The Evil May Day Riots - 1517

History
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The Evil May Day Riots - 1517

In the UK and in countries around the world, the first day of May has long been seen as a day of festivity.

From pre-Christian times right across the known world, this spring day held great significance, from the Roman festival of Flora and the Walpurga festivities in Germanic countries, to the relatively more modern rites of Morris dancing and the Maypole, commonly seen in the UK.

But amidst spring celebrations, May Day also has long associations with workers, protest, demonstration and rioting.

And St Paul's Cathedral was right at the heart of one of the earliest of these occasions, now known as the Evil May Day Riots of 1517.

As in centuries before, May Day was a holiday in the Tudor calendar under the reign of King Henry VIII. But in the weeks leading up to May in 1517, tension was rising in the City against the many foreigners who had made London their home.

The tension was instigated by a broker named John Lincoln, who had managed to catch the ear of a Dr Bell, due to preach from St Paul's Cross, in the shadow of the Cathedral. Having been convinced by Lincoln that the woes of the economy were caused by the foreigners in the City, Bell stood at Paul's Cross and called for all "Englishmen to cherish and defend themselves, and to hurt and grieve aliens for the common weal."

Spurred by these words, tension amongst City dwellers built over a number of weeks before a sudden and violent riot broke on May Day itself. A mob of more than a thousand men congregated on Cheapside and moved through the City looting and destroying all property they suspected to belong to foreigners.

This riot was aimed mainly at French immigrants, but Jews, Dutch and other groups seen as an economic threat were also targeted.

After almost five hours of rioting on that single night, tensions were quelled and calm restored. Hundreds were arrested, many injured, but none killed.

Most of those arrested were pardoned, owing to the mercy of the King's wife, Catherine of Aragon, but 13 were ordered to death by Henry. John Lincoln was one of those 13; hanged, drawn and quartered on Cheapside. At that time, Tudor England was not used to riots on this scale, and life quickly returned to normal.

For the past 500 years London has continued to welcome people from around the world to live and work. Londoners now pride themselves on being part of one of the most culturally and ethnically rich and diverse cities in the world, with more than 300 languages spoken.