Assassinating Queen Victoria: the men who attempted to murder the monarch
During her historic reign from 1837 to 1901, Queen Victoria was the target of assassination attempts by seven men, from a teenage wannabe revolutionary to a deeply troubled failed writer. Bob Nicholson considers what drove the multiple attempts to murder the monarch, and whether any of the attempts got close to achieving their aim...
Edward Oxford: a botched shot at infamy
At 6pm on 10 June 1840, the gates of Buckingham Palace swung open and Queen Victoria drove out to take the air in Hyde Park, accompanied by her husband, Prince Albert. As their open-topped carriage cut through the cheering crowds on Constitution Hill, an 18-year-old boy drew a duelling pistol from his pocket. When the queen drew near, he stepped from the crowd, struck a “theatrical pose” and fired.
The carriage stopped to investigate the noise, but the boy wasn’t finished. “I have another here,” he boasted, and quickly discharged a second pistol. The attacker stood six paces away but, somehow, Victoria was unhurt and the driver was calmly ordered to ride on. As the royal carriage trotted off, the young assassin was swallowed by an irate crowd and a trio of policemen rushed in to apprehend him.
Journalists and policemen now raced to uncover the attacker’s identity. His name was Edward Oxford, a barman – although the press sneeringly dismissed him as a lowly “potboy”. A hidden cache of letters discovered in his lodgings documented his involvement in a secret revolutionary society named Young England, but it soon became clear that this was an elaborate fantasy. The boy was caught in the grip of “notoriety mania”, and yearned for fame.
Oxford was tried at the Old Bailey for high treason, and faced the death penalty – but the prosecution had a problem. The police had failed to find any bullets at the scene, and couldn’t prove that Oxford’s pistols had been loaded with anything other than gunpowder. Meanwhile, the defence lined up a parade of witnesses who testified to Oxford’s long history of erratic behaviour. Friends, bosses, doctors and his own mother all painted a picture of someone who was prone to “fits of violent passion” and bouts of manic laughter.
In the end, Oxford was found “not guilty, on the grounds of insanity”. When Queen Victoria heard the verdict, while attending the opera, she was furious. Writing in her journal, she described the jury as “very stupid” and insisted that “I will never believe the man is the least mad.”
Oxford escaped the death sentence, but was detained in Bethlem Royal Hospital, the asylum dubbed “Bedlam”. There he seems to have thrived, learning to paint houses, play the violin and speak French, German and Italian. He was released from detention in 1867, on condition that he emigrate to Australia and never return. He gave himself a new name – John Freeman – and built a respectable life in Melbourne, where nobody knew of his past.
John Francis: the “rascal” who failed once – then tried again
A carpenter by trade, John Francis worked alongside his father at Covent Garden Theatre, building sets and special effects. In 1842, at the age of 19, he tried to make it on his own by opening a tobacco shop, but the business failed. Soon after, his landlord caught him stealing money, and cast him out. In a matter of hours, his world had fallen apart, his dreams left in tatters.
In a state of fury and desperation, he bought a pistol and, on 29 May, headed for Buckingham Palace. As the royal couple’s carriage was returning from its evening drive, Albert spotted Francis who “had held out a pistol to the carriage”. None of the guards saw Francis, though, and he slipped away. When informed, the prime minister, Robert Peel, urged the queen to remain in the palace until the mysterious gunman was apprehended, but Victoria insisted on riding out the next day. Albert accompanied her, anxiously surveying the crowd “in search of the rascal’s face”.
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He didn’t have to look far. As the carriage reached Constitution Hill – the very spot where Oxford had attacked two years earlier – Francis stepped forward, pistol in hand, and pulled the trigger. The gunshot sparked panic in the crowd, but once again the queen was uninjured and the attacker was quickly apprehended.
Francis was charged with high treason and sentenced to death. As he awaited execution, his father wrote to the queen, pleading for mercy. At the last moment, the would-be assassin was reprieved. He was transported for life to Van Diemen’s Land (now Tasmania), where he served out his sentence, married a woman named Martha, and fathered 10 children.
John Bean: driven to kill by “trouble and worry”
As John Francis was awaiting execution, another teenage boy, John Bean, pointed a pistol at the queen. Just 17 years old at the time, Bean suffered from a severe curvature of the spine, at the time called a “humpback”. Throughout his early life he had been treated cruelly by his four younger brothers; finally, he ran away from home and began living rough on the streets.
