For every famous assassinated figure there is always at least one assassin – think, Balthasar Gérard, John Wilkes Booth, Gavrilo Princip, Nathuram Godse, Mark David Chapman, Yegal Amir, etc. Why do they do what they do? There’s any number of motives, with religion and politics frequently ranking high on such lists. The influence of drugs is worth mentioning here, too, if only for etymological reasons: the word “assassin” derives from the Arabic word “hashishin”, as the original killers who gave rise the term were known to have been taking hashish.
It’s hard at times not to sound self-righteous when talking about people who commit sensational acts of murder of celebrities or VIPs – after all, most of us have at best a healthy disdain for politicians and pampered public figures, but for the most part rarely feel like doing them to death. Common to almost all assassins, though, is a total lack of remorse for what they have done – whether they feel they are being true to their cause, or whether they are just deluded (as with Chapman), there is rarely a sense of wishing to turn the clock back (even if, politically speaking, they themselves are reactionaries). A certain 40-year-old Liverpudlian by the name of John Bellingham certainly ticked these boxes.
Bellingham was a merchant who had got involved in trading with the Arctic Russian port of Archangel, but something went seriously wrong when he was arrested there and sent to jail for fraud – although he always insisted that he was innocent. The Russian authorities were unimpressed, however, and imprisoned Bellingham several times between 1804 and 1808, though he wasn’t allowed to go back to Britain until December of the following year. His various travails had cost Bellingham around £8,000 (over £200,000 in today’s money), and caused his family real hardship. On his return to the UK Bellingham appealed to the British government for compensation, believing that they hadn’t done enough to secure his release, but the Prime Minister, Spencer Perceval, and his ambassador in St Petersburg, Lord Granville Leverson-Gower, both refused to receive his petitions. Finally, in 1812, feeling that he was running out of options, he appears to have decided that more drastic measures than mere petitions would be needed.
The embittered merchant’s quarry had been the increasingly mad King George III’s Tory prime minister (though at this time the head of government’s official title was still First Lord of the Treasury) since 1809, and was, to put it mildly, a controversial figure. Spencer Perceval was one of those figures who seemed to fetishise morality in public life: as well as being determined to stamp out the slave trade, he was equally determined to stamp out Luddism in industrial areas, since both acts offended his morals. He consistently opposed Catholic Emancipation for much the same reasons. He was also incensed with the Royal Navy’s problem of desertions (especially at a time when the struggle against Napoleonic France was at its height), and so started the policy of boarding American and neutral ships in order to press-gang both real and suspected deserters – a practice that would eventually lead to the US declaring war on Britain shortly after Perceval’s death.
Britain in May 1812 was very much a divided country: the war with France wasn’t going very well, either on the seas or in the Iberian peninsula, and the towns suffered with poverty and infernal working conditions. Furthermore, work in industrial areas was increasingly hard to come by with greater automation in the factories, which led to the Luddite movement, in which well organised gangs would smash up the machinery of factories where jobs were under threat and workers were not being compensated or re-trained for alternative jobs. Put simply, life was tough, but unless you could get away with Luddite vandalism there was little you could do about it, since, in the words of the comedian Mark Steel, ‘the parliamentary system of the time didn’t leave a great deal of room for the “Letters to your MP” style of campaigning‘…
Cornwall had 44 MPs, London had ten, Manchester – which was the second biggest town in the country – had none, and the borough of Old Sarum, which consisted of one farmhouse, had two. So, presumably, in Old Sarum, there was one vote – the farmer – and I bet that even there, if the Tory got in, he’d go, ‘Well, I didn’t vote for him!‘
The way the new machinery was introduced was leaving craftsmen with no control over their work, a third of their wages, and wrecking their families – and all their petitions were being ignored…
One of these desperate people whose petitions were being ignored was, as has already been mentioned, the merchant John Bellingham, and after years of being blanked and patronized, he finally snapped. In the afternoon of Monday 11 May 1812 he calmly walked to the House of Commons lobby in London’s Palace of Westminster. When Perceval finally made an appearance in the lobby, at around 5:15pm, Bellingham walked a couple of paces towards the prime minister, produced a pistol, and shot the prime minister once through the chest. The assassin made no attempt to run away, and various MPs made a citizens’ arrest while others attended to the dying First Lord.
