‘Episcopal treason and plot’: effigy burning in the autumn 1831 reform protests

Fifth of November Celebration at Exeter – the bonfire in the Cathedral Close (1882)

Author and acknowledgements

Dr Roger Ball ~ Research Fellow (University of the West of England)

Jane Askew ~ Project Administrator and Researcher (University of the West of England)

Professor of History and Heritage, Steve Poole ~ Principal Investigator (University of the West of England)

Professor of Social Psychology, John Drury ~ Co-investigator (University of Sussex)

I think there is a very great danger – a rock ahead (as sailors say) towards which the vessel of the Church is steering. I mean Parliamentary reform. Everyone who feels for the establishment must tremble to think of the effect of the bill being thrown out in the Lords – for if it is so, rely on it, the Bishops will be made to bear the blame. Some will vote against the Bill, others stay away, and none or hardly any I fear for it. The roar of popular fury will be directed against the Bench and I foresee the very worst consequences. Letter from Lord Chancellor Brougham to James Lush (August 1831)[1]


In our Overall Survey of Protest events in Britain and Ireland in response to the defeat of the Second Reform Bill from October to December 1831, one prevalent activity was difficult to categorise. This was the practice of parading and burning of effigies in public locations, sometimes outside the residence of the ‘victim’. The crude division between violent (riots and disturbances) and non-violent (meetings, parades, demonstrations) events which we chose, arguably left some protest behaviours such as ‘rough music’ in the gap. The historian E. P. Thompson located the English origins of the word in the late seventeenth century and defined ‘rough music’ as:

a rude cacophony, with or without more elaborate ritual, which usually directed mockery or hostility against individuals who offended against certain community norms

Thompson went on to qualify this by stating:

It is not just the noise, however, although satiric noise (whether light or savage) is always present. The noise formed part of a ritualised expression of hostility…In other cases, the ritual could be elaborate, and might include the riding of the victim (or a proxy) upon a pole or donkey; masking and dancing; elaborate recitatives; rough mime or street drama upon a cart or platform; the miming of a ritual hunt; or (frequently) the parading and burning of effigies; or, indeed, various combinations of all of these.[2]

Thompson’s use of ‘frequently’ in the case of effigy-burning highlights its survival today through the ritual of Guy Fawkes night while many of the other practices of ‘rough music’ have largely disappeared. The repertoires of ‘rough music’ rituals are, like any cultural forms, dynamic in nature and subject to social conditions. ‘Rough music’ had its origins in the autonomous (though perhaps patriarchal) social control of rural communities, where it was deployed as much against adulterers and ‘quarrelsome wives’ as it was against ‘wife beaters’ and child abusers. By the early nineteenth century its forms and use had been changed by the massive and ongoing displacement of rural labour to the urban environment and the changing nature of social relations under the emerging industrial capitalism. The ‘old ways’ of ‘rough music’ were now being deployed more frequently as part of protests and direct action in the economic and political arenas. The targets could be recalcitrant employers, officials, politicians and public figures. However, this does not mean that the use of ‘rough music’ should be romanticised or assumed to be wholly progressive. As Thompson pointed out, effigies of the influential radical and public figure, Thomas Paine in the 1790s were arguably the most burned after Guy Fawkes in British history![3]

Effigy burning during the reform crisis

During the reform crisis of 1830-32 some of the surviving repertoires of ‘rough music’ were being employed by protestors. We have already considered the use of some of these practices in earlier articles concerning reaction to the failure of the Second Reform Bill in October 1831. These included collective hooting, groaning and jeering in the presence of anti-reforming Lords and Bishops and crowds traversing cities and towns to protest outside the homes of anti-reformers.[4] However, these behaviours often deviated from the more pacific and representational forms of ‘rough music’ towards more expressive crimes such as damaging property and actually ‘roughing’ up the victims. One form of ‘rough music’ which was prevalent in 1831 and appears to have largely retained its more representational form was the practice of parading and burning effigies, often in symbolic locations for the ‘victim’ or the crowd. These public protests often involved multiple, elaborate manikins and theatrical performances before the climatic denouement. This carnivalesque theatricality does not necessarily mean that effigy burning was a ‘respectable’ or even acceptable form of protest for middle-class reformers or even Political Unions. Neither does its apparently benign nature mean that the authorities were happy for it to take place.

