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Evil May Day: When Tudor London rioted against foreigners

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The first day of May is commonly associated with dances around the Maypole and marches for worker’s rights. However, London in 1517 saw an entirely different turn of events, ones which would come to be known as ‘Evil May Day’, or ‘Ill May Day’.

In the early 1500s London was a bustling metropolis, and, like many other major ports, it was home to many foreigners. Around 6% of London’s population at the time was from overseas. Dutch cobblers, Italian courtiers and Russian merchants all called it home. London was also a city struck by a recent economic downturn and a looming ‘sweating sickness’ epidemic, both of which ramped up tensions among its inhabitants.  

On 30 April 1517 at St Paul’s Cross, in the shadow of the Cathedral, a Dr Beal (or Bell) spoke to a gathered group. The topic of Dr Beal’s speech came from a broker named John Lincoln who convinced him that the City’s economic problems were caused by foreigners.  The Venetian ambassador wrote later that in his preaching Dr Beal, “abused the strangers in the town, and their manner and customs, alleging that they not only deprived the English of their industry, and of the profits arising therefrom, but dishonoured their dwellings by taking their wives and daughters.”

The crowd’s already present dislike of foreigners, who they viewed as getting preferential treatment by City officials and as seizing their work, combined with Dr Beal’s angry words. Spurred by simmering tensions and hateful rhetoric, that night a mob of 2,000 looted buildings, and terrorised the streets of the City from Newgate Prison to Blanchappleton near Aldgate.

City officials were unable to subdue the crowd and it took calling in soldiers to finally end their rampaging. Some rioters, including the instigator John Lincoln were arrested for both disturbing the peace and for treason. Lincoln and 13 other men were hung, drawn and quartered immediately. Hundreds more rioters were also sentenced to the same fate.

On 22 May the remaining arrested rioters were brought to Westminster in a great ceremony before King Henry VIII. In front of a gathered crowd Queen Catherine of Aragon tearfully begged Henry for their forgiveness. Cardinal Wolsey also implored for their release, knowing full well that the king would grant pardons. Despite their crimes against the crown Henry made a show of royal strength by pardoning the prisoners and ‘everyone wept for joy’.

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