May Day has a long history. Although since 1889 it has been celebrated as International Workers Day, celebration on the first of May goes back centuries. In the middle ages it was a holiday, a traditional day of carnival. It marked the arrival of spring: many people would take the day off work, gathering from the evening before to drink, dance, play games and get off with each other. In London was notably popular among the apprentices, who were always a rowdy lot. But days of celebration, drinking and partying could easily turn to rioting, especially when the city was disturbed by political or social tensions. In 1517, the Mayday party was to turn very nasty…
Londoners have often been suspicious of foreigners, particularly if they thought the newcomers represented competition for jobs. Even among the most positive class uprisings that have enriched London’s history, this element of xenophobia can be seen: for instance in the 1381 Peasants Revolt, some Londoners took the opportunity to attack Flemish craftsmen working in London. As today, the wealthy elite was quite happy to hire ‘cheap foreign labour’ & then fail, or be unwilling, to protect them from local resentment: playing us off against each other has always worked quite nicely for them.
During the reign of Henry VIII, there was an increase in the numbers of migrants living in London. Many were craftsmen who settled outside the City walls, often in Spitalfields and the Bishopsgate area. Some brought new skills and techniques, in trades as diverse as weaving, silver and gold-smithing, jewellery making, tailoring, clockmaking and brewing. There were celebrated printers, basket makers, joiners and caterers. While some of these skills made them welcomed by the wealthy, they also aroused anger and resentment from the existing artisan population.
London actually had quite the racial mix of the time, with the Italians forming “a commercial and financial aristocracy”. There were Frenchman and Jews. Greeks, Italians and Spaniards comprised London’s physicians. Studying these migrants throws up some interesting parallels with the more recent targets of racism. Many arrived fleeing religious persecution in their home countries. There was also a tendency to work hard to establish themselves. In the way of things, in a pattern seen over centuries in London, such groups often become gradually assimilated, although not without hostility, ostracism and campaigns of denunciation and some level of abuse and attacks. On occasion, there are major outbreaks of mass violence. These usually spark from an external trigger – often economic hard times.
In the early sixteenth century, London was suffering from a trade recession. In 1517, complaints started to rise, against the ‘large number of foreigners living in the city’. John Lincoln, described as a broker, or second-hand dealer, persuaded Dr. Beal, the vicar of St Mary’s Church in Spitalfields, to preach against the foreigners in his sermon in Easter week of 1517. Beal agreed and to a great congregation in the fields outside the city he “denounced the aliens who stole Englishmen’s livelihoods and seduced their wives and daughters; he said that even birds expelled interlopers from their nests, and that men were entitled to fight for their country against foreigners.” Over the following two weeks there were sporadic attacks on foreigners and rumours abounded “that on May Day next the city would rebel and slay all aliens”.
Sebastian Giustinian, the Venetian ambassador in England, reported: “With this exasperating language and much more besides, he so irritated the populace that they threatened to cut the strangers to pieces and sack their houses on the first of May.”
The usual complaints, familiar in every generation against every new group of incomers, began to circulate. Edward Hall, a twenty year old student, wrote: “The multitude of strangers was so great about London that the poor English could get any living… The foreigners… were so proud that they disdained, mocked, and oppressed the Englishmen, which was the beginning of the grudge… The Genoans, Frenchmen, and other strangers said and boasted themselves to be in such favour with the king and his council that they set naught by the rulers of the city… How miserably the common artificers lived, and scarcely could get any work to find them, their wives, and children, for there were such a number of artificers strangers that took away all the living in manner.” Mod-up the language and its right of the Daily Mail.
On 28th April 1517 John Lincoln, clearly the Nigel Farage of his day, posted a bill upon the door of St Paul’s Cathedral, complaining that “the foreigners” were given too much favour by the king and council. It claimed that “the foreigners” had “bought wools to the undoing of Englishmen”. Sebastian Giustinian went to see Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, and then king Henry VIII, on April 29th, worried about the rumours that “people would rise and kill the foreigners on May Day”…
King Henry promised that all foreigners would be protected. Cardinal Wolsey instructed the Lord Mayor and the city officers to enforce a curfew on the eve of May Day.
