At 5:15pm on May 11th 1812, British Prime Minister Spencer Percival entered the lobby of the Palace of Westminster. He had been summoned to the Commons after the leader of Opposition had commented on the PM’s absence when the session had begun forty-five minutes earlier. He found his way blocked by John Bellingham, a merchant from Liverpool, who calmly drew a pistol and shot Percival in the chest. The Prime Minister was pronounced dead minutes later.
But before we continue, let’s rewind to explain why Bellingham assassinated the Prime Minster. Bellingham’s story really starts in Russia- after a number of failed business ventures, Bellingham had moved to Russia to act as an export agent in 1800 and, after coming back to Liverpool and getting married, returned to nation in 1804.
However, in the autumn of 1803, a Russian ship called the Soleure had sunk in the White Sea. Lloyd’s of London, the bank that the ship had been insured with, disputed this, citing an anonymous letter that claimed the ship had been sabotaged. The owners believed that Bellingham was the letter’s author and filed an accusation of debt against him. They then went on to influence the local Governor-General, who revoked Bellingham’s travel documents and had him imprisoned.
The next few years were not kind on Bellingham. He went from incarceration to regional exile after he tried to have the Governor-General impeached to homeless on the streets of St Petersburg. It was not 1809, after Bellingham petitioned the Tsar, that he was allowed to sail home to Britain. Once home, he petitioned the British government for compensation but they refused, having broken diplomatic ties with the Russians the year before
And that’s what drove John Bellingham to assassinate the Prime Minister of Britain, the only assassination of a British Prime Minister to date. But what happened after the event? The Prime Minister was dead and his killer apprehended minutes after the killing.
Well, Bellingham was hung at Newgate Prison a week later. The jury only took 15 minutes to deliberate before finding him guilty. As for Percival? He’s mostly remembered for being the only British Prime Minister to be assassinated. People actually celebrated his death as he had caused intense poverty in many part of the country due to his harsh measures in the Napoleonic War. Within a few years, his weak ministry had been largely forgotten and the few policies he had implemented had been reversed. Ask many people today and they will most likely not have heard of him.
And that is the story of the only British Prime Minister to be assassinated.