‘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.

The Riot

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.

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