On Sunday 3 July 1842, Bean joined the crowds outside Buckingham Palace. As the queen’s carriage passed by, he raised a rusty pistol and pulled the trigger. There was a click, but no gunshot. An eagle-eyed young bystander spotted the gun and dragged Bean to a nearby policeman, but the officer assumed that the two lads were playing a prank and sent them off. Once the police realised their mistake, they began rounding up every boy with a curved spine they could find.
The press gleefully mocked this crude strategy but, astonishingly, it bore fruit: Bean was found hiding at his parent’s house and arrested. He told visitors to his prison cell that “he did not point the pistol at the carriage, but towards the ground, having no object in view than of being apprehended – as he was tired of life”.
At Bean’s trial, the judge concluded that he meant no harm to the queen, and simply wanted “to obtain ignominious notoriety, or an asylum for the rest of his days”. He was found guilty, but sentenced to just 18 months in Millbank Prison. In truth, the government wanted to downplay this episode for fear it might inspire even more attacks.
After serving his sentence, Bean worked as a jeweller and was married twice, but continued to suffer from poor physical and mental health. Finally, in 1882, he took his own life by swallowing an overdose of opium. In an emotional letter to his wife, he concluded wearily: “I have been more sinned against than sinning, and my whole life has been one of trouble and worry.”
William Hamilton: an act of revolution or a bid for a new life?
Victoria’s first three attackers were all London lads, teenage boys who had grown up within walking distance of Buckingham Palace. The fourth was born in Ireland, emigrating to London in the 1840s when he was in his twenties. Like many other Irish immigrants, William Hamilton found London a difficult place in which to survive, and was often out of work.
On 19 May 1849, he followed in the footsteps of the queen’s previous attackers and positioned himself on Constitution Hill, pacing anxiously while he awaited Victoria’s carriage. As it approached, Hamilton pulled a pistol from the pocket of his tattered corduroy trousers, pointed at his target and fired. The queen asked one of her footmen what had caused the noise, and he reportedly replied that “your majesty has been shot at”. Once again, Victoria was unharmed. Hamilton’s motives were difficult to discern.
Hamilton pointed at his target and fired. The queen asked one of her footmen what had caused the noise, and he reportedly replied that 'your majesty has been shot at'
Unlike some of Victoria’s other attackers, he shrank from the spotlight and made few statements. His attack came at a time of widespread hunger and growing political tension. Revolutions in Europe and the Chartist movement at home were beginning to pose a serious threat to the monarchy, and some letters sent to the Home Office alleged that Hamilton was part of a group of Irish revolutionaries who were plotting to overthrow the queen.
The police, however, found no evidence of this. Other papers speculated that Hamilton wished to be transported to Australia, where he could start a new life. If so, he gained his wish. He was sentenced to seven years, the first five of which he spent on a convict hulk near Gibraltar before being sent on to Fremantle, Western Australia.
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Robert Pate: the “harmless eccentric” who managed to draw royal blood
Victoria’s fifth would-be assassin was the first to actually succeed in drawing blood. On 27 June 1850, the queen was attacked while leaving her uncle’s mansion on Piccadilly. She described what happened in her personal journal:
“A little in front of the crowd, stood a young gentleman whom I have often seen in the park, pale, fair, with a fair moustache, with a small stick in his hand. Before I knew where I was, or what had happened, he stepped forward, & I felt myself violently thrown by a blow to the left of the carriage… My bonnet was crushed, & on putting my hand up to my forehead, I felt an immense bruise in the right side, fortunately well above the temple & eye! The man was instantly caught by the collar, & when I got up in the carriage, having quite recovered myself, & telling the good people who anxiously surrounded me, ‘I am not hurt’, I saw him being violently pulled about by the people…”
Robert Pate had struck Victoria on the head with a metal-tipped cane – a blow that might easily have killed her. Unlike the queen’s previous attackers, he belonged to a wealthy family and was recognised as a gentleman. During a spell serving in the 10th Hussars, Pate had developed mental health problems and been allowed to quietly resign his commission.
Moving to London, he lived in a fashionable apartment above the Fortnum & Mason department store in the West End. His mental state continued to deteriorate, and he was often seen goose-stepping around the parks of west London, waving his cane like a sword. A policeman nicknamed him “cut & thrust” but dismissed him as a harmless eccentric.
