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,
Literary Review | m a y 2 0 1 2 10 h i s t o r y than to provide the answers. Linklater has enough evidence to suggest that a certain individual might have been Bellingham’s sponsor, but not enough to be sure that he has identified the right man.
Nevertheless, the setting-out of the case is intriguing in itself. It transforms a simple account of a spectacular murder into something even darker. Bellingham does indeed become a kind of victim, though not in the way that he himself acknowledged. An explanation of the shooting was needed by contemporaries too. Perceval’s evangelical friends believed in Providence. It was literally providential that their co-religionist had been elevated to great power. He had a destiny to fulfil. How then could God cut him down in so callous a manner? As one of them put it: ‘Of all the cases in which man seems to have been abandoned by Heaven … I have always thought this the clearest.’ Such a quandary might have been resolved if it could have been proved that Perceval had fallen victim, not to the random impulses of one madman, but to the workings of a kind of organised evil.
Andro Linklater makes good use of the excellent copy that this story affords.There is a penny-dreadful quality to his description of Perceval’s open coffin lying in the drawing room of 10 Downing Street, and real pathos in poor Bellingham’s insistence that he should go to the gallows in the garb of a gentleman. As long as Linklater takes a solemn oath never again to call early nineteenth-century England a democracy, he should bring his forensic skills to bear on yet more incidents that, by elaboration, can become mirrors of the time. To order this book for £15.19, see the Literary Review bookshop on page 47
It has been a week of competitive read- ing in the de Lisle household. Bed time, back to back: him reading George R R Martin’s hugely popular Game of Thrones fantasy fiction; me reading Dan Jones’s The Plantagenets. We both read into the night, but I was the one reading passages out loud.
Jones covers an enormous amount of ground: eight generations of kings and queens from 1120 to 1399. The risk with a long dynastic history is that it becomes just one damn thing after another, and the reader gets lost in a snowstorm of names and events. Jones avoids this with a combination of gripping storytelling and pin-sharp clarity. As I sometimes stop mid-paragraph to daydream around a subject, I was grateful to be kept on track by a text that is simple and direct, without leaving me feeling patronised.
The narrative opens in 1120 with a drunken party aboard a white ship – the White Ship. Among the beautiful people revelling on deck was William Aetheling, grandson of William the Conqueror and sole legitimate son of Henry I. Unfortunately those who were actually sailing the ship were also drunk and intended to race across the Channel from France to England. They hit a rock before they had even left the harbour. The subsequent catastrophe reads like the sinking of the Titanic – but with royalty and far more serious consequences.
Following the death of William Aetheling, Henry I left his throne to his daughter, Matilda. Her husband, the handsome Geoffrey of Anjou, was the man who in legend inspired the Planta-
l e a n da de l i s l e
Broom for Improvement The Plantagenets: The Kings Who Made England
By Dan Jones (HarperPress 632pp £25)
genet name because he wore a sprig of yellow broom blossom (planta genista) in his hair. Four centuries before the advent of Mary Tudor, the question of whether or not England would accept a queen regnant had arisen. Matilda’s cousin, Stephen of Blois, seized the crown, and so began a long and grim civil war.
After a few years, Malmesbury in Wiltshire was no more than a wretched little town … its walls and motte castle had been besieged at least three times … its people brutalized and plundered for many years. Now [Matilda’s son] Henry was at the walls … torrential rain and winds lashed besiegers and defenders alike, soaking mud clung to them all. The future Henry II eventually broke through and even the priests in the town church were butchered.
Henry’s temper was monstrous. Apparently mentioning the names of the kings of Scots in a pleasant manner was enough to make him eat the straw from his mattress. I can imagine a time when many of us may come to feel like that about Alex Salmond. But Henry’s rages eventually provoked the murder of his archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Becket. Vicious tantrums that ended in murder ran in the Plantagenet family,
and they weren’t all prepared to appear apologetic, as Henry II was obliged to after Becket’s brains were smeared over paving stones in his own cathedral.
Maundy Thursday is one of the holiest days in the Christian calendar: the night of the Last Supper. On the Thursday before Easter in 1203 Henry II’s son, by then King John, should have been at Mass or perhaps reflecting on Christ’s coming sacrifice. Instead he was drunk at dinner and brooding on the wrongs done to him. One of his servants had, earlier that year, refused orders to castrate and blind his sixteen-year-old nephew and heir, Arthur of Brittany. His meal finished, he staggered to the boy’s cell and murdered him with his own hands. I was strangely reassured that Bad King John really was bad – even badder than I had remembered. The wife of one of his enemies ended up eating her own son as she starved in a dungeon. But my favourite incident took place after the Pope responded to John’s seizure of the properties of the See of Canterbury and placed England under an interdict. Instead of pretending to be sorry and fretting that his subjects were no longer able to hear Mass, John devised new means of extracting money from the clergy, the m a y 2 0 1 2 | Literary Review 11