The attempted assassination of the Queen by Edward Oxford, 10 June 1840

The season-ending episode of the British television series “Victoria” gave us a glimpse of Edward Oxford, the first of eight people who attempted to assassinate the British queen who reigned from 1837 to 1901. We last see the young man in a straitjacket, which is giving Oxford short shrift.

The incident occurred in 1840, substantially as it was presented in the television show. Victoria and her husband, Albert, were taking their customary carriage outing, accompanied only by two outriders, when Oxford, who was 18 years old, fired a pistol at them. Neither royal was injured, and it turned out that there was only powder in the weapon.

Edward-Oxford young

A baby-faced Oxford appears at his trial.

Oxford, who later said he fired at the queen only to draw attention to himself, had been accumulating weapons and ammunition and noodling around with a fictional military society. He was adjudged insane and sent first to the State Criminal Lunatic Asylum in Bethlem, Southwark, and then to Broadmoor Hospital in Berkshire. Victoria was portrayed in the television program as accepting the decision of the jury, but in actual fact she maintained that if Oxford had hanged, the later attempts on her life might not have happened. The series has been renewed for a second season, so maybe that aspect of the story will come out.

Oxford made the most of his time within the walls. He learned to draw, play the violin, and speak several languages, and he made himself useful as a painter and decorator. He was also known for his exceptional skill at chess and checkers. He was eventually declared sane and released on the condition that he live somewhere in the British Empire other than England.


Oxford, aka John Freeman, in 1856

Oxford went to Melbourne in southern Australia, where he adopted the name John Freeman, found employment as a house painter, and joined the West Melbourne Mutual Improvement Society.

In 1881, he got married to a widow who had two children. He became a lay official at St. Paul’s Anglican Cathedral, and he wrote articles for a newspaper, The Argus, about the city’s slums, markets, and racetracks. These articles provided the material for a book published in 1888, Lights and Shadows of Melbourne Life. John Freeman, or John Oxford–both, really–died in 1900.



Doing nicely on her own

June 21, 2014



I ordered two CDs from abroad in the past few weeks. One, a collection of Hebrew songs sung by Dudu Fisher, came from Jerusalem; the other, the first solo album by Charlotte Jaconelli, came from Britain. Despite the best of intentions, I haven’t listened to the Dudu Fisher album yet, but I listened to Charlotte Jaconelli’s album with in a couple of hours of receiving it, and I was not disappointed.

Charlotte Jaconelli was half of an act, with Jonathan Antoine, that caused a sensation when they appeared on Britain’s Got Talent in 2012. They were 16 and 17 years old, respectively, and they were an unlikely looking pair, she already cutting a glamorous figure and he very overweight and very casually dressed, with dark wavy hair falling down to his shoulders. There was the usual eye-rolling from Simon Cowell, and the air of resignation as he walked the teens through their bios. But when Jonathan and Charlotte cut loose — he with a startling operatic tenor and she with a pure pop soprano — the house was on its feet.

Jonathan and Charlotte 2


When the uproar had subsided, the judges were unanimous in their praise, but Cowell, in that delicate way that he has, suggested to Charlotte that she might hold Jonathan back in his career, and told Jonathan that perhaps he should “dump her.” “Well, We came here as a duo,” Jonathan said, “and we’re going to stay here as a duo.” Inexplicably, Jonathan and Charlotte finished the season in second place, behind a dog act, but Cowell signed them to a recording contract and they turned out two albums together. But then they split up because, Charlotte has said, they had different ambitions with respect to the kind of music they want to perform and record. Jonathan’s first solo album is due out in the fall, and Charlotte’s, aptly named Solitaire, was released recently.

