Rotten, Wicked, Tyrannical

Bernard Porter

  • Why Spencer Perceval Had to Die: The Assassination of a British Prime Minister by Andro Linklater
    Bloomsbury, 296 pp, £18.99, May 2012, ISBN 978 1 4088 2840 3

If Spencer Perceval is remembered at all today it’s probably as the answer to a question in a pub quiz: who is the only British prime minister ever to have been assassinated? But both he and his nemesis, John Bellingham, are more interesting than this implies, and the fatal act that brought them together, Andro Linklater thinks, is more significant and also more mysterious. They have been the subject of two previous books, by Mollie Gillen (1972) and David Hanrahan (2008), both called The Assassination of the Prime Minister. Linklater doesn’t add much information or evidence about the event itself, but he puts it in context, and provides fascinating if overblown speculations about the supposed ‘mystery’.

On the surface there seems little need to look for ‘mysteries’ here. Perceval was shot at point-blank range in the lobby of the House of Commons by Bellingham, a Liverpool merchant with a grievance against the government, who when he had done the deed allowed himself to be apprehended on the spot. This was on 11 May 1812 – Why Spencer Perceval Had to Die has been published to mark the bicentenary. He was examined, tried and hanged within a week. During this short time he never wavered in his account of his motive, and his insistence that he wasn’t part of a ‘plot’. That was an obvious suspicion: working-class discontent seethed at the time, and was manifested in the outpouring of popular ‘applause and hurrahs for Bellingham’ that greeted the news of the assassination when it reached the streets. After the event, radicals took Bellingham to their hearts. At his public execution William Cobbett, looking out from his cell window (he was in for political libel), ‘saw the half-horrified countenances’ of the crowd, the ‘mournful tears’ running down their faces and ‘heard the unanimous blessings’. He ascribed this to their gratitude to Bellingham for having ‘ridded’ them of ‘the leader amongst those whom they thought totally bent on the destruction of their liberties’. But no evidence was ever found of any radicals’ complicity in the murder.

Still, Linklater believes Bellingham must have had help of a kind. He bases this on a single gap, as he sees it, in the evidence presented at his trial. This is tantalisingly hinted at throughout the book, and only revealed near the end. It works as a piece of suspense, but the secret turns out to be rather lame. The crux of it is that we don’t know how Bellingham was able to support himself financially during the nearly five months he spent in London seeking redress for his grievance. He was supposed to be impoverished yet he paid his bills and even splashed out a bit. There’s no paper trail, so Linklater examines the possibilities. The most plausible is that he lived on an advance paid to him for a projected trip to Russia to buy iron. But that was likely to be a risky venture for any lender, especially given how unreliable Bellingham was apparently known to be. The inference is that his sponsor must have known of Bellingham’s murderous intent. Linklater, on the basis of not a shred of solid evidence, eventually points the finger at another Liverpool merchant, Thomas Wilson, and a Yankee one, Elisha Peck – ‘or someone remarkably like him’. He also thinks the Tory MP General Isaac Gascoyne must have been in the know, a belief based mainly on the suspicious haste with which Gascoyne rushed to the scene from another room on hearing the shot. Lastly, the impressionable Bellingham ‘could’ have overheard ‘salty’ Liverpool voices saying that ‘killing Spencer Perceval would be for the good of the country.’ These would have been his co-conspirators – the guys on the grassy knoll. All this may be true but it doesn’t add up to much of a ‘conspiracy theory’.

