'The Cittie is in an uproare':
Staging London in
The Booke of Sir Thomas More

Tracey Hill
Bath Spa University College

Hill, Tracey. "'The Cittie is in an uproare': Staging London in the Booke of Sir Thomas More". Early Modern Literary Studies 11.1 (May, 2005) 2.1-19 <URL: http://purl.oclc.org/emls/11-1/more.htm>.

  1. Sixteenth-century London permeates this complicated play-text: its setting is London, it was originally written for a London playhouse, the Rose on Bankside, and some of its chief writers (Thomas Dekker, Thomas Heywood and Anthony Munday) were freemen of the City. The play’s eponymous protagonist was also a Londoner: More was born on Milk Street in Cripplegate Ward, just west of the Guildhall, and he too was a citizen, free of the powerful Mercers’ Company. Such matters are not incidental to The Booke of Sir Thomas More, and I intend to foreground these and related features of the play in order to explore more fully its representation of London and its people, a hitherto neglected aspect of this much-scrutinised text.

  2. In a brief reading upon which this essay will expand, Lawrence Manley, one of the few critics to emphasise the London dimensions of the play, has written that the play treats More as ‘a legendary citizen’ and ‘an urban luminary’ (Manley 35, 129). In so doing the text foregrounds the various roles More played in his city. He first appears participating in a civic court at the Guildhall in his capacity of under-sheriff of London alongside the Lord Mayor, Justices and the Recorder of London (1). Nicholas Harpsfield’s biography of More, one of the play’s more controversial Catholic sources, describes its subject as a ‘lover and ffrende to the Busynesses and causes of this city’ (Hitchcock and Chambers 314)(2). Harold Metz has stated that even once he ceased to act as under-sheriff, the year after the May Day unrest, ‘More in spirit never left the city’ (“The play of Sir Thomas More” 43)(3). In the play itself, More is made to stress that despite his elevation to the Privy Council the Mayor and the aldermen are still his ‘bretheren’: ‘for once I was your brother,/ and so am still in hart. It is not state,/ that can our looue from London separate’ (scene ix, lines 955-7)(4). Indeed, when More receives his promotion to high office, the Lord Mayor regards this as much a compliment to the City as to More as an individual, stating that ‘His maiestie hath honord much the cittie/ in this his princely choise’ (scene vi, lines 546-7). More then reiterates his constant allegiance to the City as evidence of his mixed feelings about his promotion: ‘in this rising of my priuate blood:/ my studious thoughts shall tend the citties good’ (scene vi, lines 12-13).

  3. For pragmatic reasons Sir Thomas More’s various writers and revisers adapted the play’s sources in order to underplay as best they could the fact that More was a martyr to the Catholic cause for opposing Henry VIII’s break with Rome. In order to do so, as Londoners themselves for the most part, it may have seemed natural to focus on the civic dimensions of More’s life. Consequently, Metz claims, ‘as Londoners, [the writers] favor the City’ (Sources of Four Plays 181). They chose, then, to emphasise More’s role in the so-called ‘Evil May Day’ riots of 1517 with which the play begins. By foregrounding this unrest, the playwrights substantially exaggerated the impact not only of More’s own role at this particular juncture but also the impact of Evil May Day itself on More’s subsequent political career (Munday 6)(5). Vittorio Gabrieli and Giorgio Melchiori also observe that contracting what were in fact separate aspects of More’s rise to power (from knighthood to Privy Councillor to Lord Chancellor) to this ‘one single event’ solves ‘the problem of the compression of time common to all history plays’ (ibid. 29; see also 93n). Indeed, in actuality More’s attempt to pacify the May Day rioters was unsuccessful and it was in fact Cardinal Wolsey, not More, who obtained a pardon for the majority of the rioters (6). Such an exaggeration was surely intended to trade on the contemporary urgency of the matter of urban unrest. Topicality has its risks, however, and this strategy, as it transpired, was hardly less controversial in the early 1590s than staging a Catholic martyr. Gabrieli and Melchiori argue that even if it was politically questionable it was timely, as ‘the original author(s) of the play were stimulated to write it by their having got hold of biographical material …on Sir Thomas More at a time when his figure was popular in the City … in spite of the persisting condemnation of his religious position’ (ibid. 10-11). Metz concurs that ‘the idea of a play on the life of More grew out of his popularity … with the great body of the citizens of London’ (“The play of Sir Thomas More” 44). More’s esteem in London in his own lifetime is consequently mentioned in the play, for he is selected by the Earl of Surrey to appeal to the would-be rioters on the explicit basis that he is ‘in especiall fauour with the people’. Surrey also comments that as a civic sheriff More is closer to the outraged Londoners and thus more likely to persuade them to desist than would the overt ‘power’ of distant noblemen such as himself (scene iii, lines 403-6).

