A black knight in battle, from the Morgan Crusader’s Bible (Paris, c. 1250)

Ethnic diversity in Medieval England

© Andy Staples. 2022

Few people would dispute the diversity of the medieval Mediterranean, but it may surprise readers that people of colour were not unknown in medieval England and Normandy. Some Arabs, Moors and Africans in medieval England were temporary visitors to England; others were long-term residents. This article reviews some of the documentary and archaeological evidence.

Medieval London: ‘From Every Nation Under Heaven’

John Blanc, Henry VIII’s black trumpeter.

Medieval London was a cosmopolitan international trade centre. How cosmopolitan was it?

William Fitz Stephen (d. 1191 CE) wrote a much-discussed eulogy of late 12th-century London’s virtues as a prologue to his Life of St Thomas (c. 1180 CE). Among other things he sings the praises of London’s international connections.

“To this city, from every nation that is under heaven, merchants rejoice to bring their trade in ships.
Gold from Arabia, from Sabaea spice
And incense; from the Scythians arms of steel
Well-tempered; oil from the rich groves of palm
That spring from the fat lands of Babylon
Fine gems from Nile, from China crimson silks;
French wines; and sable, vair and miniver
From the far lands where Russ and Norsemen dwell.” 1 

Much academic ink has been spilt discussing the meaning of this passage. Does the presence of goods from far-off lands mean the presence of merchants from those lands or were middlemen involved? Is it even accurate? Sabaeans and Scythians were peoples of antiquity, not identities that existed in the 12th century; it seems Fitz Stephen was riffing off Virgil’s Georgics in his hymn of praise.

Nevertheless, the phrase “from every nation under heaven” re-occurs in Richard of Devizes’ denunciation of London written c. 1192, about a decade after Fitz Stephen. Devizes places this criticism in the mouth of a French Jew exhorting a young Christian shoemaker to travel to England, “a land flowing with milk and honey,” to ply his trade.

“You will come to London. Behold, I warn you, whatever of evil or of perversity there is in any, whatever in all parts of the world, you will find in that city alone. Go not to the dances of panders, nor mix yourself up with the herds of the stews ; avoid the talus and the dice, the theatre and the tavern. You will find more braggadocios there than in all France, while the number of flatterers is infinite. Stage players, buffoons, those that have no hair on their bodies, Garamantes, pickthanks, catamites, effeminate sodomites, lewd musical girls, druggists, lustful persons, fortunetellers, extortioners, nightly strollers, magicians, mimics, common beggars, tatterdemalions — this whole crew has filled every house. So if you do not wish to live with the shameful, you will not dwell in London.” 2

‘Garamantes’, as a classical Latin reference, refers to residents of Numidia, an area roughly comparable to modern Algeria, Tunisia and Libya. JT Appleby’s 1960s translation of Devizes renders it “Moor”, though Johannsson points out “African” is also valid.3 Dr Caitlin Green urges caution, as the use of a term from antiquity rather than the medieval term ‘Moor’ may indicate a stylistic allusion.

Medieval Londoners were jealous of their prerogatives and their identities. They distinguished between Citizens, Foreigners (which meant anyone from elsewhere in England) and Aliens (those from other countries).4 Flemish and Hanseatic merchant missions had specified compounds in London, and in the 15th-century first-generation aliens were subject to a special tax, the Alien Tax. Receipts for tax records of aliens (of whom there were about 3,500 in London at any given time in the 14th and 15th century, around 5% of the total population) 5 might be expected to give us an indication of how many Arabs or Africans were present. Yet there are no official documents showing any people of colour at all.

That Africans were present in the mid-14th century is shown by archaeological evidence. A forensic archaeology study on 41 bodies from the plague pit at East Smithfield, in use from 1348-1350, shows the presence of three women of African ancestry, and four of mixed African-European descent, and two men of African ancestry and two of mixed African-European descent. In total, 29% of the 41 male and female bodies examined were of non-European descent. Corresponding isotopic evidence showed one of the black women had grown up in western Britain (the West Country, Welsh coast or western Scotland) an done of the black men in eastern Britain, between eastern Scotland and York. 6

