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This paper examines two attempted 18th century cases of regicide: those of Robert François Damiens against Louis XV and Margaret Nicholson against George III, which have similar circumstances yet, on the face of it, strikingly different outcomes. For both assailants were seemingly unremarkable individuals, employed for much of their working lives as domestic servants, the attacks were relatively minor and both were diagnosed as 'mad'. However, Margaret Nicholson was to be confined for life in Bethlem Royal Hospital for the insane, whereas Robert François Damiens was tortured and torn apart by horses at the Place de Grève. The name of Damiens resonates today amongst scholars of criminology through the utilization of his execution by Michel Foucault in the opening to his seminal work Discipline and Punish: the Birth of the Prison (1975); Margaret Nicholson is less widely known. By analyzing the considerable amount of media and literary coverage devoted to these attempted regicides at the time this paper concludes by locating these crimes as symptomatic of the 'spirit of the times'.
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DOI: 10.1177/1477370813494860
published online 29 July 2013European Journal of Criminology
Jayne Mooney
A tale of two regicides
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DOI: 10.1177/1477370813494860
A tale of two regicides
Jayne Mooney
City University of New York, USA
This paper examines two attempted 18th century cases of regicide: those of Robert François
Damiens against Louis XV and Margaret Nicholson against George III, which have similar
circumstances yet, on the face of it, strikingly different outcomes. For both assailants were
seemingly unremarkable individuals, employed for much of their working lives as domestic
servants, the attacks were relatively minor and both were diagnosed as ‘mad’. However, Margaret
Nicholson was to be confined for life in Bethlem Royal Hospital for the insane, whereas Robert
François Damiens was tortured and torn apart by horses at the Place de Grève. The name of
Damiens resonates today amongst scholars of criminology through the utilization of his execution
by Michel Foucault in the opening to his seminal work Discipline and Punish: the Birth of the Prison
(1975); Margaret Nicholson is less widely known. By analyzing the considerable amount of media
and literary coverage devoted to these attempted regicides at the time this paper concludes by
locating these crimes as symptomatic of the ‘spirit of the times’.
Historical research, regicide, popular resistance
She is fortunate to live in this kingdom, hey? It is not long since a madman tried to stab the
King of France. The wretch was subjected to the most fiendish torments – his limbs burned
with fire, the flesh lacerated with red-hot pincers, until in a merciful conclusion, he was
stretched between four horses and torn asunder.
We have at least outgrown such barbarities.
The Madness of George III by Alan Bennett (1992: p.3)
On Wednesday 2nd August, 1786, Margaret Nicholson, a middle-aged woman who had
spent most of her working life in domestic service, approached King George III at St
James’s Palace as he got out of his carriage with what looked like a rolled-up petition. As
the King moved forward to receive it she stabbed him with ‘an old ivory-handled dessert
Corresponding author:
Jayne Mooney, Associate Professor of Sociology, Sociology Dept., John Jay College of Criminal Justice, John
Jay College of Criminal Justice and the Graduate Center, CUNY, 524 W 59th St, New York, NY 10019, USA.
494860EUC0010.1177/1477370813494860European Journal of CriminologyMooney
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2 European Journal of Criminology 0(0)
knife’ (The Gentleman’s Magazine, 1786, 56: p.709). Shocked but not hurt, the knife
having barely penetrated his clothing, George III turned towards his assailant uttering the
words, “The poor creature is mad! Do not hurt her! She has not hurt me” (Burney, 1890:
p.357).1 In France, 30 years prior to Nicholson’s assault, another servant, the poor
‘wretch’ in the opening passage of The Madness of George III, Robert-François Damiens,
approached King Louis XV as he went to board his carriage and stabbed him with a pen
knife. This resulted in a ‘small wound’ below his fifth rib. In a gesture similar to that of
George III, the King was reported to have said, “There is the man who struck me. Let him
be seized, and no harm done to him” (The Monthly Review, 1757, 17: p.64–65).
The two events received an enormous amount of media attention and, following
Margaret Nicholson’s attack on George III, were frequently compared; the response to
Nicholson being seen as representative of a ‘civilized’, more advanced society. Both
Damiens and Nicholson were widely characterized as ‘mad’. Damiens, it was said,
would “often talk to himself and mutter inwardly” (The Monthly Review, 1757, 17: p.59);
Nicholson’s mother and brother declared her state of mind “to be very unsettled” (The
Lady’s Magazine, 1786: p.396) and following examination, Drs. John and Thomas
Monro, the most famous psychiatrists of the day, declared Margaret Nicholson “intel-
lectually damaged” (The Lady’s Magazine, 1786). Nicholson was thus certified ‘insane’
and confined to Bethlem Royal Hospital in London for life; Damiens was repeatedly
tortured before being torn apart by horses in the Place de Grève in Paris.
In this paper I wish to examine the similarities and differences between these two
attempted regicides and to keep in mind the historian EH Carr’s often-cited invocation to
keep the frontiers between the two disciplines of history and sociology “wide open for
two way traffic” (Carr, 1961: p.84). My major theoretical focus will be on the relation-
ship between the motivations of the individual actors and the ‘spirit of the times’. In this
task I do not evoke the notion of ‘downward causality’ (see Førland, 2008), but rather
tend towards Margaret Gilbert’s (1992) conception of ‘plural subjects’. In this, the actors
involved contribute to the construction of the ‘spirit of the times’ which, in turn, by creat-
ing imaginative communities, have consequences over and above those of each separate
group. The concept of imagined communities is, of course, true for all communities,
which are by their nature social constructions and to this extent imagined entities. In this,
following Førland, I thus reject methodological individualism whilst retaining the pri-
macy of ontological individualism. Additionally, I will consider whether these two regi-
cides are idiosyncratic events which can only be presented idiographically by considering
the ‘facts of the matter’ or, alternatively, nomothetically in terms of generalizations about
madness and mental pathology.
My method involves a detailed examination of both cases supported by contemporary
press sources and the widespread public comments from both intellectuals and the gen-
eral populace. Historical research presents a number of challenges that should be
acknowledged from the outset. Mary Bosworth (2001), in her interesting discussion of
the methodological implications and problems of studying the imprisonment of women
in 18th century France, notes the patchy and faint information that is often the only mate-
rial available in historical research2 and how the researcher’s ethical stance can affect
interpretation of the data. However, as Bosworth points out, these problems are not to be
avoided, for as criminologists we have a duty to understand and document the past as
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Mooney 3
much as the present and to provide a critical commentary on it. Further, an analysis of the
past may provide a foundation on which to interpret the present; thus, studying the ‘vio-
lence’ that incarcerated women endured in this period helps to reveal “the longevity of
the symbolic and actual violence and suffering that rests at (the) core” of punishment
(Bosworth, 2001: p.437) which has a resonance with this present study. While we must
always exercise a degree of caution in interpreting historical data, it should be noted that
my work, being based on two well-known attempted regicides, does benefit from a
wealth of documentary information. As Eisener (2011) in his study of regicide points out,
the positive aspect of studying such prominent subjects is the easily accessible details of
their cases.
Robert-François Damiens
My God, give me strength, give me strength. Lord, my God, have pity on me. Lord, my God, I
am suffering so much. Lord, my God, give me patience.
(The words of Robert-François Damiens, during his punishment at the Place de Grève, Paris,
26 March, 1757).3
The fate that befell Robert-François Damiens has come to be seen as symbolic of the
cruelty of the ancien régime, with the administration of justice presented as arbitrary,
dominated by religious bigotry, often decided in secret and incorporating interrogation
and punishment techniques which were excessive and brutal. Although by the mid 1700s
the use of torture and the death penalty were beginning to wane in France, there were still
troubling instances that serve to remind us of the cruelty that people can inflict on one
another (Bosworth, 2001). In the case of Robert-François Damiens the level of inhuman-
ity expressed was quite simply appalling.
