Fact of the day: 10th May

On this day in 1768 John Wilkes was imprisoned for writing an article for The North Briton severely criticizing King George III. This action provoked rioting in London.

Wilkes hoped for a change in power to remove the charges, but this did not come to pass. As his French creditors began to pressure him, in 1768 he had little choice but to return to England.

He returned intending to stand as a Member of Parliament on an anti-government ticket; the government did not issue warrants for his immediate arrest as it did not want to inflame popular support.

Wilkes stood in London and came in bottom of the poll of seven candidates, possibly due to his late entry into the race for the position. He was quickly elected MP for Middlesex, where most of his support was located. He surrendered himself to the King’s Bench in April.

On waiving his parliamentary privilege to immunity, he was sentenced by Judge Joseph Yates to two years and fined £1,000; the Lords’ sentence of outlawry was overturned.

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When Wilkes was imprisoned in the King’s Bench Prison on 10 May 1768, his supporters appeared before King’s Bench, London, chanting “No liberty, no King.”

Troops opened fire on the unarmed men, killing seven and wounding 15, an incident that came to be known as the St George’s Fields Massacre.

The Irish playwright Hugh Kelly a prominent supporter of the government, defended the right of the army to use force against rioters, which drew the anger of Wilkes’ supporters and they began a riot at the Drury Lane Theatre during the performance of Kelly’s new play A Word to the Wise forcing it to be abandoned.

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