The Missing Link: Early Empire and ‘Decolonising’ the Curriculum

The Thinking:

If March – June 2020 was a similarity and difference enquiry and we were to play the ‘generalisation game’ with regards to our experiences of lockdown learning arguably we could safely say we have all been spending a lot of time with our screens. Whilst being admonished for my own increased screen time I have noticed with interest that in the media and twitter debates surrounding the ‘decolonising of the curriculum’ have appeared with frequency including amongst the history teacher community on twitter.

In our community of history teachers, we have a very strong dedication to discussion and improvement. For decades the brilliant work of a brave and dedicated core of ‘pugilists, diggers and choreographers’ (to lift the phrase of Justice2History’s Robin Whitburn and Abdul Mohamud) have been pushing for us to do the past justice through rigour and building more voices and representation into the historical diet of our students. In recent years our community has benefitted from the advent of the thematic GCSE ‘Migration’ topic and the scholarship of historians such as Toby Green, David Olusoga and Miranda Kaufmann. At our fingertips are a range of brilliant resources from the York Clio groups ‘Diversity’ resource list to the Runnymede Trust’s ‘Our Migration Story’ which have helped us to build representation into our KS3s with alacrity. Yet I can’t help but feel as a former student of the early British Empire and product of postcolonial south London that building representation alone is not enough.

Some of us may remember the debates surrounding the threat to Mary Seacole’s place upon the primary curriculum with the curriculum reforms of 2013 that resulted in Michael Gove being accused by Sir Richard Evans of attempting to create a falsified “Little England” narrative of our nation’s past. Since those debates in 2013 many voices have added to the call to ‘decolonise the curriculum’. To detractors to engage in ‘decolonisation’ ranges from everything to the placing of anachronistic moral values upon the past to engaging in a left-loony culture war at the expense of British identity. Opponents will often argue that in adding representation or diversity to our curriculums we are building a new narrative to meet the demands of multiculturalism. Such takes speak to wider debates surrounding what the purpose of history (and in particular Secondary history) is.

To the proponents in the university context ‘decolonisation’ is (as us history teachers will appreciate) knotty in its meaning. According to the experts at SOAS (link – it means both the building of representation of BAME experts and figures whilst also shining a critical light upon how preconceptions surrounding racial, cultural and civilizational structures were constructed via past European colonisation. It is about understanding this and seeing how we are still unpicking these colonial hangovers today. The movement in universities are clear that ‘decolonisation’ does not constitute a ‘kicking to the curb’ of the canon of thinkers, events or figures but instead studying the past with greater contextualisation. For example understanding that the Civil War and interregnum coincided with the development of slave economies of Jamaica and Barbados or that enlightened thinkers could at once talk of those without political freedoms as ‘slaves’ whilst simultaneously ignoring the plight of the actually enslaved.

In considering anti-‘decolonisation’ opinions I find the work of the philosopher Charles W. Mills instructive. Writing in 2007 he argued that for a century the framing of history in the Western world has alowed an active and dynamic gap in understanding to develop that has shielded generations of learners from the histories, legacies and realities of European colonialism creating a ‘missing link’ of understanding. It is a reminder of why shifts in Secondary and University history receive emotional responses, but also why these shifts are vital.

If we seek as teachers to just build representation into pre-existing topics, I worry that representation alone is not enough. Taking the lead from the University movement to decolonise I think alongside studying the Black Tudors or Forgotten Soldiers of Empire of Empire we must also provide our students an opportunity to critically engage with the deep-rooted connections between Empire, British history and identity. We need to give our students the opportunity to see British history through the ‘lens of Empire’ as Professor Kehinde Andrews and Dr Emma Newbigin have argued in a recent BBC History Magazine article. Without this our students will not have the tools to understand the historical process that have allowed for the stories of Olusoga’s Forgotten Soldiers of Empire or Kaufmann’s Black Tudors to go missing from the popular understanding of our nation’s past and why when such stories are told they often receive a very negative and emotional rejection from certain sectors of the public.

The Action:

Having looked at the debates surrounding ‘decolonisation’ I think it’s vital for our students to have the opportunity to critically analyse how ideas of Empire have historically impacted upon British identity building and the historiography of our National story. One really powerful topic through which we can do this is through an enquiry into the early Empire – here I am talking about the early colonisation projects in North America, the Caribbean and Ireland as well as the formation of companies such as the East India Company. I have always felt quite frustrated that, barring a few topics such as ‘Migration’ and ‘Reformation England’, most American topics at GCSE begin with either the American Revolution of Manifest Destiny. Similarly, in irks me that Elizabeth I topics take a quick glance west to Ireland and skim over joint Stock Companies in a wider topic on finance from 1558 – 1603. I am on a bit of a mission to re-establish the English roots of courses upon America or in a clunky phrase ‘make American colonialism English again’!

As someone who has spent a significant amount of time studying the early Empire, its shadow pops up in unexpected ways in otherwise familiar stories of the Tudor and Stuart periods. I will give an example from my own research. We probably teach Oliver Cromwell and the Civil War at some point. We also probably touch upon what is an example of colonial violence in Ireland with the massacres of Drogheda and Wexford, but do our students also know that he almost joined the Puritans in New England? That the Transatlantic Slave Trade took off during his interregnum? Or that his daughter’s father-in-law was a man both connected to the kidnapping of Pocahontas, the arrival of the first enslaved peoples in Virginia in 1619 and the establishment of the first largely slave-based colony off the coast of modern-day Nicaragua? The connections to Empire are everywhere.

At the moment I teach the early Empire through a causation enquiry in which we answer the question ‘Why was the world ‘opening up’ to the Tudors and Stuarts?’. Through this we investigate the main factors behind colonisation: religion (both tensions between Protestantism and Catholicism as well as the moral imperative to convert the Natives), trade/wealth and diplomacy. I use the jumping off point of the story of Diego as told in Kaufmann’s Black Tudors. I have shared my resources for this in a google drive of lessons and enquiries inspired by her text (

English and British identities were ‘reinvented’ in the crucible of the early modern colonisation of Ireland, America and the Caribbean. Migration and trade meant that places such as Southampton and London were home to diverse communities of artisans and merchants from all over the world by the start of the Tudor period. By the later Elizabethan and early Stuart period inspired by texts such as More’s Utopia, population pressure and competition with the Catholic empires of Portugal and Spain, the  English colonists sailed off to the New World with charters that held them to both seeking profit and bringing the Natives out of “the darkness” of their heathen “ignorance” (Virginia Charter, 1606). Their mission was inspired by earlier incursions into Catholic Ireland. It is interesting to note that the Irish and the Natives were often cast with the same visual tropes. It was even believed that the Natives might be easier to convert than the stubborn Irish. When the mission to convert came across difficulties or opposition the Natives, Irish and later enslaved Africans became an easy ‘other’ against which to bolster a sense of British identity tied to ideas rooted in Protestant superiority and civility.

