Today (May 1) in London History – “Evil May Day”

May 1, 1517 was known as “the Evil May Day” – because of the anti-foreigner riots that broke out on that day. This Today in London History podcast tells the tale.


London Calling. 

London Walks calling with your daily London fix.

Your London fix on May Day. 

Spoiled for choice we are on May Day.

May Day’s one of those days. London stuff happened aplenty on May Day.

Important London stuff.

Let’s meet some of the contestants.

May Day 1851. Queen Victoria opens the Great Exhibition.

May Day 1707. The Union Treaty creates the Kingdom of Great Britain. For any fresh-faced innocents out there, that’s the treaty that united – imperfectly I think we have to say now, given the way things have been going of late – the treaty that united England and Scotland. How does that biblical verse in the marriage ceremony go, what God has joined together let no man put asunder. Thing is, the Union Treaty wasn’t God’s handiwork – it wasn’t God who joined together Scotland and England. It was men. And the way things are going it might be men – and women – who put it asunder. So keep an eye on the seismograph – how’s that old Chinese curse go, May You Live in Interesting Times. That’s us. We live in interesting times.

So much for that aside. Let’s see some of the other contestants.

May Day 1661. There was dancing round a 130 foot high Maypole in London. The tallest Maypole of them all. 

May Day 1877 the Grosvenor Gallery opens. Exhibiting, the leading artists of the day: James Macneil Whistler, Holman Hunt, Edgar Burne Jones, John Everett Millais and Walter Crane. Time Machine, where are you when I need you. I so want to go to 135-137 New Bond Street on May Day 1877.

And we’re just getting warmed up.

It’s May Day 1700. Day One of the first-ever May Fair. Sixteen days of non-stop partying – a bash so good, so colourful, so lively that it would supply the name to the now extremely posh neighbourhood where it was held.

There’s more. There’s May Day 1820. The day of the last official beheadings in England. Five conspirators had plotted to ruin a dinner party attended by Prime Minister Lord Liverpool and his cabinet. Spoil the dinner party by killing the prime minister and his colleagues. Plot was foiled. The conspirators were caught, tried, found guilty and sentenced to die traitors’ deaths by being hanged and then, for good measure, beheaded. Which is what happened. The last official beheadings in England. 

And all of those are our runners-up. Our winning contestant is the Evil May Day – as it’s known – of 1517. The Apprentices’ Riot – the worst anti-alien riot of the Tudor era.

Why did the Evil May Day win through? Because I wanted an answer to the question, what was London like 500 years ago. And it turns out we’ve got two wonderful eye-witness accounts. Which I’m going to read. We’ll let those two voices speak for themselves. The first one was actually 525 years ago. 1497. There’s something almost miraculous about this short portrait of London. I mean, think about it. This is the London of the world of Christopher Columbus. The writer is an Italian, Andreas Franciscus. He jots down these observations just five years after Columbus discovered the new world. At the time, the population of London was about 70,000. That in itself was a source of wonder to visitors – and a source of pride to Londoners.

And what jumps out at us from Franciscus’s account is how bolshie – how xenophobic – Londoners were. They didn’t like foreigners. And they made their feelings known. Every foreign visitor to London picked up on this – it must have been that flagrant. When the flame burned low it was just insults. Weathering that was bad enough. Worse, insults often monstered into violence. 

Then 20 years later – 1517 – the Evil May Day pitches up. And it’s xenophobia that sets the trail of gunpowder alight.

Here’s the first passage. This is the Italian Andreas Franciscus writing about the London of 1497.

Now here’s the passage describing the Evil May Day. The 1517 riots.

A couple of points. Reading this, you can’t help but be reminded that the word MayDay is used internationally as a distress signal in voice-procedure radio communications.

You’re reminded of that because the authorities just can’t seem to get the thing under control. 

