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The Assassination of British PM, Spencer Percival

60 second histories
by: Squaducation date: 11 May

11th May 1812  -  On a sunny Monday in May at 5.15pm the British Prime Minister, Spencer Perceval, walked into the lobby of the House of Commons on his way to the chamber. A man sitting quietly near the fireplace, in an overcoat, walked slowly towards him, pulled out a pistol and shot him in the chest. Staggering backwards Perceval was heard to say, “I am murdered”.  The man then returned to his seat and awaited arrest.  

A number of people including the M.P. William Smith, future grandfather of Florence Nightingale, helped take the stricken P.M. to Speaker’s House. He spoke no more and was dead when the doctor attended him.

The assassin, a man named John Bellingham, was seized and found to have hidden the pistol in a specially made pocket in his coat. He had a second pistol, also loaded. He went calmly to the office of the Sergeant-At-Arms where he admitted what he had done. “I have been ill-treated. I am an unfortunate man but have sufficient justification for what I have done,” he said. When a coach was called to take him to Newgate prison a mob had emerged outside with the intent of trying to rescue him. A group of soldiers held them back but it was not until midnight that he arrived at the gaol. He was put in irons and slept peacefully in his cell.

Bellingham was put on trial at the Old Bailey where his defence was insanity. He said to the jury, “Recollect my family was ruined and myself destroyed, because it was Mr Perceval’s pleasure that justice should not be granted, trampling on law and right in the belief that no retribution could reach him. I demand only my right and not a favour. I demand what is the birth right of every Englishman. When a minister sets himself above the law, as Mr Perceval has done, he does it at his own personal risk. I trust that this serious lesson will operate as a warning to all future ministers and that they will do the thing that is right for if the upper ranks of society are permitted to act with impunity, the inferior ramifications will soon become wholly corrupt.”

The jury dismissed his stance and found him guilty. The Lord Chief Justice replied to Bellingham that, “You have shed the blood of a man admired for every virtue which can adorn public or private life. By his death charity has lost one of its greatest promoters, religion one of its firmest supporters, domestic society one of its happiest and sweetest examples and the country one of its brightest ornaments.” He was hanged on May 18th, 2 days after Perceval’s funeral had taken place. Perceval’s body had rested in Downing Street for 5 days before the funeral.

Perceval himself had come to power at a difficult time. The Industrial Revolution was taking place as were the Napoleonic Wars and George III was beginning his final descent into insanity. He also had to serve as his own Chancellor after 6 people had turned the job down. He had been a fervent admirer of William Pitt the younger and had served in the cabinet as Attorney General and Chancellor under the Duke of Portland, who himself came to office after the death of Pitt. He was by training, a lawyer, having been educated at Harrow and Cambridge. He was an active Church of England member and became the Conservative M.P. for Northampton in a by-election in May 1796 at the age of 33. He was elected unopposed but fought off strong competition in the General Election only a few weeks later and held the seat until his death. When he died he left a wife and 12 children. The House of Commons voted him a monument in his honour and a large grant to his family. The monument can be found in the nave of Westminster Abbey and was given by both Parliament and the Prince Regent.

Bellingham was a father of 3. He was a businessman, an export trader, in his 40s who had been wrongly, in his eyes, imprisoned in Russia for 6 years for debts. He had appealed to the British Embassy for help but none came. On his release, and bankrupt, he sought compensation from the Government who turned him down. He was a bitter and angry man.

It is ironic therefore that 171 years later Henry Bellingham, a direct descendant of John,  was elected to the House of Commons as the Conservative Member for North West Norfolk. Henry, like Perceval, was a lawyer by training and was a barrister. In the election of 1997 however, when Tony Blair swept to power, Bellingham was defeated. One of the candidates against him was a certain Roger Perceval – the Referendum Party candidate and descendant of the assassinated Prime Minister. Henry was re-elected in 2001 and again in 2005 and 2010. Perhaps most ironic was that whilst in opposition he was appointed a Shadow Minister for Trade and Industry and then later for Constitutional Affairs. On the matter of his links with the only man to assassinate a Prime Minister Henry Bellingham replied, “I wouldn't bring it up in conversation that I'm a descendant - or a near-descendant - of a murderer of a prime minister. But I don't try to deny it.”

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