h i s t o r y l e s l i e m i t c h e l l
Killer in the Commons hy Spencer Perceval Had to Die: The Assassination of a British Prime Minister
By Andro Linklater (Bloomsbury 296pp £18.99)
Successful assassinations have not really established themselves as a regular feature of the political repertoire in England. For some, this may be a matter of regret. If, at the back of a politician’s mind, there was always the thought that he or she might suddenly be called away, political life might be a little more responsive to the public mood. But for the most part English history only provides examples of incompetent, would-be assassins and conspiracies that were always exposed by someone with a tender conscience. John Bellingham, however, brought it off. On 11 May 1812, he shot the Prime Minister, Spencer Perceval, in the lobby of the House of Commons.
Bellingham’s defence counsel insisted that his client was insane. The man himself repudiated the idea. For him it was ‘a necessary catastrophe’. Quite simply, it was the only way he could obtain redress for a great hurt. Eight years previously, Bellingham, a Liverpool merchant in the Russian trade, had, as he saw it, been swindled by Dutch competitors in Archangel who were in league with the Russian authorities. His losses were certainly grievous. They were compounded by the refusal of English diplomats to help him. On his return home, he nursed his sense of injury, sending petitions to Parliament, the Prince Regent, and every government department. No assistance could be found anywhere. As a result, he began to think that ‘it has always been my misfortune to be thwarted, misrepresented and ill-used in life’.
he believed that they would not only acquit him, but would also recommend that he be fully indemnified. Consequently, Bellingham made no attempt to escape or to deny the charge, and was genuinely surprised when he was sentenced to hang.
Others, of course, took a different view. Those in authority were shocked and fearful. Bellingham’s trial, which only lasted seven hours, was held four days after the murder. Little or no time was allowed for the defence to assemble a plausible case. The jury took only fourteen minutes to agree on a conviction. The assassin lived only a week longer than Perceval. This indecent haste was allegedly demanded by circumstance. For Perceval’s death had been greeted, in many parts of the country, by popular celebrations. Mobs shouted that ‘Perceval’s ribs are only fit to broil the Regent’s heart on.’ Uncomplimentary phrases of this sort made the point that the misfortunes of one man had been caught up in much broader political issues.
Spencer Perceval was deeply unpopular at the time of his unexpected demise. High unemployment and business failures had marked years of economic depression, and many held the Prime Minister personally responsible for these calamities. Not unreasonably, he was seen to be the moving force behind the controversial Orders in Council which, in claiming to check neutral nations from trading with France, had brought England to the brink of war with America. Equally, Perceval, an unbending evangelical, put great effort into tracking down those who continued to traffic in slaves even after that trade had been declared illegal. For cities on the west coast of England, which had grown rich on the American slave trade, the Prime Minister was nothing short of a nightmare.
No city suffered more than Liverpool. In 1811, a fifth of its workforce was unemployed. In Bellingham’s home town Perceval had many enemies, and this was a point of some importance. For, according to Andro Linklater, the assassin had not been acting alone. Someone had been assuring him of financial assistance. In linking the personal obsessions of Bellingham with Liverpool’s complaints against Perceval, this account turns into something of a detective story. Who was encouraging Bellingham to pursue his fantasies, and who was providing the money to allow him to do so? To raise these very real questions, however, is easier
These experiences allowed Bellingham to insist throughout his moment of notoriety that he, not Perceval, was the victim. He claimed that he had nothing against the Prime Minister as a man, and expressed sympathy for Mrs Perceval and her children. He had tried to obtain compensation patiently and compulsively, but to no effect. Only the killing of the Prime Minister would allow his grievances the airing they deserved. When a jury of Englishmen were apprised of his Russian misfortunes,
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