How Queen Victoria Survived 8 Assassination Attempts
How Queen Victoria Survived 8 Assassination Attempts

How Queen Victoria Survived 8 Assassination Attempts

Mike Wood - August 12, 2017

Queen Victoria gave her name to the entire era of British history and presided over a period in which Britain moved from a predominantly rural society to the world’s leading industrial nations, from one of several European powers to the single predominant force on Planet Earth.

She was one of the longest reigning monarchs of all time, the second longest serving British royal and indeed, Queen Elizabeth II only overtook her earlier this year. Her long life, however, was hard-fought: few figures in history – OK, Castro – can have endured as many assassination attempts as the “grandmother of Europe” suffered in her 81 years.

Certainly, if there was a golden age of assassination, the late nineteenth century was it. Some of the major royals of the period were killed as radical political movements such as socialism and anarchism, with their visceral hatred of monarchy and the established hierarchy.

Alexander II of Russia – a great friend and dancing partner of Victoria when they were young – was blown up by members of the People’s Will revolutionary group (including Lenin’s brother) while Empress Elisabeth of Austria, with whom she was also friendly, and Umberto I of Italy were both also killed by anarchists.

Queen Victoria, however, survived at least 8 attempts against her life: let us talk you through them.

How Queen Victoria Survived 8 Assassination Attempts
Edward Oxford Attempts to Shoot Queen Victoria. Mike Hogan Books

1 – Edward Oxford, June 10, 1840

The first hit came just four months after Victoria’s wedding to the German Prince Albert. As the Queen and her husband were traveling in the royal carriage through London, Albert noticed what Victoria later described as “a little mean-looking man holding something toward us.”

That man would turn out to be Edward Oxford, a teenage barkeeper. The thing that he was holding was a dueling pistol, which he fired in the direction of Victoria, who was heavily pregnant with her first child, Victoria, the future Empress of Germany. Despite standing within 5 meters of the royals, Oxford managed to miss with his first shot and by the time he got a second away, the Queen was able to duck.

Amazingly, the royal couple continued their trip. “We took a short drive through the park, partly to give Victoria a little air, partly also to show the public that we had not, on account of what had happened, lost all confidence in them” Albert later wrote.

The planning that had gone into the attack was meticulous. Oxford had been living alone for a month – his mother, whom he usually shared the home with, was away visiting relatives – and thus had the whole house to turn over to his scheme. He bought two pistols and began attending a shooting gallery to hone his skills. At the beginning of June, Oxford purchased 50 percussion caps – a vital piece of equipment when firing a Victoria-era gun – from an old school friend, as well as powder for the gun. He later sourced bullets.

Once he had fired at the pregnant Queen, Oxford was immediately jumped upon by bystanders and accosted. He put up no fight, declaring “It was I, it was me that did it.” The police arrested him and searched his residence, finding swords, guns, bullets and the percussion caps that he had recently bought. They also found self-penned political literature regarding a group that, on further investigation, was found to be a fabrication of the assassin’s imagination.

Oxford was charged with treason, but it was to later found not guilty on grounds of insanity., Once he had been declared insane, Oxford was committed to a mental asylum for three years before finding himself, as so many did, transported to the colony of Australia to see out his days.

How Queen Victoria Survived 8 Assassination Attempts
John Francis shoots at Queen Victoria. Contemporary newspaper

2 – John Francis, May 29, 1842

Despite the scare in 1840, Victoria and Albert were not deterred from taking their regular trips through the English capital in their open carriage. Two years later, they would be targeted again while out and about. This time they were en route home from St James’ Palace – a mere half-mile from Buckingham Palace and past what is now the Victoria Memorial – where they had attended their regular Sunday morning church service at the Royal Chapel.

Albert spotted the assailant, John Francis first, later calling him “a little, swarthy, ill-looking rascal”. He stood in the center of The Mall, the wide boulevard that leads to the gates of Buckingham Palace, wielding a small flintlock pistol. “He did nothing more than present it,” recalled George Pearson, a sixteen-year-old bystander, of John Francis’ gun. “He neither drew the trigger nor attempted to fire, or anything – the carriage was four or five yards from him at the time he presented it -this was almost in the middle of the Mall – he presented it as the carriage passed on.”

