John Bellingham and the assassination of Spencer Perceval

01 April 2016

Spencer Perceval is the only prime minister in British history to have been assassinated. John Bellingham, the man who killed him, did so after an unsuccessful attempt to petition Parliament.

The murder of the Prime Minister

On the afternoon of Monday 11 May 1812 the Prime Minister, Spencer Perceval, entered the Lobby of the House of Commons. Perceval was on his way to speak in a debate on the Orders in Council, measures introduced by his predecessor in 1807 as part of an economic blockade against Napoleonic France, with which Britain was at war. The lobby was a place where constituents and 'lobbyists' waited to catch the attention of a passing MP, government minister or even the Prime Minister.

Among those waiting in the lobby that day was John Bellingham, a merchant from Liverpool. His presence had been noticed on previous days as he waited patiently in the lobby or watched debates from the public gallery. As the Prime Minister entered the lobby, Bellingham approached him, pulled a pistol out of a pocket hidden inside his coat and shot him through the breast. Perceval muttered some words as he staggered forward  in some reports it was 'Murder!', in others 'Oh!', before falling to the ground. He was quickly carried from the room and died moments later, while Bellingham sat down on a bench by the fireplace.

The death of Perceval caused an initial panic as rumours of an armed uprising or plot circulated. Surprisingly, it soon became clear that Bellingham had in fact acted alone, and the murder was the result of his frustration following a series of failed attempts to petition the Government for compensation

Who was John Bellingham?

John Bellingham was employed as an insurance broker for a 'northern house' when, in 1804, his work took him to the Russian port of Arkhangelsk. Having concluded his business there by November of that year, Bellingham prepared for his return to Britain. His departure, however, was prevented when he was arrested over an unpaid debt that he allegedly owed to a Dutch merchant, Solomon van Brienen. The story was invented by Van Brienen who, Bellingham claimed, held a grudge against him over some previous business dealings.

An appeal by Bellingham to the British Ambassador and Consul in St Petersburg, Lord Granville Leveson-Gower and Sir Stephen Shairpe, was unsuccessful, and he was imprisoned shortly after, leaving his young wife and infant son to return to Britain alone. He was released in 1809 and left for Britain.

John Bellingham's petition

Bellingham's experiences in Russia and the dismissal of his appeals by Leveson-Gower and Shairpe led him to bring charges against them before the Privy Council, without success. Soon after this he set out on his own petition campaign, addressing petitions to the Prince Regent, the Government and the House of Commons. The last of these, written just three months before the murder, described the 'long continued series of cruelty and oppression' he had suffered, by which 'his health and reputation [were] materially injured'. To add to his injury he had, as he claimed, been 'tortured…for a series of years…condemned to a dungeon' and 'marched publicly…with gangs of felons and criminals'. For him it was nothing less than a 'national disgrace'. Bellingham was told by Perceval that the time for presenting petitions had now passed, though Bellingham noted that this was, in fact, incorrect. The petition, along with the others, was dismissed.

Angry and frustrated, Bellingham took matters into his own hands. Having been 'bandied about from man to man, and from place to place' he was, as he stated at his trial, 'driven almost to despair'. It was then that he decided to take action. He visited a tailor and had a pocket stitched inside his coat to hide the murder weapon. Though it was the 'amiable, and highly lamented…Mr. Perceval' who had the misfortune of being in the lobby that day, it was Lord Leveson-Gower who Bellingham saw as the agent of his misfortune. Had he been there that day it was he, as Bellingham said, 'who should have received the ball' fired from the pistol.

Trial and execution

Bellingham stood trial at the Old Bailey on Friday 15 May 1812. Those present noted how he 'appeared much collected…and, at intervals, appeared serene and careless'. His defence in court demonstrated that he was a man of some education and he showed 'the fluency of a practised orator'. His counsel tried to claim insanity, but Bellingham would have none of it. While he had no personal dislike of Perceval, he believed he was sending a message to those in government, as he made clear in these ominous words: 'when a Minister is so…presumptuous at any time…to set himself above both the Sovereign and the Laws...he must do it at his personal risk, for, by the law, he cannot be protected.' He was found guilty and publicly hanged at Newgate the following Monday.

Sean Harris, Committee Assistant, Petitions Committee.

All quotations are taken from the transcripts of the trial of John Bellingham made by Alexander Fraser and published in 'The Trial of John Bellingham for the Assassination of the Right Honourable Spencer Perceval, First Lord of the Treasury, Chancellor of the Exchequer, &c. &c. &c.' London: R. Mercer, 1812.

Image: Death of Spencer Perceval (detail), print, by an unknown artist.

© Parliamentary Art Collection, WOA 5825

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