as being a ‘blackmor’ and ‘a blackmore’ on parish registers.
Reasonable was a freeman in England and did not have a master due to his level of skill. The slave trade did not come to England until the 1640’s, so we can be sure of Reasonable’s freedom. Although this did not stop employers and masters in England treating their staff like slaves, nor did it stop some Englishmen from actively participating in transporting people from Africa to condemn them to slavery.
We do not know exactly which African country Reasonable came from, but during this time he was living in an area of London where many of the silk weavers came from the Netherlands (a centre for cloth production in the Tudor period). Many Africans ended up in the Netherlands due to its relationship with Spain, who actively traded slaves and ruled over the Netherlands. It is not unknown for slaves to be freed in the Netherlands, and had he been a slave, this could have happened with Reasonable. The Revolt of the Netherlands (which eventually) led to the Thirty Years War meant that 50,000 refugees fled to England; silk weavers included, so this could explain how Blackman ended up living in England.
The silk industry during the Tudor period was under huge development in England. Spain had invented the steel needle, which was much finer than the bone, ivory or wood needles used in England, and this created a much finer fabric. Queen Elizabeth I declared “I like silk stockings well; they are pleasant, fine and delicate. Henceforth I will wear no more cloth stockings”. Thereafter her courtiers wore silk as a definition of their status, and it was illegal to wear it if one did not have the correct social standing. A 1533 edict prohibited the wearing of silk and other expensive fabrics for those who earned less than £100 a year. However, those who could afford the material would ignore the law, and those that could not afford a whole garment, would wear silk accessories. In response to this, a further law in 1554 was brought in to forbid the wearing of silk accessories too. Those who broke the law, henceforth would be fined £10 per day for each time they wore the accessory or item of clothing, as well as three months in prison! A hefty punishment for wearing the wrong clothes!
Silk, it seems, had become very fashionable and its success meant that raw silk imports went up 5 times between 1560-1593. The best silk was imported from Italy, but the weavers from the Netherlands tended to mix their silk with linen or wool to make it cheaper to buy, and the fabric made from this mix would be used for handkerchiefs, or as lining for clothing or bed curtains.
A blossoming silk trade would have led to the weavers having a steady trade, and therefore Blackman was able to marry in 1587. The marriage itself is significant as it proves that he had some wealth, because he was able to provide a home for his wife and the four children they had. It is likely that his wife was a white Englishwoman, because although there was a Black population in London at the time, it was still rather small compared with other European countries. Unfortunately, there is limited information about his wife; we do not even know her name. Fathers were the only ones named on Tudor birth certificates, so she is not even mentioned in reference to the children she bore.
Sadly, the couple lost two of their children, Jane and Edmund, in the 1592 plague (one of the nine plague outbreaks between 1540 and 1666, and although serious, these were not nearly as devasting as the infamous Black Death in 1348). To put it into perspective, in the week that the children died, a total of 198 people in London perished from the plague.
Measures were brought in to try and halt the plague, much like what we have been experiencing in COVID-19 lockdowns, by preventing large gatherings by closing the theatres and cancelling the inauguration ceremonies of the new Mayor of London. Funerals did not take place in the normal fashion due to the large numbers that had died, and burials would take place at the end of the day, when less people were around. Often the bodies would be placed in mass graves. The Blackman children were fortunate though, as they were buried in the parish churchyard, suggesting they may have also received some of the usual Christian burial rites.
The curate of St Olaves, where the Blackmans lived, angrily blamed the people for the spread of the plague, as he felt they did not appreciate the contagious nature of the disease. Once it was discovered their children were ill, the Blackman house had their door closed up and marked with a red cross to show their house was under quarantine. Being confined to his house would have caused Reasonable significant issues for his business, without the ability to work when one was a working man, would have no doubt caused a level of anxiety, especially as this was a time long before government support!
Other sources of anxiety would have come from the anti-foreign feeling that emerged as people sought to place blame on the introduction of the plague to England. Although there is no evidence this was directed towards Africans, there was significant ill feeling towards the Belgians, the French and the Dutch, to the point that abuse would be written on their churches, but luckily no violence ensued as the persecutors were swiftly dealt with by the Mayor of London.
Sadly, after the death of his children, we do not hear any more about Reasonable Blackman, but there is a reference to an Edward Blackman who worked as a silk weaver in Spitalfields, which would eventually become the centre of the silk trade in London. Edward is of the correct age to be Reasonable’s son, and it is nice to think that his son would have taken up the same trade as his father.
This article has been written by Amy Hammett, Marketing and Social Media Volunteer. This blog post is based on the book Black Tudors by Miranda Kauffman, where you can find a whole chapter dedicated to Reasonable Blackman. For more information on the book and the author Miranda Kauffman click the links below:
Image credit: www.mirandakaufmann.com