  4. If one turns the focus away from the usual areas of critical attention (censorship and authorship, in the main), the More play can be seen on a number of levels as part of a trend in the final decade of the sixteenth century for ‘citizen dramas’: other contemporary examples include Sir John Oldcastle, Thomas Lord Cromwell and the more plebeian Shoemaker’s Holiday (7). Furthermore, Sir Thomas More foregrounds the immediate significance of the events it depicts, offering parallels between the Evil May Day scenes and the anti-alien sentiment so prevalent in London while the play was being constructed (8). More is a complex text that reflects a complex social reality, offering a meticulous representation of London’s finely graduated social make-up: citizens, civic dignitaries, prentices, ‘aliens’, ‘foreigners’ and aristocrats are all dramatised. My paper follows Richard Rowland’s argument that the play ‘demand[s] an unprecedentedly close attention to the social and political significance of London itself’ (17). The writers of Sir Thomas More take equal care to map out the city’s topography. As Rowland has asserted, in More ‘precise topographical references are carefully framed to elicit contemporary resonance … the entire manuscript is dense with the proper names of London’s streets and houses’ (ibid.). One especially resonant example is the reference to the temporary gibbet which was erected ‘hard by’ the Standard on Cheapside, right in the heart of the City, where John Lincoln, the rioters’ ringleader, was hanged (9). Gabrieli and Melchiori assert that what they call ‘the extraordinary number of mentions of City streets and taverns’ in the fragmentary riot scenes reflect the particular input of Dekker and prefigure his later city comedies (Munday 13; see also 211n).

  5. One consequence of this topographic topicality is, in Rowland’s words,
    that the (potential) audience was offered an interpretative possibility: they were invited to view the theatrical performance of acts of resistance to authority perpetrated in the past, and to reconstruct them imaginatively in the streets in which they still lived and worked’ (17).
    Thus, through enacting the infamous local events of 1517 the specificity of the play’s locations cannot help but bring the current moment to mind: the play thus ‘recreate[s] the Cheapside of the May Day Riots but simultaneously evoke[s] the Cheapside … of the mid-1590s’ (ibid.). With its history of disorder and protest May Day was – and of course still is – an annual potential flash-point regarded as one of the ‘daies of speciall danger’ (Freedman 33). For instance, in February 1567 a porter was hanged (like Lincoln) in Cheapside for ‘stirring up apprentices, [reportedly] “telling them that that night following would be like the stir against strangers as was at Evil May Day”’ (Rappaport 54). Sir Thomas More is therefore a notable example of what Janette Dillon has called ‘the way contemporary London pushes through historicised fictions’ (151 n.6) and I would argue that slippage can be detected between an authentic representation of the events of ‘Evil May Day’ (based in a large part on historical chronicles) and the live issue of immigrants in the 1590s city.

  6. Indeed, it is likely that one of the reasons why the play was so thoroughly censored was for its unprecedentedly precise depiction of real urban figures and locations in the context of the turmoil London was experiencing at that time (10). With this view in mind, one should look afresh at the much discussed evidence of censorship that this manuscript bears. Overall, the proposed and/or imposed amendments to the play strive to accentuate the historical differences between 1517 and 1593 and thereby to reduce the contemporary relevance of the play’s action. The scenes which depict the outbreak of unrest against aliens received considerable attention from the censor (11). Edmund Tilney’s note on the first page of the text sets the tone by stipulating that the play should only present ‘a shortt reportt’ of ‘a mutiny Agaynst ye Lumbards’ (12). Pains have been taken to replace the term ‘stranger’, which is reiterated with great emphasis in the riot scenes, with ‘Lombard’, a term which appears only once in the original manuscript (in scene i). Indeed, fourteen of the seventeen references to ‘stranger’ in the play are converted to ‘Lombard’ (although not necessarily all by Tilney) (13). As the audience of the play – had it been staged – would have known full well, the ‘strangers’ who bore the brunt of the protests in the early 1590s were not Lombards at all but rather French Huguenots and Dutch or ‘Flemings’, Protestant refugees from the Spanish control of the Netherlands (14). The real Lombards, Italian merchants and bankers, were far fewer in number in London in the 1590s and were never mentioned in anti-alien petitions and the like, so changing ‘Fleming’ or ‘Dutch’ to ‘Lombard’ works to displace the reality of London’s demographic tensions. Francis de Bard, the originator of the citizens’ grievances in the play, had indeed been a Lombard in Edward Hall’s chronicle but there de Bard is mentioned as an exception amidst mainly French oppressors of the English. In the play Caveler, who stole Williamson’s doves in the first scene, is called a ‘ffrencheman’ by the Earl of Shrewsbury in scene iii, a nomination altered by Tilney to ‘Lombard’ for ‘political reasons’ (Munday 81n). As we will see shortly, John Lincoln also criticises Dutch traders for damaging indigenous commerce

  7. As I suggested earlier, what Rowland calls the ‘relentlessly familiar’ topographic specificity is another important factor in the play’s representation of London (18). On the eve of the riot proper, in a scene marked for omission, Lincoln and his comrades gather at St Martins, an outlying liberty of the city near Aldersgate which was notorious – both in 1517 and in the 1590s – for its large and disorderly immigrant population (15). Here Lincoln accurately depicts the Dutch and French inhabitants of this area by naming as the rioters’ targets the distinctly non-Italian ‘Mewtas a wealthie Piccarde … / De Barde, Peter van Hollock, [and] Adrian Martine’, along with ‘many more outlandish fugitiues’ (scene iv, lines 419-21). Probably for reasons of dramatic economy, the action against the aliens is confined in the play to St Martin’s, where the rioters are confronted by More, rather than, as actually happened, dispersed around various locations where the strangers had congregated (such as Cornhill and Blanche Appleton to the east of the city). Nevertheless, in a strikingly detailed instance of the persistence of civic memory, Mewtas’s house is correctly identified by Lincoln as ‘the greene gate’, where, according to Stow’s Survay of London, the former ‘harbored … many Frenchmen, that kalendered wolsteds, and did other things contrarie to the Franchises of the Citizens’ (vol. I 152) (16).

