The Fear of Losing Power that led to Religious Discrimination

The Fear of Losing Power that led to Religious Discrimination


Although the Gordon Riots occurred in early June 1780 in London, the organization of the riots was sparked by an act that was passed two years beforehand. The Catholic Relief Act (1778) repealed some of the severe laws that excluded Catholics from certain religious and political rights (Weisenberger 182). Before this act was enacted, it was an known “secret” that the Protestants had the upper hand over Catholics. However, since the act enforced equality between the two religions, many Protestants viewed the act as a threat to the power they had over Catholics. In other words, the passing of this act signified the change that was taking place in the legal system of Europe, and although some were ready to embrace this religious and political change, many Protestants were not yet on board. As a result, Protestants responded to their loss of power through the Gordon Riots.

Why So Much Resentment towards Catholics?

A major factor that caused the riots was the House of Commons’ refusal to review the petition that included 60,000 signatures fighting for the repeal of the Catholic Relief Act (Weisenberger 187). However, the real underlying issue was not the Act itself; the real issue Protestants had was what the Act represented in its entirety, as they viewed it as the weakening or removal of their religious power in Britain.

Feelings of resentment towards Catholics existed long before this Act was passed, however the hostility between the Protestants and Catholics continued to grow overtime, fueled by the opinions of the press (Weisenberger 185). For instance, the press “intentionally set up a dichotomy between Protestantism, which embodied natural rights, liberty, and legitimate government, and Catholicism, which was equated with idolatry, persecution, tyranny, and foreign slavery” (Weisenberger 185). The rhetorical messages from the press caused many Protestants to believe that they were entitled to have more power and the upper hand over Catholics, since the press presented Catholics as being foreign subjects unable to think for themselves (Weisenberger 185). It is important to note that, in order to maintain Protestantism in Europe, many Protestants were skeptical of anything that was foreign or not British; thus, they were quick to go against anything that supported “foreign” Catholicism, hence their disapproval of the Catholic Relief Act. Furthermore, these feelings of resentment towards Catholicism became subconsciously and deeply embedded in the minds of many Protestants.

About the Exhibit:

This exhibit is inspired from the entries of The Journals and Letters of Susan Burney. Most of her entries describe the horrors of the Gordon Riots that took place in London in June 1780. Although London was an anti-Catholic region at the time Burney wrote these entries, it is also implied in her entries that Catholics and Protestants were living among each other in a tolerable manner before the riots occurred. If the relationship between the two religions was somewhat cordial, what triggered the violent and discriminatory attacking of the Catholics? Read on to find out!

Susanna Phillips (née Burney) (circa 1775-1800) portrait/mw66512/Susanna-Phillips-ne-Burney

All were asked to wear blue Cockades in their hats to distinguish themselves from the Papists, and those who approve of the late act in favour of Popery. – Brad A. Jones

  • The Gordon Riots/ by Charles Green.
  • Reconstruction of the Red “George Rex” Flag. Public Domain.

The Gordon Riots caused so much property damage in London that it was worse than that in Paris during the French Revolution (Scrivener 177). Rioters burned and looted anything and anyone connected to (or suspected to be connected to) Catholicism, which included: Catholic churches, households, stores, etc. (Scrivener 177). Gordon told his members that one’s Protestantism would be signified by a blue ribbon, so that it was easy to detect the targets—the Catholics (Jones 79). People were expected to say “No Popery,” as a signal to rioters that they were on the same side, which is also depicted various times in Burney’s entries. All these efforts were taken to prevent the changing of power dynamics in England, as the rioters were targeting the Catholics to demonstrate this anger towards the Parliament’s decision not to repeal the Act. The Gordon riots lasted for approximately 5-7 days, until King George sent out military forces to reestablish order in London, which ended with over 200 deaths (Weisenberger 181).

What did the Catholic Relief Act do?

  • Lease land up to 999 years
  • Could teach in schools and purchase land (if they took an oath of allegiance to the King)
  • Could pass their property undivided to a single heir
  • Were no longer taxed for being Catholic
  • Could now be voted into a political seat/position  (Weisenberger 182)


 Why Gordon Riots?