Linklater’s excursions into these areas help to show, however, why Perceval might have been disliked enough for some people to want him dead, even if they did nothing about it, and so to flesh out the character of this most unmemorable of British prime ministers. Friends and colleagues seem to have been surprised. To them, Perceval was a lovely fellow. In the portrait reproduced here he has a kindly face. In the House of Commons the day after he was killed, members could scarcely speak for weeping. (Men were allowed to cry then: the stiff upper lip came in later.) In his private life he was famously spotless: a dedicated family man, faithful to his wife, kind to his children, ‘too honest to enrich himself’ through his public position (almost as rare then as it is today), and deeply religious. But that may not have been enough. Even if he was the personal and domestic paragon they all claimed he was, Sydney Smith wrote some years later, that didn’t mean he was a wise leader: ‘I should prefer that he … whipped his boys, and saved his country.’ His religion was of a simple kind, relying on his personal relationship with his God, which we now know to be a warning sign in a prospective leader. His faith, he believed, relieved him of the necessity of thinking things through. ‘He seemed to suppose,’ the Edinburgh Review declared shortly after his death, ‘that rectitude of intention was alone a sufficient reason for self-confidence; and therefore feared nothing because he meant well.’ ‘I retain all the ignorance and [remain] under all the prejudice which influenced me,’ was his own proud response to the recommendations of a committee that urged him to end the Peninsular War in 1810, advice he therefore rejected. His other great contribution to international politics was to refuse to lift the Orders in Council originally designed to prevent trade with France at a time of war, but now being used to police Britain’s recent (1807) abolition of the slave trade (Perceval’s religion made him a committed abolitionist). More significantly, from Linklater’s point of view, they were also obstructing legitimate trade – for example, with Elisha Peck’s United States.

On the home front his policies were equally instinctive. He was a reactionary of the first order. His first speech in the House of Commons in 1796 had clearly set out his agenda: to ‘save’ the country ‘from the delusions of popular opinion’, and from the ‘plausible fallacies of democratic theories’. In his early career as a lawyer, the brightest feather in his cap had been his part in the successful prosecution of Thomas Paine for seditious libel. According to a government spy – if you could trust him or her: they often made things up – one Luddite firebrand attributed ‘all the miseries of our country’ to Perceval, and called on the French emperor to assist them in ‘shaking off the Yoke of the Rottenest, wickedest and most Tyrannical Government that ever existed’. ‘Perceval’s ribs are only fit to broil the Prince Regent’s heart on,’ graffiti in Whitehall read. There can be no doubt about how reactionary he was. The only things one might say in mitigation are that his late father, the second Earl of Egmont, was worse – he favoured the return of absol-ute monarchy – and that his successor, the second Earl of Liverpool, was no improvement. Liverpool’s government, which ran from 1812 to 1827, has the reputation of being the most oppressive in modern British history, so far as working people were concerned: the Peterloo massacre, the Six Acts, the suspension of habeas corpus. So Perceval’s assassination didn’t help them at all.

Perceval alienated others too: Roman Catholics, for example (he was dead set against their ‘emancipation’), and slave-traders – Gascoyne was one of these. But it was legitimate merchants and their dependants, in port cities like Liverpool, who were Perceval’s fiercest enemies, as a result of those Orders in Council he refused to repeal. What virtually the whole of the merchant community in Britain, Peck among them, feared most was that the orders and the excesses associated with them – especially the press-ganging of suspected British sailors found on intercepted American vessels – might provoke a war with America: a war that in fact broke out in June 1812, just a week or so before news of Perceval’s death reached the US. Hence the traders’ willingness to finance Bellingham – if indeed they did. Perceval’s death did help them. Although it didn’t stop the 1812 war, Liverpool’s government put an end to the Orders in Council almost immediately, with the melancholy result, Linklater claims, that forty thousand Africans who might have avoided enslavement if the orders had still been in operation didn’t. That is the main basis for his bold claim that the assassination ‘changed the course of history’, whatever the silence of the history books may imply.

