Thursday, July 12, 2018

Defying Henry VIII: Evil May Day Rioters


No, it was not necessarily that the rioters were evil, but the festival day in 1517 became known as Evil May Day because of the atrocities that occurred. It is interesting to consider that we often think of Henry VIII as a tyrant only in his later years, after too many years without an heir and injuries and ailments that left him tempestuous. At the time of the Evil May Day Riots, Henry had been king only 8 years and was a healthy, athletic 25 year-old.

Medieval May Day was an exuberant festival, filled with food, drink, and dancing. The end of a long, cold winter and dawn of a new summer was even more exciting for those who lived off the land than it is for us today. However, tensions brewed throughout the spring of 1517, leading to a deadly riot in London on a day that should have been filled with celebrations.

King Henry had decided to go to war against France, an action that often leaves those at home overtaxed and underfed. Englishmen were displeased with an influx of immigration that occurred at the same time. Some of these foreign craftsmen and merchants fell outside normal rules of taxation, which inevitably angered their native competitors. Add to this economic downturn the religious unrest that would lead to Martin Luther's 95 Theses later that year, and London was ripe for conflict.

In a sermon that proves some things never change, a Dr Bell of London preached that immigrants, "eat bread from poor, fatherless children," before encouraging men to, "cherish and defend themselves, and to hurt and grieve aliens for the common weal." A fortnight later, the riots began.

British Museum Woodcutting
from "London Apprentice" 1852
After curfew on the evening of April 30, a group of over 1000 men prepared for a very different kind of May Day. They freed some comrades who had been jailed for harassing foreigners and marched to St Martin le Grand, a London precinct heavily settled with immigrants. Thomas More, who served London as under-sheriff at this time, dared to stand before them and encourage them to disperse. His efforts were in vain, for local residents started raining bricks, debris, and boiling water upon those gathered. A fight broke out between the two groups that lasted through the new May Day until it was brought under control. Shockingly, no one had been killed. Yet.

Within just a few days, King Henry had more than three hundred rioters (men, women, and children) arrested and charged with treason. John Lincoln, who was charged with inciting Dr Bell's sermon, was hanged, drawn, and quartered. Thirteen rioters were also executed, and Henry intended for the rest of them to suffer the same fate. Were it not for Katherine of Aragon begging the king to show mercy to those who remained, even more would have endured the ultimate penalty for protesting the king's policies.

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