I do not know whether it was the side on which Her Majesty or Prince Albert sat – he was on the side of the carriage next to the Mall, on the left side of the carriage. When the carriage passed on he returned the pistol to his bosom, and said, “They may take me if they like, I don’t care, I was a fool I did not shoot.” Pearson was not the only person to see the assassin’s failed attempt. An old man, who had also come out to see the Queen’s carriage, also spied Francis and his gun. The two discussed what they had seen and Pearson gave the man his address, confident that he was going to immediately inform the authorities.

John Francis, however, was long gone. He had fled in the direction of Green Park, directly to the north, and he would not be caught. His quest to kill Queen Victoria was, however, far from over.

How Queen Victoria Survived 8 Assassination Attempts
John Francis’ second attempt to kill Queen Victoria. Barrie Charles

3 – John Francis, May 30, 1842

As you might expect, the authorities were swift to begin the manhunt for John Francis. With a potential royal assassin running free on the streets of London, a plan was devised that was designed to flush out Francis.

George Pearson, the man who had spotted the initial attempt, tried to get in touch with the Queen directly to warn her of Francis’ intentions. Pearson and his brother went to the Palace and asked for Charles Augustus Murray, the head of the royal household, but he was unable to meet with them. They resolved to return the next day, but it was to be too late.

Meanwhile, Robert Peel, the Prime Minister, and the head of the London police, Colonel Charles Rowan, met to discuss the safety of the monarch. Unaware of the Pearsons’ accounts, they had only the word of Prince Albert to go on for a description of the shooter, but they were sure that he would attempt to strike again.

Queen Victoria, showing some staunch British stiff upper lip, refused to change her arrangements and wanted to keep up her public appearances. With that in mind, the scheme to find John Francis involved using the Queen herself as bait, traveling slowly around central London in her open carriage in an attempt to draw a second attack and hopefully get the assassin to reveal himself.

“You may imagine that our minds were not very easy,” wrote Albert after the incident in a letter to his father, Ernest III of Saxe-Coburg. “We looked behind every tree, and I cast my eyes round in search of the rascal’s face.”

The plan worked. John Francis did appear again – just five paces from the Queen’s carriage. Again he fired and this time the gun worked, but the bullet missed the monarch. The legions of plain clothes coppers that surrounded the royal vehicle had managed to totally miss their mark and indeed, very highly fortunate that the assailant did too.

In the defense of the police, for reasons of secrecy they had not been given any inklings as to what the man they were looking for had done and thus when John Francis struck, they did not know that they were supposed to be foiling an assassination attempt. John Francis was sentenced to be hung, drawn and quartered for his crime, but his punishment was lessened and instead he found himself swiftly en route to Van Diemen’s Land for life.

How Queen Victoria Survived 8 Assassination Attempts
Contemporary Reportage on John William Bean’s assassination attempt. Shooting Victoria

4 – John William Bean, July 3, 1842

Victoria’s clemency would not be rewarded. It had been suspected that the lack of a death sentence for Edward Oxford had encouraged John Francis and indeed, the reduced sentence granted to Francis would be one of the inspirations for the next attacker.

Just a month and change later, the Queen and Prince Albert would again be shot at while in their carriage by a man called John. This man, John William Bean, even attacked at the same time of the week as John Francis, shooting at the carriage as it made its slow progress along The Mall from St James’ Palace royal chapel to Buckingham Palace after Sunday service.

The twist with Bean was that he was easily identifiable to police: he was hunchbacked and around four feet tall. He burrowed through the crowds that lined the street and took his chance, taking aim at the monarch from close range. Like Francis, however, his pistol failed to fire and, despite the efforts of bystanders, he made off into the city.

The London police managed to round up just about every hunchback in the city before Bean was discovered. He would claim that he never had shot at the Queen, but instead at the floor, in an attempt to get himself arrested. Knowing that Francis and Oxford had avoided execution had led the severely depressed Bean to enact a significant upheaval in his own life. That was certainly true: he spent the next year and a half in prison.

Bean’s subsequent life was as marked with tragedy and sadness after his assassination non-attempt as it had been beforehand. He was just 17 and a half years old when he turned his gun on the Queen (or on the floor, depending on who you believe) and despite living until his late fifties, he never particularly removed himself from his depression.

