Tuesday, August 02, 2011

To Kill the Queen

During Victoria's long reign there were seven "incidents" which might be considered assassination attempts.  In reality, most of these were clearly not serious attempts on her life.  Rather they appear to have been aimed at bringing either an individual or a cause into public prominence.  The first attempt took place on the early evening of 10 June 1840.

Edward Oxford attempts to kill the Queen

It must have been a terrible and frightening occasion when 18-year-old Edward Oxford attempted to kill the four months pregnant, 21 year old, Queen while she was riding in an open carriage with Prince Albert. Oxford fired twice, but either he missed or the guns were loaded with powder but without bullets.

Victoria was not so naive as to be unaware that there was a deep well of discontent and disaffection amongst her subjects.  Her marriage to Albert had not met with universal favour and her personal popularity had been eroded by the Flora Hastings affair.

Lady Flora Hastings

Lady Flora Elizabeth Rawdon-Hastings was lady-in-waiting to Queen Victoria's mother, the Duchess of Kent.  When Flora noticed swelling and pain in her abdomen she visited the Queen's physician, Sir James Clark.  But when she refused an internal examination, he concluded that she was pregnant. Rumours abounded that the alleged father was John Conroy, a favorite and possible lover of the Queen's mother, the Duchess of Kent.  Victoria despised Conroy and, for this reason, was probably more easily convinced of Lady Flora's pregnancy.

In the end, after a physical examination, it was established that the cause of the swelling was not pregnancy but a cancerous tumour on Flora's liver.  She died in July of 1839, only thirty-three years of age. Conroy and Flora's brother, Lord Hastings, launched a virulent campaign which did nothing to enhance the popularity of the Queen.

But immediately after the assassination attempt, as Charles Greville notes in his memoirs, The Queen "appeared perfectly cool, and not the least alarmed." After visiting her mother to tell her of the event, "she continued her drive."

By this time the attempt upon her life had become generally known, and she was received with the utmost enthusiasm by the immense crowd that was congregated in carriages, on horseback, and on foot. All the equestrians formed themselves into an escort, and attended her back to the Palace, cheering vehemently, while she acknowledged, with great appearance of feeling, these loyal manifestations. She behaved on this occasion with perfect courage and self-possession, and exceeding propriety; and the assembled multitude, being a high-class mob, evinced a lively and spontaneous feeling for her—a depth of interest which, however natural under such circumstances, must be very gratifying to her, and was satisfactory to witness.

Oxford was tried for high treason and found guilty, but was acquitted on the grounds of insanity. In the immediate aftermath of the attack, Victoria's popularity soared, mitigating residual discontent over the Hastings affair and the bedchamber crisis. The government, too, rallied with the Foreign Secretary, Viscount Palmerston writing to the Queen the day after the event to congratulate her on her escape and to "express the horror with which he heard of the diabolical attempt and the deep thankfulness which he feels at your Majesty's providential preservation." The Prime Minister wrote to the Queen to express his feelings, calling it "a most awful and providential escape,"  going on to add that it was "impossible not to shudder at the thought of it."  Her beloved Uncle Leopold, King of the Belgians, suggested that one would think that Victoria, "being a lady would alone prevent such unmanly conduct," but he goes on to blame it, at least in part, on the press and the influence of the French! 

Just under two years after Oxford's attempt on her life, On 29 May 1842, Victoria was riding in a carriage, returning from chapel, when, as she reports,"Albert was observing how civil the people were, and then suddenly turned to me and said it appeared to him as though a man had held out a pistol to the carriage, and that it had hung fire."

The assailant was John Francis.

John Francis fires on the Queen

The following day, Victoria drove the same route, though faster and with a greater escort, in a deliberate attempt to provoke Francis to take a second aim and catch him in the act.  Greville thought that it "was very brave, but imprudent," and that "it would have been better to ... have let the police look for the man." As expected, Francis shot at her, but he was seized by plain clothes policemen, and convicted of high treason. Musing on the matter Greville commented that

it is certainly very extraordinary, for there is no semblance of insanity in the assassin, and no apparent motive or reason for the crime.  The young Queen, who is an object of interest, and has made no enemies has twice had attempts made on her life within two years.

and the Queen dismissed him, in a letter to her uncle, as mauvais sujet.

On 3 July, two days after Francis' death sentence was commuted to transportation for life, John William Bean also fired a pistol at the Queen.  Despite some feeling that the granting of mercy to Francis might have encouraged Bean, Lord Melbourne, writing to Her Majesty, disagreed.

Lord Melbourne is not of opinion that the extension of mercy to Francis which from what Lord Melbourne hears of the opinion of the judges he apprehends to have been unavoidable could have had any effect in encouraging this man to a similar act ; at the same time it is impossible to say what may have had an effect upon the mind, and we can only collect the intentions of men from the deeds which they perform.

According to The Times' report of Bean's trial, the pistol was only loaded with paper, a bit of gravel and a small piece of pipe. In passing sentence, the court told Bean,

 you have been convicted by a jury of your country of an attempt to harass, vex, and grieve your Sovereign, her Majesty the Queen, and to create alarm amongst, and to disturb the peace of, Her Majesty's faithful subjects, by presenting a pistol loaded with powder and wadding at the carriage in which she was seated, and with attempting to cause that pistol to explode.

Bean was sentenced to 18 months in jail.

Melbourne, always aware of the failings he perceived in the lower and labouring classes,  saw the attacks as "evidence of the ease with which persons of the lower orders can incite themselves, or be incited by others to the contemplation and commission of such acts."

Perhaps public response to the attempts was enough to cause them to stop, at least for a few years, for it was not until 1849 that another attack was made on the life of the Queen and that was to be followed by a fifth attempt only a year later.

To read a contemporary account, in The Illustrated London News, of John Francis' attempt on the life of the Queen, click here.

(To be continued)


Hels said...

Welcome home, Bruce :)

This is an interesting sentence. "Melbourne, always aware of the failings he perceived in the lower and labouring classes, saw the attacks as evidence of the ease with which persons of the lower orders can incite themselves, or be incited by others to the contemplation and commission of such acts."

Blaming the excitable working class suggested that regicide wasn't seen as a well thought out response to a major political or religious discontent. Not very insightful, was he?

Hermes said...

Fascinating, thanks. I wont say, pity they're aim was so poor but I might think it!

Lynn said...

Any info on an assassination attempt occurring in 1859? My great great grandfather's obituary says he was "a soldier under Queen Victoria and was a member of her bodyguard! riding in her coach when she was shot at in 1859." Trying to find out if this is actually true. His name was John J. Carley or Mac Carley of Dundee! Scotland.

Dr Bruce Rosen said...

Hello Lynn

As far as I have been able to ascertain there was no attempt on the Queen's life in 1859. It is possible there was a minor disruption to one of her journeys, but certainly nothing as serious as an assassination attempt.

Anonymous said...

Good collection