Exactly 500 years ago today — on the 1st May 1517, a mass riot took place protesting against foreign people living in London.

The Evil May Day riot saw foreign residents being attacked by apprentices who were increasingly resenting the influx from mainland Europe, at both ends of the social spectrum, the Flemish workers and bankers.

The riot on the 1st May 1517 wasn’t unexpected, and indeed, the City authorities had ordered a curfew the night before to try and quell growing anger towards the foreign merchants.

The anger was fueled by an inflammatory speech given at Easter a few weeks earlier by a priest standing just outside St Paul’s Cathedral who called upon “Englishmen to cherish and defend themselves, and to hurt and grieve aliens for the common weal”

The priest, Dr Beal of St Mary’s Spitalfields said that “even birds expelled interlopers from their nests, and that men were entitled to fight for their country against foreigners.”

There were also allegations that the King gave too much favour to these foreign traders. A student of the time, Edward Hall wrote that the traders “boasted themselves to be in such favour with the king and his council that they set naught by the rulers of the city”

There were the usual claims that foreigners had preferential access to housing, that they stole English men’s women, and jobs, and ignored good English customs. All too familiar to modern ears listening to right-wing commentators, yet they are 500 year old allegations.

Over the next couple of weeks there were sporadic attacks on foreign merchants, but rumours were rife of a planned mass attack on May Day, where the city would rise up and kill all the foreigners.

The Thames would run red with the blood of foreigners.

With the situation tense, the curfew was announced and when a gang of youths were stopped at night by a City Alderman, John Mundy, he was forced to flee in peril of his life having failed to arrest the men.

It’s notable that the riot was reported to be an all-male affair, and one order from the time had required men to keep their women at home as the women’s gossip was fueling the rumours.

The following morning, a mob of young men, reputed to be a thousand strong gathered in Cheapside where they broke into jails and released prisoners who had been arrested for attacking foreigners.

It’s said that the mob was cooled by mollifying comments by King Henry VIII’s councillor, Thomas More, but when some stones hit an official, he reputedly screamed “Down with them”, sparking panic, and the mob started attacking any home or business that looked foreign to them.

Amazingly, no one was actually killed in the riot, and later that evening, the Duke of Norfolk entered the city with his army and put down the riot.

Several hundred people were arrested, but the King ordered a pardon for most of them following pleading from The Queen, Catherine of Aragon who was concerned for their families.

An unlucky thirteen were sentenced to death for treason — which will likely have meant being hanged, drawn and quartered, as was a financier, John Lincoln who was thought to have been the hidden instigator of the inflammatory speech back in Easter.

To keep the peace, within the week, some 5,000 armed troops from the army were patrolling the city, which we should remember was far smaller then than today, so that’s practically a solder on every single street corner.

Although the King had pardoned most of those arrested, the execution of some, and the heavy presence of the army fueled more resentment for a time, although it was now impossible to express it.

Many lessons can be learned from the Evil May Day riots, and over the centuries there have been allegations, often unfounded against foreigners working in London.

From the protestants fleeing mainland Europe, to Jews from Eastern Europe in the 18th century, and more recently the arrival of migrants from across the former British Empire, London has always been multi-cultural, but beset by tensions about strange people.

Almost every economist will tell you that immigration boosts the wider economy and supports job creation, but its difficult to explain that to people who are individually affected by cuts to wages from increased competition in their own particular trade.

Five hundred years ago London rioted against the foreigners.

Humanity hasn’t evolved far enough yet. It could happen again.


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  1. Rich says:

    Fascinating. Edward Hall’s full account: https://archive.org/stream/hallschronicleco00halluoft#page/588/mode/2up The pride of Frenchemen (p586-88), Euell may day (p588-591)

  2. Brian says:

    This is nothing new. Anti-immigrant riots have occurred frequently, but little is recorded. Queen Elizabeth 1 ordered all non-whites expelled from the country as some rich merchants had brought a small number of black slaves over as servants.
    Anti-Somali riots broke out in the North East of England in the 1700’s as there were tensions over their religion and behaviour being allegedly incompatible.
    Riots over Flemish immigrants happened in various places in Britain. Amongst the biggest were in Norwich. Civil disturbances occurred over the Huguenots too.
    Jews were expelled and banned from Britain for centuries.
    Large scale race rioting broke out in 1919.
    Much is suppressed, as it doesn’t fit the narrative that “we have always been tolerant to immigration.”
    The truth is, of course, they have never been welcome and have stayed only when the government uses force to suppress its citizens.

    • GT says:

      The truth is MUCH more complicated than your xenophobic last sentence states.

      The Huguenots, the Russian 19thC emigres & the “Ugandan Asians” were much welcomed in the most part.
      But there are & were always poisonous little creeps, willing to stir up hatred for personal gain & far too many people willing to listen to their lies.
      But, then I speak as a Huguenot.

    • Ian Visits says:

      My last comment wasn’t xenophobic, it was exasperated reality.

      And of course the facts are more complicated than I wrote. That’s because I wrote a short article about one day in history, not a 600-page essay on the wider issues of immigration.

  3. Andrew says:

    Absolutely fascinating.

  4. Mark Parsons, Colorado US says:

    Thank you for another reminder of the irrefutable nature of mankind. Your last line says so much “Humanity hasn’t evolved far enough yet.” We are a pathetic and poorly developed species, never really outgrowing our base instincts, rapidly outgrowing any value to this planet.

  5. Joanna D. says:

    Ian, thank you for that text. I can always learn something from your blog. As to the ‘last sentence comment’, I think GT referred to Brian’s of May 1, 2017 at 12:19 pm, not yours. Terrifying it all is and has been. Only yesterday I read in The i newspaper about a Polish girl of 16 who committed suicide in a Welsh school not being able to cope with homophobic attitudes towards her. A Pakistani-origin female author who has lived and paid taxes in the UK for decades also wrote about herself being racially abused on a London bus. Nobody intervened.https://inews.co.uk/opinion/racism-uk-steadily-serenely-rise/.

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