Census records show that he was at times a newspaper seller and a gold-chaser – the contemporary term for a metal embosser – and was married twice, as well as spending more time in an insane asylum in the 1870s. Bean killed himself in 1882. He drank opium poison in his bed aged 58, leaving behind a note that explained that he “was an incumbrance to his wife” and “was only too glad to die”.

How Queen Victoria Survived 8 Assassination Attempts
William Hamilton shoots at the Queen. Barrie Charles

5 – William Hamilton, June 19, 1849

The fifth attempt would come some eight years later, but like our first four failed assassins, would take place within mere yards of the Queen’s residence. On her official birthday – British royals celebrate their real birthday and an “official birthday” that is held in the summer months – Victoria was again shot at as she drove in an open carriage through central London.

The shooter this time was an unemployed Irishman, William Hamilton, and again, he was motivated by a desire to get himself arrested and find himself in prison. Life on the streets in 1840s London was hard and many would starve. Knowing the pain of hunger – Hamilton had moved to the capital from Famine-ravaged Ireland two years previously, one of more than a million to emigrate as a result of the Potato Blight – he wished to be arrested and saw that shooting at the Queen could achieve that goal. If it worked for a four-foot-tall hunchback, it could work for a jobless Irishman.

His assassination attempt was fairly poor: he unleashed his shot as the carriage drove through Green Park, missed and was tackled to the floor by the park’s greenkeeper. There was no bullet in the gun, as he had no intention of killing the Queen. He got his wish, however: he was sent to Gibraltar for seven years of hard labor.

Hamilton was just one of over a million Irishmen who had moved from Ireland to Britain as a result of the Great Hunger of the late 1840s. A million died on the island and a further million emigrated, many to the United States but the majority to the British mainland. Of those who left, plenty felt a serious resentment towards the British establishment, who had continued to export food from Ireland while the native population starved to death.

As the head of that establishment, Queen Victoria came in for severe personal criticism. She was known as “the Famine Queen” and despite her donating £2,000 to famine relief at the time, she later turned down a £10,000 donation from the Ottoman Sultan (lest she be shamed that she had not given more) and subsequently spent £5,000 on just one dinner on her 1849 trip to Ireland.

How Queen Victoria Survived 8 Assassination Attempts
Robert Pate. Shooting Victoria

6 – Robert Pate, June 27, 1850

Another assassin, same location. It must have been impossible to move for potential regicides in Green Park during the early years of Victoria’s reign. Robert Pate, however, was in no danger of slipping away quietly as John Francis had done. Like Edward Oxford, he was severely mentally ill, but Pate was well known for his manias: a former military man, he would march around the park as if goose-stepping through drills, often drawing a crowd.

Once, while wandering through London, he came across a large gathering that had formed outside Cambridge House, one of the townhouses that housed members of the Royal Family, half a mile from Buckingham Palace. Victoria was there with some of her children to visit a sick relative, the Duke of Cambridge, from which the house derived its name.

Chancing upon the Queen, Pate was in the right place at the right time as her carriage stopped outside the house. When Victoria stepped out of the vehicle, he struck her across the head with his cane. Fortunately for the monarch, the cane was not heavy, but Pate remains the only assassin to actually injure Victoria. She received a black eye and a bruised head but was otherwise unhurt. As for Pate: he went the way of many of the other assassins: transported to Australia.

The practice of transporting prisoners to Australia was common during the early period of Queen Victoria’s reign. Transporting convicts was far from a new practice – penal transportation had been an active punishment in the United Kingdom since the days of the American colonies – but Australia was the ideal location for fit, able men whom the British wanted to get out of the way. Once convicts had served their sentence, they were allowed to restart life in Australia as free men, though being an ex-convict held a major social stigma.

The First Fleet, now mythical in Australian history, carried over a thousand convicts and landed at Botany Bay in modern Sydney on January 20, 1788. By 1850, anti-transportation campaigns were strong and by 1853, the colonies of Tasmania and New South Wales. Indeed, Robert Pate was among the last convicts to be transported to Van Diemen’s Land, as Tasmania was then known, arriving in 1850. He was freed in 1851 and continued to live in Hobart until 1860 before returning to London.

