May Day is known as the day when people riot and protest. This began in Victorian times, when May 1st was chosen as international workers’ day, beginning a long tradition of resistance to unfair treatment.
But I’m talking about an altogether very different May Day riot: ‘Evil May Day,’ as it was known at the time. It took place in London in 1517, during the reign of King Henry VIII. But despite its age, I was struck by how much it mirrored the behaviours we see in modern-day unrest – and by Henry’s cunning handling of the situation, which I’ll get into below.
Let me paint you a picture.
Modern politics is dominated by economic speak. People go on for hours about inflation, living costs, wages, GDP, and consumer confidence. It would be easy to mistake these things as modern problems, but the truth is, they existed before – people just didn’t have words for them, or they didn’t think the government should get involved in it.
1500s London was a powerful trade centre. Ever since the 1450s, land value in London had been going up, as more merchants acquired more wealth and started building nice homes for themselves in the city, where they could be close to their guilds and trade. Before then, the wealthy had largely lived on rural estates far away from cities, but this was a new class of elite with new money. By 1500, the ironically-named Cheapside was a cluster of bright, well-built homes owned by the most rich and powerful merchants of Europe. (You can read more about Cheapside’s growing land value in the 1500s in this journal article here.) The city was turning more multicultural, and many of the people who had wealth were ‘foreigners.’
Starting to see where this is going?
As London grew into its role as a regional (if not global) trade city, more and more foreign workers were arriving there – especially from the Netherlands. Wages were depressed and the job market was probably shrinking. In other words, it was the perfect time for a riot.
But we can’t forget that this was 500 years ago. People had different attitudes – and the world in general was much harsher and more violent. There are dark tales of atrocities committed by both sides: for instance, when a Frenchman was banished from the country for killing an Englishman and branded with a cross, the constables were shoved by the Frenchman’s friends, who said: “Is this cross the price to kill an Englishman? On that price, we would all be banished!”
In another case, a carpenter called Williamson was buying two doves for cooking when a Frenchman snatched them out of his hands, telling him they were too grand a food for someone of his status and they were better suited to his lord, the French ambassador. After a minor diplomatic row, the carpenter ended up in prison (presumably the government didn’t want to cause a national crisis over a single man) and the French envoy declared “that English knave should lose his life, for no Englishman should deny what a Frenchman required.”
No doubt there were many atrocities committed by the English on the foreigners, too. But these examples serve to show that the situation was already nearing boiling point, tensions were high on both sides – and sooner or later, something was going to give.
On the Tuesday after Easter (24th April, if I’ve worked it out right), a monk named Dr Bell gave an aggressive street sermon calling for action against the foreigners:
“Take compassion over the … extreme poverty [of] all the king’s subjects that inhabit this city … The aliens and strangers eat the bread from the poor fatherless children and take the living from the artificers and the [business] from all merchants … This land was given to Englishmen. As birds defend their nest, so ought Englishmen cherish and defend themselves and hurt and grieve [the] aliens for the common good.”
Tempers were up, the stage was set.
The first action came a few days later. On 28th April, some foreigners were attacked by young men and apprentices in the city, and some were thrown into the canal. The Lord Mayor, John Rest, had the ringleaders rounded up and put in prison, hoping that would take the heat out of the Londoners’ anger.
But shortly after, rumours spread through the city that on May Day there would be a general uprising, and all foreigners found within the city would be killed. The rumours caught the ear of the government. The Lord Chancellor, Wolsey, imposed something we’ve seen a lot of in recent weeks: a curfew. People were banned from the streets from 9pm to 7am, and night watch patrols were increased.
But the curfew was widely ignored and before long there were mobs in the streets. As Grafton wrote:
“More people arose out of every quarter… by eleven of the clock, there were in Cheap[side] six or seven hundred. Out of [St] Paul’s [Cathedral] churchyard came three hundred and so of all places they gathered and broke [open] the counters [prisons] and took out the prisoners. … The people of St Martin’s [Le Grand] threw stones and bats [wooden sticks] and hurt many honest persons that were persuading the riotous persons to cease and they bade them hold their hands, but they still threw out bricks and hot water. Then all the misruled persons ran to the doors and windows of St Martin’s [Le Grand church] and spoiled all they found [there] and cast it into the streets and left few houses unspoiled.”
The rioting continued through the night: they broke into the house of a particularly hated French merchant, Meutas, and murdered his servants when they found him missing. Houses were burnt and people raided foreigners’ homes and threw their shoes into the canal.
By 3am, many of the rioters had returned home, and the stragglers were picked off by the night’s watch, who rounded up 300 people over the course of the night and hauled them off to the prisons.
By 5am, the Earls of Surrey and Shrewsbury had arrived in the city with hastily-mustered soldiers and the remaining rioters scattered.
Medieval law was brutal.
Within a couple of days, there were many soldiers in London, stationed at intervals around the city to prevent more rioting. There was tension between the soldiers and the ‘townies,’ and arguments broke out between them.
Hundreds of prisoners were rounded up and dragged before an oyer and terminer (a type of legal inquiry.) They were herded to the court, tied together by ropes, flanked by halberdiers to keep the crowds away – and the prisoners from fleeing. Many were young, some only 13 years old.
More than thirty gallows were erected around the city, indicating that a mass hanging was planned. The rioters were convicted of treason, meaning they could be hanged, drawn and quartered – the worst form of punishment. Some were indeed hanged.
But then, things changed.
King Henry was a very impulsive man, quick to anger – he’d sometimes shout at the heralds who brought him bad news. It may be that he ordered the hangings and then changed his mind. Or perhaps the other rumours are true, that he was persuaded by his wife, Catherine of Aragon. He may have planned it from the start, knowing that such a populist gesture would make the people love him and reduce the chance of further riots.
Either way, as the prisoners were being lined up to be executed, a horseman from the king galloped up and ordered the executioners to stop. The prisoners cheered, the gallows were taken down and ‘many a good prayer [was] said for the king and the citizens took more heed to their servants.’
The riots were over, and Henry was a beloved king.
I first read about this event in Robert Hutchinson’s ‘House Of Treason’ – which is where I found my primary source quotations. I wanted to share it because as I read, I was struck by how… modern the riot felt. Everything from the curfew to the racial tension to the counter-protestors trying to get them to go home – it all seemed awfully reminiscent of what we’ve seen across the world in recent days, especially in the USA, with the Black Lives Matter protests.
It was a poignant reminder that, though some things change a lot over the course of history, at their core, people stay the same.