“Not Consulted Books; Indeed, No Books To Consult”: The Great Lord Mansfield And The Gordon Trial

  • Alok Kumar Sharma
  • 06:35 PM, 03 Jun 2021
In the words of Peter Ackroyd, an English scholar, no biography of London is complete without reference to the most violent rampage of its thousand years[1]—the “Gordon Riots” (2-9 June, 1780). Historians are of the opinion that the eighteenth century London had no match in the western world when it came to the abundance of wealth along with such abject poverty by its side. Throughout the century, the city had been a witness to several outbreaks of mob attacks and collective violence based on labour disputes, xenophobia, political conflicts or religious bigotry, but the Gordon Riots were by far the worst.[2] Hundreds of people lost their lives, and the property damage caused by the riots estimated at £100,000—ten times that in Paris throughout the French Revolution nine years later. Besides this, a sum of about £180,000 was claimed from the insurers and other authorities as damages.

Lord George Gordon, a twenty-eight years old former naval officer, an M.P. for a Wiltshire constituency and the third (the youngest) son of Cosmo George Gordon, the third Duke of Gordon, had been a fanatical leader of the Scottish opposition to Catholic relief and was widely regarded as “mad”—or at least unhinged when it came to the matters concerning religious affairs. He wore his hair long and lank like a puritan of the previous century. His speeches were wild and unbalanced. In all, he made a striking martyr-like figure in the Protestant cause.[3]

On 2 June 1780, Gordon assembled four columns of his supporters in St. George’s Fields, in Lambeth and then led them to Parliament Square to mark his protest against the Catholics Relief Act, 1778.[4] During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, several restrictions were imposed on Catholics in England as in those days they were seen as instruments of Catholic France and a threat to the state, in much the similar way as in the United States, Japanese were viewed as spies of the enemy during the World War-II or communists as agents of the Soviet Union during the Cold War. However, by the end of the eighteenth century, Catholics in England no longer remained a serious political force and thus, the lawmakers did not find any substantial reason for the anti-Catholic laws to continue. Although the Catholic Relief Act did not give Catholics the right to freedom of worship, it did abolish some of the restrictions imposed on them in the previous centuries. The legislation repealed the provisions of the Popery Act of 1698 subjecting Catholic priests who said Mass to life imprisonment, and prohibiting Catholics from owing land and educating their children in their religion. The relief was conditioned on the swearing of an oath of allegiance to the King.[5]

The law was cleared by both Houses of Parliament without any hindrance and was in fact openly backed by the entire governing structure of Britain—the King, the ministry, the opposition, and even the clergy of both the Anglican Church and the dissenting sects.

Interestingly, even Gordon did not raise his objections against the law when it was debated in the House of Commons and neither did he vote against it. However, soon after it got passed, he began agitating against it. Thousands of signatures were gathered on a petition demanding the repeal of the law and Gordon along with a crowd of about 60,000 of his supporters marched towards the Palace Yard, an open area facing Parliament with separate entrances for each House.

When the members of Parliament arrived, the furious marchers obstructed them from entering the doors of Parliament. Soon the crowd turned violent and several noblemen and bishops were physically attacked. The Archbishop of Canterbury, the Bishop of Lincoln, the Duke of Northumberland and Lord Sandwich were some of the noted personalities who directly suffered the savagery of the mob.

When Lord Mansfield (originally “William Murray”) arrived, the mob broke the windows of his carriage and hurled filth and mud at his face. He was somehow rescued by the Archbishop of York who also managed to take him inside the House of Lords where the scene was unbelievable. To quote Edmund Heward: “Some of their Lordships with their hair about their shoulders, others smutted with dirt; most of them (were) as pale the ghost of Hamlet”.[6] Mansfield even presided over the House that day as Edward Thurlow, the Lord Chancellor, was not in good health. Other than a half-an-hour speech by the Duke of Richmond not much business could be carried out that day in the House of Lords and the same was declared adjourned.

The members of the House of Commons who managed to enter the House debated on whether to even consider the petition demanding the repeal of the Act whereas Gordon, after regular intervals, left the chamber to report to the crowd on the progress of the discussion.[7] Finally, the demand for considering the petition was declined by the Commons by a vote of 192 against 6.

