One of the things which really winds me up is how the Victorians routinely minimised the achievements of the early 19th century–those 37 years before Victoria ascended the throne when they were not in charge. And what gets me even hotter under the collar is how this diminishing rewriting of history has been carried forth by 20th century historians.
I’m not suggesting that the Victorians were unique in their historican revisionist efforts–I fancy there’s little to compete with James I’s efforts to stamp out the long shadow of Elizabeth I’s successes and popularity. I mean, he had her dug up, and her remains dumped in a little side chapel of Westminster Abbey on top of those of her sister, Mary, with a snidey little comment about them having only one salvation (since they both died childless).
And then he had the remains of his mum–that would be the mum who abandoned him when he was nine months old, the mum who’d been beheaded for treason against the English throne which he now occupied, the mum he’d been raised to call “the whore of Babylon”–that mum–reinterred in pride of place…with a nauseating little verse about her being in the line of greatness or some such weasel-fur.
That, you’ll have to admit, is both disturbed and disturbing.
But anyway…I bring all this up because the bicentenary of the Assassination of Prime Minister Perceval on 11 May 1812 is nearly upon us…
For despite what the Victorians with their luxuriant sidewhiskers thought, he was a very sound thinker, a good man, and an excellent Prime Minister. And not only that, he was PM at a time when England was facing some of the gravest crises in her long history. And he steered the government and the country through these shoals, bless him…
Spencer Perceval was born on 1 November 1762, the seventh son of the high-living Earl of Egmont. But he was also the second son of the the Earl’s second wife, which meant that when he came into his inheritance (a mere £200 a year), well, there wasn’t going to be much to it and he’d need to make his own way in the world.
His father died when he was eight. He was educated at Harrow; did well at Trinity College, Cambridge, and from there went to study at Lincoln’s Inn. He was called to the bar in 1786.
He was profoundly religious young man too and it was this which would inform both his private and professional conduct throughout his career. A devout evangelical Anglican, he was almost the antithesis of what we think of when we think of aristocratic youth in the late 18th century. For instance, he was fierce in his hatred of slavery and was most certainly a driving force behind the subsequent abolition of the slave trade.
He fell in love with a manufacturer’s daughter, Jane Wilson, when she was 18, but her father refused consent and told them to wait till she was of age–he doubted the Perceval’s ability to provide for her. Admittedly, his prospects were limited. Still, the couple duly waited, and the young Perceval asked again for her hand, three years later, when she was 21.
But again, Mr. Wilson refused. Upon which, Miss Wilson climbed out of the Drawing Room window in her father’s house and the couple eloped, marrying by special license in East Grinstead.
Their first home together was over a shop in Bedford Row–and they remained devoted throughout their married life, producing 12 children to prove it.
The hardworking Perceval’s career prospered too. By 1795, he had come to the attention of William Pitt, the Prime Minister, who admired his debating very much, and by 1796, he was King’s Counsel, with an income of £1000.
That same year in May, Perceval was elected to Parliament as a member for Northampton–a radical borough where every male not in receipt of the poor law had the vote. Even so, within a short time, he had to defend his seat in a hotly contested general election.
He succeeded in that and held the same seat for the next 16 years until his death, while at the same time, he continued with his legal career–because in those days, MPs were unpaid.
In March 1807, he became Chancellor of the Exchequer and Leader of the House of Commons in a new ministery formed under the Duke of Portland–a ministry which was subsequently to be riven by George Canning’s underhanded attempts to get rid of Viscount Castlereagh at the War Office.
Amidst all the plotting, Perceval remained untainted by Canning’s machinations–quite frankly he didn’t like him and he distrusted him. (Not without reason.)
(The whole incident deserves a novel of its own–it’s that Machiavellian…)
But to continue…
Along the way, he was adviser to Princess Caroline during the investigation into whether she’d had an illegitimate child (she hadn’t), producing a 156 page letter to George III, known as ‘the Book’.
And it was George III, referring to him as “the most straightforward man I have ever known,” who on 4 October 1809–three years after Pitt’s death–asked Perceval to form a Government, which saw him, with his wife and children moving into 10 Downing Street.
As Prime Minister and Chancellor, Perceval strengthened the Orders in Council–which were Britain’s economic fight-back against Napoleon’s Continental Blockade. And he held the Government together over the increasingly demoralising issue of the King’s mental illness and the need for the Prince to be made Regent.
He was also well-known and well-respected for the droll wit with which he dispelled tension during debates in the Commons–as when in response to a particularly vituperative attack upon the Government, he stood up at the Dispatch Box, saying affably, “I have nothing to say to the nothing which has been said.” (Cue laughter from the whole House…)
Curiously, although when he was made Regent in February 1811, everyone assumed that the Prince of Wales would dismiss Perceval and find a government within the ranks of his longtime friends and drinking companions, the Whigs– that is exactly what the Prince Regent didn’t do. (Perhaps Prinny wasn’t quite so thick as we’d like to believe either…)
He kept Perceval on, and Perceval, for his part strengthened the government by enlisting the equally hardworking and devout Viscount Castlereagh as Foreign Secretary.
Writing of Perceval’s premiership, Bruce Anderson pointed out recently in The Telegraph: “Britain faced interlocking crises: economic, social and political. The war was bad for trade, just at a time when the agricultural and industrial revolutions were causing widespread and disruptive changes. Technological advances create jobs and reduce prices.”
Yet, “Perceval’s performance justified his master’s [Pitt] praise. An outstanding debater, and a man of obvious moral depth, he was popular with everyone who knew him. This enabled him to hold everything together. While PM, he also acted as Chancellor and made sure that there was enough money to fight the war without crippling the economy. With no military background, he proved himself a sound judge of military merit, especially when it came to Wellington. Back in London, the “croakers” were carping about the cost of his campaigns and the shortage of victories. Perceval stood firm, thus enabling the Great Duke to win battles, and immortal fame. Perceval’s contribution should not be forgotten, just because he was struck down in the darkest hour before the dawn.”
Perceval’s achievements were enormous and his contribution to the betterment of mankind lasting. And these should never be underestimated. Like Castlereagh and Liverpool after him, he was a specialist in nothing germane to the terrors of a 20-year war against the most powerful military state the world has ever known–an empire which Napoleon sought to stretch from the coast of Portugal to the steppes of Russia. And for much of that time, Britain stood alone against the might of militarised France and all her acolyte states.
Yet during that time too, Perceval was one of that determined band of reformers who sought to improve the lot of their fellow man, working wholeheartedly to abolish slavery and the slave trade at a time when the rest of the world still thought these a fine idea. He was part of the movement which pushed for improvements to the prison system and the treatment of transported convicts. It was during his watch too that the law was reformed to offer greater protection to apprenticed children–for the first time since the days of Elizabeth I.
Above all, through it all, Spencer Perceval remained a true Regency gentleman.