How important were the Gordon Riots?

Posted by Helen Saturday, February 13, 2010 , ,

The Conservative History Journal is actually at the printer. Phew, I hear people saying. Yes, it will be available very soon. In the meantime, the idea of a journal on line has taken a step forward. Jerome di Constanzo, writer, journalist and un vrai conservateur, has answered my call and sent me this article on the Gordon Riots, an important episode in English history but one that is, as he says, little known.
Except perhaps for a few Roman Catholics in Britain, the Gordon riots of 1780 are today almost forgotten by the majority of the British people. This was the last anti-Catholic uprising, which, during a short week gave London a vision of how it might be to live through the Terror.

On 2nd June, around 50, 000 people, led by the Protestant Association leader Lord George Gordon MP, marched on Parliament House under banners demanding “No Popery” and with a petition against the Papists Act of 1778, which had been introduced by Sir George Saville, and which sought to reintegrate Catholics into the army and to remove a number of legal disabilities. The demonstrators saw this Act as revoking the Popery Act of 1698 consequently being a reconsideration of the Glorious Revolution’s political settlement.

While Gordon was inside Parliament presenting the petition, the demonstrators started to attack the carriages and people trying to enter Westminster. Violence spread – that evening the Sardinian and Bavarian Embassies’ chapels were vandalised. Moorfields close to the City, with its strong but poor Irish Catholic population, became the theatre of a real anti-Catholic hunt with 100 houses burned down and destroyed. Like the Bastille less than ten years after, Newgate prison was largely destroyed as were the houses of the Lords Rockingham, Devonshire and Saville. The rioters, no doubt to give courage to their enterprises, also raided the gin distillery of Langdale in Holborn and after a free pint at the Spaniards Inn in Hampstead, went on to destroy Kenwood House, the home of the Lord Chief Justice, William Murray, 1st Earl of Mansfield.

On 7th June the army was given the order to fire on the groups who refused to disperse; martial law was imposed. The unruly mob was no longer solely against Catholics but also against authority in general. Once the violence had started other discontents came into play; those pro and anti war in America, as well as the victims of the poor economic situation helped to take this opportunity to destabilise Prime Minister North’s government. Tempted by this general radical movement, the Whig Charles James Fox declared that he would “much rather be governed by a mob than a standing army”.

When the Bank of England was attacked the following day, the army answered firmly. Around 285 people were killed and several hundred wounded. Many rioters were arrested; subsequently 25 were found guilty and executed. Lord George Gordon was arrested for high treason, but was found not guilty.

Later the same year the general election saw Charles James Fox win the prestigious Westminster seat with a large majority and given the title of “Man of the people”. The riots had been disastrous for British foreign relations with Catholic continental nations because of the destruction of various embassy chapels, and an important treaty of alliance with Austria failed.

Similarities could be found indirectly between the riots and the French Revolution. The rivalry between Fox and North, the extreme ambition of the first, his wish to discredit the second, and his preference for mob rule could have carried Britain’s political system to the same chaos as the French Revolution.
For Edmund Burke this time proved turbulent. He vividly remembered his house being guarded in case rioters targeted him because of his Catholic family background and because he was still suspected of being a latent Catholic. He lost his seat in Bristol later that year because of the anti-Catholic movement. Certainly he had during this period looked at evil straight in the eyes. In his Reflections, he referred to the Gordon riots when introducing the extreme and violent criticism made against the monarchy in France, just ten years after the mob devastations of London. He compared the revolutionaries in France with Gordon and how the British system dealt with this kind of extremist character. He ridiculed Gordon’s conversion to Judaism “the Protestant Rabbin”, who although being held “fast” in Newgate – the prison that his mutinous friends had destroyed – was given “a liberty, of which he did not render himself worthy by a virtuous use of it”. Burke concluded this part by proposing an exchange between Gordon and the Archbishop of Paris – not an innocent joke. In 1791, the year of the Reflections on the French Revolution, Parliament voted for the Catholic Relief Act following the new immigration of Catholic clergy escaping the Revolution in order to practise their faith freely.

All the questions discussed in the Reflections revolved around the Glorious Revolution. Were the death of absolutism and the achievements of parliamentary rule made manifest by the exclusion of Catholics? Interestingly this question is still relevant today for many progressivist thinkers – the modern take being without religion the world could be better.

On the other hand, Burke purposed to achieve the promises of 1688: the complete freedom to believe. The Reflections were an answer to Doctor Price and his pamphlet which celebrated the 100th anniversary of the Revolution of 1688. From this point of view, the Reflections weren’t just 1688 versus 1789, but about a certain perception of the Glorious Revolution: so in fact 1688 versus 1688.

1 Responses to How important were the Gordon Riots?

  1. Keri Says:
  2. A minor correction. The mob succeeded in demolishing Lord Mansfield's London home in Bloomsbury. On their way to destroy his country mansion at Kenwood, the mob stopped off at Spaniards Inn but consumed more than just a pint or two. The landlord allowed them to drink as much as they liked and they were paralytic by the time the troops arrived. Kenwood was saved.

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