Minister admits family ‘shame’ over Perceval assassination
The Foreign Office minister Henry Bellingham was among a small group of people this lunchtime which laid flowers on the spot in the House of Commons where the then Prime Minister Spencer Perceval was murdered 200 years ago today.
Bellingham is an indirect descendant of John Bellingham, the Liverpool businessman who shot Perceval in the heart with a pistol. The attack took place in what was then the lobby of the House of Commons. Perceval is the only British Prime Minister ever to be assassinated.
Henry Bellingham admitted to me that the murder had brought shame upon on his family.
Today’s small commemoration was attended by Lord Laird, who takes a close interest in the Perceval story, and the Labour peer Lord (Alan) Howarth, a former secretary of the Parliamentary Labour Party.
The assassination has always been very poorly acknowledged in the Palace of Westminster.
The murder spot is at the entrance to St. Stephen’s Hall, part what used to be the old St.Stephen’s Chapel, which used to serve as the Commons chamber.
Nowadays it’s a busy thoroughfare from St. Stephen’s Entrance to Central Lobby, and the precise location is marked merely by a strange rearrangement of the floor tiles, “as if done by a drunken tiler”, as Lord Laird put it today.
There is not even a plaque, even though Perceval, a Tory, had served as Prime Minister for three years.
Perceval died a few minutes after the shooting, having staggered a few yards to an area which is now the Commons lost property office.
Bellingham, who had a grudge against the Perceval government, and was probably mentally ill, was tried and executed within a week.
Henry Bellingham and Lord Laird are now campaigning for two plaques to mark the event – one on the floor, and another on a nearby wall.
They may have a bit of a struggle, for the authorities at the Palace of Westminster refused requests to hold any kind of official commemoration event, and today’s ceremony was very much an unofficial gathering.
Another meeting was held at the Commons last night, where Henry Bellingham met a descendant of the Perceval family.
The Bellinghams and Percevals are now “reconciled” he says, and the minister hopes that these events will end what he says has been long-running “feud” between the two families over the last 200 years.
A third event is planned tomorrow at St.Luke’s church in Charlton, south east London, where Perceval’s coffin rests in the crypt, and there is also a memorial to him and a bust.
The Guardian today quotes a retired sacristan from St. Luke’s, Vic Stringer, who during the 1980s descended into the crypt and found that the lid of Perceval’s coffin had come ajar because of ground movement.
Stringer says he opened the lid fully, and found Perceval’s body was almost perfectly preserved.
I’ve seen the sculpture of him almost every day of my life,” says Stringer, “and I would have recognised him immediately: his body was absolutely perfect. He was buried in a black suit, and that was showing the marks of time, but his face looked as if he’d been down there a week, not 200 years. He looked very peaceful.”
I wrote earlier about the small ceremony at Westminster today to mark the 200th anniversary of the assassination of Spencer Perceval in 1812. The Foreign Office minister Henry Bellingham, a distant relative of the assassin John Bellingham, said he hoped today’s event – and another gathering at the Commons last night – will put an end to “feud” between the two families over the last 200 years.
I’d forgotten all about the events of 1997, when Henry Bellingham lost his seat in north west Norfolk and Labour got a majority of 1,339. In that election the anti-EU Referendum Party, a forerunner of UKIP, got 2,923 votes, and their candidate was Roger Percival, who despite the slightly different spelling, was a descendant of the nineteenth century Prime Minister.
The Referendum Party vote in 1997 was probably enough to deprive Bellingham of his seat. So the Spencers got their revenge.
Mind you, Henry Bellingham got his seat back at the 2001 election