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Madness, Mayhem and the Modernisation of the Monarchy
by Paul Thomas Murphy
Edward Oxford was just 18 when, on a sparkling summer’s day in June 1840, he attempted to kill the young Queen Victoria. Unstable, probably manic depressive, and the sole member of a dastardly-sounding but completely imaginary secret society of assassins he called Young England, he fired two pistol shots at the queen and her husband Prince Albert while they were riding up Constitution Hill in an open carriage. The shots missed, Oxford was set upon by a crowd shouting “Kill him”, and the queen and her consort rode on, with great aplomb, on their usual route.
Oxford was the first of seven different assassins who tried to take Victoria’s life, but his hapless and bungled attempt came at a particularly sensitive time for the queen. Twenty-one and pregnant, Victoria had made a rather rocky start to her reign. A series of mini crises in her first three years, and a perceived overreliance on the prime minister Lord Melbourne, had made her appear politically partisan and remote. But, argues Paul Murphy in this entertaining study, her instinctive decision not to panic after Oxford fired, but to ride on as if nothing had happened, affected the course of her reign and turned near-tragedy into personal triumph. Over the next few weeks she appeared in her carriage at her regular hour, and followed an unchanging route. The crowds responded to this demonstration of trust with wild adulation. Oxford, meanwhile, was charged with high treason and, after a series of botched verdicts, was sent to Bethlem lunatic asylum.
This first attempt on the queen came at a peculiarly sensitive time in British history, argues Murphy, and its repercussions were far-reaching. Not only did Oxford’s trial fuel a developing battle between the judiciary and physicians about the definition of criminal insanity, but his completely imaginary one-man Young England group fed fears about a larger conspiracy and raised the spectre of mass insurrection.
Yet the motivations behind the subsequent attacks on the queen were usually far more mundane than insurrection. Victoria’s next assailant, for instance, a deluded 20-year-old called John Francis, merely wanted to revive his ailing carpentry business when he fired at her on the Mall in 1842. No bullets were found at the scene, and Francis suggested that his actions were not dangerous but a mere “frolic”. But the prosecution argued that the wadding in his pistol constituted “destructive material” and he was convicted of treason and transported to Australia. When it was learnt that Victoria had known of the threat but had insisted on her regular “airing”, public opinion again rallied to her side, and the bond between queen and people was strengthened.
One of the curiosities of Murphy’s book is that the more attempts that were made on Victoria’s life, the greater the apparent effort by the Establishment to let the culprits disappear quietly rather than provide them with celebrity. Only five weeks after Francis’s attempt, for instance, a 17-year-old crippled hunchback, John Bean, made another attempt on Victoria’s life with a rusty pocket flintlock. Believing that the notoriety of a state trial would simply provide encouragement to copycats, Robert Peel, the prime minister, had Bean charged with common assault. He also introduced an act establishing the new charge of disturbing the monarch, designed to degrade rather than elevate: the penalty would be transportation or public flogging.
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With the hungry, revolutionary 1840s almost over, it seemed that the craze for taking a pop at the queen had abated until, in 1849, a young Irishman, William Hamilton, fired at her landau near the gates of Buckingham Palace. As with Oxford, once it was established that the penniless Hamilton was less revolutionary than delusional, he was tried under Peel’s act. The public anticipated a whipping. In the event, he was simply transported, and quickly forgotten.
The assaults continued. As her family expanded, Victoria hid herself away at Osborne on the Isle of Wight or at Balmoral, but in June 1850 she was attacked for a fifth time, on this occasion with a heavy cane by a lunatic called Robert Pate as her carriage negotiated the narrow gates of Cambridge House in Piccadilly. Again, her forbearance was remarkable. She insisted on appearing that night at the opera, even though a mark was clearly visible on her forehead. Her public courage, though, masked a new fear: Pate, unlike her previous assailants, had hurt her. Henceforth, she found public appearances increasingly onerous.
Murphy weaves into his account details of the issues that affected public reaction to these attacks, including the profound social and economic difficulties of the 1840s, sensational trials of criminals such as the Swiss butler Courvoisier (who cut his employer Lord William Russell’s throat), and the establishment of a new precedent for insanity pleas. There is, too, plenty of delightful incidental detail, including the story of the chain-mail parasol designed by Albert for Victoria’s protection. Alas, it was too heavy ever to be used.
Shooting Victoria is beautifully researched and lucidly written, though it need not have been quite so bulky. Murphy’s central thesis, that each attack was turned into a public relations coup, also falters somewhat after Albert’s death, as Victoria became a recluse.
It was another 22 years before her next assailant, a foolish 17-year-old called Arthur O’Connor, scrambled over the Buckingham Palace railings in 1872 and waved a pistol in her face. Ten years later, in the final incident, Roderick Maclean, insane and starving, took a shot at her as she left Windsor station. By then, however, Victoria cut an increasingly distant figure. Though she received a flood of congratulations, the sympathy that had characterised her early reign, and that had redefined the pact between monarch and people, had largely gone. Though she reigned for 19 more years, never again would she express her belief that “it is worth being shot at to see how much one is loved”.
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