For example, in a letter to the Duke of Wellington the Bishop of Exeter, Henry Phillpotts, describes Guy Fawkes night in November 1831:

The night has gone off with little more excitement than is, I understand, usual on the 5th of November. As the populace has always been suffered to burn Guy Fawkes and the Pope the magistrates very judiciously resolved not to interfere with their usual sport and not be inquisitive as to the additional figures they might choose to burn. This was communicated to me for my opinion, it being known that an effigy of myself, as well as of Lord Rolle,[5] etc., had been prepared. I entirely concurred in the view taken by them and expressed my wish that the burning should take place, for it seemed to me quite plain that it was much better the effigies, as they were prepared, should be got rid of, else the peace would be endangered on some other night when the authorities were less ready to meet the mischief. I mention this circumstance that Your Grace may not suppose if you see any report of these matters in the newspapers that it was weakness on the part of the magistracy which caused the illegal sport.[6]

Phillpots’ letter to Wellington in 1831 is interesting in that it exposes the relations of force between the authorities and the protestors; that is, the Bishop would rather be burned in effigy than escalate the situation and risk having his residence burned down. These were not idle threats. Only a few days earlier, in Bristol, this is precisely what had happened, when rioters torched the Bishop’s Palace and came close to razing the nearby cathedral.

Henry Philpotts (1778-1869), Bishop of Exeter 1851[7]

The Bishop was the target of the crowd’s “illegal sport” because he, along with 21 other ‘Lords Spiritual’, had voted against the Second Reform Bill in the House of Lords. In Phillpotts’ case the effigy burning was not merely a knee jerk reaction to the failure of the bill; he had been a marked man from the moment Wellington’s government of 1830 appointed him:

Radicals and dissenters in Exeter…alleged that the Bishop had obtained preferment by changing his views towards Catholic Emancipation in 1829. A High Churchman of national reputation, and a Tory of the extreme right by education, marriage, and political conviction, Phillpotts acquired the image of a political prelate but was an unpopular figure in his diocese where the Western Times and the Evangelical Flying Post took every opportunity to Lampoon him.[8]

Henry Philpotts may have been new to Exeter but it was not the first time that he had come across the practice of effigy-burning as protest. The previous year his elder brother, John had become the MP for Gloucester. His sibling’s support for Wellington’s ailing anti-reform government drew the ire of the “mob” in Gloucester who paraded an effigy through the streets before cunningly burning it outside the city’s boundary where the police had no jurisdiction.[9]

A wall poster from Coventry making the Bishops’ role in the Lords’ rejection of the Reform Bill abundantly clear.[10]

When news of the defeat of the Bill in the House of Lords reached some cities and towns, it is interesting that one of the first public responses was to create effigies and parade them. For example, when the news reached High Wycombe on the afternoon of Saturday 8th October, the shops put their shutters up, muffled church bells rang dumb peals, and a manikin of the anti-reformer Lord Wharncliffe was paraded around the town and then hung on a lamp-iron at the Market-house. These parades were not always one-off events but part of a series of public gatherings that spanned several days, involving several targets and quite theatrical displays. In High Wycombe the following night Wharncliffe’s effigy was torched to the “hootings and revilings” of a large crowd. On the third night an effigy of Lord Carrington was paraded and burned on St Mary’s Bridge “not many yards from his seat” at Wycombe Abbey.[11]

In Carlisle news of the defeat first arrived late on the Sunday night by Express coach, though by Monday morning it was apparently “known throughout the town”. The Carlisle Reform Association organised a public meeting for 1.00pm that day at the Swifts Racecourse which was attended by a crowd of 8-12,000 people. At the end of the meeting the crowd burned an effigy of the Bishop of Carlisle who had voted against the Reform Bill by proxy. The following evening two processions, composed of 4-8,000 people, formed up and paraded the streets. Under the headline “Disgraceful Proceeding” the anti-reform newspaper the Carlisle Patriot described the protest:

a numerous body of operatives and others, a great proportion of which were women and boys, paraded in procession through the streets of this city, preceded by drum and fife, several torches, and flags, with two effigies, the one purporting to be that of the Lord Bishop of the Diocese, with two placards affixed to it, one of them bearing the words “The plunderer of the people” and the other “The enemy of mankind.” The other was that of the Devil! The latter was taken in procession from Botchergate, about eight o’clock, to Caldewgate, there to meet the party with the figure of the Bishop, and the whole then proceeded in one body into the city.[12]

