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We Are Not Amused XII

Dr Nick Hervey here concludes his series of posts sharing his research on a police file on ‘…Insane Persons and others who have come under the cognizance of the Police Force for offences against H.M. Queen Victoria…’

Clearly the safety of the monarch was a matter of great import, and although it may seem that Victoria was unfortunate in the number of attempts on her life, this figure could have been a great deal higher but for the vigilance of the police, and palace authorities. The growth of a royal protection corps came about in direct response to a rise in the number of incidents in the environs of the royal households, which could no longer be dealt with effectively by the palace authorities. The available evidence suggests that the police were effective in their work, preventing minor fracas and more serious attempts to harm the Queen.1 In response to attacks on the Queen's life, jurists were forced to reassess the criteria for responsibility in relation to the offence of regicide and attempted regicide, and to differentiate between serious intent to harm, and more mischievous threats. In a spirit of prevention, the police were also involved in promoting legislation to expedite the apprehension of persons who were acting in an insane manner in public.

What Victoria's reign suggests is that the majority of regicides and would be regicides were mentally disturbed individuals whose dangerousness lies in their unpredictability and lack of planning. However a number did betray their paranoid beliefs, and precautions were swiftly taken to prevent them acting out their delusional ideas. In those cases where insufficient evidence existed for an arrest, the police were prepared to keep people under surveillance for months on end, in order to ensure the safety of the monarch and other VIPs. Ironically the public unpopularity which Victoria experienced early in her reign, a hangover of her Hanoverian background and more immediately due to the bedchamber crisis, disappeared with successive assassination attempts, to be replaced with a veneration which owed much to her apparent invulnerability and a divine providence, in which she herself certainly believed.

Modern psychiatric interpretations of the imagery of kings and queens would almost certainly suggest the overwhelming need in many of us for powerful parental figures, and a number of the patients mentioned had suffered the loss of parents, or abuse at the hands of the latter. In addition, large numbers of other Victorian psychiatric patients had delusions which centred on the Queen and other authority figures. In the case of the former, this was hardly surprising, Victoria figured large in Victorian eulogies of family life, her nine children and close relationship with her husband representing a national ideal of matrimonial fidelity. Psychoanalysts would also point to the common desire to punish or damage bad parental figures. It is a moot point whether any of those who approached Victoria with intent to harm were influenced by the bad press she received in the early years of her reign or by envy of her privileged position, but it is clear that many mistakenly perceived her as being a source of patronage or support, and when their approaches were rejected, reacted angrily towards those barring access to her. Amelia Resterlitz, had made repeated applications to the Queen for assistance, becoming increasingly annoyed when she got no reply. Before Victoria’s marriage in February 1840, and for a year or two afterwards, the Queen also seems to have attracted a number of single men who fantasised having a marital or sexual relationship with her. However the incidence of this diminished thereafter, and the preoccupation of those who approached her generally seemed to be with seeking patronage.

Later in her reign Victoria invited comparisons with Elizabeth I and Prime Minister Disraeli referred to her as his Faery Queen, or Gloriana. Before his second Ministry the Queen had again been the object of public unpopularity. When Albert died, the public sympathised with Victoria's obvious loss and her vulnerability, but when she continued to mourn Albert long after his death, the public resented her self imposed isolation. O'Connor's attempt on her life in 1872 repaired much of the damage done to her image, and with Disraeli's encouragement she began to appear in public more. Thereafter she remained popular and much loved for the rest of her life. Even in the early years of her reign however, many felt Victoria was too remote from her subjects. In Alton Locke (1850), Kingsley’s eponymous hero goes into the country to spread Chartist ideas, amongst the local populace, and his guide whilst there remarks on how nice it would be if the agricultural workers could explain their grievances to the Queen in person. The guide continued though, ‘It ain’t like the ancient times as I've read of, when any poor man as had a petition could come promiscuously to the King's royal presence, and put it direct into his own hand, and be treated like a gentleman. Don't you know as how they locks up the Queen now-a-days, and never lets a poor soul come a-near her.......Why, they never lets her stir out without a lot o’ dragoons with drawn swords, riding all around her; and if you dared to go up to her to ax mercy, whoot! they'd chop your head off before you could say “Please your Majesty”.’ Kingsley may well have been indulging in a popular pastime here, hunting up a golden age, but he was also reflecting a popular feeling about Victoria's inaccessibility.

It was difficult for the authorities to accommodate the twin demands of security and accessibilty. Popular iconography had created a mythical people’s royalty. Stuart monarchs, despite the oft quoted contact with their subjects through the healing powers of their touch, were generally remote. The Hanoverians, regardless of their open court, remained more attached to their German roots than to their English subjects. George III changed public perceptions to some extent by his illness, although the personal popularity he acquired later in his reign was in no way shared by the Prince Regent, who was deeply unpopular because of his extravagance, or by William IV. Only the Hanoverians’ staunch Protestantism recommended them to most Englishmen. Thus Victoria succeeded to a royal tradition which had barely tapped the vast reserve of public enthusiasm and reverence which undoubtedly existed for the monarchy. Ironically the unintended contribution of the ill-assorted group of mad men and women who got too close to the Queen for comfort was to strengthen official and public support for her personally, as well as for the institution of monarchy.

1 The success of the New Police’s plain-clothes work provides further support for recent revisionist accounts of the Force, which have criticised previous Whiggish interpretations which ignored the public order and social control aspects of the New Police which are highlighted here. Critics of Radzinowicz and Critchley include Allan Silver, ‘The demand for order in civil society: a review of some themes in the history of urban crime, police and riot,’ in Bordua D J, The Police: six sociological essays (New York, 1967) and Stedman Jones who basically undermined the concept of liberal forms of social control.