The long nineteenth century, from the French Revolution to the outbreak of the First World War was a period where the assassination of world leaders became an increasingly prevalent form of political protest. In France, the executions of King Louis XVI and Queen Marie Antoinette created a precedent for future aspiring revolutionaries. King Louis XVIII’s nephew, the Duc de Berry was fatally stabbed at the opera in 1820 and King Louis Philippe and his sons survived an 1835 attack from an assassin wielding a makeshift machine gun that killed eighteen members of King’s entourage.
In Russia, Tsar Alexander II became the chief target of the revolutionary organization, “The People’s Will” despite abolishing serfdom in 1861. Alexander survived seven assasination attempts before succumbing to a homemade bomb thrown at his feet in 1881. Three American presidents were assassinated over the course of the nineteenth century, and Empress Elisabeth of Austria was murdered in 1898 by an Italian anarchist who later stated that, “I came to Geneva to kill a sovereign, with object of giving an example to those who suffer and those who do nothing to improve their social position; it did not matter to me who the sovereign was whom I should kill.” The identity of the victim mattered far less than his or her royal status.
As British monarch for much of the nineteenth century, Queen Victoria also experienced threats to her personal safety. Before the publication of Paul Thomas Murphy’s, Shooting Victoria: Madness, Mayhem and the Rebirth of the British Monarchy, the seven men who shot at or otherwise threatened the Queen received little attention from historians. Filmmakers have paid more attention to the dramatic potential of these incidents but most of these dramatizations, such as the climax of The Young Victoria, are full of historical inaccuracies. In an century where an attempt on the life of a world leader was usually accompanied by a grand political statement, Queen Victoria’s would-be assassins appeared motivated by mental illness instead of ideology. Their guns were usually unloaded, and the perpetrators disappeared into obscurity in lunatic asylums and Australian penal colonies.
Murphy’s compelling analysis of the biographies of the men who threatened their Queen, the evolving nineteenth century monarchy and the Victorian criminal justice system reveals that these seemingly minor threats against the Queen’s safety were highly significant. While modern historians are aware of the personal demons that motivated such disparate characters as an unemployed publican, a failed tobacconist and a “hunchbacked dwarf” to publicly threaten the Queen with firearms, the nineteenth century British public viewed these incidents as possible evidence of political conspiracies involving the Queen’s Uncle, King Ernest of Hanover, Irish Fenians or broader class warfare.
The Queen’s personal courage in the face of gun wielding assailants and refusal to allow these incidents to curtail her daily activities, reaffirmed the bond between the monarch and her people. When Queen Victoria experienced periods of personal unpopularity because of her Whig partisanship early in her reign or her extended seclusion during her widowhood, public attempts on her life restored her to the position of beloved mother of the nation. Meanwhile, her justice system repeatedly changed its approach to prosecuting these incidents, drawing up the guidelines governing insanity pleas and legislation forbidding harassment of the monarch that is still in force today.
At 525 pages plus footnotes, bibliography and index, Shooting Victoria is longer than most popularly published works of royal history but the book is a page turner. Murphy has an excellent sense of dramatic pacing, building up the unusual characters of the assassins before presenting the attempts on Queen Victoria’s life as they unfolded at the time. The book is filled with fascinating details including the chain mail parasol made for the Queen as a safety measure and the massive police roundup of “hunchback dwarves” to catch the third man to shoot at the Queen. Shooting Victoria is the kind of history book that reads like a thriller, revealing how seven threats to the Queen’s safety transformed the criminal justice system and brought Queen Victoria closer to her people.