  8. The first seven scenes of the play present a sustained account of the 1517 unrest and put its protagonists centre-stage. As Gabrieli and Melchiori have argued, ‘the City of London is the protagonist of the whole [first] act’ (30). Apart from More himself, we find a number of other, more ordinary Londoners, who those familiar solely with Shakespeare’s representations of non-aristocratic figures might find surprisingly articulate, literate and sympathetic. It is made clear a number of times in the text that the rioters are not impressionable simpletons – at least not in the original scenes, before the rewriting now known as the ‘Additions’ took place. Tracing the differences between the two versions of the riots reveals an attempt to make the rioters less articulate and less sympathetic. John Lincoln, the leader of the unrest, is a representation of a real person who was in the household of Edward Stafford, the Duke of Buckingham (17). Lincoln describes himself in the play as a ‘Broaker by profession’, and Susan Brigden relates that he was ‘a broker and surveyor of “goods foreign bought and sold”’ (130) (18). In this profession he was, ironically, dependent for his living upon those foreign (and mainly ‘alien’) traders against whom he inveighed in his ‘bill of wrongs’, through which he intended to bring to the civic authorities’ attention the suffering of the London citizenry caused by the uncontrolled activities of strangers in the city.

  9. Along with Lincoln, a number of other characters in the dramatised riot scenes are also named and their ‘profession’ identified in a series of what Gabrieli and Melchiori have called ‘cameo pictures of the individual citizens’: Sherwin the goldsmith, Williamson, a carpenter, his wife, the feisty Doll, and George Betts (Munday 30) (19). At this stage, the wronged citizens are presented as a heterogeneous group, not simply a faceless – and voiceless – mob (20). Furthermore, that More’s fully individualised protestors can claim the status of tradesmen is crucial, for this entails, as Michael Hattaway has stressed in the case of 2Henry VI, that they cannot simply be ignorant clowns: ‘it is certainly not just an occasion for “mechanicals” to be forced into their customary role of clowns … for, as in so many of the uprisings of the early modern period, we find no “peasants’ revolt”, but a group dominated by artisans’ (18). By this token, Stephen Greenblatt’s account of ‘lower-class revolt’ in 2Henry VI misses the nuances of the play’s social context. For instance, when he states that Shakespeare ‘calls attention to the comic humbleness of the rebels’ social origins’, Greenblatt lists the supposedly humble rebels by trade (he is careful, however, to delineate the precise status of a property-owning character in the play). Despite what Greenblatt implies, the rebels are not mere ‘buffoons’ but rather the kind of artisans staged by Sir Thomas More (23). That Shakespeare chooses to represent them as inarticulate and foolish perhaps says more about Shakespeare than it does about English social history (21).

  10. These ‘social origins’ are not insignificant: they would have been highly meaningful, perhaps even inflammatory, to a London theatre audience fully aware of the difference between, say, a prentice and an artisan. As Tilney’s interventions make clear, the danger of More’s riot scenes is precisely that the audience would have been very likely to have picked up on and perhaps to have carried over into their own experience the anti-alien sentiments articulated by Lincoln and his comrades. Furthermore, one of the most distinctive aspects of Sir Thomas More is that it presents the grievances of the rioters quite favourably and that in so doing it emphasises their London-ness. In the first scene alone de Bard is represented as an arrogant and obnoxious interloper and Doll’s strenuous protests against his behaviour seem entirely merited. Relatedly, unlike other famous plebeian leaders such as Jack Cade, Wat Tyler and Jack Straw, who are usually depicted in drama of this period as ‘violators’ of London’s spaces, Lincoln and his comrades are Londoners, actively resisting the encroachment of outsiders (22). Indeed, in More the violence, or threatened violence, takes place in named locations in and around the heart of the City rather than on its margins in Southwark (where there were riots in 1592 and 1595) or in other locations which could more readily be seen as ‘external’ to the City such as Hampstead Heath where the 1381 rebels congregated. Equally, the offences done to the citizens by the strangers are regarded as attacks on the City itself. Once again, Hall’s chronicle sets the tone, for here Lincoln prevails upon Doctor Bele to read his bill of wrongs at St Mary Spittal (just outside the city walls) on the basis that Bele is a Londoner and thus should empathise with ‘the great misery of [his] owne natiue countray’ (fol. lxv). In the play, de Bard defies the citizens’ complaints by retorting that he would treat even the Lord Mayor’s wife (the consort of London’s highest official) in the same fashion as he did Sherwin’s wife, prompting George Betts’s outraged response: ‘The Maior of London’s wife? Oh God, shall it be thus?’ (scene i, line 41). Sir Thomas Palmer, too, speaks of the insult to Sherwin as symptomatic of wider – and justified – grievances, what he calls the ‘wrongs’ and ‘greefe’ of ‘the displeased cittie’, and he rehearses de Bard’s comment about the Lord Mayor’s wife (scene iii, lines 348-9) (23). Perhaps most significantly, the rioters themselves are concerned that the City should not be damaged by their protests. When Doll talks of setting fires at St Martin’s, Sherwin warns ‘Stay, that would much endaunger the whole Cittie/ whereto I would not the least preiudice’ (scene iv, lines 429-30). Gabrieli and Melchiori ascribe Sherwin’s especial concern to his profession as a goldsmith, but it also reflects a more widespread identification of the citizens with the City’s wellbeing (Munday 87n). It is then agreed that once apprehended the strangers should be taken out to Moorfields, beyond the city walls (24).

