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The May Day riot of the apprentices

Posted in Historical articles, History, London, Revolution on Tuesday, 28 June 2011

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This edited article about  protest originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 978 published on 6 December 1980.

Apprentice boys, picture, image, illustration

The apprentice boys riot in 1517; inset, Catherine of Aragaon asks Henry VIII to show mercy to the apprentices. Pictures by Clive Uptton

“The English are vastly fond of great noises, and when they have had a glass or two of beer they will fire off cannons or ring bells for the pleasure of it.” So Paul Hentzner noted in his diary in Tudor times.

Hentzner was a keen-eyed German traveller, and he found the Londoners strange, but very well satisfied with themselves. “If they see a foreigner well made or exceptionally handsome they will say ‘what a pity he is not an Englishman!’ “

By the reign of Henry VIII the power of the great City guilds to control all aspects of trade was in decline. But they still kept a firm hold on any youngster wanting to learn how to become a goldsmith, a vintner, an armourer or a furrier or to master any of the other skills or trades.

At about the age of 14 a boy would be bound apprentice to a master of his chosen craft for seven years, and his own father would pay a sum of money to the master, rather like a school fee. From that day on the apprentice would live in his master’s house, and it was a lucky boy who found himself a kindly master.

One lad taken into a Skinner’s household to learn how to become a dealer in furs might, for example, find himself treated like a son, with the master’s wife fussing over his health, and eventually marry the master’s daughter and take over the business. Another might find himself bound apprentice to a Merchant Taylor and spend seven years as little better than a slave.

Once the seven years were over the boy would be an apprentice no longer: he would become a qualified journeyman, and eventually a master himself. Yet there would still be problems to overcome, and these were particularly bad in Tudor times. In the eyes of the City merchants, the foreigners were to blame.

There were supposed to be strict rules that only Englishmen might trade within the boundaries of the City, but gradually the foreigners had crept within the walls until there were considerable colonies scattered throughout London, taking business away from the guilds. The records of the guilds are full of complaints against these unwanted strangers, who had increased alarmingly since the Catholic persecutions in Europe following the Reformation.

The Musicians petitioned against foreign minstrels who were stealing their takings at court and in the taverns. The Hatters objected to the felt and beaver hat-makers who had come over from western France, while the dealers in cloth and fine fabrics hated the alien silk-weavers who had settled in Aldgate. Florentine and Genoese bankers had opened for business in Cheapside, French wine merchants near the Tower, Flemish weavers nestled close to the City walls, and in the Steelyard by the Thames was a vast colony of Germans.

May Day had always been one of the very few holidays for the apprentices of London and that year, 1517, urged on by older, ill-intentioned men, they took to the streets instead of dancing round the maypoles.

Anyone dressed in outlandish clothes was set upon and beaten up. Men who answered in strange accents when challenged suffered the same rough treatment, and then the boys turned on the property of the hated strangers. Merchants slow to put up their wooden shutters found their shops broken into and ransacked, and if they tried to protest they were cuffed and kicked; a few were even killed. Catholic chapels had their windows broken and even the houses of ambassadors were attacked and looted.

The masters of the apprentices tried to restore order, but the riot had grown too big. It was several days before the Lord Mayor sent in soldiers to arrest the ringleaders and restore order.

The king was furious, and to pacify the equally furious foreign ambassadors he was merciless in his treatment of the young rioters. After a brief trial a dozen apprentices were hanged outside their masters’ houses, while another 400 paraded past the swinging bodies to Westminster Hall to await the judgment of the King himself. All day they stood waiting with halters round their necks expecting to be hanged.

As darkness fell the King entered Westminster Hall with his Spanish wife, Catherine of Aragon, and stood glaring down at the trembling boys. They were sure their last moments had come.

Then Queen Catherine knelt before him and begged for their lives, and raising her to her feet Henry ordered the ropes to be removed and the apprentices to be sent back to their masters for a whipping.

Years later, when the King was trying to divorce Catherine, she had few more enthusiastic supporters than the merchants of the City, many of whom had been those same boys in Westminster Hall saved by the Spanish Queen.

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