Monday, 1 May 2017


     It is remarkably appropriate that today marks the 500th anniversary of one of the more unsavoury events in the history of England's capital city. An angry mob of some 2,000 people rampaged through the centre of London bent on 'bashing foreigners'. The premises of alien traders and artisans (mainly French, Flemish and Italian) were broken into and looted. Several of the inhabitants were injured, though, remarkably, no-one seems to have been killed by the rioters. Law and order was only restored with difficulty by mounted troops who were even more violent than the protesters. Some 300-400 offenders were rounded up and, at a hastily convened court, the ringleaders were convicted of 'disturbing the peace of Christendom' and summarily hanged, drawn and quartered.
     At first sight this looks like a simple example of ugly xenophobia. Politicians and rabble-rousers can always rely on distorted national pride to channel discontent into an attack on 'them'. It matters not who the 'them' are, whether Flemish weavers, Muslim women wearing traditional dress or Mexican immigrants. All that matters is that the chosen scapegoats are 'different', 'foreign', 'not like us'. The Evil May Day riots of 1517 certainly had their origins in inflammatory preaching. Some two weeks earlier an open-air preacher in Spitalfields, an area where many immigrants lived, railed against their alien customers. He protested that they took the jobs of honest Englishmen and deflowered their wives and daughters. This mingling of truth, prejudice and downright lies did its work and, by the end of April it needed only one spark to set fire to the dry tinder of grumbling and gossip. That spark was a notice pinned to a door of St Paul's Cathedral calling all 'true Englishmen' to assemble at the church of St Martin-le-Grand on the next public holiday - May Day.
     Most people do not follow closely the intricacies of national and international politics. That makes them easy prey for rabble-rousers offering simple answer to complex problems, particularly if those answers are emotionally loaded. That was certainly the case in 1517. If the rioters had a genuine grievance they were not the fault of the strangers in their midst. It was the economic system which was responsible for the influx of European settlers and that system had the full backing of the Tudor regime. London, like all major European cities, was cosmopolitan. The smooth running of commerce require foreign banks and merchant houses to keep offices and agents in the English capital. The high quality English merchandise was, in some measure, dependent on immigrant craftsmen, such as Flemish dyers, who were particularly skilled at their job. The government profited from the settlement of overseas workers by the imposition of alien taxes. Clothiers and other industrial tycoons enjoyed close relations with their associates beyond the Channel. Government profited from import and export duties which made up a substantial part of annual revenue, and to encourage foreign businessmen the Crown extended special privileges to them. And at a diplomatic level national prosperity demanded the safe and easy routine operation of business across national borders. All this helps to explain the knee-jerk reaction of the authorities to the popular protest of 1 May 1517.
     When the initial panic had died down. Henry VIII, in a stage-managed display of royal magnanimity, pardoned the remaining rioters who had been arrested. Assurances were given to foreign ambassadors that their fellow nationals would continue to enjoy the protection of the government. Essentially nothing changed - in the short term. In the long term Londoners learned to live with their foreign neighbours. Many of those neighbours married into English families, leaving nothing but their surnames as an indication of their origins. That is the way communities develop. All western nations are inhabited by mongrel populations. As long as countries prosper they will continue to attract fresh waves of settlers. The only way to stop this process is to stop being prosperous.
     But, then, that is just another over-simplified solution.

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