Sunday, 13 May 2012

Lone Gunman or Conspiracy?

 by James Burkinshaw

The assassination of Spencer Perceval, May 11, 1812
(image source: wilsonsalmanac.com)

In Portsmouth, we celebrate 2012 as the bicentenary of the birth of native son, Charles Dickens. However, 2012 is also the bicentenary of an infamous death---the only assassination of a British prime minister in our history.

On May 11, 1812, at 5.15 pm, Prime Minister Spencer Perceval was walking through the lobby of the House of Commons when a man stepped in front of him, drew a pistol and, without a word, shot him at point blank range. Perceval collapsed, murmuring either “Murder” or “My God” (witnesses differed), and was dead within minutes.

The assassin made no attempt to escape. John Bellingham, a bankrupt businessman, was tried, found guilty and hanged within a week of the shooting. At his trial, he argued that, while involved in trade in Russia, he had been arrested by the Russian government on a false charge of fraud, had lost all of his investment and savings as a result, and that the British government therefore owed him compensation. Upon his return to Britain, Bellingham had petitioned Perceval, who had refused his request for compensation. Therefore, Bellingham had ("justifiably", according to his own testimony in court) killed the Prime Minister.

For the past two centuries, John Bellingham has been bracketed with other mentally disturbed lone assassins such as Lee Harvey Oswald and (closer to home) John Felton (who stabbed the Duke of Buckingham to death in 1628, next door to what is now Portsmouth Grammar School). Indeed, like Felton, Bellingham was briefly feted as a hero by many, such was Perceval’s unpopularity (not least because Britain was in the midst of a serious recession).

However, a new book argues that Bellingham may not have been a lone gunman but part of a conspiracy involving two prominent British and American businessmen.

In Why Spencer Perceval Had To Die, Andro Linklater argues that Bellingham was what Lee Harvey Oswald claimed to be: “a patsy”. Bellingham, Linklater argues, was the unwitting tool of businessmen who felt their interests threatened by the policies of Perceval’s government.

As he walked through the lobby on May 11th 1812, Perceval was on his way to a Commons debate about whether to end Orders of Council he himself had initiated, which had involved banning neutral nations (such as the United States) trading with France and its allies, with whom Britain was at war. These orders had helped cause a deep recession throughout Europe and North America, which hit many British and American businesses hard. Perceval was shot dead on his way to defend keeping the trade ban in place, a position which infuriated many businessmen who stood to lose significant amounts of money. The ban was lifted just a month after Perceval's assassination by his successor as Prime Minister, Lord Liverpool.

Linklater notes that, when John Bellingham first returned to London from Russia, he was penniless, but that, soon afterwards, he seemed to have plenty of money. Linklater’s theory is that Bellingham was being supported financially by London businessman Thomas Wilson and American businessman Elisha Peck, both of whose businesses had been adversely affected by Perceval's trade policies. Linklater is also curious about the fact that, even at the time, many observers felt that Bellingham was tried and hanged with unseemly haste and that the prosecutors seemed oddly uninterested in investigating whether or not he had accomplices.

Linklater's book (published to coincide with the anniversary of Perceval's death) has certainly stirred  debate. John Barrell’s review in The Guardian (May 12, 2012) notes: “His case is impossible to prove, but too plausible and too much fun to ignore.” However, Bruce Anderson, in The Daily Telegraph, is less impressed, claiming "a lack of evidence" and an over-reliance on speculation.

Reviews:

Why Spencer Perceval Had To Die: The Assassination of a British Prime Minister by Andro Linklater (Bloomsbury, May 11 2012)



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