So, in the process of constant evolution of the curriculum and inspired by the ERC Tide Projects ‘Matters of Belonging’ I want to break this enquiry down into a short overview still focused on causation followed by an evidence based enquiry looking into the question of who ‘belonged’ in both the Old World and the New. We have such a wealth of material – letters, texts, sermons – which highlight how the thinkers of the early modern period grappled with ideas of foreignness, national identity and civility. Students will be guided through attitudes to ‘foreigners’ at home as well as indentured servants abroad, how attitudes towards the Irish, Natives and people of African origin changed over time. This I hope will provide a deep contextual knowledge to the ensuing topics of the Transatlantic Slave Trade and Abolition and will allow my students to consider what had changed in British society between the stories of John Blanke or Diego and the lives of Bill Richmond and Ignatius Sancho in the eighteenth-century as well as the deeper historic roots of later studies in the rights of Native Americans in the modern period.

English painters and writers enjoyed highlighting the similarities between Irish (left) and Algonquian dress (right) and society. Such images and writings were popular providing a comforting ‘mirror’ to consolidate a sense of the superiority of English civility and a justification of colonisation.

As part of this enquiry an investigation into the story of Pocahontas provides a brilliant window into the impacts of the early Empire upon the position of Native American peoples as well as how the colonial project has skewed the narrative of her life. Pocahontas is a fascinating study in the liminality of the Native American in English America. Our chief sources upon her life are the ever-so-slightly-exaggerated travelogue-cum-adventure-story that is Captain John Smith’s Generall History of Virginia, New England and the Summers Isles as well as the many volumes of the works of Samuel Purchas – an author based in England who relied upon second hand testimonies including that of the man who had kidnapped Pocahontas from amongst the Patowomeck in 1613.

The portrait engraving of Pocahontas by Simon van de Passe. The only image we have of her in life is highly stylised to present her as an English Princess.

The only image we have of her in life is from her visit to London in 1616 following her kidnap, baptism and marriage to John Rolfe. The signifiers of her status as the daughter of Wahunseneca (also known as Powhatan) the paramount leader of the Algonquian speaking tribes of the Virginia Tide Water basin are not of her culture but instead English. She is shown in a fashionable Jacobean gown and stiff collar with a fine (and expensive) beaver hat. Pearls fall from her ears and she holds a fan. The inscription in the language of noble portraiture tells the reader that they are looking at Matoaka, alias Rebecca (Pocahontas being her nickname), promote the colonisation that would lead to her people being pushed off their land and the process of reservation.

In the nineteenth century her story and image became a powerful tool for those wishing to promote the need for Native tribes to accept assimilation. It is with the rise of Native American studies that we have come to understand her story better. we have come to see a central part of her myth – the saving of John Smith – as actually being part of a misunderstood Powhatan adoption ceremony. We also see discrepancies. In the English sources she elected to remain amongst the English after her kidnap and become baptised as Rebecca. In the oral histories that survive amongst her people she had no choice.

MA Bay Seal
The Massachusetts Bay Colony seal featured a pliant Native warrior begging the English to ‘come over and help us’ e.g. convert us to Christianity. During Anglo-Native warfare in the 1670s between 500 – 1,100 ‘Praying Indians’ who had converted to Christianity were left without food or adequate shelter on Deer Island. Even when converted, they were not trusted.

For me the study of history is not about identity building but instead building a curriculum which shifts with scholarship and highlights different scales and perspectives allowing my students to understand that history is constructed and complex.


In providing my students with the opportunity to engage with how ideas of who did and didn’t belong were formed and calcified in the context of the early Empire, I hope I am providing my students with a strong meta-cognitive framework through which to check both their own biases and the biases of wider popular histories, as well as the news. From understanding historic attitudes towards Catholicism allowing them to be able to deconstruct why Elizabeth has been cast is ‘Gloriana’ and her sister as ‘Bloody Mary’ to being able to unpick why the story of modern Ireland is so contentious and emotive. I also want them to understand that as historians we can actually trace when ideas of race of ‘whiteness’, ‘blackness’ and ‘redness’ (in relation to the Native Americans) were constructed and calcified. I really firmly believe that in understanding the historic roots of these ideas our students are better equipped to see and deal with their modern consequences.


Helpful Resources:

The Justice2History website and blog –

The Runnymede Trust’s ‘Our Migration Story’ – and

York Clio Diversity Resources –

‘Teaching the Black Tudors’ –

The Colonial Countryside Project –

ERC Tide Project – ‘Matters of Belonging: Teaching Race and Identity in Tudor and Stuart England’ –

Resources to widen the Tudor World at A-Level (OCR & AQA)

Recent events have rightly heightened consciousness of the need to provide more representative and expanded curriculum in history. Quite rightly discussion has been had about GCSE and A-Level specifications, their breadth, depth and focus. Here are the ways I have worked within the confines of the AQA & OCR Tudors specifications to build representation and an understanding of the widening links to colonisation and Empire.

In my planning I have always used textbooks as a crutch, however brilliant opportunities can be had when we go beyond the textbook. For the rest of the post I will share some ideas, historian’s works and websites/clips that might be of use categorised under general specification points. This is a bit of a rush and I’m more than happy to write extra explanations/share more resources as needed!

Trade and the Economy:

Enclosure and depressions meant that the Tudor merchants began to experiment with diversification of trade a raft of trading companies were established in the Tudor period such as the East India Company (1600), Levant Company (received it’s charter in 1582), the Barbary Company to Morocco (1551 given monopoly over the trade in Moroccan sugar in 1585). Privateering and exploration also saw the ‘Sea Dogs’ such as Hawkins, Drake and Raleigh attempt to break into the Iberian domains of the Caribbean and central and south America in search of riches, gold and at times slaves.

