Margaret Nicholson: Her Attack on George III in 1786
In 1786, Margaret Nicholson assaulted King George III in a futile half-hearted attempt to kill him. She had been born in Stockton-on-Tees to a barber named George Nicholson in 1750, a year after Princesse de Lamballe was born. At the age of 12 Nicholson became a maid and then worked in various notable households that included Sir John Seabright and Lord Coventry, where she showed no signs of mental illness.
Sometime before 1783, she was dismissed for having a love affair with a fellow servant. When the affair was discovered, she lost her job and then seemed to fall upon hard times. Supposedly, she ended up pregnant and soon after the baby’s birth, the child was removed from her custody. Then her lover left her, and she was forced to eke out a living supporting herself through needlework.
A few weeks after Vincenzo Lunardi ascended in his balloon from Herriot’s Garden in Edinburgh, Scotland, Nicholson appeared at the gate at St. James’s Palace on 2 August 1786. Standing opposite the Duke of Marlborough’s wall she waited at the gate under the pretense of presenting a petition to King George III. When he alighted from his carriage and was within range of her she pulled a weapon from under her cloak. “[S]he made a desperate thrust at his body with a knife, [an old ivory handled dessert knife, worn very thin towards the point, and cracked in several places in the handle] which she held firmly grasped in her hand.”
Fortunately, the King avoided the blow and drew back. She then repeated the blow, but a yeoman of the guard seized her and at the same moment one of the King’s footmen wrenched the knife from her hand. Then, according to the Derry Journal, “His Majesty, with his wonted coolness, said, ‘Don’t hurt the woman – poor creature! – she is mad.’”
After the attack, the Hereford Journal gave some details about Nicholson:
“She is about 36 years of age, a native of Yorkshire, rather short, of a very swarthy complexion, which gives her much the appearance of a foreigner; she was dressed in a flowered linen or muslin gown, black gauze bonnet, black silk cloak, morning wire cap with blue ribbons.”
There was also a report on how Nicholson’s sudden and unexpected attack affected George III.
“[H]is Majesty then went forward into the palace; and, when he had recovered [from] the surprise, appeared to be greatly affected, expressing in a kind of faultering voice, that ‘surely! he had not deserved such treatment from any of his subjects.’”
News also spread with “electrical speed” throughout London that the King had been attacked. In fact, newspapers reported that the attack caused a general panic among the public as they were unsure as to the condition of their beloved king.
“A thousand fictions were added to the simple fact, and his Majesty’s people, who love and reverence his virtues, were for several hours kept in agonizing suspense. The publication of the Gazette Extraordinary dispelled the gloom, and restored them to the happiness of knowing that the desperate hand of treasons or insanity had failed of its object, and that Providence had preserved a life so justly dear to them.”
Nicholson was immediately taken into custody and subsequently underwent several examinations. The Privy Council learned that she had worked for a Miss Price but supposedly left her service “on a pretence that she had been left a capital fortune.” Afterwards Nicholson went to work for a hatter named Mr. Warson in New Broad Street. While there she frequently pressed him to present petitions on her behalf to George III, “saying continually, she had a large claim upon government.”
She also lodged for three half years at the house of a Mr. Fisk, a stationer, located at the corner of Marylebone and Portman Square, which is about three-quarters of a mile away from where Madame Tussauds Wax Museum is now located. When the Privy council questioned Fisk and some of his fellow lodgers, they all noted that they thought Margaret Nicholson to be an upstanding citizen. They also provided excellent character references for her claiming that she was a “quiet and respectable” person. However, according to the Hereford Journal, Fisk also noted:
“[S]he always appeared a harmless character and that although she has frequently seemed in a state of absence, he never observed greater proofs of insanity in her, than frequently moving her lips as if talking, and appearing agitated, although in no conversation with any person.”