From Charlotte Jaconelli's Facebook page

From Charlotte Jaconelli’s Facebook page

There are eleven songs on the CD — an odd number, by the way — and they seem to have been chosen so that on this first solo album, Charlotte can demonstrate her range. She performs pop, Broadway, and classical works, and her pure, silvery voice is equally at ease in all of them. One might detect a little bit of caution in this first solo venture; but, on the other hand, Charlotte also did not give in to any temptation to show off, something she has the vocal power to do. There are two duets (“I Know Him So Well” with Kerry Ellis and “All I Ask of You” with Daniel Koek) that demonstrate again that Charlotte’s voice holds its own with a male counterpart.

I was particularly happy to find that the carefully chosen playlist includes “I Dreamt I Dwelt in Marble Halls” from the 1843 opera “The Bohemian Girl.” This is a well-traveled song that has been recorded by performers as diverse as Enya and Sinéad O’Connor. Rosina Lawrence dubbed it for Julie Bishop in the 1936 film version of the opera, starring Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy. The song has been lampooned at times, but Charlotte Jaconelli’s sensitive performance makes it clear why the tune still has legs after 170 years.

We’re going to be hearing a lot from Charlotte Jaconelli. For now, you can click HERE to see and hear her sing “Pie Jesu,” one of the songs on the Solitaire album.





Perhaps I just wasn’t paying attention, but my impression is that the War of 1812 didn’t get much air time when I was in elementary and high school. Where American history was concerned, as I recall, it was all about the Revolution and the Civil War. It took me a while to catch up; it was relatively recently that I caught on that the War of 1812 was, in effect, a continuation of the Revolution.

Among the things I didn’t know about the war was that black men, free and slave, fought on both the American and British sides and also on behalf of the Spanish authorities who were futilely trying to hang onto the Florida territories. Gene Allen Smith, a history professor at Texas Christian University, covers that in detail in his book The Slaves’ Gamble: Choosing Sides in the War of 1812. 

An important aspect of this story is that the British, strapped for resources because their government was fighting what turned out to be the decisive war with Napoleon Bonaparte in Europe, encouraged American slaves to bolt from their masters and either emigrate to a British possession — notably Nova Scotia — or enlist in military service. Either way, the British promised the slaves their freedom.

Drum used by black drummer Jordan B. Noble at the Battle of New Orleans.

Drum used by black drummer Jordan B. Noble at the Battle of New Orleans.

Besides filling their ranks, the British saw this strategy as a means of undermining the Southern economy. The number of slaves who took advantage of the opportunity was slight compared to the million-plus who were in bondage at that time, but the fact that the British were welcoming slaves sent shock waves through the South, where white people always feared a slave rebellion.

Although this is a story about a war fought on many fronts over three years, Smith puts a human face on it by providing anecotes about particular black men who played a part in the epoch.

One example was George Roberts, a free Marylander who served during the war on numerous American privateers — private vessels that harassed and even seized British shipping on the U.S. government’s behalf. Another was Jordan B. Noble, who was born a mixed-race slave in 1800 and joined the 7th U.S. Regiment as a drummer in 1813. He served in the Battle of New Orleans and later took part in the Mexican, Seminole, and Civil wars.



A sad if not surprising episode in this history concerned Andrew Jackson, who recruited slaves to help in protecting New Orleans from a British attack. Jackson promised to free the slaves in return for their service, but, Smith writes, never intended to do so. Jackson, according to the author, “committed them to his cause rather than permitting them to assist the British, and this tied them to the United States.”

Allen explains that, once the war was over, the impact of the British strategy had the unintended effect of strengthening the plantation system in the South and opening new territory — namely, what had been the Spanish Floridas—to slavery. In general, the competence and bravery black soldiers  and sailors  contributed to the American cause during the War of 1812 was not adequately rewarded. On the contrary, some of the worst experiences for black people in the United States were yet to come.

When we took a bus tour of London many years ago, the guide pointed out that all the iron work outside the apartment windows was painted black. She said this practice dated to the reign of Queen Victoria, who was so distraught by the death of her husband, Prince Albert, that she called for the paint job as a sign of mourning. That sounded a little hokey to me, but it made a good story.