  11. Repressing the riot is also a matter for the City. Once the rioters have been pacified by More, the Lord Mayor thanks More for having ‘preseru’de the Cittie,/ from a most daungerous fierce comotion’. More himself prioritises the security of the City by suggesting that he and the other civic officials meet at the Guildhall to issue orders that ‘thorow euery warde, the watche be clad/ in Armour, but especially prouide/ that at the Cittie gates substantiall Cittizens doo warde to night’ (scene iv, 503-21; my emphases). Gabrieli and Melchiori point out that in the chronicle accounts of the unrest it is the number of citizens so required to assemble that is ‘substantiall’: in the play, once more reflecting its concern for the specificity of social class, the word indicates rather their elevated place in civic society (Munday 107n). On the eve of the planned executions of Lincoln and his fellows continued urban unrest is envisaged, and so the Sheriff announces that ‘proclamation once againe be made,/ that euery householder, on paine of deathe/ keep in his Prentices’ (scene vi, 588-90; my emphases). Civic and governmental responsibilities are carefully differentiated: it is made clear that the order to execute Lincoln and the other ringleaders has emanated from the Privy Council, not the Guildhall, and it is emphasised that, as we have just seen, the citizens might react badly to the executions and that they must therefore be carried out speedily or ‘the Cittie will be fynde for this neglect’ (scene vi, 596). When on the scaffold, in his final words Lincoln reiterates the concern for the city which Sherwin previously expressed by pronouncing that his fate brings to fruition an ‘olde prouerbe … that Lincolne should be hanged for Londons sake’ (scene vii, 611-12). As he himself implies, Lincoln’s words are an adaptation – more fitting for the immediate context – of the ‘popular prophecy according to which the rise of London had caused the fall of Lincoln, the capital in Roman times’ (Munday 113n).

  12. Perhaps because of the topicality as well as the locality of its subject matter, the writers of this play follow Hall in exhibiting a considerable degree of sympathy with the citizens’ cause, to the extent of using a near-verbatim version of Hall’s transcription of Lincoln’s bill of wrongs. Hall was a London citizen and very much a civic historian; his empathy with the Londoners may well have been increased by the fact that he had lived through the May Day riots (25). Metz states that Hall ‘admire[d] [More’s] steadfast advocacy of London’ (Sources of Four Plays 181). Some contemporary reader of Hall’s chronicle certainly noted the way in which the historian justified the citizens’ outrage at their treatment by writing ‘The originall of ill may daye’ in the margin alongside Hall’s account of de Bard’s ‘mocke’ of ‘the poore man’ whose wife he had apprehended (26). When the play’s controversial scenes were revisited in the Additions, however, the attitude towards the rioters changed noticeably. Gabrieli and Melchiori’s view is that ‘all the Additions in the parts of the play concerned with the May Day events tend to discredit the actions of the rebels, in contrast with the attitude shown in what remains of the original’ (Munday 27) (27). Through the introduction of a more stock clown figure in Addition II, and different demarcations of artisan and prentice elsewhere in the play (of which more below) the treatment of the unrest becomes less radical. For instance, the poignant and eloquent speeches of Lincoln and Doll on the scaffold are undermined by facetious interventions from an unnamed ‘Clown’ (28). Generally, the role and status of John Lincoln diminishes. From being the respected leader of and spokesman for an organised band of protestors in the original scenes, someone who was capable of producing a cogent piece of rhetoric like the ‘bill of wrongs’, when the scene was revisited Lincoln was depicted as being less articulate and no longer the inspired ‘captain’ of the moderately orderly crew as in scene iv. In the original riot scenes Lincoln and his friends are clearly literate, unlike Jack Cade in Shakespeare’s 2Henry VI, who is hostile towards those, like lawyers, who are able to read and write (29). Lincoln reads out his bill of wrongs, and Betts states that the protestors will ‘keepe in writing’ the names of those likely to join the insurrection.

