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British Prime Minister Assassinated

Just over two hundred years ago, on 11 May 1812, John Bellingham, a Liverpool businessman shot dead the Rt Hon Spencer Perceval, the Prime Minister at the time, as he entered the House of Commons. Spencer Perceval is the only British Prime Minister to have been assassinated.

At 5.15 on the evening of Monday 11 May 1812, it being a fine evening, Spencer Perceval walked from 10 Downing Street to the Houses of Parliament to attend a debate in the House of Commons. The debate was to rescind the ‘orders in council’ that prevented nations trading with France. These were the chief plank in Perceval’s policy for the defeat of Napoleon.

Outside of the lobby to the House of Commons Perceval handed his coat to the officer positioned outside the doors, but as he entered the lobby a man who had been sat near the fireplace, stepped forward, and without saying a word drew a pistol and shot Perceval in the chest. Perceval fell to the floor, after uttering something that was variously heard as ‘murder’ or ‘oh my God’. They were his last words. By the time he had been carried into the nearby office of the Speaker’s secretary and propped up on a table, he was senseless, although there was still a faint pulse. When a surgeon, William Lynn, arrived from Great George Street a few minutes later, the pulse had stopped, and Perceval was declared dead. The surgeon noted a wound three inches deep on the left side of the chest over the fourth rib where a large pistol ball had entered.

Perceval’s body was taken back to 10 Downing Street, and on the following morning an inquest was held at the Cat and Bagpipes public house on the corner of Downing Street, and a verdict of wilful murder was returned.

Spencer Perceval
British Prime Minister
4 October 1809–11 May 1812
Born 1 November 1762
Painting by George Francis Joseph, 1812
© National Portrait Gallery, London

Spencer Perceval, the younger son of an Irish earl, was 49 at the time of his death and had been Prime Minister under George III (and the Prince Regent during the ‘madness’ of George III) since 4 October 1809. He was a follower of William Pitt (the previous Prime Minister but one), but described himself as a ‘friend of Mr Pitt’ rather than a Tory. Perceval was opposed to Catholic emancipation and reform of Parliament; he supported the war against Napoleon and the abolition of the slave trade. He was opposed to hunting, gambling and adultery, did not drink as much as most Members of Parliament, gave generously to charity, and enjoyed spending time with his wife Jane and their twelve children.

Perceval’s assassin did not attempt to escape from the House of Commons but calmly returned to his seat beside the fireplace. Sir Banastre Tarleton and Isaac Gascoyne, the two MPs for Liverpool, identified the man as John Bellingham, a merchant from Liverpool. The details of his story soon began to emerge. Bellingham had been imprisoned for debt in the port of Archangel in Russia in 1804 and had been held in various prisons for the next 5 years. The debt had been alleged by the owner of a Russian ship that had sunk in the White Sea, who believed that Bellingham had told Lloyd’s, the shipping insurers, that the loss of the ship was actually sabotage. During his time in prison, Bellingham had pleaded unsuccessfully with the British ambassador in St Petersburg and with British authorities for help with his case. On his release in 1809, he returned to England full of resentment. Bellingham believed the government was morally bound to compensate him for his loss of business. He petitioned the Foreign Secretary, the Treasury, the Privy Council, the Prime Minister, even the Prince Regent, all to no avail, the main reason being that Britain had broken off diplomatic relations with Russia in November 1808. Once again Bellingham felt that he was being ignored. Finally, he decided that the only way for him to get a hearing in court was to shoot the Prime Minister.

John Bellingham drawn at the Sessions House Old Bailey 15 May 1812
Painting by Denis Dighton
© National Portrait Gallery, London

On the Friday following the assassination of the Prime Minister, the 15 May, John Bellingham was in court but to answer a charge of murder. His trial at the Old Bailey was presided over by Sir James Mansfield, the Lord Chief Justice of the Common Pleas. Mr Peter Alley, Bellingham’s chief counsel, tried to have the trial postponed on the grounds that they had not been given sufficient time to prepare for the case saying that he had only been given the case the day before and that he had never even met Mr. Bellingham until that very day. He asserted that given adequate time, in particular to find medical experts and witnesses in Liverpool who knew Mr Bellingham personally, he was confident he could prove his client to be insane. The Attorney General, Sir Vicary Gibbs, on behalf of the prosecution, argued vehemently against any such postponement. Mr Allen’s request was unsuccessful and the trial proceeded.

The Attorney General in presenting his case argued that the Government had been aware of what had happened to Mr Bellingham in Russia, had examined his claims, and had rejected them. He also rejected any notion that Bellingham was insane since he had been well able to conduct his business and had been trusted by other to conduct theirs without any hint of insanity on his behalf.

When his time came to speak, Bellingham said first of all that he was pleased the judge had not accepted his counsel’s arguments alleging his insanity.

‘Gentlemen, As to the lamentable catastrophe for which I am now on my trial before this court, if I am the man that I am supposed to be, to go and deliberately shoot Mr. Perceval without malice, I should consider myself a monster, and not fit to live in this world or the next. … I had no personal or premeditated malice towards that gentleman; the unfortunate lot had fallen upon him as the leading member of that administration which had repeatedly refused me any reparation for the unparalleled injuries I had sustained in Russia for eight years with the cognizance and sanction of the minister of the country at the court of St. Petersburg.’