Damiens’ assault on Louis XV caused immense excitement; the Archbishop of Paris
ordered the reciting of prayers for 40 hours without rest (Mackinnon, 1902). As the
King was God’s representative on Earth, the incident was deemed to warrant the great-
est of punishments. Condemned as a regicide, his fate was, therefore, to mirror that of
François Ravaillac, a known religious fanatic, who had assassinated Henry IV of France
in 1610. Like Ravaillac, Damiens was first to be taken “in a tipcart naked” to make the
amende honorable before the main door of the Church of Paris, where he was to hold “a
burning wax torch weighing two pounds” and “there on his knees he will say and declare
that he had committed a very mean, very terrible and very dreadful parricide, and that
he had hurt the King”; he was to then “repent and ask God, the King and Justice to for-
give him” (Anon, 1757: Pièces originales et procédures du procès, fait à Robert-
François Damiens). From the Church of Paris Damiens was taken to the Place de Grève,
and the hand that had held the knife was burnt with sulphur; ‘red-hot’ pincers were used
to tear at the flesh on his arms, thighs and chest. Molten lead, wax and boiling oil were
poured into every wound. He was asked if he wanted to say anything; he replied “no”.
Priests approached and held the crucifix for him to kiss. He was then “quartered”, that
is, his arms and legs were harnessed to four “wild” horses to be pulled apart and, if this
was not horror enough, “though they (the horses) were driven to four contrary points,
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none of the members gave way, though all drawn to an amazing degree of extension.”
After an hour of being pulled in this way, they cut the sinews and even “after both thighs
and one arm were off” Damiens still breathed. When all four limbs were eventually
severed from his torso, he was thrown on a “burning pyre” (As recounted in the Gazette
d’ Amsterdam, 1st April 1757).
Numerous commentators – both then and now – have expressed disgust at the enor-
mous crowd that gathered to watch Damiens’ demise. Rooms overlooking the execution
site were rented out to aristocrats for great sums of money. Accounts of the time reveal a
gory fascination and even a delight in the witnessing of such a spectacle; Giacomo
Casanova’ s memoirs (1791) describe how an acquaintance, a guest at his social gather-
ing, becomes sexually aroused as the events unfold in the square below and Damiens
‘piercing shrieks’ fill the air.
L’affaire Damiens was the main topic of public discussion for the next 12 months or so;
it was the theme of songs, poems, engravings and religious sermons (Graham, 2000). Both
the trial and execution were widely reported in the newspapers of the day. The international
press at first condemned Damiens for his ‘horrid attempt’ (London Gazette, April 5–9th,
1757: p.2) on the King’s life, but then expressed revulsion at the manner of his death, which
was written about in excruciating detail. In a review of the case in Lloyd’s Evening Post on
August 5th of that year, it was stated that it “was the result of nothing but the madness of a
poor wretch”, that Damiens should have been the “object of the deepest compassion, than
of those infernal tortures at which humanity shudders and can hardly admit of a case where
they should be allowable to use them, or to forget, in any criminal, his being a fellow crea-
ture” (Lloyd’s Evening Post, 1757, August 5th: p.60). It was as a popular 19th century
publication, The Penny Cyclopaedia, put it, “altogether one of the most disgraceful exhibi-
tions that ever took place in a civilized country” (Long, 1837: p.298).
There is a tremendous amount written about the execution of Damiens. Charles
Dickens, who, as a boy, had read about his fate in The Terrific Register (‘Dreadful
Execution of Damiens’, 1825, 1: p.1), included it in A Tale of Two Cities (1859) where
he refers to both the horror of Damiens’ death and the disturbing nature of the
Listen once again then, Jacques!’ said the man with the restless hand and the craving air. ‘The
name of that prisoner was Damiens, and it was all done in open day, in the open streets of this
city of Paris; and nothing was more noticed in the vast concourse that saw it done, than the
crowd of ladies of quality and fashion, who were full of eager attention to the last – to the last,
Jacques, prolonged until nightfall, when he had lost two legs and an arm, and still breathed!
Further, in Rights of Man, authored during the early stages of the French Revolution,
Thomas Paine comments on the case of Damiens in a section that ominously warns of the
impact of such barbarous punishments on the populace, particularly the lower classes
against whom it was disproportionately employed. Such punishment “either tortures
their feelings or hardens their hearts, and in either case, it instructs them how to punish
when power falls into their hands” (Paine, 1791: p.36).
For scholars of criminology the execution of Damiens resonates through its utilization
by Michel Foucault in the dramatic introduction to his seminal work, Discipline and
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Punish: The Birth of the Prison (Foucault, 1975). Here Foucault describes, at length, this
“gloomy festival of punishment”, before turning to compare it with the daily ‘rules’ of
Leon Faucher’s House of Young Prisoners in Paris in 1838.4 For Foucault the execution
and prison rules, which were separated by less than a century, defined two distinct penal
styles, and the move from one to the other was representative of a wider political change
in the way that power is exercised. The public spectacle of torture and the body as “the
major target of penal repression” (Foucault, 1975: p.8) were, he argued, gradually
replaced by the more private, regulated practices centering on discipline and surveil-
lance, typical of modern systems of punishment.
Foucault focuses on Damiens as the object of punishment, yet there is much more to
the story. Let us consider the degree to which Damiens can also be seen as a symbol of
resistance, and whether the events that ultimately led to his crime were representative of
a general social movement that was sweeping through France, a movement that was
questioning the way in which society was structured and the role of justice within this
Was Robert-François Damiens on a quest for justice?
By some accounts Robert-François Damiens appears to have been a fairly unremarkable
man; he is reported to have been a “good servant” although there are accusations of him
“chasing women” and having an over fondness for wine (Van Kley, 1984).5 Damiens was
also portrayed as somewhat unstable. Voltaire described him in rather derogatory terms
as a “mad dog” and “a crazy monster” (Lettres, cited in Davidson, 2004: p.48); this being
some years before his own campaigns on miscarriages of justice.
At the time of Damiens’ attack on the King, there was considerable political unrest in
Paris. The ordinary working people felt unsupported by the government; they felt that
their ‘expectations’, namely the right to food and protection, were not being met. The
King was seen as failing in his duty to look after his people. Disquiet over the level of
social iniquity that affected the lower classes was openly and stridently voiced, and cor-
respondingly the authorities became increasingly concerned about the possibility of
social upheaval. Police agents and informers regularly reported back on the public mood
(Graham, 2000; Jassie 1996; Farge, 1994).
Problems with the harvest, transportation problems, bureaucratic hold-ups and cor-
ruption resulted in a shortage of bread and inflated prices (Jassie, 1996). Many Parisians
faced starvation. Often their response was to take to the streets in protest. Local bakeries
came under attack by groups of people who would threaten or use violence in order to
force the bakers to reduce their prices. But it was not the bakers who were held respon-
sible for the hunger of the people; it was the authorities, and by the early 1750s the blame
fell at the feet of the King of France (Jassie, 1996; Kaplan, 1982).6 Indeed, although at
the start of the crisis many still believed in a paternalistic and benevolent monarch who
had the welfare of his subjects at heart, as time went on criticism of the King grew to the
extent that he was even accused of directly profiting from the sale of grain so badly
needed by his subjects (Jassie, 1996).7 The working people expressed their dissatisfac-
tion in ‘loose talk’, letters and placards (Farge, 1994; Jassie, 1996). The need for popular
justice was underscored by one such placard which complained that, though “the people”
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are “dying of hunger” there was “neither aid nor justice, except what comes from our
hands and arms” (cited in Jassie, 1996: p.108).
