For part 4 of this series I was challenged by one of my readers to find an historical crime that she hadn’t at least heard of; I like a nice challenge (within reason) so I accepted and went looking.
Wikipedia, while not a site to use if you want 100% guaranteed accurate information on a subject, can be a very good reference source, and it came up trumps for me. I discovered an article listing a number of historical crimes for the UK with dates/names of those involved/headline of crime, and on this list was the crime I am going to write about today – the assassination of Spencer Perceval, the only British Prime Minister to have suffered such a fate.
I was immediately interested, as I wasn’t aware a British Prime Minister had ever been assassinated, and went looking around the ‘net for information on this largely forgotten crime, here is what I was able to find.
The assassination of Spencer Perceval
Spencer Perceval is a man who accomplished several firsts in his life, though I think it possible that he would not have appreciated doing so: he is the only Solicitor General or Attorney General to succeed to the position of Prime Minister, the only Prime Minister to live his entire life during the reign of a single monarch, and the only Prime Minister to be assassinated.
Perceval was the younger son of an earl, and as such was well-educated, becoming a barrister and then a King’s counsel; it wasn’t until he was thirty-three that he entered politics as a member of Parliament for Northampton. Once he entered Parliament in 1796 he had a meteoric rise, becoming Solicitor General, Attorney General, Chancellor of the Exchequer, and Leader of the House of Commons, on his way to becoming Prime Minister in 1809, a bare 13 years after becoming a politician.
I’m ashamed to say I knew nothing about Spencer Perceval before researching this article, which is a shame because he was Prime Minister during some of the most important events of both the 18th and 19th centuries: he was there for the inquiry into the Walcheren Expedition, a failed military attack, the madness of King George III, an economic crisis, the Luddite Riots, and the Peninsular War against Napoleon.
He brought the country through these crises and put it on the road to a better future before being assassinated on 11th May 1812.
The assassination was undramatic, Perceval entered the House of Commons on his way to attend an inquiry when a man stepped forward, drew a pistol and shot him. He was senseless, but still had a faint pulse, when moved into an adjoining rooom, he died before a surgeon could arrive, however.
Initially there was concern that the assassination might be the start of an uprising; that was quickly determined to be wrong, though, for the assassin made no attempt to escape (he not only didn’t escape, he calmly took a seat at the nearby fireplace) and revealed himself to be a merchant with a grievance against the government – Perceval being the focus of that grievance, even though he had not personally done anything to or against his killer.
John Bellingham was a businessman who in 1804 was imprisoned for debt in Russia, falsely he believed. The British Embassy refused to help him and after 5 years he was released and able to return to England, where he applied to the government for compensation. His application was denied, despite him writing to just about everyone, including the prince regent, and he developed a sense of grievance that grew until he decided to shoot the Prime Minister.
At trial Bellingham’s lawyer attempted to enter a plea of not guilty by reason of insanity, a plea that was rejected when Bellingham refused to agree to it. He was found guilty in short order and hanged on 18th May.
Perceval is considered one of Britain’s forgotten Prime Ministers, who is remembered more for the manner in which he died than for his achievements while in office, yet it cannot be denied that he steered the country safely through some difficult times – there was determined opposite in Parliament to the war in Europe against Napoleon yet Perceval kept the war going, enabling the Duke of Wellington to achieve victory and prevent any interruption in British trade, a vital aspect in maintaining the British Empire.