May Day under King Henry VIII was a time of celebration and revelry. For 16th-century Londoners, it marked both the start of summer and the Feast of St. Joseph the Laborer. They’d drink and carouse all night before, then decorate the city with green boughs and spend the day watching plays about Robin Hood, outlaw and hero of the everyman.
But in 1517, the usually festive day turned fearful. Over 1,000 angry citizens rampaged the city; within days, hundreds were arrested and more than a dozen were executed, their bodies displayed on gibbets. A cherished festival day had become violent—and all because London workers claimed foreigners were stealing their jobs.
In the months leading up to what would come to be called the Evil May Day riots, a palpable sense of tension grew in the city. There was an ongoing economic downturn. A war against France—the War of the League of Cambrai, which England fought on and off for years—had cost an enormous amount. And fears of religious heresy ruled. (Martin Luther’s 95 theses would be published that October.)
As all of these issues intertwined, Londoners began to feel skeptical of their government, says Shannon McSheffrey, a professor of history at Concordia University in Montreal. “Artisans and English merchants were united in a sense against these foreigners, who were coming in and had unfair advantages, allowing them to prosper while the English-born had economic problems,” she says.
Only about two percent of the city’s 50,000 people were born abroad. But widespread poverty and suffering brought attention to immigrants, says Paul Griffiths, a professor of history at Iowa State University. “There’s a sense that these people were taking work away from Londoners, and also putting themselves in positions where they [could] control the wool trade in London, which is one of London’s more lucrative trades.”
Making matters worse were the tensions between the merchant class, whose members ran London’s government, and the British Crown. King Henry VIII and the aristocracy liked the luxury goods Spanish and Italian merchants supplied—things like silks, fine wools, spices and oranges—and didn’t want to hinder that trade with import taxes.
The Crown also had ultimate authority over the City of London. This meant that even though the city government and artisan guilds set up rules regulating the trade and production of goods, the king could declare foreign artisans exempt from those rules. McSheffrey cites the example of foreign shoemakers, who could craft shoes in styles that native Londoners weren’t permitted to make. The aristocracy responded by buying foreign-made products.
These tensions were exacerbated by the physical geography of the city, Griffiths says, since some foreign merchants lived in “liberties.” These enclaves, like St. Martin le Grand, were outside the jurisdiction of the city and essentially self-governed. This was perceived as yet another advantage for the foreigners—and an excuse for them not to integrate into London life.
In the weeks before May Day, tension grew to a breaking point. One agitator named John Lincoln began pressuring priests to address the issue in their Easter sermons. Lincoln, a broker with trade and government ties, managed to convince one priest to do so, and in mid-April Dr. Bell delivered an open-air address at St. Mary Spital. Bell told his audience that foreigners “eat the bread from poor fatherless children” and exhorted Englishmen to “cherish and defend themselves, and to hurt and grieve aliens.”
“You get a bunch of young men together and you add alcohol and grievances and righteous calls to defend your patriotism, and those are combustible situations. In this case, it combusted,” McSheffrey says.
The conflagration began in the final days of April, when, writes C. Bloom in Violent London: 2000 Years of Riots, Rebels and Revolts, “foreigners were manhandled and abused.” By April 30, rumors that Londoners were planning to attack foreigners reached the ears of Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, King Henry’s right-hand man. Wolsey summoned London’s mayor and aldermen to his home, and the group decided to institute a curfew—but it was already too late.
The city government may not have been overly eager to cooperate, McSheffrey says, since they viewed the Crown as favoring foreign merchants and artisans. When one alderman did attempt to enforce the curfew and corral two young men indoors—on a night usually spent drinking and celebrating—the crowd erupted. “Cries of ‘apprentices and clubs’ rang through the streets, and within a couple of hours about a thousand young men had gathered in Cheapside,” writes Steve Rappaport in Worlds Within Worlds: Structures of Life in Sixteenth-Century London.
Thomas More, who would later become famous for his treatise Utopia, was London’s under-sheriff at the time, and almost managed to quell the violence. But the mob ultimately continued on its destructive path, ransacking shoe shops in St. Martin le Grand and elsewhere. The Lieutenant of the Tower of London, Sir Richard Cholmeley, went so far as to order his men to fire ordnance down on the crowd, but even that didn’t disrupt their pillaging.
After four or five hours, the gang wore itself out and the city returned to relative peace. At least one foreigner felt that the efforts of Wolsey and his men were somewhat effective. “Greater mischief and bloodshed would have taken place, had not the Cardinal, being forewarned, taken precautionary measures,” the Venetian ambassador wrote. Despite the damage in various neighborhoods, no one was killed—yet.
Instead, the bloodshed came during Evil May Day’s aftermath. Within days, over 300 people were arrested. Lincoln was identified as one of the instigators of the riot and was hung, drawn and quartered, along with 13 others. On May 4, the London government and royal officials charged 278 men, women and children with high treason. But after hearing of the rioters’ plight, Catherine of Aragon, Queen of England, intervened on their behalf in a dramatic display of mercy, going onto her knees before her husband to beg for lenience. Afterwards, nearly all of the people charged with treason were pardoned in a ceremony at Westminster Hall instead. “It was a triumphant piece of Tudor theatre, at once majestic, merciful and darkly threatening,” writes historian Graham Noble.
Not much changed in the immediate aftermath of Evil May Day for foreigners or artisans, but London’s issues with immigration persisted. Disturbances related to immigrants grew more regular in the late 16th and early 17th centuries, especially as Protestant immigrants began arriving after the Reformation after England’s break with the Roman Catholic Church.
“These people were religious refugees from [what was perceived as] a cruel regime, so [Londoners] welcomed them, but they still [set] themselves up in economic niches, taking away work from the English-born,” McSheffrey says.
Despite the relative lack of bloodshed, the incident had a remarkably long afterlife. It became a pop culture touchstone, appearing in ballads and plays, including one called Sir Thomas More, written in the 1590s by Anthony Munday in collaboration with William Shakespeare and others.
The size of the immigrant population in London ebbed and flowed ever since, but no one ever forgot what happened on Evil May Day. “It serves a number of purposes in historical memory,” Griffiths says. “On the one hand, it reminds the mayor and aldermen of what might be unleashed. But on the other hand, there’s the sense of the valiant apprentice. This is what we’ve done in the past—and this is what we could do again.”