John Bellingham: Assassin of Prime Minister Spencer Perceval

The year 1803 was the year that artist Joseph Chinard finished a magnificent bust of Madame Récamier and  the same year the Russian ship Soleure (or Sojus) that belonged to Solomon van Brienen and Vassiley Popoff was lost at sea. At the time, the ship was insured through Lloyd’s of London. The ship’s owners filed a claim to receive restitution for their loss. Unfortunately, Lloyd’s of London received an anonymous letter alleging the ship had been sabotaged, and, so, they refused to pay compensation to the owners. At the time, John Bellingham was working in Russia as an export representative. Van Brienen believed Bellingham had sent the letter to Lloyd’s of London and, therefore, he and Popoff took retaliatory action against Bellingham by claiming Bellingham owed them a debt of 4,890 rubles.

John Bellingham, Assassin of Prime Minister Spencer Perceval

John Bellingham. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

When accusations of the debt occurred, John Bellingham was preparing to leave Russia. Because of the debt, Russian authorities withdrew Bellingham’s traveling pass and he was stuck in Russia.  Van Brienen and Popoff then made matters worse by convincing the Governor-General to arrest Bellingham for the debt. Bellingham was then sentenced and forced to serve a year in jail. In the meantime, he was writing letters to the British government asking for help but received little help from them.

After his release, Bellingham attempted to impeach the Governor-General, which upset Russian authorities, and, caused them to arrest Bellingham on another charge and re-imprison him. In 1809, Bellingham finally left Russia for good. He arrived in England in December, and, soon after began petitioning Parliament for compensation for his wrongful imprisonment. Unfortunately, England had broken off diplomatic dealings with Russia and determined his petition inadmissible. Bellingham’s wife, who had returned earlier to England, then convinced him to drop the matter, which he reluctantly did, but his wrongful imprisonment and lack of relief continued to eat at him.

In 1812, John Bellingham resumed his attempts to gain relief from the British government. He sent letters to the Foreign Secretary, Lords Commissioners of His Majesty’s Treasury, Under-Secretary, Privy Council, and the Prime Minister. Having received nothing but rejections, a civil servant told him he could do whatever he thought was proper to receive compensation.

“Finding himself thus bereft of all hopes of redress; and Mr. Perceval obstinately refusing to sanction his claims in parliament, he was drive to despair, and under these agonizing feelings was impelled to that desperate alternative which he had unfortunately adopted, and for which the last answer of the government had given him a carte-blanche.”[1]

Prime Minister Spencer Perceval, Courtesy of Wikipedia

Prime Minister Spencer Perceval. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Bellingham then decided to take action. He purchased two .50 caliber pistols, which were he sewed inside his coat pockets. He made his way to the House of Commons, waited for the Prime Minister Spencer Perceval’s arrival, and, to the shock and horror of everyone, shot and killed him.

One eyewitness at the scene claimed that while he was in conversation with another person, he heard a shot and turned to see a dozen men in commotion. He then saw a man rushing towards him “and several voices cried out, ‘Shut the door — let nobody escape!'”[2] The man approaching him then reeled and fell, face down, but before he fell he heard him cry indistinctly, something like “murder.”

The fallen man did not stir and when the witness and others turned the fallen man face up, they “perceived that it was … Perceval.”[3] A group of men then carried the Prime Minister, who groaned twice, to an office. “His face was completely pale, the blood issuing from his mouth, and … [there were] scarcely any signs of life in him.”[4] He was dead, the only English Prime Minister to have been assassinated, at the age of 49 on 11 May 1812.

John Bellingham committing the murder.

John Bellingham committing the murder. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

John Bellingham calmly seated himself on a bench near a fireplace and was quickly seized. Lieutenant General Isaac Gascoyne stated at trial:

“When I came into the Lobby I saw a crowd collected round an individual, whom I could not distinctly see; the attention of almost every individual was directed towards the fireplace, where the Prisoner was sitting. A person near me, whom I should not know if I should now see him, immediately said, ‘That is the man who fired the pistol, pointing to John Bellingham, who stands there at the bar; whose person I well knew, and whose name I was acquainted with. I took hold of him.”[5]

Bellingham was tried on Friday the 15th of May at Old Bailey. Dressed in a patched coat he argued fluently but emotionally that he had executed justice. He said he would have preferred to have killed the British Ambassador to Russia, but he justified the killing of the Prime Minister stating:

“Recollect, Gentlemen, what was my situation. Recollect that my family was ruined and myself destroyed, merely because it was Mr. Perceval’s pleasure that justice should not be granted … In a case so strong as mine, when I demanded justice, I demanded only my right, and not a favour; I demanded what is the birth-right and privilege of every Englishman. Gentlemen, when a minister set himself above the laws, as Mr. Perceval did, he does it at his own personal risk. “[6]

John Bellingham

John Bellingham, taken at the Session House Old Bailey, May 15th 1812. Courtesy of British Museum.

The jury adjourned for about ten minutes and being unconvinced by Bellingham, they rendered a verdict of “Guilty.” The following was then addressed to Bellingham:

“You have been convicted by a most attentive and merciful jury, of one of the most malicious crimes that human nature can perpetrate … Assassination is the most abhorred of human crimes. It renders bravery useless, and cowardice triumphant. … It now only remains for me to pass the sentence … which is, That you be taken, on Monday next, to a place of execution, there to be hung by the neck till you are dead, and your body delivered over to be anatomized, and may God have mercy on your soul!”[7]

Perceval’s remains were buried in a family vault of the Earls of Egmont, at Charlton, near Woolwich. The following inscription was placed on his coffin:

“Right Honourable SPENCER PERCEVAL, Chancellor of the Exchequer, First Lord of the Treasury, Prime Minister of England, fell by the hand of an Assassin in the Common House of Parliament, May 11, A.D. 1812, in the 50th year of his sage; born Nov. 11, A.D. 1762.”[8]

John Bellingham was executed on Monday, 18 May 1812 before the Debtor’s Door of Newgate. Frenchman René Martin Pillet stated that an immense crowd watched and Pillet also provided the sentiment of the crowd at the time:

“Farewell poor man, you owe satisfaction to the offended laws of your country, but God bless you! you have rendered an important service to your country, you have taught ministers that they should do justice, and grant audience when it is asked of them.”[9]

References:

  • [1] “Trial of John Bellingham,” in Hull Packet, 19 May 1812, p. 3.
  • [2] “Trial of John Bellingham,” in Bury and Norwich Post, 20 May 1812, p. 4.
  • [3] Ibid.
  • [4] Fraser, Alexander, The Trial of John Bellingham for the Assassination of the Right Honourable Spencer Perceval, 1812, p. 29.
  • [5] Ibid., p. 39-40.
  • [6] The (Kirby’s) Wonderful and Scientific (Eccentric) Museum, Volume 4, 1820, p. 417.
  • [7] Fraser, Alexander, p. 96.
  • [8] “Trial of John Bellingham,” in Bath Chronicle and Weekly Gazette, 21 May 1812
  • [9] Pillet, René Martin, Views of England, 1818, p. 24

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