Two hundred years ago, today, the de facto Prime Minister of Great Britain was assassinated at Westminster, by a man who did not even know him. But the assassin blamed the British government for most of his business problems and struck out at its most prominent representative. Within a week, he, too, was dead, at the end of a hangman’s noose.
This week, the assasination of Spencer Perceval …
Spencer Perceval was the second son of the Irish earl, Lord Egmont, by his second wife, Catherine Compton. His father died when he was only eight and he was well aware that, as a younger son, he would have to make his own way in the world. He was an outstanding student at Harrow, went on to Trinity College, Cambridge, then read law at Lincoln’s Inn. He was admitted to the bar in 1786, three years after the death of his mother. For a time, he and his elder full brother, Charles, took a house together. They fell in love with sisters, but the girls’ father forbade his younger child, Jane, to marry young Spencer. Eventually, the two eloped, and by all reports enjoyed a very happy marriage which resulted in the births of thirteen children, only one of whom did not survive infancy. Perceval was a respectable man of sober habits who deeply loved his wife and children and took his political responsibilities very seriously.
Fortunately for his ever-growing family, young Spencer had powerful family connections who were able to secure various positions for him. He eventually became a member of Parliament in 1796. His political philosophy was essentially conservative, but he did not consider himself a Tory so much as "a friend of Mr. Pitt." He was a good debater and soon came to the attention of those in power. He became Solicitor General in 1801, and Attorney General in 1802, a position which he resigned in 1806, when the administration changed after the death of William Pitt. While out of office, he put his legal skills at the service of Caroline, Princess of Wales, during the so-called "delicate investigation." The Princess was eventually acquitted of the charges and Perceval, a leading member of the opposition, which had sprung to her defence, wrote a 156-page document in support of her to King George III. It came to be known as "The Book." Perceval threatened to publish it when the King refused to allow her to return to Court after the conclusion of the investigation. However, before it could be widely distributed, Perceval had become Chancellor of the Exchequer in 1807, and, as a member of the government once again, he recalled as many circulating copies as could be found, buying them back at significant expense to the government. Along with the copies still in his possesion, he consigned them to a bonfire on the grounds of his home, Lindsey House, in Lincoln’s Inns Fields. A few copies did escape the flames, and "The Book" was published in 1813, the year after his death, as The Genuine Book: An Inquiry, or Delicate Investigation into the Conduct of Her Royal Highness, the Princess of Wales …, with appendices which included most of the testimony from the case.
When he became Chancellor of the Exchequer in 1807, Perceval had also become the Leader of the House of Commons. One of his principal responsibilities was to expand and strengthen the "Orders in Council," by which the British government were attempting to restrict trade with France. He also had to find ways to finance the ongoing war with Napoleon, which he accomplished with less burden on the budget than had his predecessors. All of this against strong opposition. In the spring of 1809, Perceval still found time to defend the Duke of York against charges of corruption, when the Duke’s current mistress, Mary Anne Clark, was discovered to have been illegally selling commissions in the army, supposedly with the full knowledge and cooperation of her royal lover. Perceval’s strong defense resulted in the Duke’s acquittal, by a narrow margin, in Parliament. Because the margin of acquittal was so narrow, Perceval advise the Duke to resign, which he did. However, he was reinstated two years later, when it was discovered he had had no knowledge or involvement in the scheme and that Mrs. Clarke had received a very generous bribe to implicate him.
That summer of 1809, the administration fell apart, after Canning and Castlereagh had fought a duel and the Duke of Portland resigned his post as head of the administration due to a stroke. Because of their duel, neither Canning nor Castlereagh could form a new government and all the other available candidates refused to serve. Eventually the King accepted his Cabinet’s recommendation that he offer the position of First Lord of the Treasury to Spencer Perceval, making him de facto Prime Minister. Perceval was persuaded to accept the position and, in October of 1809, he met with the King and assumed his new office. Since no one would accept the position of Chancellor of the Exchequer in the new administration, he had to serve in that capacity as well. Barely a year into Perceval’s administration, the King once again lapsed into madness, and this time, with no hope of recovery, a Regency bill became a necessity. No doubt assuming he would bring down his own administration, Perceval shepherded the Regency bill through Parliament. Once it was passed, he personally took it down to Windsor, to discuss it with the King, who, on 5 February 1811, in a rare lucid moment, signed it into law.
