Sebastian Giustinian, the son of Marino Giustinian was born in Venice in 1460. He was Venetian ambassador to Hungary (1500–03), he was briefly ambassador to Poland in 1505, before becoming governor of Brescia in 1509, and Illyria in 1511.
In December 1514, Giustinian was appointed ambassador to England. His biographer, Barry Collett, has claimed: It was a crucial post with twin tasks of developing commercial links and, more urgently, discouraging the forthcoming Anglo-Habsburg alliance against France and Venice, and promoting Anglo-Venetian-French relations. His diplomatic style was highly personal, involving frequent meetings with the king, Wolsey, and influential people, and being generously hospitable.... Giustinian's dispatches of June 1515 praise Henry VIII, but later and more secret letters to the council of ten express wariness." (1)
John Lincoln, a second-hand dealer in London, persuaded Dr. Beal, the vicar of St Mary's Church in Spitalfields, to preach against the foreigners in his sermon in Easter week of 1517. Beal agreed and to a great congregation in the fields outside the city he "denounced the aliens who stole Englishmen's livelihoods and seduced their wives and daughters; he said that even birds expelled interlopers from their nests, and that men were entitled to fight for their country against foreigners." (2)
Sebastian Giustinian, reported: "After Easter, a certain preacher, at the instigation of a citizen of London, preached as usual in the fields, where the whole city was in the habit of assembling with the magistrates. He abused the strangers in the town, and their manners and customs, alleging that they not only deprived the English of their industry and of the profits arising there from, but dishonored their dwellings by taking their wives and daughters. With this exasperating language and much more besides, he so irritated the populace that they threatened to cut the strangers to pieces and sack their houses on the first of May." (3)
Edward Hall, a twenty year old student, wrote: "The multitude of strangers was so great about London that the poor English could get any living... The foreigners... were so proud that they disdained, mocked, and oppressed the Englishmen, which was the beginning of the grudge... The Genoans, Frenchmen, and other strangers said and boasted themselves to be in such favour with the king and his council that they set naught by the rulers of the city... How miserably the common artificers lived, and scarcely could get any work to find them, their wives, and children, for there were such a number of artificers strangers that took away all the living in manner." (4)
On 28th April 1517 John Lincoln posted a bill upon one of the doors of St Paul's Cathedral, complaining that "the foreigners" were given too much favour by the king and council. It claimed that "the foreigners" had "bought wools to the undoing of Englishmen". Sebastian Giustinian, went to see Cardinal Thomas Wolsey about his concerns. He sent for London's mayor and told him that "your young and riotous people will rise and distress the strangers". (5)
Giustinian went to see Henry VIII at Richmond Palace on 29th April to tell him that he heard rumours that the "people would rise and kill the foreigners on May Day. Henry promised that all foreigners would be protected. Cardinal Wolsey ordered the Lord Mayor and the city officers to enforce a curfew on the eve of May Day, when large crowds always assembled and trouble sometimes occurred. (6)
Sir Thomas More, the Under-Sheriff of London and his men, patrolled the streets that night. Some young apprentices broke the curfew and when an officer tried to arrest one of them, a riot broke out. More's men charged the rioters with their staves. This only made them more angry and soon afterwards a large crowd of young people were attacking foreigners and burning the houses of Venetian, French, Italian, Flemish and German merchants. (7)
Edward Hall reported that "diverse young men of the city assaulted the aliens as they passed by the streets, and some were stricken and some were buffeted, and some thrown into the canal... Then suddenly was a common secret rumour, and no man could tell how it began, then on May Day next the city would rebel and slay all aliens, in so much as diverse strangers fled out of the city." (8)
It was reported that rioters ran through the city with "clubs and weapons... throwing stones, bricks, bats, hot water, shoes and boots, and sacking the houses of many foreigners". It is estimated that 2,000 Londoners sacked the houses of foreign merchants. This became known as the Evil May Day Riots. It was claimed that women were partly to blame for this riot. The government announced that "no women should come together to babble and talk, but all men should keep their wives in their houses". (9)
The rioting continued all night and on the morning and afternoon of May Day. According to Jasper Ridley: "The hated Frenchmen were the chief target of the rioters. Several were assaulted in the street. The French ambassador escaped, when his house was attacked, by hiding in a church steeple... The London watch was quite incapable of dealing with the rioters. The Constable of the Tower opened fire on them with his cannon, but only shot a few rounds and did no damage." (10)
That afternoon, Thomas Howard, Earl of Surrey, brought 1,300 soldiers into the city and mass arrests began to take place. The first batch of 279 people were brought before the courts later that day. Edward Hall described the prisoners as "some men, some lads, some children of thirteen years... there was a great mourning of fathers and friends for their children and kinsfolk." (11) Charles Wriothesley claimed that eleven men were executed. (12) Hall thought it was thirteen but Sebastian Giustinian said it was twenty and Francesco Chieregato thought it was as high as sixty. Those executed suffered the penalty of being "hanged, drawn and quartered".