The unsuccessful legislative mission only amplified the violence during the next few days after this incident in the Palace Yard and the riots spread like wildfire all over the city. The Sardinian and Bavarian embassies were knocked down and the house of Sir Charles Savile (the principal author of the Act) in Leicester Square was devastated. One evening, after storming the Newgate prison, releasing the prisoners and crying vengeance against those who had been supportive of the Act, including the Prime Minister Lord North, the Marquess of Rockingham and Edmund Burke, the mob turned towards Mansfield’s house in the Bloomsbury Square.

A huge gang of about 2000 rioters attacked his house tearing up the iron railings around it and began smashing the windows. They forced the front door open with iron rods, entered his library and started throwing its contents out of the windows. His books, papers, manuscripts and harpsichords were all set on fire. All the clothing including his judicial robes were thrown out. Among his books that were pitched outside on the road was a volume of the letters of Alexander Pope, an old friend of Mansfield. Finding the name of the author on a certain book, one of the rioters informed his fellows that he had found a strong evidence suggesting Mansfield’s Catholic bonds. The attackers burned every piece of paper in which they saw an ideological opposition.

The next morning, while the rioters were burning Mansfield’s furniture on the street, a group of soldiers accompanied by a justice of the peace belatedly arrived and fired on the mob leaving some dead and several others wounded. The mob dispersed and the commanding officer, thinking that his job was done, marched away. But scaringly enough, a few minutes later, the mob returned and set Mansfield’s house on fire. The rioters did not even allow the fire engines to put off the fire until the house was completely burned. According to an unverified report, three of the rioters who were earlier arrested and locked inside the house by Mansfield’s friends were also burned alive.[8]

The London magistrates and army officers had observed great restraint in taking recourse to any military action and the fatal delay in deploying troops against the Gordon rioters reportedly flowed from the dismay caused by the slaughter twelve years before in Southwark in May 1768. However, on 7 June, a proclamation was issued by the King granting discretionary powers to the military to crush the ongoing violence and the same could be achieved by the evening of June 9. The next day, Gordon was arrested on a charge of treason.

There were contradicting reports on the whereabouts of Lord and Lady Mansfield when the mob attacked their house. Although none of them was physically harmed, Mansfield’s precious library of over 1,000 books and manuscripts, some of them autographed by noted personalities like Jonathan Swift and Alexander Pope, was finished. Also destroyed were his handwritten notes on the cases he had decided and a manuscript containing eight speeches that he had made in Parliament. The total loss suffered by him estimated at £30,000 out of which £10,000 valued for his library damage and the remaining for his other belongings. It is often said that Mansfield suffered the latter whereas the world suffered the former. On the burning of his library by the mob, William Cowper beautifully wrote:


“So then—the Vandals of our isle,

Sworn foes to sense and law,

Have burnt to dust a nobler pile

Than ever Roman saw!


And Murray sighs o’er Pope and Swift

And many a treasure more,

The well-judg’d purchase and the gift

That gr’ced his letter’d store.


Their pages mangled, burnt and torn,

The loss was his alone;

But ages yet to come shall mourn

The burning of his own.”[9]

Mansfield resumed his seat in the House of Lords on 19 June, where the legality of the King’s orders to the military to supress the riots without the sanction of a civil magistrate was debated. Mansfield responded to these questions arguing that the military personnel had just acted as responsible citizens who, on watching felonies being committed, were absolutely justified in their actions. In defending the legality of the orders of the King, Mansfield declared: “I have not consulted books; indeed, I have no books to consult.”

The House of Commons unanimously voted on July 6 to authorize the government to compensate Mansfield for the losses he had suffered. The offer was declined by him with humility. In a letter to the Treasury, he courteously wrote:

“Besides what is irreparable, my pecuniary loss is great. I apprehended no danger and, therefore, took no precaution. But how great soever that loss may be I think it does not become me to claim or expect reparation from the State. I have made up my mind to bear my misfortune as I ought; with this conclusion, that it came from those, whose objects manifestly were confusion [at home] and conflict and war abroad. If I should lay before you any account or computation of the pecuniary damage I have sustained it might seem a claim or expectation of being indemnified. Therefore, you shall have no further trouble, from your obedient, humble servant, Mansfield.”[10]

