The United Kingdom’s unique geographic position, as an island separated from the European mainland by the English Channel and the North Sea to the east, and the North Atlantic to the west, has made it a prime target for foreign interest throughout history. The resulting influx of foreigners has, unfortunately, also led to anti-immigrant tensions, with competition for jobs and wages creating ongoing anxiety, particularly among the working classes. Five centuries ago, London was the site of some of the most violent anti-immigrant riots in its history, famously referred to as the “Evil May Day” riots, which were carried out by the city’s workers.
What Was ‘Evil May Day’?
Occurring on the 1st of May 1517, under the reign of King Henry VIII , over a thousand furious domestic citizens (mostly the working class) wreaked havoc on the streets of London, leading to hundreds of arrests and a dozen executions.
The riot began when a group of apprentices, who were unhappy with the increasing number of foreign workers in the city, began attacking foreigners and their businesses. The violence quickly spread, and by the end of the day, thousands of people had taken to the streets, looting and destroying the property of foreigners.
The beloved festival, which under King Henry VIII had been a day of joy and revelry that marked the start of summer and the Feast of St. Joseph the Laborer, turned ugly. A prolonged economic slump had created tension in the city, exacerbated by the War of the League of Cambrai against France, and religious heresy illustrated by Luther’s ’95 Theses’ , contributed to the general sense of unrest.
Evil May Day Riots start with the working class feeling attacked by the growing number of foreign workers. Public Domain
Growing Resentment Towards Foreigners
The Crown’s favoring of foreign merchants, who provided luxury goods like silk, wools, and exotic spices to the aristocracy and were exempted from adhering to the same rules as English artisans, infuriated English workers. Foreign shoemakers were not bound by the same design rules as English shoemakers, and the upper classes favored buying foreign designs.
The growing resentment towards foreigners, who were perceived as above the law, was exacerbated by the fact that the foreign population held a disproportionate influence on the city and aristocracy. Matters were further complicated as many foreign artisans and the merchant class lived in districts outside London’s jurisdiction, which increased tensions for those without such privileges, who had to adhere to London law and order.
These were self-contained, almost autonomously governed enclaves, called ‘liberties’ – an alleged excuse for foreigners to not mingle with the Londoners. Paul Griffiths, a professor of history at Iowa State University, explained that, “There’s a sense that these people were taking work away from Londoners, and also putting themselves in positions where they [could] control the wool trade in London, which is one of London’s more lucrative trades.”
An Easter sermon at St. Mary’s Spital in April began a period of hostility that spilt out onto the streets against migrants –a vicar by the name of Dr. Bell, at an open-air address, incited hatred and violence. He spun a narrative that foreigners “eat the bread from poor fatherless children”. He appealed to the conscience of Englishmen, declaring that Englishmen should “cherish and defend themselves, and to hurt and grieve aliens”.
This blatant xenophobia added fuel to the fire, and the month would witness several isolated skirmishes and attacks on foreign citizens. Historians also note that several instances throughout history have witnessed the banding together of young men with grievances, and with alcohol add to the fray, they’ve crossed many a boundary maintaining peace and order. This was a sure-fire recipe for combustion.
May Day and the Aftermath
In response, the authorities enforced a 9 pm curfew at the behest of King Henry, who reached out to the Mayor of London. This deterrence tactic did little to affect the intentions of those who were prepared to go to any lengths. In addition, the local city government itself was unwilling to go to so many lengths to appease the Crown – they too believed that foreigners were misusing and exploiting privileges that were not accorded to local people.
In the sequence of events, young men were out on the streets after 9 pm on the night of May Day, openly flouting the norms. More and more workers joined the motley, and by midnight, this number had crossed a thousand. The under-sheriff of London, Thomas More, even reached out to the baying mob, imploring them to see reason, and de-escalate the situation. With the failure of his efforts, anarchy had broken out now, full-scale, continuing till the wee hours of the morning.
Thomas Moore, then the under-sheriff of London, was among the city officials who tried to stop the riot to no avail. ( Public Domain )
By the 4th of May, close to 300 prisoners were arrested, though eventually pardoned. “It was a triumphant piece of Tudor theatre, at once majestic, merciful and darkly threatening,” writes historian Graham Noble, who’s worked extensively to separate fact from fiction in the Tudor propaganda around the riots. The ringleaders, like a dockworker by the name of John Lincoln, were found guilty of their crimes and publicly executed.
The tensions were far from resolved, and even though the chief instigators had been taken care of, there was a simmering undertone of violence that stayed in London’s psyche for almost a century. In fact, a century later, Shakespeare would include the events in a speech from his play ‘ Sir Thomas More ’ (1603), indicative of how the riots had gripped the popular imagination.
With England’s break from the Catholic Church , and the Reformation period (the 16th and 17th centuries respectively), Protestant immigrants began arriving in droves. Overall, not much had changed for London in terms of attitudes towards foreigners, who were taking away the limited job opportunities. The arrival of the machine in the subsequent centuries did nothing to allay these fears.
What then is the legacy of Evil May Day, particularly in one of the largest cosmopolitan hubs in the world today (37% of the current population of London was born outside the UK)? “It serves a number of purposes in historical memory. On the one hand, it reminds the mayor and aldermen of what might be unleashed. But on the other hand, there’s the sense of the valiant apprentice. This is what we’ve done in the past—and this is what we could do again,” concludes Griffiths.
Top image: Medieval protesters. Source: AI generated.
By Sahir Pandey
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