Life as a Turkish merchant and member of the Levant Company:

Summary of expanding trade including images, maps and sources:

First contact with Native American culture and society:

This is an area that alongside ‘Tudor’ Ireland is a real passion of mine. Whilst the first viable (and successful) English colony was establised at Jamestown in 1607, Sir Walter Raleigh did attempt to establisha colony at Roanoke in 1584. War with Spain, poor planning and tension with the Natives made the colony legendary on account of the colonists dissappearance. There are multiple theories about what happened which are fascinating in and of themselves but what is most interesting to me is we see as a consequence of this expedition the first English images and writing on the culture and society of the Native Americans such as John White’s watercolours.

Open access article on the construction of Native American society in the English imagination and links to attitudes to Ireland:

The theories on Roanoke:

John White’s images of Algonquian society:

Foreign policy:

As part of foreign policy there are stories we can trace. Firstly, the actions of Sir Francis Drake and Hawkins within the wider causation of the Spanish Armada but also draw upon the work of Miranda Kaufmann by introducing the Panama raid, Cimarron and Diego as part of that story. I also include within wider discussion of Elizabeth’s foreign policy and Spain Elizabeth’s interactions with Morocco and the Moroccan delegation of 1600.

The Salcombe Treasure, North Africa and the Moroccan Delegation:

Elizabeth’s connections with the Islamic world:

Diego and Drake:

Using Miranda Kaufmann’s Black Tudors:

If you haven’t bought Black Tudors and read it. DO IT. So many characters can be used within our specifications – John Blanke as part of conversations about Henry’s need for a child, Jacques Francis as part of Henry VIII’s foreign policy, Diego when we come to Spain, Catallena of Almondsbury as a window into the life of the poor (as suggested by Sally Thorne).

Books I love and would suggest (of course Black Tudors):

Oneyka Nubia Blackamoors / England’s Other Countrymen

Neil MacGregor Shakespeare’s Restless World – Catholicism, Africa and Islam, Trade, Gender it’s got it all.

Jerry Brotton This Orient Isle for more on England’s connections to the Islamic world.

Big Chief Elizabeth by Giles Milton

Towards ‘Race’ and slavery: bridging the gap between the Tudors and the so-called ‘Respectable Trade’

The debate surrounding the construction of ‘race’ in the early modern period is a complex and rapidly expanding field of historiography. The very usefulness of the term ‘race’ within the field is in and of itself debated. The term ‘race’ in the early modern period could at once refer to lineage, family or status and not skin tone or physical difference à la modern definitions. Identities might be forged from place of origin, status or religion.

Before the English Transatlantic Slave Trade:

In the past decade the work of Habib, Oneyka, Kaufmann, Olusoga and Brotton have highlighted the connections between England and North and Sub-Saharan Africa in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries (and earlier). They have brought to our attention the lives of black porters, artisans, circumnavigators, divers and court musicians living in Tudor and Stuart Britain. Most importantly they have shown these people were free. Recent scholarship such as that of Miranda Kaufmann has highlighted the falsity of the oft-quoted belief that Elizabeth I followed a policy of expulsion of Africans living in Tudor England thus disproving takes which often see the 1596 and 1601 ‘Blackamoor’ letters to be evidence of a nascent racism. However, we should not forget that attitudes towards Africa and Africans would harden through the seventeenth and eighteenth-centuries into the racial attitudes that would allow for both the development of the subsequent British Empire and slave trade.

Africa had long loomed large in the western imagination and the writers of early modern England had a wealth of Ancient and Medieval texts to draw upon. Africa was a fantastical place; in Ethiopia it was said freezing rivers existed alongside intense heat; that the rivers of Africa were spiced and perfumed; that diamonds and gold littered the earth; that the legendary (and immortal considering the length of the tales popularity) Christian King Prester John might be found. Africa was a land of luxury and plenty but also a place of strangeness. Ancient and Medieval texts (as well as the famous Mappa Mundi) drew upon tales of monstrous races such as the Blemmyae with faces upon their chests or anthropophagi who ate human flesh. Early modern authors discussed tales (which are reminiscent of similar later texts about Native American culture) that African men knew no social distinction and even held their women in common.

With these tales alongside black presence in Europe and the arrival of groups such as the Moroccan delegation in 1600 Africans and African skin became a recurring theme in literature. The contrast between black and white skin became a handy trope when discussing beauty. Writers also began to puzzle as to the reasons for physical differences between the peoples of Europe, Asia and Africa. The existence of mixed marriages in England allowed writers such as George Best to puzzle as to what complexion the children of such marriages might be despite the ‘good complexion’ of the mother. Marriage between Europeans and Africans is of course a key source of tension in Shakespeare’s Othello which sees the eponymous hero both exalted for his military prowess, provided with high estate in Venetian society and yet simultaneously subjected to brutal insult as a consequence of his marriage to Desdemona. Othello’s story illustrates the complexity of the position of Africans in European society and English thought. For whilst there was no link in English law, culture and custom between skin tone and social inferiority or slave status that did not mean people of African origin where not eroticised or exoticized or would not face prejudices.

Towards the Slave Trade:

Perhaps the zenith of complexity comes when we approach the development of English/British transatlantic slavery. In 1569 the Cartwright case stated that the air of England was ‘too pure an air for slaves to breathe in’. Consequently, Hector Nunes a member of the Portuguese Marrano community of London found that too his ire he could not force a man of ‘Ethiopia’ to work for him for free in the 1580s. Yet whilst England did not allow for slavery in common law it would be wrong to think that slavery was an alien concept to the English. Evidence shows that English merchants had interloped and had been involved with the Spanish trading of slaves as early as the fifteenth century.

Sir John Hawkins holds the dubious legacy of being a pioneer of the English transatlantic trade. In 1562 Hawkins voyaged to Sierra Leone whence he hijacked 301 Africans from a Portuguese ship before sailing to the modern-day Dominican Republic to sell them. Hawkins was following a line of thought shared by travel writer and geographer Richard Hackluyt that African slaves be very ‘good merchandise in Hispaniola’. Further slave trading attempts by Hawkins occurred in 1564 and 1567 were backed by Leicester, Cecil and Elizabeth. His ambitions to make a fortune via the capture of Africans upon the ‘Guinea Coast’ is illustrated by his 1565 coat of arms featuring a bound African figure. That the transatlantic trade proper was not developed at this time but rather took off in the 1640s is arguably not for want of trying but as a consequence of the monopoly of the Portuguese over West Africa and Portuguese and Spanish ships’ domination of the Atlantic and Caribbean seas. All this meant that the market was incredibly difficult to break into.

