Examined in her faith by the vicar of St Botolph’s, and “answering him verie Christian lyke”, she did her catechisms, said the Lord’s Prayer, and was baptised on Friday 3 June 1597 in front of the congregation. Among her witnesses were a group of five women, mostly wives of leading parishioners. Now a “lyvely member” of the church in Aldgate, there is no question from this description that Mary belonged to a community with friends and supporters.
Despite the story of Fillis, the lives of others were far from sweetness and light, of course. The lives of some Black people were as free as anywhere in the White European world, but, for many, things were circumscribed and very hard.
Some Black women worked alongside their White counterparts as prostitutes, especially in Southwark, and in the brothel area of Turnmill Street in Clerkenwell. Here the famous Lucy Negro, a former dancer in the Queen’s service, ran an establishment patronised by noblemen and lawyers. Lucy was famous enough to be paid mock homage in the Inns of Court revels at Gray’s Inn.
Her area of London was notorious. “Pray enquire after and secure my negress: she is certainly at The Swan, a Dane’s beershop in Turnmil Street,” wrote one Denis Edwards in 1602. Shakespeare’s acquaintance, the poet John Weaver, also sang the praises of a woman whose face was “pure black as Ebonie, jet blacke”.
In around 1600, the presence of Black people had become an issue for the English government. Their numbers recently increased by many enslaved Moors freed from captured Spanish ships, the presence of Black people suddenly came to be seen as a nuisance. In 1601, among the Cecil papers still held at Hatfield House, we hear this:
“The queen is discontented at the great numbers of ‘negars and blackamoores’ which are crept into the realm since the troubles between her Highness and the King of Spain, and are fostered here to the annoyance of her own people.”
The “great numbers” were mainly galley slaves and servants from captured Spanish vessels, and a plan was mooted to transport them out of the country. Was this the first example of government repatriation? In July 1602, Cecil was putting pressure on the merchants, one of whom wrote:
“I have persuaded the merchants trading to Barbary, not without some difficulty, to yield to [ie pay for] the charges of the Moors lately redeemed out of servitude by her Majesty’s ships, so far as it may concern their lodging and victuals, till some shipping may be ready to carry them into Barbary…”
Whether this actually happened is unclear. No more then than now, should we take a government’s pronouncements on such matters at face value?
But it is at least worth noting that the authorities felt duty-bound to look after food and lodging while the freed slaves were in London. But it cannot be, as is sometimes claimed today, that this edict applied to the many Black people who, like Mary Fillis, were living as citizens in London, as they were in Bristol.
Brief as they are, such hints suggest a surprisingly rich hidden narrative for Black people in Elizabethan England.
From Lucy Negro to Mary Fillis, their numbers grew in the 17th Century as they were joined by large numbers of people from India and, in particular, Bengal.
Sadly, their own story, in their own words, is lacking, but by the time we reach the 18th Century, we have the remarkable works of prose, poetry and music written by Black Britons, among whom the likes of Olaudah Equiano, Ottobah Cugoano and Ignatius Sancho deserve their place in any list of Great Britons.
By the 18th Century, it is thought as many as 20,000 Black servants lived in London. They even had their own taverns where they greeted defeat of the “Somersett case” and the victories of the abolitionists with raucous good humour.
Their numbers were still small compared with the population as a whole, but they already had a role in our national story. What would Mary Fillis make of things today I wonder? And what would we give for her story?