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The Assassination of Spencer Perceval

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Even if you are familiar with England's Regency period (1801-1811) you may not know about the only Prime Minister of Britain (1809-1812) who was assassinated. He was killed on May 11th of 1812. He was 49 years old and the father of twelve children. Twelve!
John Bellingham shot Perceval in the chest when the Prime Minister was on his way to the House of Commons. Bellingham had been unjustly imprisoned in Russia. He worked as a trader and felt the government owed him damages that were never forthcoming. This is why he killed Perceval.

A painting depicting the assassination of Perceval. Perceval is lying on the ground while his assassin, John Bellingham, is surrendering to officials (far right). Wikipedia

There are many sad and interesting aspects to what let John Bellingham to shoot Perceval. I've found two links below for those of you who are interested in learning more about this case. Was Bellingham insane? Were the events that led to his imprisonment in Russia partly responsible for the shooting of Perceval? There is much to be studied, but I can't help but think this tragedy could have been averted. But then again, maybe not. Hindsite is always 20/20. Bellingham's family begged him not to go to Parliament that day. Could they have stopped him? Should they have notified a constable?
More Details on John Bellingham

John Bellingham was found guilty of murder and sentenced to death by hanging. On 18 May 1812 (7 days after Perceval's shooting), John Bellingham was executed in front of Newgate Prison; the executioner was William Brunskill. (Copied from the above link).

The Newgate Calendar and John Bellingham
He persisted in denying any personal enmity to Mr Perceval, for whose death he expressed the greatest sorrow, separating, by a confusion of ideas, the man from the Minister; and seemed to think he had not injured the individual though he had taken away the life of the Chancellor of the Exchequer. (Copied from the above link).

What makes situations like this even more disturbing is when we consider what was not known during this time period of the Regency. Remember, King George III was considered insane because of his behavior, but because no one was aware of his very real illness with (Porphyria not to be confused with Pyphoria) we may never know all the tragic consequences related to mental illness of this time.

I have no way of knowing if Bellingham was insane or not, but I suspect that he was indeed. Please share any information or thoughts you have pertaining to this subject.


  1. Bellingham wasn't legally insane. He knew right from wrong. He was making a protest against the government. he had lost money, time and other matters of importance to him and felt that the government was giving him the run around. This is a common situation even today. Many people complain of bureaucracy but not every one gets a gun and shoots someone. A psychologist's definition of mentally incompetent and a legal definiti0n are different. The recent shooting of Congresswoman Gifford is a contemporary example of this-- a person shooting a member of the government which the person feels has let him down in some way.
    The way the guilty is treated today and how Bellingham was treated is already apparent. In both cases the identity of the shooter was known. There were many witnesses. Yet in our case we are supposed to speak of the shooter as the alleged murderer. NO one suggested there was any alleged about Bellingham.
    Bellingham wasn't assessed for mental illness beyond whether he knew the difference between right and wrong. In many cases the ability to plan actions was taken as the ability to reason and therefore eliminated a call for leniency because of mental incompetence.
    Bellingham's trial was held within days and his execution within a fortnight. Everyone knew he was guilty so there was no reason to delay matters. The man who killed Judge Rolls and the little girl will have plenty of time to consult lawyers. The trial will be moved to another stater so as to try for an unbiased jury pool. It is likely to be months before the man goes to trial and if convicted before a death penalty ( if asked for) is carried out.
    Bellingham couldn't testify in his own defense and his barrister( if he had one) couldn't cross examine witnesses. He could only appeal the verdict on the grounds of gross misreading of the law.
    I doubt the family could have stopped Bellingahm without physically locking him in a strong room. Westminster had pretty good police at that time but I don't know that they could have stopped him. It would have taken someone with more clout to have made the police act before a crime was committed. It wasn't a crime to have a pistol in the pocket or to enter the hall where the houses of parliament met.
    After Bellingahm shot Perceval the measures taken sound pretty modern and effective. they locked down the building and searched it. Bellingham was taken to another room and interrogated by a committee. I haven't checked the records to discover whether one of those who questioned him at this time was also on the bench at Old Bailey for his trial. There were usually several justices on the bench .
    I am not certain the death penalty is effective or even right anymore. However, England didn't really have alternatives at that time. The prisons weren't set up for lifers. Men were either held for short period of time, transported, or hanged. Believe it or not, but hanging was actually a whole lot more humane than some of the other methods for putting someone to death. Though how the public could go to a hanging like a public entertainment , I don't know.

  2. Thank you Regency Researcher,
    I appreciate your thoughtful post. And I'll never understand how people found entertainment in public executions either.

    My thoughts of John Bellingham's possible insanity are due to what seemingly became an obsession for him over a period of time when he was detained in Russia. I think this is when he may have become delusional, even psychotic. But I don't believe Bethlem or Bedlam had a unit for the criminally insane until 1818 or later. Not that he would have received any real treatment.
    (From my post, More Details on JB)
    "Bellingham then went on to say that he had been robbed of his liberty for years, ill-treated, torn from his wife and family, robbed of all his property and everything that had made his life valuable. When Bellingham had finished his statement, his counsel then called witnesses who testified to Bellingham insanity.
    In his summing up, the Lord Chief Justice pointed out that there were some forms of insanity in which the victim was unable to judge between right and wrong. However, he felt that this type of insanity was not present in this case."
    (From The Newgate Calendar)

    "Other witnesses were called, who deposed to like facts and to their belief in the insanity of the prisoner, but Lord Chief Justice Mansfield having summed up the case, the jury, after a consultation of two minutes and a half in the box, expressed a wish to retire, and an officer of the court being sworn, accompanied them to the jury-room."

    And then the decision was made of his guilt. Part of me thinks they just wanted to get rid of him as fast as possible. Whatever the case I really appreciate your thoughts on this RR.