For those of you who have read and enjoyed the adventures of Nicholas de Bresancourt… child refugee from the French Revolution, aristocratic Duke nicknamed Le Lion de Valenciennes, but also a secret agent working for the British in the latter stages of the Napoleonic Wars… I thought I’d write a little about a somewhat forgotten major event that took place in London in May 1812, just before Nicky’s story opens in The Pride of Lions, in June 1812.
If you liked the character of Lord Miles Ashcroft, Nicky’s long-suffering boss and head of the mysterious ‘Department of Information’ in Whitehall, the Government offices around the corner from the Houses of Parliament in London, this will perhaps explain a bit more why Ashcroft was so paranoid and a total workaholic. He perpetually worried about revolutionaries, radicals, assassins and stopping any trouble fermenting in England that could lead to a situation everyone had witnessed in France in the 1790’s… the terrible Revolution that had brought the country to its knees and seen thousands lose their lives to the guillotine, including the King and Queen and a good many of the aristocracy. That was why he was so wary of Frederick Bernheim, subversive and arch troublemaker, and what he could do if let loose to plot in England.
Of course, being the ‘M’ of his day, Ashcroft had a network of undercover agents spread far and wide, and that was why he wanted to recruit Nicky… and of course young Jack Vallance, to join their number. However, keeping his country safe was an enormous challenge, whether from home-grown threats as well as those from overseas. Sadly it seems nothing much has changed in the past 200 years.
When the Prime Minister, Spencer Perceval, was shot in the lobby of the House of Commons on 11 May 1812, it caused uproar. Perceval had been PM since 1809 and was rigorously pursuing the long-running war against Napoleon which was wreaking havoc to the British economy. Poverty was rife and unrest fermenting as people struggled in what were desperate times. There’d been some initial military success, and Nelson had destroyed the French fleet at Trafalgar in 1805, but since then things hadn’t been going well. Sir Arthur Wellesley (soon to be the Duke of Wellington) was struggling down in the Iberian peninsula and was pinned down in Portugal; the cost of maintaining England’s military presence there was enormous and Perceval’s support for the Peninsular campaign was unpopular.
The assassin, one John Bellingham, was a Liverpool merchant with a personal grievance against the government, not part of any wider political plot. Ironically, he was merely angry at the lack of compensation he felt he was owed for being imprisoned in Russia for a trading debt. After he calmly shot the Prime Minister, he didn’t try and escape and Bellingham was arrested. Four days later he was tried, convicted and sentenced to death at the Old Bailey, the main criminal court in London. He was hanged at Newgate Prison on 18 May, one week after his crime.
To this day, Spencer Perceval remains the sole British Prime Minister to have been assassinated. The event, and the man, have passed, generally unremembered, into the annals of British history. However, there are some historians who consider Perceval’s critical achievement was his insistence on keeping the British army in the field down in the Iberian peninsula, despite much political resistance, until Wellington got to grips with the French. After a lengthy struggle against some of Napoleon’s best Marshals, he did finally manage to drive them out of Spain and back up into France in 1814. This helped turn the tide of the Napoleonic Wars decisively in Britain’s favour and, together with his disastrous campaign in Russia, it forced Napoleon to abdicate in April 1814…. although of course, that wasn’t quite the last that Europe had heard of him, or the Duke of Wellington!
Picture of Perceval by George Francis Joseph – Photograph: Anonymous, Public Domain
Print of the shooting of the prime minister, Spencer Perceval, in the House of Commons, 11 May 1812 Cassell’s Illustrated History of England Vol.5 (1909)  Walter Stanley Britteny 1861–1908