On This Day: May 18th

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On the 18th May 1812 John Bellingham was found guilty and sentenced to death by hanging for the assassination of British Prime Minister Spencer Perceval. This was the only time a British Prime Minister had been assassinated in history, and from the assassins own comments he wasn’t even his preferred target of assassination.

Bellingham had returned to England after a somewhat unfair imprisonment in Russia and sought compensation from the government back in England. On the 18th of April he was told by a Foreign Office civil servant he was at liberty to take whatever measures he saw fit. On the 11th of May Bellingham waited in the lobby at parliament and upon the arrival of Perceval he shot the Prime Minister dead, he was restrained almost immediately.

Bellingham went to trial on the 15th of May for the assassination but insisted as a wronged man he was justified in killing the representative of his oppressors, he made a formal statement to the court saying:

“Recollect, Gentlemen, what was my situation. Recollect that my family was ruined and myself destroyed, merely because it was Mr Perceval’s pleasure that justice should not be granted; sheltering himself behind the imagined security of his station, and trampling upon law and right in the belief that no retribution could reach him. I demand only my right, and not a favour; I demand what is the birthright and privilege of every Englishman.

Gentlemen, when a minister sets himself above the laws, as Mr Perceval did, he does it as his own personal risk. If this were not so, the mere will of the minister would become the law, and what would then become of your liberties?

I trust that this serious lesson will operate as a warning to all future ministers, and that they will henceforth do the thing that is right, for if the upper ranks of society are permitted to act wrong with impunity, the inferior ramifications will soon become wholly corrupted.

Gentlemen, my life is in your hands, I rely confidently in your justice.”

Evidence was presented that Bellingham was insane, but it was discounted by the trial judge, Sir James Mansfield. Bellingham was found guilty and sentenced to hang.

The sentence was carried out in public three days later on the 18th of May 1812.

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