Other sources described the theatrical interaction of the two effigies on the final leg of the procession, with the Devil apparently urging the Bishop on.[13] Both Both effigies were burned at the Market Cross amidst the “yells” of the protestors. Protests of this scale, performance and longevity were nothing new in Carlisle. In early November of the previous year, at the height of the reform unrest and Captain Swing riots, the populace had responded over several days by:

repeatedly parading and ‘executing’ effigies of Lord Wellington and Robert Peel at the market cross (thereby reversing the ritual of the Corporation who had burned the works of Thomas Paine on that spot in 1795).[14]

The theatrical performance in Carlisle was matched by the artistic efforts of effigy-makers in Exeter who had, in response to the defeat of the Reform Bill, planned “to burn the effigy of the Bishop [Phillpotts], an officious little Tory Alderman, the Bishops’ secretary, and several other obnoxious characters, on 5th November”.[15] In Exeter the burning of effigies of unpopular figures along with Guy Fawkes and the Pope on bonfire night was an established tradition, so this was no real surprise to the local authorities. However, the context of reform-related protests and riots in October allied with the fact that both the mayor and the Bishop had received anonymous threatening letters certainly heightened the tension. The ambiguity of the language in the letters and notices that were circulating in the city and their reference to the serious reform riots in Bristol that had occurred only a few days earlier, prompted fears that greater destruction was likely to follow. “Rouse ye Exonians”, urged a handbill:

Take a pattern from the Bristol Heroes. What won’t reform by fair means must by foul… On Saturday the common enemy will be burnt. Arm yourselves and defend the cause!!!

In response, the authorities  prepared four units of the East Devon Yeomanry cavalry and swore in as many special constables as they could, although the mayor remained apprehensive since “the number of special constables who have come forward on this occasion has been very limited”.[16] This was unfortunate for the authorities were well aware that any injudicious interventions by the military were as likely to exacerbate as calm the situation, and the mayor made sure the Yeomanry “were not permitted to enter the city but were stationed at the Cavalry and Artillery Barracks adjoining it”.[17] This wasn’t quite what the Bishop had been hoping for. “The Bishop has solicited to have a troop stationed within the Palace”, reported the Yeomanry’s commander, Lord Rolle:

for if burnt, the cathedral could not escape being destroyed as the Palace opens into the Cathedral. This I declined as I considered it might so irritate the mob as to cause the destruction of both Cathedral and Palace.[18]

One thing the authorities were aware of in Exeter was the likely location chosen for the ritual; the Cathedral which, as Lord Rolle pointed out, adjoined with the Bishop’s Palace. Outside the west door of the Cathedral had been the traditional spot for the building of bonfires on Guy Fawkes night and the clergy had customarily donated money to help stage the event.[19] In November 1831, the location probably appeared to the pro-reform crowd as ironically providential whilst the authorities realised they had a potential nightmare on their hands. It is unclear if the clergy offered their financial support for the event in 1831!

The effective policing of effigy burnings was challenging in any case. On the one hand, the authorities were anxious to ensure they didn’t escalate into any more serious attacks on property, but on the other an effigy burning was a carnivalesque channelling of discontent, and in itself a relatively harmless form of protest. As a concerned gentleman in Surrey, expressed it in a letter to the Home Secretary warning of plans to burn an effigy of the Bishop of Winchester at Farnham, if the protest was not “temperately kept in check (it) may by possibility produce results not at present contemplated… especially if liquor be given to them.”[20] Similar fears were entertained at Wells, Somerset where it was believed an effigy of the Bishop of Bath and Wells was to be paraded and burned at the annual bull baiting on 5 November.