Rumour has it that Pate’s wealth and status led to preferential treatment in prison – that a master tailor was allowed to make his clothes, he was allocated a private room, and had mutton chops for dinner. Nevertheless, he received the maximum sentence: seven years’ transportation to Tasmania. After serving his time, he married an Australian heiress, and later returned to London.
Arthur O'Connor: the audacious youth who craved a hero’s death
It would be 22 years before the next attack on the queen. During that time, Victoria was devastated by the death of Prince Albert, and withdrew from public life. In 1872, though, she was persuaded to attend a grand procession through London, culminating in a service at St Paul’s Cathedral. Enormous crowds assembled to welcome the queen back to the capital – among them her sixth would-be assassin.
Seventeen-year-old Arthur O’Connor had radical blood in his veins. His great-great-uncle was an Irish revolutionary, while his great-uncle, Feargus O’Connor – nicknamed the “Lion of Freedom” – had been a leading figure in the Chartist movement. Dreaming of following in their footsteps, the young O’Connor concocted an audacious plan: in front of thousands of the queen’s subjects, he would put a gun to her head and force her to sign a document releasing a group of Irish republican prisoners who had been fighting for independence.
He looked forward to dying a hero’s death. Two days after a failed attempt to ambush Victoria inside St Paul’s, O’Connor headed to Buckingham Palace where he clambered over the fence while the guards were distracted. As the queen returned home, he ran to her carriage but, before he could put his plan into action, he was seized by John Brown, Victoria’s beloved manservant.
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Far from proving himself a radical hero, O'Connor was mocked by the press as a “crackbrained” youth, and was publicly denounced by the Irish republican movement. He pleaded guilty, and was sentenced to one year’s hard labour and a whipping. Victoria wrote to the prime minister to complain about the “extreme leniency” of the sentence, worried that such attacks might be “tried again & again & end badly some day”.
To placate the queen, the government struck a deal with O’Connor. He agreed to leave the country and travel to Australia, where it was expected that he would remain in exile. However, less than a year later he boarded a ship for England, and sensationally returned to Buckingham Palace. He later explained that he hoped to be killed by the police, and spent much of the rest of his life in asylums.
Roderick Maclean: the washed-up writer who saw enemies everywhere
In 1882, Roderick Maclean fired a revolver at Victoria as she left Windsor railway station. The queen was returning to the castle from a short trip to London, but for her attacker this was the end of a much longer and sadder journey. Maclean had been born into a prosperous, middle-class family. His father owned the popular Fun magazine – a rival of Punch – and Roderick grew up dreaming of a literary career.
Sadly, the family lost its fortune, and an accidental blow to the younger Maclean’s head caused a marked change in personality. He began seeing enemies everywhere, and became fascinated by the colour blue and the number four. Unable to secure a job, Maclean rambled around the country, drifting from one workhouse or mental asylum to another. His sisters sent him money, but he believed he was entitled to more.
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He became increasingly fixated on the queen and, having bought a pistol from a shopkeeper in Portsmouth, walked all the way to Windsor. As he waited for the queen’s train, Maclean penned a letter to his sister, writing: “I should not have done this crime had you, as you should have done, paid the 10s. per week instead of offering me the insulting small sum of 6s. per week, and expecting me to live on it. So you perceive the great good a little money would have done, had you not treated me as a fool, and set me more than ever against those bloated aristocrats, led by that old lady Mrs. Vic., who is an accursed robber in all senses.”
After firing his revolver at the queen (and missing), Maclean was captured and sent to Broadmoor psychiatric hospital. There he remained for the rest of his life.
Maclean’s was the last attempt on Victoria’s life. The queen lived through an era of high-profile assassinations: two US presidents, the tsar of Russia, the king of Italy, dozens of politicians and a sprinkling of aristocrats were all murdered during her reign. Yet the attempts to kill her served only to cement her position, each attack sparking rapturous displays of loyalty. As the queen herself said: “It is worth being shot at to see how much one is loved.”
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This article was first published in the March 2023 issue of BBC History Magazine
Dr Bob Nicholson is a reader in history at Edge Hill University. His seven-part BBC podcast series Killing Victoria is available on BBC Sounds.