Rioting was to occur in response to the rounding up and incarceration of children
found on the streets. Royal orders had been issued in November 1749 to “arrest all the
mendicants (beggars) in the Kingdom” (d’Argenson, ed.1857–8: p.80) in a bid to clean-
up the streets; in Paris the police targeted ‘young mendicants’ who were, according to
one police agent, Sebastien LeBlanc, largely the “children… of working people” (cited
in Jassie, 1996: p.85) and who were often just simply hanging about the streets. Between
May 1749 and May 1750 two hundred children were arrested. It was rumored that they
were to be shipped to the colonies (Farge and Revel, 1991; Van Kley, 1984). Again peo-
ple took to the streets and directly confronted those who were seen ‘kidnapping’ chil-
dren. Many were arrested for their actions, and there were widespread allegations of
police brutality.
The people openly complained about the unfair manner in which justice was meted
out both in response to the riots and in relation to more everyday events. The authorities
executed a number of those involved, but as the rioters believed their actions to be legiti-
mate this was seen to be horrifically unjust, as having resulted in the deaths of those who
had committed no crime. As Kenneth Jassie (1996) in his insightful thesis on this period
points out, this not only exacerbated the level of discontent but also served to emphasize
the differences between official and popular conceptions of the meaning of justice. In
more everyday cases, the degree to which the law favored the powerful was increasingly
resented. Those who committed crimes against those of higher social status were often
treated with extreme severity, such as the case in 1726 when a cook was hanged for alleg-
edly writing a threatening letter to his employer (Jassie, 1996).
Perhaps what is even more significant in terms of our understanding of l’affaire
Damiens was the highly contentious dispute over the Jansenists (see Van Kley, 1984).
Regarded as one of the most important episodes in the political history of this period in
France, this dispute brought the monarchy into direct confrontation with the magistrates
of the parlement of Paris and, of course, many of the King’s subjects. The Jansenists, a
religious minority within the Catholic Church, were popular with the working people.
Jansenist priests were known for their acts of humanity and charity. They supported
many of those living in poverty and hardship. As Jassie comments, “the poor and disen-
franchised considered Jansenists ‘true Christians’ ” (1996: p.151). The Jansenists, how-
ever, had long been denounced for their beliefs: in 1713 the papal bull Unigenitis was
issued, at the request of the previous King, Louis XIV, condemning 101 Jansenist propo-
sitions contained in Pasquier Quesnel’s Réflexions morales sur le Nouveau Testament
(Moral Reflections on the New Testament) as heretical (Ferguson, 1927). Louis XIV,
whose religious policy was controlled by the powerful Jesuits, ordered that the Unigenitus
be accepted throughout his kingdom. The French monarchy came to regard the Jansenists
as politically dangerous; the memoires of the Duc de Saint-Simon records that for Louis
XIV they were to be seen as “enemies of the Church and State, as republicans, as ene-
mies of his authority and person” (cited in Campbell, 1996: p.44), a view that continued
into the reign of Louis XV, fuelled no doubt by the successful underground Jansenist
journal Nouvelles ecclésiastiques which came into being in 1728 and continued to be
published until 1803. On the pages of this journal were to be found vehement opposition
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Mooney 7
to the Unigenitus and stories detailing resistance to religious persecution. According to
James Breck Perkins’ (1899) account of France under Louis XV, the Archbishop of Paris
threatened members of his congregation with excommunication if they dared to read
Nouvelles ecclésiastiques but they read it all the same! Jansenist priests and their sup-
porters were routinely harassed and, not infrequently, arrested and imprisoned.
The working people of Paris were known to have been particularly angered when the
government attempted to prevent the worship of the deceased Jansenist deacon, François
de Paris (Jassie, 1996; Farge, 1992). François de Paris was in life an extremely charis-
matic person, a man of wealth who had given away all he had to the poor; in death mira-
cles were ascribed to him. In January 1732 the cemetery of the Church of St Médard,
where he was entombed, was closed to prevent pilgrimages to his graveside; in response,
a placard was attached to the doors of the Church on which it was written, in a parody of
the royal ordinance, “By the King’s order: God is forbidden to perform miracles in this
place” (Barbier, ed. 1847–56, 2: p.246). The King’s role as God’s representative on Earth
was clearly being doubted by the working people. They were openly saying “that the
king will not live very long. It will be as punishment for his treatment of the Abbe Paris”
(Barbier, cited in Jassie, 1996: p.140). The dispute was to reach a climax when Louis XV
supported an order by the Archbishop of Paris, Christophe de Beaumont, to refuse to give
the sacraments to Jansenists; this was opposed by the magistrates of the parlement of
Paris, many of whom, for various reasons, were sympathetic to the Jansenists (see Van
Kley, 1984). The magistrates protested that Unigenitus was not a rule of faith as such and
could not, therefore, be used to refuse Catholics their legal right to take the sacraments
(Graham, 2000). The people were more direct in their opposition; the memoires of the
Marquis d’Argenson recall how in 1753 market women from Les Halles approached “the
bugger” de Beaumont and tried to drown him in the Seine (ed. 1859; Jassie, 1996: p.142).
A full-scale political crisis ensued, leading to the resignation of parlement in mid-
December 1756, just prior to Damiens’ assault on the King.
There are three possible positions on Robert-François Damiens: the first regards him,
as we have seen, as a poor, misguided eccentric or ‘mad man’; the second perceives him
to be part of an organized conspiracy; and the third sees him as representative of the
‘spirit of the times’. Of course, eccentricity alone does not preclude conspiracy or his
being a harbinger of change.
Whilst Damiens’ prosecutors certainly appear to have been under the assumption that
Damiens was part of an organized plot and in the pay of wealthy dissidents [why else
would someone of such ‘humble social station’ commit such an act?] (Van Kley, 1984:
p.36), he revealed no names under interrogation and he was interrogated over 50 times.
It seems likely, as Kenneth Jassie puts it, that Damiens was “one member of the common
people” who “gave ‘resistance’ new meaning” (Jassie, 1996: p.143). There are a number
of published testimonies from Damiens in which he explains the reasons for his assault
on the King. These, together with records of his conversations with people prior to the
incident, reveal he shared the concerns of the working people. His actions may, therefore,
be seen as symbolizing the level of discontent expressed by the people of Paris. In one
testimony he says he had not wanted to kill Louis XV but “to touch the King” and thus,
“prompt him to restore all things to order and tranquility in his states.” In another
Damiens is reported as saying that the “poverty of the French people” (Anon, 1757:
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Pièces originales et procédures du procès, fait à Robert-François Damiens) was a fac-
tor.8 It was widely rumored that Damiens had declared that his intention was “to deliver
the country from a tyrant who made the people die of hunger”; the King, he argued,
“governed badly and that it would be doing the kingdom a great service to kill him”
(d’Argenson, 1857–8: p.327).
Damiens was further known to have been concerned over the ‘kidnapping’ incidents.
