The Hazards of Monarchy
William Shakespeare put the words “Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown” into the mouth of Henry IV. Henry would know because he became King of England by having his predecessor, Richard II, bumped off.
The reigns of several other British monarchs were terminated by murder—Edward II, Henry VI, Edward V. But Queen Victoria holds the dubious record of being the target of more assassination attempts than any other royal from the United Kingdom.
Monarchs as Targets
Queen Victoria survived to become Britain’s longest-serving monarch until Queen Elizabeth II broke her record of 63 years on the throne in September 2015. Elizabeth went on to set a new benchmark of 72 years and 110 days as monarch.
Elizabeth had a couple of close calls but she was way behind her great-great grandmother in attempts on her life. In 2009, a plot to blow up her royal train during a tour of Australia in 1970 was revealed; or at least so claimed a retired senior police officer.
In 1954, while in Belfast, Northern Ireland, a bomb exploded near the young queen. A quarter of a century later, Queen Elizabeth was riding in a procession in London when a young man fired blanks from a replica gun as she passed by.
Marcus Serjeant, who pulled the trigger, is quoted by the BBC as saying “I wanted to be famous. I wanted to be a somebody.”
Queen Victoria was almost the victim of several other people who wanted to make a name for themselves.
The Craving for Fame
Just as with Marcus Serjeant, Edward Oxford wanted the notoriety that would come his way from killing Queen Victoria. On the evening of June 10, 1840, he set up his post on Constitution Hill in London and waited for Queen Victoria and Prince Albert to pass in a carriage.
A file on Edward Oxford held in The Berkshire Record Office (BRO) relates that “When they drew level with him, he fired two shots in succession from separate pistols at the queen.”
Oxford was a poor marksman and both shots missed, although the incident was played more dramatically in the 2009 movie Young Victoria. Once the scriptwriters got hold of the story they had Prince Albert throwing his body over his wife to protect her and stopping a bullet in the process.
Edward Oxford claimed he only had gunpowder in his weapon and it has never been confirmed there were actual bullets in the chambers.
Charged with treason, Oxford was probably heading for the gallows until his family told the court he had always “seemed of unsound mind and that both his grandfather and father had exhibited signs of mental illness … ”
The verdict was not guilty by reason of insanity. BRO notes “He received the sentence of all such lunatics—to be detained until Her Majesty’s pleasure be known.” The queen’s pleasure became known 25 years later, and Edward Oxford was deported to Australia where he died in 1900.
Two Years Later; Two More Attempts
John Francis may have been motivated by the same urge as Oxford and Serjeant. On May 29, 1842 he opened fire on the young queen in St. James’s Park; a biography of the queen makes the suggestion the attack was about notoriety.
This was Francis’s second attempt; the day before he had what amounted to a dry run by aiming his weapon but not firing. He escaped but police were anxious to capture him. So they staged another carriage ride for the queen the following day and this time they caught him in the act. Francis’s aim was off and his action brought him a lifelong sentence in a penal colony.
Perhaps, John William Bean was yet another status seeker. Only a month had passed since Francis's clumsy failed assassination when Bean had a go. He fired a pistol at Queen Victoria but, instead of loading it with a bullet, he stuffed the barrel with tobacco and paper. He got off with not much more than a rap on the knuckles; 18 months in prison.
Irishman William Hamilton tried the same stunt in 1849—an assassination without the use of a bullet. He filled his pistol only with powder and got a seven-year sentence to a penal colony for his trouble.
Finally, Blood Is Drawn
In June 1850, ex-army officer Robert Pate tried a new tactic. He approached Victoria’s carriage and whacked the monarch on the head with a walking cane. Fortunately, the queen’s bonnet took most of the blow, but there was a little blood.
Some years later, the cane came up for sale and The New York Times reported (January 1899) that the attack caused “a wound upon her Majesty the scar of which she still carries.”
Pate was also judged to be off his rocker and was bundled off to a penal colony that was by now filling up with inept assassins.
Irish Threaten Queen Victoria
The guns and cudgels were put away for a couple of decades but then, a disgruntled Irishmen, decided to try to take out the queen.
In February 1872, she was leaving Buckingham Palace in her carriage when, as Christopher Hibbert writes in The Mail on Sunday, “A 17-year-old youth, Arthur O’Connor, waved a pistol at her, demanding the release of Fenian prisoners—revolutionaries fighting for an independent Ireland.”
Again, Hibbert proved to be another half-hearted attacker because he didn’t fire his weapon on account of its not being loaded. Off to the colonies with him.
A Last Attempt on Queen Victoria’s Life
Scotsman Roderick McLean was lying in wait as Queen Victoria left the Windsor railway station in March 1882. But, the would-be murderer was spotted by some boys from nearby Eton College and they started laying about him with their umbrellas.
Distracted by the swarm of schoolboys, McLean’s shot went wide and, once more, Queen Victoria’s lucky streak extended. Apparently, McLean’s motive was that he didn’t care for the brusque reply the queen sent him in response to some poetry he had written for her. It is to be assumed that the queen was not amused by the verse.
Glen Levy (Time Magazine) described the fate of Roderick McLean: “He was tried for high treason, and the jury found him ‘not guilty, but insane,’ which sentenced him to spending the rest of his life at Broadmoor Asylum in Berkshire, England.”
A Plot Most Dastardly
But, the budding assassins weren’t done yet; a group of Irish-American nationalists planned to celebrate Queen Victoria’s 50th anniversary on the throne by blowing up Westminster Abbey with her and the Cabinet inside it. Or did they?
British police got wind of the plot, followed the bombers when they arrived in England from America, and were able to roll up all the Irish nationalist underground networks that helped them. It turns out the whole affair was hatched by the British government to discredit the home-rule-for-Ireland movement.
A false flag event long before that term was invented.
- A teenage lad named Edward Jones became quite adept at breaking into Buckingham Palace. Between 1838 and 1841, he got into the royal residence at least four times. Twice he was discovered sitting on the royal throne and on another occasion he helped himself to food from the queen's kitchen. Then, he was found in possession of some of Her Majesty's underwear. The “Boy Jones” as he became known was whisked off to join all the other miscreants in Australia.
- Victoria was christened Alexandrina and was always known as Drina during her childhood. She started using her middle name, Victoria, when she became queen at the age of 18.
- Queen Victoria was fluent in English and German; she also spoke Latin, Italian, and French. In addition, she learned a few phrases in Urdu and Hindustani.
- “ ‘Assassination Attempt’ on Queen Revealed.” Tony Jones, Press Association, January 27, 2009.
- “1981: Queen Shot at by Youth.” BBC News, undated.
- “Broadmoor Revealed: Some Patient Stories.” Berkshire Record Office, 2009.
- “Queen Victoria's Biography Facts.” victorianera.org, undated.
- “Cane that Wounded Royalty.” New York Times, January 15, 1899.
- “How Queen Victoria Dodged Seven Bullets ... and a Walking Stick.” Christopher Hibbert, Mail on Sunday, September 17, 2000.
- “Roderick McLean.” Glen Levy, Time, August 14, 2009.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2023 Rupert Taylor