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James Hadfield’s early years are unknown but he was severely injured at the Battle of Tourcoing in 1794. Before being captured by the French, he was struck eight times on the head with a sabre, the wounds being prominent for the rest of his life. After return to England, he became involved in a millennialist movement and came 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.

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George III of the United Kingdom and Hanover in 1800.

On the evening of May 15, 1800, at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, during the playing of the national anthem, Hadfield fired a pistol at the King who was standing in the royal box. The shot was unsuccessful and missed the King entirely. Hadfield was tried for high treason and was defended by Thomas Erskine, the leading barrister of that era. Hadfield pleaded insanity but the standard of the day for a successful plea was that 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.

Due to the 1795 Treason Act, there was little distinction between plotting treason and actually committing treason, thus 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.”

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King George III in his coronation robes in 1761.

Up to that time, defendants acquitted by reason of insanity had faced no certain fate and had often been released back to the safe-keeping of their families. Parliament speedily passed the Criminal Lunatics Act 1800 to provide for the indefinite detention of insane defendants (and the Treason Act 1800 to make it easier to prosecute people for attempts on the life of the king). Hadfield later inspired further use of pleading insanity several years later during the case of Colonel Edward Despard. Hadfield was detained in Bethlem Royal Hospital for the rest of his life, save for a short period when he escaped. He was recaptured at Dover attempting to flee to France and was briefly held at Newgate Prison before being transferred to the new insane asylum Bethlehem Hospital (or Bedlam, as it was known). He died there of tuberculosis in 1841.

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King George III of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, King of Hanover. 1771.

In late 1810, at the height of his popularity, already virtually blind with cataractsand in pain from rheumatism, George became dangerously ill. In the Kings view the malady had been triggered by stress over the death of his youngest and favourite daughter, Princess Amelia. Although it has since been suggested that he had bipolar disorder or the blood disease porphyria, the cause of his illness remains unknown. After a final relapse in 1810, a regency was established. George III’s eldest son, George, Prince of Wales, ruled as Prince Regent until his father’s death, on January 29, 1820, when he succeeded as George IV.

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