The Prince of Wales, now Regent, considered Perceval an enemy because of his defense of his hated spouse, Princess Caroline, during the "delicate investigation" of 1806. And yet, in 1809, Perceval had also successfully defended the Regent’s favorite brother, Frederick, Duke of York, from charges of corruption. Whatever his motives, the new Regent decided to retain all his father’s ministers and Spencer Perceval remained the head of the government. In February of 1812, when the restrictions were lifted on his power as Regent, the Prince asked Grey and Grenville to form a government. They refused and once again, Perceval’s government continued. However, the opposition was mounting an attack on the hated Orders in Council which prohibited trading with any neutral country which was also known to be trading with France. A committee of the whole House of Commons was set up in April to review the commercial impact of the Orders in Council. The examination of witnesses began in early May of 1812.
* * *
Little is known of the life of John Bellingham, Perceval’s assassin. The names of his parents are unknown, even the date of his birth is uncertain. He is believed to have been apprenticed to a London jeweler in his teens. At some point, he joined the counting house of a London merchant, and sometime after that he traveled to Archangel in northern Russia, where he was employed by a local merchant for some years. Bellingham returned to England, probably around 1802, settling in Liverpool, where he obtained employment as a merchant broker. The following year, 1803, he married Mary Neville and they soon had a son. In 1804, Bellingham took his wife and young son back to Archangel, for what he thought would be a brief visit, since he had obtained a short-term post as an export representative.
It was on this second visit to Archangel that disaster struck Bellingham. A Russian ship of uncertain name [often called the Soleure, but also the Sojus or the Soyuz] went down in the White Sea in the fall of 1804. An anonymous letter was sent to the ship’s insurer, Lloyd’s of London, stating that the sinking of the ship was the result of fraud. Bellingham was suspected of being the author of that letter by the ship’s owners, the firm of R. Van Brienen, when Lloyd’s refused payment on their claim. Solomon Van Brienen, a partner in the firm, decided to have his revenge on Bellingham by demanding repayment of a large debt for which he claimed that Bellingham was responsible. In mid-November 1804, just as he was preparing to take his family back to England, the Russian authorities revoked Bellingham’s passport for non-payment of the debt. Shortly after that, Van Brienen was able to have Bellingham imprisoned for the debt while the case awaited arbitration. The arbitrators found against Bellingham, and the verdict was later affirmed by the Duma, even though the Procurer-General of Archangel believed Bellingham had been treated unfairly and that he was not responsible for the debt. The debt was that of a bankrupt, Conrad Dorbecker, who actually owed the money to the Van Brienen firm.
In 1805, Bellingham was permitted to leave Archangel to travel to St. Petersburg, where he petitioned Russian authorities for redress and remuneration of the losses he had suffered for false imprisonment. Instead of redress, he was again imprisoned for non-payment of debt, this time in truly appalling conditions. After several months, he was paroled to the Russian College of Commerce, which was a tribunal instituted for dealing with issues related to British commercial agents. In time, he was occasionally allowed to go out, but only in the company of an official. Bellingham used the opportunity of his partial freedom to petition the Tsar, Alexander I, as well as the British Ambassador, Granville Leveson-Gower, for assistance. Leveson-Gower, through his secretary, several times provided Bellingham with funds to sustain him and his family during this time. And, unbeknownst to Bellingham, he continually petitioned the Russian government to allow Bellingham to leave the country and return to Britain, since it was clear he was unable to repay the contested debt and was almost certainly not responsible for it. Finally, in 1809, two years after Leveson-Gower had been recalled, after Russia and England severed diplomatic relations, Bellingham was released from Russian custody and allowed to leave the country. Bellingham had been detained by the Russian authorities for more than five years by the time he and his family were finally allowed to depart. Since he had always maintained that he was not responsible for the debt in the first place, he felt extremely ill-used by the whole affair.
