In June 1840, when Victoria was pregnant but had no living children, the succession would have passed to Ernest, her widely-loathed eldest uncle. I can’t help but wonder, then, whether, hearing of the news of the failed attempt, Ernest thanked God – or cursed.
At about 4 p.m. on 10 June 1840, a young man took up a position on a footpath at Constitution Hill, near Buckingham Palace. He had with him a pair of poor quality pistols. Two hours later a young couple drew alongside seated in an open carriage. It was the moment Edward Oxford had been waiting for. He discharged his firearms but missed both the young (and pregnant) Queen Victoria as well as her Consort Prince Albert.
What could have proved a national calamity instead became a public relations coup, helping Victoria and Albert reshape the monarchy and its role.
Oxford became the first of a surprisingly long line of assailants who took pot shots at Britain’s second-longest reigning monarch. Each was an eclectic mix of poverty, grandiosity, and mental disorder. For the first time, author Paul Thomas Murphy has drawn together the threads of each case – criminal, medical, and political – into a single narrative. The result is an ever-shifting landscape portrait of Victoria and the age to which she gave her name.
Paul Thomas Murphy is the author of Shooting Victoria, a 2012 New York Times notable book. He holds advanced degrees in Victorian Studies from Oxford and McGill Universities and the University of Colorado, where he taught both English and writing on interdisciplinary topics. He currently resides in Boulder, Colorado.
Shooting Victoria (published by Head of Zeus (January 2013) To find out more click here.
Why Victoria and her assailants?
I strongly believe that one of the most effective ways to gain insight into a culture is to focus upon its episodes of extreme cultural collision. And few episodes of cultural collision in Victoria’s reign were more extreme, in terms of social, political, legal, and gender conflict, than these eight attempts by the Queen’s seven assailants. More than this, these attempts occurred throughout Victoria’s reign—the first occurring when she was twenty-one, newly married and newly pregnant, and the last when she was sixty-one and a great-grandmother.
By focusing on all of the attempts, therefore, I am able present a portrait of the era from an entirely new perspective – a sweeping depiction portrayal both of the endlessly fascinating Victoria, Queen and Empress, and of some of the darker aspects of her age in the stories of the seven malcontents who bedeviled her.
Seven boys and men attempted attacks on Queen Victoria between 1840 and 1882. What, if anything, did they have in common?
Every single one of them was an outsider, removed from society for a variety of reasons: two identified themselves as Irish, one suffered a painful and discernible physical disability, and several clearly suffered from mental impairment. More than this, with one possible exception each of them had an aching desire to be somebody: a desire to force themselves upon the collective consciousness of Britain and of the world through one dramatic act that at least temporarily placed them on a level with Victoria, the ultimate insider of the time.
The one possible exception—the one who apparently had no desire to be somebody — was the fourth assailant, the Irishman William Hamilton, who in 1849 made his attempt in order to trade his free but impoverished life for the social security of a long stint in prison. He got exactly what he wanted.
The first assailant was Edward Oxford, who had a uniform, military rules of conduct and a manifesto for a revolutionary organisation called Young England – of which he was the only member. Did you ever find yourself wondering if there was more to Oxford’s assault, the autocratic hand of Victoria’s reactionary uncle Ernest Augustus I of Hanover for instance?
That is certainly what Edward Oxford wanted the world to think, and he succeeded—for a few days, at least. And even when it became abundantly clear to the police and to the government that Young England was entirely a figment of Oxford’s fertile imagination, some people—Irish nationalist and politician Daniel O’Connell, for instance—continued to believe that dark and reactionary forces were at work behind Oxford’s attempt. Clearly, Oxford was not a pawn in a right-wing conspiracy, vast or otherwise. But it is equally clear that in inventing his backstory he was influenced by extreme political currents of the time. And although Victoria’s uncle Ernest was certainly innocent of any direct involvement in Oxford’s crime, he certainly would have profited by it: had Oxford succeeded: in June 1840, when Victoria was pregnant but had no living children, the succession would have passed to Ernest, her widely-loathed eldest uncle. I can’t help but wonder, then, whether, hearing of the news of the failed attempt, Ernest thanked God – or cursed Oxford.