Sir Thomas More, the Under-Sheriff of London and his men, patrolled the streets on the night of April 30th. Some young apprentices broke the curfew – when an officer tried to arrest one of them, a riot broke out. More’s men charged the rioters with their staves. This inflamed the situation – soon afterwards a large crowd of young people were attacking foreigners and burning the houses of Venetian, French, Italian, Flemish and German merchants. However this was only the prelude to the events of the following day…
Edward Hall reported that “diverse young men of the city assaulted the aliens as they passed by the streets, and some were stricken and some were buffeted, and some thrown into the canal… Then suddenly was a common secret rumour, and no man could tell how it began, then on May Day next the city would rebel and slay all aliens, in so much as diverse strangers fled out of the city.”
It was reported that rioters ran through the city with “clubs and weapons… throwing stones, bricks, bats, hot water, shoes and boots, and sacking the houses of many foreigners”. It is estimated that 2,000 Londoners sacked the houses of foreign merchants.
“…alderman Sir John Murray tried to arrest two boys enjoying a bout of ‘sword and buckler’ in front of a large crowd of apprentices they took it that the City authorities intended to suppress traditional rights. With a cry of ‘Clubs!’ poor Sir John was chased off and his quarry left to escape.
Frayed tempers and London gossip soon created a number of street-corner crowds led by both workers and ‘gentlemen’.
Then more people arose out of every quarter, and out came Servingmen, and Watermen, and Courtiers, and by a XI of the clock there were in Chepe six or seven hundred. And out of
Paul’s Churchyard came three hundred which wist not of the other, and so out of all places they gathered, and brake up the Counters, and took out the prisoners that the Mayor had hither committed for hurting of the strangers, and came to Newgate and took out Studley and Petyt, committed thither for that cause .
More, now in a funk over what to do next, tried to talk the crowds into going home when they reached St Martin’s Le Grand but his band of supporters were pelted, abused and forced to retreat, leaving the rioters free to attack property and passers-by in Cheapside, Cornhill and Fenchurch Street. A foreign merchant called John Meantys had his house wrecked. Originating in Picardy, Meantys was not merely the King’s French Secretary, he was also well known for sharp practice and illicit wool carding.”
The rioting continued all night and on the morning and afternoon of May Day. According to Jasper Ridley: “The hated Frenchmen were the chief target of the rioters. Several were assaulted in the street. The French ambassador escaped, when his house was attacked, by hiding in a church steeple… The London watch was quite incapable of dealing with the rioters. The Constable of the Tower opened fire on them with his cannon, but only shot a few rounds and did no damage.”
That afternoon, Thomas Howard, Earl of Surrey, brought 1,300 soldiers into the city and mass arrests began to take place. The first batch of 279 people were brought before the courts later that day. Edward Hall described the prisoners as “some men, some lads, some children of thirteen years… there was a great mourning of fathers and friends for their children and kinsfolk.”
There is some disagreement about how many people were punished for the riotous events. Estimates for the number executed ranged from eleven to as high as sixty. Those executed suffered the penalty of being “hanged, drawn and quartered”.
John Lincoln was tried separately on 6th May. He was found guilty and executed. The public was said to be shocked by the way Henry VIII had dealt with the rioters, especially as they commented that no one had been killed by the rioters. Jasper Ridley points out: “For the first time since he became King, Henry risked his popularity with the people by his severe repression of the anti-foreign rioters of Evil May Day. The resentment felt against the foreigners; the sympathy for the young apprentices; the grief of the parents when their boys of thirteen were executed; the feeling that in many cases the more innocent had been punished while the more guilty escaped; and the tales, which Hall reported, of the brutality of the Earl of Surrey’s soldiers who suppressed the disorders, all aroused great sympathy of the rioters.”
Although the king was accused of being “far more sympathetic to foreigners than the common folk”, it was clearly very important for Henry “to show the foreign merchants that they could safely come to London and carry on their business there; and, even more important, he would not tolerate anarchy in his realm, or any defiance of his royal authority and laws.”
According to Edward Hall the rest of the captured rioters (said to be as many as 400), with halters around their necks, were brought to Westminster Hall in the presence of Henry VIII. He sat on his throne, from where he condemned them all to death. Cardinal Thomas Wolsey then fell on his knees and begged the king to show compassion while the prisoners themselves called out “Mercy, Mercy!” Eventually the king relented and granted them pardon. At which point they cast off their halters and “jumped for joy”.
Tensions over migration, however, have obviously cropped since… Many times. As they are again today. While the ability of malcontents like John Lincoln to involve hundreds in pogroms has diminished, there’s no telling how things will pan out. Especially with the plethora of sunny commentators and media whipping up hysteria against migrants wherever they can.
An entry in the 2016 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online