The political economy of racism: the Evil May Day riots of 1517 and the rise of UKIP

Brodie Waddell

The UK Independence Party is doing extremely well in the local and European elections held across England yesterday. It is, to put it mildly, an unpleasant sort of political party. It has more than its fair share of bigots and homophobes. But it is more than simply a tribe of disgruntled nostalgics. It’s also a protest party, and its particular brand of protest has venerable linage that goes back to at least the Evil May Day riots of 1517.

The anti-immigrant violence that erupted in London at that time is sometimes dismissed as a mere race riot, emerging from hatred and hardship and nothing more. But when we look more closely at the various accounts of these events, we see that it too was a political protest. One chronicler described how Londoners saw the foreigners in their midst:

the Genowayes, Frenchemen and other straungers sayde and boasted them selfes to be in suche favoure with the kyng and hys counsaill, that they set naughte by the rulers of the citie: And the multitude of straungers was so great about London, that the pore Englishe artificers coulde ska[r]ce get any living: And most of all the straungers were so proude, that they disdained, mocked and oppressed the Englishemen, whiche was the beginning of the grudge.

Locals complained that the ‘strangers’ from overseas flouted the law with impunity, engaging in theft, kidnapping and even murder without facing the punishments that would have been meted out to a common English criminal.

The political element becomes even clearer when we examine the rioters’ main targets. The crowds of hundreds, or possibly thousands, who rushed through the streets that night did not burn and loot indiscriminately. Instead, they attacked the house of a French merchant who was also a royal secretary, the homes of alien artisans at a site officially designated for foreigners, and two ambassadors who were supposed to be under the king’s protection. When the rioters were captured, at least 15 were hanged, drawn and quartered for ‘treason’ because their attacks on the strangers had ‘broken the truce and league’ between Henry VIII and the other princes of Europe.

So, in the eyes of Tudor Londoners, what made these immigrants so dangerous was the apparent alliance between ‘the multitude of straungers’ and ‘the kyng and hys counsaill’. That is to say, the foreign threat came not from poor or marginalised immigrants but from outsiders who enjoyed special privileges and had the support of the political elites.

It would be easy to multiply such examples by looking at other moments of heightened anti-foreigner sentiment in early modern England. One could cite, for example, the opposition to King James I’s favouritism towards his fellow Scots, the francophobic riots of Charles II’s francophile reign, or the anti-Dutch sentiment that bubbled up after William III took the throne in 1689. In each case there were very real resentments about the apparent social and economic impact of immigrant groups, but these were combined with a sense that the current political regime was in league with the foreigners.

UKIP posters

A forlorn British worker, supposedly abondoned by Europhile political elites, and a big pointy hand.

UKIP offers a very similar argument. Unlike the BNP, its ideology is not built purely from racism. Instead, it incessantly attacks ‘the political establishment’ in Westminster and in Brussels for compromising British sovereignty by granting special privileges to immigrants. According to Nigel Farange, UKIP is simply providing voters with a weapon with which to attack this two-headed monster: ‘They [the voters] have made the connection. It took me bloody years to get immigration and Europe together, but I knew at the local elections this year it was now the same thing.’

Racism, then, is certainly an important ingredient in UKIP’s noisome ideology but it is not the only one. If we want to understand and counteract the rise of this dangerous party, we need to acknowledge that a vote for UKIP is as much a protest against the failures of Britain’s governing class as it is an anxious reaction against newcomers.


The events of 1517 are described several primary sources, all of which are freely available online: the chronicle of Edward Hall (1904 edition, edited by Charles Whibley, pp. 153-64, quote at 153-4), the chronicle of the Grey Friars and the Calendar of State Papers, Venetian.

7 thoughts on “The political economy of racism: the Evil May Day riots of 1517 and the rise of UKIP

  1. A very pertinent article in the news today: a report in the Guardian suggests that racism is on the rise in Britain:

    ‘The proportion of Britons who admit to being racially prejudiced has risen since the start of the millennium, raising concerns that growing hostility to immigrants and widespread Islamophobia are setting community relations back 20 years.’

    • And a response in the same paper that hits the mark:

      ‘There’s no middle-ground. Ergo, someone who admits to being annoyed by shops that play Bhangra music would be classed as the same as someone who has swastika tattoos on their eyelids and thinks apartheid was the best thing ever.’

      • Yes, the response does a good job of picking apart some of the problems with the way the survey is reported. Conflating ‘explicitly admits at least some racial prejudice’ with ‘is racist’ is problematic. After all, most people would not admit to being ‘racist’ but if they took an implicit racism test they probably would find they have some unconcious bias:

        That said, I think a point made briefly in some of the original coverage is actually quite relevant: the fact that there are at least a few more people who admit to having some prejudice may be due the rise of groups like the EDL and UKIP making people more willing to publically discuss their attitudes towards other races. As Trevor Phillips says in the original article: “They are emboldened at certain points to discuss their discomfort.” The Overton’s Window of acceptable political discussion and debate seems to have shifted.

  2. A great post – thank you. I love reading this blog. What struck me in the quote you provided was the familiar refrain of ‘they’re coming over here and stealing our jobs’, of which we’ve heard so much lately: “And the multitude of straungers was so great about London, that the pore Englishe artificers coulde ska[r]ce get any living”. Nothing really changes, does it?

    So yes, undeniably there’s a political element to what’s going on, but on a more fundamental level I think a lot of people are more immediately engaged with what they perceive as a very real threat to their livelihoods (despite the fact that the vast majority of immigrant workers come and pay tax, contribute to local economies, etc. etc.)

    Thanks again for a great blog!

    • Thanks for your comment … and for the complements! Great to hear you’re enjoying the blog.

      Yes, the perception of an immediate material threat (i.e. unemployment) is fundamental to how many working people seemed to be thinking in 1517 and, as you say, this is still true for many people today. There’s certainly a danger in overemphasising the ‘political’ angle in all this. A threat to one’s livelihood is a very strong motivator, presumably much stronger than a purely abstract threat from foreign bureaucrats.

      I think what makes the reaction so powerful in these cases is that both these elements – material and political – were combined. The result was, to use a cliche, greater than the sum of its parts.

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