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The Gordon Rioters set fire to Newgate gaol, 1780.


Gordon Riots

The Gordon Riots is a term used to refer to a number of events in a predominantly Protestant religious uprising in London aimed against the Roman Catholic Relief Act, 1778, "relieving his Majesty's subjects, of the Catholic Religion, from certain penalties and disabilities imposed upon them during the reign of William III." The ostensible intention of this piece of legislation was, as the Act's preamble states, to mitigate some of the more extreme manifestations of official discrimination against Roman Catholics in the United Kingdom at the time, particularly and notably absolving Catholics from taking the religious oath when joining the British military. There were very strong expedient reasons for this particular act of seeming benevolence, notably the fact that British military forces at the time were stretched very thin, with conflicts ongoing with France, Spain and America, and opening the door to recruitment of Catholics was a significant factor in the eventual resolution of this shortfall of manpower.

The Protestant Association was an organisation set up by Lord George Gordon in 1780 to force the repeal of this legislation. An articulate, albeit eccentric, propagandist, Gordon inflamed the mob with fears of papism and a return to absolute monarchical rule, intimating that Catholics within the military would, given a chance, join forces with their co-religionists on the Continent, and attack England.

The political climate deteriorated rapidly. Gordon called a meeting of the Protest Association on May 29, 1780 called for a march on the House of Commons to deliver a petition demanding the repeal of the Roman Catholic Relief Act the following week.

On June 2, 1780 a huge crowd, many carrying flags and banners proclaiming "No Popery", and estimated to be between 40,000 to 60,000 strong, assembled and marched on the Houses of Parliament. As they marched, their numbers gathered and swelled. They attempted to force their way intothe House of Commons but without success. Gordon, petition in hand, and wearing the blue cockade in his hat, the symbol of the Protestant Association, entered the Lower House and presented the petition. Outside, however, the situation quickly got out of hand and a riot erupted.

Newgate Prison was attacked, and largely destroyed. Severe destruction was inflicted on Catholic churches and homes, including the chapels on the grounds of several embassies, as well as the Bank of England, Fleet Prison, and the house of the Lord Chief Justice, William Murray, 1st Earl of Mansfield.

The army was called out on June 7 and 285 rioters were killed. Of those arrested, about 20 or 30 were executed. Gordon was arrested and charged with high treason, but was found not guilty.

The riots are described at second-hand by Charles Dickens in his historical novel Barnaby Rudge.