James Hadfield: His Attempt on King George III’s Life

James Hadfield was charged with high treason after attempting to assassinate King George III at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane on the evening of 15 May 1800. Hadfield was sitting in the second row from the orchestra towards the middle of the pit as King George III entered his box. As usual the King began bowing to the audience. Hadfield then rose from his seat and without hesitation leveled a horse pistol that he fired towards the King’s box.

“It was so instantaneous as to prevent all the persons near him from seeing his design in time to defeat it, though providentially Mr. Holyrod, of Scotland yard, had the good fortune to raise the arm of the assassin, so as to direct the contents of the pistol towards the roof the box.”[1]

James Hadfield. Courtesy of the Victoria and Albert Museum.

Those around the King froze in a momentary “stupor” while several men, along with several musicians, surrounded and seized James Hadfield. He was then hurried him over the palisades into the musicians’ room. According to witnesses, the audience then burst into “violent emotions. Terror, dismay, and rage were marked on every countenance, except that of his Majesty, who sat with the utmost serenity, while the Queen, who was just near enough to hear the report and see the flash, collected confidence from his magnanimity.”[2]

James Hadfield shooting at the king.

James Hadfield shooting at King George III. Courtesy of the British Museum.

While Hadfield was being detained, he stated, “It is not over yet – there is a great deal more and worse to be done.”[3] This statement concerned those in the room. Some wondered if there were others involved and if another attack against the King was imminent.

Mr. Tamplin, a trumpeter in the band, recognized that Hadfield was a soldier and pulled open his coat to find a button belonging to the 15th light dragoons. About this same time the Prince of Wales and the Duke of York entered the room. Hadfield turned to the Duke and said he was a “good fellow.” He also stated that he had served the Duke in the army and pointed out his scars giving details as to how he had received them.

In the meantime, the magistrate Sir William Addington entered the musicians’ room. He began questioning Hadfield to ascertain whether he had purposely fired at the King or not:

“He asked Hadfield what had induced him to attempt the life of the best of Sovereigns?―He answered, that ‘he had not attempted to kill the king. He had fired his pistol over the royal box. He was as good a shot as any in England; but he was himself weary of life―he wished for death, but not to die by his own hands. He was desirous to raise an alarm; and wished that the spectators might fall upon him-He hoped that his life was forfeited.”[4]

More questions were asked of James Hadfield. Witnesses said he soon began to show signs of “mental derangement.” He talked about vivid dreams. Claimed that he had received a commission in his sleep and maintained that he was a martyr and knew that he was to be persecuted just like Jesus Christ. He also said many other incoherent and nonsensical things.

Prior to James Hadfield’s assassination attempt, he seemed to have had a good reputation and was considered a loyal subject of the King. For instance, during his time in the army Major Ryan and Captain Wilson, both men he served under and who were in the 15th light dragoons, thought highly of him. At trial they testified to his good character and willingness to lose his life in service to George III. Their testimonies regarding Hadfield were summarized in the following fashion in The Caledonian Mercury:

“They deposed in substance, that while in the regiment he was distinguished for his loyalty, courage, and irreproachable conduct. On all occasions of danger he was the first to volunteer. On the memorable affair at Villers en Couche, on the 24th of April, 1794, which procured the 15th regiment so much honor … Hadfield behaved with the most heroic bravery. On the 18th of May following, when the Duke of York retreating, in consequence of the attack of Pichegru on his rear, Hadfield in the action at Roubaix, fought with desperation.

He volunteered on a skirmishing party, withstood the shock of numbers, alone, was often surrounded by the enemy, and called off by his officers, but would not come. At last he fell, having his skull fractured, his cheek separated from his face, his arm broken, and he was otherwise so shockingly mangled, that the British troops, after seeing him, concluded he was dead; and he was returned among the killed in the Gazette. The French having obtained possession of the field, Hadfield fell into their hands, and recovered. He remained upwards of a year a prisoner, his regiment all the time supposing him dead; but in August 1795, he joined it at Croydon, to the great astonishment and joy of his comrades, who esteemed him much.”[5]

Despite James Hadfield’s unprecedented bravery, he was never the same after suffering the skull fracture. He thereafter seemed to demonstrate a “deranged intellect.” Moreover, it was reported that when he drank liquor he acted “insane; and this illness increased so much, that it was found necessary to confine him in a straight waistcoat … [before he was discharged from the army] for being a lunatic.”[6]

On the day of trial when James Hadfield was brought into the courtroom he was reported to have been calm and “neatly dressed.” A description of him at time also stated:

“His dress was decent … His face is thin, his countenance marked with a deep melancholy, and he looks many years older than he really is.”[7]

Thomas Erskine, the leading barrister of the day, defended Hadfield, who pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity. The standard of the day was that to be insane “a man is so lost to all sense … he is incapable of forming a judgement upon the consequences of the act which he is about to do.”[8] Hadfield seemed to fit the description.

