Spencer Perceval, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom for 1809-1812, was a nice man.
He was a sincerely devout Anglican, loved his wife and his 13 children, wasn’t a greedy monster who sold his soul for lucre, and although he was a Tory who didn’t support Catholic emancipation and reform of Parliament, he was a moderate “friend of Mr. Pitt” and had the decency to supported the abolition of the slave trade. As attorney general may have helped prosecute the radical liberals Edward Despard and William Cobbett, but he “was also responsible for more liberal decisions on trade unions, and for improving the conditions of convicts transported to New South Wales.”
Perceval didn’t gamble or cheat on his wife or drink in excess. He was so tenderhearted he couldn’t even enjoy the ‘gentleman’s sport’ hunting. He gave generously to charities and was a genuine family man. He was modest and rather old fashioned in his habits and dress, wearing knee breeches and a queued powdered wig long after trousers and natural hair had become fashionable. He wasn’t flashy, and he wasn’t prone to making enemies, even if the Prince Regent heartily disliked him for defending Princess Caroline during the “delicate investigation” her morals when the Prince wanted to divorce her.
So how did he become the only Prime Minister in British History to be assassinated?
Oddly enough, it had nothing to do with politics, in spite of the fact that Perceval’s three years as PM were fraught with one crisis after another, including “an inquiry into the Walcheren expedition, the madness of King George III, economic depression and Luddite riots” on top of the continuing Napoleonic Wars and Wellington’s campaign in the Iberian Peninsula. Not only did Perceval weather these storms, he did it while reducing governmental debt more than either his predecessors or his successors would be able to do.
No, Percival wasn’t murdered by a starving Londoner, an Irish rebel, or a radical of any stripe. He was simply shot dead by a egomaniacal idiot with a gun and grudge against the government.
At 5:15 pm, on the evening of 11 May 1812 … As he entered the lobby of the House of Commons, a man stepped forward, drew a pistol and shot him in the chest … [Perceval] was laid on a sofa in the speaker’s drawing room … When a surgeon arrived a few minutes later … Perceval was declared dead. At first it was feared that the shot might signal the start of an uprising, but it soon became apparent that the assassin—who had made no attempt to escape—was a man with an obsessive grievance against the Government and had acted alone. The assassin, John Bellingham, was a merchant who believed he had been unjustly imprisoned in Russia and was entitled to compensation from the government, but all his petitions had been rejected …
An inquest was held on the morning of May 12th at the Cat and Bagpipes public house, located around the corner from 10 Downing Street where Perceval’s body now reposed.Unsurprisingly, the inquest delivered a verdict of willful murder as the cause of death. Bellingham was tried on May 15th, and Lord Chief Justice Sir James Mansfield was reported to have wept openly in his grief about Perceval’s death while calling in the jury at Bellingham’s trial. After refusing to enter a plea of insanity, Bellingham was found guilty of Perceval’s murder and was subsequently hanged on 18 May.
Perceval, on the request of his widow, was buried in a small and very private ceremony on May 16th. Having never used his office to line his pockets, Perceval had died with only £106 5s 1d in the bank, with additional blessing of no outstanding debts. However, public mourning and shock was such that before the funeral “Parliament voted to settle £50,000 on Perceval’s children, with additional annuities for his widow and eldest son”, allowing the Perceval family to bear their grief without the additional burden of fear due to eminent destitution.
Perceval’s administration was succeeded by Robert Banks Jenkinson, 2nd Earl of Liverpool, who would hold onto power until 1827, keeping the country firmly in the Tory grasp until the party self-destructed from within, giving the Whigs a chance to take office.
I, for one, am mystified as to why Bellingham – clearly deluded and obsessive – did not fixate on killing either King George III or the Prince Regent. The Prince in particular would have made a good target, since he was frequently lambasted in the press for frivoling away government funds and living the high life while others starved.
Inasmuch as notoriety was clearly one of Bellingham’s goals in assassinating a public figure, why didn’t he aim for the Prince Regent? Was the Prince too well guarded? Did Bellingham think the Perceval administration in particular to be the reason his requests for compensation were denied? Why was such an unexceptionable public figure like Percival the target.
Alas, we will never know.