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’.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in