Tensions with Italian merchants

In April 1456, three mercers’ servants (probably journeymen) saw a Lucchese merchant, Alessandro Palastrelli, on Cheapside with a dagger hanging ostentatiously from his belt. Tensions in England were high that year; beyond the developing civil war, another flashpoint was Londoners’ resentment towards Italian merchants, who (in their view) undercut the English and in general acted as if they owned the world.

The mercers’ servants saw Palastrelli’s open-carry dagger as a provocation. One of the servants, John Edwards, had spent time in Italy and been punished for wearing a similar weapon. He challenged Palastrelli, asking him “how he was so bold to bear such a warlike weapon, considering he was a stranger and out of his native country.” The Italian answered dismissively, and Edwards seized the dagger from him and broke it on his head.

Palastrelli complained to civic authorities; Edwards was arrested but released on bail later that day. The next evening, a mob of apprentices and journeymen, emboldened by the lenient treatment of Edwards, sacked the houses of Italian merchants.

Arrests followed and three rioters were hanged; Edwards, however, fled to Westminster and (according to the Great Chronicle of London) “there abode as a sanctuary man, whereby he saved his life.” The London civic elite – including the anonymous Great Chronicler – were at best ambivalent and often hostile to the privilege of sanctuary, but appreciated its shelter when they felt injustice had been done towards them. Though the City of London as corporation was the most active opponent of sanctuary, London citizens were heavy users of the two sanctuaries in the metropolitan area.

Great Chronicle, 188; New Chronicle, 630; J. L. Bolton, “The City and the Crown, 1456-61,” London Journal 12 (1986): 12-13. Top image: Ambrogio Lorenzetti, Effects of Good Government in the city

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