It would give general dissatisfaction to many among the better order of the lower classes to attempt to stop it

counselled one county magistrate:

but it might be as well to have a few infantry to protect the Palace and a few dragoons or yeomanry in the neighbourhood.[21]

As far as Exeter was concerned, if the mayor and Lord Rolle believed a relatively cautious approach was necessary, the city’s wealthier inhabitants were far from feeling reassured. According to Cobbett, they were:

so affrighted…they removed their plate [silver] and valuables, provided themselves with firearms and fortified their houses in every possible way.[22]

Clearly the practice of effigy burning was far from a benign event for the ‘victim’ (or those who perceived themselves as ‘victims’), especially if it occurred within view of their residences. The Exeter event was particularly grotesque, and one wonders if the Bishop was looking on, as his elaborate manikin was paraded into the grounds of the Cathedral and unveiled:

no move was made to burn the effigy of the Bishop…till eleven o’clock at night, when a large body of determined fellows made their appearance in the Cathedral-yard with the effigy of the poor Bishop, mitred and lawn-sleeved…also a large quantity of faggots; a temporary gallows was soon erected, and the pious scaramouch was soon hoisted upon the gibbet.  Its appearance was ridiculously emblematical of this notorious hater of liberty and reform. The head was composed of a hollow turnip, with a candle in the centre, in which were cut the nose and mouth, but no eyes – showing, that though the head possessed light, the bishop was blind to the past and present scenes around him. The faggots being adjusted, they were set fire to, and the light soon discovered the vitals, composed of the liver and lights of a sheep, and a heart one mass of corruption, which the flames soon devoured, with the hollow head, mitre, and lawn sleeves, of one of the twenty-four enemies of reform, and with-holders of the people’s just rights; all this was done in the Cathedral-yard, in full sight of the [Bishop’s] Palace. Had any attempt been made to prevent this innocent ebullition of public indignation, I have no doubt many lives would have been lost, and we would have had a second Bristol affair.

The eyewitness to this bizarre and frightening ritual described its end:

…the bonfire and effigy consumed, the assembled multitude, which was composed of many thousands, gave three groans for the bishops and Tories, and nine hearty cheers for the cause of reform.  The Bishop’s Palace was filled with armed soldiers, who kept guard all night.[23]

How these theatrical crowd events impacted upon the anti-reform clergy as a group is hard to assess, but the Bishop of Exeter’s bravado in referring to his own burning as mere ‘sport’ was certainly not reflected in the response of the Bishop of Durham when he found himself targeted at Bishop Auckland:

When not only persons ignorant or reckless of character, but Gentlemen and Magistrates address these multitudes in the most inflammatory language, and stir up their hatred towards me in terms that have a direct tendency to incite them to acts of spoliation and personal violence, it is impossible not to perceive that any efforts on my part to bring about a better feeling in the community must be unavailing. Already the populace in this town have burnt me in effigy at my castle gates and threatened to demolish my castle windows and it has been recently ascertained that for two or three days a party lay in wait at Darlington in the expectation that I was to pass through there and for the avowed purpose of inflicting upon me some personal outrage.[24]

These examples of reform-related effigy burnings, which have been recounted in detail, are only a sample of similar public episodes which occurred in at least 17 locations across England and Scotland.[25] The majority (12) occurred in October after the failure of the Second Reform Bill, though five were associated with Guy Fawkes night. Popular targets included the Duke of Wellington and Lord Wharncliffe, and the Bishops of Carlisle, Gloucester, Durham, Winchester, Exeter and Canterbury. All of these Bishops were torched in effigy by large crowds in their local areas within ten days of the news of the defeat of the Bill. The potential danger of violent crowd action arising from these spontaneous and ritual gatherings clearly focused the minds of the authorities and the military.

