David Cameron’s decision to make a speech about immigration in the run up to local elections may be surprising to some. It is unusual for a political leader in Britain, whether a monarch or a Prime Minister, to make such an overt statement about immigration. Nevertheless, there is a history of violent, albeit short-lived outbursts of anti-foreign feeling in Britain, usually as a result of rabble-rousing by a demagogue like Oswald Mosley
One example took place in London in 1517 and became known as “Evil May Day.” This sudden, and probably terrifying, riot occurred two weeks after an inflammatory sermon by a Dr. Bell, in which he appealed to “Englishmen to cherish and defend themselves, and to hurt and grieve aliens for the common weal.” Attacks on foreigners began immediately, but events came to a head on the first of May when apprentices, later joined by Thames watermen and city porters (these three groups seemed always to be up for a riot) ran wild in the city of London, attacking foreigners, looting their homes and shops. In this case, the “foreigners” were mainly French, but such outbreaks of aggression took place periodically, aimed at Jews, or the Dutch or other groups who were identified as being an economic threat to the indigenous population.
Here’s a contemporary account from Hall’s Chronicle (ca. 1548) which was sympathetic to the rioters: “[The Eighth year of King Henry VIII.] In this season, the Genevese, Frenchmen and other strangers said and boasted themselves to be in such favour with the king and his council, that they set nought by the rulers of the city; and the multitude of strangers was so great about London, that the poor English artificers could scarce get any living; and, most of all, the strangers were so proud, that they disdained, mocked and oppressed the Englishmen, which was the beginning of the grudge.” … Allegations of assaults and a murder follow before the account continues, “For, amongst others that sore grudged at these matters, there was a broker in London, called John Lincoln, which wrote a bill before Easter, desiring Doctor Sandish at his sermon at Saint Mary Spital, the Monday in Easter week, to move the mayor and aldermen to take part with the commonalty against the strangers. The doctor answered, that it became not him to move any such thing in a sermon.” Lincoln then succeeded in persuading a Dr. Bele or Bell to give a sermon about the dangers the foreigners posed to those “born in London.”… “Of this sermon many a light person took courage, and openly spake against strangers. And, as the devil would, the Sunday after, at Greenwich, in the king’s gallery was Francis de Bard, which, as you heard, kept an Englishman’s wife and his goods. And with him were Domingo, Anthony Caueler, and many more strangers; and there they, talking with Sir Thomas Palmer, knight, jested and laughed that Francis kept the Englishman’s wife, saying that if they had the Mayor’s wife of London, they would keep her. Sir Thomas said, ‘Sirs, you have too much favour in England.’ There were divers English merchants by, and heard them laugh and were not content, in so much as one William Bolt, a mercer, said, ‘Well, you whoresome Lombards, you rejoice and laugh; by the mass, we will one day have a day at you, come when it will;’ and that saying the other merchant affirmed.”
The chronicle then goes on to describe the riots of the following May Day: “Then suddenly there was a common secret rumour, and no man could tell how it began, that on May day next, the city would rebel, and slay all aliens …” The rioting involved many hundreds of people and there was considerable destruction to “foreigners’ ” property, although it was not recorded whether anyone was killed or not.
After intervention by Sir Thomas More, the riot was quelled and hundreds were arrested. Henry VIII pardoned most of them but 13 rioters, including John Lincoln, were executed for treason. It is interesting to compare how, even in the 16th century, the authorities were aware of the dangers of allowing tensions about immigration to boil over into violence and hatred.
History tells us that the smallest thing can exacerbate tensions, particularly at a time of economic hardship. Perhaps our current leaders should study a little more history.
I wrote this back in April 2011 and, obviously, attitudes to immigrants and refugees have hardly improved since then. I was reminded of it because I watched an interview that Ian McKellen gave to Owen Jones in which he referred to a speech about Evil May Day, delivered in the character of Sit Thomas More, in an eponymous play, which has now been attributed to Shakespeare. I tend to be very sceptical about “new’ Shakespeare writing, but I can quite believe that he was involved in this speech. Besides which, it’s remarkable in its own right and so apposite to what is happening in Britain right now not to be important and moving. So I have added a link to the McKellen interview, the text of the speech taken from a piece by Sylvia Morris on The Shakespeare Blog and another clip of Ian McKellen talking about and delivering the speech at a film festival. It’s worth listening to the whole thing, because his introduction is important too. Finally, here’s (probably) Shakespeare’s writing from Sir Thomas More:
Grant them removed, and grant that this your noise
Hath chid down all the majesty of England;
Imagine that you see the wretched strangers,
Their babies at their backs and their poor luggage,
Plodding to the ports and coasts for transportation,
And that you sit as kings in your desires,
Authority quite silent by your brawl,
And you in ruff of your opinions clothed;
What had you got? I’ll tell you: you had taught
How insolence and strong hand should prevail,
How order should be quelled; and by this pattern
Not one of you should live an aged man,
For other ruffians, as their fancies wrought,
With self same hand, self reasons, and self right,
Would shark on you, and men like ravenous fishes
Would feed on one another….
Say now the king
Should so much come too short of your great trespass
As but to banish you, whether would you go?
What country, by the nature of your error,
Should give you harbour? go you to France or Flanders,
To any German province, to Spain or Portugal,
Nay, any where that not adheres to England,
Why, you must needs be strangers: would you be pleased
To find a nation of such barbarous temper,
That, breaking out in hideous violence,
Would not afford you an abode on earth,
Whet their detested knives against your throats,
Spurn you like dogs, and like as if that God
Owed not nor made not you, nor that the claimants
Were not all appropriate to your comforts,
But chartered unto them, what would you think
To be thus used? this is the strangers case;
And this your mountainish inhumanity.