PERCEVAL, Hon. Spencer (1762-1812), of Elm Grove, Ealing, Mdx.

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1790-1820, ed. R. Thorne, 1986
Available from Boydell and Brewer



9 May 1796 - 11 May 1812

Family and Education

b. 1 Nov. 1762, 7th s. of John Perceval, 2nd Earl of Egmont, being 2nd s. by 2nd w., and bro. of Charles George Perceval*, 2nd Baron Arden [I]. educ. Harrow 1774-9; Trinity Coll. Camb. 1780; L. Inn 1783, called 1786. m. 10 Aug. 1790, Jane, da. of Lt.-Gen. Sir Thomas Spencer Wilson, 6th Bt., of Charlton, Kent, 6s. 6da.

Offices Held

Commr. of bankrupts 1790; surveyor of the meltings and clerk of the irons, Tower of London Mar. 1791; counsel to Admiralty 1794-1801; KC 4 Feb. 1796; bencher, L. Inn 1796, treasurer 1802; solicitor to Ordnance Aug. 1798; counsel to Camb. Univ. 1800; solicitor-gen. Feb. 1801-2, attorney-gen. Apr. 1802-Feb. 1806; chancellor of Exchequer and leader of the House Mar. 1807-Oct. 1809, and first ld. of Treasury 4 Oct. 1809-d.; chancellor of duchy of Lancaster Mar. 1807-d.

Vol. London and Westminster light horse 1794-1803.


‘Little P’, as Lord Eldon dubbed him, was an unlikely candidate for the highest political honours: the impecunious younger son, by his second wife, of a courtier whose brief tenure of cabinet office was remarkable only for his silence and who died when Perceval was ten, he had his own way to make. After diligent studies at Harrow and Cambridge, where he was tinged with the ideas of the evangelical Anglicans, he practised as a barrister on the midland circuit. Modest and timid, though of ‘excellent temper and engaging manners’, he did not find business enough to match his undoubted talents for several years, but his connexions and his industry redeemed his plight. The influence of his mother’s family, the Comptons of Castle Ashby, made him deputy recorder of Northampton, and his elder brother Lord Arden’s being a lord of the Admiralty in Pitt’s administration improved his prospects. When he married Arden’s wife’s sister in 1790, he was a commissioner of bankrupts. He next secured for life a legal sinecure worth £119 a year. He published anonymous pamphlets in favour of the continuance of Warren Hastings’s impeachment and in defence of public order against sedition. He was junior counsel for the crown at the trials of Thomas Paine (1792) and John Horne Tooke* (1794) and acted as the law officers’ midland deputy in prosecuting a publisher of The Rights of Man at Knutsford. To his radical opponents he appeared ‘a short, spare, pale-faced, hard, keen, sour-looking man with a voice well suited to the rest’. His private practice prospered and by 1795 he was worth £1,000 a year. In 1794 Arden, after failing in a bid to do so in 1791, had secured him the place of counsel to the Admiralty.1

Perceval’s ambitions were confined to professional honours and he rejected hints of a political career. When late in 1795 Thomas Pelham wished to give up the Irish secretaryship, he was thought of by Pitt and Portland as an eligible successor, as Thomas Steele* declined; the lord lieutenant, Camden, had an office in reversion to tempt him with and Earl Spencer urged him to accept it. But Perceval rejected Pitt’s offer of 2 Jan. 1796 for his growing family’s sake, fearing an ‘inexcusable profusion of the public money’. Instead, in the same month, he obtained a silk gown.2 In May 1796 he entered Parliament unopposed for Northampton, at the desire of his cousin Lord Compton who had succeeded to the earldom and whose heir was a child. Perceval regarded the tenure of the seat as a family trust and at the ensuing general election refused to coalesce with a candidate friendly to administration. He survived this, his only contest, with ease, and though tempted to stand for his university in 1806 and 1807, retained the seat until his death.