The key statesmen of Victoria’s reign appear through the course of the narrative, from Wellington via Peel to Gladstone and Disraeli. What light do the attempts throw on them and their policies?
All of these men were, in the fullest sense of the term, ministers to Queen Victoria, and after every attempt, each one was caught up not simply in protecting the Queen, but in protecting, in redefining, and in promoting the institution of monarchy. In the wake of Oxford’s attempt Lord Melbourne, Victoria’s first Prime Minister, successfully fought for an act to make Prince Albert regent in the case of Victoria’s death. After the two attempts of Victoria’s second assailant John Francis, her second Prime Minister Robert Peel devoted himself to strengthening her security and the security of the monarchy, and when a month later John William Bean made his attempt, Peel is said to have wept openly in Victoria’s presence.
Of all of Victoria’s Prime Ministers, however, the one who did the most not simply to protect Victoria, but to rehabilitate and promote the institution of the monarchy, was —surprisingly enough— William Gladstone. It’s worth remembering that Victoria’s fifth assailant, Arthur O’Connor, had originally planned to attack the Queen during a Thanksgiving service at Westminster Abbey to celebrate the recovery of the Prince of Wales from Typhoid Fever. Gladstone had planned that Thanksgiving service meticulously as a way to force the Queen back into public life after her ten years’ seclusion and abandonment of her responsibilities after the death of Prince Albert. And though Victoria fought him, Gladstone succeeded magnificently. Of Victoria’s Prime Ministers, Benjamin Disraeli is usually the one seen as the unabashed proponent of the modern monarchy. But I would argue that Gladstone more than Disraeli deserves credit for shaping a monarchy that has endured to this day.
You write about the assassination of US President James Garfield, but not that of Lincoln. How come?
Timing, for one thing. Lincoln’s assassination, as it happens, occurred fifteen years after the fifth assault upon Victoria, and six years before the sixth. Garfield’s, on the other hand, occurred just a year before the seventh assault. So did the assassination of Tsar Alexander II. Those two assassinations demonstrate the specific threats facing Victoria in 1882: an assault by a madman, or an attack by political terrorists. Garfield’s attempt is therefore more directly a part of the story.
Saying that, Victoria’s response to Lincoln’s death does provide true insight into Victoria’s state of mind in 1865. Last April 15th — the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s assassination — I republished in my blog Victoria’s heartfelt letter to Mary Todd Lincoln. “I cannot remain silent when so terrible a calamity has fallen upon you & your Country,” she wrote Lincoln’s widow. But Victoria showed her greatest sympathy not for the great loss to the United States, but in Mary Todd Lincoln’s sudden and devastating loss of her husband, so similar to Victoria’s own loss of Albert four years before: “No one can better appreciate than I can, who am myself utterly broken-hearted by the loss of my own beloved Husband, who was the Light of my Life, — my Stay — my all, — what your sufferings must be.”
What’s the most interesting place you’ve been in your search for Victoria’s assailants? Is there anything left to see outside the Public Records Office?
There is much to see outside the PRO. There’s the neighbourhood in Southwark where Edward Oxford lived before his attempt, and nearby Bethlehem Hospital (now the Imperial War Museum) where he was sent afterwards; there’s the Round Tower at Windsor, where Victoria’s letters and journals are archived. There’s the Museum of London, which contains, deep in its archives, a chain mail parasol created for Victoria’s protection. And then there’s Constitution Hill itself, the site of three of the attempts. But of all the places I’ve been to in researching Shooting Victoria, the oddest and the most evocative has got to be the apartment of assailant #5, Robert Pate. Pate, Victoria’s only wealthy assailant, lived in luxury on Piccadilly, four floors above what was then, and is now, Fortnum and Mason’s world-renowned shop.
