Spencer Perceval

Spencer Percival was a Tory who came to the highest office in the midst of many difficulties; The Napoleonic Wars were still raging, there was a severe depression and King George was in the midst of the worst days of King George's madness. It seemed as if his administration was coming to grips with each of these problems when it came abrutly to a violent end when Spencer Perceval became the first and only serving Prime Minister to be assassinated.
Early Life
Spencer Percival was born on 1 November 1762 in Audley Square, London, the second son of John Perceval, second earl of Egmont (1711-1770), and his second wife, Catherine (1731-1784), third daughter of the Hon. Charles Compton and granddaughter of George, fourth earl of Northampton. Being the second son of a second marriage he had numerous close relatives (three stepbrothers and one stepsister at the time of his birth, as well as an elder brother, Charles George Perceval, and, later, three sisters) but little prospect of an inheritance sufficient for a life of leisure.

Perceval's earliest years were spent with his family in their manor house in Charlton, Kent, but in 1774 he was sent to Harrow School and in 1780 entered Trinity College, Cambridge, taking an honorary MA in 1782. His education at both institutions was marked by two themes: academic success and a growing commitment to evangelical Anglicanism. At Harrow he won prizes and was remembered by one of his tutors for his avoidance of 'desultory reading' and for his 'intense perseverance' in pursuit of an accurate understanding of the set texts. At Cambridge, under the supervision of William Lort Mansel and Thomas Mathias, he won the college declamation prize for English and was noted for his studiousness.

The evangelicalism which was later to distinguish Perceval from the general run of professional politicians developed, it seems, as much from contact with others as from private contemplation. One of the closest and most enduring friendships he made at Harrow was with Dudley Ryder, the second earl of Harrowby, who became a noted evangelical; other contemporaries included two famous for that tendency, the Revd Thomas Gisborne and Thomas Bruce, the future seventh earl of Elgin. More significantly, he associated himself closely at Cambridge with a small but highly influential group of evangelicals, one of whom was the Revd Isaac Milner.

In the absence of any significant private means on leaving Cambridge, Perceval needed a profession and an income. He therefore entered Lincoln's Inn in 1783, was called to the bar three years later, and having practised with success on the midland circuit, began to accumulate posts through his connections. The first was the deputy recordership of Northampton, secured in 1790 through the influence of his mother's family, the Comptons of Castle Ashby. Others, in the form of a commissionership of bankrupts and the sinecure post of surveyor of the meltings and the clerk of the irons, followed by 1791 as a result of the influence of his elder brother, Lord Arden, who had become a lord of the Admiralty in Pitt's administration.

It was at this critical juncture that Perceval turned his attention to politics. In 1791 and 1792 he published two anonymous pamphlets, the first in favour of continuing the impeachment of Warren Hastings and the second offering advice for those who wished to resist radicalism. This readiness to contribute to public debate on the side of those who were alarmed by the impact of the French Revolution on British politics certainly did no harm to his prospects at the bar. He was appointed junior counsel for the crown at the trials of the two most influential radicals, Thomas Paine and John Horne Tooke, in 1792 and 1794, and in the latter year was made counsel to the Board of Admiralty through Lord Arden's influence. Two years later he was made a KC and became a bencher at Lincoln's Inn; at this time his private practice was worth about #1000 p.a.

By now Perceval's private life and convictions had characteristics that were to change little during the remainder of his career. Small of stature--Lord Eldon referred to him as 'Little P'--he magnified his naturally pale complexion by dressing usually in black, thereby exuding an air of zealousness. The impression created was not an illusion. Perceval's earlier contact with evangelicalism had led to a commitment to living the life of a Christian gentleman--to being in the words of one commentator, 'Christianity personified'. Throughout his life, for example, he was the most generous and charitable of men, giving away large sums of money to good causes. In addition, he was a stern sabbatarian, a pungent critic of gaming, drunkenness, hunting, and adultery, as well as a consistent supporter of the abolition of slavery. However, his evangelicalism was of the conservative brand. Unlike some evangelicals, he rejected the view that any gathering of believers constituted a church, and was a firm upholder of the Church of England. From this conviction flowed many of the public policies with which he was associated: reform of the established church in the shape of measures to reduce non-residence, to improve clerical stipends, and to build churches in industrial towns; and, most famously, his opposition to Catholic emancipation. This was based partly on the practical grounds that while failing to appease Catholic Ireland it would weaken the established church; and partly on a combination of millenarianism and bigotry. Thus in a pamphlet on biblical prophecy published in 1800 he wrote of the French Revolution as a divine instrument destined to destroy 'popish superstitions'.