Upon his return to England in December of 1809, Bellingham made repeated attempts to seek redress and compensation for his losses from the British government, as it was his opinion that their Ambassador to Russia, Leveson-Gower, had failed to protect his interests as a British citizen. He then wrote to the Foreign Secretary, the Privy Council, the Treasury and the Chancellor of the Exchequer, who, at the time, was Spencer Perceval. He even petitioned the Prince Regent directly. To each appeal he received a negative response, which made it very clear there would be no further assistance or any compensation forthcoming. Bellingham had returned to Liverpool with his family and resumed his business as a ship broker. It was there, in April 1812, that he contacted the MP for Liverpool, Lieutenant General Isaac Gascoyne, also with no satisfactory result. On 23 March 1812, Bellingham wrote, in part, to the Bow Street Magistrates in London:
…I consider His Majesty’s Government to have completely endeavored to close the door of justice, in declining to have, or even permit, my grievances to be brought before Parliament for redress, which privilege is the birthright of every individual.
Should this reasonable request be finally denied, 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, Sirs
Your very humble and obedient Servant,
Yet again, having received a negative response from the magistrates, Bellingham travelled to London some time after the middle of April of 1812. He took lodgings at the home of a Mrs. Roberts, in New Millman Street. Shortly thereafter, on 18 April, he presented himself in person at the offices of the Treasury. There, he spoke to an official, a Mr. Hill, who again refused his plea for redress of his perceived grievances. Bellingham informed Mr. Hill that he would then " … take justice into his own hands." Mr. Hill is reported to have told him to " … take measures such as he thought appropriate." Two days later, on 20 April, he purchased two pistols from the gunsmith, W. Beckwith of Skinner Street. Bellingham engaged James Taylor, a tailor of North Place, Grays Inn Lane, on 25 April 1812, directing him to add a sturdy pocket to the inside of his great-coat on the left side. This pocket was to be about nine inches deep, and easy to reach. At his trial, it was determined that this pocket had been intended to conceal a pistol. Bellingham is known to have gone to the "strangers" gallery of the House of Commons on several evenings after his arrival in London. He usually carried a pair of opera-glasses with him and these visits were presumably to familiarize himself with the appearance of various government ministers, as well as to observe their comings and goings in order to determine their schedules. On the afternoon of Monday, 11 May 1812, Bellingham accompanied his landlady, Mrs. Roberts, and her son, to the European Museum, where they spent a quiet afternoon viewing the water-color paintings on display. After they left the museum, Bellingham told his companions he had some business to which he must attend, and he left them, making his way to Parliament.
* * *
On Monday, 11 May 1812, the House of Commons was called to order a little after four o’clock. The business of the session was to continue the examination of witnesses with regard to the negative commercial impact of the Orders in Council. However, the Prime Minister, Spencer Perceval, was not yet in the chamber. The leader of the opposition, Henry Brougham, fiercely opposed to the Orders in Council, refused to wait for Perceval to arrive and demanded that the first witness be called for examination despite the absence of the Prime Minister. After some argument, Brougham prevailed and the first witness was called. A messenger was dispatched to Downing Street to advise Perceval of the situation, but he met the Prime Minister on his way to the House of Commons. Perceval was conferring en route with his friend, James Stephen, who had actually drafted the Orders in Council which were at that moment under examination. On hearing the messenger’s report, Perceval excused himself to his friend and hurried off alone towards Parliament.
