Only one of Queen Victoria’s assailants was actually sentenced to death for his crime. John Francis, the second to shoot at the Queen, was tried in June 1842 for High Treason, found guilty, and sentenced to be hung, beheaded, and quartered. And he was nearly put to death, even though it was never proven at his trial that there was a bullet in his gun. Francis’s defense attempted to prove that his gun was not loaded, and that Francis might have annoyed the Queen, but he did not intend to harm her. The prosecution countered with the assertion that, whether the gun was loaded with a bullet or not, Francis’s gun could have harmed Victoria—could even have killed her. They suggested that the wadding alone—the piece of paper rammed into the barrel to hold in the gunpowder—could have set fire to her dress. And the jury bought that claim. John Francis, then, was sentenced to death for firing a piece of paper at Victoria.
When his sentence was announced, Francis fainted and was dragged, insensible, back to prison. Two weeks later, his sentence was commuted to a lifetime of hard labor in an Australian penal colony. He died in Melbourne in 1885.
It’s a great pity they couldn’t suffocate that boy, master Oxford, and say no more about it. To have put him quietly between two featherbeds would have stopped his heroic speeches, and dulled the sound of his glory very much. As it is, she will have to run the gauntlet of many a fool and madman, some of whom may perchance be better shots and use other than Brummagem firearms. — Charles Dickens, 12 June 1840, two days after Edward Oxford shot at Queen Victoria.
Roderick Maclean’s attack upon Queen Victoria on 2 March 1882 was the last—and the only one that took place outside of London. Maclean fired at Victoria’s carriage as the Queen was leaving the station for nearby Windsor Castle. A bullet and bullet-mark were found, proving that Maclean had fired at a height to injure the Queen. Somehow, though, her carriage wasn’t hit: it was thought that the bullet passed between her and her Highland servant John Brown, perched uncomfortably outside on the carriage’s rumble-seat. Windsor railway station has changed dramatically since 1882—reduced, enclosed, remodeled—but one structure in the station remains much as it was back then: Victoria’s private waiting room. Maclean watched her emerge from this room and enter her carriage before he fired his shot. Victoria’s waiting room is now a restaurant; there is no longer a royal waiting room at Windsor. Apparently, when travelling by train to and from Windsor Castle, Queen Elizabeth waits for no one.
Shooting Victoria now available in paperback across the USA and Canada!
Victoria’s youngest saviors during the attempt upon her life in 1882—schoolboys Gordon Chesney Wilson and Leslie Robertson—earned the lion’s share of credit for protecting their queen from the gunman, Roderick Maclean. But actually, several other men fell upon Maclean and restrained him—before the two boys belabored him with their umbrellas. One of these captors was a Windsor photographer named James Burnside, Jr. Burnside grabbed Maclean’s gun hand, yanked it down, and loosened Maclean’s fingers from his pistol. Although the newspapers reported Burnside’s heroic action and Burnside recounted that action at Maclean’s trial, he never received royal recognition for his efforts. He was deeply irked by what he saw as a snub by the queen, and his annoyance only grew with time. Ten years after Maclean’s attempt, in 1892 Burnside—then in financial difficulty—wrote to then-Home Secretary Asquith suggesting that the Queen’s government could show their gratitude by providing him with contracts for photographic supplies. The Queen’s government, however, chose to do nothing, and with that James Burnside Junior apparently gave up his quest. James Burnside Senior, however, took up his son’s quest with almost pathological fervor, barraging Asquith with elaborate petitions, ornate with Shakespearean and Biblical parallels, crying out against his son’s plight. He alternatively pleaded with the government to accord his son due recognition, and threatened to sue the Queen and her government for this “scandalous miscarriage of justice.” The government decided, given the fact that over a dozen years had passed since the attempt, the fact that others as well as Burnside deserved credit for Maclean’s capture, and the fact that they seemed to be corresponding with a madman, decided to do nothing. At least once, Victoria herself became privy to Burnside Senior’s demands, but she agreed with her government to do nothing. Burnside Senior eventually published his entire correspondence in a local newspaper, sure that this would force the government to recognize his son’s heroism. It didn’t. Burnside’s last attempt to set the story right occurred in 1900, the year before the Queen’s death, when he angrily denounced a newspaper account of the heroism in 1882 of Gordon Chesney Wilson, then besieged at Mafeking; he simultaneously wrote to then-Home Secretary Matthew Ridley, again threatening to sue the Queen. He never did sue, and his son never received royal recognition for being the one who almost certainly stopped Roderick Maclean from taking a second shot at Queen Victoria.
When Roderick Maclean, Queen Victoria’s last assailant, fired his revolver at her at Windsor train station on 2 March 1882, a crowd of police and civilians immediately converged upon, captured and disarmed him. Quite a few people thus deserve credit for protecting the queen from harm by stopping her would-be assassin. But two boys gained the lion’s share of the glory for taking Maclean down. Gordon Chesney Wilson and Leslie Robertson, schoolboys at nearby Eton College, rushed upon the already-immobilized Maclean and belabored him soundly with their umbrellas. The press trumpeted their assault as demonstrating great loyalty to the throne, and the boys were widely celebrated as the heroes of the hour. Four days after the attack, Victoria herself awarded the boys by inviting all of Eton College to Windsor Castle, where she personally shook Wilson’s and Robertson’s hands.
For one of the boys, Gordon Chesney Wilson, this act of loyalty to the crown was the first of many: he lived and died a true son of the empire. He was Baden-Powell’s aide-de-camp at the siege of Mafeking, during the Boer War. He married a daughter of the Duke of Marlborough and thus became an uncle to Winston Churchill. In November 1914, he died fighting at the battle of Ypres. His body now lies in a Flanders field.
I’ve got to confess to cheating a bit in assembling the illustrations for Shooting Victoria. I tried to obtain depictions of each of Victoria’s seven assailants which, if not drawn from life, were at least drawn according to an actual description. With six assailants, I succeeded. With one, I failed. John William Bean is the one who got away. In spite of extensive searching, I have not been able to find a single accurate depiction of the boy. Not having a true portrait of Bean is particularly unfortunate, as physical descriptions of him at the time of his assault varied widely: reports of his height varied from 3’ 6” to 5’ 6”. How enlightening it would be actually to see the boy that the papers described as a “deformed, decrepit, miserable looking dwarf,” that Home Secretary James Graham called “a hump-backed boy of an idiotic appearance” and that Prime Minister Robert Peel called “the most miserable object he ever saw.” The Illustrated London News, which had begun publishing just weeks before Bean’s attempt, and which had depicted John Francis’s second attempt a month earlier, did not depict Bean’s attempt at all, most likely because so few actually saw the attempt: Victoria and Albert were not even aware Bean had threatened them until an hour or so after the fact. In order to provide some depiction of Bean, I included the above illustration from Punch, which is most certainly not drawn from life, and which fancifully depicts the rounding-up of London’s hunchbacks and dwarfs, conducted by the Metropolitan Police on the evening after Bean’s assault. If Bean is actually supposed to be among these sullen captives, there’s nothing that clearly distinguishes him from the rest. The only figure of the bunch who is identifiable as an individual—by cap, by outfit, by the curiously stylized deformity—is Punch himself, the second captive from the rear.
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Shooting Victoria—the UK edition—now available in paperback
BBC History - Prince Albert's cultural legacy: Albertopolis -
On the fruits of the Great Exhibition. And on the place beside which Arthur O’Connor, Victoria’s assailant #6, made his plan of attack.