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The Popery Act of 1698 imposed a number of penalties and disabilities on Roman Catholics in England. The Papists Act of 1778 eliminated some of these. The Gordon Riots of 1780 were an anti-Catholic uprising against the 1778 act. The uprising became an excuse for widespread rioting and looting.

Purpose of Act

The ostensible intention of the Papists Act of 1778 was, as its preamble states, to mitigate some of the more extreme manifestations of official discrimination against Roman Catholics in the Kingdom of Great Britainmarker at the time. Particularly and notably, it absolved Catholics from taking the religious oath when joining the British Armed Forces. There were very strong expedient reasons for this particular act of seeming benevolence. British military forces at the time were stretched very thinly in what had become a global American War of Independence, with conflicts ongoing with Francemarker, Spainmarker, and the new United Statesmarker. Opening the door to recruitment of Catholics was a significant factor in the eventual resolution of this shortfall of manpower.

Riots

Protestant Association

Lord George Gordon set up a Protestant Association 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. He intimated that Catholics in the military would, given a chance, join forces with their co-religionists on the Continent, and attack Britain.

The political climate deteriorated rapidly. On 29 May 1780. Gordon called a meeting of the Protestant Association, and his followers subsequently marched on the House of Commonsmarker to deliver a petition demanding the repeal of the Act.

Initiation

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

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

Army Response

The army was called out on 7 June and given orders to fire upon groups of four or more who refused to disperse. About 285 people were shot dead, and several hundred more were wounded. Of those arrested, about twenty or thirty were later tried and executed. Gordon was arrested and charged with high treason, but was found not guilty.

The army units which dealt with the rioters were the Honourable Artillery Company and the Queen's Royal Regiment .

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