Simanaitis Says

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A DECADE BEFORE American rebels ratified the United States Constitution, including its First Amendment definitively separating church and state, Britain was roiling in the Gordon Riots—largely on grounds of religion.

King Henry VIII, 1491–1547, reigning 1509 to his death, serial husband, Supreme Head of the Church of England.

If there is a single culprit in this tale, it’s Henry VIII, whose marital proclivities conflicted with the Catholic Church and led to establishment of the Church of England in the 1530s. What with nationalizing the monasteries and all, he set an example that wasn’t lost on U.S. Founding Fathers 250 years later when they wrote the Bill of Rights.

Britain evolved into having a diversity of faiths, giving rise to the quip that the country had 100 religions but only one cheese, whereas France was just the opposite. Yet, among these 100 religions, Roman Catholicism was not without controversy. As noted in The U.K. National Archives, “This idea of tolerating Catholics was deeply resented in Protestant England….”

One sticking point involved the British military, induction into which required an oath of allegiance, with an implicit recognition of the Church of England. During George III’s reign in the late 18th century, Britain needed plenty of soldiers, what with Dutch and Spanish disagreements, not to say those colonial rebels. Ever pragmatic about this, the Brits enacted the Papist Act of 1778, aka the Catholic Relief Act.

Catholic relief included being able to inherit or purchase land (and thus to vote, if the land had sufficient value). Catholic schools could be established without fear of life imprisonment. And, wouldn’t you know, Catholics joining His Majesty’s military were excused from that oath recognizing the Church of England.

As you might guess, this raised fears that those papists would follow orders from Rome rather than from their betters. And fanning the flames in this was Lord George Gordon, who in 1780 called for repeal of the Catholic Relief Act and a return to the good old days of British Catholics knowing their place.

Lord George Gordon, 1751–1793, British politician, organizer and head of the Protestant Association.

According to, “Lord George was eccentric, and unrestrained both in his fanaticism and in his passions.” John Wilkes, English supporter of the colonial rebels later honored in the name of Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, adapted a mot for Gordon: ”Nulla displicuit meretrix praeter Babylonicam,” “Displeasing but no whore of Babylon.” Hmm….

John Wilkes, 1727–1797, English progressive, journalist, libertine.

In 1779, Gordon founded a Protestant Association in Scotland and promptly organized looting and burning of two Catholic chapels in Edinburgh. He and his notoriety moved southward and, on June 2, 1780, Gordon led a march to the steps of the British Parliament in support of repealing the Catholic Relief Act.

It started as a peaceful assembly of 20,000, or maybe 60,000 (sound familiar?), but turned into a riot. Members of the House of Lords were attacked; carriages were destroyed. Within the House of Commons, though, the repeal was dismissed by a vote of 192 to 6.

This led the mob to looting and burning the Catholic chapels of the Sardinian and Bavarian embassies that night. Throughout London, random violence occurred in neighborhoods known to house rich Catholics. Among these was a Mr. Langdale of Holborn, whose large distillery was burned, its stores wasted or drunk.

The Gordon Riots. Painting by Charles Green.

Authorities were slow to react. For example, once the dust settled Brackley Kennett, London’s Lord Mayor, was convicted of criminal negligence for not reading out the Riot Act promptly. He was given a £1000 fine (around $180,000 in today’s dollars!).

The burning, plundering and destruction of Newgate Prison. Image in the Guildhall Library, London, from the U.K. National Archives.

Sporadic rioting took place for the next seven days, some organized by the Protestant Association, others ignited spontaneously. What’s more, according to, “Some disingenuous Protestants, however, have pretended that the burning of chapels was really due to Catholics.”

Again, does this sound familiar? In fact, Charles Dickens worked just such a thing into his 1841 novel Barnaby Rudge: A Tale of the Riots of Eighty. This was Dickens’ first historical novel; A Tale of Two Cities, his only other one.

Hugo and Dennis five minutes before execution, illustration by Johan Jacob Weber, 1843, from a German serialization of Barnaby Rudge.

In Barnaby Rudge, two characters are executed for taking part in the riots, but Barnaby is pardoned.

In real life, the British army finally got involved on June 7. All told, according to, “210 were killed on the streets, 75 died in hospital, and 173 were severely wounded. Of the prisoners taken, 52 were convicted, and of these between 20 and 30 executed.”

The Gordon Riots. Painting by John Seymour Lucas.

Lord George Gordon was accused of high treason but pardoned after what was termed a comfortable stay in the Tower of London. Later, though, he got himself excommunicated by the archbishop of Canterbury and imprisoned again in 1788 for defaming Marie Antoinette. About that time, he converted to Judaism, which only complicated his sentence. He died in Newgate Prison of typhoid fever in 1793.

Mr. Langdale, the Catholic owner of the destroyed distillery (remember him?), swapped any monetary compensation for a year’s free impost on his distilled spirits. Writes, Langdale “made up handsomely for the damage he had suffered.”

I find all of this a mixed message and am glad our Founding Fathers composed the First Amendment as they did. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2017

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