Pitt contemplated Perceval’s seconding the address, but nothing came of it and he hoped to make his parliamentary debut on the Austrian subsidy, 13 Dec. 1796, attacking Fox violently and inveighing against ‘the spirit of democracy’, which he considered a greater threat to the constitution than the power of the crown, now minimized by the growth of enlightened public opinion, but no such speech was reported. On 24 Feb. 1797 he voted silently against the Quaker relief bill, with ‘most of the lawyers’. Yet he had won a prize for declamation at Cambridge, had been a prominent participant in the Crown and Rolls debating society and prepared assiduously to figure in debate. Drafts of his speeches, by no means all of them delivered, survive: for instance, he drafted attacks on Combe’s motion and Fox’s attempt to repeal the Treason Acts, 19 May 1797; in support of stern measures after the mutiny at the Nore next day and against Grey’s motion for parliamentary reform, 26 May, but only the gist of the Nore speech was reported, and that on 2 June. It was his speech of 4 Jan. 1798 in defence of the assessed taxes, in which he denounced the Foxite secession and panacea of reform and ‘French liberty’, that established his reputation and, according to an enthusiastic Pitt, sent Fox home ‘very sick to his supper’. Pitt was reported to have looked to Perceval as a future leader of the House and even, according to a family tradition, to have regarded him as the most competent person to succeed himself, had he perished in his duel with Tierney.3

In August 1798 Perceval became solicitor to the Ordnance, which made him £300 p.a. the richer, unlike the appointment of solicitor-general to the Queen, for which his name was canvassed and which was honorary.4 He made himself useful in debate by replying to Tierney, 22 Dec. 1798, and also by defending the income tax, 31 Dec. 1798 and 17 Apr. 1800. He defended the Helder expedition, 10 Feb., the campaign in Egypt, 18 Nov. 1800, and was frequently a government teller; on 29 Jan. 1800 he deputized for Pitt, who was ill. On 11 Feb. 1799 he defended the union with Ireland, though he did not regard it as a nostrum against Catholic pretensions, of which he was critical. In the debate on Mildmay’s monastic institutions bill, 23 June 1800, he sounded an alarm about Catholic proselytism. He justified the suspension of habeas corpus, 11 Dec. 1800, but had opposed the government, 5 July 1800, and been teller for the noes on the bread monopoly during scarcity, preferring a free market.

By 1800 Perceval earned £2,600 a year, £1,800 of it at the bar. His private reputation was without blemish and he was a castigator of fashionable vices such as adultery, against which he advocated legislation: Henry Bankes maintained that Perceval was ‘as likely as any man to frame a well-digested, and rational bill’. His wife was an authority on confinements and their growing family by now required the house next door in Lincoln’s Inn Fields. He was an authority on Biblical prophecy and in an anonymous pamphlet of 1800 predicted the fall of Buonaparte. Privately, he thought the French revolution was a divine instrument for the downfall of Catholicism, and concluded that the world would end in 1926.5

Perceval had no sympathy for Pitt’s resignation over Catholic relief in 1801 and the succession of Addington provided him with further advancement. He became solicitor-general (refusing a knighthood as the son of a peer) and in the spring of 1802 succeeded Law as attorney-general. He transferred his own practice from King’s bench to Chancery, doubling his fees and outdistancing financial anxiety: by 1804 he earned nearly £10,000 a year. Politically, he soon discovered himself to be embarrassed by Addington’s administration, in which his brother Arden held office; privately, he disliked the peace preliminaries, favouring the retention of Malta and the Cape as military bases. In debate he confined himself to law business as much as possible, otherwise defending the resort to coercion in Ireland and the exclusion of Horne Tooke from Parliament and opposing the Prince of Wales’s claims to the duchy of Cornwall revenues, 31 Mar. 1802, on which subject he was adviser to the cabinet. He further defended the navy estimates, defence precautions and the renewal of war in 1803. Addington need no longer frown at the ‘warlike venom ... of that little spitfire Perceval’, as Creevey had observed him to do. After this he felt more committed to government and staunchly defended them after Emmet’s rebellion in Ireland, of which Lord Redesdale, now his brother-in-law, sent him fiery denunciations which strengthened his own prejudices. He stood by Addington in the defence debates that heralded the minister’s fall, particularly in reply to Fox’s motion of 23 Apr., when he wound up successfully, if vituperatively, for government, and in reply to Canning on 25 Apr. 1804.6

