11 May 1812: Britain’s prime minister, Spencer Perceval, is assassinated

At first glance, there is nothing much out of the ordinary about Spencer Perceval, a Tory MP from the early 1800s. He was from an aristocratic family, was educated at Harrow and Cambridge, and went on to become a lawyer. It’s a well-worn path to power that is still trodden by what seems to be half the Houses of Parliament today.

But his name really ought to be more well-known. For poor old Perceval holds the dubious honour of being Britain’s only serving prime minister to be assassinated.

Perceval entered the Commons as MP for Northampton in 1796. He served as Solicitor General and Attorney General, then Chancellor of the Exchequer and Leader of the House of Commons.

And when, in 1809, the prime minister, William Henry Cavendish Cavendish-Bentinck – AKA ‘The Duke of Portland’ – died, Perceval rose to the top job.

He had it fairly tough. The government was unstable, the economy was in a state, and Britain was yet again at war with France.

But what finally did him in was an unhinged bankrupt businessman with a hefty grudge against the government.

John Bellingham had been imprisoned in Russia after being accused of insurance fraud. He was locked up for six years, during which time he sought help from the British Embassy, and then the government. No help was forthcoming.

When he returned to Britain, he demanded compensation, and petitioned the government again and again. Each time, he was turned down.

Eventually, on the afternoon of 11 May 1812, driven mad by his failure to secure justice, Bellingham entered the lobby of the House of Commons, and waited. When Perceval came in, Bellingham took a pistol from beneath his coat, and fired.

Perceval fell to the floor, fatally wounded, crying (somewhat unbelievably), “Oh, I have been murdered”.

Bellingham made no attempt to escape. And at his trial, he showed no remorse, blaming the government entirely. He was hanged on 18 May.

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