May Day is traditionally a time to celebrate. Whether it’s the Pagan aspect and tradition associated with the day or the recognition of the international working class, there’s something for everyone to appreciate and enjoy about May Day. However, there is one dark and shameful chapter that is often overlooked and is sadly one we perhaps should pay heed to each May Day to stop us repeating our mistakes. I’m referring of course to the Evil May Day of 1517.
During the reign of King Henry VIII, an influx of Flemish workers and continental merchants arrived in London much to the chagrin of certain quarters within society who claimed that such immigration was undermining the indigenous labouring classes. Sound familiar? If it does then you perhaps won’t be surprised to learn that some weeks before May Day, which fell on April 30th that year, dissent was stoked by a populist orator by the name of Dr Bell, who delivered a deeply xenophobic speech to the assembled crowds at St Paul’s Cross which called for “Englishmen to cherish and defend themselves, and to hurt and grieve aliens for the common weal”. Dr Bell’s incendiary words were not his own; he was working on the instruction of John Lincoln, a wealthy broker who resented the competition from migrant merchants around the capital’s Lombard Street mercantile district. Yes, because there is always a fucking Nigel Farage and Aaron Banks lurking around ready to stir up animosity among the working classes to ensure their own interests prosper.
Bell’s words soon had the desired effect. In the run up to May Day, sporadic attacks by the British working class were made upon the Flemish migrants and rumours began to circulate that May Day would see “the city rebel and slay all aliens”. Startled by the rising resentment and the prospect of extreme violence, the Mayor of London instigated a nightly curfew as a means to curb such criminal activities, but it was simply ignored and achieved little success. The populace had the bit between their teeth, believing their livelihoods were at stake from the foreign workforce they had previously been working and living alongside of. All because of the poison dripped into their ears by the puppet of a rich prototype Brexiteer.
Come May Day evening, around a thousand young apprentices assembled upon Cheapside and began to feed their comrades who had been gaoled for attacking migrants. They then marched to St Martin le Grand, an area north of St Paul’s Cathedral were many immigrants resided. Here, Thomas More, the under-sheriff of London, tried to get the mob to return peacefully home but to no avail. Under attack, the immigrant community were forced to defend themselves and their homes from the marauders, throwing bricks and tipping boiling water from their windows. Somewhat inevitably, mass violence and looting ensued. Order could not be maintained and, with the order of the city gates to close, London had effectively fallen into the hands of the rioters. The situation was so grave that it was even reported that, at his Richmond residence, Henry VIII was woken during the night with the news. The Lieutenant of the Tower of London, Sir Richard Cholmeley, ordered the tower’s artillery to fire upon the rampaging mob, much to the horror of the capital’s aldermen. Finally, the Duke of Norfolk was summoned and, with his private army of 1300 men, he rode into London and brought the rioters to heel at around 3am.
In the fallout, London was effectively placed under martial law with some five thousand troops policing the city for several days. A total of thirteen rioters were convicted of treason and executed on May 4th, just three days after the riot. 400 prisoners appealed to the King for clemency, which was eventually granted when Henry’s wife, Catherine of Aragon, appealed to him to think of the men’s families who, without their husbands and fathers, would be plunged into dire poverty. Thankfully the blame did not stop at those thirteen executed. Justice prevailed three days later when John Lincoln was arrested for his part in orchestrating the whole affair. He was hung, drawn and quartered, his head placed on a spike in Cheapside as a deterrent to any agitator who considered harming London’s immigrant population.