In 1812, as it had for centuries, the ancient medieval Westminster Hall served as the lobby for both Houses of Parliament. At about a quarter past five o’clock that Monday afternoon, Spencer Perceval stepped into Westminster Hall and hurried along to the door of the chamber of the House of Commons. John Bellingham had been waiting in the Hall for some time, armed with two loaded pistols, one in his special overcoat pocket, the other in his trouser pocket. Bellingham had stationed himself near the very door through which the Prime Minister must pass to enter the House of Commons. As Perceval approached him, Bellingham calmly stepped forward, pulled the pistol from the pocket in his overcoat and took aim. He pulled the trigger and shot Spencer Perceval through the heart. The Prime Minister reeled back and as he fell, someone standing nearby thought they heard him murmur "Murder." Mr. William Smith, MP for Norwich, rushed to the fallen man and found he still had a faint pulse. A friend with whom he had been conversing assisted him and between them they carried Perceval to the office of the Speaker’s secretary and laid him on the table. Someone had called a doctor, William Lynn, who arrived moments later and began to examine the wound, but there was little he could do. After a couple of sobbing breaths, Perceval expired in the arms of William Smith, who had continued to support him after he had been placed on the table.
Several people who had been standing in Westminster Hall who heard the shot shouted out to shut the doors and allow no one to leave. This was done, while others, who had seen Perceval’s body being carried away, called out, "Where is the murderer?" However, there was really no need. Bellingham still had one of his pistols in his hand and replied to those close to him, "I am the unfortunate man." He was immediately seized by several men standing close by and was searched by Mr. Vincent Dowling, who found the second loaded pistol in his left trouser pocket, as well as a packet of papers. Bellingham was seated on a bench, where soon thereafter he was approached by Lieutenant General Isaac Gascoyne, MP for Liverpool, who recognized the disgruntled man who had come to see him in Liverpool the previous month. Gascoyne identified Bellingham to the authorities, and the murder suspect was removed to the bar of the House of Commons. However, he was soon conducted to the prison room of the Serjeant-at-Arms in the Palace of Westminster. Bellingham was held there and questioned for some time. About one o’clock in the morning, Bellingham was transported to Newgate Gaol, where he would be held throughout the course of his trial.
The sound of the gunshot which killed the Prime Minister was heard inside the House of Commons, but Henry Brougham, in the process of questioning a witness, continued with his examination, assuming the sound he had heard was that of a pistol which had been accidentally discharged in the lobby, since the sound was quite deadened by the time it reached the chamber where the Commons were in session. (One wonders what sort of things went on at that time in Westminster Hall that the MPs in the chamber took this attitude to the sound of a pistol shot.) The members of the House of Commons were not aware of the assassination until one of those who had witnessed the crime brought the news into the chamber. The session was immediately adjourned for the evening. In addition, a Cabinet Council was called, and, shortly thereafter, the mails were stopped. This was done to prevent the story from getting out of the city, and maintain calm in the provinces until it could be ascertained if Bellingham was part of a conspiracy to overthrow the government. It was only after it was determined that he had acted alone, for non-political purposes, that Bellingham was transferred, under heavy guard, in the wee hours, to Newgate.
To compound the tragedy of the assasination of Spencer Perceval, it happened that his nine-year-old son, John, was in Westminster Hall at the time of the murder. Young John saw his father’s body only moments after his death. As a young man, after a few years as a military officer and a couple of terms at university, he suffered a mental breakdown which is believed to have been the result of a combination of repressed memories of his father’s brutal murder, his own determined, even obsessive, religious studies and a case of mercury poisoning. John Perceval was confined in a lunatic asylum for three years. To the young man’s credit, upon his release from the asylum, in 1832, he devoted much of his life to the reform of the lunacy laws in Great Britain as well as advocating for more humane treatment of asylum inmates.
Next week, the trial of John Bellingham for the murder of Spencer Perceval. Of it, Henry Brougham said, "The trial was the greatest disgrace to English justice."