Pope-burning

So far as we know the earliest pope burning demonstrations in London took place in 1673, shortly after James Duke of York concluded an unpopular marriage with the Catholic princess, Mary of Modena. According to a contemporary report Londoners fashioned effigies of the Pope and his cardinals and burned them in Cheapside and several other places to demonstrate their disapproval of the popish inclinations of the heir to the throne and his brother, who had recently allied with France against the Protestant Dutch. In 1677 another effigy of the Pope was burnt in London to commemorate the anniversary of the Powder Treason (November 5). Less than two weeks later, on the 17th, a more costly effigy was consigned to a bonfire on the anniversary of Queen Elizabeth's accession to the throne. This time two devils accompanied the pope, whispering in his ear. Wine was distributed to the crowd to encourage a festive atmosphere and, as an added touch, the Pope's belly was filled with live cats whose squawls as the flames reached them were said to mimic the Pope's dialogue with the devils.

Pope burnings were therefore already an established form of protest before Titus Oates's revelations of the Popish Plot. During the next three years the Green Ribbon Club -- the organizational nucleus of the London Whigs -- arranged several especially spectacular pope burning processions. The first of these, on November 17, 1679, marched from Moogate, to the North of the City, through Cheapside past the Royal exchange to Temple Bar, where the burning took place. At the head of the procession a bellman cried out "Remember Justice Godfrey," the London magistrate mysteriously killed shortly after being assigned the task of investigating Oates's allegations. Next came an effigy of Godfrey's body followed by a Jesuit on horseback; a priest offering pardons to all who murdered Protestants; a troop of assorted monks and friars, including six Jesuits brandishing bloody daggers; a consort of wind instruments; eight bishops and six cardinals in resplendent robes; the Queen's physician (rumored to be involved on the plot); two more priests and finally the Pope himself, escorted by a devil urging him to fire the City again. The Green Ribbon Club had arranged for 150 torchbearers to accompany the procession but so many additional volunteers joined this troop that the number of torches may have exceeded a thousand. Contemporaries estimated that as many as 200,000 people witnessed the spectacle. Although this probably exaggerates the audience may well have approached 100,000.

An even more elaborate procession the following year, illustrated in a contemporary engraving, featured an additional troop of "Protestants in Masquerade" seeking to usher in popery -- an allusion to the conformist Anglicans who supported the King. A third great procession followed in 1681, after the tide had already turned against the Whigs in national politics, although not in London. Additional effigies of the Pope were burned as late as December, partly in demonstration of solidarity with the Whig leader Shaftesbury, who was tried for treason but acquitted by a London jury. But in 1682, after the Crown installed a Tory Lord Mayor and Shaftesbury fled to the Netherlands, pope burnings subsided. Although sporadically revived in England as late as 1747 -- and exported to Boston Massachusetts, where the tradition was still very much alive in the 1760s -- the great age of pope burnings had ended.

Enjoy this post? Share it with others.