Victoria’s mourning for Albert, who died in 1861, was no joke, however. The queen was plunged into a lengthy state of depression, and lived a comparatively isolated life for a British monarch, although surrounded by her children and official household. One person who managed to pierce the shell around the queen was John Brown, a Scottish servant. Their relationship is the subject of the 1997 film “Mrs. Brown,” which stars Judy Dench as Victoria and Billy Connolly as Brown.

The queen had retired to Balmoral Castle after her husband’s death, and Brown — who had a long-standing association with the family — was sent there principally to care for her pony and accompany her when she chose to ride.

From the start, Brown showed the queen none of the truckling deference she was accustomed to. In fact he spoke to her rather bluntly, addressing her as “woman,” and said exactly what was on his mind. This appealed to Victoria, and she started to rely more and more on Brown’s advice, and he more and more took control of the affairs of the castle, and particularly of anything that had to do with the comings and goings of the queen.

This development along with Brown’s abrupt personality and penchant for drinking irritated pretty much everyone else in the household, especially Albert Edward, the prince of Wales, the queen’s son and later King Edward VII. Meanwhile, there was mounting pressure for Victoria to become more visible to her subjects — pressure that included a movement in Parliament to deinstitutionalize the monarchy. At first Brown supported the queen in her resistance to this pressure, but his change of heart on the matter led to a crisis in their relationship.

To what extent, if any, there was a romance between Victoria and John Brown is still a matter of conjecture. Certainly folks at the time thought there was something afoot, and that’s why the queen was derisively referred to as “Mrs. Brown.”

Although certain aspects of the story are fictionalized in this account, the movie basically portrays real events. The film was made by the BBC for television, but instead it was released as a theatrical property and made a lot of money. The performances, including Anthony Sher’s turn as a foppish Benjamin Disraeli, are outstanding. Judi Dench won a Golden Globe Award and was nominated for an Oscar.


The story of Henry VIII and his marriage to Anne Boleyn is widely known in its broad essentials. But such a thing as the divorce and remarriage of a king of England is not simply done — particularly when the nuptial rearrangement is frowned upon by the pope and the Holy Roman Emperor.

Henry’s decision to put aside his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, in favor of Anne Boleyn came at the dawn of the Renaissance when the political life of Europe could not have been more complicated. It was that complexity rather than any such goal on Henry’s part that protracted and inflamed the matter to the point that it resulted in a permanent breach between the English crown and the papacy and, of course, the founding of what we know as the Church of England.

In her history, “The Divorce of Henry VIII,” Catherine Fletcher puts Henry’s case in the context of Europe in the mid 16th century in terms of both the shifting relationships among kingdoms and other political entities and in terms of the  swarm of diplomatic agents who scurried around the continent eavesdropping, spying, stealing, bribing, kidnapping, crossing and double crossing, and often living the high life that went along with representing a monarch.

Catherine of Aragon

In fact, the author tells the story largely in terms of these last, these “diplomats,” with particular attention to Gregorio Casali, a native of Rome who represented Henry at the papal court when the divorce issue began to brew. Fletcher, who seems to have done a lot of detective work to trace the activities of this relatively obscure character, explains that it was not unusual in Europe in that era for men to hire themselves out as ambassadors for countries other than their native land. In fact, she writes, it wasn’t unusual for men to hire themselves out as ambassadors to more than one crowned head at a time. This kind of activity was an industry in itself — a family business for the Casali clan that included Gregorio and several siblings who pursued the same career.

Because of the slow pace of communications, envoys working at a distance from their patrons were often given wide latitude in the conduct of their offices; particularly while Cardinal Wolsey was Henry’s chancellor, Gregorio often acted on his own when the circumstances seemed to demand it. On the other hand, in the days before electronic cash transfers, people in Gregorio’s line of work frequently had to shell out their own cash to keep up appearances or even to keep eating and hope that the payments due would be forthcoming. And these diplomats, as it were, had their work cut out for them, what with the constant warfare in Europe and the resulting ebb and flow of military and political power. Gregorio’s course in representing Henry before the pope wasn’t made any easier by the fact that Catherine of Aragon was the emperor’s niece. When the issue of a divorce first arose, the pope and the emperor were seriously at odds, which theoretically weighed in Henry’s favor in the Vatican, but while the matter dragged on, Clement and the emperor made peace. And that complication was superimposed on many other considerations involving the major powers in Europe and the many states, including the papal ones, that made up what is now Italy.