Bellingham himself was not at all concerned with ‘changing history’, in this respect at least. His original grievance was personal and financial, arising out of injustices he claimed to have suffered while on a business trip to Archangel in 1804, first at the hands of other merchants, then of the Russian authorities and finally of the local British consular service, which failed to plead his case. It is likely that he was indeed swindled out of a great deal of money there, and certain that he suffered greatly in other ways over a period of some five years: impoverished, separated from his wife and children (he appears to have been at least as uxorious as Perceval), subjected to the capricious workings of the Russian bureaucracy and finally, in St Petersburg,

bandied from prison to prison, and from dungeon to dungeon, fed on bread and water, treated with the utmost cruelty, and frequently marched through the streets under a military guard with felons and criminals of the most atrocious description, even before the residence of the British minister, who might view from his window this degrading severity towards a British subject.

Bellingham thought that that minister – Lord Granville Leveson-Gower – should have interceded on his behalf. Shortly after the assassination Leveson-Gower defended himself in a long letter to the newspapers, which may indicate a twinge of guilt. It was his failure to act that brought Bellingham to London to raise his case with the British government. He pursued his claim through every possible channel – going from one department of state to the next in logical order, petitioning everyone worth petitioning, seeking leave to present his case to Parliament repeatedly – but with no success. He was left, in his view, with only one recourse, the action he took on 11 May.

All this activity was meticulous to the point of obsession, which some took to be a sign of madness, but it had a kind of method to it. Linklater suggests it may have had something to do with his ‘book-keeping’ mentality – Bellingham had started out as an accountant. The columns had to add up: left with a deficit on one side of the ledger, there was only one way of balancing the books. He was also making a quasi-constitutional point. The prime minister was the (executive) head of a government whose most sacred duty was to uphold the British constitution. Every lower step in the legal pyramid having failed Bellingham, he had a constitutional right to attack its apex:

Where a man has so strong and serious a criminal case to bring forward as mine has been, the nature of which is purely national, it is the bounden duty of a government to attend to it, for justice is a matter of right, and not of favour. And when a minister is so unprincipled and presumptuous … to set himself above both the sovereign and the laws, as has been the case with Mr Perceval, he must do it at his personal risk, for, by the law, he cannot be protected.

Perceval had put himself outside the law, so Bellingham had the law on his side when he gunned him down. Furthermore, he understood (probably from a misreading of a legal text) that because he was attacking the office, not the man, whom he said he felt sorry for, his action could not be classed as murder, as it was without malice prepense. It was more than revenge: indeed, was quite apart from it, ‘an act of public justice’. Finally, in his defence, he claimed he had made his murderous intention, and the reasoning behind it, pikestaff plain beforehand to several of those he had petitioned, who had raised no objection. To the Bow Street magistrates he wrote in March 1812 that if the ‘door of justice’ were finally closed to him, he should ‘feel justified in executing justice myself’, however ‘abhorrent’ that might be; they did nothing to stop him. He repeated the threat in April to a Mr Hill at the Treasury, whose obviously irritated reply, that in that case he could go and do his worst, Bellingham took as a ‘carte blanche, to act in whatever manner I thought proper’. All of which must explain why he remained, throughout his trial, so astonishingly confident that the jury would let him off. ‘The people will now be able to judge my case, and do me the justice to say, I have only done my duty.’

Even if the trial hadn’t been the disgrace it turned out to be – rushed, with a highly prejudiced judge, and Bellingham given no time to summon witnesses from Liverpool – it is highly unlikely that these arguments would have cut much ice. Bellingham resisted a plea of insanity, for reasons not unlike Anders Behring Breivik’s in the Utøya massacre case: he wanted his motives to be seen as rational. In any case an insanity plea would not have worked, since he appeared generally lucid, though it might possibly, Gillen suggested, have had some purchase thirty years later, when the McNaughtan Rules covering temporary mental imbalance (named after the intended assassin of a later prime minister) first came into play.

