It was early evening on 11 May 1812, and the prime minister was running late. He was rushing to get to a session of evidence on a question that had been disturbing his busy government: whether sanctions to counter Napoleon’s Continental System (a form of economic warfare pursued through an embargo on British trade with Europe) were doing more harm than good.
Perceval’s mind was probably elsewhere when he was confronted in the lobby by a well-built and well-dressed man, who raised a steel pistol to the prime minister’s chest and shot him at near point-blank range through the heart. A Mayfair solicitor, Henry Burgess, witnessed the event: “I heard a hoarse cry of ‘murder, murder’ – and he exclaimed ‘Oh’ & fell on his face.” Perceval was dead within minutes.
Panic was quick to spread around parliament and searches were promptly ordered to ascertain that the murder was not the start of a general onslaught. Such a response was hardly surprising: not only was Britain at war, but the government had also been coming under pressure from two domestic movements. First, a revived radicalism had coalesced over questions of corruption in high places and was increasingly rallying around the leadership of the wealthy and charismatic radical MP, Sir Francis Burdett. The sense of political instability created by Burdett’s calls for political reform was compounded by the second movement, Luddism, which spread from Nottingham from the spring of 1811. The followers of the mythical ‘Ned Ludd’ engaged in a range of creative and often violent protests aimed both at certain types of machinery and at individuals.
Less than two weeks before Perceval’s death, Luddites had murdered a mill owner in West Yorkshire. There seemed to be plenty of reasons for jumpy parliamentarians to suspect that the killing of Perceval was part of some wider conspiracy. Perceval’s assassin, however, quite calmly gave himself up – “a mouse might have secured him with a bit of thread” according to Burgess – and handed over his pistols.
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This demeanour of calm detachment and resignation was marked in the assassin – John Bellingham – across the week that followed, as his story was unfolded in newspapers, pamphlets, and accounts of his trial. In many ways Bellingham was utterly unremarkable: a middle-aged, middle-class man, with a wife and two children. He was a man, however, who carried with him a long-simmering grievance. In the summer of 1804 Bellingham – a commercial agent – had arrived at the Russian port of Archangel on a business trip. He was prevented by the authorities from either returning on or loading his goods onto the ship he had chartered and was instead detained for an alleged debt of 4,890 roubles. His detention in various Russian penal institutions was to last five years.
Throughout, Bellingham maintained that he was not liable for the debt, but had been fitted up by two Russian merchants as payback for what they thought was Bellingham’s role in exposing a fraudulent insurance claim. When he was finally released in October 1809, Bellingham had an overpowering sense of injustice. Not only had he been wrongfully imprisoned by the Russian authorities, but he had also been let down by his own government and, in particular, by Granville Leveson-Gower, the British ambassador in St Petersburg.
On his return to England, his attempts to secure a public discussion of his case and to have it addressed in parliament became nearly a full-time job. He petitioned and was rebuffed by nearly every branch of government that might possibly have some interest in the matter. Utterly frustrated, he began to visit the gallery of the House of Commons. He also purchased a pair of steel pistols from a gunsmith and visited a London tailor, who made him a pocket designed to accommodate these weapons.
Bellingham’s murder of Perceval was his last desperate attempt to secure some ‘airtime’ for his cause. He was clear in writing to his business partner that “I could stand it no longer and resolved to finish the affair by an appeal to a criminal court whether government can refuse justice or no”, and spoke of his “tranquillity of mind” in knowing that his grievance would finally receive some discussion.
He was tried on 15 May, four days after the assassination. He refused any idea that he might plead insanity and stuck to his own reasoned defence of his actions. He even came close to claiming that the government had sanctioned the assassination: “I even had a carte blanche from the British government to right myself in any way I might be able to discover. I have done so.”
The speed of the trial allowed for no evidence to be brought to attest to Bellingham’s supposed insanity (his father, for example, had been mentally ill and there was some suggestion he had committed suicide) and Bellingham was found guilty of murder. He was executed on Monday 18 May, exactly one week after he murdered Perceval.
Security was tight around both the trial and the execution, and with good reason. Even as Bellingham was being taken from the crime scene to Newgate there was evidence of support for the murder. A crowd had gathered to boo the soldiers and cried “Burdett for ever,” clearly believing the event to be an act of political radicalism. The poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge later came across men in a London pub drinking to the assassination and toasting Burdett.