Perceval's religiosity was matched by his commitment to family life. Never gregarious by nature, he was married on 10 August 1790 to Jane Wilson, the sister of his elder brother's wife and the daughter of Sir Thomas Wilson, a former soldier and MP who had bought the Percevals' manor house in Charlton. The marriage, of which Sir Thomas had disapproved in view of what he regarded as Perceval's poor financial prospects, proved an enduring love match and produced six sons and six daughters. Moreover his wife shared his devotion to religion and joined him wholeheartedly in daily prayers as, in due course, did the rest of his family.

Perceval's Political Life
It was characteristic of Perceval that his entry into politics was more the initiative of others than his own. Shortly before Perceval took silk in 1796, Pitt and the home secretary, the duke of Portland, considered him for the vacant chief secretaryship in Ireland and he was pressed to accept by both the lord lieutenant, Lord Camden, and the first lord of the Admiralty, Lord Spencer--the latter offering the inducement of a sinecure. Perceval declined the opportunity, pleading the disruption the appointment would cause to his family and his aversion (and presumably that of others) to sinecures. Moreover his return to parliament for Northampton at a by-election in May 1796 was in response to an invitation from his cousin, Lord Compton, who had succeeded to an earldom and wanted a locum tenens until his heir came of age. Elected without a contest then, Perceval stood again as a Compton candidate at the general election later in the year, retaining his seat in a contest in which he declined an alliance with a potential supporter of Pitt's administration in deference to the needs of the family interest.

However, it was also to be characteristic of Perceval that, once he had been drawn into a new field of endeavour, he devoted himself to it seriously if cautiously. In order to make a mark in the 1790s a great speech was required. Perceval was certainly aware of this and prepared drafts of speeches with great care but none that he delivered attracted notice until 4 January 1798 when he responded to Fox's and Burdett's criticisms of the war effort during a debate on the Assessed Taxes Bill. In his speech he justified the continuation of the war and castigated Fox for both his secession from parliament and his demand for reform at a time of national crisis. It was in effect, if not in fact, his maiden speech and received widespread praise. Granville Leveson-Gower thought it 'incomparable' and Pitt judged it 'one of the best I ever heard'.

The speech established Perceval's reputation as a parliamentarian and as a possible future minister. Pitt evidently considered him an eligible heir and steps up the administration's legal ladder followed quickly. In August 1798 he was appointed solicitor to the ordnance and later, in 1799, solicitor-general to the queen. For his part, Perceval spoke more frequently in debate and often acted as a government teller. Besides continuing to argue the case for the war, in which he once identified Bonaparte as the woman in Revelation 17: 3-6, 'who [sits] upon a ... beast ... the mother of harlots ... drunken with the blood of the saints', he endorsed the strategies of the controversial Dutch and Egyptian campaigns, defended the income tax, and supported the union with Ireland. In short, and with the exception of the resort to biblical prophecy, he was a thorough Pittite.

In the period between Pitt's resignation in February 1801 and Lord Grenville's six years later--a period characterized by unstable administrations and a proliferation of parliamentary factions--Perceval became one of the four leading contenders for the leadership of Pitt's friends, the others being Castlereagh, Canning, and Hawkesbury (later the second earl of Liverpool). He acquired rather than pursued that position. Declining to resign with Pitt over the Catholic question, he was appointed solicitor-general (1801) and attorney-general (1802) under Addington, retaining that position in Pitt's last administration, though only after stipulating political terms. He therefore became the Pittites' leading law officer in the Commons at a time when the cases in which he was involved against the radicals Despard, Peltier, and Cobbett (1803-4) and the minister Lord Melville (1805), and in favour of the princess of Wales, whom he defended (1806-7), were high-profile political issues. However, the principal reason for his elevation was his ability as a debater. He was the most powerful defender of the Addington ministry following the renewal of the war in 1803 and the most effective critic of Lord Grenville's, speaking then on more than seventy occasions and providing rallying points for an emerging Pittite opposition.

