Gillray’s image of a Gordon rioter is an archetypal characterisation of the member of a ‘mob’ [Figure 1]. Shouting, crude, lowly, and overcome with a rage which bypasses reason, this self-appointed champion of the ‘Protestant’ cause (note the ‘No Popery’ ribbon in his hat). jeers ‘Down with the Bank’ (the Bank of England was attached by the rioters). The verses make plain that this rioter did not speak for all Protestants:
Tho' He says he's a Protestant, look at the Print,
The Face and the Bludgeon will give you a hint,
Religion he cries, in hopes to deceive,
While his practice is only to burn and to thieve
He is a thug. The riots he represented have nought to do with patriotic protestantism, and everything to do with violence and theft. Issued on 9 June 1780 – 1 day after a week of riots had concluded in London – Gillray’s unflattering representation of ‘No Popery’ demonstrates just how shocking the force of violence which anti-popery could unleash was for contemporary opinion. But it also raises questions. If anti-popery was a principle ideology of eighteenth-century British society, why does Gillray depict it as so unappealing and unrespectable?
The Gordon Riots are among the darkest events in the history of British anti-popery. Large crowds of ordinary people gathered in London motivated by a desire to secure a repeal of the 1778 Catholic Relief Act (which had eased strictures on Catholics). A petition with 44,000 signatures was presented to Parliament by Lord George Gordon, who gave the riots their name, but was not in reality their leader. Those crowds turned to rioters when the House of Commons delayed debating their petition, and in the days which followed huge destruction occurred in London as Catholic property, then civic buildings associated with the authorities which had ‘failed’ them (jails, the Bank of England), were attacked. Soldiers fired on largely unarmed protesters, with many deaths. 25 more were executed after the event. For some historians, these riots were the closest that Britain came to revolution.
The violence involved was significant. But dismissing these crowds as a ‘mob’ does a disservice to those involved for two reasons. First, it suggests that they can be dismissed as an outrageous display of pro-Protestant bigotry against the phantom evil-for-all-purposes, ‘popery’. And second, because it fails to capture the fact that the riots were the product of a series of interlinked tensions. The first of these was Britain’s entry into an unpopular – and hugely expensive – war in America and Canada in 1779. This was proving disastrous for the British Empire, and hugely divisive at home. Popular support for the American colonies (often expressed in terms of fellow Protestant brethren) was given voice by petition campaigns against British intervention. Wars, of course, need troops, and this leads to the second tension. The Catholic Relief Act which sparked Gordon’s mobilisation – through the Protestant Association, of which he was president – of so many petitions was motivated in part by the British state’s desire to allow Catholics to serve in the army (thus opening the door to Irish troops, in particular). This, along with a lessening of punishment for Catholic Priests (who would no longer serve life imprisonment) and the ability to buy land, was met with consternation in many quarters, despite the decreasing enforcement of the penal code and growing elite support for toleration for Catholics. The fear that relief would lead to creeping ‘popery’ at home was a common response to all proposed easing of the penal code since the sixteenth century; the horror that the act would lead to Britain sending Catholic troops to fight American Protestants added a new dimension of moral outrage to an already fractious political climate.
The images discussed here, however, show us how complicated and multi-faceted anti-popery was in that climate. Cries of ‘No Popery’ might seems straightforward expressions of prejudice, intolerance, or fear (as in Gillray’s image), and their volume and vehemence might lead us to characterise them as atavistic, reactionary, or unthinking. But this would be a mistake. What we see in the Gordon Riots – as in other instances of popular anti-popery – is how nuanced the application of this discourse was. It became a vocabulary through which multiple political positions were expressed, contested, and debated. This was because of its moral force. Positions were legitimised by being ‘anti-popish’ and, as such, the ideology was remarkably flexible at any given time.
