Political assassinations are a rarity in Britain. It’s just not cricket, you might say. Only one of our Prime Ministers has ever been murdered. Spencer Perceval holds that dubious distinction in British political history – the only British Prime Minister ever to have been assassinated while in office.
Portrait of Spencer Perceval (1762–1812)
Attribution: George Francis Joseph, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons.
Page URL: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Spencer_Perceval_(1762%E2%80%931812).jpg
A follower of William Pitt the Younger, Perceval always described himself as a “friend of Mr Pitt” rather than a Tory. On 4th October 1809, he became Prime Minister after William Cavendish-Bentinck, the Duke of Portland, retired due to ill health. Perceval had previously been Chancellor of the Exchequer.
Perceval is said to have overseen a politically weak government and had to deal with several crises in his brief term. These included the increasing madness of King George III, an inquiry into the failed 1809 Walcheren Campaign and Luddite riots.
Perceval met the crises described above head-on and overcame them. He successfully pursued the Peninsular War in the face of opposition defeatism and won the support of the Prince Regent, later King George IV.
Perceval’s position was looking stronger by early 1812, when, in the Lobby of the House of Commons at quarter past five on the afternoon of 11th May 1812, he was mortally wounded in the heart by a shot from a small handgun wielded by John Bellingham, a Liverpool merchant with a grievance against Perceval’s government.
As the Prime Minister staggered forward before falling to the ground, calling out as he did so words that witnesses later recalled in different ways as: “I am murdered!” or ‘Murder, Murder’ or ‘Oh God!’ or ‘Oh my God!’ The Prime Minister, who was not yet fifty years of age, left behind a widow, Jane, and twelve children.
Bellingham was born in 1769 in St Neots, Huntingdonshire, and brought up in London, where he was apprenticed to a jeweller, James Love, at age fourteen. Two years later, he went as a midshipman on the maiden voyage of the Hartwell from Gravesend to China. In autumn 1803, the Russian ship Soleure (or sometimes “Sojus”) was lost in the White Sea, located on the northwest coast of Russia. The ship’s owners (the house of R. Van Brienen) filed a claim on their insurance, but an anonymous letter told Lloyd’s the ship had been sabotaged. Soloman Van Brienen believed Bellingham was the author of that anonymous letter. There was some suggestion of money due by Bellingham. As a result, Bellingham, about to return from Russia to Britain on 16th November 1804, had his travel pass withdrawn because of the alleged debt.
Matters went from bad to worse for Bellingham. Van Brienen persuaded the local Governor-General to imprison Bellingham, which duly happened.
A year later, Bellingham secured his release and went to St. Petersburg. You would think that he would be circumspect at that point, but no – Bellingham attempted to impeach the Governor-General. This angered the Russian authorities, who charged him with leaving Arkhangelsk in a clandestine manner. He was again imprisoned until October 1808, when he was put out onto the streets but still without permission to leave. In desperation, he petitioned the Tsar.
Whether the Tsar provided help or not, Bellingham was allowed to leave Russia in 1809, arriving in England in December of that year, and in Liverpool commenced the business of an insurance broker.
Once home, Bellingham, bitter and twisted, began petitioning the UK government for compensation over his imprisonment in Russia. This was refused, as the United Kingdom had broken off diplomatic relations with Russia in November 1808. Bellingham’s wife urged him to drop the matter, and he reluctantly did.
In 1812, Bellingham renewed his attempts to win compensation for his incarceration in Russian prisons. On 18th April 1812, he went to the Foreign Office where he claimed that a civil servant told him he was ‘at liberty to take whatever measures he thought proper’. Perceval took this at its widest meaning – ‘if necessary, kill if you think it’s right’.
Taking the civil servant at his word, on 20th April 1812, Bellingham purchased two .50 calibre pistols from a gunsmith at 58 Skinner Street (in the Greater London Urban Area of Clerkenwell).
At this time, he was often seen in the lobby of the House of Commons. His sinister purpose on 11th May 1812 was to assassinate Spencer Perceval, who he believed was responsible for all the bad things heaped upon him and who had done nothing to help him.
The Trial, Execution and Legacy
Four days after the assassination, Bellingham was tried at the Old Bailey. He argued that he would have preferred to have shot the British Ambassador to Russia but insisted that, as a wronged man, he was justified in killing the representative of his oppressors (Spencer Perceval). He made a formal statement to the court, saying:
“Recollect, Gentlemen, what was my situation. Recollect that my family was ruined and myself destroyed, merely because it was Mr Perceval’s pleasure that justice should not be granted; sheltering himself behind the imagined security of his station, and trampling upon law and right in the belief that no retribution could reach him. I demand only my right and not a favour; I demand what the birthright and privilege of every Englishman is.
“Gentlemen, when a minister sets himself above the laws, as Mr Perceval did, he does it as his own personal risk. If this were not so, the mere will of the minister would become the law, and what would then become of your liberties?
“I trust that this serious lesson will operate as a warning to all future ministers, and that they will henceforth do the thing that is right, for if the upper ranks of society are permitted to act wrong with impunity, the inferior ramifications will soon become wholly corrupted.
“Gentlemen, my life is in your hands, I rely confidently in your justice.”
Evidence was presented at the Old Bailey that Bellingham was insane, but it was discounted by the trial judge, Sir James Mansfield. Bellingham was found guilty, sentenced to death, and hanged in public three days later at Newgate Prison. Bellingham’s skull was preserved at Barts Pathology Museum, although the reason why is unknown.
A Print of the shooting of the Prime Minister, Spencer Perceval, in the House of Commons, 11th May 1812 Cassell’s Illustrated History of England Vol.5 (1909). Author: Walter Stanley Britteny 1861–1908.
Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=65737327
In September 2009, the St. Neots Local History Society erected a plaque on Bellingham House in St Neots. On the corner of Huntingdon Street and Cambridge Street, the house is said to be where Bellingham was born. Interestingly, the plaque has an alternative spelling of the deceased Prime Minister’s surname.
Source and Further Reading
- Book: The Assassination of the Prime Minister – John Bellingham and the Murder of Spencer Perceval, by David C Hanrahan, available from: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Assassination-Prime-Minister-Bellingham-Perceval/dp/0750944005/
- The Walcheren Campaign was an unsuccessful British expedition to the Netherlands in 1809 intended to open another front in the Austrian Empire’s struggle with France during the War of the Fifth Coalition. ↑
- The Luddites is the name given to a group of English textile workers in Manchester who, in 1799, started to rebel against the introduction of machinery (such as mechanised looms and knitting frames) which threatened their skilled craft. ↑
- The Peninsular War (1807–1814) was the military conflict fought by Spain, the United Kingdom and Portugal against the invading and occupying forces of France for control of the Iberian Peninsula during the Napoleonic Wars.↑
- Source: https://publicdomainreview.org/essay/the-assassination-of-the-prime-minister-spencer-perceval ↑