The London wrestling riot of 1221
Sporting events have raised tensions amongst participants and onlookers, particularly when there are underlying causes of discontent and it seems this was as true in medieval times as it is now. What we know as London these days was originally two distinct conurbations – the City of London to the east and Westminster to the west. Representatives from each of these areas together with denizens from other neighbouring villages took part in an annual wrestling competition, held on St James’ Day in St Giles in the Fields.
The team representing London prevailed in 1221 and this really pissed the steward of the Abbott of Westminster off. He swore revenge and set off a train of bloody events in what was one of the more curious riots to blot the capital’s history. The steward organised a rematch to be held on 1st August, offering a ram as the prize. A large crowd travelled from Westminster in support of their champions but to their consternation, they found that they had walked into a trap. Instead of enjoying a pleasant sporting contestant and a few flagons of ale, they were set upon by armed men, some of whom were wounded with the rest put to flight.
But the men of London were made of sterner stuff and were not going to let matters rest there, particularly as their pride had been hurt. They were out for revenge and prompted by Constantine Fitz-Arnulph, marched on Westminster and demolished the houses belonging to the steward and the Abbott. The Abbott, perhaps unwisely, returned to Westminster to voice his complaints to the authorities, only to find that he was pursued by the mob, had twelve of horses stolen and his servants set upon. Accounts suggest he would have been murdered had he not “escaped through the back door, through a shower of stones, to the water side.”
When the furore had died down, the authorities stepped in. The chief magistrate, Hubert de Bury, summoned the leading citizens to the Tower of London and asked them who the ringleaders were. Constantine stepped forward and said that “he was the one; that they had done no more than they ought; and that they were resolved to stand by what they had done, let the consequence be what it would.” His nephew and a third man, named in the records simply as Geoffery, also fessed up. Dismissing the rest of citizens, Hubert ordered the three to be strung up. Constantine offered 15,000 marks for his freedom but it was to no avail and the following day he and his colleagues danced the hemp jig.
Worse was to follow. De Bury rounded up some of the principal rioters and chopped off their feet and hands, rather ruining their wrestling prowess. Thirty men were then seized and held as hostages as security against the citizens’ future behaviour and fines of several thousand marks were levied.
This rather high-handed, if not to say, unconstitutional behaviour in the aftermath of the wrestling riot not unsurprisingly caused further tension and in 1224 parliament petitioned the king at the time, Henry III, to confirm the charter of liberties aka the Magna Carta which he and his officers were supposed to be abiding by. In 1225 at a meeting of parliament at Westminster the charter was ratified and the ancient right s and privileges were restored to London including the right to a common seal and exemption from taxes on burel, a type of fine wool which looks like felt.
It was a rather high price to pay but at least Londoners got a modicum of justice.