It’s 6 PM on June 10th, 1840.
Two newlyweds enjoy the evening sun as their open-roofed horse-drawn carriage moves through the streets of London, England. The husband smiles at his wife as she cups her growing stomach—she is four months pregnant with their first child. But this isn’t any ordinary lovestruck couple: this is Victoria, Queen of England, and her husband, Prince Albert.
As the carriage nears Buckingham Palace… peaceful summer evening is broken by a gunshot. But the sound barely fazes Victoria. She presumes someone is shooting birds in the nearby park. But Albert sees something that Victoria does not.
He quickly, he grabs his wife’s head and pushes her down. She twists away, trying to see what’s unnerved her husband, and spots a young man with a pistol in each hand, one already smoking. The young man lifts the other pistol, pointing it straight at Victoria… and fires again.
The driver cracks his whip, and the carriage lurches forward. As it speeds away from the scene, Victoria turns to see the shooter get tackled to the ground by passersby. A royal guard runs over, sword drawn, and shouting instructions. Before the Queen can see anything further, the carriage turns a corner and the ruckus is out of sight. Only then, as her shock wears off, does it dawn on Victoria that someone just tried to murder her.
Eighteen-year-old Edward Oxford’s attempt to kill the queen is the first time Victoria comes face to face with an assassin. But it is not the last. As the figurehead of the largest empire the world has ever known, Victoria will become a frequent target for political extremists, the mentally ill, and those who simply want to earn notoriety.
Over the next 42 years, countless letters with death threats will be received by the royal household. And, despite the best efforts of those responsible for keeping Victoria safe, six more attackers will manage to evade the queen’s guards in their attempts to kill her. In the end, Victoria will endure eight attempts on her life during her reign, ending with Roderick Maclean’s failed shooting on March 2nd, 1882.
From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.
History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world.
Today is March 2nd, 1882: The Eighth Attempt to Assassinate Queen Victoria.
It’s May 29th, 1842, two years after Edward Oxford tried to kill Queen Victoria.
It’s a pleasant Sunday morning. Prince Albert and Queen Victoria are again riding in an open-air carriage through the streets of London, this time returning home after attending a service in the royal chapel. Life for the couple returned to normal quickly after the previous attempt on Victoria’s life.
The failed assassin Edward Oxford was charged with treason and put on trial. But he managed to escape the death penalty. Family members and friends offered testimony suggesting Oxford had a long history of delusion, and the jury acquitted him, declaring him “not guilty by reason of insanity.” But Oxford was not freed. Instead, he was sent to one of the country’s notorious mental institutions. And with their would-be assassin now behind locked doors, Albert and Victoria are happy to resume their carriage rides around their capital with no alterations to their security arrangements.
The Queen and her husband wave to cheering spectators at the side of the road as the royal carriage turns onto The Mall, a straight avenue that leads to Buckingham Palace. The driver slows, allowing Londoners a better view of their monarch. And as the royals pass by the crowd, Albert notices one man step forward from the line of spectators, his arm raised and in his hand a pistol. Frozen by terror a second time, Albert can only watch as the man pulls the trigger.
Pistol clicks. But it does not fire. And the gunman’s shocked expression now mirrors Albert’s, as the two men briefly lock eyes. Then the gunman slips the pistol into his coat pocket and melts back into the crowd of spectators. As the carriage rolls away, Albert turns and looks back, waiting for signs of a scuffle as the gunman is apprehended. But nobody else seems to have noticed the attempted assassination. All eyes were on the Queen.
As soon as they arrive at the palace, Albert reports the attempted shooting. The guards gallop to the scene of the failed assassination. But there is no sign of the gunman. Determined to protect his wife, Albert insists that Victoria must stay in Buckingham Palace until the gunman is found. But the Queen shakes her head. She refuses to be restricted to her house. As Queen of England, her job is to be seen by her people.
As the couple quarrels, the commander of the royal guards cuts in with another suggestion: Victoria and Albert should ride in their carriage, as usual, tomorrow to tempt the gunman back out. Extra guards in plain clothes can be stationed along the route, armed with descriptions of the attacker. If the shooter shows himself, they will apprehend him. Victoria’s face brightens at the thought of escaping weeks of confinement. She looks to her husband for his thoughts, and begrudgingly, Albert gives in.
