15th May 1800 James Hadfield tries to shoot King George III

A Shot at the Theatre

On the evening of Thursday 15th May 1800 King George III visited the Drury Lane Theatre to watch a performance of a comedy called ‘She would, and she would not’ by Colley Cibber. When he entered Royal Box the orchestra struck up ‘God Save the King’ and everyone stood to attention – except for one man. James Hadfield was near the orchestra pit; he turned towards the Royal Box, drew out a pistol and fired at the King, missing him by a few inches.

Not surprisingly uproar followed, during which Hadfield was caught, disarmed, and taken backstage. The King insisted that the play continue, although accounts of the evening say it was something of a rushed performance with the cast struggling to concentrate. In contrast, the King was so unfazed by the attack that he apparently fell asleep during the interval! James Hadfield didn’t get to see any of the play as he was rapidly taken to Newgate Prison.

Who was James Hadfield?

A Captain in the British Army, James Hadfield had been seriously injured and left for dead whilst fighting the French in 1794. He received several sword blows to his head which also left his face badly scarred. He was taken prisoner and whilst he was recovering in hospital he suffered delusions; at one stage he believed he was Adam (as in Eve’s other half) and for a while he was under the impression that he was King George. He returned to England in 1796, but his war wounds had clearly caused serious mental problems and the delusions continued intermittently.

The Trial

The legal system moved a bit faster than now two hundred years ago, and within a few weeks Hadfield was on trial for High Treason. He pleaded insanity, but for this plea to be successful the defence would have to show that Hadfield had been “lost to all sense … incapable of forming a judgement upon the consequences of the act which he is about to do”. Clearly Hadfield had planned the attack and even chosen a moment to fire when the King conveniently presented a stationary standing target; so Hadfield’s barrister decided to challenge the existing test of insanity. Thomas Erskine, who was a leading barrister of the times, argued that delusion was a true character of insanity. A physician and two surgeons then gave testimony that Hadfield’s delusions were the result of his injuries sustained whilst serving in the army. The judge stopped the trail saying the defendant was acquitted but that “the prisoner, for his own sake, and for the sake of society at large, must not be discharged”.

Criminal Insanity

Previously, people acquitted because of insanity were often allowed to go free or were released into the care of their families. James Hadfield presented an ongoing risk to the King and possibly other people so a new law was hurriedly passed. The Criminal Lunatics Act allowed dangerously insane defendants to be detained indefinitely. Hadfield was sent to spend the rest of his days at Bethlem Royal Hospital (also known as Bedlam). At one stage he escaped and reached Dover in an attempt to get to France, but he was recaptured and taken to Newgate Prison. In 1816 he was moved back to the hospital, which had been rebuilt on a new site and now included a special secure wing for the criminally insane, with space for 45 men and 15 women. James Hadfield died there of tuberculosis in 1841.

The Criminal Lunatics Act was only repealed in 1981 and cases of criminal insanity are now regulated by the Mental Health Act.

It seems a strange co-incidence that an attack on a monarch who was known for his own mental illness (he had had episodes of illness in 1765 and 1788 and would have more in later life) should lead to a significant change in the law regarding the treatment of those who committed crimes whilst mentally ill.

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