Evil May Day, 1517: Prosecuting Anti-Immigrant Rioters in Tudor London

Guest post by Shannon McSheffrey; 30 April 2017.                                                        

This week marks the 500th anniversary of “Evil May Day,” Tudor England’s most notorious anti-immigrant riot. The eve of May 1, the feast of St. Joseph the Worker, was conventionally a night of revelry for artisans and labourers. In 1517, however, those festivities turned to violence in the City of London, as apprentices and journeymen attacked the homes and persons of “strangers,” as immigrants were then termed.

From about nine o’clock in the evening of April 30, the rioters ran through the streets of the City and attacked immigrant enclaves. By three in the morning, the riot had run its course and City officials had re-established a precarious order. Although a later ballad portrayed Evil or Ill May Day, as the riot came to be known, as a “bloody Slaughter” of strangers, with the drainage channels in the streets running with blood,[1] all the evidence suggests that no strangers lost their lives in the attacks, damage being limited to assaults and the sacking of houses and shops.[2]

If the Evil May Day riot was mild in comparison to many other anti-immigrant riots before it or since, it struck Londoners as an event of some import. Although there had been at least three major riots against strangers in the second half of the fifteenth century,[3] Evil May Day in 1517 was the episode that became fixed in Londoners’ cultural memory. It was first narrated mid-century by London chroniclers, particularly Edward Hall and Raphael Holinshed, and then was re-enacted in dramatic and balladic form from the Elizabethan era onwards.[4] Despite the event’s notoriety in the centuries that followed, there has been relatively little historical scholarship on Evil May Day; Ian Archer, Steve Rappaport, Krista Kesselring, and Jacob Selwood have briefly examined aspects of the riot, but the standard piece remains a 1965 article in the popular magazine History Today.[5] I am writing a short book on the riot that uses the event to consider the complexities of English society, politics, and economy in the early sixteenth century. For readers of this blog, an especially interesting aspect of the riot was the surprisingly thorny question of law with which authorities had to grapple in the aftermath of the violence: how to prosecute the rioters. This conundrum was resolved through ingenious – or incongruous, depending on your point of view – employment of a little-used early fifteenth-century treason statute.

Beginning of the Riot in Cheapside

Before we turn to consider the legal strategies pursued by the crown, let me outline first the events of the riot itself. In the weeks following Easter in 1517, rumours flew around the City of London that workers would rise up against strangers on May Day, encouraged by a fiery Easter preacher who urged them to “fight for their country.” City officials – themselves resentful of the favouritism the crown showed to the international merchants – ignored the situation.

As darkness fell on 30 April, an angry crowd of apprentices and journeymen gathered in the main market at Cheapside. Sparked, according to chronicler Edward Hall, by an alderman’s ineffectual attempts to enforce a curfew, the young men grabbed clubs and sticks and began to run through the streets of the City. They rushed first to Newgate, the city’s largest prison, where they released all those incarcerated there, and then from there proceeded to the gate of the precinct of St. Martin le Grand, a hundred metres or so north of St. Paul’s cathedral. The collegiate church of St. Martin’s was a liberty, or independent jurisdiction, outside City control though inside the City walls. Within its precinct hundreds of Dutch, German, and French artisans lived and plied their trade exempt from the regulation of the City’s craft guilds. This was, in other words, ground zero for resentment against job-stealing immigrants. The rioters sacked houses and shops in the precinct.[6] From there, the insurgents proceeded to other parts of the City, trying (with little success) to attack the well-guarded homes of international merchants from Italy and Spain, and plundering other areas in which stranger artisans lived, such as Blanchappelton, another liberty towards the eastern end of the City. By dawn, the riot had petered out.

Evil May Day

The Evil May Day riot was precipitated by grievances that ranged from the micro- to the macro-political. Londoners begrudged the favouritism that the crown seemed to show both to international merchants and to stranger craftsmen; London civic leaders were enraged at stranger merchants who, chronicler Edward Hall tells us, openly boasted of cuckolding the mayor; craftsmen resented the immigrant artisans who (in their view) stole jobs from the native-born. The king and his chief minister Cardinal Wolsey were, in reaction, furious with the rioters and with the mayor and aldermen of the City of London for allowing the riot to happen. Accordingly, the crown determined immediately to come down hard: early in the morning of 1 May, the king issued an oyer and terminer commission to the duke of Norfolk, the earl of Surrey, the chief justice John Fyneux, the mayor of London, and others, to bring the rioters to justice.