Anti-popery had been a key weapon of protest during the American War and controversy surrounding the Relief Act. As had been typical of popular politics against the state and church since the early-seventeenth century, an action deemed to be against the ‘Protestant interest’ led to charges that the authorities were ‘popish’, which might mean various weak, corrupt, or in league with the papacy to subvert Britain. The tone of those charges varied – they might be accusatory, revelatory, or simply mocking – but they amounted to the same thing: an expression of mistrust towards those in power. One print from 1780, Father Peters leading his mangy whelp to be touched for the evil, depicted George III (the ‘mangy whelp’) as a dog led by a monk from England to Rome (figure 2). By passing Catholic Relief, he had become the Pope’s dog. Here ‘No Popery’ was the moral norm, a legitimate means of protest against the government. For Gillray several months later, it was morally aberrant.
In stark contrast, figure 3 presents the respectable face of ‘No Popery’. Here the Protestant Association walk through London to present their petition for the abolition of Catholic Relief to Parliament. Anti-popery here was ordered, civil, measured, a part and parcel of a respectable political process and genuine vehicle of popular opinion. This image was made after the riots in reaction to images like Gillray which presented it in converse terms as disorderly, unruly, perhaps even revolutionary, and in presenting the respectable face of ‘No Popery’ it was clearly an attempt to distance the Association from the mob. The text below makes this distance clear:
Peaceably proceeding to the House of Commons, on Friday June 2, 1780 (in consequence of which being previously advertised, upwards of 40,000 Persons had assembled in St George's Fields . . . on which occasion the mischievous Emissaries of the Papists, taking advantage of the opportunity, caused the subsequent Insurrections & Riots that the odium might be thrown on the Protestants . .. & Lord George Gordon was committed close Prisoner to the Tower, as the principal Abettor of the Riots but was honourably Acquitted … to the entire Satisfaction of all real Friends to Civil & Religious Liberty, and the Protestant cause. Nor was there ever one single Person either convicted, tried or even apprehended, on suspicion . . . who was a member of that Respectable Body, the Protestant Association.
The anti-Catholic riots were caused by Catholics, not loyal and decent Protestants!
Such an image was needed to help rehabilitate the Association. Much of the protest against the 1778 Relief Act was characterised by an unruly and caustic anti-popery. This took the form of a more general mockery of the establishment which was a protest against the corruption of government. The Privy Council (1780) is a good example (figure 4). This exceptionally crude print humiliates leading members of the government associated with Catholic Relief and other unpopular policies. Three figures, William Murray, first earl of Mansfield (the Lord Chief Justice who was regularly accused of conspiring against the interests of Protestant America, left), Frederick North, second earl of Guildford (Prime Minister, centre), and John Montagu, fourth earl of Sandwich (who ran the Admiralty, right) are defecating in a latrine at Mansfield’s house (‘Boreas, Caen Wood’ in inscribed on the wall). The verses castigated their corruption as a betrayal of the British people:
Neglecting faithfid Worth for Fawning Slaves;
Whose Councels weak & Wicked, easy rous'd
To Paltry Scheems of Absolute Command,
To seek their Splendour in their sure Disgrace,
And in a broken ruin'd Peoples Wealth:
When such o'ercast the State, no Bond of Love,
No Heart, no Soul, no Unity, no Nerve,
Combines the loose disjointed Publick, lost
To Fame abroad, to Happiness at Home.
The print’s detail expose the specifics of that corruption. Sandwich tears strips from the Navy’s ensign to use as toilet paper (a reference to the Navy being outpaced by the French in the early going of the American war). North is using a large paper (which details the extent of national debt) for the same purpose (a reference to rising taxation and the growth of government loans caused by the American war). Under his feet is the petition of the ‘Protestant Association of Lord G…Gordon’. Here is the meat of the matter. North had refused Gordon’s request on 5 January 1780 to present the Association’s petition to repeal the Relief Act to parliament. This betrayal clearly occasioned the print. That it was crass and crude underscored the moral consternation which drove it: the establishment was shitting on core British values of protestantism, navy, and solvency. We are a long way from polite, orderly protest here.
