Spencer Perceval

Spencer Perceval was born on 1 November 1762, in London, the second son of the 2nd Earl of Egmont. After being educated at Harrow and Trinity College Cambridge, Perceval was called to the bar by Lincoln’s Inn in 1786, becoming a King’s Counsel (KC) in 1796. Later that year, Perceval entered Parliament, where his rise to power was primarily through his friendship with William Pitt the Younger.

During the Prime Ministership of Henry Addington (1801-04), Perceval was appointed Solicitor General. In 1802, Perceval became Attorney General, retaining this position when William Pitt the Younger regained the premiership in 1804.

When William Grenville’s premiership ended in March 1807, Perceval (who was firmly opposed to Catholic emancipation) became Chancellor of the Exchequer in the Government of the 3rd Duke of Portland, whom Perceval succeeded as Prime Minister on 4 October 1809.

On the morning of 11 May 1812, Spencer Percival told his wife that he had dreamt the previous night that he was shot in the House of Commons by a man wearing a green coat with brass buttons.

Spencer Percival is the only British Prime Minister to have been assassinated. By comparison, four American Presidents have been assassinated: Abraham Lincoln (1865), James Abram Garfield (1881), William McKinley (1901) and John Fitzgerald Kennedy (1963).

John Bellingham
John Bellingham.

John Bellingham sent a number of petitions and letters to General Gascoyne, the Member of Parliament for Liverpool. Bellingham claimed that he had provided certain services to the Crown in Russia and that he had received no remuneration. He had also made numerous representations to both the Speaker of the House and Spencer Percival, the Prime Minister.

Despite the pleading of his family not to go to Parliament that day, Perceval felt he had to attend as his Premiership was being questioned due to current conduct of the Peninsula Campaign. At about 5pm on the afternoon of 11 May 1812, Perceval left the House of Common’s chamber when Bellingham approached from behind some folding-doors and fired one shot at Perceval which hit him in the chest.

Spencer Perceval being shot by John Bellingham
Spencer Perceval being shot by John Bellingham.

Lord Osborne (behind Perceval in the picture above) rushed forward to catch Perceval as he fell backwards, and other Members rushed forward to provide assistance. This group carried Perceval into the Speaker’s Rooms but was obvious that the Prime Minister was already dead; he had been hit by one shot which had penetrated his heart.

After the excitement caused by the shooting had quietened down, someone called out “Who was the rascal who did it?”. At this moment a stranger to the House (a person who is not a Member of Parliament) walked up and calmly said “I am the unfortunate man”. Bellingham made no attempt to escape, although he had by this time discarded his pistol.

After being recognised by General Gascoyne, the Member for Liverpool, Bellingham was taken to a private room beyond the House’s lobby area. While here, Bellingham was questioned by Mr. Watson (the House’s Sergeant-at-Arms), Mr. Alderman Combe, Mr. Angelo Taylor and other Magistrates began an official examination of Bellingham.

On the day of the inquest into the death of Spencer Percival, Bellingham sent the following letter to his landlady:

Dear Madam : Yesterday midnight I was escorted to this neighbourhood by a noble troop of Light Horse, and delivered into the care of Mr. Newman (by Mr. Taylor the Magistrate and MP) as a state prisoner of the first class. For eight years I have never found my mind so tranquil as since this melancholy but necessary catastrophe, as the merits or demerits of my peculiar case must be regularly unfolded in a criminal court of justice, to ascertain the guilty party, by a jury of my country.

I have to request the favour of you to send me three or four shirts, some cravats, handkerchiefs, night-caps, stockings, etc, out of my drawers, together with comb, soap, toothbrush, with any other trifle which presents itself which you may think I may have occasion for, and enclose them in my leather trunk, and the key, please to send sealed per bearer; also my great-coat, flannel gown, and black waistcoat, which will much oblige. Dear madam, your obedient servant, John Bellingham. To the above please to add the Prayer Book.

On Friday 15 May 1812 (4 days after Perceval’s death), Bellingham appeared at the Old Bailey charged with Perceval’s murder, to which Bellingham pleaded not guilty. The judges were Lord Chief Justice Mansfield, Baron Graham and Sir Nash Grose. The Prosecution Case was very short as there were plenty of witnesses that identified Bellingham as the person who fired the shot that killed Perceval. For his defence, Bellingham read a long statement in which he said that his attack was aimed at the office of Prime Minister and not the person occupying the post.

Bellingham then went on to say that he had been robbed of his liberty for years, ill-treated, torn from his wife and family, robbed of all his property and everything that had made his life valuable. When Bellingham had finished his statement, his counsel then called witnesses who testified to Bellingham insanity.

In his summing up, the Lord Chief Justice pointed out that there were some forms of insanity in which the victim was unable to judge between right and wrong. However, he felt that this type of insanity was not present in this case.

John Bellingham was found guilty of murder and sentenced to death by hanging. On 18 May 1812 (7 days after Perceval’s shooting), John Bellingham was executed in front of Newgate Prison; the executioner was William Brunskill.