‘Evil May Day’: Re-examining the Race Riot of 1517
Graham Noble separates fact from Tudor propaganda.
The First of May in Tudor England was a traditional public holiday, normally set aside for celebration and light-hearted revelry, but on that day in 1517 the City of London exploded into a destructive race riot that must have terrified peace-loving citizens almost as much as its intended victims. The scale of the event was unique in sixteenth-century London but its interest for us lies not only in what happened and why, but also in the reaction of the authorities. The way that news was managed and the subsequent story ‘spun’ shows that the Tudor establishment, and in particular the Lord Chancellor, Thomas Wolsey, was as aware as modern politicians of the need to cover up their mistakes and uphold their reputations.
On that night, a mob of angry young men, at least a thousand strong, gathered in the area north of St. Paul’s and rampaged through the City for about a mile, destroying property and assaulting anyone who stood in their path. Most of the insurgents were poor labourers, either watermen or journeymen and apprentices in the City’s tanning and brewing industries, supported by some women and young clergymen. Gathering numbers, they moved eastwards from the parish of St. Nicholas’ Shambles and broke into Newgate Prison, liberating several inmates who had recently been detained for attacking foreigners. The momentum of the riot seems to have been temporarily halted at St. Martin’s Gate, where the under-sheriff of London, Sir Thomas More, tried bravely but unsuccessfully to persuade them to return to their homes. However, a fusillade of stones, bats, bricks and hot water, thrown at the rabble by residents, re-ignited their anger and few houses in the parish were left undamaged.
Later, in Leadenhall, the fury of the rioters became focused on the house of one John Meautys, a merchant from Picardy and a secretary to King Henry VIII, who had a reputation for harbouring French pickpockets and unlicensed wool carders. He was fortunate to escape with his life. The houses and shops of the foreign shoemakers, who populated the area, were looted and their stock hurled into the street. The City authorities seemed powerless before the mob. Indeed, such was the ‘frantic fury’ of the Lieutenant of the Tower of London, Sir Richard Cholmeley, that he ordered his men to fire ordnance into the City in an attempt to pacify the crowd. Ultimately, though, it was exhaustion more than force-of-arms that came to the aid of the Mayor and the civic authorities. The riot began to peter out after five or six hectic hours and by 3 a.m. peace had been fully restored. No one had been killed but many were left injured and destruction had been wrought across a swathe of the City.
Our chief source, indeed our only source, for much of what happened on that day is the contemporary chronicler, Edward Hall. His invaluable account, first published towards the end of Henry’s reign, nonetheless reflects the attitudes and prejudices of a lawyer, a Member of Parliament and a Common Serjeant of the City of London, a Tudor panegyrist with an abiding mistrust of chief minister Wolsey, and one who shared with most educated contemporaries a fear of that ‘many headed monster’, the mob, and a suspicion of foreigners in general. Hall was away from London, as a student of King’s College, Cambridge, in 1517 but must have had ample opportunity to discuss the causes and outcome of the riot with people who were personally involved. The version of events that emerged suggests that his researches concentrated on official channels, and that the Tudor regime was concerned that its own interpretation of ‘Evil May Day’ would be the one left to posterity.
According to Hall’s explanation, blame for the riot rests, in the first instance, with one man: a disgruntled broker called John Lincoln, who attributed the ills of London’s economy and society to the thousands of foreign merchants, financiers and artisans who lived there. At court, some were said to have boasted that their favour was such that ‘they set naught by the rulers of the City’; outside, they ‘distained, mocked and oppressed the Englishmen’ and their number was so great ‘that the poor English artificers could scarce get any living’. Lincoln sought to use the regular Easter sermons at St. Paul's Cross as a means of airing his complaints. Dr. Standish, the designated preacher for Easter Monday, rejected his notion but he found a more sympathetic ally in Dr. Bell, a canon of St. Mary Spital, who had been appointed as Tuesday’s speaker.