This anti-establishment tone was typical of the anti-Catholic satire which emerged after the Relief Act. Sawney’s Defence against the Beast, Whore, Pope, and Devil (1779) is typical (figure 5). This print celebrated Scotland’s refusal to extend Catholic Relief north of the border (‘Sawney’ being English slang for a Scotsman). That this refusal was partially the result of anti-Catholic riots in Edinburgh and Glasgow during early February 1779 tells us that the print’s caustic mockery of the English establishment rested on a degree of popular viciousness. The scene is divided by the river Tweed. On the left (Scotland) a figure in Highland dress holds a shield emblazoned with ‘A Protestant Church & King I’ll Defend’. He has thwarted the attempts of a Jesuit (holding a ‘Popesh Bull’ – clearly the Relief Act) and a Protestant bishop who takes money from him to impose toleration for Catholics in Scotland. On the right of the print (England) Catholic Relief has subverted British values. The Whore of Babylon and her Seven-Head Beast (Revelation 17) stand on a shackled John Bull, and threatens to burn bibles and protestants (traditional images of Catholic tyranny and persecution). So far, stereotypically anti-Catholic – this iconography was now a centuries-old shorthand for ‘popish’ tyranny, and must have been immediately readable to popular audiences. The resonances of these images of tyranny, superstition, and violence were steered towards a particular target, however: George III, who is presented as part of a traitorous, ‘popish’ fifth-column. The king holds the Whore’s beast, stands on the union flag and proclaims towards Sawney, ‘That hot-headed Scot will spoil my plot’. The Pope (standing slightly behind) absolves him of his guilt for breaking the coronation oath of protecting the protestant interest by passing the Relief Act.
That charge of betrayal was not unique. The Ecclesiastical, and Political State of the Nation (1780) depicted George III driving the plough of popery through England towards the Tweed, with Jesuits sowing seeds of tyranny and superstition behind him (figure 6). The accusation was clear – the king (and establishment – note the sleeping Bishop) have undermined Britain. The pope (top left) gleefully oversees the scene with a court of devils as tTuth (top right) warns the nation what Catholic Relief will herald in a banner outlining a litany of ‘popish’ cruelty: ‘40000 English Protestants massacred in Ireland 1641 Protestants burnt at Smithfield in the reign of Queen Mary. Gunpowder Plot or an attempt to blow up the Parliament House Protestants massacred at Paris, in the Vallies of Piedmont. Tortures of the Inquisition’. The crown had betrayed protestant history. Gordon – depicted trying to slow the plough’s process (an allusion to his prevention of Catholic Relief in Scotland) – tried to defend it. The print was dedicated to his Protestant Association as honourable Britains: ‘To the Respectable Association of Protestants & to every Worthy supporter of both Church & State this Plate is Dedicated by their Humble Servt the Publisher’.
Recourse to this historical in this print was significant: this fear of ‘popery’ was atavistic. And, as such, it was dangerous. That The Ecclesiastical, and Political State of the Nation was issued on 2 June 1780, the day on which the Gordon Riots started, exposes the circularity of anti-popery at that moment: images of historical acts of horrendous violence inspired (in part) acts of horrendous violence in the present.
The image of the Protestant Association as respectable (figure 3) was clearly a reaction to these other representations. It was an attempt to present ‘No Popery’ as orderly and proper in the wake of the French Revolution, when any expression of the popular voice was suspect to charges of sedition. These images tell us a great deal about anti-popery. They show us that even at a high point of its expression it was a hugely complicated ideology which rarely teetered on the unthinking. They show us that anti-popery had to be moderated in its expression in order to carry political weight, and that there were readily available ways of presenting it as improper or excessive, and that those prevented it – even in 1780 – of dominating political sentiment. Even here, its value and purpose were contested. It was ever-present, but also ever-varied: sober and violent, respectable and unrespectable, polite and caustic. Our task as historians of this subject is to try to capture all of these voices in a way which gives them meaning rather than merely describing their multiplicity. Our starting point must be that ‘No Popery’ was much more than Gillray’s mob.