So far, so complex. We have a lack of a modern concept of ‘race’ but a burgeoning English involvement in the trade in enslaved Africans. We have a national hero, Sir Francis Drake who at once can trade in slaves whilst also allying with the Cimarron – escaped slaves – against the Spanish in Panama. This complexity has allowed historians to argue that ‘racism’ was not the driving cause of the English transatlantic trade put instead became a post-facto justification.

The first viable English colony was established in Virginia in 1607, though it would take the harrying of the starving times and the arrival of tobacco with the colonist John Rolfe to make the colony viable. Within twelve years the first enslaved peoples – from modern day Angola – arrived in the colony. These peoples arrived not as a result of English transatlantic trading but instead via English and Dutch privateering. Such privateering would provide enslaved workers to other colonies such as Bermuda, St Kitts, Barbados, the Leeward Islands and the ‘forgotten’ first slave economy (being so called as it was the first colony in which the enslaved outnumbered indentured labourers and other colonists) of Providence Island. Yet, in the early years of the English colonies indenture provided the bulk of labour. Uncomfortably, we can largely tie the expansion of the English transatlantic trade to economics. In the initial years of colonisation to invest in an indentured labourer was cheaper than to invest in enslaved labourers.

Just as George Best had puzzled with the complexion of the children of mixed-marriages in the 1580s by the mid-1600s English writers had begun to question the origins of black skin and its possible symbolic meanings. The writings of Sir Thomas Browne known for his wit and scientific enquiry (according to a recent In Our Time) provides a window into this darker undercurrent in English thought. In his 1646 encyclopedia the Pseudodoxia Epidemica Browne devotes an entire chapter to the ‘Blackness of Negroes’. Written as a sort of rhetorical dialectic between audience and author Browne provides us with a whistle-stop tour of popular explanations for what we today might call racial difference: the climate and heat of Africa, the sun, purposeful burning of the skin with fats (something also believed of the Native Americans), differences in diet and water, maternal impression (children being effected in the womb) to finally falling upon a theory of increasing popularity – that the people of Africa were descended from Ham. In Genesis Ham is cursed so that his progeny will be ‘servants of servants’. It is of note that in Medieval thought some had thought Ham’s descendants had been Asian or the ancestors of villeins or the Jewish community. The relocation of the ‘Hammites’ to Africa became increasingly popularised with the movement toward New World slavery.

The transition to wide-scale slave economies and English transatlantic slavery is a multi-causal story. The shift from an obsession with gold to a shifting commercialisation that valued the production of staple crops (coffee, tobacco, ginger, indigo, rice and most importantly sugar) to feed shifting tastes back home ensured an increased demand for labour. Labour which needed the specialist skills and knowledge held by the peoples of West Africa. By the middle of the seventeenth century the availability of indentured labour was decreasing, and higher-survival rates meant that in colonies such as Virginia there was a concern surrounding the availability of land to provide these servants once they’d served their terms. Coupled with the weakening monopoly of the Spanish and Portuguese over the west coast of Africa and Caribbean-sea meant that from the 1640s an English transatlantic trade was being developed. This sparked a revolution in labour in the English New World that would see many English colonies come to be predominantly slave economies. Barbados would see the enslaved population grow from 9,504 to 40,000 within less than three decades.

Racially based societies developed haphazardly across the English New World with the expansion of enslaved populations. From the 1630s onwards colonial governors grappled with the position of enslaved peoples in colonial society. By the 1660s and 1670s in the Caribbean and North American colonies had utilised a patchwork of common law practises surrounding villeinage and vagabondage to codify slavery in English colonial law. Slavery became an inherited status passed from mother to child.

Black skin, despite a population of black freemen and women and mixed marriages in colonies such as Virginia even until the 1650s, became an accepted signifier of enslaved status. Laws regarding the behaviour of the white indentured and black enslaved populations became increasingly disparate in their severity. Latent concerns surrounding popular rebellion and co-operation in such enterprises between the indentured and enslaved populations saw the colonial elites of the New World begin to shift to race as a signifier of position as opposed to status. Racism became a tool in what we in the modern era might call a crude strategy of ‘divide and conquer’. The word ‘white’ as opposed to ‘Christian’ came increasingly to be used in law so that it was clear that even the lowest status white colonist was far superior to the enslaved. In the very words of the law the enslaved were cast as ‘ferocious’, ‘heathenish’ and ‘brutish’. Miscegenation laws in Virginia made colonists who had interracial relationships subject to exile and banishment and the population of freemen and women came to be increasingly stripped of legal and political rights and treated as pariahs. When ideas of race and slavery did come to exist in English colonial law these laws were brutal, harsh and arguably delineated society and privilege along racial lines in a harsher way than had existed in the Spanish and Portuguese Empires.

To read the Barbados, Jamaican or Virginian slave codes or to read chapter ten of the sixth book of Browne’s Psuedodoxia Epidemica is a powerful reminder to borrow from the introduction of Race in Early Modern England: A Documentary Reader that the idea of ‘race’ is one of the most powerful yet also fragile markers of social difference. In the words of Stuart Hall ‘race’ and ‘racial difference’ are not immutable concepts but “a narrative, a story, a history” that we have been told as a wider society and worse that we came to believe. Race is an imagined construct. Ideas of characteristics, deficiencies and superiorities attributed to skin tone (‘whiteness’, ‘blackness’, ‘redness’) were developed, puzzled through and then galvanised in the context of colonialism and to justify transatlantic slavery.

When we see news stories such as; the death of George Floyd at the hands of the police or the death of Belly Mujinga; when we read about disproportionate Covid-19 deaths or other impacts of institutional racism we need to remember that we are seeing the long consequence of racial ideas set into motion in the context of early modern colonialism. We need to remember that the ‘UK is not better than the US’ as I have seen asserted on twitter, but as the US ideas of race and racial identity are deeply entrenched within the history and development of English identity. These ideas it seems to me are still so entrenched in our wider society that I sometimes wonder if we will ever get past them. Professor Kehinde Andrews has recently argued that only a revolution could see us move beyond race. I can see where he is coming from.

