Nicholas (nwhyte) wrote,

March Books 6) The Assassination of the Prime Minister, by David Hanrahan

The second paragraph from Chapter 3:

Spencer Perceval was not the first member of his family to die a violent death. On 5 June 1677 an ancestor of Perceval's fell victim to a murderer's knife. This young man, Robert Perceval, who was about 20 years of age, was in London studying law unde his uncle, Sir Robert Southwell. Ironically, he had told his uncle some days earlier about a bloody premonition of his death that he had experienced in his sleep. Robert was, it seems, not averse to conflict, as he had already been involved in, and survived, nineteen duels. On the night of his murder Robert noticed that he was being followed from place to place as he went around town on his night's entertainment. At each establishment he visited, he saw the same man waiting in the porch for him to emerge. He decided to approach the stranger and ask him what he wanted, only to be told by the man that he was attending to his own business. When Robert informed his friends bout this, they wanted to send a footman to accompany him, but he declined the offer [and was found stabbed to death in the Strand later than night; the murder was never solved].
This short book caught my eye at the Boekenfestijn down the road from us the other day, retailing at a mere €2.99, which is about right; it's a workmanlike retelling of all the contemporary historical details of how John Bellingham, blaming the government for failing to come to his aid when a business dispute landed him in a Russian prison for several years, decided that he would kill the British Prime Minister to make his point; and duly did so. He was arrested at the scene, and tried, convicted and executed only a few days later.

There's not a lot to write about an incident which lasted only a few seconds, even if it ended two men's lives. Hanrahan does his best and gives us all that is known about both assassin and victim. Perceval was a rather rigid anti-Catholic politician, who had however shown some skill in navigating the implementation of the Regency, and had also backed Wellesley/Wellington to the hilt during the crucial phases of the Peninsular War. (My father, who was a historian, once remarked that had it not been for the manner of his untimely end, Spencer Perceval would probably be the most forgotten of British prime ministers; as it is he must compete with Viscount Goderich and Bonar Law.) Perceval, who was 49, left twelve children, six boys and six girls, most of whom survived to adulthood; Bellingham, who was 35, had three children who have disappeared from history.

A lot of this story has been told before, and Hanrahan misses some turns where a fresh eye might have turned up new material - what, for instance, do today's Russian historians make of Bellingham's travails in St Petersburg? What actually happened to Bellingham's wife and children? (Hanrahan has her reverting to her maiden name, but Wikipedia says she remarried.) There is a lovely new theory that Bellingham was unwittingly put up to the crime by two merchants who wanted to be able to resume trade wth the continent by getting the restrictive Orders in Council withdrawn (as indeed they were after Perceval's death). None of that here. Hanrahan also incorrectly abbreviates Sir Francis Burdett to "Sir Burdett" and Sr James Mansfield to "Sir Mansfield".

The most interesting intellectual discussion is of the attempt of Bellingham's defence lawyers to plead insanity and avert his execution. It is obvious in any case that Bellingham did not get a fair trial - his defence lawyers were appointed the night before, and did not get a proper chance to talk to him before the trial began; two defence witnesses arrived only after the trial was over; the judge, summing up for the jury, wept openly as he spoke of his own friendship with the victim - but even with the most impartial of proceedings, could Bellingham possibly have been saved from execution for a crime which he freely admitted (though pleading not guilty) and which was committed in front of dozens of witnesses? Bellingham clearly sincerely believed that as a result of his killing the Prime Minister, his grievances against the government would be redressed. He was wrong, of course; but does that make him deluded? And if deluded on that one point, but sane on all others (as he really appears to have been) is that sufficient to excuse him from criminal responsibility for murder?

I had always thought that a useful standard was that proposed by Robertson Davies' narrator, David Staunton, in his wonderful novel The Manticore (the middle chunk of the Deptford Trilogy): "If a policeman had been standing at your elbow, would you have acted as you did?" (But I can't find that anywhere else, so I guess Davies made it up.) Clearly Bellingham's answer (unlike Staunton's in the novel) would have been "yes"; even though there were no policemen as such in England at the time, there were a lot of people with equivalent roles right beside him when he fired the fatal shot. But I'm not at all sure that that is what the law says; and I'm really not sure what the law ought to say. The law on these questions was poorly developed in 1812, and I suspect that it is not a lot better now.

Tags: bookblog 2014

  • My tweets

    Fri, 12:56: RT @ mjsimpsonfilms: Today is the 100th anniversary of the birth of Christopher Lee. He could be very private and reserved but did…

  • My tweets

    Thu, 12:56: RT @ criticalthreats: The first 90 days of the war in #Ukraine mapped by @ criticalthreats and @ TheStudyofWar.…

  • My tweets

    Wed, 12:06: Daily Octordle #121 5️⃣4️⃣ 🕚6️⃣ 🔟7️⃣ 9️⃣8️⃣ Wed, 12:56: RT @ KatyaYushchenko: In Jan 1988, I attended…

  • Post a new comment


    default userpic

    Your reply will be screened

    Your IP address will be recorded 

    When you submit the form an invisible reCAPTCHA check will be performed.
    You must follow the Privacy Policy and Google Terms of use.