Although under torture he said this was not a direct cause of his actions, Damiens had
previously alleged his daughter was one of the children picked up by the police. An ex-
employer, the comte de Maridor, reported that Damiens had penned a threatening letter
to the lieutenant of police in order to obtain her release (Van Kley, 1984).9
According to contemporary sources, Damiens, throughout the torturous interrogation
process, consistently maintained that the cause of his action lay in the religious controversy
over the Jansenists, and it was alleged that he had on him a copy of the New Testament at the
time of his assault on the King, which was used by the authorities as indicative of a religious
motivation. At one point during the interrogation process, Damiens was reported to have
said that he “planned on doing it three years ago because of the Archbishop’s bad behavior”;
by this he meant his ‘refusing Sacraments’ (Anon, 1757: Pièces originales et procédures du
procès, fait à Robert-François Damiens). For “no one should refuse Sacraments to good
people who pray in Churches every day, from morning to evening” (Anon, 1757: Pièces
originales et procédures du procès, fait à Robert-François Damiens) and, as such, his wish
was to get the King to listen to the concerns being voiced in his Kingdom, “to render (Louis
XV) more disposed to hear (his parlements) remonstrances, to dispense justice, and cease
heeding the pernicious advice of his ministers” (cited in Van Kley, 1984: p.39).10
In this context, Robert-François Damiens can, therefore, be seen as on a quest for
justice on behalf of the ordinary people of France. Hence, the radical philosopher William
Godwin’s assertion in his 1793 essay, Enquiry Concerning Political Justice and its
Influence on General Virtue and Happiness, that Damiens had “been deeply penetrated
with anxiety for the eternal welfare of mankind” and for this was willing to sacrifice his
life and expose himself to torture and death (p.99).
Thus, whilst I have commented on the disquieting way in which people were attracted
to the spectacle of Damiens’ gruesome death, there were many who openly supported his
actions and would have been outraged at the manner of his execution. Indeed, there is
ample evidence of this in the official records of the procurator general of the Paris parle-
ment. Documented by Dale Van Kley (1984), these records, which include police reports
made at the time, reveal one peasant to have said that if he were Damiens, “he would not
have missed the king and would have pierced his guts with an awl”, and a Rémond
Dupont proclaimed “it would have been better for the king and queen to have been
reduced to ashes rather than Damiens”. A cloth shearer who had been unable to find work
described Louis XV as “the cause of his misery” and apparently called the King a “bug-
ger” who “would not be alive in eight days”. A day laborer, Marie-Marguerite Gadibois,
complaining over the price of grain, grumbled that Damiens “had done badly to have
missed his coup, since the said Damiens would have been just as dead in the one event
as in the other”; she reported that all the working people were saying this. Another day
laborer described Damiens as a “saint” and a “martyr” and claimed he “appeared daily at
the Place de Grève demanding vengeance for his execution” (Van Kley, 1984: p.247).
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Damiens’ attack brought into question the sacredness of the King, for in highlighting
the “vulnerability of the king’s mortal body” it served to raise the possibility of a world
that was no longer centered on the monarch (Graham, 2000: p.139) or indeed might exist
without the hierarchical structure that typified the ancien régime. Not surprisingly, the
period following l’affaire Damiens witnessed an increased clamp-down by the authori-
ties – as is typical of regimes under threat – on the ordinary people. As Lisa Jane Graham
(2000) notes, in the 2-year period after the execution of Damiens more people were
arrested for crimes of mauvais discours, which covered a range of offences from sedi-
tious speech and literature to anti-monarchist plots, than at any other time during the rule
of Louis XV. So although Damiens’ execution was intended to remind the people of the
almighty power of the monarchy, it did not succeed in quieting the voices of popular
opposition. Calls for the King’s death or dethroning were being heard throughout the
streets of Paris and beyond. As Van Kley puts it,
For all Damiens’ eccentricities and in part because of them, he aspired to be mainly that (a good
citizen); his real ‘folly’ consisted in thinking that someone like him could directly participate in
the political conflicts of the day and in actually doing so in the only way available to him.
Before long there would be many more like him. (Van Kley, 1984: p.96)
The significance of Damiens
Thus, the argument presented here is that Damiens’ act of violence against the King repre-
sents the expression of a popular sense of injustice which was to help transform society,
demolish the ancien régime and attempt to bring about a society characterized by Liberty,
Equality and Fraternity;11 that such a social order involved not only a freeing up of the
social and economic system from the ties of feudalism, but correspondingly led to a crimi-
nal justice system which embodied the principles of freewill, equality of all before the law
and punishment proportional to the harm committed. Further, that the outrageous atrocity
which Damiens suffered was born out of the extreme anxieties of the authorities with
regards to social change, and that this act of savagery embodied precisely the principles of
the ancien régime which the philosophers of the Enlightenment – Voltaire, Beccaria, the
Ve r ri b r o t h er s – w e r e s t a r ti n g t o r a l l y a g a i n st . T h a t is, it involved punishment totally dis-
proportional to the act, inequality before the law the assailant being from the lower
classes and the victim the King himself – and a gory spectacle created to instill terror in the
general population rather than punish the individual offender himself.
Let us now turn to the Margaret Nicholson case: was this an individual act of mad-
ness, or does it too have a wider social and political resonance? Why was the response
more liberal and less coercive, much less physical and bodily than the response to
Margaret Nicholson: An English case of attempted regicide
Margaret Nicholson’s attack on King George III was not the first time this occurred, nor
would it be the last. In 1778 he had survived an assault by Rebecca O’Hara. Yet, as Steve
Poole notes in his informative The Politics of Regicide in England 1760–1850 (Poole,
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2000), this case resulted in little public interest. O’Hara was first committed to Tothill-
fields Bridewell for examination where she “was proved a lunatic and proper care was
taken of her” (Poole, 2000) before being transferred to Bethlem Royal Hospital. Thus, as
with Robert-François Damiens and François Ravaillac, a precedent was set for Margaret
Nicholson but one that was of a quite different nature. George III was, in fact, attacked six
times during his reign, with all of his assailants being declared mad and committed to
asylums. The commonly expressed opinion, as reported by the Morning Chronicle of
1786, was that most regicides or attempted regicides were ‘insane’. For the enormity of
the offence meant it was, as the Earl of Guildford wrote to Mrs. Delany soon after the
event, too “shocking to conceive any person in their senses could be capable of attempting
to perpetrate so horrid a crime”, and the correct response should be to ensure that she, in
the case of Nicholson, is “closely confined during her life” (Delany, 1862: p.376–377).
Following her assault on the King, Margaret Nicholson was immediately taken to the
Inner Guard Chamber at the Palace for questioning as to “how she could make so wicked
and daring an attempt” (The European Magazine and London Review, July 1786: p.117).
We sh ou ld b e awa re , how ev er , th at t he k ni fe w as di scovered to be so worn and thin that it
was incapable of causing much harm12 (The European Magazine and London Review, July
1786). George III was certainly none the worse for his ordeal. Gradually Nicholson’s story
was revealed: she was the daughter of Thomas Nicholson from Stokesley in Yorkshire, and
had come to London at the age of 12 to work in domestic service. She had been a maid in
several households of ‘quality’, including that of Lady Seabright, where she was described
as “irreproachable” (Anon, 1786: p.16). Indeed Margaret Nicholson was generally noted
for her ‘sobriety, honesty and industry’ (Anon, 1786: p.8). At some point she left domestic
service and fell on hard times, and was barely managing to scrape together a living through
needlework. Her worn though tidy appearance bore testimony to her impoverished state,
and when she was asked to empty her pockets was found to be carrying the meager sum of
a silver six pence and three half-pence (The Plot Investigated, 1786).