On the other hand, Perceval was more than a skilled advocate of a party brief. He developed his own idiosyncratic set of views, components of which appealed to various wings of Pitt's party: opposition to Catholic emancipation and parliamentary reform; support for the abolition of the slave trade and the regulation of child labour; and a determination to continue with the war. Moreover, although he acquired no personal following, he demonstrated a capacity for independent judgement and for leadership. During Grenville's ministry, for example, he often led for the opposition and rejected attempts to recruit him into government on the grounds of policy differences and loyalty to his colleagues.

There was therefore no doubt that Perceval could command high office in the Pittite ministry formed in March 1807 by the infirm stop-gap prime minister, the duke of Portland, following the collapse of Grenville's government on the Catholic question. Indeed his claims were particularly strong as he was the only member of the quartet of future Pittite leaders whose degree of opposition to Catholic emancipation coincided with that of the king. Portland consequently offered Perceval the chancellorship of the exchequer with the 'lead' in the Commons, the latter, perhaps, because of the equal pretensions of the emerging rivals for the succession to Pitt, Castlereagh and Canning. However, much to the consternation of his colleagues and friends, Perceval initially declined the exchequer, pleading as his reasons his preference for the attorney-generalship (and the continuation of his private practice), the inadequacy of the income of #3700 p.a., and his distaste for the 'financial and other labours' which the post would involve. It was only after several days of discussions that he was persuaded to change his mind, the pill being sweetened by the additional post of the duchy of Lancaster which raised the annual salary to #4000. Once again he had been drawn into a position rather than having marked it out for himself.

The Portland government of which Perceval thus became a part was confronted by two outstanding problems: Bonaparte's European hegemony and, in numbers at least, one of the strongest parliamentary oppositions since the early 1780s. Perceval's chief responsibility at the exchequer was to find the economic means to confront the threat from abroad. This he did by framing the orders in council which put under blockade all harbours from which British ships were excluded by Bonaparte's Berlin decrees of 1806; and by budgets in 1808 and 1809 which, while imposing no new taxes, made economies in expenditure and raised loans for the war effort at very favourable rates. None of these policies was novel: the orders drew heavily for argument on James Stephen's 1805 pamphlet on the subject; and Perceval's budgets were in line with the orthodox view of the time that the economy could not bear additional taxation.

The task of confronting the opposition as leader of the Commons proved much more demanding and contentious. Although by no means united in purpose, elements of the opposition harried the ministry on the issues of Catholic emancipation, the conduct of the war (including the related issue of the alleged peculation of the commander-in-chief, the duke of York), and, most persistently as a result of the inquiries and reports of a Commons finance committee, the allegedly excessive patronage available to ministers through places, pensions, sinecures, reversions, and the purchase of seats in parliament.

After a hesitant start Perceval responded with a successful resistance. His most uncompromising stand was taken on the Catholic question. In his address to the Northampton electors at the by-election following his appointment to office in March 1807 he nailed his colours firmly to the theme of 'No Popery'--a theme that became a popular anthem at the subsequent general election. Later he opposed the increase of the annual grant to Maynooth College and led the successful opposition to the Catholic petition of 1808. On other matters, however, he was prepared to compromise. In the case of the defence of the duke of York, for example, he performed brilliantly in the house as the duke's counsel but was realistic enough to recognize that the majority that he secured for a plea of innocence would evaporate unless the duke resigned. This was advice that the king and the duke accepted.

