A Regency Bicentennial:   The Trial and Execution of John Bellingham

Last week, we left John Bellingham in government custody, confined in Newgate Gaol on the night of 11 May 1812. Earlier that afternoon, in Westminster Hall, he had publicly shot and killed the British Prime Minister, Spencer Perceval, just as Perceval was about to enter the chamber of the House of Commons.

This week, the tale of his trial and execution for that crime and why Henry Brougham said of it, "The trial was the greatest disgrace to English justice."

Bellingham was not able to sleep very much that first night in Newgate, possibly because he had the head turnkey and two Bow Street runners in the room with him. He rose just after seven o’clock on that Tuesday morning, and though he was offered tea, he drank little of it. He was not allowed any private visitors, but throughout the morning he was visited by several public officials. They reported that he conversed quite calmly, even cheerfully with them, as he believed he was fully justified in what he had done. He told them he would be vindicated when the case came to trial. At some point, Bellingham requested ink and paper so that he could write to his family and some friends. He wrote a letter to his wife, who was still in Liverpool, assuring her he would be home in a few days. He wrote another to his London landlady, Mrs. Roberts, requesting that she send him his clothing and grooming supplies as well as his prayer book, in his leather trunk. The letters were given over, unsealed, to Mr. John Newman, the keeper of Newgate, who, after reading them, allowed the letter to Liverpool to be sealed and posted. The letter to Mrs. Roberts was sent by a messenger who was to return with Bellingham’s trunk.

At about two o’clock that afternoon, Bellingham was given a hearty dinner, which he is reported to have fully consumed, and made a request that he might be given his dinner at that same time each day. He went to bed about midnight and slept soundly until about seven the following morning, even though, once again, he had two guards in his room. He was given breakfast at about nine o’clock the next morning, after which he was once again visited by sheriffs and other authorities. It is reported that his demeanor was calm and composed while his trial was under discussion, but that he became somewhat agitated when the murder itself was mentioned. It was clear that he was very sorry to learn of the death of Spencer Perceval, particularly when he was informed that Perceval left behind a large family. But he did not seem able to understand that he had killed the man. Rather, he believed he had shot the Chancellor of the Exchequer, a representative of the government who had wronged him. Bellingham assured his interrogators that he had had no choice in the matter, it was the only way by which he could obtain justice for the wrongs which had been done him in Russia.

Bellingham’s trial was set for ten o’clock on Friday, 15 May 1812, just four days after the assasination of Spencer Perceval, at the Old Bailey. The judges were seated at the bench, on either side of the Lord Mayor. Also seated at the bench were the court recorder, the Duke of Clarence, the Marquis Wellesley and nearly all the alderman of the City of London. The courtroom itself was so crowded that the members of the House of Commons had to find seats among the general public. Several ladies also attended the trial, wishing to see the accused assassin and to hear what he might say in defense of his heinous crime. The defendant entered the courtroom soon after those at the bench were seated. It is reported that he advanced to the bar calmly, with a firm, unhurried step, bowing respectfully to the court. He was dressed in a white shirt and neck-cloth, a striped yellow waistcoat and a light brown surtout coat. His hair was cut fairly short, dressed plainly, with no powder.

Before he was called on to enter a plea, his legal counsel, Mr. Peter Alley, stepped forward to request a postponement so that he might have time to send for witnesses and evidence from Liverpool. Alley had affidavits which he believed showed Bellingham to be insane and he wanted time to gather the necessary evidence to prove it. The judges interrupted him and refused to hear his motion until the prisoner had entered his plea. The indictment was read out and the question was put to Bellingham, "Guilty or not guilty?" Based on court records, Bellingham replied,

My lords — Before I can plead to this indictment, I must state, in justice to myself, that by hurrying on my trial I am placed in a most remarkable situation. It so happens that my prosecutors are actually the witnesses against me. All the documents on which alone I could rest my defence have been taken from me and are now in possession of the Crown. It is only two days since I was told to prepare for my defence, and when I asked for my papers, I was told they could not be given up. It is therefore, my lords, rendered utterly impossible for me to go into my justification, and under the circumstances in which I find myself, a trial is absolutely useless. The papers are to be given to me after the trial, but how can that avail me for my defence? I am, therefore, not ready for my trial.

