Even before the British thought of exploring Africa, there were people from Africa walking the streets of London. While it is widely known that Africans resided in Britain since the early colonial times, evidence shows that Africans were in Britain in their numbers even before the 15th century and Roman times.
Historical records state that in the second and third centuries, Roman soldiers of African descent served in Britain, with several choosing to stay after their military service had come to an end. Viking fleets that raided North Africa and Spain in the 9th century captured Black people and took them to Britain and Ireland, according to historians Fryer, Edwards and Walvin. During the reign of King James IV of Scotland in 1488, there were many Black Moors at his court, who were working as servants, with others coming to the court as musicians or invited guests.
Britain, however, witnessed its major Black community during the reign of Elizabeth I, when they worked not only as domestic servants but also as entertainers, musicians and dancers. They were not slaves but largely free people, who even went ahead to marry native English people. There were also Africans who were baptized, buried and recorded in parish records in London, Leicester, Plymouth, Southampton, Barnstaple, Bristol, Northampton and other places across the country. There is the baptismal record of Mary Fillis, dated June 3, 1597, who was described by parish records as a “black moore… dwelling with Millicent Porter, a semester”.
Mary had been in England since she was six years old and had originally come with her father (a Moroccan shovel maker) from “Morisco” (Andalusia) in Spain. She was among the significant number of Black people in Tudor England between 1485 and 1603. Miranda Kaufmann, a senior research fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London, said that Black Tudors came to England through English trade with Africa and from southern Europe, where there were black (slave) populations in Spain and Portugal, the nations that were then the great colonizers.
They also came in the entourages of royals such as Katherine of Aragon and Philip II(who was the husband of Mary I); as merchants or aristocrats; and as the result of English privateering and raids on the Spanish empire, reports Good Black News.
Mary, who became a successful and popular seamstress in Tudor England, first worked as a servant for a merchant named John Barker after coming to Britain in 1583.
When she was 20, she started working for Millicent Porter as a seamstress in East Smithfield. During this period, baptism was mandatory if anyone wanted to be fully involved in the post-Reformation Tudor society, which was highly religious, according to a report by Refinery 29.
Despite being born into a Muslim family in Morocco, Mary told Millicent that she would like to be baptized so that she can fit into the culture of British civilization, the report added.
Her baptism was held at St Botolph’s in Aldgate, London, in 1597 and was well attended by friends and supporters of the church’s congregation. According to Futurelearn.com, the baptism process at the time entailed “religious instruction” that enabled converts to improve their English and reading skills ahead of the ceremony.
“We see this in the baptism of Mary Fillis who was questioned about her beliefs, and asked to recite prayers and articles of faith,” Futurelearn.com writes.
To some historians, Africans such as Mary got baptized at the time in order to marry. It is not known if Mary ever got married as she disappeared from history after her mistress died on June 28, 1599. Today, she is remembered for her remarkable rise from a servant to a dressmaker and then to a respectable Black figure in Tudor England.