The sudden aftermath of the riots opened floodgates for the acts of recrimination and retribution. The environment got politically charged and theories that the violence was secretly fostered by the opposition or the American allies were widely circulated. Action against the rioters was prompt. More than two hundred of the rioters had already been killed outright by the troops and seventy-five more died of their wounds. Ninety-six were charged with riot, out of which thirty-five at Old Bailey and twenty-four at Southwark were sentenced to death (records also suggest that in total sixty-two rioters were given death sentences). In all, some two dozen were hanged at the places they had committed their crimes. Among those who were executed were two crippled young men, John Gray and Charles Kent, who were convicted on June 28 for ruining Mansfield’s house and stealing his belongings. Gray, who had a broken leg and walked with a crutch, had carried a large iron bar and was seen breaking down a wall of a neighbouring house and coming out of Mansfield’s house holding a bottle of his liquor; Kent, who had a wooden leg, also was seen carrying bottles out of the house. Six weeks after the riots, both of them were taken by cart from Newgate Prison to Bloomsbury Square, where gallows had been erected a few yards away from the ruined remnants of Mansfield’s house.[11] It is interesting to note that when the cart was placed under the gallows, it was observed that the structural plan of the execution would place the prisoners’ backs towards Mansfield’s house. The cart was therefore turned around so that they could see the destruction they had caused while they were hanged.

Since it was George Gordon who had led the crowd filled with anti-Catholic sentiment on June 2, instigating the riots that caused such a huge loss of life and property in the city, including the devastation of Lord Mansfield’s house and library, he was tried for high treason. Gordon was represented by Thomas Erskine, a noted British lawyer of that time who is also known for defending William Davies Shipley, Jon Stockdale and Thomas Paine in cases relating to seditious libel. He was also joined by Lloyd Kenyon who was to succeed Mansfield as the Chief Justice in 1788. Interestingly enough, the trial was conducted before Lord Mansfield who himself had been a victim of the Gordon Riots and had suffered heavy losses.

In fact, a few days after the violence were over, Mansfield had even made his views about the riots public in the House of Lords. In his opinion, the riots were part of a systematic plan to usurp the government and destroy the constitution. His private notes, probably written about the time of Gordon’s trial, give an idea about some of the points he wanted to inquire: “What share Gordon had in procuring a number to attend the petition and calling the meeting in St. George’s Fields?” Also, “what messages were sent into the country with his [illegible] to bring people up?” Additionally, some of his statements in public before the trial reflected his leanings against Gordon’s innocence.

This might have given a clear impression of his pre-conceived notions about the existence of a solid probability of Gordon’s direct role in triggering the riots. Therefore, Mansfield was even suggested by the Morning Herald that he “may … from the point of delicacy absent himself … lest the malevolent should, in case of … conviction of the prisoner, attempt to slander his great name by insinuating that something more than a love of justice might have swayed his Lordship.”[12]

But the suggestion was unfruitful and Mansfield without any hesitation proceeded to try the Gordon case. The trial was conducted amidst heavy security and guards were posted at all the entrances. A huge crowd of spectators came to witness the trial. One man climbed up a pillar in front of the Hall so as to have a clear view of the trial from an open window. Mansfield noticed it and ordered that the man be brought down and taken into custody. A court official who was too fat and unfit to climb up the pillar requested the man to come down, which he responded with a refusal. On this, Mansfield directly asked the man to come down so that he could be detained and when he still refused, Mansfield gave up and the man remained at his place throughout the trial.

The trial started at eight o’clock on a Monday morning and continued until a quarter past five the next morning. In his fierce submissions which ensured his reputation as a legendary trial lawyer, Erskine argued over a question of law that it was only levying of war against the King that constituted the offence of treason whereas what Gordon did was just present a petition before Parliament. But, Mansfield in his address to the jury gave an extraordinarily broad definition of levying war against the King to include an insurrection to raise the price of wages, to open all prisons, to destroy all brothels and even to present a petition before Parliament with the intent, by acts of force and violence, of compelling it to repeal a law. However, weaving it with the case at hand, and after the perusal of evidence on record and the arguments put forth by the counsel, it was decided that on the preponderance of probability no case could be established against Gordon and therefore, the case was decided in favour of the accused. Gordon was acquitted. Gordon’s acquittal in this case only added greatness to Mansfield’s reputation and professional integrity.