The Attorney-General attempted to explain to the court what had been done with the prisoner’s papers, but he, too, was interrupted, this time by Chief Justice James Mansfield, demanding that first the prisoner must enter his plea. Once again came the question, "Guilty or not guilty?" This time, Bellingham responded "Not guilty" to both of the counts included in the indictment. Once that formality had been concluded, the Attorney-General explained that the prisoner’s papers, which had been taken from him when he was searched after the crime, had been retained by the Government. The Attorney-General added that the prisoner had been informed that if he considered them necessary for his defense and asked for them at the time of his trial, he would be provided with the documents.

Once again, Mr. Alley put forth his motion for an adjournment of the trial until such time as he could send to Liverpool for evidence of Bellingham’s insanity and had time to prepare his defense. He also produced the affidavits which he had already procured, attesting to Bellingham’s mental state. The Attorney-General objected, on the grounds that Bellingham had been living in London for some time prior to the assasination and had shown no signs of mental instability, nor was there any evidence that he had been under a doctor’s care or confined in an institution during that time. The motion to postpone the trial was denied, on the grounds that the affidavits which Mr. Alley provided did not relate to Bellingham’s very recent mental condition, during the time he committed the crime and were, therefore, irrelevant. Next, various witness were called to testify regarding the papers which had been taken from Bellingham when he was searched after he shot the Prime Minister. Once they were finally established as being the same papers, they were finally handed over to the defendant. At this time, Bellingham, who believed he had acted quite rationally, thanked the Attorney-General for objecting to the insanity defense in his case.

The prosecution presented its case first, calling as their witnesses all those who had either observed the commission of the crime or its aftermath, as well as some of the officials who had questioned the prisoner while he had been confined at Newgate. Each man testified in turn as to what they had seen and heard, each certain it was John Bellingham who had shot Spencer Perceval. It was afternoon by the time the defense was allowed to present its case. Bellingham first took the stand and told of all that he had suffered in Russia. He then read from several of the papers which had been returned to him that morning. All were the negative responses he had received from various government officials in response to his requests for redress and compensation for the perceived wrongs done him in Russia. He was convinced they were all the proof that was needed to prove he was justified in what he had done. Bellingham also revealed at this time that he would have shot the former British ambassador to Russia, Granville Leveson-Gower, if he had seen him first. Since Leveson-Gower did not appear, he had settled for the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Spencer Perceval, simply because he was a representative of the government Bellingham believed had wronged him, and by that point, he must kill someone. Bellingham concluded his testimony by saying:

…what is my crime to the crime of government itself? It is no more than a mite to a mountain, unless it was proved that I had malice propense towards the unfortunate gentleman for whose death I am now upon my trial. I disclaim all personal or intentional malice against Mr. Perceval.

Once Bellingham had completed his own testimony, his co-counsels, Peter Alley and Henry Revell Reynolds, called the few witnesses they had been able to prevail upon to attend the trial. Their intent was to show the defendant was insane, and they had requested opinions on Bellingham’s mental state from two of the doctors who had attended King George III. One doctor was unable to attend the trial and the other simply ignored the request for his opinion. His attorneys first called Anne Billet, Bellingham’s cousin from Southampton, who had just arrived in London the night before. She testified that his father had died insane and that for the past three or four years, Bellingham himself had " … been in a state of perfect derangement with respect to this business he has been pursuing." Under cross-examination she admitted that she had not seen Bellingham for over a year and that, so far as she knew, he had never been restrained or confined, even though many of his family and friends also believed him to be deranged over the Russian business.