By her own account Margaret Nicholson had petitioned the King at least 17 times, and
was upset that he had not responded. It was this that had motivated her to approach him
at St James’s Palace. The content of the petitions is a matter of debate. Some reports sug-
gest she had petitioned the King “upon a Property due to her from the Crown of England”
(Holland, 2008: p.3), that they were simply full of ‘stuff and nonsense’ (The European
Magazine and London Review, July 1786, p.117). Others state that she wanted the King
to “make some provision” for her (Morning Post, August 5th, 1786). Certainly she was
upset by her change in circumstances, and perhaps had taken too literally the King’s
paternalistic assertion that he was “father of the people” (Poole, 2000: p.70).
Nicholson was declared a ‘state prisoner and was taken into the care of Mr. Coates,
the King’s messenger, at his home in Half-Moon Street, Piccadilly, where she received
‘excellent treatment’ and enjoyed a game of whist (Morning Post, Aug 5th, 1786). During
the course of her stay she was examined several times by the Drs. Monro, who eventually
diagnosed her as mad. “Never” in his life, said John Monro, had he “seen a person more
disordered” (from John Monro’s testimony on the case of Margaret Nicholson, 1786, in
Andrews and Scull, 2001: p.191), which is quite an extreme statement for someone who
had spent his entire working life in what was then the main hospital for the treatment of
insanity. Margaret Nicholson was, therefore, never put on trial, which immediately raises
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questions as to whether justice was delivered. Following the testimony of the Monro’s
her fate, as noted above, was to be committed to Bethlem under the Vagrancy Act of
1744. The Vagrancy Act allowed for the detention of the ‘furiously and dangerously mad’
for as long as deemed necessary; for Nicholson this meant for life – she was to die there
42 years later.
Like l’affaire Damiens, the case of Margaret Nicholson attracted much attention,
receiving extensive newspaper coverage both at home and abroad. Several books were
written just days after the event, including Authentic Memoirs of the Life of Margaret
Nicholson: who attempted to stab his most gracious majesty with a knife on August 2
1786 (Anon, 1786); The Plot Investigated; or, a circumstantial account of the late horrid
attempt of Margaret Nicholson to assassinate the King (The Plot Investigated, 1786);
and one by her landlord John Fiske entitled The Life and Transactions of Margaret
Nicholson (Fiske, 1786). As Joanne Holland (2008) reports in her thesis on the various
narratives surrounding the case, many of the populist accounts blurred the boundaries
between fact and fiction with some presenting Margaret Nicholson as the “virtuous
country girl”, others “the crafty servant” or “the mistreated or spurned lover, the sarcastic
or wise lunatic, and the old but ultimately unthreatening elderly lady” (Holland, 2008:
p.5). Margaret Nicholson’s notoriety was such that she became the subject of poetry,
engravings and paintings. That a woman could commit such a crime added to the fascina-
tion and shock surrounding the affair (Poole, 2000). Thus, in the opening to her poem,
On Margaret Nicholson’s Infamous Attempt upon the Life of his Majesty on 2nd August,
1786, Jane Elizabeth Moore writes, “SCORN of thy sex! thou Regicide at heart” (Moore,
1796 ed.: p.51). In Authentic Memoirs (1786) the author questions “what must we think
of a woman, who, renouncing all the decent tenderness of her sex, rushes on the life of
her Sovereign?” (Anon: p.5).
Margaret Nicholson’s treatment appears relatively humane in contrast to that of
Damiens, and most would agree it was preferable to being torn apart by horses in
Trafalgar Square. She was widely thought of as “fortunate to live in this kingdom”.
George III was praised for his “generous emotions of compassion to the wretch” (Public
Advertiser, 4th and 5th August, 1786) and typically portrayed as acting with the utmost
humanity (The Plot Investigated, 1786). Indeed, as Steve Pool (2000) comments, the
Margaret Nicholson affair became “a significant marker in the development of George
III’s fatherly style” (p.70) and he enjoyed a surge in popularity as a result of his seem-
ingly calm and considerate response.
On arrival at Bethlem, Margaret Nicholson was received by Henry Weston, the
hospital steward, “with great tenderness and politeness” (Andrews and Scull, 2001:
p.239). Nicholson and her companions, who included Mr. and Mrs. Coates, were
invited by Weston to dine with him before she was shown to her room. According to
The Gazetteer and New Daily Advertiser of 13th December 1786, she was “treated
with every degree of humanity” and would receive in Bethlem “every attention and
England was generally regarded as having a fairer and more equitable system of jus-
tice than that of continental Europe13 and, as such, the Margaret Nicholson case repre-
sented, as the author of The Plot Investigated put it, “the good sense and humanity which
characterizes the present times” (The Plot Investigated, 1786: p.39). It was made clear,
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for example, that unlike other countries torture was no longer part of the judicial process.
For even when Felton stabbed the Duke of Buckinghamshire and there was an attempt to
allow the use of torture so he might reveal accomplices, this was quickly and emphati-
cally dismissed as a possibility, for the “law of England abhorred torture” (Morning Post
and Daily Advertiser, August 5th, 1786). The torture and punishment of Damiens, as we
have seen, came to be considered as indicative of all that was wrong with justice in the
time of the ancien régime, whereas the treatment of Nicholson reinforced for many a
belief in the superiority and civility of English justice. As Alan Bennett writes, Margaret
Nicholson “is fortunate to live in this kingdom”. The Morning Chronicle of 10th August
1786 spelled out the perceived difference between the two countries:
It should be a circumstance of pride to every Englishman to observe the very different manner
in which those are dealt with in Great Britain, while under the influence of insanity, attempt the
life of thy sovereign of the country, compared with that in which criminals of a similar
description have been treated in France. When Damian, an absolute and acknowledged
madman, assassinated the French king, he was subject to every torture, that savage ingenuity
could suggest, and put to death by means the most horrid and the most shocking to humanity.
Mrs. Nicholson has deliberately aimed a knife at the breast of his present and most gracious
Majesty, and it appearing highly probable, that the woman was deprived of her reason at the
moment, she is treated like an ordinary maniac, her infirmity is commiserated and her person
put under the care of the lunatic infirmary for the remainder of her existence.14
Responding to the ‘mad’
To be ju dg ed in te rm s of d eter mi nin g ba ck grou nd c auses, such as psychological factors as
in the case of Margaret Nicholson, was central to the rise in scientific criminology that was
to take hold in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. However, even around the time of
Nicholson’s assault on George III commentators were already beginning to express the view
that much criminal activity was caused by factors over which the offender had little control
(Rabin, 2003). Hence, Manasseh Dawes in his 1782 essay on the work of key Enlightenment
figures – Beccaria, Voltaire, Rousseau, Fielding and Blackstone – argued that, from his per-
spective, “criminals do not offend so much from choice as from misery and want of senti-
ment”, for “the violence of our passions…overrule and control us as mental causes that
direct our volitions, making whatever happens in consequence their certain effect” and thus,
offenders should not be punished for something they cannot help (Dawes, 1782: p.50).
