On a late spring evening in June, 1840, a young man could be seen loitering on a footpath at Constitution Hill, close to Buckingham Palace.
|Edward Oxford: on a mission|
His name was Edward Oxford, an unemployed waiter with an unhealthy obsession with guns and target practice.
Over the previous months, he’d spent a great deal of time at the shooting galleries in The Strand and Leicester Square. Now, he was hoping to put his skill to good use.
It was almost 6pm - the hour when the young Queen Victoria and Prince Albert were accustomed to take their evening drive through London. They did so in an open phaeton - a low carriage that was pulled by two horses.
|The queen's evening ride|
Even more enticing - from his viewpoint - was that she was four months pregnant with her first child. If he succeeded in killing her, he stood a near certain chance of also killing her heir (assuming the child was a boy).
A week before the assassination attempt, Oxford had taken himself to a shop in Lambeth owned by a former school friend named Gray. He bought fifty copper percussion caps and asked Gray where he could buy bullets and gunpowder. Gray sold him powder and told him where he could get hold of ammunition.
|Two shots ring out|
At around 4pm on 10 June, Oxford took up position on Constitution Hill. After a long wait, he heard the sound of horses’ hooves. It was the queen and her husband: as expected, they were riding without guards.
As their phaeton swung passed Oxford’s hiding-place, he lunged forwards and fired both pistols in rapid succession. It was not immediately clear if the queen had been hit, for the carriage rattled off down Constitution Hill. Horrified onlookers dragged Oxford to the ground and pulled the weapons from his hands.
He made no effort to struggle and nor did he attempt to hide his attempt on the queen’s life.
‘It was I, it was me that did it,’ he said, somewhat incoherently.
|Absolute chaos as the queen rides away|
The police now began to interrogate him, and soon found him to be unusually compliant. In fact, he appeared happy to tell them everything.
He admitted that his pistols had been loaded; he also gave them his home address so they could search the place. They found a locked casket containing a sword and scabbard, two pistol-bags, powder, a bullet mould, five lead balls, some of the percussion caps.
They also found details of a dangerous underground military society called Young England, complete with a list of officers serving in this clandestine organization.
Each member was said to be armed with a brace of pistols, a sword, rifle and dagger. The police even unearthed correspondence between Oxford and his fellow members.
But once they set to investigate Young England more closely, it was found to exist only in Oxford’s imagination. The entire society, its members and its rules were all invented.
Oxford’s Old Bailey trial was postponed for almost a month as police undertook a thorough investigation of his motives. They also searched the crime scene, but were unable to find the bullets that Oxford said he’d fired.
|An early policeman, c 1840|
Now, he dramatically changed his story, saying that the guns had contained only gunpowder.
When the trial finally opened amidst huge publicity, Oxford seemed completely detached. Witness after witness testified that he came from long line of alcoholics with a tendency towards mental instability. Oxford certainly seemed to fit the family mould - a deranged individual with an eccentric streak.
The jury acquitted him, declaring him not guilty on the ground of insanity. The queen was furious, but there was nothing she could do. She did, however, have the satisfaction of seeing him sentenced to be detained ‘until Her Majesty’s pleasure be known.’
Oxford spent the next 24 years in the Lunatic Asylum of Bethlem, South London. He was a model prisoner: courteous, friendly and obliging. He taught himself French, German and Italian, along with Spanish, Greek and Latin. He also spent his time drawing, reading and playing the violin, and was later employed as a painter and decorator within the asylum.
In 1864, he was transferred to Broadmoor, by which time it was clear he was a danger to no one - not even himself. He admitted that he’d never wanted to kill the queen; rather, he'd wanted to secure notoriety for himself.
|The young queen|
He agreed and was shipped to Melbourne, where he married a widow with two children and became a respectable warden at his local church. He died a virtuous citizen, his youthful act of terror all but forgotten.
But one person could never forgive him for what he’d done: Queen Victoria was absolutely furious that he hadn’t been hanged.
When, in 1882, a second assassin, Roderick McLean, attempted to shoot her, she ridiculed the idea that men could escape the death penalty by pleading insanity.
In her eyes, all who lifted a finger against her - even if mad - should be executed.
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