Spencer Perceval (1762-1812) had been Prime Minister for three years when he was shot in the lobby of the House of Commons, May 11, 1812. He is the only British Prime Minister to have been assassinated.
The following is an excerpt from John Ashton’s Social England Under the Regency, Chapter 6:
One of the principal social events of the year was the Murder of the Right Hon. Spencer Perceval, Chancellor of the Exchequer, First Lord of the Treasury, and Prime Minister of England, who was shot by the hand of an assassin, John Bellingham, on the 11th of May, whilst passing through the lobby of the House of Commons. He was born November 1, 1762, so that, when he fell, he was in the prime of life. He was of very good family, being the second son of John, Earl of Egmont, in Ireland, and Baron Lovel and Holland in England.His family was one of the very few that really came over with the Conqueror, for Robert, the second son of Eudes, sovereign Duke of Brittany, settled in Normandy, and there became possessed of the lordships of Brewehal and Ivery. As stated, he came over in the Norman filibuster’s suite, and in the course of two or three generations the name of Brewehal, became changed into Perceval-and ever afterwards so remained.
Spencer Perceval, studied for, and practiced at, the Bar, being made King’s Counsel in 1796. In the same year, his first cousin, Lord Compton, who was a member for Northampton, succeeded to his father’s title of Earl of Northampton; and Perceval, offering himself for the vacant seat, was elected without opposition. His rise was rapid, and in 1801, being then in his 39th year, he joined Lord Addington’s Government as Solicitor-General. In 1802 he was made Attorney-General. When Pitt resumed the government, he retained his appointment, but resigned it at Pitt’s death.
In Lord Portland’s Ministry of 1807, he undertook the duties of Chancellor and Under Treasurer of the Exchequer, and also Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster. In October, 1809, he was First Lord of the Treasury, and Prime Minister, and so continued until his sad end.
One may well ask why did Bellingham shoot Perceval? To this day I cannot tell. In the year 1804, a Mr. John Bellingham-who had been brought up in a Counting House in London, and, afterwards, lived three years as clerk with a Russian Merchant at Archangel, whence he had returned to England-went back to Russia on Mercantile business-was there twice imprisoned-he said falsely-and treated, according to his own account, with very great indignity. He complained to the British Ambassador at Petersburg, and also to the Secretary of Legation, but did not obtain his desired redress. He returned to England in 1809, as he said, ruined in health and fortune. But the British Ambassador, Lord Gower, declared that he used all the influence he possessed (with propriety) in Bellingham’s favour; but that he was legally imprisoned for debt, upon the award of four arbitrators, two of them British Merchants chosen by himself, and the other two Russians; that his confinement was far from severe; that he was allowed to walk at large, only under the inspection of a police officer; and that he had received help in money from the Secretary of Legation.
But he was “a man with a grievance,” and went about to different branches of the Government, detailing the laches of Lord Gower and the Secretary, for their culpable neglect in not looking properly after the interests of a British subject. He then determined to bring his case before Parliament, and asked General Gascoyne to back his petition, and the General promised to do so, provided it had the countenance of Mr. Perceval, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, which was considered necessary in all cases which involved a pecuniary grant.
He wrote to poor Perceval for leave to bring in a petition, but was answered that Mr. Perceval thought that his petition “was not of a nature for the consideration of Parliament.” Then he went to the Regent and the Privy Council, but to no purpose: made applications all round, but met with no good, except a reference to the Chancellor of the Exchequer; but here he had been refused help. Then he wrote a letter to the Bow Street Magistrates, stating his case-saying that he would, once more solicit his Majesty’s Ministers, through them, and failing redress from that, he continued, “I shall then feel justified in executing justice myself; in which case, I shall be ready to argue the merits of so reluctant a measure, with his Majesty’s Attorney-General, wherever, and whenever I may be called upon to do so. In the hopes of averting so abhorrent but compulsive an alternative,–I have the honour to be &c&c.” The Magistrates communicated the contents of this packet to the Secretary of state, but it only resulted in a fresh disappointment.
He still kept on trying, and his idea of taking vengeance on some one, increased, until it not only became fixed, but he planned its carrying out. He had a pocket made in his coat of a peculiar size and shape, in order to carry a pistol; and on the fatal 11th of May, he hid himself behind one of the folding doors of the lobby of the House of Commons; and when, about a quarter past five, the ill-fated Chancellor made his appearance, Bellingham shot him through the heart. Poor Perceval only reeled a pace or two, faintly called out, that he was murdered, and then fell. . . .
He was equally calm when brought before the bar of the House, acknowledging the fact, and even attempting to justify it. He was committed to Newgate, where two men were constantly with him in his cell, to prevent any attempt at self-destruction. He was brought up for trial at the Old Bailey on the 15th of May. The facts against him were concisely and clearly stated, even to that of his having his pockets specially made to hold the pistols; and he conducted his own defence. He gave an account of his sufferings for the past eight years, laying the blame principally on Lord Leveson Gower, whom he regretted he had not killed in place of Mr. Perceval. “He as obliged to the Attorney-General and the Court for setting aside the plea of insanity urged by his counsel, and could assure them, whenever he should appear before the tribunal of God, he should be adjudged innocent of the willful murder of Mr. Perceval. That he perished by his hand he admitted; but, to constitute felony, there must be malice prepense, the willful intention, which had not been proved. In this case, he had been robbed of his property, his family ruined, and his mind tortured through the conduct of Government Agents; and he was now to answer for his life, because Mr. Perceval chose to patronize iniquity, and refuse him redress.”
Of course, this style of argument availed him nothing with the jury, who, after a very brief consultation, brought him in “Guilty.” Sentence of death was passed upon him, and as there was very little sickly sentimentality in those days, as to carrying out the penalty of the law, he was duly hanged on the 18th of May; his body being given over to the surgeons for dissection. It is said that after his body was opened, his heart continued its functions for four hours; in other words that he was living for that time.
The day after Mr. Perceval’s assassination, the Prince Regent sent a Message to Parliament recommending a provision being made for Mrs. Perceval and her family, and an annuity of 2,000 pounds was granted her, together with a sum of 30,000 pounds to her family. These were voted unanimously, and two other votes were passed by large majorities-one to provide a monument to his memory in Westminster Abbey, the other granting to his eldest son, Spencer Perceval, who was just about to go to College, an annuity of 1,000 pounds, from the day of his father’s death, and an additional 1,000 yearly, on the decease of his mother.
One would have thought that there could have been but one feeling throughout the nation, that of horror, at this dastardly murder, but one town was the base exception. When the news of his murder reached Nottingham, a numerous crowd publicly testified their joy by shouts, huzzas, drums beating, flags flying, bells ringing, and bonfires blazing. The Military being called out, and the Riot Act read, peace was restored.