Friday, May 20, 2011

Margaret Nicholson Attacks the King with a Dessert Knife, 1786

Friday, May 20, 2011
Susan reporting:

Assassination is a constant concern for any monarch. Queen Victoria was particularly fearful of being killed, and with good reason, too, after surviving numerous attempts on her life. In the days before high-tech security, English kings and queens were much more accessible to their people, and often moved freely among them.

On August 2, 1786, King George III was climbing from his carriage before St. James's Palace when a neatly dressed, middle-aged woman approached him with a scrolled paper. Assuming she posed no threat and that the paper was simply a petition, the king accepted her offering. As he did, the woman lunged at him, stabbing at him twice with a pearl-handled dessert knife. The assailant's jabs were ineffectual and the blade too blunt to cause any injury, and the king's guards quickly drew her away.

Margaret Nicholson (c.1750-1828) would hardly fit anyone's image of a royal assassin. A woman of a respectable working-class family who had been a servant in genteel households, Margaret was earning her living as a mantua-maker at the time of the attack. Newspapers reported that she had been dismissed from her last position after an unhappy love affair with a fellow-servant; as is often declared with women, a broken heart supposedly unhinged her mind. While no one who knew her had seen any earlier evidence of madness, a search of her rooms after the attack discovered delusional letters that made many wild claims, including that she was the rightful heir to the throne. In custody she protested that she'd only wished to frighten the king, not hurt him.

The king himself believed her. He spoke in her defense even as she was captured: "The poor creature is mad," he famously said. "Do not hurt her, for she has not hurt me." His words were viewed as a sign of wondrous mercy coming from a king, and they likely saved Margaret's life as well. (It's tempting to see the king's mercy as a kind of empathetic premonition, since two years later in 1788 he, too, would be wrestling with his own "madness".) Even an unsuccessful regicide was high treason, and carried a sentence of death. But thanks to the king's intercession, Margaret was declared too insane to stand trial, and was instead committed to live out her life at Bedlam Hospital.

The reaction to the decision was curiously mixed. Even as some newspapers congratulated the king on his escape from death and praised his forgiveness, other critics in this revolutionary age (the Americans had recently won their rebellion, and within a decade the French would have a revolution, too), viewed the king's clemency as fishy royal finagling, a tyrant bypassing the rightful due process of law. By the end of the century, Margaret's case had set the precedent for the Criminal Lunatics Act of 1800, which introduced the concept of "not guilty by reason of insanity." The attempted assassination also inspired the young poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. While still a university student in 1810, Shelley collaborated with a friend on a collection of political poems, Posthumous Fragments of Margaret Nicholson, that purported to be written by Margaret and only published after her death.

But in 1810, Margaret was still alive in Bedlam Hospital. Margaret spent the final forty-two years – nearly half of her long life – as an inmate there. Consider William Hogarth's depiction of Bedlam, above right, from 1734, where the ill-treated, manacled patients are treated as amusing diversions by visiting spectators, and it almost makes execution appear the more merciful choice.

Top: Margaret Nicholson attempting to assassinate his Majesty King George III by Carington Bowles, published 1786.
Bottom: "The Rake in Bedlam": from The Rake's Progress by William Hogarth, 1734.

4 comments:

Isobel Carr said...

Knowing what we all do about the conditions at Bedlam, I’m not sure there was much mercy involved.

Jane O said...

Forty-two years in Bedlam! I can't begin to imagine the horror of it.

Anonymous said...

What a dreadful choice! I suppose that this was considered forward-thinking, but what a terrible way to spend one's life. I would guess that she'd be a favorite "exhibition" for the gawkers, too, the madwoman who tried to kill the king. Poor lady.

nightsmusic said...

I don't remember what I was watching but it was something on the news and the plea for the defendant was 'temporary insanity'. I wondered where the phrase/verdict came from and now I know!

I wonder though if maybe the King's plea was done because he knew what kind of hell she would live in once committed to Bedlam and felt he got his 'revenge' against her attempt. You know, the old 'death is too good for you' thing?

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