Remember, remember……

The prevalence of the mass public effigy burnings, particularly of Bishops, as a consequence of the defeat of the Reform Bill had also been spotted by the pro-reform press. The irony of a ‘world turned upside down’ where it was not heretics that were being burned but the clergy, was not lost on the reformers. The effigy-burnings became the focus of several humorous cartoons, poems and songs. For example, the Weekly Despatch in London reported:

Yesterday being the anniversary of the Gunpowder Plot, a knot of little urchins exhibited a “Poor Guy” at the West End of town in the lawn sleeves and regular canonicals of a Bishop, and actually conveyed this effigy of a Right Reverend Father in God to the Secretary of State’s Office, where the singular figure excited no little astonishment among the officials in attendance. A new chaunt was, we understand, provided for the occasion, commencing as follows:

“Pray, remember, from this November,

Episcopal treason and plot;

We know no reason why Reverend treason,

Should ever be forgot”[26]

The more radical Examiner developed the theme of ‘clerical treason’ in offering its own extended version of the chaunt:[27]

Bell’s Life in London and Sporting Chronicle also picked up on the theme and offered both a cartoon and a somewhat darker take on the Remember, Remember poem:[28]

Feature image “Fifth-of-November-Celebration-at-Exeter-Cathedral-Close-1882.” Exeter Engraved: The Secular City (Exeter: Mint Press, 2000) with permission from Dr Todd Gray.


1 Quoted in Edward Hughes, H. Brougham, James Losh, W. Dunelm, Ernest and Grey “The Bishops and Reform, 1831-3: Some Fresh Correspondence” The English Historical Review, Vol. 56, No. 223 (July 1941), p. 464.
2 This author’s emphasis. Thompson, Edward Palmer. Customs in common: Studies in traditional popular culture (New York: New Press, 1993) p. 467, 469.
3 Ibid. pp. 525-526.
4 See the previous articles: Ball, R. The defeat of the Second Reform Bill in October 1831 – An overview of public responses Part 1 – The overall survey, Part 2 – In the metropolis and Part 3 – Black flags and dumb peals: the spread of news of the defeat. Riot 1831 https://riot1831.com/.
5 Lord Rolle was the largest landowner in Devon in the period and commander of the Royal 1st Devon Yeomanry. Like Phillpotts, Rolle had also voted against the Second Reform Bill in the House of Lords.
6 “The Bishop of Exeter to Field Marshal the Duke of Wellington 5th November 1831” in Despatches, Correspondence, and Memoranda of Field Marshall Arthur Duke of Wellington Vol. VIII [November, 1831 to December, 1832] (London: John Murray, 1880) pp. 35-36.
7 By John Prescott Knight
8 Swift, Roger “Guy Fawkes Celebrations in Victorian Exeter” History Today Nov 1, 1981 p. 5.
9 Cheltenham Journal 29 November 1830.
10 TNA HO 52/15 f.442
11 Monmouthshire Merlin 15 October 1831; Evening Mail 17 October 1831.
12 Carlisle Patriot 15 October 1831.
13 Evening Mail 17 October 1831; The Scotsman 19 October 1831.
14 Navickas, Katrina. Protest and the Politics of Space and Place, 1789–1848 (Manchester University Press, 2015) p. 128.
15 Cobbett’s Weekly Register 12 November 1831.
16 TNA, HO 52/12/1, Mayor of Exeter to Lord Melbourne, 4 November 1831, ff.67-8
17 TNA, HO 52/12/1, Mayor of Exeter to Lord Melbourne, 7 November 1831, ff.72-3.
18 TNA, HO 52/12/1, Col. Rolle to Lord Melbourne, 7 November 1831, f.53.
19 Swift “Guy Fawkes Celebrations in Victorian Exeter” p. 5.
20 TNA, HO 52/15/2, Richard Steadman to Lord Melbourne, 3 November 1831, ff.373-4.
21 TNA, HO 52/15/3, Bathurst to Lord Melbourne, 1 November 1831, f.586.
22 Cobbett’s Weekly Register 12 November 1831.
23 Cobbett’s Weekly Register 12 November 1831
24 TNA, HO 52/12/1, Bishop of Durham to Lord Melbourne, 1 November 1831, ff.303-5.
25 The full list in chronological order is High Wycombe, Sheffield, St Giles (London), Carlisle, Leeds, Strathmiglo (Fife), Gloucester, Bishop Auckland, Farnham, Auchtergaven (Perth and Kinross), Sunderland, Ardwick Green (Manchester), Langport (Somerset), Huddersfield, Burgate (Canterbury), Brecon and Exeter.
26 Weekly Dispatch (London) 06 November 1831.
27 Examiner 06 November 1831.
28 Bell’s Life in London and Sporting Chronicle 06 November 1831