Queen Victoria is one of Britain’s most beloved monarchs and the longest-reigning in the island’s history, soon to be supplanted by Elizabeth II.
Her popularity wasn’t always sky-high, and the results nearly cost her more than her claim to the longest reign – they nearly cost the young queen her life.
Things were tough for Victoria in 1840, she was only 21, she had married a man the majority of her people loathed and a series of scandals meant opinion of the young queen was very mixed. She was already a woman of iron will but she was inexperienced, heavily relying on her prime minister and a little unsure of how to appeal to the common people.
One of these common people was Edward Oxford, a good looking 18-year-old with dark eyes and auburn hair. He had been hired as a pot boy at a local public house but was fired after his ‘maniacal’ laughter disturbed one too many customers. He had been known as a little peculiar ever since he was a child, with a violent, drunken and often absent father. The young boy would often fly into fierce rages of his own, destroying everything in sight.
Although he was intelligent, he found it difficult to concentrate in school and was so unpredictable his mother had to confine the child to the cellar of her pastry shop as to not disturb the customers.
Now an angry, frustrated youth, he had become a senior member of a secret society of like-minded angry youths known as ‘young England’. He flittered between jobs with a thorough belief that he was destined for more, and the last firing had been the final nail in the coffin. He was determined for the world to see him as more than some nobody pot boy. And he knew just how to do it. He was going to kill the queen.
Using the last of his wages he purchased two pistols and a powder shot, then spent a good few days perfecting his aim at shooting galleries across the capital.
On 10 June he dressed smartly in a light silk waistcoat and brown frock coat – fittingly, it had previously been worn at a funeral – and set off at a brisk walk towards the palace. When he reached it he found crowds of people jostling for a glimpse of the queen, so he passed through the entrance and continued along constitution hill. He picked a quiet but not totally secluded spot and casually waited, leaning back against the iron railings of Green Park.
Two hours later the sudden sound of cheering alerted him to the presence of the monarch. The queen, with the prince by her side, emerged from the garden gate in a tantalisingly open carriage pulled by four horses.
As they waved to the crowd, Edward made his move. He walked forward, nodding his head, then drew a pistol from his coat. At just six paces away from the queen, he fired. Screams rang out among the crowd but the queen was unaffected, she didn’t even seem to realise she had been shot at. The horses started and the carriage came to an abrupt stop. Albert took his wife’s hand in his and asked if the fright had shaken her, but she merely laughed in reply.
Knowing he had moments before he was spotted, Edward drew out his second pistol, but in the brief pause the queen had spotted him. She ducked as Albert pulled her down and Edward fired. The ball passed just above her head and stuck in the opposite wall, in a moment the carriage rode away at speed.
By the time the authorities reached the scene the bloodthirsty crowd were chanting “Kill him! Kill him!” But when the constable grabbed Edward by the collar he calmly commented:
“You have no occasion to use violence. I am the person. I will go quietly.”
When his case came before the courts, Edward was found not guilty on the grounds of insanity, then transferred to a mental hospital. He soon became a model patient, and was later released on the assurance that he would emigrate and never return to the country. Edward agreed, traveling to Australia, changing his name and finding employment as a housepainter.
Thanks to his reinvention he was able to climb the social ladder and was even invited as the guest of the Governor to the queen’s 70th birthday celebrations. Now a gentleman of repute, he wrote to one of the few people who knew his true identity:
I should like a certain illustrious lady to know that one who was a foolish boy half a century ago is now a respectable and respected member of society.
The queen received an unexpected boon as a result of the assassination attempt. Iron willed, she insisted they continue with their outing despite the attempt at her life and returned to cheering crowds outside the palace. For the following days the royal couple were applauded everywhere they went, and there were even instances of the crowd randomly bursting into renditions of God Save The Queen.
Edward Oxford had attempted to kill her, but in reality he had helped her gain exactly the popularity boost that she needed.
“It is worth being shot at to see how much one is loved”
—Queen Victoria, 1882