The Privy Council saw a woman much worse than the woman Fisk or his fellow lodgers described. To them Margaret Nicholson was a woman suffering from extreme mental illness. Furthermore, when they asked her why she committed the crime they were shocked:
“She answered, that she had ‘been abroad since the matters of the Crown fell out,’ and also said many other strange an incoherent things. Upon being told, that the sheet of paper she presented to the King, as a petition, was a blank, she said she knew it; but added, that was immaterial, as the King knew well enough what she wanted.”
During the questioning by the Privy Council, it was also learned that Nicholson had presented other papers to the King. When these were examined, it was discovered that they were filled with “extravagant things” and the one she presented to the King had written on it “To the King’s Most Excellent Majesty” with nothing else. In addition, when she talked to the Privy Council she behaved inconsistently. Sometimes she talked at length about claims against the government, brought up lawsuits, and said things like “just cause” while at other times stubbornly refused to answer questions.
Several Westminster magistrates also went to her apartment to see what they could find. Their discovery helped them conclude that she had a “disordered state of mind”:
“[N]othing more could be traced than scraps of papers, in which the names of Lord Mansfield and other persons of consequence appeared, with some disjointed writing, mentioning effects, and what she denominated ‘classics,’ a term she did not seem to understand.”
A physician from the Bethlem Hospital also interviewed Margaret Nicholson. After he questioned her, “she appeared much convulsed and seemed as if she was making an effort to weep, saying at the same time, ‘Tears would give her relief!’” He ultimately provided his opinion stating that she seemed confused and pronounced her “deranged.”
The Belfast Evening Post also reported:
“There are intervals when lunatics assume reason, and are capable of conversing with a seeming rationality; but when close questioned as to a particular crime they may have committed, they then wander into the wild labyrinths of distracted imagination, and discover their insanity. Such a one Margaret Nicholson appears to be.”
On the same day as the attack, the King left for Windsor to ensure that the alarm the people had for his welfare would subside. He seemed to have recovered from the surprise associated with the attack because everyone who saw him at this point noted that he seemed unaffected and composed. In addition, after the examinations of Nicholson were completed, the details were relayed to the king at Windsor Castle.
In addition, to ensure that no one would attack the King again, security was enhanced. The Belfast Evening Post noted this improvement on 9 August because when he arrived from Windsor:
“[H]is Majesty came … about 12 o’clock, dressed in the Windsor uniform, dark blue turned with red. When he alighted at the gate, he was received by an additional number of guards, who, for the first time, formed a circle round the carriage, and by the means effectually kept off the immense crowd that attended, who all testified their affection by every mark of respect. His Majesty on leaving his carriage, carried his sword in his hand; a circumstance so unusual as to cause some observation, though we believed it to the effect of accident.”
After examining Nicholson, the Privy Council had her lodge overnight with a Mr. Coates, one of the King’s messengers. While staying there a Justice Addington went to Coates’ house to talk with her. She told him that she had been distracted and that she did not understand the questions given by the Privy Council and that when she answered she was not understood. In addition, she claimed she was “deaf on one side; but she had it all here [pointing to the back of her head]; that the King had no right to the Crown, that the Crown was hers.”
Coates lived on Halfmoon Street and on the afternoon of 9 August he, his wife, and a nurse took Nicholson in a hackney coach to Bethlem,* or rather Bedlam, as that was the nickname given to the psychiatric hospital because the word meant “uproar and confusion.” Supposedly, to ensure there was no scene with Nicholson, Coates told her they were “going on a party of pleasure.” She readily agreed. She was in good spirits when she got into the coach and talked animatedly until they arrived at Bethlem.
There she willingly went inside the facility and after a time she and those accompanying her were invited to eat dinner. Afterwards Margaret Nicholson then “quietly submitted” to the regulations of the hospital and orders were given that no one should be permitted to visit her unless they had special permission from the government. At six o’clock authorities conducted her to her bed. There a chain was put around her leg and fastened to the floor. After her commitment, the Chelmsford Chronicle reported:
“This unfortunate woman is now perhaps at a place of residence, for ‘tis probable that her mind will never warrant her being again at liberty; and indeed were she to recover, probably would never warrant her being at liberty [because of] … her [lifting her] hand against the life of her sovereign.”