Why then do they not show up in the documentary evidence? One possibility is that they are recorded, but their origins are not. The most recent research on England’s medieval immigrant population is the England’s Immigrants 1330-1550 project,7 which among other data tracks the origins of medieval aliens and immigrants. While it is able to identify the origins of 21,570 individuals, the origins of 43,212 (67% of the total number of immigrants) are unknown.8 As another recent study points out, “It was very rare in late medieval England, however, for persons coming into and residing in the country to be identified by explicitly racial or ethno-religious markers that readily reveal the presence of groups from the Middle or Far East, North Africa or other areas of the known wider world.” 9

If the archaeological evidence from the Smithfield plague pit offers a representative sample (which it may not), then as many as 1,000 people of non-European descent were living in London in the mid-14th century (1.5% of the total population), including a number of Africans.

In the counties

An African man from the Derbyshire entry of the Domesday Abbreviato (Westminster, 1241)

While London was a major cosmopolitan city, it was also the primary gateway for international trade. Its population was far higher than any other English city. Russell’s estimate puts its population at 60,000 c. 1300; the next four largest cities are York, with 18,100 people; Bristol, with 16,000; Norwich, 13,000; Plymouth, 12,100; and Coventry with 12,000.10 (Russell’s estimate for London is now considered on the low side, with more recent estimates putting it around 80,000.)11

We might expect, therefore, correspondingly fewer non-Europeans in the counties. But even here there is evidence of Arabs and Africans. And while it is not possible to calculate even a rough estimate for proportion of total population (though it was certainly very low), we even know a couple of names.

Mohammed the Duellist

Five Pipe Rolls (annual treasury records) of King Henry II from 1160/61 to 1164/65 record the presence of one ‘Mahumet’ (Mohammed) who was fined for his part in a duel in Wiltshire. Two entries for 1160/61 read:

Johannes de Marleburga reddit computum de XXXV marca pro duello. In thesauro XX marca in II tallaie; et debet XV marca. Mahumet reddit computum de V marca pro duello. In thesauro IIII marce; et debet I marca.

(John of Marlborough renders account for 35 marks for a duel. Into the treasury, 20 marks in two tallies; and 15 marks owing. Mohammed renders account for 5 marks for a duel, Into the treasury 4 marks; and 1 mark owing.) 12

The two entries remain next to each other in subsequent years, with John settling the remaining 15 marks in 1162/6313 and Mohammed being pardoned for the one remaining mark in 1164/65, on account of his poverty.14

‘Mahumet’ appears in no other record. We don’t know for sure that the duel was between Mohammed and John of Marlborough, though the two entries remaining together for several years suggests it was one incident, rather than two unrelated duels against unknown opponents.

Most importantly for the purposes of this article we know that Mohammed was Muslim. No medieval Christian would have that name.15 We do not know where he came from, but it was most likely from somewhere within the Muslim sphere – most probably Al Andalus (Muslim Spain), the Kingdom of Sicily (which though Christian had a large number of Muslim residents), North Africa, or the Levant.

Bartholomew the Ethiopian

A writ of King Henry III, issued at Windsor on 29 June 1259:

‘The King to all men greetings etc. As a certain Ethiopian named Bartholomew, formerly a Saracen slave of our dear and faithful Roger de Lyntin, whom the same Roger brought with him to England has secretly taken himself off from his lord, and Roger has sent his esquire to search for him, we order you, if it happens that the said Ethiopian is found somewhere in your bailiwick or area of authority, to have him arrested and delivered to the same esquire for the benefit of the aforesaid Roger, his lord.’16

St Maurice, the black saint (Magdeburg, c. 1250)

‘Ethiopian’ was a general term for a black African in the 12th and 13th centuries (see Orderic Vitalis’ description of one of the forms of the shape-shifting demon Gobelinus as ‘an Ethiopian’).17 The word doesn’t necessarily mean that Bartholomew came from the medieval kingdom of Ethiopia – it means he was a black African whose appearance was distinct from a north African Moor.

What of the note that he was a “former Saracen slave”. While I don’t want to digress into discussions of medieval slavery in this article, the term Saracen is commonly associated with Arabs and Turks. But it could be used to describe any Muslim – a Moor (North African) is therefore a specific kind of Saracen. It seems that Bartholomew was a Muslim who had converted to Christianity and taken a Christian name.

