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"Smash the Pagan Idol!"

You can hear the mob baying, whipped up into a frenzy of anti Catholic fervour by the ringleaders. The crowd some three hundred strong fill narrow Lime Street to bursting point. Some carrying flaming torches which throw an eery glow on the assembled throng, casting deep shadows that heighten the sense of malevolence amongst the crowd. Oaths and curses emanate from the mob and tension reaches boiling point as with a mighty cheer a handful of young Apprentices detach themselves from the mob and race down the cobbled lane in search of their quarry. Doors are kicked open and resistance is dealt with by fists and cudgels, but soon the object of all this fury is found. Removing it from it's resting place the Apprentices triumphantly carry it aloft and a mighty roar goes up from the expectant crowd "Smash the Pagan idol" as they catch sight of the hated object........it's a Maypole.


To make sense of these goings on we have to travel back to the 1300s. Opposite Lime Street or Lymestrete as it was known then sits the church of St Andrew's Undershaft at the junction of Cornhull and Aldgatestrete. The church had been built around 1147 but by the 1300s had been demolished and rebuilt.


It appears that around this time a spring festival began, possibly around May Day where revellers would celebrate the end of winter with singing dancing and a little drinking, strictly controlled by the local clergy. The highpoint of the festival was the erection of a large Maypole just outside the church as seen on the map below.




The festival and the Maypole dancing remained popular for the next two hundred years right up until 1517, until May of that year when what was to become known as Evil May Day.


The celebrations started peacefully enough, however a wave of xenophobic fervour had been rife in the City during the days leading up to May Day. As the crowds began to imbibe possibly more than was good for them, some within their ranks turned their attention to the amount of foreigners, known at the time as Strangers living in the City.

The Apprentices, an unruly bunch of young men at the best of times were always looking for an excuse to kick off and as the day progressed they focussed on anyone who stood out as being a Stranger. They attacked foreign residents ranging from Flemish cobblers to French royal courtiers. Some of the rioters were later hanged, although Henry VIII later granted a pardon for the remainder following public pleadings from his wife Catherine of Aragon.

This wave of anti foreigner feeling had been whipped up by a shadowy figure who preached at St Paul's Cross an open air pulpit in the grounds of the old St Paul's cathedral. His name was Dr Bell. Bell accused immigrants of stealing jobs from English workers and of "eating the bread from poor fatherless children". Chroniclers of the time estimate that the Apprentices numbered around a thousand and starting at the top end of Cheapside by St Paul's systematically worked their way along the street beating up anyone who they didn't like the look of and breaking in to foreigners houses to loot whatever they could carry. Having travelled the length of Cheapside the mob moved onto Cornhill and eventually arrived at St Andrews where the Maypole stood bedecked with ribbons and garlands.



It's unclear why the young men took exception to the celebrations, what could be more English that a Maypole? However, reports say that they disrupted the festivities to such an extent that it had to be curtailed. The Maypole was taken down and stored in St Andrews. By this time the Duke of Norfolk with a private army numbering around fifteen hundred men had entered the City in order to support the authorities who were struggling to keep control. By 3 a.m. the riot had died down, and 300 people under arrest were released. However, 13 of the rioters were convicted of treason and executed on the 4th May. Again, it's unclear why, but the Maypole celebrations were never held again and the now redundant pole was displayed on a wall within St Andrews, and there it sat for another forty years until the night described at the top of this piece.


The 1540s were a rather turbulent time in England, with riots and rebellions springing up with regularity. The civil disobedience in question seems to have ridden on the back of protests arising from an act passed in early 1547, the Vagrancy Act. ​On the 28th January 1547 Henry VIII died leaving his nine year old son Edward to ascend the throne. Due to his age all the power was held by his protector the Duke of Somerset, the boy's uncle Edward Seymour. The country's finances were stretched to the limit due to recent military campaigns and so in an effort to raise funds Seymour and the Privy Council pushed through a number of unpopular taxes.

A wave of unrest quickly spread through the City and fearing a full scale rebellion the council took measures to take the idle, unemployed and vagrants off of the streets sighting them as the hotbed of dissenters within the City. The act stated that any able-bodied person who was out of work for more than three days should be branded with a V and sold into slavery for two years. As you can imagine this didn't go down too well with the masses and contrary to what the council hoped would happen rioting broke out.


As a backdrop to this one of the fears amongst some of the population was that the young King would fall under the influence of his half sister Mary, a staunch Catholic and that the changes made by Henry VIII's split with the Catholic church would be undone. Obviously seeing an opportunity to ride on the back of the unrest created by the Vagrancy Act a small number of anti Catholics went looking for tokens or images that may have had links to the Catholic church and that's how they ended up outside St Andrew's. The chronicler John Stow, who was later buried in the church wrote "as a pagan idol it was raised from the hooks whereon it had rested for two-and-thirty years, sawn in pieces and burnt".

In 2013 a replica of the Maypole was unveiled a hundred yards or so from where the original one was used. The replica is quite tall, but apparently not as tall as the original, which was said to tower over the roof of St Andrew's casting a shadow across it's entrance, and that is how the church got it's strange name, meaning St Andrew's under the shaft.


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