Works called upon (in no particular order):


Sources from Loomba, A., and Burton, J., ed Race in Early Modern England: A Reader


Andrews, K.R., ‘The English in the Caribbean 1560 – 1620’ in K.R. Andrews, N.P. Canny and P.E.H. Hair ed The Westward Enterprise: English Activities in Ireland, the Atlantic and America 1480 – 1650

Blackburn, R., The American Crucible: Slavery, Emancipation and Human Rights

Bradley, P.T., British Maritime Enterprise in the New World: From the late Fifteenth-century to the Mid-Eighteenth Century

Dabydeen, D., Gilmore, J and Jones, C., ed The Oxford Companion to Black British History

Gaskill, M., Between Two Worlds: How the English became American (I’m especially thankful for the third year course I studied on which this text is based)

Guasco, Michael, Slaves and Englishmen: Human Bondage in the Early Modern Atlantic World

Kaufmann, M., Black Tudors: The Untold Story

Kidd, C., British Identities before Nationalism: Ethnicity and Nationhood in the Atlantic World

Kupperman, K.O., Providence Island, 1630 – 1641: The Other Puritan Colony

Mann, B.H. and Tomlins C., The Many Legalities of Early America

Morgan, E.S., American Slavery: American Freedom

Nubia, O., England’s Other Countrymen: Black Tudor Society

Olusoga, D., Black and British: A Forgotten History

Wood, B., The Origins of American Slavery: Freedom and Bondage in the English Colonies


Alias Rebecca

In 1613 a young woman descended the gangplank of a 130-ton ship called The Treasure. The ship, captained by Samuel Argall and owned by the aristocrat and politician Robert Rich had in the year before crossed the Atlantic in a record fifty-seven days, depositing fifty colonists in Virginia.  It had been less than three years since the settlement had suffered the harrowing of the ‘Starving Times’. During this period in the winter of 1609 – 1610 the colonists had resorted to eating dogs, snakes, belt and shoe leather before resorting to the cannibalism that the infamous Captain John Smith would describe as the Virginia passtime of eating the “dish of powdered wife”.

Maintenance of a supply of food had dogged the colony since its inception and the pressures put upon the local Algonquian speaking tribes to supply the colony had led to the outbreak of warfare. In the context of this conflict, the crew of The Treasure had for a year attempted in vain to gain supplies from local Native tribes for the settlers before alighting on a woman known to be her father’s “chief jewel”.

The arrival of the woman to the settlement would have triggered the gathering of a crowd. Yet as she walked into the palisaded settlement and entered amongst the squat English houses, they watched not the triumphal entry of a princess but instead a hostage. As she gazed into the crowd, she may have recognized a face or two, but it had been some time since she had passed visits to the settlement cartwheeling and playing with the English boys of a similar age.

I am of course here telling a part of the story of the life of Pocahontas, to be specific her kidnap by Captain Samuel Argall during the first Anglo-Powhatan War. Understanding her story and how it was spun by both contemporaries and later writers and artists is as key to understanding the forging of English identity in the early modern period as Elizabeth I’s Armada Portrait of 1588.**

To find the tangible facts of the life of Pocahontas we must peel away centuries of protestant myth-making tied to the colonial project. The Pocahontas biographer has to wade through and pull apart the fact from the fictions of colonial self-promotion as the chief written sources of her life were written by men directly linked to the promotion of English colonisation either for political or financial reasons. Historians have to read between the lines; they contend that she was born around the year 1596 and that as such she was a prepubescent child when the English arrived in 1607. As part of the naming practices of her people she was known by the names Matoaka and Amonute and that she was a favourite daughter of Wahunsenaca (also known as Powhatan) the paramount leader of a large and sophisticated alliance of Algonquian speaking people living in the Virginia Tidewater basin. Pocahontas meaning ‘little wanton’ according the writer and colonist William Strachey was probably a nickname and nod to her spirited and playful character.

In late 1607 the colonist and one-time leader of the Jamestown settlers Captain John Smith was captured whilst on a mission exploring the Chickahominy river. He was bought to the capital of the Powhatan people at Werowocomoco and here Pocahontas was to take part in a ceremony which would be seized upon and misrepresented throughout history. In December the young Pocahontas was present at a ceremony which sought to adopt Captain John Smith. He would be adopted into the Powhatan people as a Werowance – a minor leader under Wahunsenaca – that would mean the Chief of the Powhatan in his mind could control the new English settlers. The ceremony it is now believed would allow Smith into the tribe via a ritualised death through a faked execution and rebirth. Smith either via misunderstanding or conscious exaggeration turned this event into a tale of capture, terror, near execution and miraculous rescue to sell the part-travelogue, part-autobiography he published in 1624. In a letter to Queen Anne in 1616 he stated that he was manhandled by a multitude of hands and laid against a rock and then:

“…at the minute of my execution, she [Pocahontas] hazarded the beating out of her own brains to save mine; and not only that but so prevailed with her father, that I was safely conducted to Jamestown.”

In his self-promotional 1624 Generall Historie of Virginia he would add the flourish of the young Princess taking his head into her arms. This tale of her befitting the trope of ‘noble savagery’ was either genuinely or purposefully misunderstood and this edited version of events hit its zenith in Disney’s imagined, implausible and completely inaccurate love affair.

From 1607 – 1609 we know that she was a regular visitor to Jamestown. Accounts have her speaking some English (she had taught Smith some Algonquian in return during his captivity), bringing gifts of furs and food and cartwheeling and playing with the young boys of the settlement. Her visits to the settlement would have tailed off with the beginnings of hostilities between the English and Powhatan people.  In a horrific outpouring of violence in August 1610 a wife of the chief of the Paspaheghs was captured alongside her children. Her children were drowned before her, before she being tied to a tree was murdered.

In the midst of this violence according to the surviving oral history of the Mattaponi people she had by 1613 come of age, married a warrior called Kocoum, had a son amongst the Potowomac tribe from whence she was subsequently captured by Samuel Argall. In her capture Pocahontas had found herself to be a bargaining chip used to strongarm Powhatan into ceasing hostilities and ending what is now known as the first Anglo-Powhatan war (there would follow two more wars, the third saw her uncle Opchanacanough then in his eighties shot in the back as a prisoner at Jamestown).

What happened after her capture is foggy. According to English sources following a year of proselytising (lessons and preaching) from the Reverend Alexander Whitacker she elected to convert to Christianity and live amongst the English forever despite being given the opportunity to return to her father. In the oral history of her descendants she suffers sexual violence at the hands of the English and is given no choice but to remain amongst them. Whatever the case her casting off of the ‘savagery’ of her cultural practises in the English view was finalised with her baptism in early 1614 during which she was renamed Rebecca before marrying the widower John Rolfe.