Since Pate’s day, Fortnum and Mason has expanded upwards, and today—oddly appropriately—what was in 1850 Pate’s apartment is now the men’s furnishings department of that store. I visited the store as I was completing my research. By ignoring the ties, the belts, the hairbrushes and shaving kits, and by focusing on the views out the window onto the neighborhood of St James — views that Pate surely would have recognized — I never felt more as if I was seeing the world through one of Victoria’s assailants’ eyes.
Did you interview or encounter any of the descendants of any of the assailants?
I have had the pleasure of speaking with a descendant of Edward Oxford’s family—specifically a descendant of his grandparents and one of his many uncles. Interestingly, that particular uncle emigrated to India after Oxford’s attempt, and generations of Oxfords have lived in India since then. I also engaged in a fascinating correspondence with the descendant of a participant in the 1842 attempt of assailant #2, John Francis — a descendant of PC William Trounce, the officer who seized Francis after he shot at Victoria on Constitution Hill. Trounce’s act—admittedly embellished by the family with time — has become a central episode in the Trounce family mythology.
Who was the most fortunate of Victoria’s assailants and who was the least?
The most fortunate has to have been Robert Pate, poster child for the great benefits of Victorian penal sentence of transportation. Pate, in spite of his father’s great wealth and his own privileged lifestyle, was a miserable man when he smacked Victoria with his cane in 1850: solitary and desolate, suffering from debilitating mental illness. He was tried and sentenced to seven years’ hard labour in Van Diemen’s Land, and that sentence, remarkably enough, seems to have prompted something like a miracle cure: before his sentence expired he married, and for years he lived the life of a proper Hobart gentleman. When his father died Pate inherited his estate and returned to England, living by all accounts a full, stable, and happy life.
The least fortunate? That’s more difficult to say. Is it #3, John William Bean? After his short but humiliating imprisonment Bean lived a long life of alienation, depression and disability, before finally killing himself with an overdose of opium in 1882. Or is it #6, Arthur O’Connor, or #7, Roderick Maclean? Both struggled with mental illness for most of their lives, and after their attempts both suffered decades of depressing confinement, O’Connor in a series of asylums in New South Wales, Australia, and Maclean in dreary Broadmoor. Both died in confinement in the 1920s.
Shooting Victoria was your first book. What’s next?
I’ve just completed another narrative of extreme cultural collision, but this time dealing with a more limited social sphere, and focusing upon a lesser-known heroine than Queen Victoria. Pretty Jane and the Viper of Kidbrooke Lane—the title taken from a penny dreadful written soon afterwards—concerns the murder in 1871 London of Jane Clouson, a seventeen-year-old maid-of-all-work. The narrative follows the police investigation of the crime and, with the arrest for murder of Jane’s young master, the remarkable legal odyssey that ensued. While Victoria’s fame will never die, and while Jane Clouson has (until now) been forgotten, I believe that the story of this young servant can reveal as much about the Victorian age as did that of the woman who gave it its name. Pretty Jane and the Viper of Kidbrooke Lane is slated for release next April.
What should be playing on the stereo when we’re reading Shooting Victoria?
I suppose the obvious answer to this would be—something by Elgar: anything by Elgar. But I would recommend something else. At the beginning of Shooting Victoria, I provided two epigraphs. The first was written by Victoria after the final attempt in 1882: “It is worth being shot at to see how much one is loved.” The second is more recent, from 1976: “Don’t know what I want, but I know how to get it.” Nothing I’ve read more succinctly and accurately captures the mindset of the seven who bedeviled the Queen: their angst, their undefined and undefinable longing to lash out for something—for anything—different than the world they discontentedly inhabited. What did they have in common? That’s what they had in common. The author of that quote is John Lydon; it’s a line, of course, from the Sex Pistols’ Anarchy in the UK. And to get into the spirit of Shooting Victoria, you could do far worse than accompany your reading with a good cranking out of Never Mind the Bollocks – perhaps balanced with the occasional Elgar track?