Foreign traders were attracted to the City of London by England’s prosperous trade in wool and cloth. They were not always made welcome.
A thousand or more angry demonstrators converged on the precinct of St Martin-le-Grand church, north of St Paul’s Cathedral, on the evening of 30 April 1517. They were united by their frustration at the large numbers of foreign residents in the City, which had swelled in recent years. St Martin’s was a ‘liberty’. In other words, an enclave under direct ecclesiastical authority and exempt from control by the Common Council of London. The City fathers, anticipating trouble, had imposed a curfew and arranged for street patrols to maintain law and order. Around 11pm an official posse, led by Thomas More, one of the two under-sheriffs, confronted the troublemakers at St Martin’s and tried to persuade them to disperse. When they replied that his writ did not run within the liberty, More ordered men on horseback to make a baton charge. It was not a wise move for someone whose supporters were heavily outnumbered. Within minutes, More and his escort were forced to make a hasty, ignominious retreat.
The mob went on the rampage. In a night of destruction and looting they attacked the houses and business premises of foreign merchants and artisans. By daylight on May Day, a public holiday, the number of rioters had increased to more than 2,000, if contemporary reports are to be trusted. Assuming the population of London to be around 100,000 at the time, this was a significant outbreak of popular protest.