“lol they must have at least one black actor everywhere these times”
“Is it always necessary to introduce a black Character in every historical drama. It destroys the authenticity of the shows especially since black characters were incredibly rare in the Elizabethan era.”
These are just a couple of comments I came across after the official trailer for Becoming Elizabeth – a show on which I worked as historical consultant – was released on 21 April.
Questionable employment of English grammar and syntax aside, I find such comments interesting.
I should stress at the outset that I am not an expert in black history. There are many excellent resources out there by real experts, and for those interested in black Tudor history I can heartily recommend Black Tudors by Miranda Kaufmann.
To my mind, though, two issues are at stake here, and they should not be mixed up, as they so often are:
1. The presumed whiteness of Tudor society
2. The value and validity of colour-blind casting
The first has to do with historical authenticity, and the second with creativity.
The above quotes were made in reference to a character named Pedro, depicted splendidly by Ekow Quartey, and I confess to gleaning smug satisfaction from pointing out that this was no ‘token black character’ invented and inserted for political correctness. Pedro was a real and fascinating man – a mercenary knight who became deeply embroiled in the British military conflicts of the 1540s. Pedro was black.
One of the exciting aspects of Becoming Elizabeth is the extent to which it sheds light on characters not often depicted in Tudor drama. Characters who are commonly secondary are pulled front and centre – people like the Seymour brothers, John Dudley, Katherine Parr, Jane Grey (rarely depicted prior to her short stint on the throne), even Mary and Edward. This leaves room to introduce men and women hardly ever – if ever – depicted: people like Sir Pedro.
Pictured: Ekow Quartey who plays Sir Pedro in ‘Becoming Elizabeth’
The fact that Pedro was black is really neither here nor there. But for the purpose of this article, it is both here and there, because it helps prove a much under-appreciated truth:
Black people were common in Tudor society.
Yes these people were usually ‘servants’, but that does not mean the lowest of the low. We must remember two things: (1) that servants of royalty or of the great men and women of the realm were themselves people of importance and influence, and (2) in Tudor society everybody below the king was a servant.
The institution of slavery, by the way, did not exist in mediaeval England. There are several 16th-century examples of slaves coming to England with their masters, and suing for freedom (successfully!) upon arrival, on the grounds that slavery was not a recognised status.
Miranda Kaufmann’s excellent book illuminates a number of black men and women who were of formidable social status, independently wealthy, and even close to court circles.
Pictured: an unnamed senior courtier of the Hapsburgs
I shan’t go into more detail here: there isn’t the space, and what’s the point anyway? Go and read Kaufmann’s book. It’s a great read – not just for academics.
But it bears saying again: black people were common in Tudor society.
To colour-blind casting.
This isn’t the place for me to have no opinion. I have an opinion. I think the best actor should be cast for the role. In my humble opinion (I can hear my father laugh at that), Jodie Turner-Smith played Anne Boleyn every bit as well as has Claire Foy, Helena Bonham Carter, and Genevieve Bujold.
I do have sympathy for the argument that the aesthetic can be jarring. But is that because it is inauthentic? or is it because we have become accustomed – artificially – to a monochromatic depiction of history?
Pictured: Jodie Turner-Smith as Anne Boleyn
For more on stretching historical fact on TV, read