One of the things I like about Britain is that, when it comes to religion, we don’t really give a damn. Aside from a handful of fanatics, most people seem to be okay with you believing whatever as long as you’re not being a dick about it. Well, except in Northern Ireland, where “being a dick about it” seems to be the norm, but that’s another story (it’s the only place where I can say I’ve ever been persecuted for my atheism AND LET’S JUST LEAVE IT AT THAT SHALL WE).
Of course, it wasn’t always thus. For centuries, the people of England were in conflict over the question of Catholicism versus Protestantism. Long story short, Henry VIII founds the Church of England. The first coffee morning is held a week later, Sir Thomas More refuses a slice of Henry’s famous pineapple upside-down cake and is executed for it.
Edward VI ascends the throne, is Protestant, dies young. Mary I ascends the throne, is Catholic, persecutes Protestants. Elizabeth I ascends throne, is Protestant, persecutes Catholics. No heir, James I comes down from Scotland. The hope among Catholics is that as the son of Mary, Queen of Scots is that he’ll follow in Mama’s footsteps and restore Catholicism. He doesn’t, and the Gunpowder Plot happens. The English Civil War ushers in Oliver Cromwell and the fun-free version of Protestantism practised by the Puritans. Charles II is restored to the throne along with fun. In 1666 London is burnt down in the Great Fire. In 1681, the Monument to the fire receives the additional text: “But Popish frenzy, which hath wrought such horrors, is not yet quenched.” And just less than a century later, one of the stupidest events in the history of the city takes place.
You see, even in the supposedly enlightened late 18th century, an awful lot of people genuinely believed there was still some sort of evil Papist conspiracy to take the country over, throw out the Archbishop of Canterbury, abolish bring-and-buy sales, &c, &c.
It all started in 1766, when the Vatican officially recognised the Hanoverian dynasty as rightful rulers of Britain. This eliminated any threat the Catholic church might have posed, and therefore in 1778 Sir George Savile introduced the Catholic Relief Act. This effectively recognised Catholics as citizens with the right to own land, join the Army and vote (albeit in accordance with the very strict restrictions on voting in place back then). Not too much to ask, you might think.
Well, it was for Lord George Gordon. Gordon, pictured right, was what is known in political terms as “kind of a prick.” While he favoured American independence and improved conditions in the Navy, he was also the sort of man who picked fights against every other MP in the House, regardless of political alignment, and would seemingly change his opinions at the drop of a hat.
Gordon saw the Relief Act as certain evidence of a Popish plot, and so, in accordance with his talents, began shit-stirring. Among his many bizarre claims was the suggestion that Smithfield market was to be turned into the headquarters of a new Spanish Inquisition where people would be publicly burnt alive. Why Smithfield? Gord only knows.
Weirdly enough, he was able to find an audience who did not think he was insane, presumably from the readership of Ye Dailie Mayle. On 2nd June 1780, some 50,000 supporters marched on Parliament with a petition, wearing blue rosettes and painting ‘No Popery’ wherever they could, in case we hadn’t got the message that they were, in fact, Protestant.
The riot quickly turned ugly (well, uglier) as its members began smashing up Catholic chapels, houses and businesses. In Westminster, MPs and their carriages were attacked by rioters. Gordon himself was placed under arrest for high treason, and somewhat sobered by this, and the promise of an armed response from Parliament, the mob dispersed a little.
It wasn’t to last, however. Over the next couple of days, rumours spread, and in accordance with mob mentality it was decided that the best solution was to smash some more stuff up. Mobs descended on Moorfields, home of a large Irish population, and then began a programme of attacking just about every building of importance in the city – the Temple, the Inns of Court, the Royal Arsenal, various embassies, the prisons, the palaces, and the Bank of England twice. Why it was felt that the Bank required two attacks I don’t know, it’s not like there was anything of interest in there. Newgate Prison was burnt down, and in an astonishing show of intelligence and compassion the rioters didn’t think to let the inmates out first. Of course, Savile’s house was targeted.
Perhaps the strangest attack of all was on Langdale’s Distillery in Holborn. As the distillery burned, liquor flooded the streets. The crowd, not being the sort of people to look a gift horse in the mouth, decided to drink their fill of free booze. Free booze… that was on fire. Accounts speak of men, women and children knocking it back unto death. Seriously, even I wouldn’t do that.
With no police force to speak of, there was little to check the robbers, and the city was effectively in a state of anarchy. On 9th June, the King ordered the Army in. Order was eventually restored, with 285 rioters shot and 139 arrested. 25 of the ringleaders were executed.
The Gordon Riots, as they came to be known, were one of the most shameful events in the history of London. Hundreds of thousands of pounds worth of damage were caused by the rioters, mostly to property owned by Catholics, and the incident was a blow to the acceptance of democracy in Europe. The Riots did have one positive effect, though – they highlighted the need for a proper police force in London.
As for Gordon himself? Well, he was acquitted and, after more adventures, eventually converted to Judaism. Funny how things turn out, isn’t it?