The next witness was Mary Clark, a friend of the family who had met Bellingham after his return from Russia. She lived in London and was therefore available to testify, unlike the majority of his family and friends who were still in Liverpool. She testified that, in her opinion, " … he has been disordered in his mind" since his return from Russia. Her cross-examination revealed she had only seen him a half dozen or so times since his return from Russia, the last time at least four months before the shooting. She, like Ann Billet, could give no evidence that he had ever been confined or had ever been placed under a doctor’s care for his alleged insanity.

The third witness, Catherine Figgins, was the maidservant of Mrs. Roberts, Bellingham’s landlady in London. Though Alley and Reynolds had served a subpoena on Mrs. Roberts, she had claimed illness and had refused to come to court. Miss Figgins testified that Mr. Bellingham had seemed confused and slightly disoriented on the day before the murder took place. She added that on the day the murder was committed, she " … ‘thought he was not so well as he had been for some time past." However, counsel for the prosecution forced her to admit that Mr. Bellingham was respected by the members of the Roberts family as a worthy man of regular habits, and that she knew of no medical attention of any kind which he had received since he had been in London.

Almost as soon as they knew they were to defend Bellingham, Alley and Reynolds decided to employ an insanity defense, for it was clear to them that the accused was not in his right mind. They had sent urgent requests by messenger to Liverpool in the hope that some of those who knew Bellingham well could travel to London in time to testify on his behalf. Once the cross-examination of Miss Figgins had been completed, Mr. Alley asked the door-keeper of the court to ascertain if any new witnesses might have arrived from Liverpool. As it happened, two people had arrived only moments before, in a post chaise and four, from Liverpool, to give evidence for a prisoner in a trial. However, when these people were shown into the court room, they declared they did not recognize the defendant and therefore did not testify. Thus, it transpired that no one who knew Bellingham well gave evidence as to his state of mind.

Sir James Mansfield, the Lord Chief Justice, summed up the case for the Crown, upon conclusion of the testimony. It is worth quoting the court record of his introductory remarks and behavior:

Gentlemen of the jury, you are now to try an indictment which charges the prisoner at the bar with the wilful murder (here the learned judge was so hurt by his feelings, that he could not proceed for several seconds) of Mr. Spencer Perceval, (in a faint voice) who was murdered with a pistol loaded with a bullet; when he mentioned the name of (here again his lordship was sincerely affected, and burst into tears, in which he was joined by the greatest portion of the persons in court) a man so dear, and so revered as that of Mr. Spencer Perceval, I find it difficult to suppress my feelings. As, however, to say any thing of the distinguished talents and virtues of that excellent man, might tend to excite improper emotions in the minds of the jury, but would with-hold these feelings which pressed for utterance from my heart, and leave you, gentlemen, to form your judgment upon the evidence which has been adduced in support of the case, undressed by any unfair indignation which you might feel against his murderer, by any description, however faint, of the excellent qualities of the deceased. Gentlemen, you are to try the unfortunate man at the bar, in the same manner, as if he was arraigned for the murder of any other man. The law protected all his Majesty’s subjects alike, and the crime was the same whether committed upon the person of the highest and most distinguished character in the country, as upon that of the lowest. The only question you have to try, is, whether the prisoner did wilfully and maliciously murder Mr. Spencer Perceval or not. It is not necessary to go very minutely into the evidence which has been produced to the fact, as there is little doubt as to the main object of your enquiry. The first thing you have to say is, whether the person charged with having murdered him; and whether that murder had been committed with a pistol bullet.

Mansfield then read out the testimony of those who had witnessed the shooting and the doctor who had examined Perceval just before he died. He was at pains to ensure that the jury understood that it was Bellingham who had pulled the trigger, discharging the bullet which took the Prime Minister’s life. He went on to address the state of mind of the defendant. The Lord Chief Justice made it clear that though Bellingham had felt himself ill-used by the government, that did not give him the right to take justice into his own hands, regardless of the fact that that was the defendant’s justification for his act. Chief Justice Mansfield then moved on to the issue of the insanity defense. He explained three different "species" of insanity:

There are various species of insanity. Some human creatures are void of all power of reasoning from their birth, such could not be guilty of any crime. These is another species of madness in which persons were subject to temporary paroxysms, in which they were guilty of acts of extravagance, this was called lunacy, if these persons committed a crime when they were not affected with the malady, they were to all intents and purposes ameniable to justice: so long as they can distinguish good from evil, so long are they answerable for their conduct. There is a third species of insanity, in which the patient fancied the existence of injury, and sought an opportunity of gratifying revenge, by some hostile act; if such a person was capable, in other respects, of distinguishing right from wrong, there is no excuse for any act of atrocity which he might commit under this description of derangement.

