“After Easter, a certain preacher, at the instigation of a citizen of London, preached as usual in the fields, where the whole city was in the habit of assembling with the magistrates. He 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. With this exasperating language and much more besides, he so irritated the populace, that they threatened to cut the strangers to pieces and sack their houses on the 1st of May” – Venetian ambassador, 5 May 1517
It is a well-known historical lesson that in times of economic hardship it can be easy to stir up nationalistic and racist sentiment against foreigners, and recent events have born this out. What an event like the Evil May Day Riots of 1517 reminds us of, however, is that the by-product of this tension and violence is often the strengthening of a centralized state. In the conflict between foreigners and Londoners in 1517, it was the Crown who emerged the victor. With the 500-year anniversary of this event upon us, it is worth reminding ourselves of this lesson.
In the late hours of 30 April 1517, a mob of about 2000 Londoners took to the streets to abuse and even kill the European apprentices they perceived as taking their jobs. City officials, including the humanist Thomas More, rode out to try to calm them, to no avail. The rioters ransacked areas inhabited by foreign apprentices and traders until the Lords marched in with men-at-arms and quelled the riots in the early hours of 1 May. Contemporary reports suggest as many as 25,000 troops were inside and surrounding central London. Rioters arrested were gibbeted about the town, and many were hung, drawn and quartered.
The cause of the riots was a combination of economic and the sort of rhetoric from mid-level public figures mentioned in the excerpt above. Although wheat prices remained low in the early decades of the 16th century, the harvest year 1516 did see a small rise in price, leading to high prices and lower wages. This combined with a particularly ‘droughty and frosty winter’ and the introduction of a terrifying new illness at the beginning of the year meant that tensions in London ran high. These tensions turned, perhaps predictably, against the foreigners within the city. There had long been animosity between London citizens and the ‘strangers’ in their midst, and legislation was not put into place to regulate and limit the economic activities of foreigners until the 1520s onwards, due largely to the events of Evil May Day.
It is what happened after the riots, however, that is most interesting, as the Crown turned a desperate attack on foreigners into a strengthening of state power. In order to understand this, we have to take into account, first, the nature of Tudor international affairs and, second, the importance of political performance. The rioters were charged not just with rioting and disturbing the peace, but with treason, as their attack on foreigners could be interpreted as an act of war against them, and a breach of the peace Henry VIII had established with all other Christian princes. Thus, the rioters’ violence was not against a foreign minority, but against the Crown and state itself.
In order to make the most of this technicality, a great political performance was staged. According to the papal nuncio, another 400 rioters were condemned to the same traitor’s death of hanging drawing and quartering, but the queen, Catherine of Aragon, ‘with tears in her eyes and on her bended knees, obtained their pardon’ before the king and Lords, an act ‘performed with great ceremony’. But this performance was limited to the court, a greater stage would be required. On 22 May, a large crowd of Londoners (the nuncio says 15,000) gathered in Westminster Hall, which was hung with ‘tapestry of cloth of gold’ and ‘canopy of brocade’. Cardinal Wolsey and the king delivered long speeches ‘reproving [the people] for their rebellion’. The prisoners were then ‘paraded’ in, ‘with ropes about their necks, as if to be executed’ and they immediately ‘threw themselves on their knees, shouting “Mercy!”‘. Wolsey and the other nobles joined in, begging the king on their knees to forgive the prisoners (knowing full well he already had). The king, apparently moved, ‘after addressing the people again, pardoned the rioters and had them released, so much to the popular satisfaction, that everyone wept for joy.’ The riot against foreigners had been recast as a rebellion against the state, and the result was a reaffirmation of loyalty to the Crown.
The lessons that can be gathered from this event are crucial ones, which shed light on the ways in which immigration, propaganda and the power of the state are linked today. There are striking correlations to be drawn between the rhetoric of contemporary regarding migration and that of the 1517 preacher who spoke of ‘the aliens and strangers [who] eat the bread from the poor fatherless children…. whereby poverty is so much increased’. The resultant decision to leave the EU has led to the call for a stronger government mandate and a ‘united Westminster’. Although in the UK, unlike in the case of 1517, this is not often directly related to a desire to punish or demand the loyalty of those who strike out against foreigners (rather to lessen the opposition of those who resist Brexit), in Canada the rejection of a campaign promise for electoral reform, which would indeed diminish the power of the governing party, was premised on the desire to reduce the political power of ‘extremist voice’ in an ‘unpredictable and unstable political context’. The result is still a call for more centralized power. Thus, once again, 500 years later, in the clash between nationals and foreigners it is the state that wins.
‘This is the strangers’ case/ And this your mountainish inhumanity’ Thomas More addresses the rioters in a monologue by William Shakespeare performed by Sir Ian McKellen (with introduction, monologue begins at 2:28)
Holmes, Martin (1965). ‘Evil May Day, 1517: The Story of a Riot’, History Today 15.
Rappaport, S. (1989). Worlds within Worlds: Structures of Life in Sixteenth-Century London (Cambridge Studies in Population, Economy and Society in Past Time). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Selwood, J. (2010). Diversity and difference in early modern London. Farnham: Ashgate.
Sharp, B. (2016). Famine and Scarcity in Late Medieval and Early Modern England: The Regulation of Grain Marketing, 1256–1631. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Young, Leslie (10.2.2017). ‘Justin Trudeau says electoral reform is ‘not in the best interest of the country’ GlobalNews.ca. http://globalnews.ca/news/3241702/justin-trudeau-says-electoral-reform-is-not-in-the-best-interest-of-the-country/
For more, see Joanne Paul, Thomas More (Cambridge: Polity, 2017), 78-82.