Spencer Perceval: The Only British Prime Minister to Be Assassinated

Spencer Perceval's impressive political career ended in blood and tragedy.

Jun 6, 2024By Jacob Wilkins, BA History

spencer perceval british prime minister assassinated


Britain’s political history is full of fascinating tales. From the declining power of the monarchy to the rise of the welfare state, the policies of this great island have influenced the entire world.


At the heart of Britain’s political history lies a host of important politicians. Some (like Winston Churchill) are household names, while others are less well-known. Spencer Perceval, who became prime minister in 1809, falls into the second category.


Given the tragedy that befell Perceval, it’s surprising more people don’t know about him. Indeed, the prime minister’s assassination is a unique moment in the history of British politics.


Spencer Perceval’s Youth

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John Perceval, 2nd Earl of Egmont by Thomas Hudson, c. 1758. Source: National Portrait Gallery, London


Spencer Perceval was born on November 1, 1762 in Audley Square, London. He came from a distinguished and important family with a rich history. One of his ancestors, Richard Perceval, worked with Queen Elizabeth I when he deciphered dispatches concerning the Spanish Armada.

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Perceval’s father, John Perceval, was a politician who originally sat in the Irish Parliament before being elected to the House of Commons in 1741. He later took a seat in the House of Lords. He also owned a lot of land, including Enmore Castle in the idyllic county of Somerset.


Benefiting from his father’s wealth and prestige, Perceval went to a boarding school called Harrow. He was an impressive student who won many prizes, gaining a place at Trinity College, Cambridge. Here, Perceval became an evangelical Christian.


Having chosen to enter the world of law, he went to Lincoln’s Inn to become a student at the Inns of Court. He became an active member of a debating society, gaining vital oratory skills essential to his future role as a politician.


With his law career underway, Perceval fell in love with a woman named Jane Wilson, the daughter of Sir Thomas Wilson, who was a Member of Parliament. The couple would go on to have many children together.


In 1791, Perceval published a pamphlet on the impeachment of Warren Hastings. This brought him to the attention of several politicians, including the prime minister, William Pitt the Younger, who offered him a position as the chief secretary for Ireland.


Though Perceval rejected the offer for financial reasons, the allure of politics remained firmly in place.


A Career in Politics

William Pitt the Younger by George Romney, c. 1783. Source: Tate, London


After his cousin left the House of Commons, Spencer Perceval filled the vacancy, winning a by-election in May 1796 and holding on to his seat in the following general election.


Perceval entered Parliament at an interesting time in British politics. Napoleon Bonaparte’s rise to power after the chaos of the French Revolution led to wars with France. Perceval supported the continuation of these wars but did not support the prime minister’s attempts to introduce Catholic emancipation.


The issue of Catholic emancipation eventually brought down William Pitt the Younger after King George III refused to approve the bill allowing Catholics to sit in Parliament. Pitt did return to the top job in 1804 after Henry Addington’s three-year tenure as prime minister, but he died in office in January 1806. The issue of Catholic emancipation –  which Perceval still staunchly opposed – also brought down the next prime minister, William Grenville.


William Bentick, the Duke of Portland, became prime minister after Grenville’s downfall and offered Perceval the role of chancellor of the exchequer. Perceval accepted, and when Bentick’s health started to fail him several years later, the new chancellor was in an ideal position to take the top job.


On October 4, 1809, Perceval officially became the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom and Ireland.


Prime Minister Perceval

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Prince Regent, later King George IV by Thomas Lawrence, c. 1818. Source: Tate, London


The opposition did not hesitate to criticize Spencer Perceval’s new government, condemning them for the Walcheren Expedition in the Netherlands, which led to many British troops dying of diseases like malaria.


A year later, Perceval had to deal with the king’s mental health, which started to falter when his youngest child, Princess Amelia, became perilously ill. Following her death, there was no question that the king was mentally unfit to carry out his royal duties.


Perceval turned to the king’s son, the Prince of Wales (who became King George IV in 1820). He told the heir to the throne Parliament was going to pass the Regency Bill, meaning he would effectively take his father’s place but with certain restrictions on his power. (Given the prince’s history of embarrassing and decadent behavior, Perceval believed these restrictions were important.)


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Spencer Perceval by George Francis Joseph, 1812. Source: National Portrait Gallery, London


Angered by the prime minister’s decision, the prince created a protest document. But Perceval had the might of a Parliamentary majority behind him, and the Regency Bill was passed into law. The young George officially became the Prince Regent during a ceremony in February 1811. (Thankfully, Perceval’s government regained the prince’s approval thanks to the Duke of Wellington’s military success abroad.)