Perceval had become less insistent on purely professional success: he had refused the vacant chief justiceship of the common pleas with a peerage in the autumn of 1803. Although he claimed that, if Pitt had coalesced with Fox on succeeding Addington in 1804, he would have given up public life and accepted the chief justiceship of Chester, his conditions for agreeing to stay in office under Pitt, namely that Fox was excluded, that Addington was not made a scapegoat and that Catholic relief was ruled out, proved no obstacle to his doing so. On 13 and 14 May 1805 he made a full statement in reply to Fox of his objections to Catholic relief in so far as it meant political enfranchisement; on 8 May 1804 he had expressed his dislike of parliamentary reform. On the other hand, he was a steady friend and advocate of the abolition of the slave trade.7 As a law officer, he incurred the hostility of the radicals for his prosecution of Despard and Peltier in 1803 and Cobbett in 1804, and doubtless also for his resistance to the disgrace of Melville, April-June 1805; but he may be credited with a bill, instigated by Jeremy Bentham, to mitigate the convicts’ passage to Botany Bay, with a liberal interpretation of the Combination Acts against trade unions and an unsuccessful bid to promote the regulation of all child labour. His attempts, begun in April 1805 and continued for several years, to promote a resident clergy or alternatively an adequately paid curacy in the Anglican church were also unavailing.

Perceval was an emblem bearer at Pitt’s funeral and offered £1,000 towards a subscription to pay Pitt’s debts. Pitt’s death made him poor again. Seeing no prospect of a Pittite government, he and Castlereagh consulted with Pitt’s other leading friends, 8 Feb. 1806, as to the best course of action, and agreed that while Lord Grenville was the natural leader of their party (it was Perceval who suggested the device of a trustee to release Grenville from the auditorship of the Exchequer so as to be first lord of the Treasury), his coalition with Fox and exclusion of themselves obliged them to prepare for opposition until Grenville could shake off Fox, or the King shake off both. Canning, his obvious competitor in debate, was willing for Perceval to take the lead in opposition if necessary and it was Perceval who promoted the opposition stand against Ellenborough’s admission to the cabinet: but it was ill-organized and defeated by 222 votes to 64, 3 Mar. 1806.8

In the ensuing session, in which long speeches were an opposition tactic, Perceval spoke about 70 times, notably in criticism of Windham’s military reforms: he made the attack on the Chelsea Hospital bill his own subject. Contemptuous of the government’s incompetence over business details, he was resolved by May 1806 not to join them, though he disliked the idea of a formal opposition veto on it, as concerted in July. At a meeting at Lord Lowther’s, 4 July, he was earmarked in his absence as a future chancellor of the Exchequer and leader of the House, with the concurrence of Canning and Castlereagh. Lords Hawkesbury and Bathurst had no objection even to his being premier, but he was not informed of this, nor did he learn the details of Grenville’s overtures to Canning to join the government, in which office for him was also stipulated.9

Early in October 1806, Perceval was sounded by Grenville, whose brother the Marquess of Buckingham was very eager to gain him, through Lord Ellenborough, but he made it clear that he would not be an individual recruit to government and that he looked to a general arrangement. He did not even ask what the bait was, but had it been judicial office he would probably have disliked it. He advocated active opposition when it transpired that Fox’s death would lead to no new arrangement and, encouraged by Eldon, Hawkesbury and Castlereagh, passed to the offensive in the new Parliament, November 1806. He opposed the address, 20 Dec., though without proposing an amendment. He did not, however, succeed in rallying opposition and, dependent on an allowance from his brother at a time when Canning had made it clear to Perceval that he was prepared to make his own bargain with government, he was momentarily tempted to do the same: but, while reckoned by others ‘the best debater now in the House’, he did not overrate himself as a catch for government and disagreed too strongly with them on such issues as Anglo-American relations, peace prospects, the case of the Princess of Wales and Catholic relief to pursue the matter. He had criticized the American intercourse bill, June-July 1806 and in January-February 1807 deplored the effect of the orders in council on Anglo-American relations; made a remarkable speech, one of several in which his hearers were reminded of Pitt, on 5 Jan. 1807, on the failure of peace negotiations, and taken the lead in advocating the Princess’s grievances against her husband. If the Prince was so annoyed by Perceval’s opposition to Mrs Fitzherbert’s claim to the guardianship of the child Minny Seymour early in 1806 that ‘he felt he could jump on him and stamp out his life with his feet’, he must have been further irritated by Perceval’s formal defence of the Princess as a ‘much injured lady’. This masterpiece of legal prose was not published at the time: Perceval’s friends objected. The Princess asked for publication, to blackmail the Court, but the government fell before ‘The Delicate Investigation’ was circulated and Perceval had the satisfaction of framing the new government’s formal exoneration of the Princess, 21 Apr. 1807, which recommended her reinstatement at Court.10

