It happened at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane

It was during the playing of the national anthem at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane on the evening of Thursday 15th May 1800 that James Hadfield fired a pistol at King George III who was standing in the royal box.  Hadfield missed and was grabbed at once by the guards. He immediately claimed that he had fired over the king’s head but that “it was not over yet – there was a great deal more and worse to come.”

Hadfield’s background is obscure, but by 1794 he was serving in the British army. In that year he was severely injured at the Battle of Tourcoing (in the war against revolutionary France); he was struck eight times on the head with a sabre and then captured by the French. These wounds affected him severely, and the scars he would bear for the rest of his life.

Returning to England, he became involved in a millennialist movement and later said he had come to believe that the Second Coming of Jesus Christ would be advanced if he himself were killed by the British government. He therefore resolved, in conspiracy with Bannister Truelock, to attempt the assassination of the King and bring about his own judicial execution. 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 re-joined his army regiment, arriving in Croydon Barracks on Tuesday 5th 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 him 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.”

There are some that believe that maybe, just maybe, James wasn’t as mad as he made out.  He had become immersed in the murky world of millenarian sects in London’s underworld and was fiercely attractive to the poor due to his widely touted credo that ‘worldly hierarchies and suffering would come to an end with an imminent return to the reign of king Jesus as a real and physical ruler over the earth’.

At this time the ‘Millenarian Belief’ was enjoying a popular revival and, just like the English Revolution of the 1640s and ‘50s, millenarian ideas merged, mingled and cross-referenced with radical politics.  In the same London pubs, radicals and millenarians sat elbow to elbow; millenarian prophets generally proclaiming themselves to be Christ, of king of the Jews, and from there it was but a short step to “demanding King George’s crown”.  James Hadfield had fallen into the company of Bannister Truelock, a shoemaker and religious activist, who prophesied the second coming of Jesus Christ. He also claimed the Messiah would be ‘born from his mouth’. It was Truelock that had encouraged Hadfield in the plan to shoot the king.  Mad, religious or not, Truelock certainly understood the coming of the millennium in a directly radical and practical way.

Hadfield was defended by Thomas Erskine, the leading barrister of that era when he was tried for high treason.  He pleaded not guilty on the grounds of insanity while the authorities made great efforts to prove that Hadfield was sane.  They also tried to find evidence to try Truelock but were unsuccessful in that line. Both Hadfield and Truelock may have been cleverer than they made out, since their religious mania was said to have only been evident after their arrests.  Whatever the truth of it, the authorities clearly associated Hadfield and Truelock’s religious mania with the insurgent proletarian underground they feared.

Hadfield’s landlady gave evidence that he was always complaining about the price of provisions – “a seditious bad character”, who told her that “the king would be assassinated and we should have no more Kings to reign at all.”  It was Truelock who was said to have persuaded Hadfield that by shooting mad king George, he would bring peace to the world. To be found not guilty on insanity grounds at that time, the defendant had to be shown to be “lost to all sense … incapable of forming a judgement upon the consequences of the act which he is about to do”.

The fact that Hadfield had planned the shooting clearly contradicted such a plea. Under the 1795 Treason Act, there was little distinction between plotting treason and actually committing treason so Erskine chose to challenge the insanity test. Two surgeons and a physician were called to give evidence that the delusions were the consequence of his earlier head injuries. At this point, the judge, Lloyd Kenyon, stopped the trial, declaring the verdict “clearly an acquittal” but “the prisoner, for his own sake, and for the sake of society at large, must not be discharged”.  To make sure that Hadfield was not released, and that his example didn’t inspire others, Parliament speedily passed the Criminal Lunatics Act of 1800 to provide for the indefinite detention of insane defendants.  The Treason Act – also of 1800 – made it easier to prosecute people for attempts on the life of the king.

Hadfield was locked up in Bethlem Royal Hospital for the rest of his life – although, for a short period he escaped and was recaptured at Dover attempting to flee to France! He died in Bethlem in 1841 of tuberculosis. 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…”

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