Rolfe is an incredible historic character in his own right; not only was his second (of three) wife a living legend, but he had sailed to the New World upon the ship that would inspire Shakespeare to write The Tempest and saved the burgeoning colony from economic destruction with the introduction of a sweeter, more pleasant strain of tobacco Nicotiana Tabacum which provided the colony with the stable product to produce and export it desperately needed. In a twist of fate the introduction of tobacco would trigger waves of migration and the spread of farms up the James River further and further into Powhatan lands. This pressure would see the fragile peace created by the Rolfe’s marriage punctuated by a massacre of settlers in 1622 (this period of the colony is covered in Sky/Now TV’s Jamestown which focuses on the experience of the first bulk of female settlers – the ‘Maids to Make Wives’).

To quash rumours of conflict and disorder in Virginia Pocahontas, her husband and their child Thomas were brought to England in 1616 on the orders of the Governor of the Colony. Again, in a weird quirk of fate, a woman who was known to be unmatched amongst women in her grace and deportment was lodged in an inn named The Bell Savage. Her arrival in England was meant to cement in the English imagination the success of the Virginia colony, attract more settlers and illustrate the success of the company in fulfilling one of the missions of its charter – to subjugate and bring civility to a people described in English sources as savages, heathens, cannibals and children of the Devil. The image we have of her in her life is from this period.

The one image we have of her from life is a masterclass in propaganda and symbolism of which the Virgin Queen herself would be proud and was created during her time in England. In it Pocahontas is framed as an allegory of the success of the English imperial project. She is framed not with the signifiers of her status within her own culture but instead through symbols that an English audience would understand. Instead of deer skin she wears the fashions of an English royal. The expensive ruff and Jacobean gown which in portraits related to the engraving is of a rich and royal red velvet show her wealth and status. In her hand she holds an expensive ostrich feather fan (these also being the symbol of the Prince of Wales). She also wears a very luxurious, very cutting-edge beaver skin hat encircled with what looks like pearls. Both of these items, it was hoped could be traded for and found in the New World. The text in the lingua franca of educated Europe that encircles the image tells us the sitter is Matoaka, also known as Rebecca the daughter of the Powerful Prince and Emperor of the Native people of Virginia, Powhatan. The image was created to highlight that the English were successful in their mission to spread their culture and religion to the people of the New World.

Her image promoted a colonisation that would see her people pushed from their lands and a cycle of violence that would lead to enslavement and the Reservation. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries the Natives and then peoples of Africa became convenient ‘others’ to measure English civility against. In the early Stuart era it was hypothesised that the Natives were just as white people some writers even asserted that they might purposefully darken their skin to keep away the “biteing of muscetoes” yet by 1676 the Native American had begun to be understood in racial terms as “tawney” and later “red”. In the decades after her death the Native peoples shifted in the English imagination from noble savage, pliant and desparate to be converted to a people to be violently subjected and othered. Whilst Rolfe and Pocahontas’ marriage had been heralded as evidence of cross-cultural harmony by 1691 miscegenation laws in Virginia banned any white English man or woman from marrying those of Native or African descent.

Understanding the story of Pocahontas can help us understand the deep colonial roots of the English nation. Within two years of Pocahontas’ death the first enslaved Africans would arrive in Virginia. To highlight how pervasive the early Empire was in areas of history already very familiar to us The Treasure which had kidnapped Pocahontas and The White Lion which bought the first slaves to America were owned by the same man – Robert Rich, later Earl of Warwick. He would lead the Parliamentarian fleet in the Civil War and his heir married Oliver Cromwell’s daughter Frances. Cromwell of course is known for his own colonial violence in Ireland and during the interregnum oversaw the shipping of Civil War prisoners to the colonies including Barbados.

Her mythologised story of a love affair with Smith and saving his life was proposed as a Southern alternative to the North’s Puritans and Pilgrims in the nineteenth century. In the shadow of the ‘Trail of Tears’ and ‘Manifest Destiny’ her image was again returned to as American artists painted her baptism and marriage. It was used by Americans to promote the push for assimilation and the Boarding School. Pocahontas’ story reminds us that when we pick up the story of the Native Americans in the 1860s at A-Level or GCSE, or when we look at Slavery that that story is rooted in English history.

We have a long and complex connection with Empire to grapple with. The men who kidnapped Pocahontas saw themselves as English, the Americans were the Natives. I really think our students should understand this.

**I use English here as Virginia was an English colony tied to earlier Elizabethan settlement at Roanoake and whilst Scotland would have colonies, the population at large in Ireland was largely framed in the same visual and literary tropes as the Native Americans – at turns to be civilised, not to be trusted, or destroyed. When I talk of the ‘colonial project’ I use this as short-hand for the mission to develop both trade and spread and propagate English modes of living and worship amongst the Native peoples in a land that was seen as the ‘wilderness’.

Extra Reading:

Indians and English: Facing off in Early America by Karen Ordahl Kupperman

Pocahontas and the English Boys: Caught between Cultures in Early America by Karen Ordahl Kupperman

Red, White and Black: the Peoples of Early North America by Gary B. Nash

Between Two Worlds: How the English Became American by Malcolm Gaskill

Teasing out a Tapestry: Or how studying the Early Empire changed my historical perspective for life

As historians and history teachers we love a well placed analogy. For many of us the planning of a secondary curriculum will forever be planting a garden. As our curriculum evolves we will forever be pottering. Yet, alongside the weeding and planting is the process of learning history that our students are going through, which in my mind (forever the early modernist) is the weaving of a tapestry.

From childhood we are continuously gathering threads of substantive knowledge. If we have the privilege visits to museums and galleries might add extra colour and shade to stories we encounter formally in the classroom. For those lucky enough to take their historical studies through A-Level and beyond enough links and overlap between topics will be built to allow for the weaving of more coherent pictures. It might be a history of a country, an era or the beginning of an understanding of history at a certain moment across a geographical span. For some, the threads might always remain a disconnected jumble.

The most powerful moment of tapestry building for me came by complete accident. In fact, if I had had my way it would never have happened.

I spent my first year of undergraduate history choosing courses in a way that reflected the way I had learnt at school – a random topic on the Tudors here, a history of the anti-Semitism going back to the ancient period there, Nationalism in twentieth century Europe with a dose of the history of football and a random grab at Henry V and Chivalry on top for good measure. The curriculum I was creating for myself was a supermarket sweep of disparate topics. Piles of patterns were building in corners but I was building no really unified pictures and the courses were largely focused on either England or Europe or had a limited scope.