Perceval made it clear, in his speeches of 4 and 5 Mar. 1807, that he was an inveterate opponent of Catholic emancipation. He was accused of raising the cry of ‘No Popery’. A week later Lord Sidmouth, resolved to go out of office on this issue, approached Perceval to concert opposition to it; but the government fell before anything came of this. Perceval did nothing to promote its fall, privately urging a compromise with the King. In Portland’s administration he wished only to be attorney-general again and to continue his bar practice, and on 20 Mar. refused the Exchequer with the lead in the House as £3,700 p.a. was totally inadequate. Nor could he swallow a compensatory arrangement: ‘I detest the idea of reversionary pension or place’. The Home Office, with the lead, which would mean £6,000 a year, might tempt him, but on the whole he thought he could do more good as attorney-general. Portland did not wish to press him against his will, but on 23 Mar. he allowed himself to be persuaded by his friends. His fitness was described by Hawkesbury to the King as a matter of being ‘of an old English family and from his sentiments being known to correspond so entirely with those of your Majesty on the subject of the Catholic claims’. Thus qualified for the Exchequer, the lead and the duchy of Lancaster (made up to £4,000 p.a.), Perceval found the House of Commons, to whom ‘in a draped coat’ he stated ‘the largeness of his family’, not so easy to please when his provision was debated on 24 and 25 Mar.: he was conceded the duchy during pleasure only and not for life, by 208 votes to 115. He was, nevertheless, in Lord Grenville’s phrase, ‘the real minister’, the aged Portland having little to say in the unsteady government to which he had offered his name. Canning later alleged that Perceval’s precedence was ‘to a certain degree the result of a compromise between Castlereagh and me’, but this shows hindsight and underestimates Perceval’s ability: Lord Mulgrave thought him ‘the ablest man in the House of Commons’.11

Perceval endeared himself at once to the ‘Saints’ by ensuring the passage of the slave trade abolition bill, if not also by moving house from Belsize to Clapham for a year, but he met with less encouragement in other quarters. The opposition fumed about his re-election address to his constituents on taking office, calling the country to the defence of King and Church, 27 Mar., and his bland speeches on the subject, 9 and 15 Apr. 1807; even his colleagues found his draft of the King’s speech dissolving Parliament so vehement as to require toning down. He was uncertain of his colleagues; Canning shirked attendance to hear the King’s speech on the eve of the new Parliament and he had failed to get his closest friend, Lord Harrowby, into the cabinet. Not surprisingly, in debate he seemed ‘to want nerves ... he hesitates and stammers, and certainly as yet, is quite different in his manner’, reported an opposition witness.12

In the recess of 1807-8 Perceval, who apart from being installed by Portland as locum tenens at 10 Downing Street had at last found ‘a commodious family residence of a plain but desirable character’ at Ealing, drafted the controversial orders in council in retaliation against Buonaparte’s continental embargo. He also prepared the justification of the attack on Copenhagen, January 1808, which the King toned down, but which Perceval ably presented in debate. Described at this time as ‘a prompt ardent speaker, very bold to enter the enemies’ quarters and often happy in severe invective and sarcasmy’, he was less happy on subsequent issues. Opposition harried him over his bid to regulate the export of Jesuits’ bark (for quinine) to France, 23 Feb., 16 Mar. 1808, and his attempt to relieve the West India sugar planters. His obstruction to the claims of John Palmer* was bitterly attacked by them, May-June 1808. Moreover, his leadership of the protestant ultras in opposition to the Maynooth College grant revealed the division in the cabinet on this issue. Perceval wished ‘to let the Roman Catholic know that he has got as much as a Protestant Parliament can give him, and that he must be contented’: he would not compromise, even over tithes. He denied that he was eternally opposed to Catholic claims, but his answer to the problem, a reform of the Irish police and more Anglican churches, hinted at the bigotry he denied. Ministers made no attempt to defend the appointment of Patrick Duigenan* to the Irish privy council when it came under fire, 11 May 1808, but Perceval gained his main point—the rejection of the Catholic petition on 25 May—with ease.13