Everyone remarked on how calm he was, in prison, under questioning and at his trial. ‘For eight years,’ he wrote to his London landlady from his cell the day after his arrest, ‘I have never found my mind so tranquil as since this melancholy but necessary catastrophe.’ He ate well and slept like the innocent he conceived himself to be. In court he seemed ‘very much at his ease’. One might assume that this was because of his misplaced confidence but it cannot have been so entirely, because it survived the shock (to him) of the guilty verdict, which apparently left him unmoved. During his short stay in the condemned cell at Newgate, he remained ‘composed, and even cheerful’, or – in the view of the chaplain sent to make him feel as guilty as possible before he was hanged – in a state of ‘deplorable apathy’. This must be because he felt that, whatever happened to him now, he had settled his account. The columns balanced. To a more sympathetic Christian visitor he said that he looked forward to his journey, ‘in a few hours more’, to ‘a better country than this – for it was a miserable place’. His only complaint was that he was not allowed to shave before his execution, to show him as the gentleman he was. As he was led out to the scaffold he was observed to walk ‘with a light step, a cheerful countenance, and a confident, a calm, but not at all an exulting air’, pausing briefly only to remark: ‘Ah! It rains heavily.’ Asked how he felt, he replied that he ‘thanked God for enabling him to meet his fate with so much fortitude’. Asked by the chaplain, with the rope already around his neck, if he had any last words, he began to retell his Russian grievances, only to be told this wasn’t appropriate. So it was, in the words of Lord Byron watching from a nearby rooftop, that ‘Bellingham was launched into eternity.’

Everyone – save, presumably, the prison chaplain – was impressed. ‘His deportment,’ the otherwise hostile Morning Post adjudged, ‘was calm, manly, and even at times dignified.’ Judging by the cries of ‘God bless you!’ from the gawping crowd, many sympathised with him. This was often the case with public executions, especially political ones, and one reason the authorities were nervous of them. They were supposed to be salutary, but could just as easily set off anti-government riots. That may have been the reason Bellingham’s case was got over so shockingly quickly. If the ‘mob’ had had longer to mull over his act, he might have been turned into a martyr. Many of the usual elements were in place for that: the unpopularity of Perceval; Bellingham’s ‘fine and manly person’, much admired by women; his bravery in his last moments; and the rumour that began circulating after his body had been transferred to St Bartholomew’s Hospital for dissection (the usual procedure in these cases) that his noble heart continued beating for several hours afterwards. Any competent radical balladeer might have made a meal of that. At least one tried (Gillen quoted him at length), but his doggerel never caught on. He never made it into the original DNB; though he was added to a Missing Persons volume in 1993. Like his victim, he was soon forgotten. Maybe it would have been different if he had been part of a popular conspiracy dedicated to resisting aristocracy and the factory system, rather than a fighter for his own narrow interests (with no greater ambition, to put the worst gloss on it, than to get his money back) or for a principle of constitutional law, which may have been nobler, but was still too abstract for the suffering poor. He chose the wrong cause if he was to be remembered as a hero and the wrong victim – the unpopular Perceval – to be remembered as a villain. Heroes and villains tend to linger in the memory.

The assassination had no effect on the pressing issues of the day. It emphatically wasn’t, as Hanrahan’s book asserts at one point, ‘the story of the century’. It’s only the anniversary that justifies this latest retelling of it, when two perfectly serviceable accounts of the event already exist: Gillen’s, stronger and more scholarly on the event itself, the Russian prologue and the ‘insanity’ issue; and Hanrahan’s, with more on Perceval’s legal and political careers and Irish connections, and a fuller account of the trial. What Linklater adds to these are much valuable stuff on the Liverpool mercantile context; some interesting ideas, particularly the one about ‘book-keeping’; and that probably unnecessary ‘conspiracy’ theory. There are flaws: inadequate citations, repetition, and some errors, including the crediting of one of my books to the wrong ‘Porter’. (I can live with that: it was more Roy’s period, after all.) But as a popular account of a unique event in British history – the real puzzle, surely, is why more of our prime ministers haven’t been assassinated – it stands up well. We probably won’t need another until the next centenary, unless someone chances on the documents that finally prove the complicity of Elisha Peck, General Gascoyne and those salty Liverpudlians in Bellingham’s brave but dastardly deed.