However, the experiences of Margaret Nicholson, and those of others similarly con-
fined, can be taken as evidence that despite the obvious differences in the administration
of justice between France and England, ‘punishment’ or ‘treatment’whatever we might
like to call it – still amounted to an assault on the body and remained at the level of a
public spectacle. William Belcher described the ‘mad-house’ as a place “of rapacity and
brutality, and all that is shocking to human feelings” (1796, in Ingram, 1997: p.132). In
Bethlem Margaret Nicholson’s leg was chained to the floor, and her ‘treatment’ in all
likelihood would have included being stripped naked, slashed to allow the blood out,
having leeches applied to her body, emetics, the drinking of vile purges and icy, cold
baths (Leyshon, 2010; Porter, 1997). These abuses were common practice and continued
into the early 19th century. Roy Porter (1997) describes the shock experienced by the
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philanthropist, Edward Wakefield, when visiting Bethlem in 1814, on seeing one patient,
James Norris, with:
a stout ring round his neck, from which a short chain passed through a ring made to slide
upwards and downwards on an upright massive iron bar, more than six feet high, inserted into
the wall. Round his body a strong iron bar about two inches wide was riveted; on each side of
the bar was a circular projection; which being fashioned to and enclosing each of his arms,
pinioned them close to his sides. Norris had been thus immobilized for twelve years. (p.42)
Whilst the practice of allowing the public in to gawp at the ‘lunaticks’ and run amok in
the hospital wards each Sunday for a penny had gone by 1770,15 Margaret Nicholson was
still a ‘star attraction’ and was, as Andrews and Scull note, “treated as a moving and
macabre object of display for Bethlem’s visitors” (2001: p.250). Certainly, confinement
of this nature and the length of time involved was for Margaret Nicholson little more than
a living death: in a petition to the King – she continued to petition him for some years
after her arrival at Bethlem – she described it as a “bondage worse than death” (Poole,
2000: p.85) and asked him to “discharge me from this Inveterate Confinement” (Holland,
2008: p.43). Her obvious unhappiness is underscored by her attempt, on at least one
occasion, to escape. In 1790 she was discovered to have fled to her brother’s house, and
it was “so much against her inclination that it was necessary to use force” in order to
return her to the institution (The Gazetteer and New Daily Advertiser, Sept. 27th, 1790).
Whether Margaret Nicholson was mad or not is questionable. It was generally pre-
sumed, as we have seen, that no one in their right mind, especially a woman, could com-
mit such an awful crime, and it is perhaps significant that women offenders have frequently
been judged as irrational, that is as ‘mad’ rather than ‘bad’. Throughout history women
have been presented as at the ‘mercy of their senses’ or their biology (Heidensohn, 1985).
However, this is not to suggest that Margaret Nicholson’s treatment was dictated by her
gender, and that if she had been a man she would have received a more punitive response.
John Frith, who hurled a stone at the royal carriage, James Hadfield, who attempted to
shoot at George III at Drury Lane Theatre, and Urban Metcalf, who attacked him with a
knife also at the theatre, were all confined to asylums.
On the question of Margaret Nicholson’s ‘insanity’, Fiske, who had known her for 3
years, had never “observed any marks of insanity in her conduct” (The Times, August
4th, 1786: p.3), nor had a Mr. Paule with whom she had previously lodged. Even the
account of her aged 82 years ‘by a Constant Observer’ in Sketches in Bedlam (1823:
p.257) states that she “has never evinced any prominent symptoms of insanity beyond
the occasional irritation, naturally enough resulting from her situation”, which provides
testimony as to the stability of her character, for the experience of being confined in
Bethlem for all those years would in itself send most people mad.
What we should consider is whether Margaret Nicholson’s difficulties and the events
that followed were rooted not so much in her psychological disposition but in the poverty
that she, like so many others, was encountering at the time.16 The Times reported that this
indeed was a likely explanation, and that her situation was of great relevance:
It is no secret how many thousands of women are in want of bread, who strive to live by the
needle; therefore we may infer that her mode of living must be penurious and low; the want of
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nourishment, with the anxiety attendant on it must increase that mental debility which is the
result of melancholy; therefore the…mind under these circumstances, must be sometimes out
of the control of reason. (August 11th, 1786: p.3).
Was Margaret Nicholson on a quest for justice?
Margaret Nicholson had petitioned the King to protest her circumstances and to ask for
help. Certainly she wanted to draw attention to the injustices she had personally experi-
enced, and was upset because her petitions had not been answered. For the King to
answer a petition from a lowly subject might seem like an unrealistic expectation, but the
right to reach out to the King in person with a petition – which usually sought to solve a
personal problem, grievance or political matter – and the right to a response from him
was enshrined in the 1689 Bill of Rights.17 By delineating the power of the monarchy and
making the sovereign subject to the laws passed by parliament, this, in effect, brought an
end to the dogma of the divine right of Kings in England (Laski, 1920). With respect to
petitioning, number 5 on the Bill of Rights states “that it is the right of the subjects to
petition the King, and all commitments and prosecutions for such petitions are illegal”.
Thus, the right to petition was of great constitutional significance. As the noted political
commentator William Cobbett was to later say, “the right of petition is, in fact, our only
safeguard against being as much slaves as the negros are; for if men are not permitted to
make their sufferings and injuries known to those who possess the power to see them
righted, the rich and powerful may knock the brains out of the poor with impunity”
(Cobbett, 1817: p.90). Hence Steve Poole (2000) presents a belief in the right to petition
as key to understanding the behavior of ‘troublesome subjects’ such as Margaret
Nicholson. It meant, in theory, that even the lowliest subject could participate in and
influence the political process. He points out, “it was understood that the King welcomed
personal contact with his subjects and owed them his care and intercession as a contrac-
tual condition of their allegiance” (Poole, 2000: p.3) and, as such, petitioning was like-
wise bound up with the people’s perception of the King as ‘father to the people’. The
failure to respond to a petition could easily lead to a questioning of the role of the mon-
archy and the monarch–subject relationship.
Margaret Nicholson’s complaint was agreed upon by several sources: in July she had
expressed her frustration to a publican in Twickenham after she had spent two days try-
ing unsuccessfully to present a petition to the King; as he said, “she was determined to
see him within a fortnight to give it to him, having already delivered several without any
notice being taken of them” (Poole, 2000: p.84). Her landlord and the few friends she had
were also aware of the extent of her petitioning. A number of newspaper articles and The
Plot Investigated (1786) reported that at one point she had worked for a Mr. Watson, a
hatter in New Bond Street, who she “frequently pressed to present petitions to the King
suggesting she had a claim upon the government” (p. 13). Margaret Nicholson’s approach
to George III on that fateful day could, in the light of this, be easily interpreted as an
attempt to draw attention to what was a major constitutional offence.
Moreover, there is plenty of evidence to show that George III was repeatedly criti-
cized for not answering petitions (Reid, 2000). Cartoons and illustrations from that time
express outrage at the King’s lack of response (see Poole, 2000). In this one, entitled The
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Effects of Petitions and Remonstrances (Anon, 1770, or later) we have one of those fea-
tured saying of would-be petitioners “had I my way they should be Horse Whipt from
Newgate to Tyburn” and in the speech bubble coming from the figure at the back it is
written “we will hire Doctor Monro to prove their insanity” (Figure 1). The implication
of the sentiments expressed was that dissent was to be squashed by either instilling fear
through the threat of harsh physical punishment or by silencing the protester by declaring
them ‘mad’ and confining them for life, which was to be the fate of Margaret Nicholson.
That the King was seen as failing to respond to his people and was being lambasted
for this in the popular press would have been troubling for his ministers, for George III
was not lacking in enemies at home and abroad. At the time of Margaret Nicholson’s
assault on the King, the Americans had only recently gained independence from England
and many of the political petitions presented to the King and Parliament were in support
of the American revolutionaries and protesting governmental corruption (Reid, 2000).
Across the Channel, the French were preparing to rid themselves of their King. Monarchs
were on shaky ground to say the least. The American press was suggesting that English
radicals – inspired by events abroad – were about to revolt against their monarch (Pool,
2000). Further, as Steve Poole insightfully points out, “a humanitarian approach to
Nicholson’s insanity negated her usefulness to the opposition as a symbol of discontent,
and in avoiding the unpleasantness of a treason trial also denied the accused any kind of
public platform” (Poole, 2000: p.74).