Satirical print of James Hadfield firing his horse pistol. Courtesy of the British Museum.

Nonetheless, the prosecution pounced on Hadfield’s statement arguing that he could not be insane because he was sane enough to plan and carry out the assassination. They also noted that on the day of the assassination attempt James Hadfield behaved coolly and systematically. In addition, the prosecution maintained that he demonstrated no “derangement of intellect” when he committed the act against the King.

Erskine, on the other hand, gave a most eloquent address. In it he provided detailed evidence about Hadfield’s insanity. He also concluded his statements noting that “the case was important both to individuals and the community.”[9] Two surgeons and a physician then testified about the delusions James Hadfield suffered and linked them to his earlier head injury. In addition, several witnesses also gave concrete examples of Hadfield’s insanity with his sister-in-law, Mary Gower, stating:

“[O]n the 13th of May, two days before this offence, he started from bed with a view to kill his child, because, he said, ‘God had ordered him to do it.’ On that and the two following days he was more violent than usual. On other occasions he was extremely fond of the infant. In this last fit he repeatedly said that Jesus Christ was a bastard, and the Virgin Mary a w――. He said he had been to see God, and he sent her and his wife to see God, who was Mr. Truelock,* the cobler, now confined in a mad-house. On the morning of Thursday, the 15th of May, he started from bed, saying that he had lost a great deal of blood ― that he had a great deal to do, and a great way to go. When he came home at three o’clock on that day to clean himself, he told her and his wife, that he was going to be made a member of a club of Odd Fellows. He said, that he had seen God in the night, that he had dined with the King, and that he wished to have his permission to have another cut at the French. He always spoke with loyalty and affection of his Majesty, to whom, he said, he was indebted for his pension.”[10]

Lord Kenyon then interrupted the proceedings:

“I think … there can be no doubt of his [Hadfield’s] insanity; and if the man was out of his senses at the time, by the laws of England, he cannot be found guilty; and when one looks at the evidence, it brings some conviction to one’s mind that he is most dreadfully deranged. Yet such a man is a most dangerous enemy to society; and it is impossible with safety to suffer such a man to be let loose upon the public, and to permit him to range at large; it must not be. I however, only ask if it is necessary to proceed further on the trial, unless indeed, you think that this case has been drawn up, in order to give a false colouring to the defence. … The result then being such as it is, in the present state of the case he cannot be discharged … My brothers agree with me in thinking that he was not so far under the guidance of reason as to be capable of knowing what he did, therefore the Court are of the opinion, that they should be carried to his late place of confinement till he can be farther disposed of.”[11]

The jury then delivered their verdict. They stated that James Hadfield was “‘Not Guilty’ in appearing to us that he was under the influence of insanity when the act was committed.”[12] Hadfield was then conducted to a Hackney coach where he was conveyed back to the Newgate prison for safekeeping, despite the verdict of not guilty. At this time in history, those acquitted of insanity were often released to their families or set free because there was no law to detain them. However, Hadfield’s case would prove pivotal because the Vagrancy Acts of 1714 and 1744 applied to him, which meant he could only be held until he recovered his mind. People feared that he would thus be released during a period of lucidity and that he would then make another attempt on the King’s life. Therefore, Parliament quickly passed the Criminal Lunatics Act 1800 that provide for indefinite and automatic confinement for insane defendants.

Hadfield’s case also later inspired insanity pleadings in the case of Colonel Edward Despard. In that 1803 case Despard and six accomplices were charged with conspiring with other individuals to take over the Bank of England, seize the Tower of London, and assassinate George III. Unlike, James Hadfield, all involved in the Despard Plot were found guilty of treason and sentenced to be hanged, drawn, and quartered, although their sentences were commuted to just being hanged and beheaded.

