We are approaching the 200th anniversary of the death of a largely forgotten prime minister. Yet it is odd that he should be ignored. Spencer Perceval is unique – our only prime minister to be assassinated – but he has several other claims on our attention.
For a start, he had an interesting and unconventional youth. The younger son of an extravagant earl, he had to make his own way, which he did, as a lawyer. He fell in love with the daughter of a rich businessman, who was unimpressed by the suitor’s lineage and sought to reserve his chick for a rich man. But true love prevailed. On her 21st birthday, Jane climbed out of her father’s drawing-room window and the pair eloped. They began married life in rented lodgings above a carpet shop in Bedford Row. Overcrowding pursued them. Jane Perceval bore 12 surviving children; their Downing Street must have recalled the tale of the old woman who lived in a shoe.
If the elopement makes Perceval sound like a Regency buck, that is an erroneous impression. A committed evangelical, he was profoundly religious (one reason why he hated slavery). He and his fellow-evangelicals believed that his accession to the premiership was an example of divine providence, and his co-religionists were thrown into confusion by his murder: what did the Almighty mean by it all?