On June 2, 1780, Lord George Gordon, the president of the Protestant Association, was able to gather approximately 60,000 members at St. George’s Fields who were also passionate about repealing the Catholic Relief Act (Jones 79). Like Lord George Gordon, many Protestants believed that the Act served as a platform to expand Catholic political power in England while diminishing the political power of Protestants. At the meeting, he was able to get the signatures of his supporting members, in hopes that the House of Commons would review the petition and consider repealing the act. However, when the Commons prolonged the reviewing of the petition, ultimately refusing to grant what it asked for, Gordon took matters into his own hands. He would go on to spearhead what is remembered as the bloodiest, most violent riots to have ever taken place in London (Jones 82).



Love Thy Neighbor…

In The Journals and Letters of Susan Burney, it is implied that the lives of Protestants and Catholics crossed frequently, and that they lived among each other in a somewhat cordial sense before the Catholic Relief Bill was passed. Protestants even got involved in business relationships with Catholics, which is alluded to when Burney mentions in her entries that her father was renting out a part of their house to Mr. and Mrs. Porter, their Catholic neighbors (Olleson 175). However, after the riots began as a response to the Protestants’ disapproval of what it enforced, neighborly relationships were forced to come to a temporary end. Using Burney’s relationship with the Porters, the Gordon Riots effected many relationships between the two religions, simply because they did not want to embrace a changing legal system in England that was not solely based on Protestantism. Furthermore, many Protestants truly believed that they were defending the England, as they believed that Protestantism was an essential part of the British identity and security (Weisenberger 182). Thus, since the Act provided Catholics with the opportunity to hold political power, Protestants viewed the Act as a threat to their country’s protection, which explains why their reasoning for wanting it appealed and for organizing the Gordon Riots.


Ultimately, the Gordon Riots was a Protestant response to the Catholic Relief Act, as it reflected the new ideologies of England’s legal system. The Act pushed for the equality of Catholicism while also providing Catholics with more religious and political rights in England. These changing attitudes towards political pragmatism and religious toleration was not approved by many Protestants, since they wanted to maintain Catholics at an inferior status that provided them little to no power. In the process of fighting for what they believed was right, cordial ties that took years to form between the two religions were temporarily tainted, hindering the process of change in England for another 51 years.

Works Cited:

Burney, Edward F. Bequeathed by Frederick L. Harris. Susanna Phillips (née Burney) (circa 1775-1800). Image. 1927. National Portrait Gallery: London. Accessed 1 December 2018.

This is an image of Susan Burney, originally taken by Edward Burney. Since the Gordon Riots is heavily depicted in The Letters and Journals of Susan Burney, a portrait of her was necessary.

Green, Charles. The Gordon Riots. Image. 2014. Mutual Art. Accessed 1 December 2018.

This is an image illustrating the fiery horrors of the Gordon Riots.

Jones, Brad A. “‘In Favour of Popery’: Patriotism, Protestantism, and the Gordon Riots in the Revolutionary British Atlantic.” Journal of British Studies, vol. 52, no. 1, 2013, pp. 79–102,

This article gives a detailed breakdown of how the Gordon Riots came to be and the role Lord George Gordon played in organizing the riots. It also discusses the deaths and injuries that occurred because of the riots.

Olleson, Philip. The Journals and Letters of Susan Burney: Music and Society in Late 18th Century England. Ashgate, 2012, pp. 168-185.

These are Susan Burney’s personal entries on what she observed during the Gordon Riots; her depiction of the riots is what led me to the topic of my project.

Reconstruction of the Red “George Rex” Flag. Image. 2016. Wikimedia. Public Domain.

This is an image of a flag with the British symbol and the words “No Popery” on it, to illustrate the attitude of many of the Protestants in London after the Catholic Relief Bill was passed.

Scrivener, Michael. “Ian Haywood and John Seed, Eds., The Gordon Riots: Politics, Culture and Insurrection in Late Eighteenth-Century Britain.” Wordsworth Circle, no. 4, 2016, p. 178-179. EBSCOhost.

Scrivener’s article narrows in on how the Gordon Riots came about, who played a part in organizing it, and the effects the riots had on London.

Weisenberger, Hanna A. “Immobilizing the Catholic Foe: A ‘Popery’ of Protestation in London 1780.” Muse, Vol. 3, no. 1, 2017, pp. 181-199,

This article focuses heavily on how the Catholic Relief Act came to be and the effects it had, specifically in Britain as a whole. It also delves into background information on Lord George Gordon and the Gordon Riots.