Hadfield was eventually removed from Newgate and detained as a patient at the Bethlem Royal Hospital. This was the same London hospital where Margaret Nicholson, who attacked George III in 1786, was held for a time. While at Bethlem, Hadfield escaped from Bethlem on 27 July 1802, which was about the same time that Madame Tussaud was moving to London to begin touring with her wax figures. As to Hadfield, he was recaptured, along with another “maniac,” four days after his escape. The Morning Post provided this description of how he succeeded in escaping and how he was caught:

“It is the practice in Bethlem, to secure all the cells every night; but this not being properly attended to on the evening alluded to, the two lunatics descended from their apartments to the gallery and from thence to the green, where the convalescents are permitted to walk scaling the wall into Moorfields [and] they get clear off. On discovery of their flight, the keepers were dispatched, in all directions … Hadfield, and his companion had proceeded as far as Deal, from whence the former wrote to his wife, directing her to dispose of what furniture, &c., she might have, and come to him, that they might go to France together; on receipt of the letter, the wife went immediately to Bethlem, and informed the keepers, who, accompanied by her and some Police Officers, set off for Deal, where they immediately secured him. … When taken, Hadfield seemed much affected, cried bitterly, and upbraided his wife with having betrayed him.”[13]

Despite his unhappiness at being detained, James Hadfield appeared to settle in at Bethlem,** despite lobbying for his freedom. Hadfield spent his free time weaving baskets and selling them to visitors. Patients were also permitted to keep such pets as cats, dogs, birds, and squirrels and that allowed Hadfield to produce another well-known token that he sold to visitors. It was his illustrated poem titled, “Epitaph, of my poor Jack Squirrel.”

James Hadfield poem

James Hadfield’s illustrated poem, “Epitaph, of my poor Jack, Squirrel.” Courtesy of Yale Center for British Art.

Hadfield continued to lobby for his freedom. In 1820 he sent a letter to J.W. Parkins, Esq. sheriff at Bridge Street hoping to get him to help him be released. Hadfield’s letter to Parkins was dated 11 September 1820:

“I avail myself of the permission you verbally pleased to grant me the other day of addressing you, for the purpose of craving your interference for my liberation from a cruel and tedious imprisonment. I have endured this twenty years and upwards, and which, since my removal from Newgate to this, Hospital, press most heavily on my mind, owning to the numberless restrictions and useless torments inflicted on its inmates, who are aggrieved by the disadvantages of both a gaol and an hospital, being treated as close prisoners and madmen, without any of the indulgence commonly granted to either. Having been always assured, that after the demise of his late Majesty my seclusion should cease and being now perfectly sound in mind and body, and extremely desirous of spending whatever number of years I may have to live yet in the sweet enjoyment of the blessings of liberty, I humbly intreat you to use your exertions to bestow such unspeakable and indescribable happiness on.”[14]  

The sheriff forwarded Hadfield’s letter and a couple of other letters to the Morning Post editor in 1821. Parkins also commented on Hadfield’s incarcerated and “distressed fellow-creatures” whom he hoped might be restored to “liberty.” Nothing came of Parkins’ actions and James Hadfield was not released. Instead, he died at the Bethlem hospital on 23 January 1841 from tuberculosis.

*Bannister Truelock acting as a prophet reportedly encouraged Hadfield’s delusions.
**In 1823, James Hadfield punched a man named Benjamin Swain, who died. An investigation determined that Swain’s death was accidental, and that Hadfield was not at fault.


  • [1] The Commercial and Agricultural Magazine 2 (London: Vaughan Griffiths, 1800), p. 373.
  • [2] Ibid.
  • [3] Ibid.
  • [4] Ibid.
  • [5] The Caledonian Mercury, “May 18,” May 22, 1800, p. 2.
  • [6] Ibid.
  • [7] Ibid.
  • [8] J. L. Eigen, Witnessing Insanity: Madness and Mad-Doctors in the English Court (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995), p. 49.
  • [9] Exeter Flying Post, “Trial of James Hadfield,” July 3, 1800, p. 2.
  • [10] Stamford Mercury, “Trial of James Hadfield,” July 4, 1800, p. 1.
  • [11] Ibid.
  • [12] Exeter Flying Post, p. 2.
  • [13] Morning Post, August 2, 1802, p.  2.
  • [14] Morning Post, “To the Editor of the Morning Post,” November 23, 1821, p. 2.

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