In 1778, Britain was fighting a war over the issue of American independence against the American colonies, France, and Spain. In need of additional soldiers, the British government, under the direction of Lord North at the time, passed the Roman Catholic Relief Act.
This act allowed Roman Catholics to serve in the army after swearing an oath of loyalty to the king and also allowed those who did so to purchase and inherit land.
By 1780, such resistance had grown against this policy that Lord George Gordon, the head of the Protestant Association, attempted to petition the government to repeal the act.
When the government refused to hear his petition, which supposedly had been signed by a large number of people, the crowd assembled outside Westminster Palace broke out into riot. Roman Catholic churches and homes, sections of the city inhabited by Irish immigrants, Newgate Prison, the homes of several members of Parliament who had supported the bill, and a number of other locations were either sacked, burned, or both.
The riot only ended five days later, when Lord North authorized the army to fire on rioters who were attempting to attack the Bank of England. 160 rioters were tried, of which 25 were hanged. Lord Gordon was held in the Tower of London for several months, but was eventually acquitted of the charge of treason brought against him.
The Gordon Riots were important because they are representative of a general feeling of dissent among British citizens at the time, especially during and immediately after the American Revolution.
The Gordon Riots also demonstrated how the British government was as out of touch with its citizens at home as it was with its colonists across the sea. While North’s Government saw the Roman Catholic Relief Acts as a way to increase the ranks of an army at war and repeal outdated restrictions against Roman Catholic civil liberties, British citizens still saw Catholicism as a threat and associated it with treason.
Willcox, William and Walter L. Arnstein, The Age of Aristocracy: 1688 – 1830, 8th ed. copyright 2001 by Houghton Mifflin Company.
The information presented here was taken from the web sites featured. This page was complied by Alexa Scott for HIST 350, Modern British History.