In the financial field he was a tyro, but found the House less critical on budgetary policy than it was on economic reform, a cause shared by the ‘Saints’ and the opposition. The finance committee was remodelled in 1807 to reduce opposition members, but its reports were a source of embarrassment. Perceval embodied the recommendations of its report on the national debt in his budget of 1808, but the third report, on places and pensions, was delayed by his insistence on extending its scope to all beneficiaries, and not Members of Parliament only, so that it did not appear until the summer of 1810. Meanwhile he blocked Henry Bankes’s reversion bill by enlisting Arden’s help in the Lords in 1807, only to find that in the following year, when he was willing to let it pass, his brother (who held a sinecure worth £38,000 a year) would not co-operate, for which opposition harried him thereafter; nor would the King budge from neutrality. In April 1809 Perceval came to terms with Bankes and a bill passed which was limited to a year. From 1810 to 1812, Bankes tried to make it perpetual, but Perceval, aided by his brother in the Lords, blocked him, until in March 1812 Bankes again capitulated for a bill of limited duration.

If, in some cases, Perceval’s obduracy seemed to exacerbate divisions in the cabinet, in others he had to combat the extremism of his colleagues. Unlike Canning and Castlereagh, he was prepared, though he defended them in debate, to revise the orders in council in the spring of 1808 to counter American hostility. When that autumn there was a public outcry against the convention of Cintra, Perceval and Castlereagh resisted Canning’s demand that Sir Arthur Wellesley should be their scapegoat and Perceval rescued Wellesley’s reputation, 25 Jan. and 21 Feb. 1809, at the risk of alienating Canning. In February and March 1809 he played counsel for the defence of the Duke of York in the House. It was a brilliant performance, jeopardized by his client’s bold front in denying all charges and by the obduracy of his client’s father. Perceval was able to dispose of the charges, but the scrutiny of the duke’s and his former mistress Mary Ann Clarke’s correspondence left such an unfavourable impression by 21 Feb. that he warned the King that his son’s future as commander-in-chief of the army hung in the balance. He could secure the duke’s acquittal, but not without censure; and would have to combat the duke’s removal from his office. He was prepared to try, but advised the King that the duke’s voluntary resignation would answer best (14 Mar.). The King resisted this, just as he had toned down Perceval’s draft censure. On 15 and 17 Mar. Perceval won the battle of votes, but warned the King that unless the duke resigned there would be further trouble. On 18 Mar. the duke resigned. A dinner in his honour at Downing Street was his immediate reward and Perceval’s assurance that his disgrace was ‘temporary’ augured his reinstatement two years later.14

The divisions of March 1809 had shown the House at variance with public opinion and there followed a series of radical onslaughts. Perceval, who could no longer count on the support of the ‘Saints’, extricated himself with more ease than his colleague Castlereagh from the charges of corruption brought forward against them by William Alexander Madocks* in May 1809, feeling no guilt whatsoever. Unlike some of his cabinet colleagues, he deprecated Curwen’s reform bill of that month, which he regarded as excluding the government from the market of seats in Parliament, in which they were wont to be the most favoured customer—a threat to the balance of the constitution. He therefore amended the bill drastically to safeguard the influence of the crown: even in its attenuated form, however, it curtailed government’s electoral influence. He had no difficulty in getting the House to reject Burdett’s more extreme proposals, 15 June 1809. But it was not merely the radicals who thought he was (pace Lord Malmesbury) ‘an evading lawyer, without principle’.15

