Thursday, May 10, 2012

200 years ago today - Death of a Statesman

by M.M. Bennetts


It had been a hellish kind of a day already.  And it was only gone five in the afternoon.

First on the agenda had been the bruising debate over the Conduct of the War in the Peninsula, with the Whigs and Radicals joining forces like some verbal artillery unit.

And in less than an hour, there would be yet another stormy session in the Royal Chapel of St. Stephen, where the House of Commons met--this time over the repeal of the Orders in Council, which the Government had announced they intended to do on 29 April.  That at least ought to please the pro-American radical factions on the opposition benches.  And one trusted it would stop this silly to and fro-ing with the Americans over impressment.  Because what England did not need was a war with the Americans.  Not at this time.  Not when they were utterly dependent on wheat and flour from New England to feed Wellington's troops in the Peninsula.

But the debate finished, Brougham having finally closed his gob for the moment, and MPs were pouring out through the lobby doors and into the stone hallway...many of them on their way to the necessary chamber, no doubt.  It was the usual crowd.  Lord Osborne, General Gascoyne, Smith, the MP for Norwich...

Sir Spencer Perceval
And emerging from a side door which stood adjacent to a stone staircase, known chiefly for its worn treads, the Prime Minister and Chancellor of the Exchequer, Sir Spencer Perceval, deep in conversation with Lord Osborne.

It was just a normal Monday afternoon. The afternoon of 11th May 1812.

John Bellingham had been a merchant and, with his wife, had travelled to Russia.  There, his business had failed and he, owing many roubles, had been placed under house arrest.  He'd finally been freed and the debt forgiven on the understanding that he would leave Russia.  Upon his return to England, he'd taken to writing letters to various Government officials accusing the Russian envoy of ruining his business and demanding restitution--which letters had eventually all been passed to the Treasury to be handled by the Chancellor.  But over a period of three years, the Chancellor had given him no joy--despite the hundreds of letters and petitions he'd written.

Angry and resentful over his ill-treatment, for the past several months, he'd taken to sitting in the gallery of the House of Commons, assessing its weak points, learning to identify the various Honourable Members.  He'd also sent threatening letters informing the Chancellor that as he'd failed to dispense justice, Bellingham felt at liberty to execute justice himself.  But no one paid much heed--it's doubtful his letters were even read.  Most probably they were just added to the already overladen pile of his ceaseless correspondence.

Now, armed with a pair of pistols, at just gone five in the afternoon, as the members were streaming from the chamber, he had hidden himself in the shadow of the stone stairs, just behind the folding doors. And as the Prime Minister emerged into the lobby, Bellingham stepped forward, aimed for Perceval's heart, and fired.

The shot reverberated through the closed stone corridor, deafening all.

The Prime Minister, his hand clutched to his breast, reeled backwards and fell, murmuring, "Murder!"  (Or as other eyewitness accounts have it, "I am murdered!")

Smith, with Osborne's help, struggled to raise the fallen man.  Someone cried, "Oh my God!  It's the Prime Minister!"

Someone else called for a doctor.  Smith, Osborne and a few others lifted him to carry him to the closest chamber, that of the Speaker's Secretary, and there laid him on a sofa.

Back in the hallway, chaos had broken out.  There were calls to seal off the doors, shouts that it was a conspiracy and a French conspiracy at that.

A black-coated doctor from Great-George-street arrived and was shown to the small room.  He searched Perceval's neck and wrists for any sign of a pulse, then said what they'd all been fearing for the past quarter of an hour:  "It is too late, gentlemen.  I am sorry, he is dead."

(The shot, fired at point-blank range, had passed through Perceval's heart.)

In the hallway, the MPs were milling and congregating in a fury of concern, and there were loud cries of "Shut the doors, let no one out!"  Then, as the reality of what they had witnessed dawned upon them all, there were exclamations of "Where's the murderer?  Where's the rascal that fired?"

From out the shadows of the stone staircase, John Bellingham, dressed in an overlarge and worn brown coat, stepped forward and loudly proclaimed, "I am the unfortunate man!"

If it had been chaos before, now it became a scene from bedlam. Instantly, Bellingham was seized and searched--in his pockets another primed and loaded pistol, an opera-glass and a number of papers and bundles of letters.  The spent pistol was not found.  Upon being questioned why he had done such a thing, he replied, "Want of redress and denial of justice."

To which there were calls for him to be hanged or taken out and shot.  Clerks were racing through the corridors, locking doors--for if this was part of a conspiracy, who or what was next?