The question Henry raised was tricky. He had married Catherine in the first place with a papal dispensation because she was the widow of his brother. But in his frustration over Catherine’s failure to provide a male heir, and in his infatuation with Anne Boleyn, Henry now decided that the marriage to Catherine was null because it conflicted with a principle stated in the Book of Leviticus, and he wanted the pope to say so. Clement had to deal with  both the philosophical and moral issues raised by that request and balance his decision against what effect it would have on his position in the grand scheme of European politics. For most of the six years that Henry’s campaign went on, Clement stalled.

As Henry became more and more impatient and less and less concerned about the authority of the pope, Gregorio’s position became increasingly tenuous. But that seemed to be an almost inevitable experience for those who wanted to play in the high stakes games Fletcher describes in this book.


I was working in the faculty room yesterday when one of the instructors asked the open air, “Does anyone know anything about Newtonian physics?” I told him his question was coincidental, because I had just finished reading a  book about Isaac Newton, the 17th century physicist, mathematician, and natural philosopher.

I think I correctly answered my colleague’s question, which had to do with Newton’s Second Law of Motion: “A change in motion is proportional to the motive force impressed and takes place along the straight line in which that force is impressed.” But while the book I just read explained the achievements for which Newton is still regarded as one of the greatest of geniuses, its purpose is to recount the work of his later life, when he was warden of the Royal Mint — and particularly the relentless detective work with which he brought to justice Britain’s most brazen counterfeiter.

Statue of Isaac Newton - and the apple - at the Oxford Museum of Natural History

Newton did his signature scientific work at Trinity College in Cambridge, but he lobbied friends for many years to get him a political appointment in London. It finally came in the form of position at the mint, which made the silver coins that were Britain’s only hard currency at the time. When Newton arrived at his office in the Tower of London, the kingdom’s economy was on the verge of collapse, partly because  of expensive military operations undertaken by William of Orange and partly because the royal currency was, in a word, disappearing. An old issue of coins was being degraded by so-called “clippers” who shaved bits of silver from the money to be melted down and sold. Meanwhile British silver was leaving the country altogether because it was worth more in exchange for gold in other countries than it was in exchange for commodities in England. The result was a bull market for counterfeiters, including the audacious and dangerous William Chaloner.

Newton’s predecessors as warden of the mint had not taken the job seriously except as a source of income, and that was expected of Newton, too. But he applied to the mint the same combination of energy and curiosity that had fueled his discoveries in fields like gravity and the behavior of light and his development of the mathematical system known as the calculus.

Isaac Newton's image on a one-pound note

First, Newton took control of a program already underway when he arrived – the recall and replacement of all British coins then in circulation. This project was limping along when Newton took over, and he put the means in place to accelerate it and get the job done in a fraction of the projected time. Then he turned his attention to the counterfeiters, employing a network of spies and informers and counter-agents and double crossers to gather information and pounce on “coiners” – eventually including Chaloner, whose career as a counterfeiter had had its ups and downs.

Isaac Newton investigates the refraction of light.

Like most such scoundrels, Chaloner made his share of mistakes, and one of them was to publicly claim that the heart of the nation’s counterfeiting problem was in the mint itself, and imply that Newton’s incompetence was partly to blame. Don’t knock the Rock. Newton went after Chaloner with a vengeance, spending hundreds of hours personally interrogating people who could help build a case against the fraud. Chaloner had been in and out of prison several times and had dodged the noose that was reserved for counterfeiters, whom British law regarded as traitors. In Newton, he had met his match and – ultimately – his maker.

