Today in London’s radical history: Arrest of apprentice sparks riot, Bermondsey, 1592.

“There was great disorder in Southwark last evening, until about 8 o’clock at night, when the Lord Mayor, taking with him one of the Sheriffs, came down upon the rioters…”

The late sixteenth century in England was a time of great social and economic change, recession, and hunger. Enclosures were starting to really bite into people’s lives in the countryside (pushing people into the cities in search of survival); the centuries-old welfare system based on the monasteries had been sabotaged; economic upheaval, war and the breakdown of traditional work patterns were driving thousands to poverty.

The years 1581-1602 in London have been described as “an epidemic of disorder”, peaking in the crisis years of 1590-95. London saw a number of disturbances, riots, planned uprisings, plots, as well as pamphlet wars, an undertone of religious discontent…

On 11 June 1592 a street riot began in Bermondsey Street and Blackfriars, in modern Southwark, sparked by what was seen as the unjust imprisonment of a feltmonger’s apprentice in the Marshalsea prison. In some ways it was a foretaste of riotous events three years later (when crowds of angry apprentices launched riots over food prices, and plotted an abortive uprising); an expression of the rumblings of discontent seething in the capital.

Southwark, London south of river, known as the ‘rogues retreat’ for its history of rebelliousness, crime, disorder (its alleys being far from the centres of London’s law, hard to police), was prone to outbreaks of trouble.

The immediate cause of the riot was offensive behaviour by the Knight marshal’s men, who broke in upon the family of a feltmonger’s apprentice with daggers drawn, and carted him and some others to prison without charge.

Marshal’s men were keepers of order, sometimes servants of the Marshalsea, a royal prison’; more often servants of the city, a kind of military police, employed in times of unrest and extra disorder.

“great multitudes of people assembled together and the principal actors to be certain apprentices of the feltmakers gathered together… with a great number of loose and masterless men apt for such purpose.”

The crowd moved to block the authorities, “the said apprentices and masterless men assembled themselves by occasion and pretence of their meeting at a ply which besides the breach of the Sabbath day giveth opportunity of committing these and such-like disorders. The principal doers in this rude tumult I mean to punish to the example of others, wherein it may please your Lordship to give men your direction if you shall advise upon anything meet to be done for the farthest punishment of said offenders.”

No different to more recent riots in our own times, the official reports into the trouble flags up how the arrogant and violent behaviour of the lawmen had provoked agro:

“Hereof I though meet to advertise your Lordship, which I am informed by the inhabitants of Southwark, men of best reputation among them, that the Knight Marshal’s men in their serving of their warrants do not use themselves in that good discretion and moderate usage as were meet to be done in like cases, but after a most tough and violent manner provoking them by such hard dealing to contend with them, which otherwise would obey in all dutiful sort; as I understand they did in this case, where they entered the house where the warrant was to be served with a dagger drawn, affrighting the good wife who sat by the fire with a young infant in her arms, and afterwards, having taken away the party and certain others and committed them to prison where they lay five days without making their answer; these mutinous apprentices assembled themselves in their disordered manner; the said Marshal’s men, being “within the Mareschalsea issued forth with their daggers drawn and with bastinadoes in the hands beating the people, whereof some came that way by chance to gaze as the manner is, and afterwards drew their swords, whereby the tumult was rather incensed, and themselves endangered but that help came to prevent further mischiefs.”

Although the swaggering marshal’s men had been the spark, there were rumours that the mob had expressed other grievances – their poverty, the alleged preferential treatment foreign workers were given over London’s older craftsmen… Xenophobia, then, as now, finding an outlet when times were hard. Social and economic change brought great hardship; in many ways the beginnings of the radical challenge to traditional class hierarchies that brought the English Civil War fifty years later were already evident…



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