As Chief Justice, Mansfield reigned over the King’s Bench for a continuous period of thirty-two long years. He had the training, the viewpoint, the vision and the courage to deal broadly and liberally with the legal problems of his period. He played a great role in developing and reforming the commercial law of England. He believed more in relying upon legal principles rather than the case law. However, he also had the unique ability of harmonizing general principles of law with reliance on the precedents of decided cases. This together with his qualities of tolerance and freedom of mind put him at a different pedestal from the narrow provincialism of the common lawyers of his era. In the words of Justice Story: “He was one of those great men raised up by Providence, at a fortunate moment he became what he intended, the jurist of the Commercial World”.[13]


His remarkable decision in the Somerset[14] case, where he refused to endorse the institution of slavery in the absence of any positive law which specifically endorsed the same, played an important role in the growth of abolitionist sentiment in England. The decision also made a notable point that the writ of habeas corpus protected whites as well as blacks. Even to this day, those who remain passionate for individual liberty thrill over the eloquence with which Mansfield wrote:

“The air of England has long been too pure for a slave, and every man is free who breathes it. Every man who comes to England is entitled to the protection of English law, whatever oppression he may heretofore have suffered, and whatever may be the colour of his skin. Let the negro be discharged.”

Mansfield was also famous for his practical understanding of law, the nature of judicial process and judicial behaviour. His greatest strength as a judge rested on his ability to dispense justice in the specific disputes that came before him while advancing the interests of the society in a broader sense. He believed that a wise judge, even if not formally educated and trained in law, could rely on his instinct for justice. This is evident from the advice he once gave to a high military officer in Jamaica who also discharged judicial responsibilities. He told him:

“General, you have a sound head, and a good heart; take courage and you will do very well, in your new occupation, in a Court of Equity. My advice is, to make your decrees as your head and your heart dictate, to hear both sides patiently, to decide with your firmness in the best manner you can; but be careful not to assign your reasons, since your determinations may be substantially right, although your reasons may be very bad, or essentially wrong.”[15]

However, Mansfield confined the relevance and appropriateness of this advice only for a layman and believed that it must not be adopted by a professional judge who was trained in law and jurisprudence. He himself gave reasons for the decisions he gave as he believed that the job of a judge included setting down rules based on principles which would also advance the cause of future litigants.

Mansfield resigned from his office in 1788. He lived five years longer and kept his faculties to the last. He was greatly interested in the French Revolution. In 1789, when the Constituent Assembly agreed to adopt a constitution, somebody observed to him that the troubles of France were over. “My dear sir”, said Mansfield, “they are not begun”. “What,” he used to say, “is it possible that a nation great, powerful, and enlightened for twelve centuries, which improved so much the feudal system—the best system—had not got anything worth preserving to the world?” He disapproved of the new laws of France as a farrago for Botany Bay. “A constitution like this may survive that of an old man; but nothing less than a miracle can protect and carry it down to posterity.” The great man breathed last on 20 March 1793; his last words were—“LET ME SLEEP, LET ME SLEEP”.[16]




[1] Peter Ackroyd, “London: The Biography”, (2000).

[2] Norman S. Poser, “Lord Mansfield: Justice in the Age of Reason”, (2013).

[3] Jerry White, “A Great and Monstrous Thing: London in the Eighteenth Century”, (2013).

[4] Supra note [1].

[5] Supra note [2].

[6] Heward, “Lord Mansfield”.

[7] Colin Haydon, “Gordon, Lord George”, (Oxford Dictionary of National Biography).

[8] Supra note [2].

[9] “William Cowper: Complete Political Works” (Delphi Classics).

[10] Morning Chronicle, 9 June 1781 (quoted from Norman S. Poser, “Lord Mansfield: Justice in the Age of Reason”, 2013).

[11] Supra note [2].

[12] Morning Chronicle, 12 March 1781 (quoted from Norman S. Poser, “Lord Mansfield: Justice in the Age of Reason”, 2013).

[13] Bernard L. Shientag, “Lord Mansfield Revisited—A Modern Assessment” (1941).

[14] Somerset v. Stewart, (1772) 98 ER 499.

[15] Supra note [2].

[16] John Lord Campbell, “The Lives of the Chief Justices of England; from the Norman Conquest till the Death of Lord Mansfield” (1852).


- The Author is a 5th year student, B.A.LL.B. (Hons.), Faculty of Law, Aligarh Muslim University