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Gordon Riots handbill

Amid the riots against pro-Catholic legislation, this printed handbill of 1780 urges Protestants not to wear blue cockades in their hat, or to associate with anyone who does, claiming they such cockades are the mark of a troublemaker

Gordon Riots handbill, 1780

Printed handbill from the Gordon Riots, 1780
1855.c.4(67)
Copyright © The British Library Board

 

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What has England's record on religious tolerance been?

To some religious refugees, such as the Huguenots (French converts to Protestantism) in the late 1600s, Great Britain was a haven.

For followers of other faiths it had not always been so welcoming. Edward I issued a series of laws restricting the activities of Jews before expelling them from the country altogether in 1290. Jews started resettling in Britain since 1656, and established their first synagogue in London in 1701. But there were limits. The Jewish Naturalisation Act of 1753, which offered British nationality to Jews who had been resident in Britain for three years, caused such an outcry that it was promptly repealed.

The 1709 General Naturalisation Act had bestowed British status on Protestant refugees on taking certain oaths and paying one shilling. Over 13,000 German Protestants flocked to England to escape persecution. It proved difficult to house them in London so most were shipped to Ireland or the colonies thus frustrating the Act's purpose. It was repealed in 1712.

What about the Catholics?

Anti-Catholic legislation, in place since the upheavals caused by Henry's break with Rome in the 1530s, stayed in force. There had been a backlash following the Jacobite rising of 1745-6 under the Catholic claimant to the throne, 'Bonnie Prince Charlie'. Although the threat of a further uprising had diminished after his defeat at Culloden, anti-Catholic sentiment remained.

What were the Gordon Riots?

When the Papist Act was passed in 1778, relaxing certain restrictions on inheritance and schooling, it led to the Gordon Riots.

Lord George Gordon raised a petition and marched on parliament in June 1780, drawing huge crowds. Matters got out of hand with rioting lasting for a week. The army was called and nearly 300 rioters killed. This brought some sympathy for Catholics and the Catholic Relief Act was eventually passed in 1791. It legitimized Catholic worship, allowed Catholic schools and for Catholics to practise law.

At the time, the number of Catholics in Britain was small, but the Union with Ireland in 1801 changed that. Now the number of Catholic freeholders with the vote could significantly affect an election. Many Irish Catholics had supported the Act of Union, believing it would hasten their emancipation, but it still took nearly thirty years. In 1828 Daniel O'Connell, the leading Irish activist for Catholic reform, won a by-election but was unable to take his seat at Westminster because this was denied Catholics. The Prime Minister, the Duke of Wellington, realised they would have to capitulate and in 1829 the Catholic Relief Act was passed, removing almost all remaining obstacles for Catholics.

What about Jewish emancipation?

Jewish emancipation eventually followed. In 1845 Jews were allowed to hold public office, though already Moses Montefiore had been Sheriff of London and was knighted by Queen Victoria in 1837. However, attempts to pass a Bill through Parliament failed, even after Baron de Rothschild was elected MP for the City of London in 1847. He tried to take his seat but because he could not swear the Christian oath he was dismissed. It was not until 1858, following the Jewish Emancipation Act, that Baron de Rothschild at last entered Parliament.

Has there been a Jewish or Catholic prime minister?

Not yet, at least officially. Benjamin Disraeli was Jewish by birth and upbringing, but he was baptised a Christian in 1817. Tony Blair, whose wife and children are Catholic, entered the Catholic faith in December 2007, six months after retiring from his tenure as Prime Minister.

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