May 11, 2022

The Assassination of the British Prime Minister

The Assassination of the British Prime Minister

May 11, 1812. A disgruntled former merchant named John Bellingham shoots and kills Spencer Perceval, the only British Prime Minister assassinated in history.


Cold Open - John is arrested in Russia

It’s November 1804 in a rented apartment in Archangel, Russia.

British Merchant John Bellingham closes his steamer trunk and drags it across the room. After several months of living and working abroad, he, his wife, and his son are about to sail home to England. Excited, John puts his traveling papers in his coat pocket and helps his family gather their belongings. But about that time… he hears a pounding on the door. He assumes it’s someone he works with coming to say goodbye.

But when John opens the door, he finds a group of police officers standing in front of him. Before he can even say a word… the police push their way in. One officer grabs John and demands his traveling papers. John reaches into his pocket and takes out the documents. But the officer isn’t satisfied. He snaps his fingers. And the other two officers cross the room and seize John. His wife screams as they pull her husband outside.

In the street, wind and snow blast against John’s face. He demands to know what he’s done wrong as his captors march him to the police station. One officer explains that John owes thousands of roubles to a prominent Russian businessman and to the Mayor of Archangel. John argues that there’s been a mistake. But it’s no use. The officer tells John he won’t be able to leave the city until his debt is paid.

During his time in Russia, John Bellingham made powerful enemies. While working on a business deal with Archangel’s mayor and his business partner, John discovered the men were running a scam to defraud a British insurance company. So John sent a letter of warning back to England, and the scam got shut down, costing the two Russians a lot of money.

Now, they’re using their power and influence to exact revenge. For the next several years, John will be imprisoned and separated from his family. He will seek assistance from the British government, but little help will come.

When John finally does get back home, he’ll blame British politicians for his struggles in Russia. And as time marches on, his anger and resentment will build, eventually leading him to commit one of the most infamous crimes in history on May 11th, 1812.


From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.

History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world.

Today is May 11th: The Assassination of the British Prime Minister.

Act One: John is imprisoned in Russia

It’s March 3rd, 1805 at the Archangel port in Russia; about four months after John’s arrest.

John approaches the ramp of the passenger ship. He feels like the weight of the world has been lifted. After several months of living under constant surveillance and being forced to remain in the city, John is finally free. He’s about to set sail to join his family who’s waiting for him in St. Petersburg.

Following John’s arrest, his wife and son were sent to Russia’s capital city to wait until John’s legal issues were taken care of. Since then, John has lobbied the Russian and British governments to have his alleged debt wiped out and to have his travel papers restored. John is still responsible for paying the debt, but thanks to his tireless efforts, he’s been given permission to leave Archangel and stay with his family until the matter is resolved.

Relieved, John clutches his new travel papers in hand as he makes his way for the ship. But just before he boards, police officers swarm around John and again take him into custody. John is bewildered. But soon, he will learn that, once again, his powerful enemies have conspired to prevent him from leaving.

Days later, at a hearing, John makes his case in front of a judge. He claims the debt he supposedly owes is a complete fabrication, and he accuses Archangel police and local officials of conspiring with his enemies to rob him and ruin his life. But John’s assertions fall on deaf ears. Eventually, he’s locked away in a local guardhouse where he will remain for months. 

Desperate for help, John reaches out to his contacts in the British government. Over the course of 1805, he writes letters to the British Consul and the British Ambassador to Russia. They both reply, but neither gives John hope. The ambassador writes, “however desirous I may be of assisting you, it is not in my power…” With no help coming from home, John worries he’ll spend the rest of his life in a Russian cell.

But then, in October of 1805, things take a positive turn. Russian authorities in St. Petersburg revisit John’s case. Once again, he’s given permission to join his family. And this time, no one stops John from boarding the ship and setting sail. In November, John reunites with his wife and son in St. Petersburg. Soon after, they’re all given permission to return to England. But strangely, John doesn’t return with his family.