On that day, Bell began his sermon with an inflammatory rant against the ‘aliens and strangers [who] eat the bread from the poor fatherless children, and take the living from all the artificers, and the intercourse from all merchants’. He continued with an argument familiar to xenophobes of every age: ‘this land was given to Englishmen, and as birds would defend their nests, so ought Englishmen to cherish and defend themselves, and to hurt and grieve aliens for the commonweal.’ This apparent call to arms, according to Hall, gave courage to ‘many a light person’ and ‘moved the people to rebel against the strangers’.
We should be wary of Edward Hall’s explanation of the May Day riot on two counts. Firstly, the timing is wrong. Easter Tuesday in 1517 fell on 14 April, whereas the first reports of substantial racial violence in the City come fully two weeks later – a long time for any mob to sustain its frenzy. Secondly, Bell’s congregation did not comprise the hot-headed young people who were to be at the centre of disturbances. The sermon was part of a series of lectures delivered by noted preachers to a distinguished audience of Londoners. As Hall records, Bell specifically addressed himself ‘to all you the worshipful lords and masters of the City’.
Lincoln was amongst the first to be executed, dragged on a hurdle to a gallows in Cheapside and then publicly hung, drawn and quartered, but if this unpleasant man has received an unjust proportion of the guilt, with whom should he share it?
Much of the blame must rest with a failure of government. Two days before the riot, a number of young men of the City engaged in a series of sporadic attacks against foreigners. ‘Some were stricken and some buffeted and some thrown in the canal’, reports Hall. As the malefactors were seized and jailed, rumours abounded ‘that on May Day next the City would rebel and slay all aliens’. It was against this background that, on the afternoon of 30 April, Wolsey summoned the mayor of London, John Rest, to his home at York Place, and asked him about the threat. Under pressure from the Cardinal, Rest promised to uphold the peace or face the consequences if he failed so to do. He left Wolsey at 4 p.m. and, within three hours, was discussing his options with the City’s aldermen at the Guildhall. Should a militia of ‘honest persons’ be set up to resist the ‘evil doers’, or an order issued for ‘every man to shut his doors and to keep his servants within’? Their proposal, to institute an overnight curfew, reached Wolsey at around 8 p.m. and his approval was returned to them by 8.30, just half an hour before the streets should have been cleared. And this, on a night traditionally set aside for celebration. It was governmental incompetence of the highest order.
Unsurprisingly, enforcement of the curfew proved to be impossible. In one incident, which may have been typical of many, an alderman called Sir John Mondy, travelling home through Cheapside at 9 p.m., saw two young men practising their swordplay, with a large crowd watching them. He demanded that they return to their homes and when asked why, replied curtly: ‘Thou shalt know’ and tried to make an arrest. Cudgels were soon produced, and Mondy fled in fear of his life.
Despite Rest’s promises to Wolsey, the City’s government lost all control of the situation as rioting escalated. Aside from the courageousness of Thomas More and the panicked reaction of the Lieutenant of the Tower, nothing was done to pacify the situation. As Henry later told the aldermen, when they were summoned before him at Greenwich to beg for forgiveness, ‘You never moved to let them, nor stirred once to fight with them … you did wink at the matter’.
But attaching the blame first to John Lincoln, and then to the civic authorities was a convenient option for Wolsey and the King to take. It diminished, by implication, Wolsey’s own failings in the matter and offered a route by which the sins of the rioters were eventually to be forgiven. The Cardinal appears to have made no preparations for trouble, despite the warning signs. He hastily reinforced the defences of York Place, only when news of the disturbances reached him between 10 and 11 p.m. No royal troops arrived in the City until 5 o’clock the following morning, when the Duke of Norfolk and his men rode in to make arrests, a full two hours after the troubles had died down. This was not, however, the version of events believed abroad. The Venetian Ambassador wrote to the Doge that ‘greater mischief and bloodshed would have taken place, had not the Cardinal, being forewarned, taken precautionary measures.’ Such was Wolsey’s control of information.
