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Why Were The Shrove Tuesday Riots So Brutal?

The Shrove Tuesday Riots (known also as the Bawdy House Riots of 1668, or the Messenger Riots) were a series of brutal riots that took place in London in 1668. During the 17 th century, it was customary for people in London to attack brothels on Shrove Tuesday. However, the riots of 1668 were remarkably different from previous years due to the massive number of rioters and the extended duration of the riots.

Shrove Tuesday, the day before Ash Wednesday, is the last day before Lent, a solemn season of penance in the Christian liturgical calendar. In England, one of the traditional activities of Shrove Tuesday is the consumption of pancakes, which has survived till this day. Rioting, however, the other customary activity of Shrove Tuesday, is no longer practiced.

William Hogarth's - A Harlot's Progress (Public Domain)

William Hogarth's - A Harlot's Progress ( Public Domain )

Riots Aimed at Prostitutes and Brothels

During the 17 th century, participating in a riot on Shrove Tuesday was a common practice in London. These riots were aimed at prostitutes and brothels, with the supposed goal of removing such temptations during Lent. The participants of these riots were the apprentices working in London, who were estimated to have numbered 20,000 by 1660.

William Hogarth - Industry and Idleness, Plate 11; The Idle 'Prentice Executed at Tyburn (Public Domain)

William Hogarth - Industry and Idleness, Plate 11; The Idle 'Prentice Executed at Tyburn (Public Domain )

The apprentices of London were notorious for their rowdy behavior. Apprenticeship for boys started at the age of 11 and continued until they reached the age of 24. Strict guidelines regarding the behavior of these apprentices were devised, and they were expected to be models of sober, moral industry. Nevertheless, they often fell short of these expectations, and were infamous for various vices, including laziness, overindulgence, and heavy drinking. They were frequently beaten by their masters, whom they relied on for all their basic necessities, including food, clothes, and shelter. The apprentices did not receive wages.

The frustration felt by the apprentices would account for their rowdy behavior, and the Shrove Tuesday Riots are a manifestation of it. The Shrove Tuesday Riots in 1668 was not the first of its kind. Between 1606 and 1641, a total of 24 Shrove Tuesday Riots were documented. An account of the Shrove Tuesday Riots of 1617 may be found in a letter sent to Sir Dudley Carlton by John Chamberlain, in which the mayhem of the riots was described. Nevertheless, the riots of 1668 were markedly different from the ones that preceded it.

In that year, the Shrove Tuesday Riots transpired to be more brutal than previous times. The riots began on the 24 th of March and extended for several days. Additionally, the riots involved thousands of people, and many brothels all across London were destroyed. An account of the riots may be found in the diary of Samuel Pepys. The diary chronicled that soldiers were dispatched to contain the riots, and a number of young men were arrested and imprisoned. Nevertheless, the rioters went to the prison to free them, and they continued the destruction of the brothels.

Satirical petition ostensibly written by Elizabeth Cresswell, Damaris Page and other brothel keepers to Lady Castlemaine, the lover of Charles II. March 1668. (Public Domain)

Satirical petition ostensibly written by Elizabeth Cresswell, Damaris Page and other brothel keepers to Lady Castlemaine, the lover of Charles II. March 1668. ( Public Domain )

How Severe Were the Riot Damages?

The damages incurred by the riots that year were so severe that eight apprentices were sent to the gallows. The brothels of Elizabeth Cresswell, one of 17 th century England’s most successful brothel keepers, were destroyed during the riots, causing her to sponsor the Poor Whores’ Petition . This satirical pamphlet addressed to Lady Castlemaine, the mistress of Charles II of England, by Creswell as well as other prostitutes and brothel owners. In the pamphlet, Lady Castlemaine, as the ‘highest-ranking whore’ in the kingdom, was requested to intercede on behalf of her fellow ‘sisters’. As a piece of satire, however, the Poor Whores’ Petition was an attack on the decadence of the royal court in particular and London in general. Moreover, the pamphlet was a piece of anti-Catholic propaganda, during a time when such sentiments were widespread in England. Lady Castlemaine was Catholic, and the king himself was suspected by many of being Catholic himself.

Top image: The Pancake Bakery                     Source: Public Domain          

By Wu Mingren

References

Cale, J., 2017. London, Politics, Religion, Sex, The Restoration, Vice, Violence. [Online]
Available at: https://dirtysexyhistory.com/tag/shrove-tuesday-riots/

Gilchrist, D., 2011. London: Riots Through The Ages. [Online]
Available at: https://www.oxfordstudent.com/2011/11/10/london-riots-through-the-ages/

Harris, T., 1990. London Crowds in the Reign of Charles II: Propaganda and Politics from the Restoration Until the Exclusion Crisis. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

lostcityoflondon.co.uk, 2014. The Lost City of London – Before the Great Fire of 1666. [Online]
Available at: https://lostcityoflondon.co.uk/2014/03/04/shrove-tuesday-riots/

Pepys, S., 1668. The Diary of Samuel Pepys: Tuesday 24 March 1667/68. [Online]
Available at: https://www.pepysdiary.com/diary/1668/03/24/

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