Evidence of other celebrations came from far and wide. The journalist William Cobbett witnessed the execution from his cell window at Newgate and offered a memorable account: “Demonstrations of joy, the most unequivocal, amongst the people in several of the most populous parts of England… at Nottingham the church bells were rung, at Leicester there was a supper and songs; at Sheffield there were sheep roasted whole.”
Even if accounts such as those of Cobbett (who was in Newgate for seditious libel against Perceval’s government) were overdrawn, it is hard to ignore a certain level of sympathy for the assassin rather than the victim. For example, over the coming months the assassination was referred to time and again in anonymous threatening letters (a staple of Luddite activity) to the unpopular prince regent and others.
Former ambassador Leveson-Gower, who Bellingham had identified as the real cause of his grievances and would rather have murdered, was one prominent target of hate mail: “Dreadfully are you deceived in thinking Bellingham had no accomplice… before many days are passed you’ll meet the fate poor Bellingham designed you.”
For many, however, this “savage joy” was profoundly shocking. Perceval’s death was greeted with sincere lamentations (Viscount Castlereagh apparently broke down in the Commons when speaking about the murder), with numerous sermons and with reflections on what such a dreadful act said about the ‘state of the nation’.
For many, assassination was, as a former foreign secretary George Canning put it, “foreign to the character and abhorrent to the feelings of Englishmen”. While it might be the kind of thing which was regrettably too common in other countries, if such a means of settling political and personal grievances were adopted in Britain then something was very seriously wrong.
This sense of national tragedy is best captured by the monument in Westminster Abbey, voted and paid for by Perceval’s parliamentary colleagues shortly after his death. It depicts Perceval as the classical statesman, cruelly murdered in the senate in the midst of his public duties.
A more personal and human sense of loss is communicated by the inscription below Francis Chantrey’s monument at Perceval’s burial place, in St Luke’s church in Charlton: “But the hand of the assassin not only broke asunder the brilliant chains of duty which bind a Statesman to his native land and made a void in the high and eloquent councils of the nation. It severed ties more delicate, those of conjugal and parental affection, and turned a home of peace and love into a house of mourning and desolation.”
In spite of these monuments (and others like them in Northampton and Lincoln’s Inn) the murder seems to have been quickly forgotten. There was no immediate or obvious change to the almost non-existent security provided for front-rank politicians.
Six years later it was only luck and his habit of bounding up stairs that saved Palmerston from an attempted assassination by another disappointed petitioner. As for Perceval, he is probably only remembered now during pub quizzes for the dubious distinction of being the only prime minister to have been murdered in office. Bellingham seems barely to be remembered at all.
Spencer Perceval: hero or hypocrite?
Perceval, like most prime ministers, fiercely divided opinion. He had come to politics from a legal background in the 1790s, into the heat and light generated by debates over the French revolution.
Perceval was a convinced evangelical, a family man with a fairly inflexible morality and one who embodied the long transition to Victorian ‘seriousness’ by always dressing in black. To some people, he was ‘Christianity personified’, a beacon of true and vital religion in an age when conservatives were lamenting the spread of infidelity and immorality. To others, such as Cobbett, he was ‘Old Hypocrisy Personified’, a fervent anti-radical who had been involved in some of the reactionary cause célèbres of the age and in the imprisonment of a number of prominent radical leaders (including Cobbett himself).
Perceval came to the premiership in 1809, at a challenging period marked by war and the political instability that had followed the deaths of two political giants, Pitt (Perceval’s mentor) and Fox, in 1806. Given that the foreign secretary and the war secretary of the outgoing ministry had fought a duel on Putney Heath, Perceval, equipped with forensic debating skills and a shrewd managerial style, can be credited with bringing some stability back to high politics. And while he perhaps lacked the breadth of vision to become a truly ‘great’ prime minister, Perceval is increasingly recognised as one of those hard-working but unsung architects of Britain’s eventual victory over Napoleon.
Gordon Pentland is a senior lecturer in history at the University of Edinburgh. He has published widely on the history of Britain since the French revolution.
This article was first published in the May 2012 issue of BBC History Magazine