Roderick Maclean: Attempted Assassination of Queen Victoria

Roderick Maclean was a Scotsman who attempted to assassinate Queen Victoria with a pistol. It happened on 2 March 1882, at Windsor, England. His motive was purportedly because he received a curt reply to some poetry that he mailed to the Queen.

Roderick Maclean

Roderick Maclean. Author’s collection.

Maclean came from a respectable family, spoke French and German, and was 28 years old when he attempted to assassinate Queen Victoria. It seems that his conduct had long been “irregular and eccentric.” In fact, his family had gotten so fed up with his unusual behavior they had long ago “turned him off, allowing him a very small weekly pittance.”[1] He thereafter led an idle life roaming around aimlessly and moving from town to town living in “Westeron-super-Mare, Croydon Brighton, Southsea, and finally Windsor.”[2]

Queen Victoria. Author’s collection.

During his roaming years, about six months before his attempt on the Queen’s life, he had been confined in the Wells Lunatic Asylum at Somersetshire. It was also reported that he had once been confined in a Dublin asylum. In addition, he sometimes begged for coins despite receiving enough money from his family to pay for his lodgings and food (even if they were of the lowest type).

After Roderick Maclean was arrested, a letter was found upon him dated 2 March 1882. He addressed it to no one and stated:

“I should not have done this crime had you, as you should have done, allowed the 10s. per week instead of offering the insultingly small sum of 6s per week, and expected me to live on it. So you perceive the great good a little money might have done, had you not treated me as a fool and set me more than ever against those bloated aristocrats ruled by the old lady, Mrs. Vic, who is a licensed robber in all senses.”[3]

He also maintained that he never intended to harm the Queen. Rather he stated that he only wanted to “alarm the public.” He also noted that the reason he attempted the assassination of her majesty was because his grievances had not been respected, “such as the pecuniary straits in which I have been situated.”[4]

The assassination attempt occurred after the Queen returned from Buckingham Palace, the same palace that the boy Jones broke into several times. The Queen had been to the palace earlier to hold a drawing room and returned to Windsor on 2 March 1882 at 4:00pm with her fifth daughter and youngest child, Princess Beatrice. According to the Penny Illustrated Paper:

“The train left Paddington at ten minutes to five, arriving at the Windsor station punctually at twenty-five minutes past five. The Queen remained in the carriage a few minutes after it had stopped, and then walked across the platform through the waiting-room to the royal carriage waiting in the station yard. The carriage, which was drawn by a couple of grey ponies, was closed, the weather being very cold. Her Majesty and Princess Beatrice having taken their seats, the outrider started on his way to the castle, and the crowd left the platform for the station yard in order to see her Majesty drive past. While cheers were being raised by the bystanders a man, who was standing at the gateway of the yard, deliberately raised a pistol and fired at her Majesty’s carriage, which was fifteen yards distant.”[5]

Fortunately, the shot missed. The carriage windows which had been down were hurriedly drawn up and the driver dashed off with all haste for Windsor Castle. Safely inside the carriage and unharmed were the Queen and Princess Beatrice. In the meantime, the shooter, Roderick Maclean, was collared and arrested by Superintendent Hayes, chief officer of the Windsor police.

Princess Beatrice in 1886. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Reports from eyewitnesses at the scene indicated that a photographer named James Burnside wrested the pistol Maclean was carrying from his right hand. In addition, two Eton students who were there with other Eton students and standing behind Maclean, “flew at him with great fury, and one beat him fiercely over the head with an umbrella.”[6] A locomotive foreman, John Frost, also entered the fray. He helped to secure Maclean, who when seized cried out, “Don’t hurt me.”

Roderick Maclean being seized after the assassination attempt.

Seizure of Roderick Maclean after the attempting shooting of the Queen. Author’s collection.

At the police station Maclean was searched by detectives. On him were found fourteen ball cartridges inside a piece of paper and several other papers and valueless articles were also discovered. In addition, detectives obtained the weapon Maclean used to shoot at the Queen. It was described as a medium-sized, six-chambered revolver of German make. Two of the chambers held ball cartridges and two other chambers were empty. In addition:

“After the removal of the prisoner Maclean to his cell, the Press Association representative had an interview with him. He stated that he was very comfortable. He made no allusion to his attempt. It is generally believed in Windsor that Maclean acted entirely alone, and much satisfaction is felt on that account.”[7]  

After his apprehension, a Portsmouth correspondent sent a telegraph to his paper that stated:

“The would-be assassin of Her Majesty is presumed, by the description published of him, to be a Maclean who lived at Southsea in a wretched and singular style, and was addicted to drink. He always was regarded as cranky, and his peculiarities had been accentuated by his being unfortunate in his domestic relations.”[8]

Another correspondent gave this report:

“The man Maclean who shot at the Queen, left Portsmouth on Thursday, February 23rd, to walk to London. He had on the day previous received money from his friends at Croydon, from whom a letter now awaits him at Mr. Hackers … He told Hackers that his brother had married the sister of a well-known theatrical celebrity. Hackers fully believes Maclean mad.”[9]

A telegram was also sent to the Home Secretary informing him of the attempted assassination of Queen Victoria. About the same time as the Home Secretary was being informed, the Queen sent a reassuring telegram to her eldest son that read:

“From the Queen, Windsor Castle, to the Prince of Wales, Marlborough House. – In case exaggerated report should reach you, I telegraph to say that as I drove from the station here a man shot at the carriage, but fortunately hit no one. He was instantly arrested. I am not the worse.”[10]

The morning after the assassination attempt, an examination took place at the site where the shooting occurred. Joseph Turner, inspector for the Great Western Railway discovered the bullet. It was about thirty yards from the spot where Maclean had been standing when he fired the shot. The bullet, which was slightly flattened weighed about a third of an ounce and was originally conical in shape. It matched those found in possession of Maclean and reportedly struck a truck before bouncing back a couple of feet where it was found embedded in the ground.