  13. In the second Addition, however, Lincoln’s reasoned objections about the deleterious impact of the strangers upon London’s tradesmen have become simple-minded and xenophobic fears about foreign vegetables, or ‘straing rootes’, causing ‘sore eyes’ and infecting ‘the Cytty wt the palsey’ (Add. II, 130-4) (30). This revised scene begins with Lincoln (presumably) shouting ‘Peace heare me’. Later, with the accompaniment of what would no doubt be in performance a background din of disorderly mob-like racket, in the face of which he and Betts have fruitlessly cried ‘Peace peace silens peace’, Lincoln freely admits to More that he cannot control the crowd. More asks ‘You that have voyce and Credyt with the number/ Comaund them to a stilnes’, to which Lincoln responds with a distinct lack of solidarity that differs markedly from the earlier scenes: ‘a plaigue on them they will not hold their peace the deule/ Cannot rule them’ (Addition II, 173-7). Even if the primary purpose of such a change of emphasis is to underline More’s achievement at pacifying and then controlling the crowd, the whole dynamic of the insurrection is altered, because Lincoln is the fulcrum for the unrest, and the way in which he is represented has consequences for all the rioters. His status as the chief culprit, and the only one to die as a result of the unrest, now looks a little anomalous (31).

  14. W. W. Greg, in contrast, claimed in his edition of the play that these new lines have
    individual qualities which mark them off sharply from the rest of the play. There is wit in the humours of the crowd, there is something like passion in More’s oratory. So striking indeed are these qualities that more than one critic has persuaded himself that the lines in question have come from no pen but Shakespeare’s (13).
    With the exception of his comment about More, this is, at the very least, wishful thinking. What ‘wit’ there is in the crowd’s so-called ‘humours’ seem to me to reside solely in Greg’s preconception of what a ‘proper’ (i.e. stupid) Elizabethan crowd would be like (32). There is largely general agreement amongst recent critics that these changes are for the worse and that the individuality of the protestors is hardly a priority in the Addition. With a significantly different view of what ‘humour’ entails, Gabrieli and Melchiori take the forthright line that the Hand D additions ‘are the one discordant note in a well-planned play’ (Munday 27) (33). Walter Cohen argues similarly that Hand D’s ‘revision belittles the protestors, depriving them of an individuality they possessed earlier in the play and reducing them to the idiotic fear of disease-causing vegetables’ (2013). Kathleen McLuskie concurs that ‘the comic tone of the [revised] riot scenes … trivialise[s] the serious political theme’ (30) (34)

  15. The revised version of scene v is in a number of ways far less benevolent to the rioters than the original scene iii. The Earl of Surrey, for instance, now speaks in the hostile manner one might expect from a man of his position, rather than expressing the quasi-seditious sentiments we saw in the earlier scene, commenting ‘oh power what art thou in a madmans eies/ thou makst the plodding Iddiott Bloudy wise’. In the original scene iii, in contrast, he says to Shrewsbury:
    ’Tis straunge, that from his princely clemencie,
    so well a tempred mercie and a grace,
    to all the Aliens in this fruitfull land,
    from them that breathe from his maiestick bountie,
    that fatned with the trafficque of our countrey:
    already leape into his subiectes face’ (scene iii, lines 324-30).
    Surrey’s words seem to me to constitute sedition, for as the sixteenth century progressed, attempting to ‘make a division’ between ruler and ruled became a prime case of sedition (35). Indeed, according to the laws current in 1517 Surrey’s words are actually treasonable. Surrey’s colleague Sir Roger Chomeley, in a speech marked for omission by Tilney, also implicitly echoes Surrey’s ‘division between ruler and ruled’ as well as the latter’s empathy with the ‘abuse’ and ‘wrongs’ suffered by the protestors:
    his Maiestie
    is not informed of this base abuse,
    and dayly wrongs are offered to his subiects
    ffor if he were, I knowe his gracious wisedome,
    would soone redresse it (scene iii, lines 379-85).
    In the Additions the tone changes markedly. Here, More calls the rioters ‘sillie men/ [who] plodd on they know not how’ (Addition II, lines 105-6 and 113). From that point on, the words used by those in authority to describe the rioters such as ‘sillie’, ‘Iddiott’ and ‘symple’ demean the latter and undermine their ability to engage in intelligent action (36). The expressed attitudes are much less neutral, let alone latently sympathetic with ‘the displeased comons’ expressing part-justified ‘greefe’, as Shrewsbury has it in the earlier version of scene iii.

  16. Furthermore, the second Addition insinuates that Lincoln and his comrades identify with apprentices rather than citizens and merchants. Lincoln’s ‘bill’ (a near verbatim version of the historical Lincoln’s petition), which is read out in scene i, makes it clear that he is expressing the wrongs suffered by the City’s middling sort. He asserts that:
    aliens and straungers eate the bread from the fatherlesse children and take the living from all the artificers, and the entercourse from all Merchants whereby povertie is so much encreased, that every man bewayleth the miserie of other, for crafts men be brought to beggarie, and Merchants to needines (scene i, lines 83-6; my emphasis).
    At no point in his bill, one should note, does Lincoln represent the interests of apprentices. In the Addition, however, immediately after the servant has called Lincoln ‘simple’, the latter’s response is an indignant ‘how say you now … prentisses symple downe with him’, echoed by ‘All’: ‘prentisses symple prentisses symple’ (Addition II, lines 143-5) (37).

