n 1778 Sir George Savile had successfully introduced a Catholic Relief Act, which was part of the Whig tradition of religious toleration. It absolved Roman Catholics from taking the religious oath on joining the army — and helped to boost the size of the British army, necessary in the face of war against America, France and Spain. The legislation was passed by Lord North's ministry.
Lord George Gordon, a powerful and extreme Protestant, set up the Protestant Association in 1780, demanding the repeal of the Catholic Relief Act. He spread fears of "Popery" and royal absolutism; he suggested that Roman Catholics in the British army, especially the Irish, might join forces with their French and Spanish co-religionists and attack England. He saw the Catholic Relief Act as a threat to Anglicanism and since being a Roman Catholic was equated to being a traitor (an idea going back to Elizabeth I and the belief that a person could not be loyal to the English monarch and the Pope at the same time) his Association attracted extremists. Much anti-Catholic feeling was roused.
The high point was in June 1780 when a crowd some 60,000 strong marched to the House of Commons to present a petition for the repeal of the Catholic Relief Act. The crowd included a riotous element and the whole event got out of hand. The mob took over London for a week. The London homes of the Marquis of Rockingham, the Duke of Devonshire, Lord Mansfield and Sir George Savile (the main advocates of the legislation) were attacked; those of Mansfield and Savile were burned and the others had to be defended by the militia.
The mob looted, burned, waved placards, attacked Catholic churches and presbyteries and the persons and homes of leading Catholics. It took a week for the government to collect enough militia and troops to quash the riots. The mob attacked prisons and freed prisoners. Eventually George III insisted that the troops should be called out. John Wilkes was in command of the troops outside the Bank of England and ordered his men to fire on the crowd. This marked the end of the Wilkesite movement.
The result of the riots was:
- 290 dead
- 100 Roman Catholic buildings (churches, presbyteries, private homes) looted and/or burned (indicating some element of social protest)
- £70,000 paid in compensation to individuals
- £30,000 worth of damage to public buildings
- 25 ringleaders were hanged
- Lord George Gordon was found "Not Guilty" of treason and was freed without further charge
Last modified 30 August 2003