As Britain longest reigning monarch, who would have thought that Queen Victoria’s life could have been ended so early in her reign in 1840? Only three years before had she been announced Queen on the turn of her eighteenth birthday, freeing herself from the control of her Controller of her household Sir John Conway. However one event in 1840 brought the prospect of an early death to Queen Victoria as this was the year that the first of eight assassination attempts was put on her life.
The assassination attempt that I am going to look at in this blog update is the attempt by Edward Oxford (later known as John Freeman) conducted on 10 June 1840. The main focus of this update is to look at the man at the centre of the event, Edward Oxford and understand why he did it and what happened next.
Edward came from a family where there were problems in the family dynamic. Born in 1822, Edward was born in Birmingham and was the third of seven children. His mother was Hannah Marklew, a daughter of a respectable family from the Midlands, whilst his father George Oxford was from less known roots. George Oxford was employed as a gold-chaser, one of the best according to the sources and in 1818 married Hannah. The issue was that he convinced Hannah to marry him by saying that he would shoot himself if she didn’t. They married in secret and had their first child soon after. However, like his father John, George was prone to fits of anger and spent the family’s money whenever he wanted including a four-month trip to Dublin where he wasted his money in pubs. Edwards father died in 1829, leaving Edward in the care of his maternal grandfather, though he was back with his mother soon enough. He moved about a lot during his childhood, often changing schools in succession as teachers grew more frustrated with his behaviour. It was also at this point that he began displaying the same mood swings as his father and grandfather, particularly in regard to his attitude towards life. Some historians have commented that this attitude and his belief that people saw him as less than others contributed to him attempting to assassinate the Queen. One possible reason for the attempt is believed to be to so that he could gain attention for himself, which he certainly did, and to become a person whom society would remember.
The attempt on Victoria’s life ended as soon as it began. Edward fired two shots, both which missed the Queen and Prince Albert whilst they were travelling through Constitution Hill near Hyde Park and had been disarmed immediately, surrendering to the police to face the consequence of his actions. After multiple interviews, while also uncovering his place in a secret society called the ‘Young England’, Edward was to be tried under the Treason Act of 1351. His trial was set for 9 July 1840 with Edwards’s defence being led by Mr Sydney Taylor with the aim of defeating the treason charge. After much deliberation and witness interviewing, the jury found Edward not guilty on the grounds of insanity. On 18 July Edward was moved from Newgate Gaol to Bethlem Hospital in Southwark and secured in the criminally insane wing, which at the time had around 400 inmates. Whilst the conditions were poor by today’s standards, Edward quickly understood his environment and set out to make the most of it. He took opportunities to learn new languages and skills that would serve him well in his later life. However, when the criminal wing in Bethlem was closed in 1864 Edward was moved to Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum in Berkshire.
The next stage of his life began three years later when Edward was released on the condition that he never return to England and live out the rest of his days in the colonies. Arriving in Melbourne, Australia in February 1868, Edward changed his name to John Freeman and quickly set about making a new life for himself. Using the skills learnt at Bethlem, Edward began as a house painter though shortly rose within the ranks of society taking every new opportunity for better jobs and meeting in the process many important friends. Edward married a young woman in 1881, Miss Jane Bowen and together they lived in multiple classy homes in some of the best areas of Melbourne. During this time Edwards learning skills also improved and as a result of this, his wrote a book Lights and Shadows of Melbourne Life in 1888. John Freeman died in 1900 at the age of 78, with no one the wiser as to whom he really was and what he had almost done.
To summarise, Edward Oxford’s attempt on Queen Victoria’s life was to first of many assassination attempt and like the rest failed to kill the monarch. Barrie Charles concludes that Edward was a genius in the way that he managed to cleverly do the things he did and survive to live a relatively good life in Australia. I think that though Edwards’s upbringing certainly played a part in the affair, it seems that Edward knew what he was doing and knew the consequences for himself had he succeeded.
Barrie Charles., Kill the Queen!, The Eight Assassination Attempts on Queen Victoria (2012)
Antonia Fraser., The Lives of the Kings & Queens of England (2000).