  17. In the same adapted part of the text it is Sir John Munday, after being attacked by apprentices, who unilaterally imposes a connection between the violent prentices and Lincoln and his associates by claiming that the former ‘are gon to Ioine/ wth Lincolne Sherwine and ther dangerous traine’ (Addition II, lines 74-5). Originally, the citizen rioters and the unruly prentices were kept quite separate. Gabrieli and Melchiori comment that the Additions in Hand D (that which has been ascribed to Shakespeare) ‘ignored’ the ‘preoccupation to distinguish between the prentices and citizens figuring in the previous scenes’ (Munday 213n). They also emphasise that the original version of the text ascribes ‘the first acts of violence … to raw and mindless “prentices” … rather than to the citizens’ (ibid. 6). Similarly, in the chronicle histories it is the incident where Alderman Sir John Munday falls foul of ‘a sort of prentices playing at Cudgells’, as the play calls them, that constitutes the first act of violence of Evil May Day (Addition II, line 70) (38). The prentices in the original scene v do not have the articulate political agenda of Lincoln and the others in the preceding scenes: they merely want a scrap, seem to threaten each other more than anyone else and they certainly do not mention aliens or strangers. Indeed, in the play’s original form the only connection with Lincoln’s company of rebels is a passing reference to the prentices going ‘a Mayng’ which parallels a similar phrase expressed in scene i by one of the rioters, George Betts (scene v, line 455). The prentices no longer have a role in the revised insurrection scenes, where the writer(s) have followed Tilney’s instructions to present only a ‘short reportt’ of the violence done to John Munday rather than stage it directly (39). Thus the Additions conflate this original and essential difference. Scott McMillin’s view is that the original insurrection scenes ‘portrayed the English craftsmen in the sympathetic and even heroic light … but Hand D turned them into a foolish and fickle mob’ – rather more like riotous apprentices than outraged artisans, in fact (140) (40). The citizens are presented as eloquent and well-organised with a reasoned political strategy. Crucially, as we have seen, Lincoln’s bill in scene i makes a case for the grievances of merchants, artisans and craftsmen, not prentices. The prentices, who by definition had no political voice in the City, rank lower than the citizens, especially the named ones (Sherwin and Williamson), who are both tradesmen – goldsmith and carpenter, respectively – and who, had they reached the status of householder, might well have employed prentices. Laura Stevenson has written that in London ‘handicraftsmen formed a middle group between principal citizens (“merchants and chief retailers”) and labourers … [they] could thus be distinguished from merchants, but they were better off than labourers … social theory made [craftsmen] members of a faceless, volatile mass of people’ (164-6). In this play, however, they are neither faceless nor nameless – hence its power, and hence, perhaps, its treatment by Tilney.

  18. Indeed, one can argue that the playwrights’ use of their chronicle sources underscores the agency of Lincoln and his co-protestors, even if in so doing the writers, perhaps inevitably, also highlight the latter’s culpability. When compared to Hall’s account in particular the play simplifies a series of events and concentrates the action. According to Hall, on the Tuesday in Easter week 1517 ‘Doctor Bele’, the canon of St Mary Spital, read out Lincoln’s bill as the text for a sermon on patriotism and the rectitude of protesting against strangers. This was one of the annual Easter sermons held at an outdoor pulpit in the churchyard, Spittal Cross, where sermons were preached to the Lord Mayor, Aldermen and other civic dignitaries (41). As the Mayor and other city officers were ultimately responsible for civic order, Beale’s sermon at this particular venue can be construed as highly provocative. In the play, however, Beale plays no part in the action, being simply referred to in scene iii; likewise, Doctor Standish, another cleric who declined the offer to read the bill, is mentioned only once in the play (i, 74):
    Mess[enger]. ‘this followes on the doctours publishing/ the bill of wrongs in publique at the Spittle.
    Shrew[sbury]: that doctor Beale may chaunce beshrewe himselfe/ for reading of the bill’ (394-7).
    The chief responsibility for the unrest, then, for better or worse, falls to Lincoln, Williamson, Doll, Betts and their comrades.

  19. It seems to me that restoring agency is the pressing issue here, both within the play itself and within the criticism it has generated. Amongst recent critiques of Sir Thomas More Mark Thornton Burnett, who discusses the play briefly, argues that it does not represent London society with any ‘particularity’, but rather utilises ‘more general terms, such as “artisans” and “others” … where the text suggests apprentice involvement’ (25). My view, in contrast, is that there is particularity in the text’s presentation of London, and that this relates in a large part to the different social contexts of 1517, the staged riot, and 1593, the moment of production of the play. Burnett’s reading does not seem to be aware of the crucial differences between artisans and apprentices in the play, and he underplays the shifts in terminology which result from the play’s revisers trying to reshape its problematic ideology. He suggests that Lincoln expresses empathy with prentices and their ‘fragile economic circumstances’, but does not explore the relationship between the named citizens and the anonymous prentices any further, cutting short his account by finally identifying the interests of apprentices with More, of all people, concluding that ‘apprentice concerns in the play, therefore, are covertly ventilated … often through the central character’. The play, as Burnett concedes, indeed ‘resists … too neat an interpretation’, but I hope to have shown that it does so via a broader range of its characters and concerns than Sir Thomas More alone (26). It is important too to uphold the agency of its various ‘authors’: instead of regarding its complicated chronology and range of ‘hands’ as a set of problems which must be definitively solved, one can celebrate its indeterminacy as a reflection of early modern dramatic practice in all its messy reality. This eminently collaborative play belongs, not, as is increasingly the case, to the Shakespeare industry – with an Arden edition on the horizon, together with its inclusion in the new edition of the authoritative Oxford Shakespeare, and, of course, an on-going RSC production at Stratford – but rather to the city which it dramatises with such precision and empathy.