Punishment and Mercy
As we can discern it from Hall’s chronicle, the official reaction to the rioters underwent a dramatic change in the days and weeks following May Day. On 4 May, 278 men, women and children, some as young as 13, were paraded through the streets of London, bound with ropes, to be arraigned before the mayor, the Duke of Norfolk and the Earl of Surrey on a charge, not of riot, but of high treason, on the grounds that an attack on foreigners constituted a breach of the King’s peace. For maximum impact, 10 or 11 specially constructed gallows were wheeled into position at various sites along the path of the uprising and, the next day, 13 were convicted and executed with ‘extreme cruelty to the poor younglings’. John Lincoln suffered the same fate on 7 May but others, who stood with nooses placed about their necks, were reprieved at the last moment, apparently by the intercession of three Queens: Henry’s wife, Catherine of Aragon, and his two sisters, Margaret, Queen of Scotland, and Mary, Queen of France. In reality, this abrupt change from ferocity to clemency was almost certainly contrived by Wolsey and the King to reassert their own authority, dissuading other potential rebels in the short term and building bridges with the citizens of London for the future. Much the same strategy was to be used by Carlos I of Spain in the aftermath of the Comuneros rebellion, and by Henry himself, 20 years later, following the Pilgrimage of Grace.
At a splendid public ceremony in Westminster Hall, before a crowd of perhaps 15,000 people, including the mayor and aldermen of the City, and many peers of the realm, 400 male and 11 female prisoners were brought before the King and fell at his feet crying for mercy. Their hands were tied with ropes and halters hung about their necks, as if they were made ready for immediate execution. Wolsey spoke at length to denounce, not just the prisoners, but also the City authorities for their negligence on May Day. According to the Venetian Ambassador’s secretary, Nicolo Sagudino, he urged the prisoners ‘to lead good lives and comply with the royal will which was that strangers should be well treated in this country’. The lords then added their call for Henry to be merciful and the King pronounced a general pardon. At this point, the prisoners ‘took the halters from their necks’ and shouted for joy. Some rioters, who had managed to evade arrest, expeditiously joined the reconciled throng, pulling off their doublets and throwing up ropes that they had brought with them for the purpose. It was a triumphant piece of Tudor theatre, at once majestic, merciful and darkly threatening, re-asserting Wolsey’s position at the head of government and the benign authority of the nobility, and offering reassurances to a foreign audience.
By continental standards, London was not a city prone to violent conflict in the sixteenth century. In fact, as a racially motivated riot, Evil May Day was unique to the period. Its causes were deep-rooted in the anxieties and frustrations of impoverished young people, who saw, or imagined that they saw, foreigners given unwarranted privileges and getting ahead of them, economically and socially. Xenophobic agitators, like Lincoln and Bell, no doubt contributed to the overall level of discontent but not to the extent that Tudor propagandists would have us believe. The real spark was a hastily arranged and ineptly managed curfew, compounded by a complete failure on the part of the ruling class to intervene before events got out of hand.
As time passed, those groups targeted by the mob in 1517 were gradually assimilated into London society, inter-marrying and bringing up their own children as Londoners. Their place as ‘aliens’ or ‘strangers’, struggling to make a living and despised by a minority of the native population, was taken – and still continues to be taken in the twenty-first century – by new waves of immigrants from diverse regions of the world.
Graham Noble is head of history at Kent College, Canterbury.
- Peter Gwyn, The King’s Cardinal (Barrie and Jenkins, 1990)
- Martin Holmes, ‘Evil May-Day, 1517: The Story of a Riot’, History Today 15, September 1965
- Steve Rappaport, Worlds Within Worlds: Structures of Life in Sixteenth-Century London (Cambridge University Press, 2002)
- Edward Hall, The Triumphant Reigne of Kyng Henry VIII, volume I (edited by Charles Whibley, 1904)
- Calendar of State Papers, Venetian, volume II (edited by R. Brown et al, 1864-98)
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