Yet there were still problems to deal with. Public anger had risen over the Orders in Council, which had a negative impact on the economy, especially the cotton manufacturing industry in the north of the country.


But this issue was soon to be overshadowed by one of the most shocking incidents in British history: the assassination of the prime minister.


John Bellingham vs. the Russian Authorities & the British Government

Richard Colley Wellesley, Marquess Wellesley (1760-1842) Governor-General of India by Thomas Lawrence, c. 1815. Source: Government Art Collection UK


In the summer of 1804, an English merchant named John Bellingham went on a business trip to the Russian port of Arkhangelsk.


Having finished his work in November, Bellingham tried to return home. But – after being wrongly accused of not dealing with an unpaid debt relating to a consignment of iron – Bellingham was prevented from leaving. He tried to get help from the British authorities, but the Russians responded to the British consul by saying Bellingham’s detention was legal. Ultimately, after five years of disputes and arrests, Bellingham returned to England in December 1809.


Bellingham wanted financial compensation for the years he’d lost in Russia. He contacted many important government members, including the Marquis of Wellesley, the foreign secretary. He even reached out to Prime Minister Perceval.


With no help coming from the government, Bellingham was hungry for revenge. After purchasing some firearms from a gunsmith, he spent several weeks sitting in the public gallery of the House of Commons, observing his potential targets. Ultimately, he decided to murder the most important man in the room: Prime Minister Perceval.


The Assassination & the Trial

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Assassination of Perceval by John Heaviside Clark, 1812. Source: Royal Collection Trust


The assassination took place on May 11, 1812.


Spencer Perceval arrived at the House of Commons just after five o’clock in the afternoon. He was there to discuss the aforementioned Orders in Council. When he entered the lobby outside the chamber, John Bellingham arose from his position and walked towards the prime minister. He withdrew one of his pistols and fired at Perceval’s chest.


Fatally wounded, the prime minister was carried into the speaker’s apartments. But it was too late to save him. When a surgeon arrived on the scene, he examined the body and pronounced the prime minister dead.


Members of the House of Commons and the House of Lords struggled to come to terms with what had happened. There were even fears the prime minister’s death would spark a revolution, as the horrors of the French Revolution were still fresh in everyone’s mind. However, once it became clear the assassin was a lone man motivated by a personal grievance, these fears started to subside.


Bellingham’s trial took place on May 15 at the Old Bailey. Crowds gathered outside the venue, keen to catch a glimpse of the man who was all over the newspapers. Inside, the judge dismissed the claims of insanity, and the twelve-man jury soon reached their decision. Bellingham was found guilty of his crime and sentenced to death.


Bellingham spent his remaining days in Newgate Prison in a small cell with a single window. He was hanged at the prison on May 18, just one week after the assassination. Again, crowds gathered to see the man who had murdered the prime minister. Some even paid money so they could gain access to a better vantage point.


Robert Jenkinson, the Earl of Liverpool, became the new prime minister, holding the position for an impressive fifteen years.


Spencer Perceval’s Place in British History

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Spencer Perceval by George Francis Joseph, 1812. Source: National Portrait Gallery, London


The assassination is an isolated incident in British history. Though there have been other attempts over the years (such as the Irish Republican Army’s attempt to kill Margaret Thatcher in 1984), Spencer Perceval remains the only British prime minister to have been assassinated.


What’s surprising, therefore, is how few people in Britain have heard of Prime Minister Perceval. With the obvious exception of those with an interest in political history, people generally aren’t familiar with this tragic tale. It’s hard to know exactly why this is the case. It may simply be that Perceval is overshadowed by other great politicians from the nineteenth century, such as Robert Peel, William Gladstone, and Benjamin Disraeli.


Regardless of the explanation, Perceval’s story is certainly one worth knowing. Though John Bellingham committed an act of evil, it’s hard not to feel a degree of sympathy for him. Having lost years of his life to the Russian authorities, Bellingham deserved some form of compensation from the British government.


But his requests were denied, causing him to resent the British government and carry out a murderous crime. It’s scary to think that the animosity of a single individual was enough to bring down Britain’s most important political figure.

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By Jacob WilkinsBA HistoryJacob Wilkins holds a BA in History from Royal Holloway, University of London. He has written for several publications and has a particular interest in modern European and British history. When he’s not working, he enjoys reading books, watching tennis, and running up hills.