The swift nature of Bellingham’s trial and then conviction (his trial took place just four days later, on Friday 15 May, and lasted just eight hours) have led some writers, like the late Andro Linklater, to wonder out loud whether he did indeed act alone, as he had always insisted. The killer’s counsel offered him the chance to plead insanity, but he refused, saying that his actions were a mere execution and a simple act of justice which, he felt confident, would result in his acquittal and receipt of compensation. Unsurprisingly, the jury took just fifteen minutes to find him guilty, and three days later, on Monday 18 May 1812, Bellingham was hanged for his crime. In his book about the assassination, Linklater points out how Perceval’s controversial “Orders-in-Council” (legislative measures the government of the day can issue without parliamentary scrutiny) were due to be debated on the day he was murdered. These Orders, aimed at stopping neutral nations like Portugal from trading with France, had led to economic near-meltdown, with a recession adding to the already-harsh conditions endured by the population. Curiously enough, after Perceval’s death, the government, under its new First Lord of the Treasury, Lord Liverpool, quietly scrapped most of Percevals Orders-in-Council, and thereafter trade began to pick up and unemployment began to fall again. This doesn’t necessarily mean, of course, that there was a well-laid plot to eliminate a British prime minister: as a reviewer of Linklater’s book put it…
Linklater’s evidence for this account is intriguing, though here and there it has to depend on conjectures that, in the space of a page or so, are wished into hard facts. His case is impossible to prove, but too plausible and too much fun to ignore.
As for Bellingham, though he didn’t get away with his crime (as he had imagined he would), he was nonetheless hailed as a popular hero, whether or not he had desired that outcome to his story. Carnivals spontaneously appeared across the country on hearing the news, and thousands turned up to cheer him as he fell through the gallows trapdoor outside Newgate prison.
Life for the family of Bellingham’s victim, however, was quite different – and here’s the principal problem with assassination: behind every assassinated celebrity, no matter what symbol they may be of whatever cause an assassin imagines that they are targeting, there are loved ones left behind who are permanently traumatised by the murder. Linklater describes the experience of the prime minister’s widow:
At the time of his murder, Jane Perceval had been visiting her closest friend, Frederica Ryder, wife of the ineffectual Home Secretary. The Ryders lived in Great George Street, opposite Parliament Square, and their house must have resounded to the cheers and jubilant cries of the mob as they too learned of her husband’s death. The news, and perhaps the glee outside, left her too shocked for tears. Jane’s dazed, dry-eyed calm lasted until the next morning when she was taken in to see the body. She had spent all her adult life with him. He was not yet fifty, and in less than a week the youngest of their twelve children would celebrate his fifth birthday. It was then, confronted by his familiar appearance and strange stillness, that she burst into uncontrollable weeping.
In an ideal world, therefore, a simple faith in humanity would be all there is to banish any thoughts in anyone’s heads that assassinating famous people is in any way a valid way of solving one’s problems – as with capital punishment, perhaps. The writers Jeremy Kingston and David Lambert put it best in their 1979 book Catastrophe and Crisis:
Because our criminal laws forbid the taking of another’s life it follows that assassination can never really be justified. Many people are prepared to make an exception in the case of tyrannicide, however. Even respected philosophers have argued for it. The great 13th-century Italian theologian Saint Thomas Aquinas believed that natural law gave individuals the right to kill a tyrant for the good of the community. The 17th-century English philosopher John Locke saw the tyrant as a man at war with those he ruled, and his killing could be looked upon as an honorable military act. But in many cases, one man’s tyrant is another’s hero. Then, too, his death may have unwanted repercussions. Lastly, once men start voting leaders out of office with the gun how shall we know who shoots for the majority?