And two other notes. The rioters go to St Martin’s. St. Martin’s was a liberty. What a liberty? It was an area in the city that had special privileges. London law did not apply in a liberty. The law of the land applied – the law of the land applied everywhere – but local, London law did not apply. So these liberties attracted foreigners. According to London law and custom to practice a trade you had to be a member of the guild. That was effectively a way of preventing foreigners from encroaching on your livelihood. They couldn’t practice your trade unless they were a member of the guild. And the guild wouldn’t accept them. The problem – as the London apprentices saw it – was that guild law did not apply in the liberties. So naturally foreigners who wanted to be goldsmiths or silversmiths or make shoes or whatever – who wanted to get a piece of the London commercial action – naturally they were drawn to the liberties. They set up shop there and competed – very effectively – with the local talent. Much to the resentment of the local talent. And there’s also a reference in this passage to shoemaker’s shops and the rioters trashing them. That has to do with the so-called sumptuary laws. Foreign shoemakers could craft shoes in styles that native Londoners weren’t permitted to make. Almost inevitably, the aristocracy would buy those fancy, foreign-made shoes. Which created a great deal of resentment. More than resentment. Hatred. Hatred of the foreign-born interloper. Who’s taking my business. Taking bread from my mouth. This was going on 500 years ago. And it’s still very much with us today. It was the main driver behind the Brexit vote. Take back control. Take control of our borders. Keep those foreigners away from our jobs. London was a tinder box of xenophobia, of social and economic resentment. A holiday, lots of drink, a fiery sermon or two, and the cry would go up, “Apprentices and clubs.” And in no time at all you had what is described in this passage taken from The Chronicle of the Grey Friars.

Here’s the passage.

Halters around their necks – how’s that for a chilling detail. Of a piece with some of your fellow citizens being forced to wear a gold star in Nazi Germany.

Ok, just to shed a little more light on the aftermath. Over 300 people were arrested. 278 men, women and children were charged with high treason. Henry VIII made a show of 14 of the Evil May Day perps. He had them executed. A textbook example of that French expression pour encourager les autres. I suppose you could say 13 of the 14 got off lucky – they were just hanged. End of story. Not so, John Lincoln, who was identified as one of the instigators. He was hanged, drawn and quartered. 

That show of state power put paid to anti-alien riots for two hundred years. It didn’t end the hatreds and resentments, it just drove them underground. 

There is one final delicious irony to this quintessential London tale. It’s there in Greyfriars account. These were anti-foreigner riots. Most of the rioters’ were saved thanks to the intervention of a foreigner, Henry VIII’s Queen, Catherine of Aragon. 

She went on her knees before her husband to beg for lenience for them. Magnanimously, he obliged her. As the Greyfriars account tells us, they came before the King in Westminster Hall, with halters about their necks, and asked for pardons. Which His Majesty granted. Both finales – the executions and the pardons – were theatre. Dramatic expressions of Henry VIII’s absolute power. Henry VIII – and Henry VIII alone – bestrode the Evil May Day like a colossus. 

So much for 1517. Let’s get to 2022. Here’s the stocking filler – the Today in London recommendation.

You heard in that 500-year-old Chronicle of the Greyfriars passage how they hanged the convicted apprentices from gallows they’d erected at the city gates. London doesn’t have gates. Well, it does actually – it has Temple Bar, which used to stand where Fleet Street meets the Strand. The western boundary of the city of London. It was taken down in the 19th century – in its final rendition it was a 17th-century structure and it was creating a terrible bottleneck in 19th century London. So they took it down and shifted it out to Hertfordshire. Re-erected it on the grounds of a nobleman’s house. Anyway, some years ago they brought it home to London. Repatriated it. But they didn’t put it back up in the space it had previously occupied. For obvious reasons. No, they found a new home for it. Just outside the front door of St Paul’s and to the right as you’re coming down the front steps of the cathedral. There it is. And it’s an impressive structure. Anyway, with the story of the Evil May Day in mind, maybe take a look at Temple Bar and imagine it accompanied with a gallows. The bar – the gate – would have provided a natural focal point – would have framed the gallows. More theatre. More London spectacle. Grim, grisly spectacle.

And on that jolly note…

You’ve been listening to the Today in London History podcast – served up by London Walks and emanating from – home of London’s multi-award-winning walking tour company, indeed London’s only award-winning walking tour company.

The reason for all those awards is the calibre of the guiding. With London Walks guiding is not summer job guiding. It’s not paint-by-numbers guiding. You will NOT be guided by a college student who’s memorised a script. You will be guided by accomplished professionals – barristers, doctors, Museum of London archaeologists, Royal Shakespeare Company actors, historians, distinguished academics, elite, professionally-qualified Guide of the Year Award-winning Blue Badge, City of London and Westminster Guides. Well-connected, experienced, savvy, assured guides – Guides who make the new familiar and the familiar new. It’s elementary my dear Watson: A top-flight guide is worth every penny. A mediocre guide is time and money wasted. 

Caveat emptor. Good night from London. See ya tomorrow. 

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