I've spent half a century writing for radio and print (mostly print). I hope to still be tapping the keys as I take my last breath.
Attacking a Monarch
Ralph Waldo Emerson advised that “When you strike at a king, you must kill him”; a surviving monarch might be inclined to seek revenge. This was a lesson that Margaret Nicholson was to learn after her feeble attack on King George III in 1786.
Who Was Margaret Nicholson?
Her father was a barber in Stockton-on-Tees, a town in northern England. Margaret was born in about 1750 and, by the time she was 12, was employed as a maid. She worked in service in some noble households until she had the misfortune to develop feelings for a valet with whom she is said to have “misconducted herself.” Gasp.
Servants were supposed to live chaste lives, so when Margaret's attachment to another servant was discovered in 1783 she was booted out; no references, of course. Many women in such a situation at the time turned to the only occupation open to them—prostitution. But, Margaret managed to eke out a living doing needlework.
She moved south and conducted her business in London. At this time, she seems to have begun losing touch with reality.
University of the West of England Professor Steve Poole says “Margaret Nicholson felt something needed to be done to improve her life, so she petitioned the king . . . she thought she was due a property settlement of some sort and she thought she was due a decent marriage, possibly to the king himself.”
She petitioned King George about 20 times and, of course, she received no satisfactory, to her, response. She decided that stronger action was needed.
Attempted Assassination of King George III
On August 2, 1786, Margaret Nicholson waited patiently by the gate to St. James's Palace. As the king stepped out of his carriage she approached with a piece of paper in her hand, thought to be another petition. It was, in fact, a blank sheet concealing a knife.
An account published some years later said Nicholson “struck with a concealed knife at his (the king's) breast; which happily he avoided by drawing back. As she was making a second thrust, one of the yeomen caught her arm, and, at the same instant, one of the King’s footmen wrenched a knife from her hand. The King with great temper and fortitude, exclaimed, ‘I am not hurt. Take care of this poor woman. Do not hurt her.' ”
Upon examination, the weapon turned out to be an old and rather worn dessert knife, not the sort of device a serious assassin would use. This lent credence to Margaret's claim that she meant only to get the king's attention, not to kill him.
Taken into custody, Nicholson was questioned extensively and it was determined she was probably insane. The question then became, what to do with her? To make an attempt on the life of the monarch, no matter how inept, was high treason for which the only punishment available was death.
It was decided to send her to the Bethlem mental hospital—the infamous madhouse also known as Bedlam—for assessment.
Inside Bethlem Hospital
Margaret Nicholson was examined by a Dr. John Monro who said that “never in his life had he seen a person more disordered.” Historian Lucy Worsley notes that such a strong statement “makes you wonder if he's overstating the case so they can all, with good conscience, lock her up.”
The Museum of the Mind comments that “Some saw this as an imposition of tyranny and a lack of due process, others as too mild a punishment for a crime that could result in execution, but many thought it an act of clemency. The King was praised for his words, which it was felt had undoubtedly spared her life.”
But, what kind of life could it be inside Bethlem? Committed to the madhouse in 1786, it was not until 1791 that the chains that restrained her to her cell were removed. However, she was still deemed “incurable,” although it seems likely her mental health was not greatly compromised.
Patients in Bethlem were routinely plunged into cold water, a therapy that Dr. Monro said “has in general an excellent effect.” Other treatments involved induced vomiting and purging along with bleeding. Leeches might be applied to the temples to draw out the “evil humors” along with the blood.
Those who could afford the entrance price were allowed to view the Bethlem inmates in a ghoulish, zoo-like, entertainment. This became one of London's top tourist attractions until about 1815 when reforms were introduced to improve living conditions.
Despite the incarceration in often inhumane conditions, Margaret Nicholson seems to have become “tranquil,” the word coming from some unknown person inside Bethlem. However, release into the outside world was not likely. There is no record of such an instruction but it's very likely the people who ran the asylum had been told to make her custody permanent.
Margaret died in Bethlem in 1828, it's oldest patient.
- In 1810, Percy Bysshe Shelley and Thomas Jefferson Hogg published a collection of poetry under the title Posthumous Fragments of Margaret Nicholson. The work was a hoax that allegedly contained poems written by Nicholson, the pranksters seemingly unaware that she was still alive in Bethlem.
- On May 15, 1800, King George III was reviewing troops in Hyde Park when a shot was fired. The bullet hit an aide near the king. Later that evening, George went to the Theatre Royal. As he entered the royal box a man in the audience fired a pistol at the monarch but the bullet missed. James Hadfield was wrestled to the ground. He was later declared insane and he too was confined in Bethlem.
- Two years after Margaret Nicholson's clumsy attack, George III fell victim to the first of a series of bouts of mental illness. Theories as to the cause include accidental arsenic poisoning and porphyria, a genetic liver and blood disorder. More recently, psychiatrists have determined the king suffered from bipolar disorder, characterized by mood swings from depression to elation with periods of perfectly normal behaviour in between.
- During one of King George's periods of recuperation from his bipolar attacks he stayed with a Member of Parliament called George Rose. Watching his monarch suffer, Rose became interested in mental health and was at the forefront of reforms in treatment. His initiatives led to the demolition of Bethlem and its replacement with a more humane hospital.
- “Margaret Nicholson: Her Attack on George III in 1786.” Geri Walton, geriwalton.com, April 3, 2020.
- “Lucy Worsley Investigates 4/4 -The Madness of King George.” Lucy Worsley, BBC, May 24, 2022.
- “Margaret Nicholson in Bethlem.” museumofthemind.org.uk, undated.
- “Bedlam: The Evil Secret in the Heart of London.” Bipin Dimri, historicmysteries.com, undated.
- “Double Assassination Attempt on George III 15 May 1800.” Rachel Knowles, regencyhistory.net, May 15, 2013.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2022 Rupert Taylor