It was not until 22 June 1809 that Perceval learnt of the royal plan for a reshuffle to prevent the resignation of Canning, which would, in the Duke of Portland’s view, ruin his ministry. Canning at once objected: not only because a reshuffle could not be carried out with justice to Castlereagh the day after the cabinet had approved his plan of the Scheldt expedition, but because the whole business implied intrigue and want of good faith between colleagues. Perceval, who to quote John William Ward ‘joined great simplicity to great acuteness’ and ‘knew nothing of the wicked world’, wrote to Canning on 25 June to tell him so. Canning pointed out in reply that the concealment was not his idea, but Perceval was not satisfied. It was not that he was against the reshuffle itself, but that he shunned the thought of ‘some expedient which is not satisfactorily justifiable and honourable towards Castlereagh’. Accordingly he informed Portland on 13 July that he would submit to any rearrangement and any new premier from among themselves, provided Castlereagh could be satisfied—and offered to mediate with him. The admission of Canning’s friend Lord Granville Leveson Gower into the cabinet that month was offset by the admission of Perceval’s friend Harrowby. Canning was mustering his forces in a bid for the premiership and Portland’s stroke in August 1809 made the choice of a successor desirable. Perceval informed William Huskisson on 21 Aug. that he would not consider presiding over such a government of departments as Portland had submitted to. A week later he sounded Canning, explaining that his own favourite was Harrowby, but that Harrowby had declined: any of them with ‘a little more of the responsibility of the Treasury’ than the duke had, would do. Canning at first refused to be drawn, but on 31 Aug. admitted that he looked to a premier in the Commons and that he could not serve under Perceval. This did not surprise Perceval, but Lord Liverpool, after seeing this correspondence, assured Perceval that his colleagues would not serve under Canning. Perceval was in a quandary as to whether it was a degradation to himself to serve under Canning as Home secretary with Canning taking the Treasury, the Exchequer and the lead: his brother assured him that it was. He therefore agreed with Liverpool and Lord Bathurst to resist Canning’s pretensions and, hearing that Canning meant to resign over the failure to implement the pledge given him after the Scheldt expedition, wrote to him suggesting that they serve under any third person. He also wrote with his friends’ concurrence to Portland urging him to resign and thus facilitate a rearrangement of the government without any disgrace to Castlereagh, whose removal would have caused Perceval to resign and, he thought, the break up of the government. Portland agreeing to resign, Perceval assured Canning that this was the way out of the maze: Canning demurred, for the game was not going his way. Bathurst had already assured the King that Perceval, ‘the most straightforward man he had almost ever known’, was preferable in their eyes to Canning, who insisted on resigning and placing the whole matter of the pledge made to him, though without Perceval’s consent, as an obstacle to any conciliation. Canning ceded the field to Perceval, 12 Sept. 1809.16

Without Canning, the cabinet could only turn to Lords Grey and Grenville for support and on 18 Sept. they met at Perceval’s and recommended this course of action to the King. Perceval refused the latter’s proposal that a written pledge against Catholic relief could be required of the two peers, arguing that it could only be implied. On 24 Sept. the bid was made, refused peremptorily by Grey and at length by Grenville: they did not listen to terms. Perceval claimed that he intended a real coalition, not a mere accession, and that he would have served under either of them, asking only for the Home Office for himself. Encouraged by his brother to believe that it was his duty to stand by the crown, he had failed to win over the opposition. Canning was also out of reach: not only did he regard himself as outmanoeuvred by a lawyer’s trick in the struggle for power, but he had tried to oust Perceval in the King’s favour by offering to form an administration of his own, in which Perceval was to be pensioned off with a peerage, the lord presidency and the emoluments of the duchy of Lancaster—or possibly become lord chancellor. This was, as Perceval reflected, ‘to put an extinguisher on my head in the shape of a coronet’. But on 30 Sept. the rump of the cabinet recommended Perceval in all but name to the King, and on 2 Oct. the King acquiesced. Wilberforce thought Perceval’s ‘eminence was not of his own seeking’. Arbuthnot maintained that Perceval had ‘the best regulated ambition I ever witnessed’ and Lord Mulgrave that ‘Perceval has in all this business put self out of the question more than any man I ever saw’. Canning had to content himself with accusing Perceval of circulating their private correspondence to discredit him and poisoning the press against him, neither of which accusations was warranted, though Perceval’s sending Castlereagh Canning’s correspondence with Portland may well have been the unwitting cause of Castlereagh’s issuing a challenge to Canning.17 Perceval’s gaining Lord Wellesley for the Foreign Office when Canning expected him to resign with him exacerbated matters, though Wellesley proved a liability to the government; Canning had already been disappointed in the hope that George Rose, Charles Long, Robert Pemberton Milnes and Lord FitzHarris would go out with him, in the wake of Lord Granville Leveson Gower, Huskisson and William Sturges Bourne.

