Today in London’s royal history: Millenarian nutter James Hadfield shoots at mad old George III, Theatre Royal, 1800.

We are all The Messiah, and The King, and death to anyone who denies it…

On May 15th, 1800, James Hadfield or Hatfield attempted to assassinate king George III of the United Kingdom. Hadfield was acquitted of attempted murder by reason of insanity, though he spent the rest of his life locked up.

Hadfield’s background is obscure, but by 1794 he was serving in the British army. In that year he was severely injured at the Battle of Tourcoing (in the war against revolutionary France); he was struck eight times on the head with a sabre, then captured by the French. These wounds affected him severely, and the scars he would bear for the rest of his life.

Returning to England, he became involved in a millennialist movement and later said he had come 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. In other witness accounts, after James Hatfield received more wounds from prisons and escaped, he said he had found a lake where he could bathe his wounds, claimed he was in heaven and that he was the biblical Adam and made himself a ‘covering of boughs of trees’ to put round his waist. He was taken to prison again after that where he smashed a water jug and proceeded to cut his feet with it to ‘purge away his sins’ whilst claiming he was the ‘Supreme Being’.

After some time, he got well again and escaped to Calais, where he then took a boat to Dover, arriving in London in September 1795. He rejoined his army regiment, arriving in Croydon Barracks on 5 April 1796 and was discharged soon after due to insanity and was collected by his brother. He eventually found work as a silversmith. But he became very depressed, and began to believe that God had big plans for him. God told Hadfield that when he died the world would die too. According to the usually trumpeted account, “after several ‘fits of insanity’ including one where he threatened to dash his child’s brains out (just days before), he made the assassination attempt on Mad King George.”

On the evening of 15 May 1800, at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, during the playing of the national anthem, Hadfield fired a pistol at the King standing in the royal box but missed, although, grabbed at once, he immediately claimed he had fired over the king’s head. Hadfield also warned his interrogators that “it was not over yet – there was a great deal more and worse to come.”

But maybe, just maybe, our Jimmy wasn’t as mad as he made out… Hadfield had become immersed in the murky world of millenarian sects in London’s underworld. Fiercely attractive to the poor, due to its widely touted credo that worldly hierarchies and suffering would come to and end with the imminent return and reign of king Jesus as a real and physical ruler over the earth, millenarian belief was enjoying a popular revival, especially with the career of apocalyptic prophets like Richard Brothers and Joanna Southcott flourishing. And just like during the English Revolution of the 1640s and ‘50s, millenarian ideas merged, mingled and cross-referenced with radical politics. In the same London pubs, radicals and millenarians sat elbow to elbow; millenarian prophets generally proclaimed themselves to be Christ, of king of the Jews, and from there it was but a short step to “demanding king George’s crown” (as Richard Brothers did). The intense fear generated by pro-French revolutionary radicals in the 1790s extended to those making millenarian claims (who were often arrested and interrogated). Hadfield had fallen into the company of Bannister Truelock, who had encouraged him in the plan to shoot the king. Truelock was a shoemaker, a religious activist, who prophesied the second coming of Jesus Christ. He also claimed the Messiah would be ‘born from his mouth’. He and Hadfield hung out in pubs frequented by radicals plotting an English Revolution in 1798-9. And mad, religious or not, Truelock certainly understood the coming of the millennium in a directly radical and practical way. His landlady gave evidence that he was always complaining about the price of provisions – “a seditious bad character”, who told her that “the king would be assassinated and we should have no more Kings to reign at all.” Don’t sound so mad to me. Truelock is said to have persuaded Hadfield that by shooting mad king George, he would bring peace to the world.

Hadfield was tried for high treason and was defended by Thomas Erskine, the leading barrister of that era. Hadfield pleaded not guilty on the grounds of insanity. The authorities made great efforts to prove that Hadfield was sane, and to find evidence to also try Truelock – unsuccessfully. Both may have been cleverer than they made out, since their religious mania was said to have been only evident after their arrests. Ie they saved their lives by emphasising their lunacy… Whatever the truth of it, the authorities clearly associated Hadfield and Truelock’s religious mania with the insurgent proletarian underground they feared.

To be found not guilty on insanity grounds at that time, the defendant had to be shown to be “lost to all sense … incapable of forming a judgement upon the consequences of the act which he is about to do”. That Hadfield had planned the shooting clearly contradicted such a plea. Under the 1795 Treason Act, little distinction was made between plotting treason and actually committing treason. Erskine chose instead to challenge the insanity test. Two surgeons and a physician were called to give evidence that the delusions were the consequence of his earlier head injuries. At this point, the judge, Lloyd Kenyon, stopped the trial, declaring the verdict “clearly an acquittal” but “the prisoner, for his own sake, and for the sake of society at large, must not be discharged”. Before then defendants acquitted by reason of insanity had faced no certain fate and had often been released back to the safe-keeping of their families.

To make sure Hadfield was not released, and that his example didn’t inspire others, 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 locked up 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. Truelock was also held in Bedlam; he was still there in 1816, “perfectly quiet and always occupied at his trade…” he “had an insight into his own condition an acknowledged that his religious views were preventing his discharge, although he considered them perfectly orthodox”. Another observer thought him “cool, steady, and deliberate in all his actions…” Mad Truelock and Hadfield may have been, but then madness is a reasoned response in the face of class oppression, war and exploitation.


An entry in the 2016 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online

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