THE GORDON RIOTS OF 1780

This is the story of the riots which occurred in London England for six days during June 1780.

More than forty thousand people took to the streets in what was the biggest mob protest of its kind in English history.

The riots are named after a protestant Lord, George Gordon, who opposed new laws favouring catholics.

Catholics had long been oppressed in England and the root cause stemmed back to Henry VIII in 1530 and his ex-communication from the catholic church for divorcing Catherine of Aragon.

Later monarchs Queen Elizabeth I and James I reinforced laws against catholic oppression during the period of history when playwright William Shakespeare lived.

Catholics were essentially denied the right to freely and openly practice their faith and were generally discriminated against in exercise of their civil liberties compared to protestants.

The ‘riots of eighty’ damaged the homes of well-to-do catholics, catholic chapels and other institutions associated with catholicism.

Protestants were always fearful of another insurrection such as the Gunpowder Plot of 1605 which might actually succeed or of a catholic invasion from continental Europe.

The riots achieved nothing other than to merely delay the inevitability of catholic emancipation which eventually came in 1827.

Fourteen years later, Charles Dickens wrote and published Barnaby Rudge in which the Gordon Riots are a key part of the story.

It could certainly be said that if it was not for that novel, then the so-called Gordon Riots would have surely long been forgotten.

They are only memorable insofaras the ensuing civil unrest was subdued by armed forces at a time when there was not yet a professional police force to uphold law and order.

So much then for getting a magistrate to ‘read the riot act’ to even a dozen unruly assemblers (and request them to disperse within an hour or face consequences), let alone forty thousand or more.

What Charles Dickens described as the ‘mantle of religion’ certainly whipped up fervour amongst the English people but in truth it was no more than the catalyst for other issues of civil unrest in England at that time.

The fervour appealed to poor and frustrated, low-educated, illiterate, easily-led  individuals who were drawn into social unrest and civil disobedience.

England in 1780 had just ceded independence of the ‘new world’ across the great pond to America and was facing challenges to its military might (and military resoruces) like never before.

Confrontations anew with an old enemy, France, under Napoleon Bonaparte, were only just a few years over the horizon.

And as for the consequences of the Gordon Riots?

Catholics could join the armed forces and fight for King and Country.

Arguably, Lord George Gordon committed treason against the State but the charge was never proven against him in a court of law.

Seven hundred rioters lost their lives during those six senseless days and twenty one of them were publicly hanged.

The English State today no more seeks retribution against a Jesuit Priest than it would against a Jehova Witness or an Muslim  preacher of the Quoran.

Religious cleansing, neighbor to neighbor, is a condemnable practice.

The Mantle of Religion now uses a new weapon, the Internet, to mobilize its mob.

Mob protests and demonstrations, when they happen, are largely peaceful.

New public order laws over the last fifty years in particular and the existence of a well-trained police force ensure so far as possible that the ‘Riots of Eighty’ can never again be repeated in England on such a scale.

Catholicism is no longer a destructive force at work in a contemporary society but the chant and cry of ‘No Popery’, once faint, is more than just an audible echo.

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