He is furious with the corrupt men who tried to shake him down, and the local officials who conspired to help them do it. So instead of sailing home with his family, John remains in Russia to seek revenge of his own. In St. Petersburg, John files charges against an Archangel official who oversaw his case. He hopes that the man will be punished and removed from power. But John’s efforts are futile, and they only serve to further anger his enemies.

In retaliation for filing the case, authorities in St. Petersburg arrest John again on drummed-up charges related to the debt he supposedly owes. Soon, John finds himself jailed in St. Petersburg with even less hope of getting out than before.

John tries sending more letters. He writes to the British ambassador again and members of parliament back in England. But none of them offer John a path to freedom. In 1807, after spending another year in jail, John decides that there’s only one way out: escape.

John is a model prisoner. And his good behavior has earned him special privileges. Every day, a lone guard takes John on an outdoor stroll through town. And on one of those daily walks, while the guard is distracted, John makes a run for it.

The guard gives chase, but John loses him in the crowded streets and makes his way to the British Embassy. There, John manages to get a meeting with the ambassador. John begs him for help. But the ambassador tells John he doesn’t have the power to prevent him from being rearrested. Still, he promises to do everything he can to press for John’s release.

Soon, John is returned to the Russian authorities and put back in jail where he’ll remain for another two years. But eventually, the British ambassador makes good on his word. In October of 1809, John is released on condition that he'll immediately “quit the Russian dominions.” So John sets sail for England. And in December, five years after his initial arrest in Archangel, John finally makes it home.

He is glad to be back with his family, but he struggles to adjust to everyday life. His detention in Russia has cost him time and money; not to mention pride. John is angry. And not just with the Russians.

Over the next few years, John will lash out at his own government for their failure to help him. And his quest for retribution will lead him to focus his ire on a single target: the British Prime Minister.

Act Two: Perceval’s struggles and John’s plan

It’s late December 1809 in London, England.

John braces himself against the cold and fights his way through a busy street. He’s on his way to deliver a letter to the British Foreign Secretary.

John’s only been back in England for a few weeks. His family lives in Liverpool. He’s rented a room here in London. He’s nearly bankrupt, but being in the city is important to him. John wants to be close to those in power because he believes the British government owes him money for his ordeal in Russia.

Soon, John spots a public post office on a corner and drops in his letter. Despite his past problems, John still has faith in the British government. And he is convinced the Foreign Secretary will help make him whole. But as John heads back to his apartment, he is once again reminded that the England he left is not the country he’s come home to.

John commonly sees protestors, or even rioters, smashing windows of government buildings. And he knows why people are angry. The British government, led by Prime Minister Spencer Perceval, continues to spend millions on the Napoleonic Wars, while many at home struggle to feed their families.

John doesn’t see himself as a radical or a revolutionary, but he understands people’s anger and their desire to lash out. Still, for the time being, John’s content to pursue his compensation from the government using proper channels.

And in January of 1810, John receives a response from the British Foreign Secretary. The letter, written by one of the Secretary's aides, makes it clear that the Foreign Office has no interest in helping John.

John is frustrated, but he doesn’t give up. He writes more letters to the Treasury and the Privy Council. He asks for the chance to tell his story and to give his reasons for seeking compensation. But once again, his efforts are in vain. John knows he’s running out of options. But there’s still one man John is desperate to reach.

So, on May 22nd, 1810, John makes his way to Number 10 Downing Street, the home and executive office of the Prime Minister. He drops off a letter asking Prime Minister Perceval to let him plead his case before parliament.

On May 27th, John receives a response from the Prime Minister’s private secretary. John eagerly opens the envelope and finds a note inside explaining that Prime Minister Perceval will not take the matter any further. Despondent, John leaves London for a time to be with his family in Liverpool. But he can’t shake the idea that he deserves compensation for what he endured in Russia, and that the British government is responsible for leaving him to rot in foreign jails, and then doing nothing to help him upon his return.

