ssassinations have happened all over the world, from Franz Ferdinand to JFK. A total of 4 American Presidents have been assassinated and assassination attempts were also carried out on Theodore Roosevelt, Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush and Barack Obama. Including some attempts that were carried out against assassinated presidents, such as Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy.
But today we are going to talk about something that has never happened before, not since 1812. The assassination of a British Prime Minister. The assassination took place on May 11th, 1812 and happened at the House of Commons in London, England. You would think that such an assassination would be a traumatic event for the British public. But the response to the assassination of Spencer Perceval was surprisingly ambivalent and even celebratory in some places.
At 5:15pm on May 11th, 1812, he had just stepped into the lobby of the House of Commons on his way to a meeting. A man stepped in front of him, drew a pistol from his jacket, placed it up against Perceval’s chest and pulled the trigger. His last words were “I am murdered”.
The first concern was that the assassination could have been the start of a rebellion, but this was not the case. The assassin was a businessman by the name of John Bellingham, who had a personal complaint against the government and had become convinced that shooting the Prime Minister was the only way for his complaint to be heard.
But the fear of a broader rebellion was real despite his personal motives and there were some who supported Bellingham’s act. To understand that, you need to understand the challenges facing the United Kingdom in 1812.
Let’s start with the monarchy. In 1812, King George III had ruled the United Kingdom for 53 years. The problem though was that George III was given to bouts of extreme madness and Spencer Perceval had to form an Act with the King’s son, the Prince of Wales to rule in the King’s stead. But the King was an ally of Perceval and The Prince of Wales was an opponent. A doctor said that the King was likely to recover from his madness and so Perceval placed restrictions upon the Prince’s regency, which angered the Prince.
The reason the Prince did not call for a new Government is that if his father recovered, he feared he would be angry that he removed his favourite politician from office. The relationship between the prince and Perceval had been an uneasy truce.
Then there was the war with Napoleonic France. The United Kingdom had been at war with France since 1803. With Perceval also serving as Chancellor of the Exchequer, his plans for the war and the cost of it was devastating the economy and the United Kingdom was in deep recession and the United Kingdom was also on the brink of war with the United States as well.
Spencer Perceval was the last of the Prime Ministers to wear the powdered wig and short button pants, which was the fashion of the 18th century, as his assassination literally represented a change in eras.
John Bellingham refused to plead insanity and so he was executed by hanging. A decedent of John Bellingham serves in Parliament today.
Spencer Perceval left behind a widow and 12 children and the question of what might have been? The chief justice at Bellingham’s trial lamented the country’s loss with the assassination of Spencer Perceval, he said:
By his death, charity has lost one of its greatest promoters. Religion, one of its finest 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.
King George III never recovered from madness and would live with it until his death in 1820.