As the royal carriage slowly rolled along London’s Constitution Hill on a summer afternoon in 1840, two shots rang out. A lone gunman had just tried to assassinate Queen Victoria, the first of several similar attempts on her life during her long reign. She survived unscathed, but had the assassin – a young man called Edward Oxford, who was immediately tackled to the ground and arrested – been a better shot then the course of British history may have taken a very different direction.

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To start, the question of succession would have needed answering. At that point, Victoria had yet to give birth to any of her nine children – although she was four months pregnant with her first daughter – and having become queen in 1837 on the death of her uncle, William IV, she was without siblings to succeed her. Neither would the crown have passed to the man accompanying her in the carriage on that day in June 1840, her beloved husband Prince Albert.

“He would not have succeeded her,” explains Jane Ridley, professor of history at the University of Buckingham. “He would have been provided with a handsome allowance and told to pack his bags and return to his hometown of Coburg.”

A lithograph from the time of the incident depicts Edward Oxford firing at Victoria, as Albert tries to shield her
A lithograph from the time of the incident depicts Edward Oxford firing at Victoria, as Albert tries to shield her. (Image by Getty Images)

Instead, the crown would have passed to another of Victoria’s uncles, Ernest Augustus, King of Hanover. Between 1714 and 1837, Britain and Hanover were ruled by the same person, but since Salic law determined that a woman could not sit on the Hanoverian throne, Victoria’s accession meant the two kingdoms had their own monarch for the first time in a century. Had she been assassinated, those dual roles would have been reunified.

“Ernest’s accession to the British throne in 1840 would not have been a good outcome. He was unpopular, reactionary and autocratic,” asserts Ridley, whose books on the period include Victoria: Queen, Matriarch, Empress (Allen Lane, 2015). “In 1851, he was succeeded as King of Hanover by his son, the blind George V, who was an autocrat like his father. When the 1866 Austro-Prussian War broke out, he insisted on taking the side of Austria, in defiance of his parliament. Hanover went on to be defeated by the Prussians, and King George lost his throne.”

Ridley claims that had George ended up on the British throne, there’s a strong possibility that the country would have been dragged into the wars of German unification: “George’s priority would have been to keep the wealthy kingdom of Hanover or reconquer it. At the very least, this would have been a divisive factor in British politics.”

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The would-be assassin Edward Oxford was acquitted on the grounds of insanity and spent 24 years in Bethlem asylum in London. Released in 1867, he was instructed to leave Britain and never return – he lived out his life in Australia as ‘John Freeman’.

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During Victoria’s reign, the British empire expanded like never before, so that at the time of her death in 1901 she presided over 400 million subjects across the globe. Was this expansion inevitable, regardless of the monarch?

“Victoria’s involvement in empire was largely symbolic and ceremonial,” says Ridley. Nonetheless, as a symbol, she retained great loyalty and respect overseas – something that her would-be successors would have struggled to achieve. “It’s unlikely that King Ernest would have arrested Britain’s empire-building, but it’s hard to imagine the Hanoverian kings garnering the extraordinary popularity enjoyed by Victoria in India, where she was a quasi-mythical figure.”

King Ernest Augustus
King Ernest Augustus, the queen’s alternative successor, was “unpopular, reactionary and autocratic,” says Professor Jane Ridley. (Image by Alamy)

Just as the empire expanded, so too did the British economy – a product, argues Ridley, of the times rather than, even partly, the result of Victoria’s intervention. That is, there’s no reason to believe such economic growth would not have been achieved had Ernest or George been on the throne.

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“Victoria’s reign was an era of prosperity, but the monarchy did little to promote this. Perhaps the most important intervention was the 1851 Great Exhibition, organised by Albert, which identified the monarchy with British trade and technology. Over in Hanover, Ernest modernised the economy and he might have done the same in Britain if he had succeeded as king.”

A republican surge?

Becoming queen less than a month after her 18th birthday, Victoria would eventually rule for more than 63 years, offering a sense of peace and stability to the British people, particularly after Albert’s death in 1861.

“The narrative of the devoted widow and grandmother was critical to the enormous popularity that Victoria enjoyed in old age,” explains Ridley. “Ernest of Hanover, by contrast, had been a scandalous figure. He was alleged to have plotted to kill Victoria, while also rumoured both to have murdered his valet and fathered a child by his sister Sophia. If behaviour such as this had continued over future generations, it might well have brought the monarchy into disrepute and prompted a surge in republicanism.”

Ernest of Hanover had been a scandalous figure – he was rumoured to have fathered a child by his sister

Ensuring the ongoing stability of the monarchy was one of Victoria’s greatest triumphs, even if it meant accepting a diminished role as head of state as parliamentary authority grew. This may not have happened under any other monarch, as Ridley concludes. “If the autocratic Ernest or George had been on the throne, it seems doubtful that they would have enabled the shift of power from the monarch to parliament. On the contrary, they would have struggled to hold on to power, and the result would have been conflict between crown and people, culminating in a weakened sovereign and possibly a republic.”

In context: Edward Oxford's assassination attempt

At the time of the 1840 assassination attempt, Queen Victoria was less than three years into her reign. Had she been murdered that day, the Victorian era would have been over just as it was beginning. Newly married, newly pregnant and only just turned 21, the queen was decidedly sanguine about both this incident and those to come – six other potential assassins would attempt to kill her in the years to follow.

But rather than end her life, the assassins’ wayward bullets had the opposite effect as Victoria’s stoicism in the face of such direct threats actually strengthened her popularity, and that of the monarchy, in the mind of the public. She would go on to rule for another six decades beyond the day that Edward Oxford drew his pistols.

Edward Oxford, pictured c1856, who attempted to assassinate Queen Victoria
Edward Oxford, pictured c1856, did not try to run from his assassination attempt on Victoria, declaring: “It was I, it was me that did it”. (Image by Alamy)

Listen | Encounters with Victoria, presented by Lucy Worsley, is a 10-part exploration of Victoria’s reign through significant moments and is available on BBC Sounds

This article was first published in the August 2022 edition of BBC History Revealed

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