The church at the end of our road, All Saints, has a new memorial plaque this week. It remembers one Spencer Perceval. Who’s he? You’re not alone in asking that; no British person seems to know anything about him, which is fairly shocking when you read about him below.
A professional lawyer, he made his mark as by holding down the senior posts of Solicitor-General and Attorney-General. An admirer of William Pitt the Younger, he was politically conservative and an active Anglican, opposing Catholic emancipation.
In later life he became an expert on Biblical prophecy and wrote pamphlets relating prophecies that he had discovered.
When the Duke of Portland put together a coalition of Tories in 1807, Perceval served as Chancellor of the Exchequer and Leader of the House of Commons.
With Portland old and unwell, Perceval was effectively the chief minister, and even lived at 10 Downing Street.
In 1809, Perceval formally succeeded the Duke of Portland as prime minister.
It was a difficult time due to the upheavals of the Industrial Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars, and the final descent of George III into madness. His government also suffered from the absence of most of the senior statesmen of the period. He had to serve as his own Chancellor after obtaining six refusals of office.
After two years his government had survived much longer than predicted amidst a severe economic depression. Indeed, it began to seem that the situation of his government looked as if it was set to improve.
But Perceval’s administration ended dramatically on 11 May 1812, when he was shot dead in the lobby of the House of Commons on his way to attend an inquiry into the recent Luddite riots.
The assassin was John Bellingham, a merchant who had incurred business debts in Russia.
He had tried to recover compensation from the government for his losses, but was refused. He therefore sought revenge on a representative of that government and carried out his dark wish.
Perceval’s body rested in 10 Downing Street for five days, mourned by his wife and twelve children. Bellingham was later tried and hung for Perceval’s murder. His last words were, appropriately, ‘Oh, I have been murdered’.