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Victoria and Her Assassins

 

 

Rob Hardy

 

Winston Churchill had experience of being under fire, and famously remarked, "Nothing in life is so exhilarating as to be shot at without result." I don't know how often Churchill was shot at during the Boer War, but Queen Victoria was shot at, or was threatened with gunfire, seven times (and assaulted with a cane once). She also had something positive to say about the experience: "It is worth being shot at to see how much one is loved." Indeed, Victoria's would-be assassins not only failed to kill her, but increased her popularity and made the British monarchy what it is today. That is the thesis of the entertaining account of the assassination attempts, Shooting Victoria: Madness, Mayhem, and the Rebirth of the British Monarchy (Pegasus Books) by historian Paul Thomas Murphy. There are plenty of biographies of Victoria, and Murphy necessarily includes a great deal of biographical detail, but concentrating on the assassination attempts proves to be an enlightening way at looking at the Queen, her reign, her public standing, the politics of the time, and the difficulties of justly treating madmen within the legal system.  

 

 

 

Victoria ascended the throne in 1837, married her beloved Albert in February 1840, and was shot at for the first time four months later. This attempt, like all the others, happened when she was out in public, riding in a carriage. She was with Albert, going to Hyde Park, when Edward Oxford, an eighteen-year-old barman from a London pub, took a shot at her. Oxford had delusions of leading a vast new political movement called "Young England," and his attempt was part of his delusionary cause. Albert saw Oxford and recalled a "little, mean-looking man" who struck a ridiculously theatrical pose as he took aim. Albert moved quickly to protect the Queen, an action which she felt demonstrated the fine qualities she admired in her beloved husband. It made no difference to her that the pistol, which discharged loudly, probably was not loaded with a bullet. The crowd converged around Oxford, and while there were cries of "Kill him!" he was arrested and brought to trial for high treason. He was found not guilty because of insanity, and was locked up for the rest of his life. 

 

 

 

It was Victoria's action after this attempt, and after all the others, that made such a difference. She might instinctively have ordered her carriage back to the safety of her palace, but, with Albert's full agreement, she ordered her entourage to continue its course toward Hyde Park. Not only did they expose themselves to the public immediately after the outrage, they deliberately arranged to be in public for the next few days. It was a brilliant move in public relations, although it was not at all superficial. Victoria loved being Queen, and she loved and trusted her subjects, and she did not at all believe that Oxford's attempt could be anything but an anomaly (although she was to disagree with any mercy shown to him or his successors on the basis of their mental illness). When it was originally suspected that perhaps Oxford's co-conspirators were not products of his delusions, she refused to believe there could be any sort of conspiracy against her. Her subjects were jubilant at the way she displayed her trust; toasts to the Queen were no longer perfunctory, but were accompanied by cheers and applause, the theaters resounded in enthusiastic singing of "God Save the Queen," and people swarmed around the Queen whenever she went out, wishing her well and demonstrating, as Murphy says, how "Victoria successfully (and virtually singlehandedly) converted an act of public discord into a new concord." 

 

 

 

Oxford's attempt was but the first, but none of the attempts were to subdue the Queen's position within her public, and all would simply increase the love and concern of her subjects. There was the attempt which resulted in a manhunt for John Bean, a four-foot-tall hunchback. It was suddenly open season on the hunchbacks of London, an absurd episode of police profiling that resulted, among other things, in a cartoon in Punch, showing constables with their hands full of hunchbacks, including Mr. Punch himself. Robert Francis Pate in 1851 managed to hit Victoria with his cane, leaving a bruise on her head. This was the attempt which most outraged the Queen, the one she thought most mean and ignoble, "far worse," she wrote, "than an attempt to shoot which, wicked as it is, is at least more comprehensible and more courageous." This attack was the one that would have been most likely to imbalance her competing drives between seclusion and her sense of public duty, but it did not have such effect.  

 

 

 

With each of the successive attempts, British rulers and courts tried to do something to prevent another. The charge of high treason was originally the only one that could be brought, but Prime Minister Robert Peel realized that the public notoriety of such a charge might be an appeal for further attempts to be made. He created a new offense that was less attractive, making it a high misdemeanor to disturb the queen, which also eliminated long discussions of whether the gun was loaded or not. Successful prosecution under this new charge would result in transportation for seven years or three years of hard labor, linked with the possibility of being publicly or privately flogged. It was thought that the shame of these punishments would increase their ability to deter. Victoria always felt that if a man bought guns and took up a position from which to shoot, he was capable of premeditation, which showed he could reason, which showed him to be guilty. It was not the way the courts could view the actions of these men, most of whom were distinctly addled. The punishment for an attempted assassin found guilty of the crime might actually be less than he would get if found not guilty by reason of insanity. If determined to be legally insane, the perpetrator might be sent to an asylum for as long as "the Queen's pleasure" should demand. Only in 1883 did Victoria successfully convince her least favorite prime minister, Gladstone, to make a new verdict, "guilty, but insane." It was a contradictory compromise, but "not guilty by reason of insanity" was not restored until 1964. 

 

 

 

That madmen were taking shots at the Queen even prompted some John Bullish self-congratulation. Gladstone proclaimed, in a time when anarchists and dynamitards were making things hot for leaders in other countries, that attacks in those countries came from men of average or above average intelligence, and were prompted by a political cause. But in England, he said, "in the case of Her Majesty, they have been wholly dissociated from grievances, wholly dissociated from discontent, and upon no occasion has any man of average sense and average intelligence been found to raise his hand against the life of Her Majesty." The English way of doing things was that the monarch was too beloved and only the weak-minded could make such attacks. Gladstone might also have used the opportunity not only to comment upon the madness of their minds but upon the weakness of their weapons. Typical of the guns used was a dusty muzzle-loading flintlock acquired for small change in a pawnshop; had any of the assailants held a .44-caliber snub-nosed revolver like the one with which Charles J. Guiteau killed President James A. Garfield in 1881, the outcome could have been quite different. 

 

 

 

Murphy does a wonderful job incorporating these eight assassination attempts into a larger British and world history. He summarizes Garfield's assassination, for instance, and other assassination plots. He remarks on how the attempts on Victoria and the subsequent trials were occasionally overshadowed by other events, such as the sale of Jumbo the elephant to P. T. Barnum (the overshadowing arranged, no doubt, by Barnum himself). He gives extraordinary details, such as a description of "the oddest fashion accessory a British monarch ever owned," a parasol with chain mail in it, designed probably at the behest of Albert to serve as a shield. Best of all, he allows a new admiration for a remarkable woman. Victoria had a fear of public appearances even without assassins lurking around, but she steeled herself to get through them because she understood the importance of popular acclaim. Albert promoted the bond between Victoria and her subjects, and her prime ministers Peel, Russell, Disraeli, Salisbury, and Gladstone all helped to make the monarchy stronger. It is amazing to read that each of her assailants did so, too.

 

 

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