Mansfield then made it plain that in his opinion, Bellingham could not be judged insane by any of these criteria. According to him, there was no question of Bellingham’s insanity because he had neither received medical attention, nor been confined for such a condition. He had been free to come and go as he pleased and to conduct his affairs as he saw fit, with no oversight from anyone. No one who had come into contact with him since his arrival in London had provided significant evidence of any mental instability or derangement, and the defendant himself had made it clear that he did not consider himself insane. Mansfield concluded his summation:

The single question is, whether at the time this act was committed, he possessed a sufficient degree of understanding to distinguish good from evil, right from wrong, and whether murder was a crime not only against the law of God, but against the law of his country.

The Lord Chief Justice then instructed the jury that they must seriously consider all the facts which had been presented. If they had any doubt about who had taken the life of the Prime Minister, they must give the prisoner the benefit of that doubt. But, if they believed him to have committed the crime of which he was charged, then they must find him guilty. The men of the jury conferred together for a couple of minutes in the jury box, then the foreman announced that they wished to retire. An officer of the court escorted the men to the nearby jury-room. Fourteen minutes later, they emerged from the jury-room and returned to the court room. Once they filed into the jury box, the foremen delivered their verdict — Guilty!

The sentence was then pronounced, in a long diatribe on the heinousness of the crime and the sterling character and reputation of the victim, which concluded that the dreadful sentence of the law was:

That you be taken from hence to the place from whence you came, and from thence to a place of execution, where you shall be hanged by the neck until you be dead; your body to be dissected and anatomized.

There could be no appeal of such a verdict or sentence in 1812. According to law, any one sentenced to death was to be executed on the second day after sentence was pronounced, unless that second day was a Sunday. Since Bellingham’s trial had taken place on a Friday, the second day after it was a Sunday, so he was scheduled to be hanged on the following Monday, 18 May 1812. He was very calm when he was taken from the Old Bailey, back to Newgate, where he would remain until his execution. As a condemned man, he was henceforth given only bread and water to eat. Bellingham’s cell was cleared of any possible means of suicide, and he was not allowed to shave. This last prohibition caused him grave concern and he exhibited much anxiety that he would no longer appear to be a gentleman. The prison chaplain, Dr. Ford, visited him in his cell on Saturday, and on Sunday he received calls from other men of the cloth, whose conversation, it is reported, greatly pleased him. He is said to have appeared rather depressed at his situation, but he assured his visitors that, though he was not guilty, he was fully prepared " … to go to his Father … " and would be gratified when the time came.

Mr. Newman, the Keeper of Newgate, brought Bellingham word late that Sunday afternoon that two gentlemen had arrived from Liverpool with assurances that his wife and sons would be provided for. Bellingham requested pen and paper and wrote the following letter to his wife:


     It rejoiced me beyond measure to hear you are likely to be well provided for. I am sure the public at large will participate in, and mitigate, your sorrows; I assure you, my love, my sincerest endeavours have ever been directed to your welfare. As we shall not meet any more in this world, I sincerely hope we shall do so in the world to come. My blessing to the boys, with kind remembrance to Miss Stephens, for whom I have the greatest regard, in consequence of her uniform affection for them. With the purest intentions, it has always been my misfortune to be thwarted, misrepresented and ill-used in life; but however, we feel a happy prospect of compensation in a speedy translation to life eternal. It’s not possible to be more calm or placid than I feel, and nine hours more will waft me to those happy shores where bliss is without alloy.

