“Damn the queen; why should she be such an expense to the nation?”
John Francis, one of the Queen’s attackers
There is little doubt that most people in this country love Queen Elizabeth or at least are prepared to put up with her and the monarchy she represents. (I’m not so sure about the assorted hangers-on that go with it.)
Many comparisons have been made between Elizabeth and her great-great grandmother Queen Victoria in terms of the longevity of their reign - 64 years for Elizabeth and 63 for Victoria, their influence upon the country - Victoria’s subjects were ‘Victorians’ and we are ‘Elizabethans’ - and the love and respect in which they are held - although to be honest at least eight people did try to assassinate Victoria which is more than can be said for our own Queen. In fact so many attempts were made on Victoria’s life that following the 8th attempt on 2nd March 1882 she philosophically declared… “It is worth being shot at to see how much one is loved.”
The first assassination attempt came in 1840, three years after Victoria came to the throne. She was riding in a phaeton carriage with her husband Albert up Constitution Hill when a young man, Edward Oxford, stepped forward and fired two pistols at the Queen. He was immediately seized by onlookers and disarmed. Oxford made no attempt to hide his actions, openly declaring “It was I, it was me that did it.” He was treated as a madman, and confined to Bedlam Asylum and later Dartmoor Prison. On his release in 1867 he went to Australia where he worked as a house-painter. Oxford always declared that his attack on the Queen was done out of sheer vanity and love of notoriety… a bit like signing up for “Big Brother”.
In 1842 another assassination attempt was made when the Queen was returning from the Chapel Royal in St. James . Victoria’s husband, Prince Albert, saw a man step out and aim a pistol at them which failed to fire. The Queen was convinced that the assassin would try again and she offered herself as bait. As she anticipated the following day the assailant, John Francis “a little, swarthy, ill-looking rascal,” tried again. This time he missed. He was transported to Australia. Victoria noted in her diary… “We felt as if a load had been taken off our hearts, and we thanked the Almighty for having preserved us a second time from so great a danger.”
Five weeks later, on Sunday, the 3rd of July 1842, the Queen, returning from the Chapel Royal with her uncle, King Leopold, was again threatened by a would-be assailant. This time it was a teenager with a twisted spine called John William Bean. His pistol misfired and when examined was found to be loaded with bits of paper and tobacco Bean escaped immediate capture but was arrested that evening when the police started rounding up all teenagers with twisted spines. Mr Bean was sentenced to a term of 18 months imprisonment.
The next attempt on the Queen’s life was in 1849, involving an Irish labourer, William Hamilton, and yet another misfiring pistol. The following year an ex-Army officer named Robert Pate got close enough to the Queen to hit her on the head with his walking stick when she was walking home after visiting an ill relative. No stranger to assault and assassination attempts the Queen commented “It was a sadness that a man would think it acceptable to strike a woman, and that at least those who tried to shoot her showed more courage.” Apparently unruffled Victoria went to the opera that evening, bruised but unbowed.
For the next 20 years or so the Queen enjoyed a less eventful life until 1872 when Arthur O’Connor, a 17 year old Irishman wielding a non-functional pistol demanded that she sign a document which would free the Irish from English rule. Like John Francis before him Arthur O’Connor, was deported to Australia.
The final attack on Victoria’s life came in March 1882, when she was shot at by a disgruntled poet called Roderick McLean as she was traveling in a carriage. Apparently McLean had sent the Queen some poetry for her appraisal. She had dismissed it rather curtly (thanks but no thanks?) and this had upset him. I should add that as well as hating the Queen for her rudeness McLean also hated the number 4. As a compensation he loved the colour blue!
Tried for high treason on April 20 1882, McLean was found “not guilty, but insane” by a jury after five minutes’ deliberation. He lived out his remaining days in Broadmoor Asylum. The verdict prompted the Queen to ask for a change in English law so that those implicated in cases with similar outcomes would be considered as “guilty, but insane.” This led to the Trial of Lunatics Act 1883.
‘ATTEMPTED ASSASSINATION OF THE QUEEN’
by William McGonagall
God prosper long our noble Queen, And long may she reign! Maclean he tried to shoot her, But it was all in vain. For God He turned the ball aside Maclean aimed at her head; And he felt very angry Because he didn't shoot her dead... ...I hope God will protect her By night and by day, At home and abroad, When she's far away. May He be as a hedge around her, As he's been all along, And let her live and die in peace Is the end of my song.
Victoria refused to be dismayed by would-be assassins. She continued to travel in open carriages and refused additional guards. She believed that it was her duty as Queen to be seen in public, as free and unencumbered as any of her subjects. Although poet McGonagall suggested it was “God he turned the ball aside” most of her less frothy subjects thought it was poor marksmanship and incompetent gun handling that saved the Queen’s life. Whatever the reason Victoria faced the attempts on her life with an unrivalled bravery and this gave a huge boost to her popularity.
ATTEMPTED ASSASSINATION OF THE QUEEN
by William McGonagall read by Tom O’Bedlam
– from Martyn Day