John Lincoln was tried separately on 6th May. He was found guilty and executed. The public was shocked by the way Henry VIII had dealt with the rioters. Jasper Ridley points out: "For the first time since he became King, Henry risked his popularity with the people by his severe repression of the anti-foreign rioters of Evil May Day. The resentment felt against the foreigners; the sympathy for the young apprentices; the grief of the parents when their boys of thirteen were executed; the feeling that in many cases the more innocent had been punished while the more guilty escaped; and the tales, which Hall reported, of the brutality of the Earl of Surrey's soldiers who suppressed the disorders, all aroused great sympathy of the rioters." (13)
Sebastian Giustinian commented that he was shocked that so many young boys were executed when no one had been killed by the rioters. (14) David Starkey has argued that this illustrated the fact that Henry was "far more sympathetic to foreigners than the common folk". (15) Others have suggested that it was very important for Henry "to show the foreign merchants that they could safely come to London and carry on their business there; and, even more important, he would not tolerate anarchy in his realm, or any defiance of his royal authority and laws." (16)
According to Edward Hall the rest of the captured rioters, with halters around their necks, were brought to Westminster Hall in the presence of Henry VIII. He sat on his throne, from where he condemned them all to death. Cardinal Thomas Wolsey then fell on his knees and begged the king to show compassion while the prisoners themselves called out "Mercy, Mercy!" Eventually the king relented and granted them pardon. At which point they cast off their halters and "jumped for joy". (17)
However, Francesco Chieregato, the representative of Pope Leo X in Henry's court, reported that Catherine of Aragon was responsible for this act of compassion: "Our most serene and most compassionate queen, with tears in her eyes and on her bended knees, obtained their pardon from His Majesty, the act of grace being performed with great ceremony." (18)
Sharon L. Jansen has pointed out that Garrett Mattingly, the author of Catherine of Aragon (1941) and Jack Scarisbrick, the author of Henry VIII (1968) have suggested this story is true: "Chieregato's seems to be the only report that Queen Catherine secured the pardons... Nevertheless, the story that Catherine sought the pardon, interceding on her knees for the prisoners, has proven irresistible to historians." (19)
John Edward Bowle, takes the view that it was Cardinal Thomas Wolsey who got the men pardoned. (20) Bowle relies on information from George Cavendish, a close friend of Wolsey and the author of The Life and Death of Cardinal Wolsey (1558). Cavendish claims that it was a shrewd political move as Wolsey dealt with the symptoms, not the cause, and the king doubtless got more credit with his people than the cardinal. (21)
Giustinian returned to Venice in October 1519. He became councillor superior in 1519, and ambassador to France in 1526, a post later filled by his son Marino Giustinian. (22)
Sebastian Giustinian died on 13th March 1543, aged eighty-three.
His diplomatic style was highly personal, involving frequent meetings with the king, Wolsey, and influential people, and being generously hospitable.... Giustinian's dispatches of June 1515 praise Henry VIII, but later and more secret letters to the council of ten express wariness.... Giustinian's elegant prose style contains abundant social observation. He describes the nobility's genealogies and conspicuous displays of tapestries and gold plate, especially noting Wolsey's theatrical show of power and wealth. He skilfully wove diplomatic news into social contexts: a single dispatch of February 1516 reports the death of Ferdinand of Aragon, and tells how the news was kept from Queen Katherine, then in labour, and how Giustinian delayed formal congratulations by a few hours because her child was a daughter.
After Easter, a certain preacher, at the instigation of a citizen of London, preached as usual in the fields, where the whole city was in the habit of assembling with the magistrates. He abused the strangers in the town, and their manners and customs, alleging that they not only deprived the English of their industry and of the profits arising therefrom, but dishonored their dwellings by taking their wives and daughters. With this exasperating language and much more besides, he so irritated the populace that they threatened to cut the strangers to pieces and sack their houses on the first of May.
So great is the malignity... that what they are now unable to do for fear of death is done by their women, who evince immense hatred towards foreigners.
(2) Jasper Ridley, Henry VIII (1984) page 105
(3) Sebastian Giustinian, letter to the Signiory of Venice (April, 1517)
(4) Edward Hall, History of England (1548) page 153-154
(5) Peter Ackroyd, Tudors (2012) page 19
(6) Jasper Ridley, Henry VIII (1984) page 105
(7) Jasper Ridley, The Statesman and the Fanatic (1982) page 78
(8) Edward Hall, History of England (1548) page 155
(9) Sharon L. Jansen, Dangerous Talk and Strange Behaviour: Women and Popular Resistance to the Reforms of Henry VIII (1996) page 107
(10) Jasper Ridley, Henry VIII (1984) page 105
(11) Edward Hall, History of England (1548) page 161
(12) Charles Wriothesley, diary entry (May, 1517)
(13) Jasper Ridley, Henry VIII (1984) page 106
(14) Sebastian Giustinian, letter to the Signiory of Venice (May, 1517)
(15) David Starkey, Six Wives: The Queens of Henry VIII (2003) page 163
(16) Jasper Ridley, Henry VIII (1984) page 107
(17) Peter Ackroyd, Tudors (2012) page 19
(18) Francesco Chieregato, letter to Pope Leo X (19th May, 1517)
(19) Sharon L. Jansen, Dangerous Talk and Strange Behaviour: Women and Popular Resistance to the Reforms of Henry VIII (1996) page 107
(20) John Edward Bowle, Henry VIII (1964) page 78-79
(21) George Cavendish, The Life and Death of Cardinal Wolsey (c. 1558)
(22) Barry Collett, Sebastian Giustinian : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)