The Evil May Day Riots of 1517: what happened?

On the night of 30 April/1 May 1517, Tudor London was gripped by violent riots. But what was the cause? Dr Joanne Paul explores the tensions that mounted that spring, leading to a night of looting and anger against ‘strangers’ in the capital…

Evil May Day

The man was dragged on a hurdle through the streets of London, its wheels cracking and jolting on the stones, as the people of London stared. He was the one who began it all, many whispered; John Lincoln, the cause of Evil May Day. For this, he would die. It was 7 May 1517, and the city was still recovering from the riots of a week before. At last the hurdle arrived in Cheapside, where the wicked business had begun. “My lords,” Lincoln had declared, “I meant well, for and you knew,” he continued, refusing to renounce the hatred that had led him to this end, “the mischief that is ensued in this realm by strangers.”

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Lincoln was not the only Londoner who had long harboured resentment of foreigners, a sentiment that had increased in the months before Lincoln’s execution. Contemporary chroniclers suggest that European visitors had been boasting about their closeness to the king, mocking the Englishmen whom they displaced. In the more common streets of London, Englishmen complained of being cheated by foreigners who were protected by their nations’ favoured ambassadors. The native resentment at these uppity foreigners had spread and broken out in the riots that took place on the night of 30 April and into the early hours of 1 May.

Evil May Day Riots
Resentment of foreigners had spread and broken out in the riots that took place in April/May 1517. (Image by Alamy)

 

What caused the Evil May Day Riot?

Historians have frequently attributed this violence to bad harvest, cold winters and plague. But the early years of Henry VIII’s reign had seen abundant wheat harvests; that of 1516 was no exception. It was true that the winter had been difficult. A blizzard had struck in January and the Thames had frozen. Cold had given way to drought. Londoners were headed for a grim summer and autumn; the sweating sickness would devastate a hot dry capital by August and September. In spring 1517, however, as they prepared May poles and gathered fresh blooms, Londoners could not know what lay ahead.

Desperation, then, had not pushed the rioters to violence, though dry conditions might have proven perfect kindling for their rage. Sources disagree about what precisely sparked the riot. Witness and investigator Thomas More suggested that it was two lowly young apprentices who were looking to make trouble. The Tudor chronicler Edward Hall put the blame on the foreigners themselves; they had boasted of their favour with the king and “disdained, mocked and oppressed the Englishmen”, from whom they had taken jobs.

Sir Thomas More
Sir Thomas More (painted by Hans Holbein the Younger. (Photo by VCG Wilson/Corbis via Getty Images)

It was these circumstances, Hall wrote, that had prompted the broker John Lincoln to take his complaints to a scholar of divinity, Dr Bell, who used them as the basis for a sermon in Easter Week, on 14 April.

“The aliens and strangers,” Bell had declared, “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”. The land on which they stood had been given to Englishmen by God, said Bell, and so they “ought to cherish and defend themselves, and to hurt and grieve aliens for the common weal”.

For two weeks following the sermon the tensions continued to mount. Agitators agreed that they would slay all the aliens in the city. The day chosen was May Day. It was a day off work for disgruntled apprentices, artisans and merchants, and the events of the holiday – journeying into the fields for leafy branches known as ‘gathering the May’– could act as cover for the planned slaughter.

The Spanish Princess Part II. (Image by Starz)

A curfew imposed

As the sun set on 30 April, King Henry VIII and his beloved Queen Catherine of Aragon were 10 miles from the heart of London, at their palace in Richmond. Their infant daughter had celebrated her first birthday in February, and queen and country prayed for a brother to join her soon. The king’s affairs proceeded by the hand of England’s alter rex, Cardinal Thomas Wolsey. Nothing got past the cardinal, and he was warned of the rumblings of violence in the capital.

Instructed by Wolsey, the mayor imposed a curfew on the city. Rather than putting out the rebellious flames, however, such measures may have only fanned them. When one of the aldermen [city councilmen] tried to force two young apprentices in Cheapside back to their dwellings, the cry went out: “Prentices and clubs!” Armed young men emerged from nearby doorways. The alderman fled, and the riot began in earnest.

Cardinal Thomas Wolsey
Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, one of the most powerful men in England during the reign of Henry VIII. (Photo by Culture Club/Getty Images)

Other Londoners shortly joined the crowd. Mobs broke into and raided the houses where foreigners lived – Saint Martin le Grand, just north of St Paul’s, and Leadenhall, further to the east – casting occupants’ possessions into the street. Estimates vary, but at its height, it is likely that more than 1,000 and perhaps as many as 2,000 people were involved in the riot. At 4 per cent of the population of the city, that would be the equivalent of 360,000 people taking to the streets of London today.

Estimates vary, but at its height, it is likely that more than 1,000 and perhaps as many as 2,000 people were involved in the riot

Thomas More and his fellow city officials were powerless, caught between the mob and their targets, who threw bricks, stones and hot water from upper-story windows. In the face of this, a veteran knight named Sir Thomas Parr rode to the king at Richmond to report on the violence in the streets. Parr may have been especially concerned; More was a kinsman by marriage, and Parr’s children, including four-year-old Katherine Parr, were frequently at the family home in Blackfriars.

Parr’s intervention was too late. By the time the earls of Shrewsbury and Surrey rode in with various other nobles and knights about five in the morning, the riot had worn itself out, and hundreds of the poorest rioters, including children as young as 13, had been arrested by city officials and sent to prisons across London, including the Tower.

Evil May Day: the aftermath

The executions began a few days later, overseen by the son of the Duke of Norfolk, Edmund Howard (who would soon be father to a Catherine of his own). Howard, according to Hall, “showed no mercy, but extreme cruelty to the poor youngsters”.

John Lincoln, having reminded the lords that he had been right about the danger posed by strangers, was hanged by the neck until nearly dead, cut down, and disembowelled before being dismembered. As the rope was hung around the next prisoner’s neck, a command was sent from the king: there would be no further executions that day. In the end, ostensibly due to the intervention of Queen Catherine, most of the 400 or so prisoners would be released. Lincoln’s head, however, would remain displayed as a reminder and a warning.

The Evil May Day Riots of 1517 tend to be overshadowed in a history of the tumultuous Tudor period; they lack the personal drama and nation-shaping significance of later events. The episode, however, can teach us a great deal about the Tudor relationship between city and court, the early roles of later major players and the violently xenophobic roots of English nationalism.

It was also an event that loomed large in the minds of the Tudors themselves. More than 75 years later, William Shakespeare would return to the riots to pen an impassioned plea for peace and empathy. “This is the strangers’ case,” he wrote, “And this your mountanish inhumanity.”

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Dr Joanne Paul is Senior Lecturer in Early Modern History at the University of Sussex. She is the author of books on Thomas More (Polity, 2016) and the Dudley family (forthcoming, 2021).