Where was he from? Michael Ray has made a convincing argument that Roger de Lyntin was a knight from Apulia, Italy.18 This Roger had come to England with a recommendation from the Pope following the Pope’s decision to grant the Kingdom of Sicily to Henry III’s infant son, Edmund. Apulia was then part of the Kingdom of Sicily, conquered by Normans in the 11th and 12th centuries. Henry III was not in a strong position in 1259; his barons, already agitating for a return to the provisions of Magna Carta, were concerned that his play for the Kingdom of Sicily was a sign of a return to Angevin empire-building. Clearly, he wanted to keep happy this Sicilian knight in the Pope’s good graces.

Black Africans were known to be among mercenaries at Lucera in Apulia in the mid-13th century. The Sicilian-born Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II moved 20,000 ‘unruly Saracens’ from Sicily to Lucera in 1220, and a further 40,000 to other parts of southern Italy. Perhaps as a result of Frederick II’s disputes with the Pope (and his frequent excommunications) these Saracens a trusted Imperial bodyguard of 5,000 to 6,000 bowmen, highly trusted because of their lack of religious ties to the Papacy and political ties to rival noble houses of the Holy Roman Empire.19

There is no record of Bartholomew being arrested. Black people, if not unknown, were certainly unusual in medieval England; perhaps if London was as cosmopolitan as Fitz Stephen, Richard of Devizes and the archaeological evidence suggest, he might have found refuge there.

The Africans of Ipswich

Excavations of medieval cemeteries in 1990, 2003 and 2006 along Friars Lane and Wolsey Street in Ipswich revealed four bodies identified as black African men among 89 burials associated with the town’s Franciscan friary.20 Isotopic studies of the skeletons’ teeth showed that one of the men grew up in north Africa, around what is now Tunisia, and had lived in England for at least 10 years before he died of a spinal abscess in the late 13th century. This skeleton was the subject of a BBC documentary.21

The Lichfield Africans

Four of 46 bodies recovered in 2015 by an Archaeology Warwickshire rescue dig ahead of construction work at the medieval cemetery of the Hospital of St John the Baptist in Lichfield were those of black Africans or mixed African ancestry. The osteoarchaeologists who analysed the skeletons say there may have been more Africans, undetected due to poor condition of skeletons or lack of skulls. The bodies are thought to date from the 12th to 14th centuries. 22

Two of the skeletons identified as having African ancestry were probably male, and aged between 26 and 35 at the time of death. The other two were women, one aged 18+, the other aged at least 46. This last woman had a fractured collarbone that had healed out of proper alignment. She suffered sinusitis, probably caused by an abscessed premolar spreading into her left sinus. She was heavy set, and suffered osteoarthritis in her upper and lower thoracic, which likely led to a stiff back.

One of the probable males had evidence of a healed knee injury. The younger woman was – unlike all the other skeletons recovered – buried in a twisted position, her torso prone, head turned to the left, arms beneath her, and legs twisted to the left. This might reflect a hurried burial, or indicate humility or a penitential aspect. 

The hospital was founded in 1135, and was operational throughout the medieval period. A total of around 400 burials are known at the site, though only the 46 were at risk from the construction, exhumed and analysed. Taking the most conservative position – that the excavation of around 10% of the burials discovered all the Africans – Africans accounted for 1% of the bodies. In fact, the osteoarchaeologists suggested there may have been more Africans among the 46 skeletons analysed, but poor condition of the bodies or absence of skulls prevented detection of skeletal markers.

Unlike Ipswich, Lichfield was not a port. It was – and is – a market town in central England, not particularly noted for its international trade. It was a regional pilgrimage site, but not of the fame of Canterbury. The presence of black Africans in the town is therefore of great interest.

Other medieval sites

Archaeologist Dr Caitlin Green has compiled isotopic data 909 individuals from 79 excavated burial sites from the Bronze Age to the medieval period. She found 20.3% of the sites had at least one burial shown to be of a person who grew up in north Africa. Broken down by period, 4.5% of Bronze Age burial sites had at least one person who grew up in north Africa, 47% of Roman sites, 13.8% of the early medieval sites, and 38.8% of the medieval sites.23 In total, 43 of the individuals (3.7% of the total studied) were found to have a north African origin.

