Did These Anti-Catholic Riots Aid the Cause of American Independence?

London’s fierce Gordon Riots in 1780 dashed all hopes of bringing Spain and Austria into the fight against the American colonies.

John Seymour Lucas, “The Gordon Riots,” 1879
John Seymour Lucas, “The Gordon Riots,” 1879 (photo: Public Domain)

The year 1780 marks the most serious anti-Catholic riots ever witnessed in Britain. What became known as the Gordon Riots were, mercifully — so far at least — the last of their kind. They had minimal impact on British Catholic Emancipation. However, where they may well have played a part, indirectly at least, was in the battle then raging for American Independence.

Starting on June 2, 1780, London was besieged by rioting that persisted for the next seven days. During that time the city’s Newgate Prison was attacked by a mob and prisoners there set free. A proclamation of liberty was painted on the prison wall stating that this emancipation was granted by the authority of “His Majesty, King Mob.” The Bank of England fared almost as badly, having to be defended by troops. But this mob was anti-Catholic first and foremost. And its principal targets were the homes and chapels — more often than not part of a diplomatic mission — of the still largely underground Church.

The genesis of this violence lay with one man: Lord George Gordon. He was just 29 years old when he led the riots and stoked the flames of hatred against the then-negligible Catholic population of London. A year earlier, Gordon had made himself the supreme head of the Protestant Association, whose aim was to prevent any toleration of Catholicism. Laws proposing some minor relaxation of the laws against the Catholic religion in Scotland had been thwarted by his efforts. Now he traveled south to London to ensure new laws tolerating the Old Faith be repealed in England. His chief objection was to the Papists Act of 1778. That statute had removed some of the legal sanctions against Catholics, allowing them to serve in the military without having taken certain oaths and to purchase land. Crucially, however, it did not grant freedom of worship — Catholic worship was still outlawed across Britain.

Nonetheless, in the 1778 Act, Gordon saw a conspiracy at work. At the head of his Protestant Association he warned whomsoever would listen of an impending treasonable Catholic plot. Disloyal Catholics would use any military training they received in the army only to overthrow Britain’s Protestant Settlement. His views played upon the prejudices then around Catholics — namely, that they were always ready to rebel against the ruling Hanoverian monarch, supported by foreign Catholic aid. What such prejudice could not perceive was the paltry basis upon which such fears were built. For a start, for decades Catholics had already served in the British Army, with soldiers drawn from Ireland and the Scottish Highlands. Furthermore, there were relatively few Catholics, in London in particular, and in the population as a whole. In any event, given the state of politics across Europe, the possibility of a new Armada being launched from there was indeed remote.

Nevertheless, matters came to a head when, on May 29, 1780, Gordon called a meeting of the Protestant Association, and thereafter both he and his followers marched on the House of Commons to deliver a petition demanding the repeal of the 1778 Act. On that occasion minor riots followed. It was not until June 2 that what became known as the Gordon Riots really began.

On that day, a mob, variously estimated at between 40-60,000, attacked the Houses of Parliament with Gordon at their head. Ostensibly, he had arrived at Parliament to hand in yet another petition. But this time soldiers were called to prevent a fresh outbreak of lawlessness. Thereafter the House of Commons debated and then roundly rejected Gordon’s petition.

That night Catholic homes and places of worship were attacked by a now angry mob. There were Catholic chapels in London by virtue of these being attached to foreign embassies. The Sardinian Embassy Chapel in the Lincoln’s Inn area was the first to be targeted and ransacked. Next the Bavarian Chapel in Warwick Street, Soho drew the animus of the mob who set about destroying it by fire. Thereafter, attacks on anything remotely Catholic — the homes of known Catholics or embassy buildings from Catholic nations — continued until the army was finally called upon to restore order to the streets of the capital. This they did, at a cost of 285 people shot dead and another 200 wounded. Subsequently, around 450 of the rioters were arrested, and of those another 30 were later executed.

Ironically, the riots were to have little long-term impact on stemming the course of Catholic Emancipation. The Roman Catholic Relief Act passed just over a decade later in 1791 was more liberal in its provisions than the 1778 Act had been. That 1791 Act allowed Catholics yet greater freedoms in the areas of employment, education and worship. And, almost 40 years after the Gordon Riots took place, the Roman Catholic Relief Act was passed and, with that, what was left of the majority of the Penal Laws was consigned to history.

Curiously, where the riots may have had more of an impact, albeit indirectly, was on the cause of American Independence. In 1780 Britain was fighting against American colonials in what would become known as the War of Independence. At that time the colonials were in coalition with France and Spain. To counter this, Britain had entered into secret negotiations with Spain to try and end her support for American independence. At the same time, the British had also been courting the Catholic Austrian Empire’s support, desiring Austria to enter the war as Britain’s ally against the colonials. On hearing of the riots, however, both of the sentiments that fueled them and of the chaos that ensued, both Catholic kingdoms, Spain and Austria, withdrew from further talks with the British.

And what became of Gordon? He was arrested for his part in the riots and tried for High Treason but, thanks to one of the cleverest lawyers in England, was acquitted.

A few years later, in 1787, this arch-Protestant’s life took an unexpected turn. Aged 36, Lord George Gordon converted to Judaism. It is said that this conversion took place in Birmingham where he underwent ritual circumcision at a synagogue there. He took the name of Yisrael bar Avraham Gordon (Israel son of Abraham Gordon). Thereafter, he was a Ger Tsedek — a righteous convert.

Shortly after his change of religion, however, Gordon was convicted of libeling the Queen of France, the French ambassador in London, and also, ironically, given how leniently he had been treated following the 1780 riots, the English administration of justice. He fled England as a result, but eventually returned, and in January 1788, was sentenced to five years’ imprisonment. Confined to Newgate Prison, this time, however, there was no mob to set him free. Instead, in 1793, he died there following a typhoid outbreak among its prisoners.