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.

Edward_Oxford_c_1856

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.

 

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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.