Spotlight On: Gordon Riots – Video Transcript

Hello I’m Dan Gosling and I’m Principal Legal Records Specialist at The National Archives. Today we’re going to look at documents from our vast ‘KB’ document collection, the records relating to the court of King’s Bench.

The King’s Bench was the most senior Criminal Court in England and Wales for most of its existence. It was the court that heard the most serious cases, such as murder and treason, and it was also the court of appeal for all inferior Criminal Courts. It’s called the Court of King’s Bench because originally these were cases brought before the King, ‘Coram Rege’ in the original Latin. When there was a Queen on the throne the court was instead called ‘Queen’s Bench’ and during 1649 to 1660 when there was no King of Queen the court was instead referred to as the ‘Upper Bench.’

At the National Archives we hold records created by the Court of King’s Bench from its 12th century origins all the way up to the 19th century. Up to the 18th century, the most common types of record in this collection are rolls which recorded the pleas of King’s Bench cases and files which were records created as part of the court process such as writs for summoning parties to the court. Let’s take a closer look at the record I have here, KB 27/1259, to see what most of these King’s Bench records look like.

KB 27 contains the plea rolls or ‘Coram Rege’ rolls for the Court of King’s Bench. These contain records of proceedings for each case for a given law term. The English Common Law Courts, which included King’s Bench, sat at four times during the year four law terms these were named after religious festivals Hillary term in January and February, Easter term in April and May, Trinity term in June and July, and Michaelmas term in late October and November. This plea roll is from Michaelmas term in 1576 during the reign of Elizabeth I. The records are in Latin up to the 18th century but the language is fairly formulaic, so this title reads in Latin: ‘placita coram Domina Regina apud Westmonasterium termino Sancti Michaelmas’ so in English: ‘pleas before the Queen held at Westminster in Michaelmas term.’ These records are dated by the year the Monarch acceded to the throne so this play is for Michaelmas term in the 18th to 19th regnal year of Elizabeth I. Elizabeth’s Reign started in the middle of November so Michaelmas term covered the end of one regnal year and went into the beginning of another. Many of these plea rolls contain portraits of the Monarch within the letter P. This roll shows Elizabeth but rolls for other reigns show different monarchs and they’re sometimes illuminated.

You may notice too that these plea rolls don’t look very much like rolls at all and this is because of the way that the records are sewn. In Chancery rolls each of the membranes is sewn end to end so the whole document can be rolled up into one cylinder but King’s bench plea rolls are sewn differently and they’re sewn at the top of the document. These plea rolls were created by the clerks and officers of the court to record cases as they came in. The clerk started writing at the top of the rotulet here, moved all the way down, and when they got to the end they would turn over and write on the reverse or the dorse. If a case was heard by the Court then the plea rolls were recorded and so these records are the first port of call for anyone interested in records relating to crimes in England and Wales from the Medieval period until 1702. After the this date the King’s Bench plea rolls were split between criminal and non-criminal cases. And this is just one document from our King’s Bench collection but the court had another responsibility.

As the most senior Criminal Court in the realm the most serious crimes, Treason and Rebellion, were also heard here. For these extraordinary acts of rebellion a new King’s Bench series was created, KB8: ‘the Bag of Secrets’, or Baga de Secretis in the Original Latin. The series which dates from the 15th century gets its name from the leather bag that these records were kept in. These cases were deemed so important that they were removed from the main King’s bench series, such as the plea rolls in KB 27, into these bags for safekeeping. In this series records relating to some of the most notorious cases in English History are kept. Anne Boleyn’s treason trial, the trial of the gunpowder plotters, and the prosecution of the Luddites all have records in KB8.

This document I have here is KB8/79, the King’s Bench records relating to prosecution of people involved in the Gordon Riots. The Gordon Riots occurred in June 1780, named after Lord George Gordon, Head of the Protestant Association, the rioters were protesting the 1778 Papist Act which reduced official discrimination against British Catholics. Lord Gordon claimed that this act would allow Catholics to join the British Army and plot treason from within and so organised a march on Parliament on 2nd of June 1780 to petition for the act’s repeal. Gordon’s petition was overwhelmingly rejected in the Commons and the crowd that had marched on Parliament estimated at 40-60,000 strong was dispersed, though not before they had vandalised and destroyed a number of carriages and attacked members of the House of Lords. But the riots were not over, for the next few days there was widespread looting, rioting and burning of Catholic chapels across London, eventually the Army had to be deployed and hundreds of rioters were killed or arrested. So KB8/79 was created in the aftermath of these riots, recording the prosecution of all those that have been arrested for their involvement in this criminal activity.

This document that’s sealed by Lord Loughborough, Chief Justice of the Court of Common Pleas and chief judge in the investigations against the Gordon Rioters, shows him appointing a commissioner for the court. These documents here are summonses to give evidence against rioters. So this top record summons James Ewer of George Street to give evidence against a man named John French who was accused of riot and felony near King’s Bench prison.

The record I have here is KB 33/5/12. KB 33 is a King’s Bench series held at National Archives collecting together papers relating to important cases. KB 33/5/12 is a bundle of papers, some relating to the Gordon riots, some of these papers were created as part of the trial process of both the rioters and Lord Gordon who was tried for high treason for allegedly levying war against his King. He was found not guilty in the end but not before a huge amount of paperwork had been created relating to his case. This small document here describes the punishment for those found guilty of high treason – hanging drawing and quartering. KB 33/5/12 has a complete copy of the whole of Lord Gordon’s treason trial, as well as detailed notes about the form that the trial would take. It also includes this printed calendar of all the prisoners tried for their part in the Gordon riots and this roll is a copy of the indictment found in the main King’s Bench series in KB 8 and KB 28. The records in KB 33 were created and kept not just as part of a specific court case but to provide precedence should similar court cases occur in future.

The documents in KB 8 and KB 33 tell us in detail the great lengths that the state went to to prosecute Lord Gordon and all those involved in the Gordon Riots, however this is just one case among hundreds of thousands heard by the Court of Kings Bench over the centuries. It’s fair to say that when it comes to the King’s Bench collections at The National Archives, there’s plenty more to be discovered.