On this day in 1517 – Evil May Day riots

On 1st May 1517 a riot gripped London that would be known as the Evil May Day riots.

Londoners took to the streets of London to protest about foreigners living and working in London in particularly the merchants and bankers that resided in Lombard Street. A fortnight before the riots took hold a speech was given at St Paul’s Cross, a preaching cross in the grounds of the old St Paul’s Cathedral. It was spoken by Dr Bell, at the request of broker John Lincoln. It was highly xenophobic blaming the foreigners for many of the economical problems the country was facing. Bell was reported as calling on all ‘Englishman to cherish and defend themselves, and to hurt and grieve aliens for the common weal’ according to the chronicler Edward Hall.

Over the next two weeks attacks were springing up across London with rumours spreading that on May Day the city would rebel and attack any foreigner. The Mayor of London announced at 8.30pm on 30th April 1517 that a curfew would be enforced at 9pm, giving Londoners 30 minutes to get home.

Instead a few hours after the curfew a group of approximately 1000 male apprentices had gathered in Cheapside where they went on to free many prisoners who had been jailed in the past few weeks for attacking foreigners and they set off towards St Martin le Grand, a place where many foreigners lived. Thomas More greeted the rioters and tried to persuade them to disperse and go home with no further action.

As soon as More had calmed crowd the residents of St Martin le Grand began to rise as they throw rocks, bricks and even boiling water from their windows onto the groups below. With the apprentices now under attack they soon retaliated by looting the homes of the foreigners who were attacking them and across the city. This continued into the early hours of 1st May.

Three hundred rioters were arrested and charged with treason and were swiftly executed on 4th May with John Lincoln the instigator of the original speech executed on 7th May. Hundreds more rioters were arrested but later pardoned by the King after his wife, Katherine of Aragon, begged him to show mercy.

Evil May DayImage courtesey of the British Museum.

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