Two Attempts to Assassinate King George III in a Single Day, 15 May 1800

Theatre Royal, Drury Lane

On 15 May 1800, George III went to Hyde Park to review the 1st Foot Guards. During the review, a shot was fired which narrowly missed the King. Mr Ongley, a clerk in the Navy Office, who was standing only a few paces away, was struck, and it was said that “had the wound been two inches higher it must have been mortal”.

Undeterred, later that same day, at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, James Hadfield tried to shoot King George III while the national anthem was being played, and the king was standing to attention in the royal box, along with other members of the Royal Family.

It’s reported that after missing his target, Hadfield then said to the king:

‘God bless your royal highness; I like you very well; you are a good fellow.’

From Regency History and Wikimedia, we learn, “Michael Kelly, the musical director of the theatre at the time recorded: ‘When the arrival of the King was announced, the band, as usual, played ‘God save the King’. I was standing at the stage-door, opposite the royal box, to see His Majesty. The moment he entered the box, a man in the pit, next the orchestra, on the right hand, stood up on the bench, and discharged a pistol at our august Monarch, as he came to the front of the box. Never shall I forget His Majesty’s coolness – the whole audience was in an uproar. The King, on hearing the report of the pistol, retired a pace or two, stopped, and stood firmly for an instant; then came forward to the very front of the box, put his opera-glass to his eye, and looked round the house, without the smallest appearance of alarm or discomposure.”

“The orchestral performers seized the perpetrator – an ex-soldier named James Hadfield who was later judged insane – and dragged him into the music room under the stage. The audience demanded that Hadfield should be brought on the stage, but Kelly succeeded in calming them with the assurance that he was in safe custody and that, if he were brought forward, he might have the chance to escape. Despite the Lord Chamberlain urging him to retire, George III determined to remain and see the performance.”

We know very little of Hadfield’s early years, but we do know that he was captured by the French at the Battle of Tourcoing in 1794, supposedly after being struck on the head eight times with a sabre. Over the years that followed, these wounds were spoken of for their prominence, especially in the accounts of his trial. We also know that he followed the millennialist movement [Millennialism, also called millenarianism or chiliasm, the belief, expressed in the book of Revelation to John, the last book of the New Testament, that Christ will establish a 1,000-year reign of the saints on earth (the millennium) before the Last Judgment. More broadly defined, it is a cross-cultural concept grounded in the expectation of a time of supernatural peace and abundance on earth.] As such, Hadfield thought the Second Coming of Jesus Christ would be advanced by his own death, specifically at the hands of the British government. He, therefore, resolved to conspire with Bannister Truelock to kill King George III and bring on his own punishment. T

The Past Tense Blog tells us, “In other witness accounts, after James Hatfield received more wounds from prisons and escaped, he said he had found a lake where he could bathe his wounds, claimed he was in heaven and that he was the biblical Adam and made himself a ‘covering of boughs of trees’ to put round his waist. He was taken to prison again after that where he smashed a water jug and proceeded to cut his feet with it to ‘purge away his sins’ whilst claiming he was the ‘Supreme Being’.

“After some time, he got well again and escaped to Calais, where he then took a boat to Dover, arriving in London in September 1795. He rejoined his army regiment, arriving in Croydon Barracks on 5 April 1796 and was discharged soon after due to insanity and was collected by his brother. He eventually found work as a silversmith. But he became very depressed, and began to believe that God had big plans for him. God told Hadfield that when he died the world would die too. According to the usually trumpeted account, ‘after several ‘fits of insanity’ including one where he threatened to dash his child’s brains out (just days before), he made the assassination attempt on Mad King George.‘”

King George was in attendance at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, on the evening of 15 May 1800. During the playing of the national anthem, King George stood in place in his royal box. Hadfield took the opportunity to fire a pistol at the King. Thankfully, the shot was unsuccessful.

Thomas Erskine, the leading barrister of the time, defended Hadfield during the trial. Hadfield pleaded insanity, but such was a hard road to prove, for in the Georgian era, to be “insane” the defendant must be “lost to all sense … incapable of forming a judgement upon the consequences of the act which he is about to do”. Hadfield’s planning of the shooting appeared to contradict such a claim. Moreover, according to the 1795 Treason Act, plotting treason was equal in severity as was committing treason

According to European Royal History, “Erskine chose to challenge the insanity test, instead contending that delusion ‘unaccompanied by frenzy or raving madness [was] the true character of insanity’. Two surgeons and a physician testified that the delusions were the consequence of his earlier head injuries. The judge, Lloyd Kenyon, 1st Baron Kenyon, at this point, halted the trial declaring that the verdict ‘was clearly an acquittal’ but ‘the prisoner, for his own sake, and for the sake of society at large, must not be discharged.'”

In 1800, Parliament passed the Criminal Lunatics Act to make it easier to define “insane” in such cases. That was quickly followed by the Treason Act of 1800, which made it easier to prosecute those who attacked the King.

Hadfield was confined to the Bethlehem Royal Hospital, although he did one briefly escape, but was recaptured at Dover as he attempted to flee to France. He was held at Newgate Prison for a time, but then transferred back to Bethlehem Hospital, known commonly as “Bedlam.” Hadfield died from tuberculosis in 1841.

The Past Tense Blog also tells us, “Truelock was also held in Bedlam; he was still there in 1816, ‘perfectly quiet and always occupied at his trade…‘ he ‘had an insight into his own condition an acknowledged that his religious views were preventing his discharge, although he considered them perfectly orthodox‘. Another observer thought him ‘cool, steady, and deliberate in all his actions…‘ Mad Truelock and Hadfield may have been, but then madness is a reasoned response in the face of class oppression, war and exploitation.”

This medal commemorates the two failed assassination attempts on the life of King George III in a single day. When a gun went off in Hyde Park and wounded a man a few steps away, George III calmly offered his assistance. Later that day, the unflappable monarch took in a comedy at the Theatre Royal. As the national anthem played, a disturbed war veteran named James Hadfield fired his pistol at the royal box, convinced he could hasten the Second Coming of Christ by being killed in an act of regicide. When he missed, he offered friendly words to the unfazed sovereign – and the play went on. Hadfield was acquitted of treason due to insanity and should have been freed. But the prospect of an assassin on the loose was so worrying that new legislation was drafted, allowing insane offenders to be detained indefinitely ”at His Majesty’s pleasure.” ~ https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:King_George_III_Assassination_Attempt_Medal,1800(35535720232).jpg
https://www.britannica.com/biography/George-III

Sources of Interest:

The BNA Blog (Contains links to other tales in the British Newspaper Archives of Hadfield’s escape from prison and recapture)

European Royal History

James Hadfield

Millennialism

Past Tense Blog

Regency History

About reginajeffers

Regina Jeffers is the award-winning author of Austenesque, Regency and historical romantic suspense.
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