Perceval, Spencer

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Perceval, Spencer (1762–1812). Prime minister. Perceval was the seventh son of John, earl of Egmont. At Trinity College, Cambridge, he associated with the evangelical group led by Isaac Milner, being studious and earnest, modest and timid. Having to make his own way in the world, he trained for the bar and practised on the midland circuit. His appointment as a commissioner of bankrupts in 1790 enabled him to marry Jane, daughter of Sir Thomas Wilson, MP for Sussex, but they had to live in lodgings over a carpet shop in Bedford Row until he increased his income. He came to notice as a junior counsel for the crown in the trials of the radicals Tom Paine and Horne Tooke but he declined Pitt's offer of the chief secretaryship in Ireland in 1795 because the salary would not support his increasing family. His connections from the midland bar helped to secure him election as MP for Northampton, where he was deputy recorder, in 1796.

Perceval was a conscientious and popular member, giving handsomely to local charities. Wilberforce thought him the most generous of evangelical Christians: he gave away all that he could spare, disapproved strongly of gambling and hunting (though he was a steward of Northamptonshire races), and would have made adultery a criminal offence. He refused to transact business on Sundays, held regular family prayers, and was a student of biblical prophecy. A thoroughly orthodox Anglican, he was accused of religious bigotry, but he objected not to the practice of religion by catholics and nonconformists, but to their being allowed political power. He considered the primacy of the Church of England as essential to the security of the state and he was a most determined opponent of catholic emancipation. Nevertheless, he was conscious of the existence of abuses in the Anglican church and supported efforts to end pluralities and non-residence of the clergy and to increase low clerical incomes. He supported missionary work, especially in India, popular education through the Anglican National Schools Society, and the abolition of slavery and the slave trade.

Perceval's forensic skills made him an effective parliamentary speaker and he became solicitor-general under Addington in 1801 and attorney-general in 1802. He agreed to stay on under Pitt in 1804 only on condition that there should be no concessions to the catholics. On Pitt's death in 1806 he was seen as one of the contenders for leadership of the Tories, together with Castlereagh, Canning, and Hawkesbury (Liverpool) and he helped to bring about the defeat of the Whigs in the general election of 1807 by campaigning against the catholics. In Portland's ministry of 1807–9 he became chancellor of the Exchequer and was given the chancellorship of the duchy of Lancaster as well, to augment his income. He reluctantly accepted the leadership of the House of Commons as a compromise candidate and, after the duel between Castlereagh and Canning brought about Portland's resignation, he was appointed prime minister in October 1809, with the king's enthusiastic approval.

Perceval was by no means an ineffective prime minister. He survived the crises of the inquiry into the Walcheren expedition and the Burdett riots in London in 1810 and doggedly supported the expedition to the Peninsula which, against all expectation, was to play a major part in the eventual defeat of Napoleon. He modelled his financial policies on Pitt's and at least kept the war effort going. On George III's final relapse into insanity in 1810 he was confirmed in office by the prince regent, but his career was brought to a sudden and tragic end on 11 May 1812 when he was assassinated in the lobby of the House of Commons by an aggrieved and deranged Russia merchant named John Bellingham, who mistook him for Castlereagh.

Perceval was small in stature—he was nicknamed ‘Little P.’—pale in complexion, and usually dressed in black. Lord Holland likened him to Robespierre in appearance. He was a staunch conservative, a devout evangelical Christian, and a tireless campaigner against inhumanity. His spotless private life and his integrity in public life were in total contrast to the lives of most politicians of his age.

E. A. Smith


Gray, D. , Spencer Perceval (Manchester, 1963).

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Spencer Perceval

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