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Spencer Perceval (1762-1812)

Spencer Perceval was born on 1 November 1762, the second son and fifth of nine children born to John Perceval (second Earl of Egmont) and his second wife Catherine Compton. From John Perceval's first marriage, Spencer Perceval had seven half-brothers and sisters. The family was Irish in ancestry. Spencer Perceval's most lasting claim to fame is that he is the only British PM, so far, to have been assassinated.

Spencer Perceval was educated at Harrow and Trinity College Cambridge, being awarded his College's Declamation Prize for English. He was awarded an MA in 1782 and was called to the Bar in 1786, practising on the Midland Circuit. He became Deputy Recorder of Northampton in 1790, the year in which he married Jane Spencer-Wilson in 1790: the couple had six sons and six daughters. Between 1794 and 1803, Perceval was a member of the London and Westminster Light Horse Volunteers.

In 1796, Perceval became MP for Northampton, a seat which he held until his death in 1812. During his time as an MP, he held a number of government posts including that of Solicitor General (Jan 1801-April 1802), Attorney General (April 1802-February 1806) and Chancellor of the Exchequer (March 1807-May 1812).

Perceval was always a supporter of the government and this brought sinecures which kept him solvent until his legal career took off. He was the chief legal adviser to the Princess of Wales in the hearing of misconduct held in 1806; although she was found guilty of 'grossly indelicate conduct', Perceval was instrumental in arranging her reconciliation with George III. Always anti-Catholic, Spencer Perceval opposed Grenville's government's attempt to introduce concessions to Catholics in Ireland in 1807, thus contributing significantly to the fall of the ministry. Perceval also had an implacable loathing of slavery and used Royal Navy ships to pursue slave ships.

Appointed Chancellor of the Exchequer in Portland's second ministry, Perceval wanted other posts which would give him financial security. He became Leader of the House of Commons and was also appointed to the Chancellorship of the Duchy of Lancaster. Perceval wrote the King's speech for the State opening of parliament in 1807; he was at the forefront of the debates calling for the removal of the Duke of York as Commander-in-Chief of the army. In 1809, he was appointed as Prime Minister: George III described him as 'the most straightforward man I have even known'. Even so, Perceval had great difficulty in filling Cabinet posts: consequently he was also Chancellor of the Exchequer since he could find no-one to fill the position.

On 11 May 1812, while on his way to take part in a debate on the Orders in Council passed by Portland's ministry, Perceval was shot in the lobby of the House of Commons by John Bellingham. Perceval died later in a room in the Houses of Parliament.

Perceval was buried in the family vault in St. Luke's, Charlton, on 16 May 1812.

The assassination of Spencer Perceval

Bellingham, who had been trying unsuccessfully to obtain government compensation for debts incurred while he was in Russia, gave himself up immediately. He was tried at the Old Bailey and was found guilty. The judge gave the punishment: \ "That you be taken from hence…to a place of execution, where you shall be hanged by the neck until you be dead; your body to be dissected and anatomised.". Bellingham was executed on 18 May 1812 and his body was dissected in entirety at The Royal College of Surgeons by Sir William Clift. Bellingham's skull remains there to the present.

Prior to the Anatomy Act of 1832, there were two ways in which Medical Schools acquired cadavers for teaching: they were prisoners sentenced to death and then dissection, or they were purchased from Ressurection Men. After the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act, the bodies of paupers could also be sent for dissection.

In November 2018, a facial reconstruction of Bellingham was completed at Queen Mary University, London. The forensic imaging expert behind the new portrait was Hew Morrison. The reconstruction was part funded by the Centre for Public Engagement.




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Last modified 28 November, 2018

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