The London apprentices had a reputation for their rowdiness, and willingness to cause trouble; for centuries they were famed for getting involved in political upheavals, of all dimensions. Their economic position sparked many grievances; their youth led to much boisterousness. They were also jealous of their traditions; and because their working lives were notoriously long and hard, they celebrated the public holidays drunkenly, loudly, and often riotously.
So when the puritan regime that had taken control of Parliament during the English civil war years began to impose a leaner and more moralistic society, it didn’t go down well with the apprentices…
In 1647, having largely beaten king Charles I in the war, Parliament declared that it was planning to ban all of the old public holidays – Christmas, Easter, Shrove Tuesday, Saints Days and the like. Sunday was to be the only day of rest, and it was to be spent in prayer and quiet worship, not carousing and drinking. Not only were they all relics of the old catholic church, idolatrous expressions of what the puritans saw as worldly heresy, but they also encouraged immorality of all kinds, and could easily end up in riots or insurrections. (In fact a repression of such popular culture was in swing throughout all of Europe, catholic and protestant). An ordinance in 1644 closing down many of the festivals had been implemented previously, to limited effect and some resistance.
On April 20th 1647 a march of apprentices took place, from Covent Garden to Westminster, to protest at the plan. They petitioned Parliament to replace the banned holidays with a day off of their own.
However Parliament pressed ahead, issuing the Ordinance on June 8th: “Forasmuch as the feast of the nativity of Christ, Easter, Whitsuntide, and other festivals, commonly called holy-days, have been heretofore superstitiously used and observed; be it ordained, that the said feasts, and all other festivals, commonly called holy-days, be no longer observed as festivals; any law, statute, custom, constitution, or canon, to the contrary in anywise not withstanding.”
The apprentices threatened a mass meeting; at a time when the captive king was negotiating a peace with the parliament, but some of the moderate elements at Westminster were plotting with him, and the New Model Army was threatening to march on London. More disorder from the apprentices wasn’t what Parliament needed at this time. They partially cave in, granting “all scholars, apprentices, and other servants, with the leave and approbation of their masters, should have such relaxation from labour on the second Tuesday in every month as they used to have from such festivals and holy days”…
But the apprentices were not a homogenous mob. Different political opinions were distributed amongst them, although certain trades often adhered to strand of ideas, and some wards were known for particular politics.
The discontent of the apprentices left some of them vulnerable to manipulation by agents of the royalist party, poised to exploit popular agitation against the government. Although in the early days of the civil war thousands of apprentices had taken up the parliamentary cause, some were now willing to side with the king. One faction was pressing for the king’s return to power, albeit with a negotiated settlement of some of the original grievances that had led to war. In July, a mass meeting of apprentices and watermen pledged to support the king. This, together with threatening clouds of royalist intrigue, led to the New Model Army’s march on London in late July and August:
“This occasioned a great tumult, which originated in Moorfields, and agitated the metropolis for a couple of days. It is said that, but for the vigorous action of Fairfax, the Government would have been overthrown. The people mastered a part of the trainbands, seized their drums and colours, beat up for recruits, then forming into something like military order, they surprised Newgate and Ludgate in the night, and seized the keys. The rioters divided into two parties: one marched upon Whitehall, but were discomfited en route; the other ranged the city, possessing themselves of ordnance, arms, and ammunition. Prompt measures were, however, taken at a council of war, and Fairfax, entering the city at the head of two regiments, put several to the sword, took many prisoners, and dispersed the rest.”
The puritans were to press forward with the repression of festivals, however, banning much of the pageantry associated with Christmas; however riots and disorder continued to disrupt their purse-mouthed prudery…
An entry in the 2016 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online