       Yours ever affectionate,

Bellingham rose at about six o’clock on the morning of Monday, 18 May 1812. He dressed himself, and then read for about a half hour in his Prayer Book. Dr. Ford, the Newgate chaplain, then arrived and conducted him to a room set aside for condemned criminals. There, they prayed together for a time, and then Bellingham received the sacraments. The sheriff arrived to tell him it was time and he assured them he was ready. The executioner then entered and secured a cord around his wrists, tying his arms behind his back. Bellingham asked that the cords be tightened, so that he could not struggle, then he asked that his coat sleeves be pulled down to cover the cords. The Lord Mayor, the sheriffs, the under-sheriffs, officers of the court and Dr. Ford then all accompanied Bellingham from the room to the scaffold, which was located in from of the Debtor’s door at Newgate. It is reported that he was very calm, with a cheerful expression as he ascended the steps to the scaffold. Dr. Ford asked him if he had any final comments to make. Bellingham spoke briefly of his family and then he launched into an account of the ills he had suffered in Russia. Dr. Ford interrupted him, reminding him that he was about to enter into eternity, and they prayed together for a time. The clergyman then asked him how he felt and he answered calmly that he thanked God for enabling him to meet his fate with " … so much fortitude and resignation." The executioner then attempted to put the cap over his face, but Bellingham objected, preferring to do without it. Dr. Ford told him that was not possible and the executioner continued, fastening the cap over Bellingham’s head and the noose around his neck. As this was in progress, some in the crowd loudly shouted "God bless you!" and "God save you!" though not all the spectators joined in. Dr. Ford continued praying as the executioner descended from the scaffold. There was silence, but for the sound of John Bellingham and Dr. Ford praying softly, when the clock began striking the hour of eight. On the seventh chime, the executioner struck away the internal support under the scaffold and Bellingham, still praying, dropped down only as far as his knees, his upper body still in view. It is reported there was not single sound from the crowd, they maintained a "most perfect and awful silence."

Once Bellingham had expired, his body was cut down and carried by a cart to St Bartholomew’s Hospital, where it was later dissected by medical students. A crowd of people of the lower classes followed the cart carrying the body through the streets to the hospital, but there were no mishaps or untoward incidents. However, to ensure against any possible tumult or uprising, a contingent of military had been stationed near Islington and another to the south of Blackfriars Bridge. In addition, all of the metropolitan volunteer corps were instructed to be under arms at all times on that day. The government was determined to take no risks as the Prime Minister’s assassin was dispatched.

*         *        *

Henry Brougham, lawyer and statesman, considered Bellingham’s trial to have been the greatest disgrace to English justice of which he was aware, for two inter-related reasons. First, he was appalled that the trial was held so soon, in fact, even before the victim, Spencer Perceval, had been laid to rest. Perceval’s funeral actually took place in London the day after the trial, on Saturday, 16 May 1812. Brougham said, " … the trial proceeded, while both the court, the witnesses, the jury, and the people, were under the influence of the feelings naturally excited by the deplorable slaughter of one of the most eminent and virtuous men in any rank of the community." There was no time for the fear, shock and near-panic which had arisen in the wake of the assassination of the Prime Minister to subside. Emotions were still running very high when the trial was held, just four days after the murder. This is clear in the summation delivered by Lord Chief Justice, Sir James Mansfield, who was overcome by emotion and actually wept in the court room as he spoke of Spencer Perceval. Secondly, Brougham felt it was an egregious miscarriage of justice for the court not to have granted the defense counsel’s request for a delay so that they could gather additional evidence regarding their client’s mental state and call witnesses from among those in Liverpool who knew him well. Brougham called that failure "grossly absurd" and noted that though Bellingham had declared he was not insane, the assassin was not the best judge of his mental state, particularly in light of the testimony regarding the insanity of Bellingham’s own father.

