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Oxford Martyr 1

Over a year ago we promised that we would let blog readers know when two new books on Edward Oxford, one of Victorian Bethlem’s most famous patients, were published. We have - admittedly, in passing - already alerted readers to the publication of one of them, and now we provide a partial review of it, with the intention of devoting a second post to the other. Paul Murphy’s Shooting Victoria “documents”, in the words of the author, “the important if unwitting parts the Queen’s seven assailants played in the great love story between Victoria and Victorians”, Murphy’s thesis being that she “converted each episode of near-tragedy into one of triumphant renewal for her monarchy, each time managing to strengthen the bond between herself and her subjects”.1 Oxford’s was the first attempt on her life, in 1840, but Murphy’s trawl through the transcripts of the subsequent trial gives rise to considerable doubt concerning its seriousness - doubt encapsulated in a question put by the defence to a medical witness:

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“Supposing a person in the middle of the day, and without any suggested motive, was to fire a loaded pistol at Her Majesty passing along the road in a carriage, and that such person afterwards remained on the spot, declaring that he was the person who had fired - nay, even took pains to have it known, and that afterwards he entered freely into discussion, and answered questions put to him on the subject, would you refer such conduct to a sound or unsound state of mind?”2

Oxford’s defence against the capital charge of treason rested on two propositions: that the guns he used were loaded with powder but not shot, and that he was insane at the time of the shooting. The jury’s acceptance of either proposition “would result in Oxford’s acquittal”, as Murphy writes, but “the consequence of acquittal for unloaded guns differed dramatically from the consequence of an acquittal for insanity”.

“If [the jury could not dismiss the possibility that] Oxford had no balls in his pistols, he would walk from the Old Bailey a free man. If, on the other hand, he was acquitted on the ground of insanity, he would be subject to confinement at the Queen’s pleasure - confinement that could last for decades, if not a lifetime”.3

Though the indications that Oxford was of unsound mind were inconclusive, so was the evidence that his pistols were ever loaded. With the benefit of one hundred and seventy years' worth of hindsight, it seems more likely that he was attempting an extremely ill-advised publicity stunt. The jury initially returned this delphic verdict: “We find the prisoner, Edward Oxford, guilty of discharging the contents of the two pistols, but whether or not they were loaded with ball has not been satisfactorily proved to us, he being of unsound state of mind at the time”.4

Arguably, this amounted to a finding of ‘Not guilty’ in law (there being no English equivalent of the Scottish ‘Not proven’), there clearly having been doubt in the minds of members of the jury concerning whether Oxford’s guns had been loaded. Over against the protests of the defence, however, the presiding judge ruled that the jury must return to their deliberations to formulate a clearer verdict. Uncertainty about Oxford’s ammunition was not reflected in their second, equally confused attempt: “Guilty, he being at the time insane”. Since “by law no one could be simultaneously found insane and guilty of a crime”, the judge obtained the agreement of the jury to record the verdict as ‘Not guilty on the ground on insanity’.5

As has already been noted, the fact that acquittal took place on this ground was fateful for Oxford - it meant decades, if not a lifetime, of confinement (first at Bethlem, then at Broadmoor) at Her Majesty’s Pleasure. There is in fact much more to Oxford’s subsequent life than this, as Murphy goes on to recount later in his book, and as anyone familiar with the story will know. For the time being, however, we will leave him in the position in which he found himself in the wake of his trial: as a hapless living martyr to the sentiments of the British establishment, which was outraged by the prospect of him being (in the words of the prosecuting attorney) “let loose upon society to endanger the life of Her Majesty or her subjects”,6 whether he had committed a treasonable offence, or not.

Naturally, there is also much more to Murphy’s book. Oxford’s case is but the first, paradigmatic case out of seven he recounts which turned out to Victoria’s advantage - not just because she escaped unharmed on each occasion, but because “she [and, in his lifetime, her husband Albert] refused to hide or allow any visible sign of heightened security” in the aftermath of these incidents, thereby demonstrating “that absolute trust existed between them and their subjects, and…that no would-be assassin could ever come between them”.7

To be continued.