On this day in 1538, the Franciscan Friar John Forest was burned at the stake in Smithfield for refusing to take an oath acknowledging the King – Henry VIII – as the Supreme Head of the Church in England (it is said that fuel for the fire was provided by a statue of St Derfel from the pilgrimage site of Llandderfel in North Wales, which it had been prophesied would “one day set a forest on fire”). Forest had been a confessor to Henry first wife, Catherine of Aragon (*), and in 1532 had publicly spoken out against his plans to divorce her (from the open-air pulpit at St Paul’s Cross).
(*) There was a Franciscan Friary attached to the Royal Palace at Greenwich.
The so-called “Evil May Day” riots, marked by attacks on foreigners and on their places of residence and of business, took place in the City of London on and around May Day 1517, following an inflammatory speech by a Dr Beal or Bell at St Paul’s Cross, inciting the crowd “to cherish and defend themselves, and to hurt and grieve aliens for the common weal”. At the time there was considerable popular resentment towards foreigners in general and foreign merchants in particular, on account of their perceived preferential treatment by City authorities. The riots were eventually broken up only after thousands of troops were called in and hundreds of rioters taken prisoner. The ring-leaders were then more or less immediately hanged, drawn and quartered, and their remains gibbeted. The remainder, though, despite also facing the death penalty for the treason of “breaking the peace of Christendom”, were eventually pardoned by the king, Henry VIII, probably largely thanks to pleas for mercy made by his queen, Catherine of Aragon, and by Thomas Wolsey. At this, the prisoners “took the halters from their necks and danced and sang”. In the aftermath of the riots, the annual May Day celebrations that had taken place for hundreds of years were discontinued, and the May Pole that gave Undershaft its name was taken away.
According to a contemporary account, in the “The Chronicle of the Grey Friars”:
“Thys yere was yell [evil] May Day, that yong men and prentes of London rose in the nyght, and wolde have had James Mottas an owte-landych mane [foreigner] … slayne … , but he hyde hym in hys gotters in hys howse; and from thence they wente un to sent Martyns, and there spoyled the … shoppes; and thane rose the mayer and shreffes and wolde have cessyd them, but they cowed not. … And iiij or v days after … , … at the last there were dyvers of them hongyd within the citte on gallos … . And within shorte space the kynge satte in Westmyster halle, and there was commandyd the … rest of them … to come with halters abowte their neckes … to ask pardone, and soo a generall pardone was gevyne unto theme alle that came that tyme”.
On this day in 1622, on the seventeenth anniversary of the Gunpowder Plot, the Dean of St Paul’s, John Donne, felt compelled to give a sermon reassuring the congregation as to the ongoing commitment to the Protestant cause of the King, who was himself widely suspected of harbouring Catholic sympathies. In his sermon, Donne described the King as “in his heart, as farre from submitting us to that Idolatry, and Superstition, which did heretofore oppresse us, as his immediate Predecessor [Elizabeth I], whose memory is justly precious to you, was”.
There is a virtual reconstruction of the event at www.vpcp.chass.ncsu.edu. It shows the sermon being given outside the cathedral, at (St) Paul’s Cross, whereas the original was actually given indoors on account of inclement weather (“ a vicious squall of November rain”).