The next day, Albert twitches nervously as the same open-air carriage circulates Green Park with two uniformed outriders on horseback. Victoria squeezes Albert’s leg and tells him to act normally in case he gives the plan away. But despite knowing extra officers are hidden all around the park, Albert cannot help peering behind every tree and bush, closely scrutinizing the face of every person they pass.
And soon enough, he spots a familiar man at the side of the path. Albert shouts that that's the gunman. He looks around, but he can’t see any of the plain-clothed guards. The gunman again opens his jacket and pulls out a pistol. This time the Queen sees him too and screams in panic as the gunman steps toward the carriage and pulls the trigger. This time it fires. Albert flinches and then immediately lunges for his wife. He looks into her shocked face and then sighs with relief as he realizes she’s unharmed.
Before the gunman can escape again, one of the outriders gallops toward the shooter and knocks him to the ground. Plain-clothed officers run from their hiding places and apprehend the failed assassin.
The young unemployed carpenter named John Francis, he too will be put on trial, judged guilty of treason, and transported to the penal colonies in Australia. But even after her attacker is on the other side of the world, Victoria’s second near-death experience will continue to shake both her and the establishment as it becomes a harbinger of the many more perils that will befall the Queen.
It’s June 27th, 1850, in London, eight years after John Francis’s double attempts on Queen Victoria’s life.
A crowd gathers on the street outside Cambridge House, craning their necks to catch a glimpse of Her Majesty as she leaves. Sergeant James Silver stands nearby, trying to keep the animated crowd away from the gate.
In the wake of John Francis’s failed attacks on the Queen, the royal guards did their best to heighten security measures. Still, they have to struggle to keep Victoria safe. Just two months after Francis’s failed assassination attempt, another shooter fired a gun at the Queen. Seven years later, a fourth gunman fired at the royal carriage. Fortunately, Victoria was unharmed by any of these attempts. And though the possibility of future attacks still weighs heavily on her mind, the dangers of the job have not stopped the Queen from interacting with her subjects.
So at the sound of horses trotting on the cobbles, Sergeant James Silver steps forward and shouts at the onlookers to move out of the way. A cheer erupts as Victoria’s carriage appears, moving slowly through the gate to ensure nobody is run over.
As the carriage creeps past the spectators, a brightly dressed man steps forward from the crowd and swings a walking cane at the Queen’s head. An onlooker grabs the attacker’s coat and pulls him backward onto the ground. Several others rush forward tackling, kicking, and punching him.
The attacker, former army officer Robert Pate, is a familiar sight on the streets of London. For years, children have teased and goaded him for his odd behavior and his pension for wearing garish clothes and goose-stepping around London’s parks. But he won’t be a figure of fun in London any longer.
Like John Francis before him, Pate is charged, found guilty, and transported to the Australian colonies. The attack leaves the Queen with a black eye and a cut on her forehead but she is not seriously injured. Still, the incident remains worrisome. Once again, a person displaying signs of mental illness has tried to harm the Queen. And, this time, the authorities were unable to stop him.
Pate’s attack leads some to question again whether there’s a better way to protect the Queen. Many speculate that the solution is harsher treatment of Victoria’s would-be assassins, even those deemed insane. But no changes to the law are made. Instead, fourteen years later, Queen Victoria’s first shooter is almost able to walk free.
After a court deemed Edward Oxford not guilty of treason by reason of insanity, he was incarcerated in an asylum. There, Oxford became a model patient. He read widely, taught himself to play the violin, and became fluent in several languages. He even worked diligently as a painter and decorator on the hospital wards. So in 1864, twenty-four years after his assassination attempt, his behavior is enough to assure his doctors that he’s of sound mind, and they suggest he be released. But the Crown is not so sure. So, Home Secretary, Sir George, journeys to the asylum to judge Oxford’s state for himself, and decide whether to accept the doctors’ recommendation.
