Does the name Spencer Perceval ring a bell? Perhaps you remember it from Horrible Histories or an episode of Eggheads. Perceval was shot dead in the House of Commons lobby, the only British Prime Minister to have been assassinated. This incident often overshadows the dramatic events of Spencer Percival’s life and career. Re-addressing this balance, today’s blog will explore who Spencer Perceval was, and his achievements as an MP, Government Minister, and Prime Minister.
This blog was written by Miriam Gibson, Archives Assistant (Graduate Trainee).
Born to the Earl of Egmont and Baroness Arden in 1762, Percival worked as a barrister before turning to politics. Representing the Tory party, he was elected MP for Northampton in 1796. It was a year of international political upheaval, due to the continuing repercussions of the American and French revolutions. The British military were locked in multiple conflicts, fighting against Spain in the Anglo-Spanish War, attempting a disastrous campaign to claim Haiti and the Dominican Republic (then a French colony known as Saint-Domingue), and dealing with developing unrest in Ireland. Riots broke out in England due to food shortages, and King George III had begun showing signs of mental illness. A tumultuous time for a young man to enter politics.
Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger resigned in 1801, after military losses and his failure to persuade the King on Catholic emancipation. Perceval declined to follow Pitt in resigning and, under the new Prime Minister Henry Addington, became Solicitor-General in 1801, then Attorney-General in 1802. Perceval’s rapid rise was in part due to his expertise as a debater. Many debates recorded in Hansard demonstrate Perceval’s skill in this area, such as his speech against the 1806 American Intercourse Bill. In his detailed speech, Perceval repeatedly returned to the interests of the “great, intelligent, and wealthy merchants”- the members of the British public who will be practically affected by the Bill. Perceval provided specific evidence to support his claim that the Bill was “perfectly impolitic and unjustifiable”. Perceval’s persuasion was successful, and the Bill did not pass. A long-time critic of the transatlantic slave trade, Perceval “warmly contended for the necessity of immediate abolition,” in an 1807 debate, shortly before the Slave Trade Act was given royal assent. After the passing of the Act, Perceval joined the African Institution. This committee aimed to address the “enormous wrongs” of the transatlantic slave trade, ensure that the Act was adhered to in the colonies, and “remove the barrier which has so long obstructed the natural course of social improvement in Africa”.
You can read the entire debate on the Hansard Website, American Intercourse Bill: Hansard Website link
From Chancellor to Prime Minister
In 1807, Perceval switched from the politics of law to the politics of finance, becoming Chancellor of the Exchequer. An Evangelical Anglican, Perceval’s faith informed his financial policies. This is evidenced in a letter held by the Parliamentary Archives, written to Perceval from House of Commons Speaker, Charles Abbot. Abbot was writing to Perceval about Perceval’s Curates Bill, which would have given more rights and payments to lower-level members of the clergy. In the letter, Abbot told Perceval that he has promoted Perceval’s Curates Bill amongst his friends “who have most weight in their spheres of influence”. He also expressed support for “charities applicable to the education of the poor”. Perceval was able to get the Bill through the Commons, but it was rejected by the Lords, and did not become law until after Perceval’s death.
When Perceval took the position of Prime Minister in 1809, it was not a moment of jubilant victory. His predecessor, the Duke of Portland, had suffered a stroke, and in-party rivalries caused pandemonium within the Tory party. The Foreign Secretary’s rivalry with the Secretary of State for War became so intense that the two men arranged a duel. Neither was seriously injured, though both subsequently resigned from office. Perceval accepted the position as Prime Minister partly because many other Tory candidates had resigned or were refusing to co-operate with each other. When Perceval attempted to find a suitable politician to replace himself as Chancellor of the Exchequer, five colleagues he offered the role to rejected the invitation. Perceval was left with no choice but to continue as Chancellor, in addition to his new role as Prime Minister.
Royalty and Regency
Westminster was not the only London palace experiencing instability. In St James’ Palace, King George III was becoming increasingly unfit to rule. The King had experienced periods of mental illness since the 1780s, and by the time Perceval became Prime Minister these episodes were growing longer and more severe. Under Pitt, Parliament had attempted to pass the 1789 Regency Bill. This would have given the Lord Chancellor the power to pass a bill on the King’s behalf, to allow his son, the Prince of Wales, to take over as Prince Regent. The Regency Bill passed in the Commons, but the King recovered from his illness before the House of Lords could vote on it. Unsurprisingly, the King was reluctant for the law to be discussed further. The Regency Bill was set aside, but the King’s bouts of mental instability caused consternation for the next twenty years.
In October 1810, though experiencing another episode of illness, the King attended a reception in Windsor to mark the beginning of his Golden Jubilee year. It was his last public appearance. A week after the reception, the King’s youngest daughter died. The loss exacerbated the King’s illness, and by the New Year it was evident that he could not continue to rule. Barely a year into his premiership, Perceval was tasked with overseeing the transition of power from the King to the Prince of Wales. It was no easy feat- the last time a British monarch had their power removed was 120 years earlier, during the Glorious Revolution. The King at the time of the Glorious Revolution, James II, had been unpopular, and his deposition was a relief for the public and for Parliament. King George III was beloved by the British after his half-century rule, and public perception of the Prince of Wales was that he was unreliable, vulgar, and careless with money.
Perceval re-introduced the 1788 bill to Parliament as the Care of King During his Illness Bill. This Bill, which would officially make the Prince of Wales the King’s Regent, passed narrowly in both the Lords and Commons. In February 1811, the Lord Chancellor acted on the King’s behalf to grant the Bill Royal Assent. The King retired to Windsor Castle, and the Prince of Wales would now act as his representative in public and in Parliament. It was the start of the regency era, a decade famous for the over-the-top fashions, Jane Austen novels, and the setting of the Bridgerton TV series.
Perceval’s foreign policy was dominated by Britain’s involvement in the Napoleonic Wars. In July 1809, Britain attempted to attack the French army through the Netherlands, landing on the island of Walcheren. By the time Perceval became Prime Minister that Autumn, the British army was experiencing an outbreak of Walcheren fever. This form of malaria proved catastrophic for the campaign, leaving 4,000 British soldiers dead. The fiasco made it impossible for the army to reclaim Antwerp and cost Perceval’s government over £7 million. Perceval, still Chancellor of the Exchequer, funded the war by introducing loans and rationalising government departments.
The Napoleonic Wars were fought on many fronts, and the Walcheren Campaign coincided with the Peninsular War in Portugal and Spain. Britain’s army supported Portugal against the threat of French invasion, and their efforts were more successful than in the Walcheren Campaign. Commanded by the Duke of Wellington, Britain was successful in winning the Battles of Talavera and Bussaco, and the Second Battle of Porto. By the end of 1811, Britain had successfully repelled the French attack on Lisbon.
A Forgotten Legacy
With the Prince of Wales in place as Regent and the British army successfully reclaiming Portuguese cities from France, 1812 seemed to be a turning point for Perceval’s term as Prime Minister. His assassination on 11th May put an abrupt end to the progress of his national and international policies. In the centuries since, the singularity of Perceval’s death has left him remembered only as a piece of trivia, or the answer to a quiz question. He was, however, a skilled debater and diligent politician. He rose rapidly to power during party instability, introduced shrewd wartime financial policies, and ensured a smooth transition of power from the King to the Prince Regent. So no matter ow many pub quizzes or episodes of Mastermind have been won through knowing about how Spencer Perceval died, it is nothing compared to his dramatic, fascinating, and unique life.
Treherne, Philip. The Right Honourable Spencer Perceval. London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1909.