Writer Paul Thomas Murphy's crisp prose provides a vivid look at the various assassination attempts against Queen Victoria.
By Barbara Spindel, for The Barnes and Noble ReviewSkip to next paragraph
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The popularity of the British monarchy rises and falls: for every "Good Queen Bess" there is a figure like the dissolute spendthrift George IV of the early nineteenth century. Recent years have offered memorable instances of both extremes. A nearly historic low point was certainly the aftermath of Princess Diana's 1997 death, which saw the royal family lambasted for appearing uncaring and remote in the face of extravagant public mourning. Subsequent P.R. triumphs seem to have boosted the feelings of goodwill surrounding the royals today: in 2011, Diana's son Prince William married Kate Middleton in a televised ceremony watched by two billion people worldwide, while just weeks ago, Queen Elizabeth II celebrated her Diamond Jubilee. Massive crowds lined the streets of London, straining to catch a glimpse of the figure who had fifteen years ago been so widely criticized for being out of touch with her subjects.
In Shooting Victoria: Madness, Mayhem, and the Rebirth of the British Monarchy, historian Paul Thomas Murphy observes that the very legitimacy of the monarchy depends on "the popular bond between monarch and public," and indeed, when the British are unhappy with the behavior of their royals, public support for the continuation of the monarchy erodes. But while the "yoking of royal legitimacy and popular will" seems "natural and timeless," it is largely the creation of Britain's longest-reigning sovereign, Queen Victoria. In this delightful book, Murphy argues that eight assassination attempts on the queen during her nearly sixty-four-year reign cemented her popularity, helping her create the modern monarchy. As she herself famously said, "It is worth being shot at to see how much one is loved."
Murphy turns court transcripts, prison and hospital records, royal archives, and newspaper accounts into crisp prose, vividly and entertainingly re-creating the eight attempts by seven would-be assassins. The first, Edward Oxford, like most of those who followed him, was mentally unstable, fabricating evidence that he belonged to a vast secret society bent on overthrowing the government. When, in June 1840, he shot at the carriage in which Victoria and her husband, Prince Albert, were riding toward Hyde Park, the queen was approaching her twenty-first birthday and had sat on the throne for less than three years. Her reign had gotten off to a rocky start -- supposed to be above party politics, Victoria had clashed publicly with incoming Tory ministers and was widely seen as a Whig partisan.
Police officers immediately apprehended Oxford, and Victoria, rather than returning to Buckingham Palace, commanded her drivers to carry on with the planned excursion. For the next hour and again in the days that followed, Victoria insisted on riding among the public in an open carriage. "In doing so," Murphy writes, "she and Albert signified that absolute trust existed between them and their subjects.... In return, they were showered with an immense and spontaneous outpouring of loyalty and affection, and enjoyed several days of national thanksgiving for the preservation of the monarchy." That pattern would be repeated after subsequent attempts over the years, with celebrations that remained spontaneous but at the same time came to "take on the sanctity of tradition."