Later that same day the Court Circular reported to its readers:

“As the Queen left Windsor Station in a close carriage yesterday, a man who was standing in the crowd fired a short from a revolver … and was instantly secured. The Queen heard the report, but did not see the occurrence, though the Princess Beatrice, who was sitting on that side of the carriage perceived the man raise his hand and fire. The Queen, who was not alarmed, drove on to the Castle, and sent to make enquiries whether anyone had been hurt. Her Majesty is very well to-day, and has not suffered from the shock … the representatives of foreign Powers have enquired in person after Her Majesty at Windsor Castle to-day.”[11]

Attack by Roderick Maclean on the Queen. Author’s collection.

Soon after his arrest, on 20 April, the trial of Roderick Maclean took place. It generated a lot of interest and was held at the Reading Assizes. It was reported that the town was a “flutter of excitement” and that large crowds gathered to watch the judges and officials enter the building before the trial began. The Sheffield Daily Telegraph also reported:

“The entrances to the court were early besieged by a crowd who sought admittance, but all who did not possess passes were rigidly excluded. The court-house itself is not large, but it is a neat and commodious structure, with galleries round three sides of the building. The gallery to the right of the judges was wholly occupied by ladies fashionable dressed and furnished with opera-glasses, while others were accommodated with seats on the bench. A profuse display of primroses indicated the political proclivities of a number of the audience.”[12]

Roderick Maclean was described at trial as being medium height, dark complected, with short hair and a mustache. He was charged with high treason for having made an attempt on the Queen’s life. Moreover, according to the Glasgow Evening Citizen:

“The charge against the prison was of the most aggravated kind, he having directly attempted to compass the life of Her Majesty. Detailing the facts of the case, … the prisoner appeared to have taken advantage of seeing Her Majesty sitting inside the open window of the carriage, and firing the pistol directly towards the carriage in which the Queen was sitting, and the bullet was found in a direct line with carriage. Apparently the crime had been one of premeditation, prisoner having purchased days before the pistol and ammunition to commit the crime, and a document in his possession showed his intention to commit the deed.”[13]

When Maclean was brought into the courtroom, he said without hesitation that he was “not guilty.” He was represented by Montagu Williams, who stated that his client was insane and then supported this declaration by calling several witnesses who had examined Maclean. Moreover, according to Dundee Evening Telegraph:

“The whole interest of the case turned on the sanity or insanity of the prisoner – a question speedily and conclusively settled by the medical evidence on both sides. In 1856 M’Lean sustained severe scalp wounds, the result of which on his mental balance condition was at the time problematic. In 1874 he was examined by Dr Manning, who pronounced him of unsound mind, although not sufficiently deranged to warrant permanent seclusion and confinement. By 1876, however, those who were in intimate contact with him had no doubt that he was absolutely insane, and for a time he was under restraint in the Bath and Summerside Asylum. The Chief-Justice in his charge, while not blaming the authorities of the Asylum for discharging their patient, thought the liberation of M’Lean a great misfortune.”[14]

Roderick Maclean at trial.

Roderick Maclean at trial. Author’s collection.

After the witnesses testified about Maclean’s insanity the prosecution practically admitted their assessments were true and that Maclean was insane. Thus, the jury was out for a mere five minutes before delivering their verdict. It was probably no surprise when they found Roderick Maclean “not guilty on grounds of insanity.”[15]

After Roderick Maclean was declared insane, he lived out the remained of his life at the Broadmoor Asylum, a psychiatric hospital in Crowthorne, Berkshire. However, Maclean’s verdict did not sit well with Queen Victoria. She was often the target of attacks by mentally ill individuals and wanted a change to be made to English law so that offenders implicated in similar cases, who were found to be “guilty, but insane,” would be kept in custody as “criminal lunatics.” She hoped such sentences would serve as a deterrent. Her request for a new law resulted in the Trial of the Lunatics Act 1883.


  • [1] The Penny Illustrated Paper, “Law and Crime,” April 22, 1882, p. 250.
  • [2] Ibid.
  • [3] Ibid.
  • [4] Ibid.
  • [5] Ibid.
  • [6] Ibid.
  • [7] Huddersfield Daily Chronicle, “Examination of the Prisoner Roderick Maclean,” March 4, 1882, p. 8.
  • [8] Huddersfield Daily Chronicle, “Latest Telegrams,” March 4, 1882, p. 8.
  • [9] Ibid.
  • [10] The Penny Illustrated Paper, p. 250.
  • [11] Huddersfield Daily Chronicle, p. 8.
  • [12] Sheffield Daily Telegraph, “Trial of Roderick Maclean,” April 20, 1882, p. 6.
  • [13] Glasgow Evening Citizen, “The Attempt on the Life of the Queen,” April 19, 1882, p. 3.
  • [14] Dundee Evening Telegraph, “The Evening Telegraph,” April 20, 1882, p. 2.
  • [15] Sheffield Daily Telegraph, p. 6.

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