Sir Samuel Romilly, a lawyer and legal reformer, also felt that the motion for a postponement to gather evidence and bring witnesses from Liverpool was perfectly reasonable. It would have only required a delay of a few days, which would not have denied either the Crown or Bellingham what was considered to be speedy justice at that time and would have provided the defendant with a trial which was much fairer than the one he got. Romilly believed that Bellingham was obviously insane, as he went to his death completely convinced that he had done nothing wrong and in his mind, had separated the position Perceval held in the government from the private man. However, Romilly did believe that Bellingham was culpable for his actions, even though it was clear that he was mad. In Romilly’s opinion, " … it is a species of madness which, probably, for the security of mankind, ought not to exempt a man from being answerable for his actions."

Several legal scholars are of the opinion that if this crime had occurred in the age of the railroad and the telegraph, the evidence needed to establish Bellingham’s state of mind could have been procured from Liverpool in time for the trial, even one held only four days after the crime. In that event, it is more than likely that he would have been found not guilty by reason of insanity. However, he would not have gone free. In such cases, the defendant would almost certainly have been confined at His Majesty’s pleasure, probably for life. But he would not have been summarily executed.

*         *        *

Within a few hours of Spencer Perceval’s assassination, rumors began to circulate that he was not financially secure. He is reported to have had only a little over £100 in the bank. Therefore, his large family would be nearly destitute without his government income. On Wednesday, 13 May 1812, in a special session, Parliament voted an annuity of £50,000 for Spencer Perceval’s eleven youngest children. They also voted separate annuities for his wife, Jane, and his eldest son, also called Spencer. Three years later, in 1815, Perceval’s widow, Jane, married Lieutenant-Colonel Sir Henry Carr. Sadly, she was to be widowed again, just six years later. She lived on into 1844, dying at the age of seventy-four.

In Liverpool, a public subscription raised a significant sum for the support of John Bellingham’s wife and children. There were a number of people who thought they would be much better off than they had been in their previous circumstances. Bellingham’s widow, Mary, remarried the following year. Both of his sons also eventually changed their names and left Liverpool. One of his sons attended medical school and became a doctor. But sadly, he had become insane by his mid-thirties, about the same age his father had been when he had assassinated the Prime Minister.

The assassination of Spencer Perceval, two centuries ago, was most certainly a tragedy. But so too was the very hurried trial and rapid execution of John Bellingham, a man clearly not in his right mind. Much as we might deplore the seemingly slow progress of justice today, it does have the effect of allowing those who participate in a trial to have returned to a calmer and more rational emotional state than they would have been in the immediate aftermath of the crime. Also, in modern times, in most legal actions, ample time is given to each side to gather and prepare any evidence which they believe is necessary to their case. Nor would such a biased summation as that delivered by Chief Justice Mansfield, be allowed in any court of law today. Based on that summation, the lack of substantive evidence for the defense and the emotional state of the jurors, the verdict against Bellingham was almost a foregone conclusion.


About Kathryn Kane

Historian with a particular interest the English Regency era.   An avid reader of novels set in that time, holding strong opinions on the historical accuracy to be found in said novels.
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5 Responses to A Regency Bicentennial:   The Trial and Execution of John Bellingham

  1. An interesting point about today’s trials. It does seem that it can take a very long time to get to trial but people can be working tirelessly to make sure all the evidence is in place and that a fair trial is conducted. The letter to his wife was very moving.
    Thank you for taking the time to share this with us.

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      It is rather interesting to compare criminal trials to those regarding property rights. From what I have read, criminal cases came to trial very quickly, and usually only lasted a day. But any thing to do with property rights, which got tied up in the Court of Chancery, could drag on and on, sometimes for years, even decades.

      I found Bellingham’s farewell letter to his wife very touching, too. She seems to have been a patient, long-suffering woman who tried her best to get him to forget what he had endured in Russia. He would not, mostly because he felt that the wrong had been done not just to him, but to his family. It is a sad tale all around.


  2. Pingback: A Regency Bicentennial:   The Assasination of Spencer Perceval | The Regency Redingote

  3. Pingback: 1812:   The Year in Review | The Regency Redingote

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