Riot Leader Accuses a Queen

Lord George Gordon with his Protestant Petition
Lord George Gordon with his Protestant Petition

by Ray Setterfield

January 28, 1788 — French Queen Marie Antoinette is best remembered for her alleged comment on starving peasants being unable to afford bread: "Let them eat cake." Marie Antoinette, who could well afford all the bread and cake that she wanted, became even richer on this day after being awarded damages in court against Lord George Gordon who had accused her of a fiddle involving a £64,000 necklace.

Gordon, who was responsible for some of the worst public unrest ever seen in Britain – the Gordon Riots – led a remarkable life. Born into the aristocracy in 1751, his godfather was King George III.

He served in the Royal Navy, then in 1774 entered Parliament. There, he led opposition to the Papists Act, which ensured equal status in society for Roman Catholics – and that's when the trouble began.

In 1779, as President of the London Protestant Association, he led a demonstration in the capital of about 60,000 anti-Papists. The protest went on for a week, had to be quelled by 15,000 troops, and left about 300 dead.

Gordon was accused of high treason and kept in the Tower of London for six months, but was freed when lawyers argued successfully that his motives were not traitorous.

In 1787 he published a wide-ranging paper denouncing the severity of English criminal law, especially in relation to hanging and transportation. The paper included derogatory references to Marie Antoinette and the French Ambassador. Gordon was prosecuted for libel.

On 28 January 1788 he was brought up for judgment, jailed for five years, ordered to pay a £500 fine and provide two securities of £2,500 each for his good behaviour. These were considerable sums at the time.

Gordon was to serve his sentence in London's notorious Newgate Prison. By the time he got there he had converted to Judaism, wore a long beard, and renamed himself Yisrael bar Avraham Gordon.

This remarkable man refused to let prison get him down. He regularly threw dinners for six or so people, occasionally including distinguished outsiders. He enjoyed music, learned to play the bagpipes and even arranged regular dances.

There was obviously a dark side to it all, though, and he was later to complain that he had been "imprisoned for five years among murderers, thieves, etc., and all the consolation I had arose from my trust in God."

In January 1793, having served his time, Gordon was brought before magistrates to give a pledge of future good behaviour. It went badly. For religious reasons he refused to remove his hat and the court would not accept as guarantors the two Jews that he nominated.

He refused the help of his brothers, the 4th Duke of Gordon and Lord William Gordon, and his sister, Lady Westmoreland, who offered to cover his bail, saying that to "sue for pardon was a confession of guilt."

So Gordon was sent back to his cell and there he remained until the following October when he died of typhoid fever. He was 41. Cruelly, he was buried in an Anglican cemetery.

Published: January 16, 2018

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