Sir George follows a doctor down a long corridor, his shoes tapping on the tile floor. The doctor stops at a window and gestures to a patient on the other side. Sir George peers through the glass at a smartly dressed man playing the violin. The Home Secretary finds it hard to believe that this is the notorious Edward Oxford.
Noticing the two men observing him through the window, Oxford turns and smiles. The doctor then opens the door and introduces his patient to the Home Secretary, the man who holds Oxford’s fate in his hands.
Sir George is brisk and businesslike. He quickly turns the conversation to the crime that brought Oxford to the asylum in the first place. Oxford politely interrupts to correct Sir George — he did not commit a crime because he was judged not guilty due to insanity. Sir George harrumphs, making clear he disagrees with the court’s verdict and demands to know if Oxford is still a threat to the Queen or anybody else. But Oxford again takes issue with Sir George’s question. He replies that he was never a threat to the Queen, and claims that his guns were not loaded with bullets, just powder.
Throughout their conversation, Sir George struggles to hide his exasperation with Oxford and his meticulous answers. When the interrogation is finally over and Oxford has been sent away, the doctor repeats his belief that Oxford is now sane and safe to be released into society. Sir George just shakes his head though. He agrees that Oxford is lucid and cogent, but he must consider more than just Oxford’s state of mind.
Since she ascended to the throne, five different attackers have tried to harm the Queen. Every week, more threats to the Queen’s life are received by Buckingham Palace. Sir George worries that releasing Oxford will encourage further attempts. So he announces that Oxford cannot be released—it makes no difference if he is sane or not.
But Sir George’s decision to keep Oxford behind locked doors will not end the attempts on Queen Victoria’s life. Eight years later, another gunman will take a shot at the monarch. But it will take yet another, final attempt on the Queen’s life to prompt a change in the law that will raise the stakes for any future assassins.
It’s March 2nd, 1882, eighteen years after Edward Oxford was refused release from his mental institution.
15-year-old Gordon Chesney Wilson lifts his top hat and cheers as Queen Victoria’s carriage again rolls through the streets. Gordon has strolled from nearby Eton College to welcome the Queen as she arrives for a weekend at Windsor Castle.
Gordon excitedly jogs alongside the carriage as it moves along the road until an older man elbows him aside. The man shoves forward through the crowd, jostling others and then Gordon sees him lift a revolver. A fifteen-year-old leaps pushing the gunman in the back just as he pulls the trigger, and the bullet flies wildly over the top of the carriage. As the gunman trips and falls to the ground, Gordon raises his umbrella and begins pummeling the gunman’s hand trying to knock loose his weapon.
The old man, Roderick Maclean, is the seventh person to attempt to kill Queen Victoria. For the monarch, the incident is little more than an unfortunate, but unexpected occupational hazard. After enduring attack after attack, Victoria was forced to accept that her position as monarch will always make her a target, writing to her daughter that, “It is worth being shot at, to see how much one is loved.”
But by a large the British people disagree, and there is a public outcry when the verdict of Maclean’s trial is announced. After only five minutes’ deliberation, the jury returns a verdict of not guilty by reason of insanity—the same verdict that was handed down to Edward Oxford, 42 years earlier.
The unpopular outcome of Maclean’s trial will spur the British government into action. Quickly, they will enact the Trial of Lunatics Act which creates a new legal verdict: “guilty, but insane,” rather than “not guilty by reason of insanity.” The change will ensure future would-be assassins are treated as criminals and kept incarcerated for as long as the law deems necessary. And the legal shift will appear effective. For the last 19 years of her reign, Queen Victoria will endure no further assassination attempts after Roderick Maclean’s failed shooting on March 2nd, 1882.
Next on History Daily. March 3rd, 1910. John D. Rockefeller commits to donating the bulk of his fortune to charity, leading to the creation of the Rockefeller Foundation and turning the oil tycoon into one of the biggest philanthropists in American history.
From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.
Audio editing by Muhammad Shahzaib.
Sound design by Mollie Baack.
Music by Lindsay Graham.
This episode is written and researched by Scott Reeves.
Produced by Alexandra Currie-Buckner.
Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship, and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.