Friday, June 10, 2011

June 10, 1840 – Queen Victoria Assassinated

In what is commonly called the greatest tragedy of the nineteenth century, Queen Victoria of England was assassinated by eighteen-year-old Edward Oxford. She was only twenty-one years old, newly married, and was four months pregnant (a revelation that came out scandalously during Oxford’s trial). News of the death of the beloved queen set England into a time of mourning as it had never seen, and it created a new environment of politics as the crown shifted to her uncle, Ernest Augustus I of Hanover.

Victoria was born May 24, 1819, and was fifth in line for the throne. However, a series of bad luck producing heirs gradually brought her closer in the line of succession until she was told at age eleven that she would succeed her uncle, William IV, whose daughters had died in infancy. The morose young girl replied, “If I am to be queen, then I shall be good.” Upon the death of William IV, eighteen-year-old Victoria became queen. Her mother, with whom both William and Victoria had strained relations, was to act as regent in the case that Victoria was still a minor, but William declared on his seventy-first birthday, “"I trust to God that my life may be spared for nine months longer…” rather than place the affairs of the crown someone he saw as “incompetent” and “surrounded by evil advisers.”

The king made good on the hope, dying on June 20, 1837, a month after Victoria had come of age. She became very popular with her subjects and especially with the Whigs in Parliament under Prime Minister Lord Melbourne, who guided the impressionable Victoria in her early days. In 1839, political upheaval tossed aside the Whigs as the Radicals and Tories led to Melbourne’s downfall. That October, Victoria gained a new influence as she proposed to Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, whom her uncle, the King of Belgium, hoped she would marry. The two had fallen deeply in love, and their short time together is often portrayed as the subject of numerous tragedies both on stage and film; notably, 2009’s The Young Victoria won seven Oscars.

On a visit to her mother (famously not in St. James Palace) while riding in her carriage with Prince Albert, Edward Oxford fired two shots from a pistol, killing Victoria with one and wounding Albert with another. Oxford was quickly seized by the crowd that had gathered to see the Queen and nearly killed before Her Majesty’s guard managed to drag him away. He would be convicted and executed for high treason in July of 1840 with many calling to renew the punishment of being drawn and quartered, which hadn’t been done in England since 1681. Although the government would have no part in such punishment, Oxford’s heart would be stolen in an unsolved crime.

The widower Albert went back to Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, and returning from Germany was Victoria’s sixty-nine-year-old uncle Ernest Augustus, who would be crowned King Ernest I of Great Britain. Ernest, Duke of Cumberland, had participated in the Napoleonic Wars, but numerous scandals had made him into something of an unwanted dog in British politics. In 1810, his valet Joseph Sellis had apparently attempted to murder him for cuckoldry, and, in 1813, he had dabbled in elections in the House of Commons, which was very frowned upon for a peer. After the war, he earned the wrath of Wellington by pushing against the Catholic Relief Act in 1829 and general disgust by being one of the few to vote against the Reform Act of 1832. He had even been considered part of a supposed conspiracy by the anti-Catholic group the Orange Lodges to put Ernest on the throne instead of Victoria, whom they took as a young girl unfit for the crown.

Instead, upon the death of William IV, Ernest took the title of King of Hanover as Salic Law would not allow female Victoria to inherit. William IV had never even visited Hanover, but Ernest took interest in the small German kingdom. He seemed chased from England by Wellington, who said, "Go before you are pelted out," and Victoria, who had asked him to give up his apartments in St. James Palace, which he refused as he planned to visit England regularly. He disliked Albert (a feeling held very mutual) and denied him precedence, citing the decades-old establishment of order at the Congress of Vienna. Away from Britain, he had faced a crisis as the locals of Hanover preferred the viceroy, Ernest’s brother, the Duke of Cambridge. Ernest sought to reform the kingdom in his own image, dissolving the parliament, voiding the constitution, and demanding new oaths of allegiance, which seven professors of Göttingen University, including the Brothers Grimm, refused. Professors were exiled and protests put down until the political system came to gradual stability in 1840 with new parliamentary deputies, just in time for Ernest to be summoned to Britain as king.

Ernest’s decade-long reign would serve as the last of the British monarchs. He was staunchly conservative and royalist, even disapproving of many of Prime Minister Robert Peel’s modest reforms. When the Potato Blight struck Ireland, he was dubbed “The Famine King” and was blamed for the lack of aid, even opposing the repeal of the Corn Laws. Peel’s government hung onto power despite its unpopularity by royal “hot air”, to quote cartoons in The Times, and when revolutions broke out in 1848 in other countries, it struck Britain by focusing on the Crown. Although Ernest had instituted a number of benefits upon the people such as funding for the opera and hospitals, he was seen as an aged relic from another time and many presumed he was part of Victoria’s assassination since her mother lived in a rented house rather than the palace. Ernest’s son George, next in line for the throne, was blind after illnesses in 1828 and ’33 and viewed to be even more militantly royalist than his father. When Ernest set about putting down workers’ uprisings with cavalry and exiling professors, Parliament moved to privatize the Royal Family in 1849. Ernest departed to Hanover, where he sought to build an army and retake Britain by force, but he died in 1851 before his invasion could be put into motion.

Hanover, too, would soon be lost when Prussia deposed George V after winning the Austro-Prussian War of 1866 during the campaign of uniting Germany under the Prussian Kaiser. The powerful royalist government would soon become the mortal enemy of the British Republic, fighting a number of wars between 1871 and 1945.


In reality, Edward Oxford missed his shots. He was acquitted on grounds of insanity and taken to Bethlem Royal Hospital before ultimately being exiled to Australia. Queen Victoria went on to rule until 1901, during which time Britain undertook major reforms and expanded into the British Empire, governing one-quarter of the Earth’s people. She had nine children, all married into the royal houses of Europe and infamously carrying hemophilia.

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