The fear of political unrest was thus ever present. Of huge concern was the week of
rioting, known as the Gordon riots, that occurred in 1780 against the Papist Act of 1778
which had allowed Catholics a number of personal and civic rights (See Archer, 2000).
Lord George Gordon, an ardent Protestant, was responsible for whipping up popular
prejudice by suggesting the Act hailed a return to papism and absolute monarchist rule.
At the height of the riots 60,000 marched on Parliament to present a petition of protest.
Lives were lost and the destruction of property was enormous. Indeed, Stephen White
(2002) notes that it has been estimated that the property damage that occurred in London
during this one week of rioting was ten times that of Paris during the whole of the revolu-
tion. Whilst reactionary in its politics, there was concern that the events of 1780 would
inflame a “violent and furious popular spirit” (Burke, 1780, cited in White, 2002: p.15).
Certainly, the Gordon riots represented an “unchecked defiance of authority which
severely shook the foundations of order” (Hay, 1975: p.50). Furthermore, at the time of
Margaret Nicholson’s assault on the King, the government’s credibility had been seri-
ously affected by the introduction of the Shop Tax of 1785; this resulted in demonstra-
tions and also an organized mass-petitioning exercise (Poole, 2000). Petitioning clearly
played a key role in the expression of individual and collective discontent against George
III and Parliament.
This is not to say that Margaret Nicholson was at the forefront of a political conspir-
acy to destabilize England’s political structure. However, whilst her ‘quest for justice’
appears personally motivated, her actions and the way they were represented are indica-
tive of the ‘spirit of the times’ and it is true that there were some who thought her part of
an organized plot against the King. Various rumours had spread throughout the country
and beyond (Anon, 1786: Appendix). It was reported that there was a group of about 20,
including a royal servant, who planned to assassinate the King, and one Robert Munday
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Figure 1. Anon. The Effects of Petitions and Remonstrances, Guildhall Art Gallery and London Met-
ropolitan Archives, 1770 or later.
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implicated Margaret Nicholson in the plot (Poole, 2000), and in some accounts Margaret
Nicholson was linked with Lord George Gordon. Town and Country Magazine published
a fictitious conversation between the two, with Lord Gordon purportedly saying to
Margaret Nicholson, “the whole world are in a state of Lunancy, you and I and a few
others excepted. Ah! Mrs. Nicholson if you and I had guided the rudder of State, Great
Britain would not have been in that Subject state in which we now behold it” (Town and
Country Magazine, 1790, 22: p.457), the latter being a reference to the economic woes
afflicting England in this period.
Where we can especially see Margaret Nicholson as indicative of the ‘spirit of the
times’ is in the use of her case by the radical publisher Richard Carlile and the poet Percy
Bysshe Shelley. Both Carlile and Shelley were well known for their republican sympa-
thies, and their lives were closely connected. Shelley was a loyal supporter of Carlile,
who was imprisoned on several occasions for blasphemy and sedition for publishing
radical texts, including the works of Thomas Paine, his own journal The Republican (the
very name of this, as Theophilia Carlile Campbell, pointed out “in those days was a chal-
lenge to combat” (Carlile, 1831: p.3)), as well as Shelley’s Queen Mab. The popularity
of The Republican was such that it outsold The Times newspaper (Carlile, 1831).
In A New View of Insanity published in 1831 Carlile refers to Margaret Nicholson. The
book was written both as an expose of the level of abuse occurring in “public and private
madhouses”, including that of Bethlem, and as a vehicle for the elaboration of Carlile’s
humanist principles. Carlile stresses that Nicholson was not mad, that her case repre-
sented a terrible miscarriage of justice. Nicholson did not mean to hurt the King and, as
such, the reaction to the incident was widely disproportionate, as he writes, “upon this
trivial affair an outcry was raised…so agitated as if Napoleon Bonepart had invaded”
(Carlile, 1831: p.28). He further suggests that the similarly confined James Hadfield,
who had made an attempt on the King’s life in 1800, likewise had “no symptom of insan-
ity” (Carlile, 1831: p.28).
Carlile argued that “insane people in confinement have been treated as if they were
outlawed or civilly dead” (Carlile, 1831: p.49). There is a great deal of evidence to show
that “men have been cruelly beaten, women have been violated” and “all have been
robbed” (Carlile, 1831: p.49). Moreover, “the secrecy allowed in those establishments
has led to such deeds with impunity, until the managers and keepers of such places and
persons have lost all sense of humanity” (Carlile, 1831: p.49–50). Carlile writes of the
terrible case of Norris in Bethlem but also of recent horrors, such as that of the poor man
who was so neglected that he lost his feet to frost-bite, an event that was treated with
indifference by the doctor in charge of his treatment. For Carlile, “madhouses have been
like pesthouses calculated to confer or increase, rather than relieve the patient from
fever. They have been like Dante’s gate of hell, with the inscription of ‘He who enters
here, leaves hope behind’” (Carlile, 1831: p.37).
Carlile not only points out that the label of ‘madness’ is often inappropriately
applied, but there would be much less of it if there was “more equality of social condi-
tion”, more emphasis on liberty and education (Carlile, 1831: p.29–30). The plight of
those judged insane is, for Carlile, symptomatic of the ‘tyranny’ and cruelty of those in
power and, as such, the expose of ‘mad-houses’ presented in the book should be seen
as part of the ‘systematic warfare’ to be waged against inequality and inhumanity.
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Further, it was imperative that when the time comes for England’s real reformation it
must “reach the ill-managed and abused captive of every kind” (Carlile, 1831: p.70).18
In his poem the Posthumous Fragments of Margaret Nicholson (1810; in Morton,
2006), written during his student days at Oxford, Percy Bysse Shelley sees Margaret
Nicholson as a spirited revolutionary. Her attack on George III – who he was to wither-
ingly describe as ‘an old, mad, blind, despised and dying King’ (Cannon, 2011) – had
clearly caught his imagination, and the act itself set the stage for the possibility of a
monarch-less future. For in Posthumous Fragments monarchs are held responsible for
much of the pain and suffering in the world:
Monarchs of earth ! thine is the baleful deed.
Thine are the crimes for which thy subjects bleed.
Ah ! when will come the sacred fated time,
When man unsullied by his leaders’ crime.
Despising wealth, ambition, pomp, and pride,
Will stretch him fearless by his foemen’s side?
Kings are but dust – the last eventful day
Will level all and make them lose their sway;19
As Charles Kirpatrick Sharpe remarked at the time, “Mr. Shelley is desperately in
love with the memory of Margaret Nicholson” and the poem is; “stuffed full of treason”
and though “dull” it has enough merit to show “the Author is a great genius, and, if he be
not clapped up in Bedlam or hanged, will certainly prove one of the sweetest swans on
the tuneful margin of the Charwell” (Sharpe, 1811, reprinted, 1838: p.54).