Green does note that there is an inherent bias in the figures – studies were done on sites that archaeologists thought might have non-European inhabitants.
Lionheart’s Saracen mercenaries

A 14th century extension of William of Tyre’s history of the early crusades claimed Richard the Lionheart left the Holy Land after the Third Crusade with 120 Saracen mercenaries, mamluks given to him by Salah ad-Din’s brother (and successor) Al-Adhil Saif ad-Din, with whom Richard got along so well that during treaty negotiations following the Third Crusade he offered Al-Adhil his sister’s hand in marriage.24 These mercenaries show up in “considerable numbers” in the Normandy Exchequer Roll for the year 1195. One unit was garrisoned at Domfront Castle for several months in 1194, another patrolled the woods of le Passeis. 25

The main entry mentioning the Saracen mercenaries reads, 

In liberatione  Saracenorum morantiam apud Domfront, per preceptum regis, a die lune proxima prius festum sancti michaelis suque de die lune prius destum sancti Egidii, 109 lib. 6 sol. Per bre. Regis. In liberatione Reginaldi Cruiete qui adduxit Saracenos de 57s diebus 4 lib. 4 sol, per idem brev. Gibelino Saraceno in solta parte equi sui, 50 sol. Per idem brev. In robis praedictorum Sarracenorum 8 lib. 18 sol. 9 den. Per idem brev.

(Delivered to the Saracens who lived at Domfront by order of the king, from Monday after the feast of St Michael [8 May] until the Monday after the feast of St Giles [1 September], £109 and 6 shillings by writ of the king. Delivered to Reginald Cruiete, who brought the Saracens, £4 and 4 shillings each day for 57 days by writ. Delivered to Gibelin the Saracen, in part payment for his horse, 50 shillings by writ. For clothing the aforesaid Saracens, £8, 18 shillings, and 9 pence by writ.) 26

The Saracens appear again, in the Norman exchequer roll for 1198, when “Soubresaillant and his Saracens” are paid £135.27 Little else is known about these Saracens. The term was generally used for Arabs, Turks, Kurds and similar people, but could be used for all Muslims. It’s even possible some or all of the men could have been Nubian Christians, since Nubians provided mamluks in tribute to Egypt and Salah ad-Din was known to have fielded Nubians at the Battle of Arsuf.28

The Norman exchequer rolls offer one more tantalising possibility: a payment of £10 in 1195 to a woman from “across the sea” (ultra mare). At this time the term meant the Holy Land.29 Could this have been a Saracen woman? We cannot tell.


That Africans, Arabs and Moors existed in medieval England is demonstrated beyond a doubt by documentary and archaeological evidence. The nature of the evidence suggests there were others – not as many as modern England, perhaps, but others.

Mohammed, the Wiltshire duellist, is not mentioned in any document except the five Pipe Rolls of the early 1160s – had he not been caught duelling, had the Pipe Rolls not been preserved, he would have left no trace in the documentary evidence. We do not know why Mohammed was in Wiltshire, only that he was there for at least 5 years, and that he fought a duel. Was he there alone? Did he have friends, colleagues or family with him? We can’t say.

It’s worth remembering that we have no documentary evidence for the vast majority of people who lived in medieval England. We’re not even sure of their numbers – estimates of the Domesday population range from 1.5 million people to 4 million or more.Archaeological evidence is also fragmentary. Though it’s been shown through isotopic evidence and skeletal analysis that some Africans and mixed race people lived (and died) in England, the sample sizes are small. There is, as yet, insufficient data to infer much apart from a small presence and, in a few cases, long-term residence.

This evidence, however, is enough to prove the presence a small number of people of colour in medieval England beyond any doubt and to have reasonable confidence there were others as yet unknown. Their numbers were few, to be sure. How few we cannot say, but if just 0.1% of 3,300,000 people (a reasonable estimate for the population of England c. 1200 CE) were people of colour, that’s 3,300 people.

For creative gamers or writers, that’s 3,300 stories to tell.