The question was, however, what charges to bring against the rioters. The chronicler Raphael Holinshed, writing three decades later, tells us (his source uncited, unfortunately) that chief justice Fyneux met with the duke of Norfolk, the earl of Surrey, and the other most important oyer and terminer commissioners at his, Fyneux’s, house, on the morning of 1 May, to map out a strategy. The goal of the commission, we may assume, was to charge the largest number possible with a capital offence, in order to demonstrate the extent of the king’s authority and rage; not all would ultimately need to be hanged, but all needed to understand the seriousness of the transgression. The most obvious charge, riot, would not do, as it was not capital.[7] Another obvious possibility, burglary, may simply have seemed too tame, even if it was a capital offence. Treason charges were ideal, to underscore that the riot was a betrayal of authority, and because then any rioter could be charged regardless of whether they had looted houses or committed other felonies. Yet as the rioters had not attacked the king’s person nor had even explicitly challenged his authority, this was not at all an obvious legal category for the misdeeds.[8] Some finessing was required – and Fyneux, the chief justice, provided it.

Fyneux argued that there were two ways in which the charges could be legally justified. One was simply a very broad definition of treason such that any riot would fit: according to Holinshed, in the discussions, Fyneux declared that “the insurrection in it selfe was highe treason, as a thing practised against the regal honor of our souereign lord the king.”[9] But Fyneux also suggested a more technical grounding for the prosecution: the statute 2 Henry V, stat. 1 c. 6, which declared it to be treason for one of the king’s subjects to attack the subject of another sovereign with whom the king had a truce.[10] And so the Dutch artisans in St. Martin le Grand were figured in the prosecution as the riot’s focus. As the indictment of one Richard Marten put it, despite the fact that on 3 Feb. 1516 a treaty had been confirmed between Henry VIII and Charles, prince of Spain, archduke of Austria, and duke of Burgundy and Brabant (the future Emperor Charles V), allowing for the free passage of goods between the subjects of the two princes, Richard Marten, knowing of the treaty, nonetheless conspired with three hundred other people, with force and arms, arrayed in manner of war, to break the truce, law, and peace between the princes, and feloniously and treacherously attacked Isbrond DeRowe, Andrew Gaynes, Derek Andrewe, John Blowe, and Henry Pylgrym, all born under Archduke Charles’s obedience in the Netherlands.[11] Although we don’t know if these five Dutch artisans who lived in St. Martin’s featured in every indictment, I suspect that they did.[12] They may have stood for all those whose shops were looted and bodies attacked because they had suffered especially grievous damage.

This treason prosecution may well have been “bad law,” as John Bellamy has put it,[13] but it was savvy politics. The emphasis in the charges on the foreign obedience of those whom the rioters attacked highlighted not only the foreignness of the strangers, but the royal protection under which they worked. This was not just a reminder to the “wild, indiscreet persons” who rioted, but also a clear sign to the elite of the city that the king took this seriously: he would not tolerate their truculence in the face of royal command. And it is also possible that there was a kernel of truth to the premise of the statute, which is that attacks on the stranger communities created difficulties for Henry VIII’s relations with other European sovereigns. In the spring of 1517, foreign policy was at a delicate point, as Henry was at war with France and trying to balance his alliance with Archduke Charles and the Empire. If perhaps the humble pouchmakers of St. Martin’s are not likely to have been at the forefront of Charles’s concern, the threat of attack on the wealthy international merchants created a more pressing diplomatic problem for the king and his council.

Following the meeting at Fyneux’s house, the oyer and terminer commission acted swiftly: later on May Day itself, about three hundred rioters were arrested. In the days that followed, the City became a militarized zone, patrolled by as many as two thousand armed retainers of the duke of Norfolk. On 4 and 5 May, on the first two days of the oyer and terminer proceedings, forty-seven men were indicted, fifteen of whom were found guilty of treason and immediately executed at different points around the city.[14] Six of these fifteen were given the traitor’s death of drawing, hanging, and quartering, while by royal mercy nine others had their sentences commuted to simple hanging. On 7 May, five more were sentenced to the traitor’s death, but three of those were dramatically reprieved at the last minute by John Longland, then dean of Salisbury, riding at all speed to deliver the king’s pardon. Altogether, then, seventeen rioters were executed.[15] These executions were no doubt dramatic and meaningful spectacles for onlookers, both for native Londoners, warned of the price of disobedience to their king, and for the immigrants themselves, who later recalled watching the terrible deaths of those who had attacked them.[16] As was customary for heinous offenders, the bodies remained on the gibbets for at least some weeks; on 19 May, the Venetian ambassador’s  secretary Nicolo Sagudino wrote to the Signory that “at the City gates one sees nothing but gibbets and the quarters of these scelerats, so that it is horrible to pass near them.”[17]

