The Gordon Riots (1780)

Figure 1: Copyright of the Trustees of the British Museum

Figure 1: Copyright of the Trustees of the British Museum

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.

Figure 3: Copyright of the Trustees of the British Museum

Figure 3: Copyright of the Trustees of the British Museum

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!

Figure 4: Copyright of the Trustees of the British Museum

Figure 4: Copyright of the Trustees of the British Museum

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.

Figure 5: Copyright of the Trustees of the British Museum

Figure 5: Copyright of the Trustees of the British Museum

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.

Figure 6: Copyright of the Trustees of the British Museum

Figure 6: Copyright of the Trustees of the British Museum

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.

Figure 2: Copyright of the Trustees of the British Museum

Figure 2: Copyright of the Trustees of the British Museum

Kissing the Pope's Toe

Books, manuscripts, newspapers, and verse were not the only media which was read in earlier centuries. Indeed, much of what was read was not even primarily textual. Visual culture – book illustrations, graphic satires, prints, shop signs, heraldry, ceramics, to name just a few examples – was an important part of the culture of news and print. From the seventeenth century political and religious groups began to use visual material to express allegiances and ideas in much the same way that they did with texts – such as party-specific slogans, newspapers, and periodicals – and spaces – such as party-specific coffee houses. In images, we see core themes of anti-popery expressed with a power and immediacy which expressed the visceral nature of intolerance. That power was not necessarily simple, however. Capturing how ‘stock’ images connoted meaning takes us to the heart of anti-popery as a highly adaptable discourse.

Fig 1: Every Man His Own Humour (1778). Copyright of the Trustees of the British Museum

Fig 1: Every Man His Own Humour (1778). Copyright of the Trustees of the British Museum

Such images were rarely completed divorced from text: book illustrations, images printed on ballads, and graphic satires (what we would now call ‘cartoons’) involved a close-relationship between image and text which generally necessitated reader/viewers moving between the two to understand the object completely. What interests me about this visual culture is the existence of a core of images, tropes, and motifs which appeared over and over again: reiterating the comparison with text, we might say that there was a vocabulary of images in early modern visual culture; and, like a vocabulary, what those images meant – the specific message which they were intended to impart to their audiences – was not fixed, but heavily reliant upon the context in which they were used. Tone, intention, and nuance were matters which affected readers of visual materials as much as they did textual.

Fig 2:  Doing Homage  (1821). Copyright of the Trustees of the British Museum.

Fig 2: Doing Homage (1821). Copyright of the Trustees of the British Museum.

This is captured with particular power in Every Man in His Own Humour. The print was part of a much broader No-Popery campaign which followed the Catholic Relief Act of 1778. Reactions to this act in some quarters was heated: easing the penal code was depicted as a betrayal of the Reformation, of the 1688/9 constitution, the thin end of a ‘popish’ wedge which would lead to catastrophe and outrage, or a combination of all of the above. The print depicts the pope – depicted farcically – blessing one MP, who kneels to kiss his toe as another is about to follow suit. That the act was a betrayal of British Protestantism was captured in the accompanying verses:

            A certain Knight brimfull of hope,

            Knight of the Shire also;

            To gain the Papists pleas’d the Pope,

            And humbly kiss’d his Toe.


            Poh, cried his Colleague in a pother,

            That’s but a simple Farce;

            And that he may outdo his Brother

            He’s gon to kiss his Arse.


Simple? Yes. Crude? Certainly. An effective means of diminishing parliamentary authority? Absolutely.

Fig 3:  Doing Homage  (1829). Copyright of the Trustees of the British Museum

Fig 3: Doing Homage (1829). Copyright of the Trustees of the British Museum

What we miss when we take prints like this in isolation, however, are the unspoken resonances which visual vocabulary had accrued in the public consciousness over generations. The trope of ‘kissing the pope’s toe’ had been a ubiquitous part of anti-Catholic discourse since the sixteenth-century Reformations. It had entered popular parlance in the 1530s during the propaganda campaigns surrounding Henry VIII’s campaign to annul his marriage to Katherine of Aragon and the subsequent campaign for the Royal Supremacy; became a short-hand for papal tyranny and pride in the subsequent generation; and was very quickly adopted as a slogan of the farcical yet disgusting levels of slavish obedience and unthinking credulity which the Catholic Church instilled in its followers (in the eyes of Protestant polemicists). By 1570 it had entered the visual repertoire of English Protestantism, playing a prominent part in the iconography of the heavily-illustrated second edition of John Foxe’s Acts and Monuments (1570), more commonly known as ‘the Book of Martyrs’. This text – which positioned the Reformation as a glorious break from papal tyranny – was widely read by the standards of the sixteenth and seventeenth century and had an important afterlife in abridged editions throughout the eighteenth. Its images – particularly those of Henry VIII and the execution of key protestant martyrs under Mary I – became classics of English popular culture, evoked in literature, pottery, and many other media.

Consequently, analysing prints like Every Man in His Own Humour, Days of Yore, or Doing Homage requires us to understand that audiences who encountered them did so with the weight of almost three centuries behind their central joke. The mockery is immediately apparent to us. As is the sense of outrage. We can even grasp that prints like this were powerful because their gibes were simple and therefore immediate. But what we cannot grasp without reading them more deeply is the sheer weight of the protest inherent in the kissing the pope’s toe motif. That image had been synonymous with the Reformation as a glorious escape from ‘popery’ for generations, and its re-use in a new context consequently unleashed a host of unspoken resonances. Seeing MPs, Prime Ministers and Kings kissing the pope’s toe was to see them betraying England’s past, betraying the Reformation, and therefore betraying one of its central and defining identities: Protestantism. When read with the eyes of contemporary viewers, we begin to understand that jokes were far from frivolous things.

***This entry was originally posted on the ‘Communities of Print’ website.

*****For further details on these prints see Frederic George Stephens and Mary Dorothy George, Catalogue of Political and Personal Satires in the Department of Prints and Drawings in the British Museum, 11 vols, (London,1870), 5681, 14178, 15660. Doing Homage was made by William Heath and published by Thomas McLean; Days of Yore was published by J Lewis Marks; and Every Man His Own Humour was published anonymously.