On 16 July 1936, 84 years ago today, a man named George McMahon tried and failed to kill the king of England, Edward VIII. It is a story that has been shrouded in secrecy and intrigue, not least because, until I unearthed McMahon’s own account of the incident, ‘He Was My King’, in the Balliol College archive of Edward’s lawyer Walter Monckton, it was traditionally dismissed by historians and royal biographers as nothing more than a pointless piece of attention-seeking by a disaffected drunkard. It was widely believed before now that all that McMahon had wanted to do was to throw a gun under the king’s horse to draw attention to a failed magazine that he had tried to set up, and to display his grievance in public. Yet, thanks to declassified files in the MI5 archives, McMahon’s autobiographical account and some in-depth research, a wholly different story emerged, and the true repercussions only became clear while I was researching and writing a book about the abdication, The Crown in Crisis. The question that I now ask is less ‘why did McMahon try and assassinate Edward’ and more ‘did MI5 sit back and deliberately let one of their own informants have a go at the king?’
The unlikely would-be assassin was a rather pitiful figure. George Andrew McMahon was a drifter and fantasist who had been in and out of prison, and first came to the attention of MI5 in August 1933, as he wrote to the chair of the Communist party, care of its newspaper the Daily Worker, announcing a claim for £4000 in compensation that he was launching against the Home Secretary. He was unsuccessful, but shortly thereafter claimed that he was acting as a a gun-runner to Abyssinia, during which he became known to the Italian embassy. Their policy of offering him large sums in cash for information pertaining to the destination and quantity of armaments baffled him, but he was happy to take their money. But by September 1935, McMahon realised that ‘I was unwittingly being used to obtain and pass to a foreign power information that would be prejudicial to my own Country’s well-being.’
Beset either by guilt or greed, he contacted MI5. Their file holds a letter from Special Branch to the Home Secretary of 18 October 1935, referring to a meeting held between McMahon and John Ottaway, head of the Detective Branch, in which McMahon sang like the proverbial canary. Although a note on the file suggests that some of this ‘flow of information’ has been ‘absolutely useless’, another confidential document affirmed that some of what he was feeding them was ‘undoubtedly accurate’. After decades of not being of any obvious use to anyone, McMahon had now established himself as, of all things, an informant for MI5, and he could now write with pride that ‘I was to act thenceforth under the direction and supervision of the Military Intelligence Department.’
McMahon boasted that ‘I had gained a reputation amongst [the Italians] as a useful dupe and one whose services could be easily purchased.’ And so, ‘after a substantial repast’, his handler made him a lucrative offer: to act in the assassination of the King. The presence of Dino Grandi, the fascist politician, as Italian ambassador raises the question as to why Italy would sanction an attack of this nature, which makes one imagine that such an attempt would have been concocted by disaffected rogue elements, rather than the Italian state itself, which was broadly sympathetic towards Edward VIII. McMahon, knowing nothing of the intricacies of European diplomacy, accepted the task and enjoyed his double existence, which consisted of much flattery, money and fine wine over expensive dinners.
Yet, as promised, he approached MI5 to tell them of a likely attempt on the King’s life. Given the accuracy of some of McMahon’s previous intelligence, his statement was taken seriously at first, but it was soon stated confidentially that McMahon ‘was too unreliable to be of real assistance.’ He informed his MI5 handler on 13 July that the attempt was imminent, and said that ‘he would not be alive after Thursday 16 July…arrangements had been made that he and a companion should assassinate the King on Thursday.’ He asked that the police or Special Branch should follow him, but no such thing took place; he was on his own.
On 16 July itself, McMahon later claimed that he attempted to contact the Home Secretary John Simon and MI5, but was unsuccessful in getting through to either of them. Holding a loaded revolver that he had allegedly been given by the agents of the Italian embassy, he and his fellow conspirators made for near Buckingham Palace, where the king was inspecting the ranks of the Guardsmen. McMahon waited until around half past twelve, and then, as the king and his entourage drew near, he walked quickly into the line of sight, produced his revolver and made ready as if to fire. A nearby special constable saw his action and punched him in the arm, causing him to drop his weapon, and it fell harmlessly under the king’s horse. McMahon, shouting ‘Here you are, I am the person’, was led off by the police, and the procession continued. The attempt had been foiled.
Shortly afterwards, McMahon appeared in court, charged with ‘unlawfully possessing a firearm and ammunition to endanger life’, ‘presenting near the person of the King a pistol with intent to break the peace’ and ‘producing a revolver near the person of the King with intent to alarm his Majesty’, and the whole saga moved into murkier territory altogether. When McMahon, with a ‘dishevelled appearance’, stood up in court in September 1936, he was not helped by his barrister, St John Hutchinson, who tried to divert attention from the Italian embassy to the German embassy, so he could legitimately deny any involvement of theirs in the assassination attempt.