Perceval did not vacate his seat on becoming first lord of the Treasury, on the precedent of Lord North’s not having done so: but he quietly gave up his Exchequer salary, a fact that he did not publicize until the moment was ripe, in a debate the following May. This was a point against Lord Grenville. He induced Portland to accept cabinet office without portfolio before he died. He failed to persuade Speaker Abbot to become a secretary of state and after initial success failed to win over Lord Melville, who was to have an earldom as compensation for being unfit for cabinet office, which would go to his son. Melville could not stomach Perceval’s apology: ‘we are no longer the sole representatives of Mr Pitt’ and, while allowing his son to hold office outside the cabinet, assumed that Perceval preferred the ‘Saints’ to the Scotch legion. But just as he opted for Melvillites without Melville and Canningites without Canning, Perceval wanted Sidmouthites without Sidmouth and the latter was equally outraged. Nor would Lord Hardwicke allow his half-brother Charles Yorke to serve. The difficulties of forming his administration were best illustrated by his having finally to be his own chancellor of the Exchequer: Huskisson had gone out with Canning, and Vansittart, Palmerston, Milnes, Rose and Long all declined it in turn. Similar difficulties occurred over minor offices. An administration which had only two cabinet ministers in the Commons seemed to lack weight and was not expected to last: but the King backed Perceval and he was at least an effective head of government. Nor did he face a united opposition: Lord Malmesbury reported ‘none of the great families have left them, and indeed the generally prevailing sentiment (thanks to the violence of the republicans) of the higher classes is to support and stand by the King’.18

Perceval never called himself a Tory. His principles he believed to be drawn from Pitt’s example and the chief issues of his administration to be the pursuit of the war against Buonaparte in the face of defeatism, and the balance of the constitution against radicalism. His first crucial test was the debate on the Walcheren expedition, which he had to justify in the session of January 1810. The violence of the opposition amendment to the address enabled him to carry it easily with the support of Canning, Castlereagh and the ‘Saints’; but on 26 Jan. the last two deserted him and he was defeated by nine votes on Porchester’s motion calling for an inquiry into the expedition. Five days later he was three times defeated on the composition of the finance committee, as well as suffering setbacks on Bankes’s reversion bill and Horner’s bullion motion. During the inquiry, Lord Chatham’s confidential report to the King was censured by the House: on 23 Feb. and 5 Mar. Whitbread and Canning carried this point against government. Perceval, much as he deplored Chatham’s conduct, felt obliged to stand by Pitt’s brother who, at length, reluctantly resigned office; government breathed again. After such frequent defeats, thought John William Ward, ‘if anything could overturn a government supported by the King, I should think that he must fall’. On 30 Mar. Perceval won all the divisions on the conclusion of the inquiry, though at the price of some concessions to Canning’s manoeuvres, and his majority never rose above 51 in divisions of about 500 Members.19 His onslaught against radicalism was concentrated on his brusque treatment of Sir Francis Burdett: he took advantage of the fears of the country gentlemen and induced Thomas Buckler Lethbridge and Sir Robert Salusbury to take the lead in the proceedings against Burdett. Perceval at length sent him to the Tower, but not without riot and confusion and the reluctant release of Burdett’s Barabbas, John Gale Jones. He subsequently resisted pressure for Burdett’s release and, of course, voted against parliamentary reform on Brand’s motion, 21 May 1810.

The burden of Treasury business was familiar to Perceval, who had more or less assumed it in Portland’s administration. From 1807 to 1809, assisted by the financial secretary Huskisson and by Harrison the permanent assistant secretary, he conscientiously overhauled as many departments as his moral urge to provide an efficient and less expensive administration dictated. Retrenchment was in any case the only alternative to increased taxation. In 1808 he budgeted for a small increase in taxes and the overhaul of tax collection; and a sturdy line with the Bank of England, which was induced to lessen its profits, reduced the fiscal burden. Favourable loan terms were also insisted on in succeeding years and Exchequer bills funded annually, usually to the amount of less than half the value of the loan. Even so the mounting expenses of the war threatened to undermine Treasury control. On the eve of his resignation in 1809 Huskisson had warned him that such expenditure could not go on, but Perceval refused to hamper war supplies, much as they always lagged behind demand, especially in the Peninsula. A new plan of finance seemed called for, but he noted the unpopularity of that introduced by Lord Henry Petty in 1807 and, although he thought of raiding Pitt’s sinking fund and redeeming the wartime taxes every two years by additional taxes, he found it impossible to stabilize the annual loan, so he dropped such schemes in favour of annual adjustments.20 More optimistic than the financial experts, his final answer was always that the war against Buonaparte was the compelling factor. When the depreciation of paper currency and shortage of specie led to the Whig-inspired bullion committee in 1810, he resisted their conclusions, which were not debated until May 1811, precisely because to act on them would hinder the war effort, and he defiantly followed this up with a bill to make paper currency legal tender.

