Monday, 11 May 1812.
An ordinary day of business for the British political world, at least at first.
The Houses of Parliament meet to discuss the Orders in Council of 1807-9. These restrict trade with European countries under Napoleon’s control, impose blockades on enemy ports, and attempt to control neutral trade with the enemy. It is a form of economic warfare that has damaged British manufactures and antagonised the United States to the point of war. Spencer Perceval’s government is now considering their repeal.
Nearly sixty peers have made their appearance in the House of Lords for the occasion. Members who have not shown their face for months, or even years, have made a reappearance. Among them, not incidentally for the purposes of this blog, is the Earl of Chatham, who has only appeared four times since his resignation from Perceval’s cabinet in March 1810. He reserves his rare appearances for the first and last sessions of the year, and important occasions for which his vote is needed — such as the question due to be discussed today.
The House of Lords settles down to business. First are the Orders of the Day. The peers hear an Appeal case in their capacity as the nation’s highest legal authority. They then discuss several private and local Bills, on naturalisation of citizens, enclosures, and schools, among other topics. All is business as usual, for a while.
Shortly after five o’clock in the evening, “a bustling noise, as of a number of people in confusion” interrupts proceedings. “A few moments of silence” ensue: the peers turn their heads, “looking towards the doors”.
As they watch, the doors fly open. One of the Westminster Messengers rushes in, “in the utmost agitation and alarm”. “Mr Perceval is shot!” he cries. “Mr Perceval is shot!”
At the news that the Prime Minister has been attacked, the House is filled with confusion and noise. Peers leap from the benches and approach the Bar to question the Messenger. Everyone speaks at once, asking the same question over and over: “What has happened?”
“Mr Perceval was coming out of the Lobby of the House of Commons,” the man burbles. “A pistol was fired at him. He staggered two or three paces, fell on his side, then rolled on his face.”
“What happened to him?”
“I do not know, for I came here immediately. I believe Mr Perceval to be dead.”
A murmur of horror. Most of the lords leave the room at a run to find out whether the man’s account is correct. Only the Lord Chancellor and three Bishops remain behind.
They find the House of Commons in uproar. A few questions quickly establish the facts. Perceval had been coming into the House of Commons when a gentleman, John Bellingham, approached him and fired a pistol point-blank into his chest. Bellingham was a former merchant whose business in Russia had gone bankrupt; he had claimed restitution from the government, been ignored, and had become convinced Perceval was responsible for his troubles. Perceval could not have survived a blow at such close quarters: he died more or less instantly. Bellingham gave himself up and is now in the custody of the Serjeant at Arms.
The peers return to their House. “The eyes of those who remained were rivetted on the countenance of him who first approached, and hope vanished”.
Was Bellingham acting alone? Are there other assassins waiting in the dark corridors of the medieval Palace of Westminster? The Lord Chancellor proposes locking the doors of Parliament to prevent anyone leaving until they have been searched for weapons. Anyone might be the next target.
Chaos continues. Peers move about the House of Lords, sending messengers, clustering together for whispered conversations. News arrives that the Commons has adjourned: “it was suggested that this might be the most proper course for their Lordships”.
“Seats, seats,” cry the clerks. The peers bustle back to their places, pale with shock.
The Duke of Cumberland rises and testifies that he has seen the Prime Minister’s body, “wounded and dead”, in the Speaker’s private rooms, surrounded by a surgeon and several other people. An Address to the Prince Regent expressing “the sentiments of the House on the melancholy and horrid occurrence” is suggested, but Lord Ellenborough is in doubt as to whether this ought to be done until the fact of assassination has been ascertained.
One of the House of Commons Doorkeepers, Richard Taylor, is called to the Bar and sworn in as a witness. The Lord Chancellor leaves his Woolsack to question him.
“You are an officer belonging to the House of Commons, are you not?”
“I am, my lord.”
“State to the House what you know in relation to Mr Perceval.”
“My lords,” Taylor explains, “I was at the Door of the House of Commons. I saw Mr Perceval in the Lobby. I saw the pistol, I saw the fire, and I saw Mr Perceval fall.”
“Did you hear the pistol go off?”
“You saw Mr Perceval fall?”
“Yes — directly after the firing.”
This seems clear enough. No more witnesses are examined.
Lord Radnor moves an Address expressing the House of Lords’ “horror” at the attack on Perceval, “and praying that his Royal Highness would be graciously pleased to direct such steps to be taken as he should deem expedient for the apprehension of the offender”. It passes unanimously.
Lord Radnor is instructed to carry it to the Prince Regent, at the head of a deputation of nineteen other lords including all six of the Prince’s brothers, and Lords Grey, Holland, Liverpool, Bathurst, and Chatham.
The House then follows the example of the Commons, and adjourns.
Perceval is buried in Westminster Abbey five days after his assassination. Parliament votes a subscription to his widow and twelve children.
His murderer is tried in the Old Bailey and attempts to plead insanity. His plea is not accepted: he is found guilty and hanged on 18 May. Popular dislike of the government is, however, at its height, thanks to economic problems and the high price of bread. In a bizarre, ironic twist, a public subscription is also raised for the widowed Mrs Bellingham.
Perceval remains the only British Prime Minister to be assassinated.
Quotations above come from Cobbett’s Parliamentary Debates XXIII, 161-7 and Journals of the House of Lords XLVIII, 825-8
There are further details about Perceval’s murder in the transcript of Bellingham’s trial, which can be read here