Welcome to Black History Is Now, a content series celebrating Black culture in the UK. This year, we're platforming Unforgotten Women throughout Black British history, highlighting their achievements and legacy.
There is, unfortunately, an oversimplification of Black British history and valuable individuals have been forgotten due to the lack of archiving and the whitewashing of history. Contrary to what is taught in the national curriculum, an entire Black community did exist in England, way before slavery, the 20th century and the Windrush generation.
The presence of Tudor people of African and European heritage has recently emerged thanks to Dr Miranda Kaufmann’s Black Tudor research. While we've been taught about the prominent members of the Tudor society between 1485 and 1603, such as Henry VIII and his spouses, records show that there was a significant presence of Black people in Tudor Britain. The majority of them were men but a small number were African women. Some were born in England, while others were descendants of other European countries.
One prominent figure is Mary Fillis, a powerful, independent and skilled seamstress who was the daughter of Fillis of Morisco, a Moroccan shovel maker. She moved to Britain in 1583 at the age of six and worked as a servant (not a slave) for a man named John Barker, a merchant and sometime factor for the Earl of Leicester. She lived here for over a decade.
What's most noticeable about Mary is her journey to independence, and her transition from servant to dressmaker is remarkable. By the age of 20, Mary was working for Millicent Porter as a seamstress in East Smithfield. At this time, baptism was mandatory if you wanted to participate fully in the highly religious, post-Reformation Tudor society.
So Mary, who was likely to have been born into a Muslim family in Morocco, took the bold decision to request Millicent's permission to be baptised in order to fit into the culture of British civilisation.
Parish records show that Mary's baptism at St Botolph's in Aldgate, London, in 1597 was well attended, with many friends and supporters of the church's congregation who bore witness to the ceremony. Mary was said to be very graceful, answered questions in a Christian manner and was able to recite the Lord's Prayer.
Mary's mistress died on 28th June 1599 and we do not know what became of Mary afterwards. However, due to her bravery in challenging societal norms throughout her life as she sought independence, becoming one of 60 Black Tudor women to be baptised, she is now remembered as a prominent and respectable Black woman in Tudor society.