Shooting Victoria

Writer Paul Thomas Murphy's crisp prose provides a vivid look at the various assassination attempts against Queen Victoria.

Shooting Victoria: Madness, Mayhem, and the Rebirth of the British Monarchy By Paul Thomas Murphy Pegasus 512 pp.

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."

Despite questions as to whether his gun was actually loaded, Oxford was charged with high treason and found not guilty by reason of insanity. He was institutionalized for the next twenty-seven years. Many thought Oxford's confinement amounted to a reward -- a life free from want and struggle -- and predicted that the insanity acquittal would inspire other malcontents. Indeed, witnesses to the third attempt on the queen, in 1842, didn't take assailant John Bean seriously at first -- no doubt because he was a four-foot-tall hunchback -- with one onlooker remarking, "This chap is going to have a pop at the Queen -- I think he wants to be provided for for life."
Some of the most revealing passages of the book concern the imperious Victoria's dealings with the government. The tone varied depending on which prime minister was in office: she greatly preferred the obsequious ones like Benjamin Disraeli. Although she bravely exposed herself to crowds after the assassination attempts, she was more frightened than the public knew and was actively involved in trying to influence how her assailants were charged.

Shortly after Bean's attempt, Prime Minister Robert Peel, mindful that the charge of high treason brought a level of notoriety perhaps appealing to would-be assassins, created a new offense, making it a high misdemeanor to attempt to "disturb" the queen. This carried the penalty of seven years' transportation or three years' hard labor, both with the possibility of being "publicly or privately whipped," the shame of which was thought to be the ultimate deterrent. Forty years later, Victoria, who had always felt strongly that "premeditation signified reason, which proved guilt," finally prevailed upon her least favorite prime minister, William Gladstone, to change the insanity verdict from "not guilty by reason of insanity" to "guilty, but insane." (The original "not guilty" wording would not be restored until 1964.)

By the end of Victoria's epic reign, the rise of European anarchism had produced assassins who, unlike the hapless and apolitical fellows who had shot at the queen, were able to snuff out royals in Austria and Italy. (Even an American president, William McKinley, would eventually be felled by an anarchist's bullet.) But Victoria had long stopped being the open target she was in her youth. The 1861 death of her beloved Albert had plunged her into years of depression, and she avoided London, spending most of her time secluded at her other estates until her own death in 1901. There had not been an attempt on her life since 1882. "Before, the Queen's popularity stemmed from her doing; now, it stemmed from her simply being," Murphy writes, describing her undiminished status in the period of her seclusion. When at last she ceased to be, she left her firstborn son, Bertie, a playboy in whom she had little confidence, a robust monarchy as he began his brief reign as King Edward VII.

Barbara Spindel has covered books for Time Out New York, Newsweek.comDetails, and Spin. She holds a PhD in American Studies.

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