Mourning gowns. Repression. Colonialism. Jack the Ripper. If there’s just one more thing that defined the reign of Queen Victoria, it was people trying to kill her.
Britain’s second-longest ruling monarch (after the most recent Queen, Elizabeth) survived eight attempts on her life during her years on the throne. On this day in 1842—having already lived through being shot at by an unemployed eighteen-year-old named Edward Oxford in 1840—she survived being shot at again by a man named John Francis. In fact, Francis had tried to shoot her the previous day as well, according to The Telegraph. A few weeks after that, a man named John Bean tried to shoot her with a pistol loaded with bits of a tobacco pipe.
The queen’s would-be assassins all had their own reasons for doing what they did. But as none of them succeeded, none of them made it into the history books in the manner of John Wilkes Booth, Abraham Lincoln’s murderer. “Victoria’s seven would-be assassins were all shooting stars,” writes historian Paul Murphy: “they came from nowhere, burst into the light of public attention for a short time following their attempts and disappeared back into obscurity.” They all lived for many years after trying to kill the Queen, he writes.
Only one attempt on Victoria’s life actually injured her, and it was the only one not made with a gun. In 1850 an ex-soldier named Robert Pate hit her over the head with an iron-tipped cane while she was in the courtyard of her home, Murphy writes. “It left the Queen with a black eye, a welt and a scar that lasted for years,” he writes. She appeared two hours later in Covent Garden to prove that she was well and that her injury wouldn’t stop her from seeing her subjects, he writes.
Although Victoria’s would-be assassins all gave different reasons for what they did, notoriety—which is, after all, almost as good as fame—was certainly among them.
But that fame worked both ways, writes Lucy Lethbridge for The Guardian. The attempts on her life, and her response to them, made Victoria herself better known and better liked. Victoria herself once said, "It is worth being shot at to see how much one is loved,” Lethbridge records. It was a shot of much-needed good PR for a throne “whose recent incumbents had been for the most part foreign, degenerate and unpopular,” Lethbridge writes.
The trials of the men who tried to kill the queen, most of whom pleaded insanity, also helped to strengthen the legal standards by which pleas of incapacity are prosecuted, writes Bruce Steele for the University Times. Those changes came with the assassination attempt made by Roderick Maclean in 1882. After he fired a revolver at her in a train station, Victoria led the charge to have a legal definition of insanity established. By this point, she was the black-clad widowed queen that she would be for most of her ruling years, and the attempt and the public’s reaction enabled her to consolidate her power.
Editor's Note, May 31, 2017: This article incorrectly reported that an assassination attempt against Queen Victoria occured in 1940; the correct date of the assassination attempt is 1840.