Madness, Mayhem, and the Rebirth of the British Monarchy
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On the morning of 4 May 1840, Edward Oxford stepped out of his lodgings in West Place, West Square, at the Lambeth border of Southwark, and set off eastwards into the heart of that densely populated, proletarian district south of the Thames. He was eighteen, though his diminutive stature and baby face made him look much younger. He was—unusually for him—suddenly prosperous, with £5 in his pocket. And, for the first time in ages, he was free: unemployed by choice, and finally able to pursue the ambition that had been driving him for some time. He set off into what Charles Dickens called the “ganglion” of Southwark’s twisted streets, his destination a small general goods store on Blackfriars Road.
Behind him lay one of the very rare green expanses within the gritty boroughs of Lambeth and Southwark. West Square, where Oxford, quitting his job in the West End, had moved four days before to be with his mother, his sister, and her husband, was one of the very few gardened squares on that side of the river. The square was meticulously maintained and gave this neighborhood an unusual air of gentility. And directly to the west of the square, a stone’s throw away, a bucolic English-style garden relieved the area from the surrounding urban sprawl. This greenery, however, was not part of a public park—no such thing existed in Southwark at the time—but rather the connected grounds of two institutions. Directly adjacent to West Square stood the Bridewell House of Occupation, a home and school to indigent children. And behind this rose the cupola of an immense neoclassical building: Bethlem Hospital for the Insane.
Southwark had been for the last twenty-five years the latest location of Bedlam, or Bethlem Hospital, which had held many of London’s insane since the fourteenth century. Behind Bethlem’s walls operated a carefully structured world within a world designed to deal with different degrees and classifications of insanity. And, at the extremities of the hospital, segregated from the rest of the hospital and, with high walls, from the world outside, lay the feature that made Bethlem unique: it housed England’s only purpose-built facility for the criminally insane. Communication between the worlds inside and outside the asylum was largely restricted to sound: the occasional shrieks of the patients might have carried as far as West Square; the clanking and clattering of industrial South London must have intruded upon the disturbed thoughts of the patients.
But on this day, if Edward Oxford was even aware of Bethlem’s world within a world, he was headed away from it, literally and figuratively. He had his entire life largely kept himself—his dreams and his plans—to himself. Today, however, that would change. Today, Oxford would take a major step toward recognition by all of London—by the world. Today, he would buy his guns.
Back in his room at West Square, Oxford kept a locked box. When, five weeks later, the police smashed its lock and opened it, they found the cache of a secret society: a uniform of sorts—a crepe cap tied off with two red bows—and, neatly written on two sheets of foolscap, a document listing the rules and regulations of an organization optimistically named “Young England.” The documents revealed Young England to be a highly disciplined insurrectionary body.
Copyright © 2012 Paul Thomas Murphy
During Queen Victoria’s 64-year reign, no fewer than eight attempts were made on her life, all between 1840 and 1882. In Shooting Victoria, historian Paul Thomas Murphy follows each would-be assassin and examines the profound repercussions of their actions. Through these episodes, he also offers an engrossing micro-history of Victorian England, illuminating details of daily life, the development of the monarchy under Queen Victoria, and the evolution of the attacks in light of evolving social issues and technology.
The assassins were all driven by inner demons and, in many cases, a desperate need for fame. There was eighteen-year-old Edward Oxford, a bartender who dreamed of becoming an admiral, who was shocked when his attempt to shoot the pregnant Queen and Prince consort while they were riding in their carriage on Constitution Hill made him a madman in the world’s eyes. Hunchbacked John William Bean dreamed of historical notoriety in a publicized treason trial—and tried to shoot the Queen with a pistol he had failed to load properly. William Hamilton, forever scarred by the ravages of the Irish Potato Famine, shot at the Queen—but, again, with an improperly loaded pistol. Eccentric Scottish poet Roderick MacLean, whose attempt to shoot Victoria was thwarted by a group of schoolboys, enabled the Queen to successfully strike insanity pleas from Britain’s legal process. Most threatening of all were the “dynamitards” who targeted her Majesty’s Golden Jubilee—the final skirmish in the Fenian dynamite campaign, which was planned, organized, and financed by Irish-Americans. Although the plot was botched, it signaled the advent of modern terrorism with a publicly focused attack.
From these cloak-and-dagger plots to Victoria’s brilliant wit and steadfast courage, Shooting Victoria is historical narrative at its most thrilling, complete with astute insight into how these attacks actually revitalized the British crown at a time when monarchy was quickly becoming unpopular abroad. Each assassination attempt focuses on a figure—the assassin—but the consequences they wrought make up a single epic with a central protagonist: the Queen herself, who converted each episode of near-tragedy into a new and greater order that strengthened the bond between herself and her subjects. While thrones across Europe toppled, the Queen’s would-be assassins contributed greatly to the preservation of the monarchy and to the stability that it enjoys today. After all, as Victoria herself noted, “It is worth being shot at—to see how much one is loved.”
In bringing together these stories for the first time in one book, Murphy offers a new understanding of one of England’s great monarchs.
Hardcover Book : 688 pages
Publisher: Pegasus Books, Inc. ( July 01, 2012 )
Item #: 13-611208
Product Dimensions: 6.0 x 9.0 x 1.72inches
Product Weight: 31.0 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
This is an excellent book, very interesting and entertaining.
I've only given it 4 stars however due to the fact that it is so horribly edited. The author should possibly have his editor taken out and shot at if not actually shot. As a professional editor myself I cannot understand how the editor let pass such mistakes as were let through. They range from simply silly to such convoluted sentences that one must read them several times before they can be translated into something simpler that makes sense.
Having said that, however, I do advise this book to anyone interested in Queen Victoria as it is interesting and mostly fun to read.