One Englishman decided to take advantage of Nicholson’s attack because soon after he tried to make money off the event. According to The Belfast Evening Post:
“An ingenious fellow is now going about the country, exhibiting, at a penny a-piece, the identical knife with which Margaret Nicholson made the attempt on his Majesty, and such is the curiosity and credulity of John Bull, that there is no doubt the exhibitor will be amply rewarded for his trouble.”
As to the real knife used by Nicholson, authorities ordered that it be deposited in the armory in the Tower. In addition, because Nicholson had nothing other than what she wore, an order was also given to purchase clothing necessary for her to have a change of clothes. Thus, “accordingly she [was] bought two new shifts … a pair of shoes … a black quilted petticoat.”
Although Margaret Nicholson might have been viewed as mad, she had a well-respected brother, a publican who kept the Three Horseshoes Public House located on the Strand at the corner of Milford Lane. After her commitment to Bethlem he was permitted to see her. When he arrived for a visit, it was reported that he was “much affected” at the sight of his sister. He offered her money, but she refused to take it and supposedly told him his visits were unwelcome.
Although Margaret Nicholson appeared to be safely secured inside Bethlem, that wasn’t the last people heard of her. According to the Kentish Gazette, in 1790 she successfully escaped after being allowed to walk in the garden. Not one to be confined and seeing a means of escape, she “formed, with some ingenuity, a ladder from … the handles of two brooms, connected by strong slips torn from her blanket. By this simple apparatus, she was enabled to ascend the wall, and thus made her escape without difficulty.”
She then went directly to her brother’s house in Milford Lane. In the meantime, authorities sent out a team to find her and located her at her brother’s house. They then carried her back, “so much against her inclination, that it was necessary to use force.”
Popular portrayals of Margaret Nicholson ranged from her being depicted as a mad spinster to a romanticized heroine. In 1810, Percy Bysshe Shelley and Thomas Jefferson Hogg wrote a poetry volume named after her, Posthumous Fragments of Margaret Nicholson. The book pretended to be poems written by Nicholson, “edited by her nephew, John FitzVictor,” and said to have been published after her death. In fact, she was still alive living at the Bethlem Hospital at the time and remained there until she passed away on 14 May 1828 having been confined there 42 years.
*Also known as the Bethlehem Hospital, Bethlem Royal Hospital, and St Mary Bethlehem.
-  Derry Journal, “Margaret Nicholson,” August 25, 1840, p. 4.
-  Ibid.
-  Hereford Journal, “Friday and Saturday’s Posts,” August 10, 1786, p. 1.
-  The Scots Magazine, “Particulars of Margaret Nicholson’s Attempt to Assassinate His Majesty,” April 1, 1786, p. 366.
-  Hereford Journal, p. 1.
-  Ibid.
-  Ibid.
-  Ibid.
-  Derry Journal, p. 4.
-  Hereford Journal, p. 1.
-  Ibid.
-  The Belfast Evening Post, “London, August 4-5,” August 10, 1786, p. 2.
-  Ibid.
-  Ibid.
-  Chelmsford Chronicle, “Friday’s Post by Express,” August 11, 1786, p. 2.
-  Ibid.
-  The Belfast Evening Post, “London, August 21-22,” August 28, 1786, p. 1.
-  The Ipswich Journal, “Friday’s Poor,” August 26, 1786, p. 2.
-  Kentish Gazette, “Margaret Nicholson,” November 30, 1790, p. 2.
-  Hereford Journal, “Margaret Nicholson,” September 29, 1790, p. 3.
What a very interesting story – I’ve been told this is part of my family and she was my grandmother many times removed.
My cousin was trying to trace the family tree but didn’t get this story.
How exciting that you’re related. It’s always interesting to learn about your family.