The Speaker of the House banged and banged with his gavel, desperate in his attempts to bring the House to order.  But to no avail.  Finally, fearing for Bellingham's safety--for the honourable members were now a mob of angry murderous men--he had no choice but to order that he be removed by the Sergeant of the House to the prison room, by means of a secret passage.

With many doubting that Bellingham had acted alone, and given the Napoleonic state's record in dispossessing European countries of their legitimate rulers, an emergency Cabinet Council was called.

Over the fraught course of that evening, they arrived at a series of measures to prevent further disturbance and panic, and to flush out fellow-conspirators and/or French spies.  Sharpshooters were installed atop government buildings and on the roof of 10 Downing Street.  The mail was stopped and all foreign letters opened and scrutinised at the Foreign Letter Office.  The Household Cavalry guarding the King and Queen at Windsor and the Prince Regent in London was trebled.  The Thames River police were put on high alert and ordered to search vessels for possible conspirators.  And the militia was called out to patrol the streets of the capital in force.  It was as full-on as any modern government's response to a terror attack.

Taken before the Magistrates that evening, Bellingham denied any personal enmity towards Perceval, expressing great sorrow for his death and insisting he had only taken away the life of the Chancellor of the Exchequer.  Despite or perhaps because of Bellingham's obvious mental derangement, a verdict of 'wilful murder' was returned by the Coroner.  At last bound over for trial, at 1.00 a.m., Bellingham was escorted, manacled, from Westminster to Newgate Prison by a company of the Light Horse.

The next day, 12th May, the Foreign Secretary, Viscount Castlereagh, spoke to the proposal to award Perceval's widow and children a handsome annuity in recognition of the great sacrifice he had made on behalf of his country.  But as he paid tribute to his friend and colleague, Castlereagh broke down, sobbing, before the assembled MPs and had to be helped back to his seat--to strong sympathy from the House.

John Bellingham was tried for murder on 15th May at the Old Bailey before Lord Chief Justice Mansfield, with the Duke of Clarence, the Marquis Wellesley and almost all the aldermen of the City of London occupying the bench.  The jury took fourteen minutes to return a guilty verdict.

The following Monday, the 18th, Bellingham was hanged before the Debtor's Door of Newgate Prison.

Sir Spencer Perceval was buried in the family vault of St. Luke's, Charlton on 16 May.  A memorial to him was placed in Westminster Abbey in June 1812.

Perceval
Spencer Perceval remains the only Prime Minister to ever have been assassinated in British history.  Though that's not the only reason he should be remembered.  He had been a good man and a good Prime Minister and Chancellor of the Exchequer, respected by his contemporaries to a remarkable degree.  He had steered the country through a most volatile and dangerous period, both domestically and abroad.

Yet saddest of all, like his mentor, the great William Pitt, he did not live to see the fruition of his work to defeat Napoleon.  Indeed, he didn't even know that at the moment of his death, the tide was at last turning against the Napoleonic juggernaut.

His murder, although generally overlooked today, summoned up the same fears for national security as we have suffered in our generation.  This is perhaps best seen in a letter written by his step-mother to Lord Castlereagh shortly afterwards:

What a catastrophe, my dearest Castlereagh, are you condemned to witness, and what privation has the country suffered in this tragedy of Mr Perceval's murder.  Never since the Duke of Buckingham has such a daring assassination been attempted in England; but what a difference in men; one justly an object of public jealousy and contempt; the other admirable in all his attributes and every day obtaining more confidence.  Some deep plot must be at the bottom of this desperate act.  I can never credit that a lunatic alone conceived and executed it.  I now tremble for your life...There is a conspiracy against everything good and great.  I hope you do not despise caution in your own person.

Perceval's assassination and the subsequent private and political turbulence form the cornerstone of my novel, May 1812, which is available as a Kindle download today (on both amazon.com and amazon.co.uk) to mark the bicentenary of his death. The above account, as well as that in the book, is drawn from several eye-witness accounts found in the newspapers and journals of the day.

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M.M. Bennetts is a specialist in early nineteenth-century British history and the Napoleonic wars, and is the author of two historical novels set in the period - May 1812 and Of Honest Fame. Find out more at www.mmbennetts.com.

2 comments:

  1. Interesting. I remember reading reference to the assassination, but never the details.

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  2. Yeah - I've never seen details of what happened in the aftermath. A sort-of Georgian style lockdown, after a fashion :)

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