Evil May Day 1517

As desperate people come to Europe in the hope of a life in peace, intolerant forces brew. Unfortunately the intolerance is nothing new, as the below text will show, even if the “foreigners” in 16th century London were mainly French, German and Dutch, but even during the 16th century there were voices raised against this intolerance, as the excerpt from Shakespeare´s play about Thomas More, that I have chosen to include in the spirit of the anniversary, as well as a sign that there will always be a voice of reason.

On this day in 1517 a riot, which has gone down in history as Evil May Day, broke out in London. Allegedly it was the reaction to an inflammatory speech held on Easter Tuesday by one Dr Bell at St. Paul´s cross where he had called for all Englishmen to “cherish and defend themselves and to “hurt and grieve aliens for the common weal”.

During the weeks following the hateful speech, there were several attacks on foreigners as well as a rumour saying that on May Day, the city would rebel and slay all aliens.

The rumours worried the mayor and aldermen and they announced a curfew on the night of April 30th. This did not help, or stop the riots, during the night towards May 1st around 1 000 men gathered in Cheapside, freeing prisoners already apprehended for having attacked foreigners in the previous weeks.

Hans_Holbein,_the_Younger_-_Sir_Thomas_More_-_Google_Art_ProjectThe mob proceeded to St. Martin Le Grand, an area north of St. Paul´s Cathedral where several foreign families lived. When arriving there they were confronted by the under-sheriff of London, Thomas More who attempted to calm them down and persuade them to return home, but his attempts to defuse the situation came to nothing when the frightened inhabitants of St. martin started throwing stones and hot water from their windows, something which led to an even more heated situation.

The mob started looting the homes of foreigners, but the riot was over by 3am that same day, and 300 men had been arrested. No one had been killed, and most of the rioters would eventually be pardoned, ironically after a plea to the king from Katherine of Aragon who herself was a foreigner.

However, 13 of the rioters were convicted of treason and executed on May 4th, and a few days later the broker John Lincoln – believed to have been the instigator of the hate speech held during Easter, in that he had persuaded Dr. Bell of “the dangers foreigners posed against those born in London – was executed as well.

Many years later, William Shakespeare would let Thomas More give a speech, partly written in Shakespeare´s own hand and as tragically current today as it would have been on that May Day 499 years ago.

 

Grant them removed, and grant that this your noise

Hath chid down all the majesty of England;

Imagine that you see the wretched strangers,

Their babies at their backs and their poor luggage,

Plodding tooth ports and costs for transportation,

And that you sit as kings in your desires,

Authority quite silent by your brawl,

And you in ruff of your opinions clothed;

What had you got? I’ll tell you. You had taught

How insolence and strong hand should prevail,

How order should be quelled; and by this pattern

Not one of you should live an aged man,

For other ruffians, as their fancies wrought,

With self same hand, self reasons, and self right,

Would shark on you, and men like ravenous fishes

Would feed on one another.

……You’ll put down strangers,

Kill them, cut their throats, possess their houses,

And lead the majesty of law in line,

To slip him like a hound. Say now the king

(As he is clement, if th’ offender mourn)

Should so much come to short of your great trespass

As but to banish you, whether would you go?

What country, by the nature of your error,

Should give you harbor? Go you to France or Flanders,

To any German province, to Spain or Portugal,

Nay, any where that not adheres to England,—

Why, you must needs be strangers. Would you be pleased

To find a nation of such barbarous temper,

That, breaking out in hideous violence,

Would not afford you an abode on earth,

Whet their detested knives against your throats,

Spurn you like dogs, and like as if that God

Owed not nor made not you, nor that the claimants

Were not all appropriate to your comforts,

But chartered unto them, what would you think

To be thus used? This is the strangers’ case;

And this your mountanish inhumanity.
Sources/copyright

Henry VIII – Lucy Wooding

Playshakespeare.com

Henry VIII – Jasper Ridley,

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