The Evil May Day as imagined by the London Apprentice, 1852.

The Evil May Day as imagined by the London Apprentice, 1852. 

Evil May Day 1517

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. 

It was the afternoon before an adequate response could be mounted, but then violence begat violence. According to Edward Hall, in the City’s Chronicle: ‘Sir Richard Cholmondeley, Lieutenant of the Tower, no great friend to the City, in a frantic fury, loosed certain pieces of ordnance and shot into the city.’ The Howard family (who also had issues with the civic authorities) took the restoration of law and order into their own hands. The Duke of Norfolk organised the control of the City gates, while his son, Thomas, Earl of Surrey, led 1,300 armed retainers into the streets. Hall reports that the rioters fled like sheep at the sight of a wolf.

If the outbreak itself was disturbing, the overreaction of the forces of law and order was just as shocking to contemporaries. Between 300 and 400 offenders were rounded up.

A court of oyer and terminer was convened at the Guildhall, presided over by Norfolk and the mayor. Those identified as ringleaders (the number, according to different records, varies between 11 and 60) were handed over to Sir Edmund Howard, Norfolk’s younger son, for immediate despatch. They suffered the standard penalty for treason: hanging, drawing and quartering. This summary justice angered witnesses because some of the victims were as young as 13 and, since no one had been killed by the rioters, the punishment was out of proportion to the crime.

Thomas More, by Hans Holbein the Younger.
Thomas More, by Hans Holbein the Younger. (Bridgeman Images)

Three more scenes were enacted before ‘Evil May Day’ passed into history. On 6 May, John Lincoln, the immediate instigator of the disturbance, was tried and executed separately. Meanwhile, a delegation, which included Thomas More, travelled down to Greenwich Palace to eat humble pie before Henry VIII, apologising for the disturbance and beseeching him to be ‘good and gracious lord’ to the mayor and corporation. Five days later an impressive piece of theatre was staged in Westminster Hall. Henry took his seat on the dais, attended by a supporting cast of impressively clad nobles, churchmen and courtiers. Then the prisoners were brought in. Roped together, they shuffled the length of the hall and fell on their knees before their sovereign, crying out for mercy. According to the papal nuncio, Francesco Chieregato, Queen Catherine added her entreaty to theirs, ‘with tears in her eyes and on her bended knees’, imploring her husband to grant a pardon. Other witnesses insist that it was Cardinal Wolsey and not Catherine of Aragon who made this appeal. Either way, the scene smacks of a well-rehearsed performance, allowing Henry to exercise royal clemency without appearing to condone the actions of his unruly subjects. A gracious pardon was granted and the freed prisoners departed with loud demonstrations of relief, rejoicing and loyalty.

So much for the facts, but if we believe that the past should speak to the present, what does Evil May Day tell us about living in a multicultural society?

The year before the events described, Thomas More, in Utopia, delivered his complaint about sheep who had become ‘so great devourers and so wild, that they eat up and swallow down the very men themselves’. More overstated the impact of forced enclosures – the merging of a number of small landholdings to create a large farm – but correctly diagnosed the nation’s dependence on the production of wool and woollen cloth. Thanks to the toil of farmers and the entrepreneurial skill of clothiers and also to the encouragement of Edward IV and Henry VII, the nation had prospered. The resultant wealth attracted foreigners, who settled permanently or set up business branches in the capital and regional centres of production. In 1545 a visitor to London reported: ‘There dwell men from most of the nations of Europe, employed in various mercantile arts; such especially as regarding the working of iron and other metals, added to which they execute with surprising skill the weaving of woollen cloths and richly embroidered tapestry.’ The cream of the textile weaving industry was made up of Flemish artisans, who were skilled at more intricate work such as dyeing and silk weaving. Most of London’s tanners were aliens, as were half of the City’s coopers. Dutch and German immigrants were prominent in the brewing trade. Anyone strolling through London in 1517 could not have missed the shops and ateliers from which foreign goldsmiths, hat-makers, printers, armourers and other workers offered their wares.

The 3,000 or so foreigners in the capital congregated in specific areas. A common expression was ‘Tottenham has turned French’. Lombard Street took its name from the Italian bankers who did their business there. In the eastern wards of the City ten per cent of the adult male population was foreign. Outside the walls – and beyond the control of the City guilds – in East Smithfield and St Katherine’s, the proportion was even higher. Tudor London, like all the major European trade centres, was truly cosmopolitan. It was dependent for import and export trade on the Hanseatic merchants, who maintained entrepôts in London and other east coast ports, and the Italians, who operated in and out of Southampton. In the 15th century England’s share in this carrying trade had seriously declined, a victim of the long running Wars of the Roses. Elbowed aside by the competition, many English mariners had resorted to privateering. This, in turn, had led to the Anglo-Hanseatic War (1465-74), during which Edward IV had ordered an attack on the Steelyard, the Thameside headquarters of the Hanseatic League in 1469. Desperate to restore full participation in the carrying trade, Henry VII instigated a series of Navigation Acts, severely restricting the activities of foreign shipping, and began the development of what would become the Royal Navy. The first Tudor, who had spent his formative years in Brittany, rethought England’s relationship with its neighbours, making trade an integral part of foreign policy. Slowly, this backwater of an offshore island achieved prestige and diplomatic influence. One means to this end was encouraging skilled artisans from other lands to come to England, bringing their expertise with them.

The government had a balance to maintain between asserting English control of foreign trade and encouraging foreign traders to do business in England. The Crown had a particular reason for its relatively open-door policy towards alien merchants. Customs duties made up the largest part of the king’s ordinary income. The Tudor regime, therefore, had no interest in inhibiting trade by restrictive practices. Henry VIII and Wolsey had other methods of extracting much-needed cash from the foreigners to fund the king’s early military adventures and heavy personal expenditure. Customs revenue was farmed out to Italian bankers as a means of securing loans. Foreign residents were also offered a choice between paying an alien’s tax or becoming English denizens (for a fee), enjoying the rights and privileges of natives. It is no wonder that the king and his chief minister responded so urgently in the aftermath of Evil May Day to reassure aliens (and their governments) that they would be defended against outbreaks of hostility. One particular embarrassment to the regime was the molesting of a Portuguese diplomat, who had arrived in the capital on 1 May to find himself in the thick of the disturbance. He and his suite were buffeted by the mob. They complained bitterly to Wolsey about their treatment. 

Were the May Day rioters the victims of government policy or giving vent to irrational xenophobia? The Venetian ambassador, Sebastian Giustinian, has left the most detailed eyewitness report. According to him, the match was set to the bonfire in the week after Easter (12 April) by a sermon given at the preacher’s cross in the precincts of St Mary Spitalfields, an annual event which always drew a large crowd. The speaker abused the strangers in the town, as well as their manners and customs, alleging that they not only deprived the English of their industry and the profits that arose from it, but dishonoured their dwellings by taking their wives and daughters.

Doubtless there was some anecdotal evidence to support such charges, but essentially this was the usual demagogue’s trick of focussing discontent on them. Protected by his ‘cloth’ from prosecution in the civil courts, the preacher (probably Dr Bell, the parish vicar) could stand back and let the slander do its insidious work. This it did during the days between Easter and the next public holiday, May Day. One of the more strenuous agitators, John Lincoln, a dealer in second-hand goods, nailed to a cathedral door a notice, urging people to congregate at St Martin-Le-Grand on the eve of May Day. Unfortunately for him, he did not, like Bell, enjoy benefit of clergy.

Derek Wilson’s latest book is Mrs Luther and Her Sisters: Women in the Reformation (Lion Hudson, 2016). 

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