May 11, 1812 — British Prime Minister Spencer Perceval strode into the House of Commons through the lobby. It was a Monday evening and the prime minister sought to settle affairs with the Orders in Council. It was around a month before the United States would declare war on the United Kingdom in the War of 1812 and tensions were escalating quickly. He no doubt had a lot on his mind as he passed off his coat and headed inside.
An unremarkable man sat near the fireplace in the corner. His face was a familiar one — he had been in and out for the last several days, and no one thought twice at the sight of him. The mysterious man stood up and approached the prime minister.
He drew a concealed sidearm and shot Perceval in the chest without saying a word.
Chaos erupted and the prime minister was heard crying out in some way, though the various accounts differ. “Murder!” “I am murdered!” “Oh my god!” were a few. Perceval would be dead within minutes, confirmed as a surgeon arrived quite promptly.
Instead of using the chaos and confusion to make his escape — which some say would have been entirely possible — the assassin simply chose to sit back down next to the fireplace. His name was John Bellingham, and he would be arrested, tried and executed days later on May 18.
At first, authorities feared uprising; they feared that the assassination was a part of some plot against the government. Actually, Bellingham had a personal vendetta. He had been imprisoned in Russia after an incident on his ship, and his multiple appeals and attempts to get home were consistently denied. He felt personally wronged by the U.K.’s inability and apparent apathy toward his years in prison — in fact, he said that he would have rather killed the British Ambassador to Russia, but settled for the prime minister instead.
He said during his trial:
Recollect, Gentlemen, what was my situation. Recollect that my family was ruined and myself destroyed, merely because it was Mr Perceval’s pleasure that justice should not be granted; sheltering himself behind the imagined security of his station, and trampling upon law and right in the belief that no retribution could reach him. I demand only my right, and not a favour; I demand what is the birthright and privilege of every Englishman.
Gentlemen, when a minister sets himself above the laws, as Mr Perceval did, he does it as his own personal risk. If this were not so, the mere will of the minister would become the law, and what would then become of your liberties?
I trust that this serious lesson will operate as a warning to all future ministers, and that they will henceforth do the thing that is right, for if the upper ranks of society are permitted to act wrong with impunity, the inferior ramifications will soon become wholly corrupted.
Gentlemen, my life is in your hands, I rely confidently in your justice.”
However, despite his justifications, he was still hanged before the public.
Prime Minister Perceval was the only British Prime Minister to have been assassinated while in office.
Featured image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
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