Case: The Assassination of Prime Minister Spencer Perceval
Spencer Perceval
John Bellingham
Status: Solved
Categories: Uncategorised
Case synopsis:

Only one British Prime Minister has ever been assassinated.

Spencer Perceval was shot in the Palace of Westminster in 1812 after serving just three years in office.

During that time he presided over an unstable government, a financial crisis and a series of setbacks in the Napoleonic wars.

But it was the bitterness of a bankrupt businessman that lay behind his murder.

John Bellingham, an export trader, had become obsessed with gaining compensation for his six-year imprisonment in a Russian jail. It is thought he had personally approached the Prime Minister for help.

After a final failed visit to the foreign office, he bought two pistols and hid them in a secret compartment in his coat.

On May 11 he travelled to Parliament and waited until Spencer Perceval walked from the House of Commons chamber into the lobby. Bellingham then took out a gun and shot him in the chest.

The Prime Minister is reported to have said 'I am murdered. I am murdered' before collapsing with a fatal bullet wound to the heart.

The shooting of Spencer Perceval

19th century engraving of the shooting of Spencer Perceval inside the House of Commons

Bellingham, a 35 year-old father-of-three, simply sat down and waited to be arrested.

His trial at the Old Bailey took place just four days later. He pleaded not guilty to murder and told the jury his actions should be a lesson to future Prime Ministers.

Bellingham said: "Recollect, Gentlemen, what was my situation. Recollect that my family was ruined and myself destroyed, merely because it was Mr Perceval's pleasure that justice should not be granted; sheltering himself behind the imagined security of his station, and trampling upon 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 birthright and privilege of every Englishman. Gentlemen, when a minister sets himself above the laws, as Mr Perceval did, he does it as his own personal risk. If this were not so, the mere will of the minister would become the law, and what would then become of your liberties?

"I trust that this serious lesson will operate as a warning to all future ministers, and that they will henceforth do the thing that is right, for if the upper ranks of society are permitted to act wrong with impunity, the inferior ramifications will soon become wholly corrupted. Gentlemen, my life is in your hands, I rely confidently in your justice."

Despite his pleas, he was convicted of murder and hanged in front of Newgate Prison on May 18.

The Lord Chief Justice told him: "You have been convicted by a most attentive and a most merciful jury, of one of the most malicious and atrocious crimes it is in the power of human nature to perpetrate - that of wilful and premeditated murder!

"You have shed the blood of a man admired for every virtue which can adorn public or private life - a man, whose suavity and meekness of manner was calculated to disarm all political rancour, and to deprive violence of its asperity.

"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 - a man, whose ability and worth was likely to produce lasting advantages to this empire, and ultimate benefit to the world."

Nearly two hundred years later, in 2001, the killer's descendent Henry Bellingham was elected MP for North West Norfolk.

In a feature on the BBC website, he is reported as saying: "I've always avoided raising the murder myself and 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."

John Bellingham

Prime Minister Spencer Perceval (left) and assassin John Bellingham (right)

Further reading: A transcript of the trial can be found on the Old Bailey online website. More details on the career of Spencer Perceval can be found on the Victorian Web site and there are wikipedia articles on both Perceval and Bellingham. The image of Perceval is a painting by George Francis Joseph.

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