Perceval was equally realistic about ministerial patronage and power. The most radical proponents of reform sought full disclosure of all places and pensions held by MPs, the abolition of reversionary posts, and the outlawing of the purchase of parliamentary seats; these were hors-d'oeuvres to the main radical dish of 'parliamentary reform', shorthand for an extension of the franchise and a redistribution of seats. Perceval himself had no time for pensions and reversions but he recognized that the existing form of government could be sustained only by some measure of ministerial patronage and was conscious that his own brother, Arden, was one of the best-endowed sinecurists. He consequently sought to moderate rather than resist radical demands. With regard to the disclosure of places and pensions he successfully persuaded its sponsor to require the names of all holders rather than just those of MPs. This had the effect of delaying disclosure until 1810. In the case of a bill to bring to an end the appointment to reversionary posts--an issue which most closely touched Arden's interests--he manoeuvred its blockade in the Lords in 1807 and eventually came to an arrangement with its sponsor that limited its operation to one year. As for the sale of parliamentary seats, he successfully weakened Curwen's bill of 1809 which was designed to bring the practice to an end. There, however, his flexibility ceased for on the issue of parliamentary reform he expressed, once again, implacable opposition.

Prime Minister
In the second week of August 1809 the duke of Portland suffered a stroke. With encouragement from the king, his colleagues immediately set about deciding on a successor. The portents for calm and rational deliberation could hardly have been more unpropitious. Earlier in the year Canning, the foreign secretary, had threatened to resign over what he regarded as an incompetence of Castlereagh, the secretary at war. As a result the king had concocted a plan to transfer responsibility for the war from Castlereagh to Canning. However, the plan depended on Castlereagh's being kept in the dark until the end of the parliamentary session, by which time the military expedition to Walcheren, which he had planned and on which war hopes were pinned, would have taken place. As details of the plan became known to a widening circle of cabinet members but not to the hapless Castlereagh, intrigue and recriminations flourished.

Perceval responded to these developments honourably and realistically. He deprecated the deception of Castlereagh and threatened to resign if it was carried through. As for the premiership, for which he was obviously a leading candidate, he wrote of it as an exceedingly unattractive proposition given the existence 'of so many ... of equal or nearly equal importance' within the cabinet . Eschewing any eagerness for it for himself he recommended his friend Lord Harrowby to Canning at the end of August.

The choice of a successor took a further month of elaborate negotiation. Canning responded to the suggestion of Harrowby with the view that Portland's successor should be in the Commons and also indicated that he himself would not serve under Perceval. Perceval, for his part, considered whether his own dignity would enable him to serve under Canning but decided against once Liverpool and others had said that they would not do so. Canning subsequently withdrew from the contest and, fearing that he and his followers would vote against them, Perceval and his colleagues opened a negotiation for a coalition government with the opposition leaders, lords Grenville and Grey, Perceval expressing a willingness to serve under either as home secretary. This too came to nothing, with the result that on 30 September the cabinet recommended Perceval to the king as Portland's successor. The king did not 'pause' in accepting their recommendation and Perceval responded on 2 October that although he would not be found 'wanting in exertion, in industry, in zeal & in duty ... in talent & power, he feels his great defects for such a station in such arduous times'. As these words and his previous conduct suggest, it was not an advancement he had engineered or sought.

Perceval nevertheless proved to be a remarkably resilient prime minister. His primary responsibility was to construct and maintain a strong administration at what was a critical juncture in the war. The falling-out of Pitt's friends and the numerical strength of the opposition groups made this an unusually difficult task. As a result of their differences over the succession to Portland, Canning declined to play a part and took with him three of his own followers. In addition, Perceval was unable to come to terms with three other Pittite alumni, lords Hardwicke, Sidmouth, and Melville, the last two of whom commanded significant parliamentary groupings of their own. A further set-back occurred when he was obliged to continue as chancellor of the exchequer, this time unsalaried, as a result of a succession of refusals to fill the post. His nine-man cabinet, which had only two members in the Commons, was therefore unable to command the firm allegiance of all the significant figures in his own party.

