One of the more unusual elements of Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991, dir. Kevin Reynolds) is Azeem (Morgan Freeman), a black Muslim who helps Robin escape from a Muslim prison in Jerusalem. He declares that he owes Robin a life debt (which, by the way, is pretty much an entirely literary concept, without much basis in the real world) and so he returns to England with Robin, whom he insists on calling “Christian”.
Azeem is a new additional to the Robin Hood corpus, with no parallel in the medieval literature or even the earlier Robin Hood films. He seems to have been inspired by the British tv series Robin of Sherwood’s Nasir, a Muslim assassin brought to England as a prisoner who eventually escapes and joins the Merry Men. In RH:PoT’s original script, Freeman’s character was called Nasir until the name was changed to avoid the risk of copyright infringement.
So the character is a very recent addition to the stories of Robin Hood. But he naturally raises the issue of whether people like Azeem were around in medieval England. This is really two separate questions. Were there black people in medieval England and were there Muslims in England?
Black People in Medieval England
There is some modest evidence that there were black people in Roman Britain (and again, as a reminder, race is a modern social construct, not a biological one, so speaking about ‘black people’ and ‘white people’ in the Middle Ages is a bit of a simplification). The Roman military routinely recruited soldiers from one region of the Empire and stationed them in a completely different region. Consequently, some of the Roman soldiers stationed in Britain may have included black men recruited from regions of North Africa that had contact with Sub-Saharan Africa, such as Egypt or Mauritania (Roman Morocco). Men from Mauritania were referred to as ‘Moors’, and an inscription near the Aballava fort on Hadrian’s Wall makes reference to a group of “Aurelian Moors” stationed there in the 3rd century AD. We also have a reference to an ‘Ethiopian’ at Hadrian’s Wall. Some of these men probably intermarried with local women and had children. A recent study of the teeth of Roman-era bodies from York determined that around 12% of the population of Roman York may have come from Africa, although North Africa was certainly more common than Sub-Saharan Africa. Other studies of Roman-era cemeteries have found that the percentage of Sub-Saharans buried ranged from 11% to 24%, dropping to 6% in the early 5th century. Most of these bodies appear to have been free rather than slave burials. A 2007 DNA study found evidence of a rare DNA marker from Guinea-Bassau in several men with modern Yorkshire surnames, who might therefore be descended from these soldiers. And in the late 2nd/early 3rd century, many high-ranking Roman officials came from North Africa, some of whom held office in Britain; there is some chance that some of these men were of Sub-Saharan descent. It is also likely that some of the slaves brought to Roman Britain were Sub-Saharans. So it is possible that still in the early Middle Ages, there were men and women of Sub-Saharan ancestry, although whether their skin color and facial features would have marked them as ‘black’ by modern standards is another matter.
In the late 7th century, Pope Vitalian sent Hadrian, a monk from somewhere in North Africa, to Britain, where he became the abbot of a monastery in Canterbury. Hadrian is described as being a Berber, and therefore was probably fair-skinned, but little is known about the man’s ancestry, so it is not impossible that he might have been of Sub-Saharan descent. During the Viking Age, Vikings raided the Iberian coastline and may well have raided parts of North Africa, so it is not impossible that they might have taken black people as slaves and brought them back to the British Isles, but at this point this is nothing more than speculation without evidence to support it.
By the 12th century, when RH:PoT is set, it is unlikely that there were more than a small handful of men and women of African origin or descent in the British Isles. Whereas Italy and the Iberian peninsula had fairly regular contact with North Africa and thus did have modest numbers of black men and women living there, Britain was a fair distance from those parts of Europe. It is certainly possible that a few ‘Moors’ came to Britain, most likely along trade routes from the Iberian peninsula to ports like Bristol. But there were not large enough numbers of them to leave more than very sporadic evidence of their presence behind. For example, in 2013, analysis of a skeleton found in a river in Gloucestershire determined that it belonged to a woman between 18 and 24 who had come from Sub-Saharan Africa some time between 896 and 1025 AD. Who she was and how she got to England is a mystery, but the fact that her body was thrown into a river instead of given a proper burial suggests she may have been low-status, such as a slave. This body is the clearest proof that any person from Sub-Saharan Africa lived in England before the end of the Middle Ages.
Medieval people certainly knew that some people had black skin. St Maurice was pictured as a black man, and Balthasar, one of the Three Wise Men, was often depicted that way as well. A manuscript produced in England around 1241 depicts a black man clinging to a large initial letter. If artists understood that some people had black skin, the most likely possibility is that they had seen such people or knew those who had.
So it seems likely that there were at least small numbers of black men and women in medieval England. They were probably fairly rare, and most likely to be encountered in the larger cities, having come there probably from the Iberian peninsula for commercial reasons or perhaps as the slave or servant of a wealthy man or woman. But the notion of a black man who traveled from Jerusalem to Nottingham in the 1190s is not impossible, although such a man would certainly have been very unusual.
Muslims in Medieval England
Were there Muslims in medieval England? Here the basic answer is no. England was not a religiously pluralistic society. With the exception of the tiny Jewish community (expelled in the 1290s), by the 11th century everyone in England was expected to be Christian, and would have been baptized into the Christian community a few days after birth. Muslims would have enjoyed no legal protection whatsoever. So it is very unlikely the Muslim merchants from the Iberian peninsula would have come to England to sell their wares. Not impossible, but extremely improbable.
Having said that, however, archaeologists digging in the remains of the Franciscan friary in Ipswich, England, in the 1990s discovered a skeleton of a man born somewhere in North Africa (probably Tunisia, and probably of Berber or Arabic descent) in the period between 1190 and 1300. This means that he was almost certainly born as a Muslim. But he had lived the last decade of life in England, probably at the Franciscan friary. An additional 8 skeletons found on the site also appear to have come from North Africa. Who were these 9 presumably Muslim North Africans and how had they come to live out their last years in a Franciscan friary? One plausible theory is that they were prisoners captured during the 8th Crusade, which briefly attacked Tunisia. The Franciscans are also known to have attempted missionary work in North Africa in this period, so perhaps these 9 were converts won during one of those missions. Regardless, the fact that they were buried in a Franciscan cemetery strongly points to them having converted from Islam to Christianity. So while there may have been a small number of men and women who were born as Muslims living in England, it is improbable that there were any practicing Muslims, although we cannot completely eliminate the possibility of a Muslim dignitary or merchant having briefly visited the region. So while Azeem as a black man in England is possible (if somewhat unlikely), Azeem as a Muslim is pretty implausible.
Want to Know More?
Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves [Double Sided]is available on Amazon.
There isn’t a whole lot of scholarship on black people in medieval England, but there is an excellent Tumblr devoted to People of Color in European Art History that demonstrates that some medieval artists definitely knew that black people existed.