Yet the McMahon case was considered sufficiently serious to be prosecuted by none other than the Attorney-General. There was also a division of charges that McMahon faced. The possession of the firearm with intent to endanger life charge was relatively minor, but the other two charges were more serious, and came under the Treason Act of 1842. As the case ground forward, the evidence seemed damning. Yet, as it became clear that McMahon had been in contact with the police before the 16 July, the judge, Justice Greaves-Lord, was driven to intervene to stop Hutchinson’s line of questioning, suggesting that ‘this is quite contrary to all the rules of evidence. You cannot ask a witness to say something that he does not know.’
Nonetheless, a question was percolating in court. The man who had behaved so strangely in front of the King was clearly a fantasist, and the question at hand was how much of a danger he was. Why, then, was this senior policeman not able simply to deny these outlandish claims and put a stop to them?
Regardless of whether McMahon was simply a madman acting alone, or if he really was a hapless pawn in some wider conspiracy, he had gone out of his way to warn Special Branch of the likelihood of an attempt on the King’s life on 16 July. It was no coincidence that the judge, on a flimsy pretext, asked that the jury find McMahon not guilty of the more serious charges of ‘presenting near the person of the King a pistol with intent to break the peace’ and ‘producing a revolver near the person of the King with intent to alarm his Majesty’, thus removing the possibility of his being found guilty of a treasonous offence. Yet, after his incomprehensible and mostly inaudible testimony in his defence, McMahon was convicted and sentenced to twelve months hard labour, as the judge loftily informed him that the comparative lightness of his punishment was because ‘I am not going to make you into a sort of fancied hero…I am not going to pass a sentence that would have any tendency to do that.’ Would-be royal assassins, after all, did not get a year’s imprisonment; that was the punishment for fantasists and troublemakers.
Although his solicitor Alfred Kerstein was not convinced that his story was a complete fabrication, and made efforts to have his client released from prison on the grounds that, if the truth about his involvement with MI5 had been made public, it would have imperilled international relations, he was unsuccessful and McMahon was finally released on 13 August 1937. He was ruined. The notoriety surrounding him meant that any chance of returning to a lawful occupation was impossible, even if he had wished for it, and he returned to drinking. His only public statements were hugely contradictory. His long attempt at self-justification, ‘He Was My King’, praises Edward throughout, but the next time that he came to the attention of MI5 was for writing a letter on forged War Office paper that described Edward, now Duke of Windsor, as ‘the exiled traitor Windsor’. McMahon was then closely associated with the Anglo-Saxon League, or the so-called ‘People’s Alliance’, an organisation of British fascists, and continued to write to Oswald Mosley long after the end of the war. He was sent to prison again in 1951 for three years, and eventually died in 1970, forgotten and penniless.
Whatever McMahon’s own intentions, a great many people would have been happy to have seen Edward assassinated in July 1936, not least a rag-tag band of communists, Italian spies and fellow sympathisers who he lived near in Bayswater. One of his neighbours was May Galley, herself an associate of Edith Suschitzy, the Russian émigré and recruiter for the Cambridge Spy network. It is quite likely that they were lovers, not least because, shortly before the assassination attempt, McMahon wrote ‘May, I love you’ on a piece of paper. His long-suffering wife’s name was Rose.
Although McMahon was silent on the topic of the ‘other’ May, it does not take MI5’s finest minds to piece together an intrigue, the ultimate aim of which was to cause a high-profile outrage involving the then-new King of England. McMahon, the patsy himself, was a fantasist who could be fed a mixture of accurate and false information, and who could then involve the security services, who may or may not have been happy to allow the attempt on Edward’s life. Once it became clear that they had at least some knowledge of McMahon and his activities, he became an embarrassment who had to be silenced at all costs, hence the strange and underhand dealings at his trial.
McMahon was undoubtedly an unstable and unreliable character. Yet it is tempting to believe that, when he stood in front of Edward 84 years ago, he genuinely had no idea what he was about to do, whoever he was acting for. Had he fired, and killed his monarch, then his name would be notorious, rather than a footnote in a wider saga. And, at a time when conspiracy theories flourish and thrive thanks to the rapid-fire spread of social media, it is worth remembering that not every tall tale is completely groundless, and that some of them might, one day, even find the same corroboration as the mysterious saga of the man who nearly killed his king, and the security services who failed to stop him, for whatever reason.
Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print
Try three issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £5Subscribe