I am indebted to Nick Cox, Paul Edwards, Ian Gadd, Richard Huxtable, Steve Longstaffe, Alan Marshall and Richard Rowland for their advice and encouragement. This essay has also benefited from the comments made by the two anonymous readers.

(1) See also Munday 67n. Manley states that ‘only six months before his involvement in quelling London’s 1517 “Evil May Day Riots” More wrote to Erasmus of his desire to withdraw from active life and especially from the drudgery of administering the law’ (36). More was made free of the Mercers in 1509.

(2) In contrast, the Lieutenant of the Tower (a Crown post) was reported by Hall’s chronicle as being ‘no great frende to the citie’ during Evil May Day (Hall fol. lxii). For the play’s use of Harpsfield, see Gabrieli and Melchiori 197-201.

(3) More, like Munday, was at least a second-generation Londoner.

(4) All references to the play given in the text are to W. W. Greg’s Malone Society edition. I have quoted from Greg’s scrupulous early edition rather than Gabrieli and Melchiori’s excellent modern edition because the former reflects more thoroughly the play’s status as a material artefact and also retains the division between the original text and the Additions.

(5) See also Long 51.

(6) See Munday 118n.

(7) The first two of these plays are usually categorised as ‘elect nation plays’, but I cite them here because, like More, they tend to highlight the civic significance of their main protagonists. See also my ‘ “Since forged invention former time defaced”: representing Tudor history in the 1590s’, 205-6. For more on the genre of Sir Thomas More, see Honigmann 77-8.

(8) Richard Rowland has similarly discussed the ‘engagement with the internal tensions of the capital in the 1590s’ in Heywood’s Edward IV (15). (I am grateful to Richard for letting me see a pre-publication copy of his edition of the play.) For Steve Rappaport, the May Day 1517 riot ‘demonstrates without doubt that tensions between freemen and non-freemen were running high in the early years of the sixteenth century’ (43). Historians agree that times were very hard indeed in the 1590s: Rappaport writes that this period witnessed ‘frequent disturbances’ because ‘unemployment, plague and severe inflation made these the worst years of the sixteenth century for London’s people’ (ibid. 13). See also Archer, The Pursuit of Stability 11, and Sheppard 197. Plague deaths in 1593 were over 10,000, which, along with the threat of riot, was another reason for the closure of the London theatres in this period.

(9) See my Anthony Munday 11-15, and McMillin, Manley, Knutson and Bayer 121.

(10) See Rowland 18.

(11) The assumption underlying this essay is that the Additions were written as a near contemporary response to Tilney’s annotations (see Munday 26-7 for Gabrieli and Melchiori’s summary of this view). See also Melchiori, ‘The Booke of Sir Thomas More: a chronology of revision’, passim. Long takes a heterodox line over the play’s controversial content, arguing that the play was ‘commissioned (or at least suggested or approved) by some government official(s) as an aid in dealing with the problem of anti-alien sentiment [and] … civil uproar’ (49). Incidentally, the terms ‘strangers’ or ‘aliens’ denoted those from overseas, whereas ‘foreigners’ meant those who were not free of the City; the latter were not permitted to trade within the City boundaries although they did so extensively in suburbs like Southwark. The 1590s saw the highest numbers of ‘alien’ settlers, almost all of whom, as recorded by the 1593 returns, lived in the City, Bridge Ward Without (i.e. Southwark, but not its liberties) and Westminster.

(12) See Hunter 45-6, 248 n.1.

(13) See McMillin138 and 142, and Clare 33.

(14) See also Dutton 83. Deloney’s Jack of Newbury (1597) has a threatening alien figure who is Italian, which, as Mark Thornton Burnett comments, again ‘plays down the dangers of too close an identification with the London immigrant population’ (Burnett 61). Dekker, one of More’s authors, was elsewhere more sympathetic towards the ideal of ‘Protestant internationalism’: witness the benign Dutch characters in his Shoemaker’s Holiday. He also praised the pageants sponsored by the Dutch and Italian London communities as part of the civic celebrations of the accession of James I in 1604 (see McLuskie 75-6).

(15) The favoured trades of the aliens in St Martin’s were shoemaking and the manufacture of counterfeit goods including plate and jewellery. The sanctuary of St Martin’s had long been abused and in 1593 complaints were made to Burghley about disorder there (see Stow II: 343).

(16) See also Hall fol. lxir. Coincidentally, Mewtas’s house (which was damaged during the unrest) was owned in the 1590s by an alderman called John More (see Munday 86n).

