Evil May Day: anti-alien riots in 1517

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Braun and Hogenberg's map of London, published in 1572
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The four main sites of the 1517 riots have been marked on the map as follows:

1) Newgate Prison

2) St Martin le Grand

3) Greet Gate

4) Blanchappleton

In the spring of 1517, London was shaken by a night of violent rioting that reached from Newgate Prison in the west to Blanchappleton near Aldgate in the east. Crowds in their hundreds attacked the homes and shops of immigrants, threatening their lives and destroying their possessions. The disorder was so alarming to the government that at least fifteen of the rioters were hanged for treason soon after.

Migrants in early sixteenth-century London

London was already a diverse city at the dawn of the sixteenth century. There were about 3,000 ‘alien’ immigrants in the city in 1500, amounting to 6% of the 50,000 or so residents. Most of them had come from France or the Low Countries, with a smaller number from the Italian and German states. 

The Flemish and Dutch arrived in England in large numbers in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries and were primarily artisans, especially weavers and other cloth workers. This was partly due to ‘pull’ factors in the form of royal invitations and ‘letters of protection’ issued by the king. The Crown was keen to boost the English cloth industry by encouraging the arrival of skilled foreign workers. However, immigrants from the Low Countries also came due to ‘push’ factors, especially the hardships caused by warfare in the region and sentences of mass exile in the late fourteenth century for participating in revolts in Flanders.

The French and Germans were more mixed groups. Many were artisans but there were also wealthy merchants, diplomats and courtiers. They tended to come to England for commercial or political reasons, rather than to escape problems at home.

Most of the Italians came to England as merchants and bankers. They had been present since the 1220s, but remained a small group (of probably only 50 to 60 men) throughout the intervening. They loaned money to the Crown, provided various other financial services, imported luxury commodities such as silk, velvet and spices, and exported raw English wool. They came to England largely to seek their fortunes, or because they were serving as representatives of merchant families and banking houses in Italy.

The vast majority of immigrants lived simple, quiet lives much like those of other Londoners. They worked hard at their trades, married and raised children, and worshipped according to the same liturgy as their English neighbours. In some cases, they brought skills and expertise – such as banking and finance and knowledge of cloth production and other industries – that directly benefited the whole city. Often immigrants lived in small enclaves scattered across London, grouping together in ‘liberties’ outside civic jurisdiction or in the great houses of their richest countrymen. 

Royal 'liberties' and religious sanctuaries

Over the course of the medieval period the king had granted certain institutions, usually monasteries or other religious houses but sometimes particular lords, the status of ‘liberties’. This meant these institutions and individuals could run their own affairs with little interference from local city authorities or even, in some cases, the Crown itself. The rules varied widely depending on the particular liberty, and were often quite vague, which led to frequent legal conflicts.

In practice, many of the religious authorities and individuals who controlled ‘liberties’ used their privileges to offer sanctuary to debtors, criminals and aliens, in exchange for fees. Aliens were particularly valuable to the liberties' owners because they brought money, trade and diplomatic connections and other skills into these areas. 

From the perspective of alien immigrants, living in sanctuaries had real benefits. They could live and work alongside fellow ‘strangers’, creating a community rather than trying to get by as isolated individuals. They could also avoid the strict limits to their economic activities that the City of London normally imposed on foreigners. Yet, for their English neighbours, these sites must have seemed like threatening enclaves that gave immigrants an unfair advantage.

English resentment: Francesco do Bardi and John Meautys 

Several prominent aliens became infamous for both their political power and scandalous behaviour. The elite status, apparent arrogance, and close ties to the royal court of Florentine merchant Francesco de Bardi and Frenchman John Meautys attracted particular attention from chroniclers.

De Bardi imported luxurious satin and velvet, some of which he sold directly to King Henry VIII, and exported raw English wool. In 1513, his royal favour was made clear when the king granted him licence to trade overseas without paying customs duties. Most notoriously of all, de Bardi persuaded the wife of an Englishman to come and live with him, leaving her husband but bringing his silver and gold plate along with her. Remarkably, de Bardi then sued the Englishman and had him arrested for failing to pay the cost of his wife’s lodging.