Furthermore the political problems Perceval confronted in his first year in office were exceptionally severe. In the 1810 parliamentary session the government was pressed hard, principally on what turned out to be a disastrous Walcheren expedition, but also on the composition of the finance committee: in fact it was defeated in six major divisions of the Commons, in some cases as a result of the opposition of Canning, Castlereagh, and even the small band of MPs who shared Perceval's evangelicalism--the 'Saints'. Moreover a potentially fatal blow was delivered in October when the king, the Perceval government's main prop among the neutrals in parliament, lost his sanity.

Perceval confronted these problems stoutly and with little disposition to trim--he was, as Whitbread put it on one occasion, 'as bold as brass'. He made some concessions on measures, most particularly on the inquiry into Walcheren, but otherwise steered his own course. Recognizing his weaknesses in parliament, for example, he made several attempts between the spring and summer of 1810 to recruit Sidmouth, Canning, and Castlereagh but declined opportunities to take them in individually, preferring as complete a reunion of Pitt's friends as possible. Moreover in response to the king's illness he did not hesitate to introduce Pitt's Regency Bill of 1788, albeit for a year only, which, by placing restrictions on the regent's powers, was bound to give the prince of Wales and his supposed friends, the whigs, a major opportunity to topple the government. That he survived these vicissitudes owed more to luck than to judgement. On the critical issue of the Walcheren inquiry, the government survived as a result of the resignation of the expedition's commander, Lord Chatham, and the fact that waverers and independents in the Commons preferred the government to the opposition. As for the Regency Bill, the opposition played its hand poorly with the result that the bill passed with paper-thin majorities in full houses. Moreover the run of good fortune continued when, despite rumours to the contrary, the prince abandoned the whigs in February 1811 and retained Perceval in office, largely from fear of what the king would do should he recover his sanity and find Lord Grenville or Lord Grey his prime minister.

The satisfactory outcome of the Regency Bill proved to be the turning point for the government. During the year of its operation, despite successfully resisting some of the prince's more extravagant claims upon the taxpayer, Perceval gradually earned his favour. When the restrictions came to an end in February 1812, the prince tried to persuade the whig leaders to join the government but was unsuccessful: thereafter the prince's political support, now as important as that of the king had once been, flowed in the government's direction. Perceval, for his part, adroitly manoeuvred the one loose cannon in his cabinet, the foreign secretary, Lord Wellesley, into resigning in February 1812 and introduced into it lords Castlereagh and Sidmouth. In the summer of 1811 Lord Liverpool had written of Perceval's having 'acquired an authority' in the House of Commons, 'beyond any minister in my recollection, except Mr Pitt' By the spring of 1812 the ministry as a whole looked impregnable.

Perceval's policies also contributed to the improvement in the government's fortunes. His principal objective was to fund the offensive against Bonaparte that the Peninsular campaign had put into motion. To achieve this in his capacity as his own chancellor he pursued much the same policies as he had done when Portland's. He therefore continued with economies and rationalization in government departments. With regard to budgetary policy he did prepare a daring plan to 'raid' the hallowed sinking fund for supplies but, fearing the outcry, dropped it and adopted the traditional policy of raising money by loans as opposed to new taxes--the loans being based on rigorously scrutinized terms and funded in part by annual exchequer bills, thereby limiting long-term debt. Finally, he produced successful plans of his own to purchase at the best prices the specie necessary for the troops at the front. These were practical policies within an orthodox financial framework: they eschewed newfangled theories of debt redemption and set to one side the fears resulting from the depreciation of paper currency. In fact Perceval was so wedded to his particular recipe for an offensive war that he introduced a bill to make paper currency legal tender--thereby flying in the face of the growing army of bullionists; and only conceded with extreme reluctance the case for an inquiry into the orders in council on the grounds of its damaging impact on the economy. On the other hand, from the evidence of the Peninsular campaign Perceval could claim with justice that the war effort had prospered under his stewardship.