(17) In an uncanny series of coincidences the Duke of Buckingham was also executed for treachery (in 1521) and then buried at Austin Friars (see Stow I: 153-4, 179). According to Archer, Buckingham was something of a popular hero with the London citizenry and ‘his grave at Austin Friars became a site of pilgrimage’ (“Popular politics” 34).

(18) Derek Keene explains that ‘brokers were Londoners licenced by the city authorities to act between foreign merchants in the city (and perhaps between foreigners and citizens) … [T]hey [may have] had some official role in assessing the quality of the goods for which they were brokers’ (private communication with Ian Gadd). I am grateful to Professor Keene for this clarification.

(19) During the 1517 unrest London women were apparently notorious for their hostility towards ‘aliens’ (Munday 63n).

(20) Margreta de Grazia and Peter Stallybrass note that some of Shakespeare’s plays do not exhibit such individualised characters: in Coriolanus, for instance, the Roman people are called variously ‘ “mutinous citizens,” “the Plebeians,” “the People,” “the Rabble,” [and] “a Troope of Citizens” ’ (268).

(21) See Sullivan 224 on Shakespeare and Heywood’s differing attitudes towards the citizenry. Relatedly, Rowland has commented that when compared to contemporaries such as Heywood and Munday, ‘allusions to particular London sites [in Shakespeare’s plays] are invariably glancing’ (16). See also Wilson, passim.

(22) See Manley 41, McLuskie 58 and Sullivan 210.

(23) In Hall, de Bard and the others joke, in the presence of Sir Thomas Palmer, about taking the citizen’s wife and also say that they would take the Mayor’s wife in a similar fashion if they could. Sir Thomas is then reported to have told them ‘you haue to [sic] muche fauour in Englande’ (fol. lxr).

(24) See also Rowland 17.

(25) Stow relates that Hall had been ‘a common Sergeant of London, and one of the Iudges in the shiriffes Court’. A fellow citizen, Stow praises Hall’s ‘famous and eloquent chronicle’ (Stow I: 113; see also 260-1). Barrett Beer takes a rather different line, claiming that ‘no Tudor chronicler could write sympathetically about rebels or popular protest and expect to have his work published’ (357). For more on the play’s indebtedness to Hall, see Metz, Sources of Four Plays 180-4.

(26) See the copy held in the Huntingdon Library, fol. lxr.

(27) Laura Stevenson asserts that in contrast to other such texts from the early 1590s ‘the rebels themselves are decent, honourable, outraged people … [and] the rebellion … is completely understandable’ (174). Unfortunately, however, by conflating the original and rewritten sections of the text, she carries over into her interpretation More’s own description of the rioters as ‘simple’.

(28) See also Rasmussen, passim.

(29) See also Wilson 28-9.

(30) This has been read as a topical allusion to the 1592-3 outbreak of plague: see Munday 26. Archer argues that in this period xenophobia was ‘the most basic element of the political consciousness of Londoners’ (“Popular politics” 30).

(31) It is unfortunate, to say the least, that this early part of scene vi in its original form is missing from the manuscript, with the inevitable consequence that one can comment on the Addition, but not compare it with what preceded it.

(32) For a similar critique to mine, see Wilson 24-5.

(33) They argue further that ‘the citizens, who in the rest of these scenes are shown as capable of facing death for their rights with dignity and even a touch of humour, become a clownish mob led by an ignorant demagogue’ (ibid.). Steve Longstaffe has commented on a similar rewriting in the various early printed versions of 2Henry VI (30 n.2).

(34) Janet Clare concludes that in the Addition ‘the rebellion has become almost a travesty of its former self’ (36). For a rather different interpretation, see McMillin 140-2.

(35) Manning 102.

(36) Coincidentally, in September 1517 ‘ “simple persons” were imprisoned for seditious words about an “insurrection to be made upon the strangers”’ (Brigden 132).

(37) Gabrieli and Melchiori note that ‘Hand D seems to equate the rioters with the raw prentices … rather than with the tradesmen’ (Munday 96n). See also McMillin 139.

(38) See Dyce xiii. Stow too ascribes the May Day violence to ‘Prentises, and other young persons’ (Stow I: 143).

(39) Clare has suggested that this is because they are ‘the most topical reference’ there (36). McMillin puts the omission of the three prentices and Sir John Munday down to the rationalisation of an already overlarge cast (44; see also McLuskie 32). This Addition, along with most of the others, is dated by McMillin to some ten years later than the original, although he makes an exception for the revised insurrection scenes in Hand D: see ibid. 135-59. His dating of the Additions has been disputed by other scholars such as Clare.

(40) As Ellen Caldwell notes, for 2Henry VI those involved in Cade’s rebellion were of a similarly artisan status (61-2). See also Harris 48.

(41) In 1517, St Mary’s Hospital was extant, though it was later closed during the Reformation despite  acknowledging the King’s supremacy. The Spittal sermons continued until the Commonwealth period (Elizabeth I attended one in 1559, apparently). See Weinreb and Hibbert 765, Archer, “Popular politics” 38, and Masters 11, 43 and passim. The Hospital was on the east side of Bishopsgate, outside of the city walls in the Liberty of Norton Folgate.

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Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at M.Steggle@shu.ac.uk.

© 2005-, Matthew Steggle (Editor, EMLS).