What were the Evil May Day Riots?

The Evil May Day Riots (also known as the Ill May Day Riots) were violent disturbances that took place in London during the evening of 30 April 1517 and early hours of 1 May against foreigners living in the city. It is considered to be one of the earliest race riots in the world and early modern London’s largest outbreak of violence against immigrants.


What were relations like between immigrants and the English residents of London beforehand?

As a thriving port and international city, London was home to people from many nations, including Italy, the Netherlands and France. The capital’s thriving economy attracted merchants and artisans from all over Europe. It’s thought that around two per cent of early 16th-century London’s population came from overseas.

A picture of the Steelyard – the Hanseatic League’s base in London
A picture of the Steelyard – the Hanseatic League’s base in London. When the riots erupted,
its merchants were attacked. (Photo by: Bildagentur-online/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

While relations were cordial on the whole, some Londoners complained of being cheated by ‘foreigners’, people they claimed received protection from their nations’ ambassadors, instead of facing the punishments that English citizens would receive. London was also suffering from an economic downturn. The previous winter had been tough, with prices rising and wages decreasing after a difficult harvest, and some blamed foreigners for their troubles.

What caused the riots?

According to Edward Hall, a lawyer and historian who chronicled English life during these years, a preacher called Dr Bell (or Beal) gave a xenophobic speech in mid-April 1517. Bell, who had been persuaded to give his speech by a broker, John Lincoln, accused immigrants of taking jobs from English workers.

“The aliens and strangers eat the bread from the poor fatherless children, and take the living from all the artificers, and the intercourse from all merchants, whereby poverty is so much increased that every man bewaileth the misery,” said Bell. He declared the land they were on was given by God to Englishmen and therefore they “ought to cherish and defend themselves, and to hurt and grieve aliens for the common weal”.

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Over the following days, arrests were made after several random attacks against immigrants. Rumours began to spread that May Day would see a citywide ‘rebellion’ against foreigners.

Henry VIII with Cardinal Wolsey
Henry VIII with Cardinal Wolsey. Both men reassured the Venetian ambassador that there would be no violence against foreigners. (Photo by Guildhall Library & Art Gallery/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

The Venetian ambassador, Sebastian Giustinian, described the events that led to the riots a few days after they happened: “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 first of May.”

Concerned about these rumours, the ambassador had visited Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, the lord chancellor, as well as King Henry VIII, who assured Giustinian that no harm would come to any foreigner in London.

How did the riots unfold?

On the evening of 30 April, the mayor of London announced a 9pm curfew. This was done at the behest of Wolsey, who was wary of trouble in the city. That same evening, two young men were spotted by John Mundy, an alderman (a government official). He tried to enforce the curfew, but soon Mundy was surrounded by many men intent on causing him harm and he swiftly fled.

Eventually, about a thousand male apprentices gathered in Cheapside in the heart of the city, no doubt helped along by alcohol after the holiday celebrations. Storming Newgate, the city’s largest prison, they freed all the incarcerated prisoners. They then proceeded to St Martin Le Grand, an area north of Old St Paul’s Cathedral and home to many immigrants.

Thomas More, under-sheriff of London and advisor to the king, met the rowdy mob and tried to persuade them to disperse and return home. However, the terrified inhabitants of St Martin Le Grand, afraid of what might happen, began to throw stones and boiling water on the crowd. Panic ensued. The mob began looting and attacking homes and businesses. City officials tried to calm the crowds, but they were overwhelmed.

Thomas More
The king’s advisor, Thomas More, unsuccessfully tried to reason with the rowdy mob and get them to return home. (Photo by VCG Wilson/Corbis via Getty Images)

For five hours, between 1,000 and 2,000 people – mostly men – terrorised London. Possessions were thrown into the street, livelihoods were destroyed, and many people were injured.

Those who were targeted included merchants from the Hanseatic League (a confederation of merchant guilds from northern Europe), bankers who worked around Lombard Street, and foreign courtiers, although it’s not thought anyone was killed.

May Day was possibly chosen as the day for the revolt as many people, including apprentices, had the day off work. The national holiday was celebrated by journeying into the fields to collect branches and flowers to decorate the home and commemorate the arrival of spring, so it was perhaps thought that these festivities would conceal the planned violence.

What was the response to the riots?

During the early hours of 1 May, the earls of Shrewsbury and Surrey led the king’s forces into the city in a bid to control the violence, and soon, around 5,000 troops had descended on the capital. By around 3am, peace had been restored to the streets and over 300 people were arrested for their part in the disturbances – some as young as 13.

Giustinian suggested that many would have been killed had the troops not arrived in time: “Greater mischief and bloodshed would have taken place, had not the Cardinal, being forewarned, taken precautionary measures. He and other lords on that night came with considerable forces to the city by several roads.

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Meanwhile, Edward Hall blamed immigrants for the riots. He claimed they had been goading and mocking Englishmen, and boasting of their closeness and favour with the king: “The multitude of strangers was so great about London that the poor English could get any living... The foreigners... were so proud that they disdained, mocked, and oppressed the Englishmen, which was the beginning of the grudge... The Genoans, Frenchmen, and other strangers said and boasted themselves to be in such favour with the king and his council that they set naught by the rulers of the city... How miserably the common artificers lived, and scarcely could get any work to find them, their wives, and children, for there were such a number of artificers strangers that took away all the living in manner.”

What happened to the rioters who were arrested?

John Lincoln, who instigated the riots, was arrested for treason and disturbing the peace. He was hanged, drawn and quartered for his actions, and his head was put on display as a warning. As he was being carried through the streets to meet his end, he still proclaimed his view that foreigners posed a threat to England: “My lords, I meant well, for and you knew, the mischief that is ensued in this realm by strangers.”

Thirteen other rioters were executed, and countless others were supposed to suffer the same fate. However, upon being brought to Westminster to face the king, Queen Catherine publicly pleaded for their lives and Henry duly pardoned them, sparking much celebration among the gathered crowds.


How have the Evil May Day riots been remembered?

While few today have even heard of the Evil May Day Riots, this wasn’t the case in the century that followed. In the 1590s, the riots played a prominent role in Sir Thomas More by Anthony Munday and Henry Chettle, a biographical play thought to have been revised by William Shakespeare, among others. The late 16th century saw a new wave of immigrants to England – many of them Protestants fleeing religious persecution in France and the Netherlands – and there were concerns that another anti-immigration riot was looming. It is no coincidence, then, that the play sees More make an impassioned plea for a sympathetic refugee policy while trying to quash the unrest – something he calls “the strangers’ case” against “mountainish inhumanity”.


Emma Slattery Williams was <BBC History Revealed’s staff writer until August 2022, covering all areas of history – from Egyptian pharaohs and pirate queens to Queen Victoria and Marilyn Monroe. She also compiled HistoryExtra’s Victorian newsletter and interviewed historians on the HistoryExtra podcast.. She studied both History and English at Swansea University.