Then the magic happened, literally. I stumbled on a course upon the witch-hunts and found it fascinating.

I spent second year chasing early modern social history and the stories of riotous women, rebellions, deviants and criminals across Europe and the Atlantic. My picture of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries was expanding. Still though that high-political Tudor obsession fuelled by visits to Hampton Court and a childhood rifling through Pitkin guides to the Six Wives and the Tower of London (weirdo) meant I had a hankering to spend third year in the Henrician Court that just wouldn’t quit. Luckily for me, the third year Tudor specialist course at my university was at the time led by Professor Suzannah Lipscomb. Reader – it got booked up fast. That door to a year with Henry and Wolsey shutting changed my historical perspective forever.

I ended up instead on a course entitled ‘The English in the Americas: c.1580 – c.1692’. I got to spend a year investigating how the Natives went from being a pliable group ripe for conversion to peoples to be subjected; how figures like Pocahontas and free Africans in Virginia and Massachusetts came to live between cultures. I immersed myself in how ideas of race, identity, gender were played out, constructed and consolidated in a new Atlantic context through the richness of the literature and source material of the period.

I can still remember the ground shifting beneath my metaphorical historical feet as topics I had studied previously – an A-Level coursework on Michael Collins and Irish Nationalism, my first year witch-hunts module which of course included Salem, the Civil War, Puritanism and the Slave Trade suddenly became rooted in a shared global context. Studies of Othello at A-level, family ties to Barbados, growing up in an area with a rich Caribbean heritage, visits to my Grandparents in Sir Francis Drake’s corner of Devon, watching ‘Pocahontas’ as a child, Thanksgiving episodes of American TV shows and my own identity suddenly not only developed a deeper meaning but were also problematised.

Knowledge is power and in learning about the early Empire and colonisation my historical perspective and sense of self was powered up from 2D to 4D. My knowledge went from messy jumbles to (this one is for all the Mantel fans out there) Cromwell’s ‘Queen of Sheba’.

I have been fascinated with anything to do with the early colonies, migration or identity in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries ever since. Yet in 2012 – 2013 when I started to think about becoming a history teacher I kicked myself. Why had I bothered with such an off-kilter specialism? How could a year spent reading accounts of cross-cultural encounters with the Native peoples of Virginia or Massachusetts ever come in handy in the secondary context? How was knowing the ins and outs of the codifications of the Slave Codes or the construction of race and identity in the early modern world ever going to help students pass their GCSEs?

Luckily 2016 came. The AQA Migration topic arrived and since then the work of the ERC Tide Project, Runnymede Trust, Olusoga and Kaufmann, the push to diversify and decolonise the curriculum has given me lots of hope.

We are also seeing a real shift in the historiography of the early Empire – the 1619 Project in 2019 was created to highlight America’s long history of black presence and to ensure awareness that the quincentenary of the setting up of the Virginia Assembly also coincided with the arrival of the first enslaved Africans to Virginia as a result of privateering.

This year sees too the quincentenary of the arrival of the Pilgrims to the New World allowing for analyses of how that story has been mythologised and used to justify WASP superiority whilst hiding the stories of the Wampanoag and other peoples such as the Pequot. It seems like a ripe time to be expanding our teaching of the Tudor and Stuart worlds.

Obviously. Obvi-ou-sly though I am biased. I spent my weekends pre-Covid in the British Library prepping for a Masters in the area looking at black presence and privateering I am taking up in 2021. I have already written a Teaching History article on how I have used the work of Miranda Kaufmann, David Olusoga and Jerry Brotton and my own knowledge from university to develop an enquiry into the expansion of the Tudor and Stuart world.

Obviously too, anyone on a journey to expertise in history will build up their own sophisticated tapestries in their own area. Yet I think approaching migration/colonisation and the Atlantic world in the c16th and c17th is a powerful way of building links across ‘traditional topics’ featured in our curriculum and providing us an opportunity to root the familiar stories of the Tudor and the Stuarts in a global context that might just shift our students thinking as to what history is and can be.

I think we should all get this area into our KS3s because it is ripe for:

  1. Highlighting the power of cross-cultural encounters – Pocahontas, John Blanke, Diego, the Moroccan delegation all highlight the complexity of identity in the early modern period. How social and racial difference was constructed and how people in the early modern past like today existed in the space between cultures.
  2. Showing a historiography that is literally shifting before our eyes Pocahontas’ story was heavily mythologised to create a ‘Southern’ origin story during the Civil War. English historians are trying to reclaim the early colonists as English and not proto-Americans. Archeological discoveries such as ‘Jane‘ at Jamestown have literally changed our understanding of the story of early America within the past seven years.
  3. Moving the Puritans onto the Global Stage – Far from just annoying Elizabeth I and being the cronies of Cromwell the Puritan migration to America is central to the creation myth of America and later ideas of American exceptionalism.
  4. Context is King – In studying the early modern Atlantic world we can give a grounding to courses on the Slave Trade, studies of modern Ireland (Elizabethan and Jacobean colonisation attempts their being seen as the blueprint for later actions against the Native Americans), the later Americans and most importantly I think for studies of the American West and Civil Rights courses that begin with the era of Manifest Destiny and Wounded Knee.
  5. The Characters are Incredible – Thomas Morton the good-time guy who established a free-loving and drinking alternative to Boston and ended up being chased out of town, Pocahontas, her father Powahatan and uncle Opechancanough in Virginia, Anne Hutchinson, Mary Dyer and other women who fell upon the bad sides of the elders of Boston.  The Regicides who fled England at the accession of Charles II and were hunted through New England.

Over the coming weeks I’m going to share how I teach the early Empire and America as well as sharing the stories of my favourite figures and cross-cultural encounters.

Five General Rules every child should get to grips with before approaching Tudor England

  1. The inequality was real:

The Tudors rigidly believed in a social hierarchy where everyone knew their place. To question it was to possibly cause the break down of society and was an extremely dangerous thing to do.