How Queen Victoria Survived 8 Assassination Attempts
Arthur O’Connor’s assassination attempt. Getty Images

7 – Arthur O’Connor, February 29, 1872

February 29, 1872, was an unusual day, and not just because it was a leap day. Again in the central London vicinity of Buckingham Palace, Victoria was attacked by Arthur O’Connor, a teenage revolutionary.

O’Connor was a man who was almost an amalgam of Victoria’s previous attackers. Like Edward Oxford, he was a teenager, just 17 years old. Like Francis, he was armed with a flintlock pistol, which failed to discharge correctly. Like William Hamilton, he was an Irishman who resented the role that the Queen had played in the devastating famine in his homeland. Like Bean, he claimed not to actually want to kill the Queen, but instead to scare her into releasing political prisoners. Like Pate, he would be tackled and stopped, in this case by the Queen’s batman John Brown, who received a medal for his efforts. And like most of them, he found himself on a one-way trip to Australia, not before he’d had a few lashes for his troubles.

Arthur O’Connor’s case, however, was almost stranger than any of the other would-be assassins. He was mentally ill, as many were, but his illness manifested itself in a markedly different form. He was from a long line of famous Irish radicals: his great-grandfather, also Arthur O’Connor, was a leader of the United Irishmen rebellion of 1798 and an ally of Napoleon, while his great uncle, Francis Burnett O’Connor, had fought with Simon Bolivar in his campaigns to liberate South America from the Spanish. Another great uncle, Feargus O’Connor, was a leading Chartist reformer known as the “Lion of Freedom”. It was in these shadows that the young Arthur walked.

O’Connor was afflicted by serious delusions of grandeur. He seemed convinced that, when he made contact with the Queen, that she would be taken by him and accede to his demands. Even after his whipping and transportation, he continued to try to contact Queen Victoria, writing long letters to her explaining his actions and goals – including that she would make him Poet Laureate ahead of the incumbent of the time, Alfred Tennyson.

Unsurprisingly, O’Connor’s travails did not end once he was released in Australia. He was continually institutionalized in Sydney and would spend most of his remaining days in insane asylums, usually under the symptom of what the Victorians called “self-abuse” – that is to say, masturbation.

How Queen Victoria Survived 8 Assassination Attempts

8 – Roderick Maclean, March 2, 1882

Victoria’s last would be assassin would be the only one to attack outside of London. The Queen was en route to Windsor Castle, the traditional home of the monarch outside of London for almost a thousand years and the longest continuously occupied palace in Europe.

Bordering Windsor Castle is the town of Windsor, home to Eton College, arguably the most prestigious school in the world. Certainly, it was in 1882. As the royal train arrived at Windsor railway station and Queen Victoria moved from the locomotive to her carriage, she was greeted by a crowd of boys from the school.

She later wrote of the incident: “At the same time, there was the sound of what I thought was an explosion from the engine, but in another moment, I saw people rushing about and a man being violently hustled, rushing down the street.”

That man was Roderick Maclean, a mentally ill man who had fired at the Queen. In the commotion, a group of Eton boys had beaten him with their umbrellas and subdued him, whereupon he was arrested. The Guardian newspaper’s report of the time named the “brave, stalwart boys” as two Etonians called Wilson and Robinson, and said that they were “by hustling the would-be regicide, of saving the life of the Queen, met with a tremendous ovation of applause from their college chums when they returned to Eton last night.”

Maclean is thought to have decided to attack the Queen based on her lack of respect for the poetry that he had sent her. His verses had been met with no reply from Victoria herself and instead of a short, rude note from one of her courtesans, prompting the rejected wordsmith to plan his attack. Needless to say, Maclean was insane: he also was obsessed with the color blue, assuming that those who wore the color were doing so purposefully to rile him.

It did not take long for a jury to decide what to do with him once he had been brought to trial. In just a handful of minutes, they declared Maclean insane and sent to an asylum. He would die in Broadmoor, Britain’s most famous insane asylum, in 1921. An interesting footnote to Victoria’s final would-be assassin is that his attack provoked a change in law that has remained in effect until the 1960s. The Trial of Lunatics Act of 1883 was passed in response to the repeated attacks on the life of the Queen and changed the legal status from “not guilty, on grounds of insanity” to “guilty, but insane”, a subtle alteration designed to enhance the stigma on the attacker.