In the spring of 1517, working class Londoners were suffering from the effects of an economic downturn, caused in part by an expensive war against France and in part by a hard winter. Artisans and merchants alike complained that foreigners enjoyed unfair advantages that allowed them to take work and trade away from Englishmen.
The foreign population was small, perhaps two percent of the city, but highly visible. Many lived in special enclaves, known as liberties, that were outside the jurisdiction of the city government. (Not an unusual situation. British merchants would later enjoy similar arrangements in Ottoman Turkey, China, and South Asia.)
In mid-April, a businessman named John Lincoln convinced a priest to address the issue in his Easter sermon. Dr. Bell’s sermon was about uprising rather than resurrection. Declaring that foreigners “eat the bread from poor fatherless children”, he urged Englishmen to defend themselves against foreign incursions.
The uprising took place on May 1, a holiday that was celebrated in the countryside with bonfires and maypoles and in London with drunken revelry. Grievances and alcohol are a dangerous combination. An ill-conceived attempt to impose a curfew on the traditional carousing, erupted into violence against the foreign community. Roughly a thousand young men, mostly poor laborers and apprentices rampaged through the parts of London where foreign craftsmen plied their trade, looting shops and destroying buildings. (Shoe shops were a particular target, thanks to a ruling by King Henry VIII that allowed foreign shoemakers to make shoes in styles that native Londoners were forbidden to manufacture.) Over the course of four or five hours, the rioters damaged property and left many injured. The only good news was that no one died.
The city’s government had not been able to stop the riot, but it was quick to tack retribution against the rioters. More than 300 people were arrested and charged with treason.* John Lincoln and thirteen others were hung, drawn and quartered, including a number of prepubescent boys. The balance of those arrested were pardoned after the queen, Catherine of Aragon, went on her knees to beg Henry to show them mercy.
Evil May Day was a small, pointless, ugly event, ending with a gaudy royal set piece. The only immediate impact was the issuance of new rules surrounding the celebration of May Day.** Nothing much changed for London’s artisans–or its foreign residents for that matter–as a result of the riot. In fact, smaller-scale conflicts related to the presence of foreigners in the city grew more frequent over the course of the century as European Protestants took refuge in England during the Protestant Reformation.*** (An unintended consequence of Henry’s dramatic break with the Catholic Church.)
*On the grounds that they had broken the King’s peace.
**Because that was obviously the most important issue.
***Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the church door only a few months after Evil May Day.