A Student's Lamentation c 1595

For about two or three weeks following the riot,[18] the several hundred others who had been arrested but not executed in the initial blitz remained in custody in the Tower and in various jails in the City. On or about 19 May (the sources differ as to the date), most of those people were led in ritual procession from the City to a field just outside Westminster, barefoot and clad only in their shirts, with halters around their neck. There the assembled rioters faced an impressive and gorgeously arrayed gathering: the king, the queen, the king’s sister Queen Margaret of Scotland, many of the realm’s lords spiritual and temporal, diplomats and courtiers, and the mayor and aldermen of London. In a scene of some drama (skilfully analyzed by Krista Kesselring in her pardon book), the king at first declared to the assembled rioters that they deserved nothing less than death for their betrayal, and then, in a grandiloquent show of his mercy, pardoned them. As the Venetian diplomat Sagudino acknowledged, admiringly, the king’s and Wolsey’s arrangement of the spectacle of the pardon was masterful.[19]

It was not only the gathering in the field outside Westminster that was impressive: the crown had skilfully managed the aftermath of the riot by employing legal, political, and military tools to emphasize its dominance over an obstreperous London City administration and a restless and xenophobic labouring population. In the aftermath of Evil May Day, the mayor and aldermen, at least temporarily, disowned completely their usually hostile rhetoric towards the strangers and grovelled before the king.[20] Fyneux’s simultaneously broad and narrowly technical employment of the law of treason emphasized that all political protest was a betrayal of authority, a message that was to gain even more significance in the decades to come.

For us now, in 2017, several aspects of this riot and its handling resonate: London men’s visceral resentment and patriarchal defensiveness in the face of strangers’ alleged stealing of both their livelihoods and their wives; the easy targets that immigrants provided for violent youth; the crackdown of authorities in suppression of protest; and the cooperation of the judiciary in that suppression. There is no side to cheer for in examining Evil May Day; although premodern popular protests have sometimes been celebrated by historians as progressive precursors of modern workers’ movements,[21] this is a story without heroes. It is hard for the modern scholar to feel sympathy for the xenophobic and nativist rioters, or for the buck-passing London civic officials who looked the other way when told of the imminent threat of violence. Nor, however, should we view the crown’s suppression of the riot as the championing of immigrants’ rights; for the king and his circle, the sin was the betrayal of authority, and the highly orchestrated crackdown represented at least as much the grasping of an opportunity to demonstrate power as it was a reaction to a real danger to political order. Particularly telling for the legal historian was the role of the chief justice in devising an ingenious if legally eccentric strategy of prosecution. We know that law and judicial structures can serve in creative ways as tools in social, economic, and political conflicts. It is worth reflecting, as we think about the 500th anniversary of Evil May Day, how frequently those structures have served to shore up the power of authoritarian regimes.

Shannon McSheffrey is Professor of History at Concordia University in Montreal. She has published books and articles on heresy, gender, marriage, sexuality, and law in fifteenth- and sixteenth-century England. Her newest book, Seeking Sanctuary: Crime, Mercy, and Politics in English Courts, 1400-1550 (Oxford University Press), will appear in the summer of 2017.

Image credits:

Feature image: “Beginning of the Riot in Cheapside,” engraving in Walter Thornbury, Old and New London: A Narrative of Its History, Its People, and Its Places, 6 vols. (London: Cassell, Peter & Galpin, 1873), 1:312. Photo by author; public domain.

Image 2: “The Evil May Day,” wood-engraving supplement to the The London Apprentice; printed by W. S. Johnson, 1852. British Museum 1855,1208.283, AN302568001, used under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0) license.

Image 3: Execution of apprentices, 1595, from A students lamentation that hath sometime been in London an apprentice, for the rebellious tumults lately in the citie hapning (London, 1595), © STC 23401.5 Used by permission of the Folger Shakespeare Library under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, via the British Library.

[1] Ambrose Philips, A Collection of Old Ballads (London: J. Roberts, 1725), 58.

[2] Rawdon Brown, ed., Four Years at the Court of Henry VIII (London: Smith, Elder, 1854), 2:70-72; Edward Hall, Hall’s Chronicle, ed. Henry Ellis (London: J. Johnson, 1809), 588–89.