In late 1811, John decides he’s had enough of writing letters. Instead, he resolves to take aggressive action; just like the people who’ve been rampaging in the streets. But John wants to do something that will get far more attention than a mere riot. He wants to assassinate the Prime Minister.

John knows it will be no small feat. He has to find a time and place where he can actually get close to the Prime Minister. But soon, John comes up with the solution. The Prime Minister often speaks before the House of Commons, located at the Palace of Westminster. John knows the Palace is open to the public. He also knows that the dates and times of the Prime Minister’s appearances there are always made known in advance.

So while John waits for the next announcement, he does his due diligence. For days, he watches politicians and members of the press arrive at the Palace of Westminster. He notices there’s only one way to get to the chambers of parliament: through the lobby. John determines it’s the best place to get off a good, clear shot.

John also notices that all the men coming and going are dressed in their most elegant attire. He’ll have to blend in. So John chooses his finest pants and waistcoat. But the outfit doesn’t leave much room to conceal a weapon. So John takes his best overcoat to a local tailor and asks him to sew a deep pocket into the lining; the perfect spot to hide a pistol. 

Soon, John learns that the Prime Minister will give a speech to the House of Commons just after 5:00 PM on May 11th, 1812. John now has a precise date and time. He spends the next few weeks going over the plan and practicing his aim. Because when the day comes, John will be ready to walk into the lobby of the Palace of Westminster, blend in with the crowd, and wait for the perfect moment to strike.

Act Three: The Assassination

It’s 5:00 PM on May 11th, 1812 in the Palace of Westminster. In the lobby, John sits calmly on a bench by a roaring fire. He’s practiced this moment in his mind countless times, and he’s confident that everything will go according to plan.

John watches from the bench as reporters and members of parliament make their way into the lobby, laughing and talking loudly. But amidst the clamor, John stays focused. At about 5:15, Prime Minister Perceval walks into the lobby.

A crowd of people gathers around the Prime Minister, and John stands up, slowly walking toward him. As he approaches Perceval, John slips his hand into his secret pocket and pulls out his pistol. Without a word, John raises the gun to Perceval’s chest and fires.

Perceval screams in agony and falls to the ground. Cries for help echo as the Prime Minister lies bleeding on the floor. In the confusion, John slips the gun back in his pocket, walks to the bench, and sits down again by the fire. The police swarm around him, but John makes no effort to run or fight them off. They fish the pistol out of John’s coat, take him into custody, and haul him out of the Palace.

John’s dark errand is a success. By the time medical help arrives, Prime Minister Spencer Perceval is already dead. In the aftermath of his murder, some British officials fear that John acted as part of a rebellious mob bent on starting a revolution; those concerns seem warranted when crowds gather in the London streets to celebrate the news of the Prime Minister’s death.

But at John’s trial just a few days later, those worries are put to rest when John explains why he did what he did. He tells the court the tale of his wrongful imprisonment in Russia and how he believes the British government failed him at every turn.

John relishes his moment in the spotlight. After everything he’s been through, he finally feels heard. But John will pay a price. After his brief trial, John is found guilty and sentenced to death. On May 18th, 1812, just one week after the assassination, John is publicly hanged.

At the time, some see John’s misdeed as a reflection of the public unrest in England. But over the years, the details of John’s saga are largely forgotten. Indeed, some historians will refer to the event as little more than a “footnote in history.” Spencer Perceval is certainly remembered for being the only British Prime Minister to have been assassinated, but most have forgotten him, and certainly have forgotten John Bellingham, and why he decided to pull the trigger on May 11th, 1812.


Next on History Daily. May 12th, 2002. Former President Jimmy Carter goes to Cuba, becoming the first president to visit the country since Castro's revolution in 1959.

From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.

Audio editing and sound design by Mollie Baack.

Music by Lindsay Graham.

This episode is written and researched by Michael Federico.

Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship, and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.