At the very bottom of the Tudor social order where the ‘vagrants’ and the ‘sturdy beggars’ – the homeless and those without employment. Above them were labourers then merchants and yeomen (a fancy Tudor word for wealthy farmers). Then we have the elites – the gentry (your Sirs and Ladies) and the nobility (Dukes, Counts, Earls) and on top of course the King or Queen placed there by God. This was the divine order. Society was held together by the idea of reciprocity – that the poor would respect and bow to those better than themselves and in turn the wealthy would look after the poor particularly in times of hardship or famine. When the wealthy were seen to not be living up to this expectation rebellions (such as Kett’s rebellion in 1549) might be triggered. It might suprise you to know though that even when Tudor people did rebel on mass they often remained very deferential – they wouldn’t call for the overthrowing of the monarch or the elites but instead would often come up with lists of small grievances to be dealt with by the monarch.

Attitudes towards poverty and homelessness were extremely harsh in the Tudor period. The poor were divided into the ‘deserving poor’ (e.g. those with disabilities or illnesses that made work impossible) and the ‘undeserving poor’ (e.g. those who might ‘choose’ to beg instead of honest work or who had ruined themselves through gambling or drink). The deserving poor would receive charity and licenses to beg whilst undeserving poor would be treated extremely harshly – by the end of the reign of Queen Elizabeth they could be whipped, maimed and homeless vagrants were forced out of towns.

2. Names, spellings and places were not standardised:

Standardised spelling (e.g. one way of spelling objects/places/names) did not exist until the era of Samuel Johnson in the eighteenth century. For instance you may have heard that the man William Shakespeare himself never wrote his surname the same way twice. This can make studying the Tudor era confusing. It definitely makes reading a Tudor source in it’s original language difficult.

If you are reading a source in the original sixteenth century language it is a good idea to read it aloud to try and get a jist of what is being said as people wrote phonetically and this could mean that spellings changed in different areas of the British Isles.

You will also have to get used to the idea that particularly at the court as people’s careers and influence progressed they literally collected titles (different names that they would be known by). For instance Edward Seymour (brother of Jane Seymour and uncle to Edward VI) was known in his lifetime as Viscount Beauchamp, the Earl of Hertford, Duke of Somerset and the Lord Protector. You might therefore see him called Seymour, Hertford, Somerset or the Lord Protector in a book or textbook depending on what era of his life a historian is discussing. It’s a good idea to jot these down in a list as you study so you can put the different titles to a name!

Similarly despite Henry VIII marrying three Catherines you will see very different spellings – Katharine, Kathryn and Catherine/Katherine (let’s not even get started on the fact that Henry VIII sometimes called them Kate/Kat/Kitty).

3. Who run the world? Men:

The 1500s were not a place for Beyonce. As a result of theology, the story of Adam and Eve and ancient medical beliefs the world of the early modern era was patriarchal (run by men). Women had no political or legal standing – in fact when a woman was married her possessions and her being became the property of her husband. Women and men lived in different worlds (the theory of separate spheres). A man could lead a life in the ‘public’ sphere – run a business, discuss politics, earn a living whilst a woman should live a life in the ‘domestic’ sphere running the house and raising children. Of course not all women and men fitted perfectly into this model – poor and merchant class women may have been involved in the running of the family business but this was the largely accepted norm.

Alongside the idea of ‘seperate spheres’ also came beliefs about the differences between the body and intellect of men and women. Under the ancient theory of the four humours it was believed that women’s bodies were inferior and unfinished – their humours running cold and wet versus the perfect male hot and dry. It was believed that a woman’s womb could regularly detatch from the body and ‘wander’ to her brain causing emotion, melancholy and hysteria (the word literally coming from the greek for womb). Meanwhile it was believed that women also suffered periods as they couldn’t burn off excess blood like men. The medical deficiencies of a woman’s body were believed to make her intellectually inferior, prone to sin and vice and in need of the control of man to keep her chaste and decent. Meanwhile in what is known as the ‘sexual double standard’ the idea of a man (particularly a noble or royal) having a mistress was just part of accepted every day life.

The idea of separate spheres would make the lives of Queens Mary and Elizabeth extremely difficult as even the role of Queen was heavily gendered. A King would be expected to lead the ‘public’ life and lead the army in a time of war as warrior whilst the Queen provided charity and bore children. Mary and Elizabeth would both need find their own solutions to that problem.

4. Privacy? What is that?

Many students (and adults too if I’m at an event at a museum) ask me just how on earth we know so much about the Tudors and one reason we do is that they just had no concept of privacy. There are even academic books on the fact that the concept didn’t exist until the modern era! Imagine that. Living your life with zero privacy around family, friends or servants constantly.

It might seem crazy, but there was a real logic to this. There are two main reasons for the lack of privacy; first being lifestyle and second that the Tudors lived in a very religious and moralistic era. In a time before a proper police force people spied on and policed each other. Gossip held real power – what you said you had seen or heard mattered. In fact the executions of both Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard relied upon the hearsay of what courtiers had claimed to have seen and heard.

To come back to lifestyle one reason why we know so much particularly about the Tudor family and court life is the way the court and household worked. Firstly the court consisted of hundreds or thousands of people living cheek by jowl. Secondly the day to day tasks of life that we take for granted (eating, dressing, going to the toilet) were heavily ritualised and would involve a number of people. For instance you may have heard that one of the most sort after posts at court was the Groom of the Stool – literally being the man who helped the king go to the toilet! The complex layers of clothing worn in the era by the nobility (all laced and put together with pins) would also mean that you would need numerous people to help you get dressed and undressed. You can get an idea of how complex dress was by checking out my friend Gina’s page where she shows her historical costuming here.

5. Sheep! The greatest animal and biggest problem of the Tudor era?

Finally, believe it or not sheep were massively important to the Tudor era. I might argue they were one of the most important things in the Tudor world.

The wool trade was a massive industry. English merchants imported wool cloth abroad to places such as Antwerp were it was finished and dyed. The trade was so important that to this day if you take a tour of the Houses of Parliament you will see that the House of Commons still feature a bale of wool known as the ‘wool sack’ that was used to standardise measure of it. In perhaps one of the most famous images of the Renaissance – the Arnolfini portrait – Giovanni di Nicolao Arnolfini’s wife is portrayed in a dress made of dyed English wool.

A decrease in access to the markets in Antwerp could cause depressions that saw thousands lose their income. Meanwhile whole villages were evicted to make room for the gentry to raise large flocks. The writer (and head-chopped-off-victim of Henry VIII) Sir Thomas More called sheep ‘the devourers of men’ because of the problems they caused the poor. The increase in profits surrounding wool across the era would inadvertently cause poverty, depression and social disorder but if you are studying the Tudors at A-Level or GCSE you will probably hear more about that from your teachers!