[3] Derek Keene, “Du seuil de la Cité à la formation d’une économie morale: l’environnement hanséatique à Londres, entre XIIe et XVIIe siècle,” in Les étrangers dans la ville: minorités et espace urbain du bas moyen âge à l’époque moderne, ed. Jacques Bottin and Donatella Calabi (Paris: Editions de la Maison des sciences de l’homme, 1999), 418.

[4] Hall, Hall’s Chronicle, 586–91; Anthony Munday and his collaborators included significant scenes drawn mainly from Hall in their play The Booke of Sir Thomas More; Tracey Hill, Anthony Munday and Civic Culture: Theatre, History, and Power in Early Modern London: 1580-1633 (Manchester University Press, 2004), 10–15.

[5] Ian W. Archer, “Responses to Alien Immigrants,” in Le Migrazioni in Europa: Secc. Xiii-Xviii, ed. Simonetta Cavaciocchi (Firenze: Le Monnier, 1994), 756–57; Steve Rappaport, Worlds Within Worlds: Structures of Life in Sixteenth-Century London (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), 15–17; Krista Kesselring, Mercy and Authority in the Tudor State (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 157–61; Jacob Selwood, Diversity and Difference in Early Modern London (Farnham: Ashgate, 2010), 53–56; Martin Holmes, “Evil May Day, 1517: The Story of a Riot,” History Today 15, no. 9 (September 1965): 642–50.

[6] Hall, Hall’s Chronicle, 589.

[7] J. H. Baker, The Oxford History of the Laws of England, Volume VI, 1483-1558 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), 590–92.

[8] John G. Bellamy, The Tudor Law of Treason: An Introduction (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1979), 19.

[9] Raphael Holinshed, Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland (London: John Hunne, 1577), 4:1502, http://www.english.ox.ac.uk/holinshed/.

[10] 2 Hen. V, stat. 1, c. 6; The Statutes of the Realm (London: G. Eyre and A. Strahan, 1810), 2:178-79; Baker, Oxford History, 1485-1558, 584–85.

[11] TNA, KB 9/478, m. 8; see also KB 27/1032, rex m. 8; C 66/633, m. 9. Marten’s indictment record is the only one that seems to have survived (it was entered into the record of his pardon several years later), but Hall and Holinshed indicate that others were similarly indicted.

[12] The five men named are well attested in other records: see Shannon McSheffrey, “Residents of St. Martin le Grand, c. 1510-1550,” https://shannonmcsheffrey.files.wordpress.com/2014/08/residents-of-st-martin-le-grand-c-1510-15502.xlsx

[13] Bellamy, Tudor Law of Treason, 19.

[14] These executions took place at eleven different points in the city: at the standard in Cheap, at five of the city’s gates, at the two sheriffs’ prisons, and at locations where there were concentrations of strangers and thus had been violence (Blanchappleton, Cornhill, and — not least — St. Martin’s). TNA, C 193/142, fol. 51r.

[15] TNA, C 193/142, fols. 49v-53v.

[16] TNA, C 193/142, fol. 52v. As we might expect, this was a memorable sight: twenty years later, in testimony before a royal commission, the residents of the St. Martin’s still recalled the traitor’s execution by St. Martin’s Gate. TNA, C 24/3, “Abbas,” mm. 10-11, 13, 14, 15 (copied in STAC 2/23/266, mm. 39, 42-43, 51, 55-56, 58-59).

[17] Brown, Four Years, 2:75.

[18] Chronicler Edward Hall dates this to 22 May and Charles Wriothesley, another chronicler, to 14 May; it must have occurred on or before 19 May, when the Venetian ambassador’s secretary recorded the episode in a letter. Hall, Hall’s Chronicle, 591; Charles Wriothesley, A Chronicle of England During the Reigns of the Tudors, from A.D. 1485 to 1559, Camden New Series 11, 20 (Westminster: Camden Society, 1875), 1:11; Brown, Four Years, 2:74-75.

[19] Brown, Four Years, 2:74-75. On the pardon in the context of royal policy of mercy, see Kesselring, Mercy and Authority, 157–61.

[20] See London Metropolitan Archives, COL/CA/01/01/003, Repertory 3, 142r-143r; and Laetitia Lyell and Frank D. Watney, eds., Acts of Court of the Mercers’ Company, 1453-1527 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1936), 444–45.

[21] See, for instance, Peter Linebaugh, The Incomplete, True, Authentic, and Wonderful History of May Day, Spectre Classics (Oakland: PM Press, 2016); Samuel Kline Cohn, Lust for Liberty: The Politics of Social Revolt in Medieval Europe, 1200-1425: Italy, France, and Flanders (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 2006).



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