Perceval also ploughed a well-established furrow with regard to domestic issues. His principal objective remained resistance to any change in the balance of the constitution whether pressed by British radicals or Irish Catholics. The first test for this resolve came early in 1810 when London-based radicals, including Sir Francis Burdett, the MP for Westminster, construed a standing order that enabled the Commons to clear the gallery of strangers as an attack on the liberty of the press and called for a public debate on the issue. Despite the fact that Burdett had acquired a heroic stature among popular radicals in London, Perceval decided on the sternest possible response--Burdett's commitment to the Tower for accusing the house of the arbitrary use of its privileges--and engineered successful motions to this end by two back-bench MPs. This led in early April to one of the most dangerous confrontations ever seen in Hanoverian London between radical and government forces, which nevertheless resulted in Perceval's standing firm and achieving Burdett's imprisonment. He thereby underlined his staunch support for the status quo and seemed to be vindicated in his judgement on the preponderance of conservative over radical forces when Burdett's release in June passed off without incident.

A similar line of resistance can be detected in his dealings with the Catholic question. The new factors here were the whigs' idea of a royal veto on episcopal appointments to make emancipation more palatable to traditionalists, and the supposed sympathy of the prince of Wales for Catholic claims--a sympathy which encouraged the Catholic leaders in Dublin to summon a convention to apply pressure when the regency came into effect. Perceval stood firm. In response to the idea of a royal veto he wrote an anonymous pamphlet, Six Letters on the Subject of Dr. Milner's Explanation (1809), which reaffirmed his opposition to emancipation. As for the proposed convention, he was anxious to prevent the ardently anti-Catholic lord lieutenant from acting too firmly against it but was saved any embarrassment when the prince himself effectively scuppered its prospects of success by discovering his obligations to the established church. As in the case of winning the parliamentary battle, Perceval's fortunes as prime minister were strongly affected by the whims of the prince of Wales.

On 11 May 1812 and at the height of his power Perceval was shot dead in the lobby of the House of Commons by John Bellingham, a merchant. The assassin had been falsely imprisoned for debt in Russia from 1804 to 1809 and believed that the British embassy had not done anything to help him. When he returned to Britain he sought compensation from the British government which was turned down and his business went bankrupt as a result. He therefore felt betrayed and let down by the British government and decided to take it out on the prime minister himself. John Bellingham made no attempt to escape after having shot Spencer Perceval and was arrested. A crowd gathered and made attempts to free him. There was widespread popular discontent at the continuing hardships protracted by the long, drawn out Napoleonic Wars. The Life Guards had to be called in to save him from being freed from the mob.

A shocked Commons met the following day and voted Jane Perceval 2000 pounds p.a. with remainder to her eldest son, a grant of 50,000 pounds to his family, and agreed to building a monument to her husband in Westminster Abbey. On 16 May Perceval was given a private funeral at his wife's request and was buried in Lord Egmont's family vault at St Luke's, Charlton, near to his birthplace. In the meantime Bellingham was tried and condemned to death, his plea of insanity being rejected. On 18 May he was hanged.

Perceval was Prime Minister at at time of unique peril for Britain. Had he survived it is not clear if Britain's prosecution of the War could have been any more successful than it was to become. He was Prime Minister too briefly to stamp any authority or direction and yet he pursued his policies diligently and with a sense of profound duty. Perhaps the most appropriate final judgement is that of his great adversary on the Catholic question, Henry Grattan:

'He is not a ship of the line, but he carries many guns, is tight-built, and is out in all weathers'.

Adapted from an article by P. J. Jupp

Spencer Perceval portrait
1809 - 12
The Assassination of Spencer Perceval
A BBC Witness Account of the killing of Spencer Perceval.
Further Reading
Spencer Perceval: The Evangelical Prime Minister, 1762-1812
by Denis Gray

The Assassination of the Prime Minister: John Bellingham and the Murder of Spencer Perceval
by David Hanrahan

Why Spencer Perceval Had to Die: The Assassination of a British Prime Minister
by Andro Linklater

The Life of the Rt. Hon. Spencer Perceval, Including His Correspondence with Numerous Distinguished Persons: Volume 1
by Spencer Walpole

The Life of the Rt. Hon. Spencer Perceval, Including His Correspondence with Numerous Distinguished Persons: Volume 2
by Spencer Walpole

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