“Newton and the Counterfeiter,” both informative and entertaining, was written by Thomas Levenson, who is a professor of science writing at MIT.

A topic that Levenson discusses throughout this book – in fact, it’s an important thread that runs through all of Newton’s activities – is Newton’s search for contact with God. In fact, Levenson reports that religious matters became the preoccupation of Newton’s life when he had put most scientific inquiry behind him. I discussed that aspect of the book in a column in the Catholic Spirit, and it’s available at THIS LINK.



Andy Burnham, the British culture secretary, wants the Office of Communications to investigate whether the television network and the producers of “Britain’s Got Talent” had acted responsibly toward Susan Boyle in the runup to the show’s finals. The implication is that the people behind the show that vaulted Boyle from the obscurity of a Scottish village to the limelight of YouTube should have done a better job of protecting her from the effects of sudden fame.

Burnham made reference to Britain’s broadcast code when he called for a determination that “duty of care” had been exercised with respect to Susan Boyle, who was briefly hospitalized for exhaustion after coming in second in the show’s finals. The Office of Communications doesn’t think the broadcast code covers what happened to Boyle, but Burnham said: “We are living in a world where it is not just about what happens on telly on a Saturday night. There is 360 degree scrutiny, 365 days a year.  We need to look after people, not just around the camera. Broadcasters should always put people’s welfare first.”

This has prompted some bitter responses from readers of The Times of London, some sympathetic to Susan Boyle, some not. Some of the readers were outraged that the government would even think of becoming involved in a trivial, private matter. I liked the comment from Al of Manchester:

The UK is full of cruel people feasting on a diet of bile soaked Tabloid fodder and Reality TV trash. First they jeered and sneered at Susan for not looking like a singer and now they do the same because she not “tough enough to take it”. What a sad place and sad people we’ve become.

And Jessica of Eastbourne:

Can I just say that “they” did not treat Susan any differently than any of the other contestants. Susan was a victim of the throwaway celebrity culture that the UK and the US fawn over so much. If anyone “threw her away” it was the public, and the show’s producers are not as much to blame as we are.

What I loved about the reporting of this story is that after the universal handwringing and public penance over the snickering and eye-rolling when Susan Boyle first appeared on the show, the media couldn’t mention her without pointing out how “dowdy” she is, how unlikely a celebrity she is, or without calling attention again to the fact that she is a “virgin” who has “never been kissed.”



Pretty soon, Americans visiting London will be able to stop by to see how Ronald Reagan is making out on his pedestal. An ten-foot bronze statue of the fortieth president of these United States will be erected on a six-foot stone plinth outside the United States Embassy in London. To make this possible, local authorities had to set aside a policy under which a person must be dead for ten years before being memorialized with a statue. Apparently there is a strain of skepticism in the British, but for this purpose they’re willing to concede that Reagan is not only merely dead, but—in the words of the Coroner of Oz—really most sincerely dead. At the very least, Reagan will provide some company for Dwight Eisenhower, whose effigy stands nearby.



This is the work of disciples of former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who simplified modern world history for generations of students by declaring that Reagan had single-handedly toppled the Soviet Union. U.S. Ambassador Robert Tuttle, who was George W. Bush’s appointee, was said to have enthusiastically supported the idea before he left office in January, turning the embassy over to a diplomatic staff of the Obama stripe. When the current personnel were asked what would happen to Dutch when the embassy is removed to new quarters south of the Thames, they replied that they didn’t know, because “it isn’t our statue.”

There is no unanimity among the British about this development. David  Boothroyd, a Labour member of the local committee that waived the “sincerely dead” rule, voted in the affirmative, remarking that “you have to set aside your personal politics when you have a person of global importance like Ronald Reagan.” A little further to the left, the Green party chair of the local committee said, “What a ridiculous person to put on top of a monument. … It would be the same as putting up a statue of Arnold Schwarzenegger. Will they do that next?”