Her majesty and her would-be assassins
by Daniel McCabe, BA’89
It’s 19th century London and excited crowds are lining the street, cheering loudly as the royal carriage carrying their queen makes its way past them. Suddenly, a lone figure emerges from the shadows, brandishing a pistol. A shot rings out. Enraged onlookers grab hold of the gunman, while the startled crowd anxiously wonders if their sovereign eluded the bullet.
It would be remarkable enough if Queen Victoria had endured only one such incident during her 63-year reign. That it happened repeatedly – poet Elizabeth Barrett referred to the phenomenon as “this strange mania of queen-shooting” – is astounding. And yet, according to
historian Paul Thomas Murphy, MA’81, these attacks on Victoria by an assortment of deranged, desperate and deluded men, ended up benefiting the queen immensely. As Victoria herself once declared, “It is worth being shot at to see how much one is loved.”
In his recent book Shooting Victoria, Murphy examines how the queen responded to these dangerous incidents, what prompted her assailants (some of them weren’t actually trying to harm her) and what impact this all had on British society.
While Murphy teaches interdisciplinary writing on Victorian topics at the University of Colorado, Boulder, he acknowledges that he wasn’t much of an authority on Victoria herself before embarking on the research for this book. “I was more familiar with the world that her would-be assassins came from.”
Murphy says he has long been fascinated by “the marginal figures who have an effect on history, but who end up getting relegated to the footnotes. Almost every level of British society was affected by what [Victoria’s attackers] did. The reverberations were felt everywhere.”
No one was affected more, of course, than Victoria herself. When she first took power as a young woman, Murphy argues the monarchy was on somewhat shaky ground. Victoria’s predecessors kept a chilly distance from their subjects, and this didn’t engender much affection from the populace.
At first, Victoria was seen as a breath of fresh air when she ascended to the throne. She instinctively understood that a monarch shouldn’t be remote. But a couple of serious missteps early on in her reign jeopardized the initial good will.
At this juncture, Victoria’s first attacker, the attention-seeking Edward Oxford, entered the picture, firing at her carriage with pistols that might not have been loaded. The incident resulted in an outburst of public support for the queen. A seemingly unfazed Victoria continued to make public appearances, demonstrating her unshaken faith in the good will of her subjects. This would be her response to subsequent assaults as well. “I was impressed by her gutsiness,” says Murphy.
During other difficult periods of her reign, Victoria received a similar boost from other attacks. “Every incident wiped the slate clean,” says Murphy. The republican movement, which sought to abolish the monarchy, was gaining momentum in 1872 when another assailant, Arthur O’Connor, threatened Victoria with a gun. Again, the public rallied around their queen. “After 1872, republicanism was effectively dead.”
The threats to Victoria also contributed to a major overhaul of the British police system. Embarrassed by complaints of police bungling in one of the attacks against the queen, reformers used the opportunity to create detective branches, populated with well-trained investigators who adopted a more cerebral approach to combatting crime. Years later, police detectives would play a key role in preventing what could have been the most dangerous assault of all upon the queen – a plot by Irish-American extremists to use explosives during the Queen’s Jubilee celebrations.
The attacks on Victoria also introduced the world to a dangerous new kind of assailant, says Murphy. Assassination attempts were hardly rare during Victorian times. France’s Louis-Philippe faced seven attempts on his life between 1830 and 1848, for instance. But such attacks were almost always politically motivated. In the case of some of Victoria’s attackers, says Murphy, we catch a glimpse of what has become a frighteningly commonplace phenomenon in subsequent centuries – “the disturbed gunman with a diseased craving for notoriety.”
One of the most precious items in Queen Elizabeth’s jewellery collection was a gift from McGill graduate John T. Williamson