When you think of the Victorian era, you often think of Dickensian London, with its back-alleys, opium dens, brothels, corrupt aristocrats and shady characters. Perhaps there is some truth in this perception, Dickens being a social commentator of the age; this image is also reflected in the fact that Queen Victoria survived seven assassination attempts.
Over the course of her 63-year reign, Victoria was targeted numerous times, despite her popularity. The first attempt came at age 21, just three years after Victoria ascended the throne following the death of her uncle, William IV. Thankfully, no attempt ever succeeded, enabling Victoria to become the longest serving Monarch of Britain. She survived the most assassination attempts in over 3 centuries: the last monarch to face such a slew of attacks was George III in 1800, when he was attacked twice in the same day!
1. The first attempt on Victoria’s life came in June 1840, by a young man called Edward Oxford. It was an early evening as the Queen rode in a phaeton (an open and low set carriage) down Constitution Hill as she did most days, with her beloved husband, Albert.
Oxford, a boy of 17 or 18 whom Prince Albert described in his diary as a ‘little mean-looking man’, drew two pistols and fired twice at the Queen, four months pregnant at this point. Both shots missed; Albert grabbed his wife’s hands and asked ‘if the fright had not shaken her, but she laughed’ wrote Albert in his diaries. It is unclear whether the guns were in fact, loaded; Oxford claims they were, but later said they contained only gunpowder, and no bullet.
Oxford admitted the attack after being seized by onlookers and charged with high-treason but was found to be insane by doctors. The insanity plea was supported by his mother’s testimony which claimed Edward had been fascinated by guns since he was a child. Oxford was committed to a mental hospital, and later Broadmoor, where he claimed his only motive for the attack was notoriety.
After riding on to explain the incident to her over-protective mother, The Duchess of Kent, Victoria and Albert returned to Hyde Park escorted by a large detail of riders from Rotten Row stables at the park, and greeted cheering crowds. Victoria smiled and bowed to the crowds, albeit a little pale. The young Queen kept face until she reached her bedroom at Buckingham Palace – where she burst into tears. Naturally concerned for her safety, the 21-year-old monarch held a similarly large security detail, made up of volunteers, to escort her from Hyde Park to Buckingham Palace for a few days after.
In gratitude for her survival, and return without injury, both Houses of Parliament attended the Palace in full dress; they were received by Victoria on her throne, where they presented an address of congratulations.
2. John Francis was Victoria’s next would-be assailant. Albert described the attacker as a ‘little, swarthy, ill-looking rascal’ after the attack in 1842. Once again, it was on Constitution Hill, but the first time, Francis did not fire. Prince Albert saw the pistol under Francis’ coat, but the carriage continued.
It was not until a youth came to visit the Palace to explain that he too, had seen a man with a gun, that action was taken. The couple bravely decided to ride the same route the next day, to try and flush out the criminal.
Francis almost succeeded, says a source, as one of the police officers who was part of the mission to catch Francis faced a moral dilemma. He either turned and faced his Queen to salute or ignore Her Majesty and apprehend the criminal. Francis, 20 years old, this time pulled the trigger and narrowly missed, as the policeman decided to salute Victoria. He was caught, and the coup had worked without injury to the Queen – but only just!
It was this attack that saw the Treason Act of 1842 pass through Parliament. Lesser crimes against the Monarch meant prison, and attempts on her life carried lesser sentences so as to reduce the notoriety of the act, since the identities of the assassins were publicised, leading to their fame. Francis was sentenced to death, but the sentence was commuted to transportation for life.
3. John Bean became the third to make an attempt on The Queen’s life, just a month after Francis. Victoria was returning from the Chapel Royal at St James’ Palace, with Albert and King Leopold of Belgium, when a hunchback little person fired a gun filled with bits of a clay pipe and paper. The shot mis-fired, but a teen-onlooker grabbed the deformed Bean, and dragged him to Police for his arrest. The officers laughed at the Good Samaritan, and Bean slipped away, evading capture for a fortnight.
Victoria was not hurt, as in the previous cases. It took the Police rounding up all hunchbacks that fitted Bean’s description to arrest him eventually. John Bean received a sentence of 18 months in jail, on the basis that the paper could have set The Queen’s dress alight.
4. William Hamilton takes the position as the fourth attempted-assassin. The attempt came seven years after the last – 21st May 1849, during celebrations for the Monarch’s birthday. Victoria was, once again, riding in her carriage on Constitution Hill, but this time, her children Alice, Alfred and Helena were to bear witness to the attack on their mother.
After the blank was fired, Victoria remained composed, and told her driver to carry on; she then diverted the attention of her young children, and reassured them. Prince Albert was present, but riding ahead of the carriage.
No bullet was loaded in Hamilton’s gun, showing his intent was not to hurt; the culprit was a destitute Irishman, and saw prison as a better alternative to life as a free man, as often was the case for many a beggar of the Victorian age. Hamilton received seven years transportation, charged with High Misdemeanour of assaulting The Queen, under the 1842 Treason Act, which lessened the crime to avoid fame-hunters taking such a path.