Newgate Prison around 1812. The prison was demolished in 1904, and the Central Criminal Court (also known as the Old Bailey after the street on which it stands) now stands on the site

Once all the witnesses had been examined (closing arguments by the defence and prosecution were not allowed at that time), Sir James Mansfield addressed the jury, during which he became openly emotional and at one point cried.

‘Gentlemen of the jury, you are now to try an indictment which charges the prisoner at the bar with the wilful murder (here the learned judge was so hurt by his feelings, that he could not proceed for several seconds) of Mr. Spencer Perceval, (in a faint voice) who was murdered with a pistol loaded with a bullet; when he mentioned the name of (here again his lordship was sincerely affected, and burst into tears, in which he was joined by the greatest portion of the persons in court) a man so dear, and so revered as that of Mr. Spencer Perceval, I find it difficult to suppress my feelings.

He dismissed any idea that John Bellingham might have been insane at the time of committing the crime, saying that on the contrary, the testimony adduced in his defence had most distinctly proved that he was in every respect a full and competent judge of all his actions.

It was no surprise then that John Bellingham was found guilty of Spencer Perceval’s murder. After a consultation of two minutes and a half in the box, the jury expressed a wish to retire, but took only fourteen minutes to reach a verdict. On the following Monday, 18 May, John Bellingham was hanged in public outside Newgate Prison and his body sent for dissection to St Bartholomew’s hospital nearby.

The full transcript of the trial is here

There have been three books about the assassination, the first, The Assassination of the Prime Minister: The shocking death of Spencer Perceval by Molly Gillen was published by Sidgwick and Jackson in 1972, and the second, The Assassination of the Prime Minister: John Bellingham and the Murder of Spencer Perceval by David C Hanrahan was published by The History Press in 2008.

The third, Why Spencer Perceval Had to Die by Andro Linklater was published by Bloomsbury in 2012. Linklater adds little to the facts explored by the two previous authors but he explores the possibility that although Bellingham insisted that he wasn’t part of a plot, it was an obvious possibility. Working-class discontent seethed as a result of the harsh economic climate caused by the Napoleonic Wars, and was manifested in the outpouring of popular applause and hurrahs for Bellingham that greeted the news of the assassination when it reached the streets. William Cobbett, who was at that time imprisoned for political libel, saw from his cell ‘mournful tears’ running down the faces of the crowd at the public execution and ‘heard the unanimous blessings’ and gratitude to Bellingham for having ‘ridded’ them of ‘the leader amongst those whom they thought totally bent on the destruction of their liberties’. But no evidence was ever found of any radicals’ complicity in the murder.

Linklater’s alternative theory is that Bellingham must have had financial help during the five months he spent in London seeking redress for his grievance. Although he was supposed to be impoverished, Bellingham paid his bills and did not live frugally. These sponsors, who must have known of Bellingham’s murderous intent, may have stood to gain if the ‘orders in council’ banning all trade with France were rescinded, and that Perceval’s assassination was the means to achieve this. Although Linklater names the conspirators, he produces no hard evidence, so the theory hardly adds up to much of a conspiracy.

Bust and memorial to Spencer Perceval in St Luke’s Anglican parish church in Charlton, London. The body is buried in the sealed family vault under the floor of the church.
© Stephen Craven/Creative Commons Licence

Perceval was buried on Saturday 16 May, the day after John Bellingham’s trial, in the Egmont family vault at St Luke’s Church, Charlton in south-east London. Perceval was the seventh son of the second Earl of Egmont, a title in the Peerage of Ireland. At his widow’s request, it was a private funeral. There were soon rumours that he had not left his widow, Jane, and his twelve children aged between three and twenty, well provided for. He had just £106 5s 1d in the bank when he died. On the 13 May, Parliament voted to settle £50,000 on Perceval’s children, with an additional annuity of £2,000 for his widow which on her death would transfer to the oldest son, also called Spencer. And on 15 May, after a some wrangling between the Whigs and Tories, the Commons further agreed to erect a monument to Perceval in Westminster Abbey, and for the younger Spencer Perceval to receive an annuity in his own right of £1,000 per annum to date from the previous Monday, the date of his father’s death. Three years later Jane Perceval married Lieutenant-Colonel Sir Henry Carrand, but was widowed again six years later. She died aged 74 in 1844.

In a curious echo from the past, Henry Bellingham, who is descended from a relative of Bellingham’s, was elected in 1983 as the Conservative Member of Parliament for North West Norfolk. But in 1997 he lost the seat by 1,339 votes to the Labour candidate, and this could be attributed in part to the 2,923 votes received by the eurosceptic Referendum Party candidate Roger Percival, who claimed, despite the different spelling, to be descended from Spencer Perceval. At the time The Independent depicted the local contest, which focused heavily on Britain’s role in Europe, as a conflict between the descendants of the two protagonists from two hundred years previously. This time ‘the roles are reversed with Roger Perceval the assassin lurking in the wings ready to strike at an increasingly nervous Henry Bellingham’ and that it was Labour’s Dr George Turner ‘who could gain the ultimate prize from Mr Percival’s assassination of Mr Bellingham’s election hopes’.

However Henry Bellingham was re-elected in 2001, and remains the MP for the North West Norfolk constituency. He was Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Foreign and Commonwealth Office) from 2010 to 2012. He recently failed in his bid to become Deputy Speaker of the House of Commons.

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