The ‘spirit of the times’
Thus, what do these two people, accused of regicide some 30 years apart, a man in
France and a woman in England, have in common? Firstly, both committed very minor
attacks on a royal personage; secondly, both had their mental health questioned; thirdly,
both were affected by popular sentiments, critical of the powers that be and concerned
that a paternalistic monarch was not acting on their behalf. Lastly, although they do not
appear to have been part of an organized conspiracy, they have a harbinger quality in that
they contribute both directly (in their actions and statements) and indirectly (in their
representation by commentators) to the ‘spirit of the times’. In this they were seen by
those in power and by radical commentators as evoking criticism of the present and as
portents for the future. What we have are two people who shared some stirrings of the
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Mooney 19
‘spirit of the times’ but who in turn symbolized for many people the need for social
change. There are, therefore, on all of these counts similarities, from the feeble nature of
the attacks to the connections with popular conceptions of justice and resistance. Both,
through their direct influence and because of the tragedy of their treatment and the wide-
spread belief in their radicalism, can be seen, in part, as helping to spur on a movement
towards change. And if Damiens with his strong support for Jansenism more directly
expressed this, Nicholson was a more significant symbol of the people’s desire for
change. Parallels in the sociological literature are to be found in the work of Stan Cohen
(1972) on mods and rockers, and Dick Hebdige and Phil Cohen (Hall and Jefferson,
2006) on the symbolic nature of youth cultures. What these, and this present study, show
us is that resistance is not necessarily – or even most frequently – a well-formed or
explicit matter: it is comparatively rarely a political manifesto or an agenda for action.
Whilst it must be acknowledged that there were vast social and political differences
between England and France by this point in history, both attempted regicides clearly
relate to the movement away from an absolute monarch and the end of the divine right
of kings. Both revolve around the failure of the monarch to acknowledge petitions or
other forms of protest from the people. The popular press, the testimony of political
commentators and the word on the street touch upon much wider issues than a particular
act of madness or individual grievance. To try to explain both these incidents (and simi-
lar regicides in this period) as the result of insanity is simply an ideological response
resting on the premise that only a mad person would attempt to injure the body of a
King. I have argued that although Damiens and Nicholson were eccentric, this scarcely
explains their behavior. Both cases should, therefore, be seen as the canary in the cage,
an early sign – frequently inchoate and often symbolic – of a world that is changing and
of things to come.
This research was supported in part by funding from PSC CUNY, Award #66339-0044.
1. From The Diary and Letters of Madame D’Arblay (Fanny Burney) Vol. 1, 1890; Fanny
Burney was Keeper of the Robes to Queen Charlotte at the time of Margaret Nicholson’s
attack on King George III.
2. See also Farge (1989).
3. Source: Anonymous, Pièces originales et procédures du procès, fait à Robert-François
Damiens, 1757.
4. For example, ‘Art. 17. The prisoners’ day will begin at six in the morning in winter and at
five in summer…Art. 18. Rising. At the first drum-roll, the prisoner must rise and dress in
silence, as the supervisor opens the cell doors…Art. 25. At four o’clock the prisoners leave
their workshops.’ (Foucault, 1975: p.6-7).
5. Dale Van Kley’s The Damiens Affair and the Unraveling of the Ancien Regime (1984) is an
excellent idiographic account of this period in French history. Having uncovered a wealth
of original material, Van Kley focuses on the political and ideological implications of the
Damiens case and the extent to which it was underpinned by the Jansenist dispute.
6. Jassie (1996), Kaplan (1982) draw on journals of Barbier (ed. 1858) and d’Argenson (1752
and ed. 1857–8) in their discussion of poverty and the high price of grain in this period.
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20 European Journal of Criminology 0(0)
7. “The word spreads everywhere that the king is involved in the grain trade” (d’Argenson, 27
August, 1752); “The rumor is abroad in Paris that the king is profitting in grain” (d’Argenson,
6 April, 1753) and this will lead to ‘revolts’ and those responsible will ‘get torn to shreds’
(d’Argenson, 21 September, 1752).
8. Certainly as Kaplan notes in The Bakers of Paris and the Bread Question, 1700–1775
(Kaplan, 1996), ‘Damiens could not have failed to hear the din of “murmurs” arising from the
discontented consumers as he undertook to assassinate’ the King’ (p.551).
9. Dale Van Kley (1984), in discussing Damiens’ motives, however, dismisses this line of
enquiry describing it as representative of one of Damiens’ ‘gasconades’ for no girls were
arrested; but this was not the case as historical documents indicate (see Jassie, 1996).
Indeed, one of the worse instances of public disturbances occurred following the arrest of a
group of children that included two girls at the Pont-Marie on the 16th May 1750 (Bonamy,
May 29th, 1750).
10. Whilst the Jansenist dispute is, I believe, central to understanding Damiens’ motivations, we
must, of course, be wary of interpreting these statements as his actual words for they would
have been relayed by those involved in his arrest and interrogation.
11. The presentation of Damiens as an indicator of what was to come is underscored by William
Harrison Ainsworth who wrote of the French philosophes “They…who mend their pens
with the penknife of Damiens will some day overthrow the monarchy” (Ainsworth, ed.
1844: p.269).
12. The knife was so flimsy, that when a “gentleman tried the point of it against his hand… the
knife bent almost double, without piercing the skin” (The European Magazine and London
Review, July 1786: p.117–121).
13. See Emsley (2007). However, this is not to suggest that the English penal system at the time
of Margaret Nicholson’s assault was without severity. From 1660 the number of offences
carrying the death penalty increased dramatically, from approximately 50 to 160 by 1750 and
288 by 1815 ( This series of statutes became known as the
‘Bloody Code’.
14. Moreover, as Douglas Hay (1975), has argued, as time went on with political unrest increas-
ingly and uncomfortably evident from just across the Channel, it became a necessity to rein-
force the justice inherent in English law in comparison to that of the old French system; to
the extent that the contrast made with the “tyrannical French aristocrats, the inquisitorial
system and lettres de cachet” was to become “a powerful ideological weapon in the arsenal
of (English) conservatives during the French revolution in order to encourage support for the
maintenance of the status quo” (p.37).
15. There is some debate over the exact date this practice ended; in the authoritative The Anatomy
of Madness: Essays in the History of Psychiatry, 2004, edited by W. F. Bynum, Roy Porter,
Michael Shepherd it is documented as 1770.
16. There is, of course, a certain degree of irony in that George III was to become seriously
mentally ill as a result not of circumstance but in all likelihood due to an inherited blood
17. Aside from clarifying the politics of the time and succession to the throne, the Bill of Rights
was intended to “curb future arbitrary behaviour of the monarch and to guarantee parliament’s
powers vis a vis the Crown, thereby establishing a constitutional monarchy” (Bill of Rights,
1689, Parliamentary Archives).
18. In an attempt to silence Richard Carlile whilst he was imprisoned in Dorchester gaol he
had continued to write and agitate politically – the authorities also tried to declare him mad.
However, according to Carlile Campbell’s biography, he “anticipated this rumour of insanity,
by a sort of instinct, and walked out early next morning through the gaol yards, and showed
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Mooney 21
himself to the other prisoners, so they could testify to the falseness of the report” (Carlile
Campbell, 1899: p.103). Richard Carlile believed that the example he set, through his work,
the continued publishing of radical writing and his refusal to be silenced, “would rally the
weak and scattered forces of the writers of the day and raise the people to a sense of their
degradation and dangerous condition, and to a recognition of the oppressive character of the
rulers then in power” (Carlile Campbell, 1899: p.2).
19. The poem additionally includes verses describing a love affair between François Ravaillac
and Charlotte Corday. Ravaillac, as previously noted, had murdered King Henry IV of France
in 1610 and the mode of his execution – tortured and pulled apart by horses in the Place de
Grève – was to set a precedent for the fate of Damiens. Charlotte Corday was the assassin
of the Jacobin leader, Jean-Paul Marat, in 1793. The inclusion of Ravaillac clearly reveals
more than a passing flirtation with the notion of regicide: “Yes, Francis!” says Charlotte in
the poem, “thine was the dear knife that tore/ A tyrant’s heart strings from his guilty breast”.
Moreover, the rather odd union imagined between Ravaillac and Corday is in all likelihood
indicative of Shelley’s romantic fascination for those who are prepared to die for their cause.
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