Originally posted 19th October 2023

Alessandro de Medici - known as il Moro (the Black) for his dark complexion - was the first hereditary duke of Florence, nominated to the position by the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V following his invasion of Italy, as part of a settlement with Pope Clement VII. Clement was officially Alessandro’s cousin, but it’s most likely he was actually his father. Alessandro’s mother is believed to have been a servant (possibly, but not necessarily, a slave) in the Medici household named Simonetta. Very little is known of his childhood, but on the death of Duke Lorenzo de Medici of Urbino (not to be confused with his grandfather Lorenzo the Magnificent) in 1519 Alessandro and his cousin Ippolito, who was also illegitimate, were the only male heirs the Medici family had and Alessandro experienced a sudden elevation in status to become duke of Penne with a substantial income.

The Medici were driven out of Florence in a revolution in 1527, but Alessandro became part of Pope Clement’s political machinations. He and the emperor had been at loggerheads for years, but finally sealed the Treaty of Barcelona in 1529, agreeing on some restoration of land to the Papal States, a league of mutual defence, an imperial coronation in Rome for Charles and the protection of Medici interests: Charles would restore the Medici family to power in Florence and his own illegitimate daughter Margaret would marry Alessandro.

Initially, Ippolito was favoured to become head of the family despite the fact that he had been made a cardinal; there was precedent for a cardinal to step down and in any case they were wealthy and politically powerful men. However, Ippolito fell out with the pope and Alessandro took his place as the favourite. He was also favoured by his future father-in-law and after Charles was victorious in a seige of Florence the city’s constitution was rewritten in 1532 to declare Alessandro its hereditary duke and ruler for life.

During his life Alessandro demonstrated common sense and an interest in justice, but he also enriched himself personally with high taxes and was determined to make his authority absolute, making use of sentences of exile and a powerful new intelligence network. He was also concerned about his personal safety, surrounding himself with guards and owning multiple doublets lined with chain mail. Despite this, he was assassinated by his distant cousin Lorenzino, who lured him in with the promise of a night with a beautiful married Florentine woman. Lorenzino’s motives were described as a mystery in contemporary accounts, but he later wrote a defence of his actions claiming that Alessandro was a tyrant and he assassinated him to restore freedom to Florence. This is the version - and the presentation of Alessandro - that then became accepted by history.

Originally posted 26th October 2023

It’s often believed that black people were unknown in early modern England, and those that did appear were either transitory, enslaved, or possibly both. However, study of burial and baptism records indicates that at least in Tudor times there was a minority but nonetheless accepted black population in England. Black people worked as prosperous artisans, such as the silk weaver Reasonable Blackman, who lived in Southwark in the late 1500s with his wife and at least three children, as well as in more prestigious posts such as John Blanke, Henry VIII’s trumpeter, who appears in the Westminster Tournament Roll of 1511, a year before he married and received a wedding present from his royal employer (having already successfully petitioned Henry for a pay raise).

There were also plenty of people in humbler social roles who can be spotted from mentions in burial and baptismal records referring to them with titles such as “Aethiops”. These people appear to have been fully integrated into their communities. For example, Mary Fillis of Morisco was baptised in London on 3rd June 1597, aged about 20. Judging by the title “of Morisco” - a reference to Muslims who had converted to Christianity - she came from Southern Spain with her father, simply recorded as Fillis of Morisco. The term “morisco” was very rarely used in England, so they must have used it of themselves for it to appear in their parish records. He was a basket and shovel maker and had passed away by the time Mary was baptised. Her entry in the parish records is long and indicates that her decision to become “a lyvely member” of the Church took thirteen years and was celebrated by a long list of parishoners who attended.

Mary does not appear alone in church records; other black people living ordinary lives in Tudor England include Cattelena of Almondsbury, who died in 1625 in Gloucestershire, leaving a cow as her most valuable possession; Grace of Hatherleigh, from Devon, who had four illegitimate children between 1606 and 1613, all of whom were baptised soon after birth in the usual way for the time; and Henrie Anthonie Jetto from Holt in Worcestershire, who was baptised aged 26 in 1596 and was described in his wife’s will as a yeoman, making him a member of a landowning class that could vote in local elections.