William Fitz Stephen: ‘The Description of London’, trans HE Butler, in Sir Frank Stenton, Norman London (Italica Press, 1990), p54
2 Richard of Devizes, The Deeds of King Richard I, trans. J.A. Giles (Bohn, London, 1841), p60
3 W. Johansson, ‘London’s Medieval Sodomites’, in History of Homosexuality in Europe and America, ed. W. R. Dynes & S. Donaldson (New York and London: Garland, 1992), pp. 159–63
4 M. Davies, ‘Aliens, crafts and guilds in late medieval London’, in Medieval Londoners: essays to mark the eightieth birthday of Caroline M. Barron, ed. E. A. New and C. Steer (London, 2019), pp. 119–47.
5 M. Davies, ibid
6 Redfern, Rebecca, and Hefner, Joseph, Bioarchaeological Evidence for Black Women in 14th Century London (Museum of London, 2021), and “Officially Absent but actually present”: bioarchaeological evidence for population diversity in London during the Black Death, AD 1348-50 (in Madeleine L Mant and Alyson Jaagumägi Holland (eds), Bioarchaeology of Marginalized People, Elsevier, 2019)
7 England’s Immigrants 1330 – 1550 Resident Aliens in the Late Middle Ages (University of York, The National Archives and the Humanities Research Institute, University of Sheffield)
8 Chart showing results by origin, England’s Immigrants 1330-1550, captured 02/10/2021
9 W. Mark Ormrod, Bart Lambert and Jonathan Mackman, Immigrant England, 1300–1550 (University of Manchester Press, 2019)
10 Joseph Cox Russell, Medieval Regions and their Cities (David and Charles, 1972).
11 Campbell, Bruce M.S..; Galloway, James A.; Keene, Derek; Murphy, Margaret, A Medieval Capital and its Grain Supply: Agrarian production and distribution in the London region c. 1300 (Historical Geography Research Series Number 30, 1993)
12 Pipe Roll Henry II, AD 1160-61 (Publications of the Pipe Roll Society, Volume 4, 1885), p10
13 Pipe Roll Henry II, AD 1162-63 (Publications of the Pipe Roll Society, Volume 6, 1886), p46
14 Pipe Roll Henry II, AD 1164-65 (Publications of the Pipe Roll Society, Volume 6, 1886), p57
15 John S. Moore, Who was ‘Mahumet’? Arabs in Angevin England (Prosopon Newsletter 11, July 2000)
16 Calendar of Patent Rolls, 1258-66, p28 (HMSO, 1886). Translation by Michael Ray, A Black Slave on the Run in Thirteenth-Century England (Nottingham Medieval Studies 51, 2007)
17 Orderic Vitalis, Ecclesiastical History of England and Normandy, trans Thomas Forester (Nohn, 1854) Vol 2, p133
18 Michael Ray, A Black Slave on the Run in Thirteenth-Century England (Nottingham Medieval Studies 51, 2007)
19 Hunt Janin with Ursula Carlson, Mercenaries in Medieval and Renaissance Europe (Macfarland, 2013), p53-54
20 Anderson, Sue, Human Skeletal Remains from Wolsey Street, Ipswich (IAS5003, December 2003, revised January 2009)
21 Medieval African Found Buried in England: Discovery News, (Seeker.com, 2013)
22 Malin Holst & Tessi Loeffelmann, Osteological Analysis, St John’s Almshouses, Birmingham Road, Lichfield, Staffordshire (unpublished report, May 2016 – I’m grateful to Archaeology Warwickshire for sending me a copy of the report)
23 Green, Caitlin: A note on the evidence for African migrants in Britain from the Bronze Age to the medieval period (personal blog, 2016)
24 Powicke, FM, The Saracen Mercenaries of Richard I (The Scottish Historical Review, vol 9, 1911)
25 Stapleton, Thomas: Magni Rotuli Scaccarii Normannije Sub Regibus Angliae, Volume II (London, 1849), p. xiii and p lvIII.
26 Stapleton, Thomas: Magni Rotuli Scaccarii Normannije Sub Regibus Angliae, Volume I (London, 1849), p. 221.
27 Stapleton, Thomas: Magni Rotuli Scaccarii Normannije Sub Regibus Angliae, Volume II (London, 1849), p. xiii and p 301
28 Verbruggen, J.F.: The Art of Warfare in Western Europe During the Middle Ages: From the Eighth Century to 1340 (Boydell & Brewer, 1997)
29 Powicke, FM, The Saracen Mercenaries of Richard I (The Scottish Historical Review, vol 9, 1911)