The City of London comes under siege during the Gordon Riots
Anti-Catholic protests quickly descend into rioting and looting, causing damage and destruction throughout the city.
As Britain is engaged in fighting against US rebels as well as France, Spain and the Dutch Republic, military resources become increasingly thinly-stretched.
The Popery Act 1698 serves to limit the freedoms of Roman Catholics in England – its alternative title is “An Act for the Further Preventing the Growth of Popery” – by instructing that existing anti-Catholic laws be more stringently applied. The Act is described as placing a bounty on the heads of Roman Catholic priests, with monetary rewards available for the apprehension of Catholic leaders. Faced with dwindling resources in terms of military personnel, Britain seeks to repeal some of the anti-Catholic measures enshrined in the Popery Act in order to bolster military manpower through the recruitment of Catholics. This prompted the Papists Act 1778, aimed at mitigating some of the anti-Catholic measures outlined in the Popery Act. Under the new Act, Catholics are exempted from the requirement to take a religious oath on joining the armed forces, among other measures. In reality, the clauses of the Popery Act were largely redundant, prompting many Catholics to fear that any attempts to force its repeal would only serve to stir up anti-Catholic sentiment. Despite these fears, the government presses ahead.
In response, the Protestant Association of London, led by President Lord George Gordon, decides to take action to try and overturn the Papists Act. Gordon argues that if Catholics are allowed into the armed forces, they may join forces with their continental counterparts and attack Britain. Gordon receives an audience with King George III but fails to convince him as to the merits of his argument. Growing increasingly desperate, on May 29 1780, Gordon and the Protestant Association march on the House of Commons to petition against the Papists Act. This march sparks further protests in London, with many disgruntled at the country’s economic health and foreign affairs policy, even aside from the discontent surrounding Catholic emancipation. Huge crowds descend on Parliament, and rioters vandalise carriages and buildings including the Bank of England and Fleet Prison. After days of rioting, the army is brought in and disperses the crowd. Some 450 are arrested, with a small fraction of those tried and executed, while 285 people are shot dead and a further 200 wounded during the army response.
The saga affects Britain’s standing, internationally, as the episode portrayed the country as unstable. With the Armada of 1779 still very much a part of recent history, this is an unfortunate setback for the British government as it causes Spain to call off peace negotiations after hearing of the riots.