Another especially well-known immigrant was John Meautys, a Frenchman and long-term royal secretary who served the king well during the endless diplomatic negotiations with France. He lived at a large house called Green Gate on Leadenhall Street, where he sheltered some of his countrymen from English law. According to a chronicler of the time, Meautys’ home became a prominent sanctuary for French pickpockets and wool-carders, who flouted London’s rules on trading. His royal favour ensured that Green Gate remained largely outside the law.

Although some of the misdeeds of de Bardi, Meautys and other notorious aliens may have been partly exaggerated by the chroniclers who recorded the events of 1517, it is clear that English resentment towards these men was very real indeed. With some justification, they were perceived to be taking advantage of their closeness to Henry VIII’s court to both advance their own financial interests and protect themselves from the usual penalties for unlawful behaviour.

Incitement to riot

In April 1516, a paper was nailed to the door of St Paul’s Cathedral complaining that aliens were being enriched by the king and dominating the wool trade. Then, in early 1517, London’s most important merchant guild, the Mercers’ Company, asked the Earl of Surrey to help them ‘subdue’ aliens who broke the rules that governed the city. Finally, in mid-April, a broker named John Lincoln convinced a preacher named Bell to read a speech from the pulpit on Easter Tuesday which violently denounced immigrants for impoverishing the native population. He claimed that ‘the aliens and strangers eat the bread from the poor fatherless children, and take the living from all the artificers, and the [commercial] intercourse from all merchants’. Moreover, he called on Englishmen to ‘defend themselves’ and ‘fight for their country’ by attacking the immigrants who lived among them.

On the eve of May Day, a holiday traditionally associated with boisterous youthful celebrations, these dark impulses were put into practice. A confrontation between an alderman and some apprentices led to crowds assembling in the central thoroughfare of Cheapside. Soon numbering over 1,000 people, these rioters were mostly servants, apprentices and other young men, but some women and fairly wealthy men were also involved. 

Foreign targets 

The specific targets chosen by the rioters are revealing. Their first objective was Newgate Prison, where they freed several men who had been jailed earlier for assaulting immigrants. From here, they marched eastwards across the city, attacking and pillaging the shops and homes of foreigners.

Green Gate on Leadenhall Street, the grand mansion of the royal secretary John Meautys, was an obvious choice. There the crowd sacked the house and unsuccessfully tried to capture the secretary himself. Unsurprisingly, the houses of several Florentine and Genoese merchants – perhaps including the notorious Francesco de Bardi – were also targeted. Although the details of these attacks are not recorded, they must have been motivated by resentment towards the power of Italian traders and financiers like de Bardi, who seemed to enjoy economic and legal privileges that ordinary English people lacked.

Less prominent foreigners did not escape unscathed. In fact, the two other sites mentioned in the chronicles were residences of much poorer immigrants rather than mercantile elites. The first was the Liberty of St Martin le Grand, a walled precinct just north of St Paul’s Cathedral that housed hundreds of mostly Dutch and French artisans. There, after a confrontation with Sir Thomas More at the gate, the rioters ‘ran to the doors and windows of Saint Martin, and spoiled all that they found, and cast it into the street, and left few houses unspoiled’. The second site was a group of buildings near Aldgate called Blanchappleton. This area was home to a large number of foreign shoemakers and cobblers who the crowd attacked directly. They ‘broke the strangers’ houses, and threw shoes and boots into the street’. Both St Martin’s and Blanchappleton were home to ordinary working immigrants rather than notorious courtiers or merchants; however, they were also precincts that were at least partly ‘privileged’.  St Martin’s was a royal ‘sanctuary’ and Blanchappleton had been a private manor until the late fourteenth century. 

Evaluating the evidence: Hall's chronicle

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Edward Hall, 'The vnion of the two noble and illustre famelies of Lancastre [and] Yorke' (1548)

The riot was noted in a variety of documents and reports at the time, but the fullest version of the story was recorded in a chronicle written by Edward Hall, a Tudor lawyer and Member of Parliament whose history of this period was first published in 1548. In his narrative of ‘Evil May Day’, Hall condemned the rioters for their violence and insubordination while also describing their grievances fairly sympathetically:

Extract: ‘Then all the misruled persons ranne to the dores and wyndowes of saynct Martyn, and spoyled all that they found, and cast it into the strete, and lefte few houses unspoyled. And after that they ranne hedlynge into Cornehill by Leadenhal to the house of one Mutuas a Frencheman or Pycarde borne, whiche was a great bearer of Frenchemen, were they pyckpursses, or how evell disposicion soever they were of, and within hys gate, called Grenegate, dwelled dyverse Frenchmen that kalendred Worsted, contrary to the kynges lawes: & all they were so borne out by the same Mutuas, that no man durst medle with them, wherefore he was sore hated, & if the people had found him in their fury, they would have striken of[f] his head: but when they found hym not, the water men, & certain young priestes that were there fell to riflynge: some ranne to Blanchechapelton, & brake the straungers houses, & threwe shooes and bootes into the strete’

Modernised extract: ‘Then all the misruled persons ran to the doors and windows of Saint Martin, and spoiled all that they found, and cast it into the street, and left few houses unspoiled. And after that they ran headlong into Cornhill by Leadenhall to the house of one Mutuas a Frenchman or Picardy born, which was a great bearer of Frenchmen, were they pickpurses, or how evil disposition whatsoever they were of, and within his gate, called Greengate, dwelled diverse Frenchmen that calendered worsted wool, contrary to the king’s laws: & all they were so borne out by the same Mutuas, that no man durst meddle with them, wherefore he was sore hated, & if the people had found him in their fury, they would have striken off his head: but when they found him not, the water men, & certain young priests that were there fell to rifling: some ran to Blanchappleton, & brake the strangers houses, & threw shoes and boots into the street’

(Edward Hall, The vnion of the two noble and illustre famelies of Lancastre [and] Yorke (1548), fol. 61–62. This source is available at numerous repositories, including the British Library, and an 1809 edition is freely available online). 

Hall reports the various accusations against Bardi and other notorious foreigners very straightforwardly. The main events and some of the details, including a couple of the stories of notorious foreigners, are supported by other sources such as the Chronicle of the Grey Friars of London and Arnold’s Chronicle. For a more hostile perspective, we can read the reports of the Venetian and papal ambassadors, and Polydore Vergil’s Anglica Historia. They confirm some details but probably exaggerate the figures for the number of rioters.

In short, Hall is a reasonably trustworthy source on the ‘facts’ of the riot, but his tone and interpretation are different from both those of the rioters (who presumably would not have seen themselves as criminals and traitors) and from foreign observers (who would have had little sympathy with the rioters’ complaints).

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Edward Hall, 'The vnion of the two noble and illustre famelies of Lancastre [and] Yorke' (1548)

The aftermath 

By the time May Day morning dawned, the crowds had dispersed and two noblemen had arrived in London with soldiers to maintain order. Hundreds of the rioters were arrested and many sentenced to death for ‘treasonously’ attacking foreigners who were considered to be under the protection of the king. In the end, fifteen to twenty of the prisoners – including instigators such as John Lincoln – were actually executed. Henry VIII granted the rest a royal pardon in an elaborate ceremony in an effort to reassert his authority. Still, the hangings of rioters marked a bloody end to an already violent period of urban unrest.

The events of 1517 were disastrous for both the immigrants and for many of those who attacked them. The result was destroyed homes, ransacked possessions, and fatal repression. Yet it was not a random outburst of aimless xenophobia. It emerged directly from long-running and growing resentments towards the apparent ‘privileges’ enjoyed by a few prominent immigrants that spilled over into a wider attack on the thousands of foreigners who were merely trying to make ends meet. Flemish cobblers had little in common with French royal courtiers, but they both suffered at the hands of the crowd.

Riots were not a typical response to migrants in Tudor London. There were only occasional examples of anti-foreigner disorder in the decades that followed Evil May Day, and all very minor in comparison. However, the violence of 1517 must have scarred relations between immigrant and native Londoners for a long time to come. Thanks to Hall’s chronicle, the story of this dark moment in the history of migration to Britain has been preserved for history.




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Questions and Student Activities
  • How important do you think public complaints like Bell's speech were in provoking the riot? Was such incitement the main reason for the disorder or would it have happened anyway thanks to the existing grievances?
  • Compare the extract from Edward Hall's chronicle with one or more of the other sources available online. How do they differ? Why was the same event reported in different ways?
  • There were no major anti-immigrant riots in London for well over 200 years after the 1517 events. Was this because resentments were reduced or because people feared a harsh government response to disorder?