English History in the 1500s was not so different than it is now; we face many of the same issues plaguing the court of Henry VIII.
In May 1517, there was a large contingent of French and Italian immigrants in London. They were situated near the city’s financial district and providing many services for the court. They were of such number that male Londoners were having difficulty obtaining positions or finding honest work, and started resenting the court’s “preference” for “foreigners.” This stirred up old resentments against the French, and was taken advantage of by various “politicking” individuals with strong anti-foreigner biases, who blamed the resident French and Italian immigrants for stealing jobs from the English, and suggested that the “sweating sickness,” an unknown recurring lethal plague in the period, originated with the foreigners.
In the weeks leading up to May Day, assaults and crimes against foreigners broke out in the city, with escalating levels of violence. Cardinal Wolsey, who was “running” England for the fun-loving King Henry, got wind of planned violence on the holiday and suggested a curfew. May Day was traditionally a time of bonfires and late-night celebrations; as the curfew was enforced, resentment turned into resistance that became a mob that surged through London, heading for the financial district. The mob was briefly halted by (not yet Sir) Thomas More, who was the under-sheriff of London, but his attempts to calm them down and send them home were thwarted by the Europeans in the surrounding houses throwing stones down from the upper windows and shouting insults. The mob pushed past More and laid waste to the district, breaking down doors, throwing wares and furniture into the street, and stealing whatever they could find. One of Henry’s (foreign) secretaries barely escaped with his life.
Once made aware of the situation, Henry ordered martial law imposed in London; by the time his soldiers arrived at dawn, the mob had dissipated, but 400 rioters were arrested and imprisoned in the Tower, most of them fourteen years of age. Due to the potential political ramifications of foreigners not feeling safe in London, and the effect it might have on foreign trade, their actions were judged high treason, with the penalty of death. Those men responsible for preaching violence were quickly, publically, and brutally executed, but Cardinal Wolsey and the king’s wife, Katharine of Aragon, obtained pardons for the rest in a dramatic public appeal before King Henry.
It is likely that Henry never intended to execute the 400 young rioters, but by making a public example of a few, his pardon of them at the behest of his tearful Spanish wife was seen as an act of great mercy, and won him back the loyalty of London, shaken through the court’s perceived favoritism of immigrants in a severe economic downturn. In searching for a scapegoat, it was easier to point fingers at foreigners than to deal with the deeper social problems of the period. Class warfare, political sleight of hand, and shifting the blame was common in London, with the added misfortune of no middle class. You were either very rich and a nobleman, or very poor and a working man. Some of the nobles were without lands and incomes from estates; but the wages of a working man were so low and the education and required income of the nobleman so high, that the employer could not afford the nobleman and the nobleman could not live on the wages of his employer, so there was no chance of an honest man earning an honest wage, nor of a poor man bettering his education in the hope of a greater one.
Thomas More pondered in his book Utopia whether a society without a middle class, with encouraged poverty and social unrest, and a government so corrupt and complex in its laws that it turns honest men dishonest, is fundamentally amoral. He wondered if we first “make thieves and then punish them.” Perhaps that question is as relevant today as it was in the days of yore. ♥