British Popular Customs Present And Past - online book

A calendar of the traditional customs, practices & rituals of the British Isles.

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248                                     may day.                              [May i.
to the great injury, as was then thought, of the citizens, and on the 28 th of April a quarrel took place between some of the London apprentices—at that time a powerful body—and two or three foreigners whom they met in the street, when blows were exchanged. This disturbance, however, was quickly quelled, but a rumour suddenly became general, although none knew on what grounds, that on the ensuing May-day, taking advantage of the sports and pastimes which were expected, all foreigners then in the city would be slain. In consequence of this various precautions were adopted by the authorities with a view to prevent if possible any con­templated outrage, and all men were commanded to stay in their houses. Notwithstanding this injunction, on the eVen­ning before May-day two striplings were found in Cheapside " playing at the bucklers," and having been commanded to desist, theory of "'Prentices, 'prentices,bats and clubs!" the usual gathering words at that period, was heard through the streets, and many hundreds of persons, armed with clubs and other weapons, assembled from all quarters, broke open the prisons, destroyed many houses occupied by foreigners, and committed other excesses. After some exertions on the part of the city authorities,* nearly three hundred of the rioters were captured. A commission was appointed to inquire into the insurrection, and a great number of the prisoners were condemned to die, but with the exception of one John Lincolne, who was hung, they were all ultimately pardoned. After this circumstance, which acquired for the day on wkich it happened the title of " Evil May-day," and induced those in power to discountenance sports which led to large con­gregations, the Cornhill shaft was hung on a range of hooks under the "pentisesj*" of a neighbouring row of houses, where it remained till 1549. In that year, one Sir Stephen, curate of St. Catherine Cree, in a sermon which he preached
* Cholmondeley, constable of the Tower, discharged some guns into the streets, while the Earls of Shrewsbury and Surrey, collecting the gentlemen of the Inns of Court, restrained the violence of the populace. —Lyttleton, History of England, vol. ii. p. 167.
t Of the pent-house, or shelving roof projecting from the main wall, by which the shops at that period were ordinarily protected, many examples, Godwin and Britton say, existed in their time.
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