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

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.