Perceval’s somewhat reluctant attempts to strengthen his cabinet in the spring of 1810 were unavailing: when Lord Melville’s son resigned for his father’s sake in April, he was thereupon tempted to make a bid for Sidmouth, Castlereagh and Canning and form an administration ‘which would comprehend the several persons who had at any time been connected with Mr Pitt’. But Sidmouth refused to serve with Canning, Canning prevaricated, and Castlereagh was not even asked, as the plan was for all three to be enlisted. Therefore Perceval merely reshuffled, gaining Charles Yorke and regaining Robert Saunders Dundas. Canning urged his friend Lord Wellesley to put pressure on Perceval for his inclusion in June, but Sidmouth still objected. Perceval would not consider Wellesley’s making way for Canning alone, but in July obtained cabinet approval for Wellesley’s suggestion of a joint approach to Canning and Castlereagh; the latter refusing, Canning was again frustrated. Nor could he tempt Perceval by offering him Huskisson as chancellor of the Exchequer, for Perceval was averse to Huskisson’s theories.21

The failure of the negotiations of 1810 to strengthen the government was followed by a critical blow to its stability when its chief support, the King, became insane. Perceval sought to obviate the problem by adjournment after adjournment, making himself ‘king for another fortnight’, but the House became restless and on 13 Dec. 1810 he proposed to revive the statutory restrictions on regency enacted by Pitt in 1788, though for a year only. Opposition played into his hands by proposing an address to the Prince of Wales to assume the Regency as of right and the Prince and his brothers also rebelled against the restrictions. Perceval defended his line with ‘spirited eloquence’ and of the five resolutions in the Regency bill introduced by him on 31 Dec. all were carried by small majorities, except the last, giving the Queen the presidency of the Regency council, which was rejected by 13 votes including those of Canning, Castlereagh and Wilberforce. Perceval tried and failed by three votes to redeem this defeat a day later. In the Lords there was then no difficulty, as Lord Grenville deserted the Whigs, though he, as auditor of the Exchequer, had made it impossible for Perceval to raise supplies by sign manual by withholding the authorization to use it, so that he had to resort to parliamentary authority to proceed by Treasury warrant. On 17 Jan. 1811 he thwarted with ‘manifest superiority’ an opposition bid endorsed by the Lords to restrict the Regency to six months instead of a year. Robert Ward reported that ‘since I have been in Parliament I scarce ever heard such determined cheering as followed Perceval’. The Prince’s friends were instructed to vote against him and he contemplated resigning, but fought gamely and saw the Regency bill through on 29 Jan. Nothing came of speculations about a change of ministry and on 4 Feb. the Prince gave up the Whigs and confirmed Perceval in office, though in a cold manner which suggested that the sudden prospect of the King’s recovery was his chief anxiety. It was reported that Perceval, who had seen the King and continued to obtain his approbation of the Regency proceedings, knew that the Prince could not endure him and laughed at his discomfiture. Whitbread having previously found Perceval ‘as bold as brass’ now found him ‘as saucy as a bantam cock’.22 A breach seemed inevitable, especially when the Prince unsuccessfully pressed him for places for his friends. Perceval had also prevented opposition from making capital of Irish bids for Catholic relief on the basis of a veto on episcopal appointments, 25 May 1810. Under the nom de plume of ‘AB’ he wrote Six Letters on the subject of Dr Milner’s explanation to the Morning Post, which carried fire into the enemy camp; but his main problem was to prevent the Irish government from going too far in its efforts to prevent the Catholics from convening, February 1811. To his surprise, the Regent acquiesced in opposing a Catholic convention and Perceval was able to maintain his authority over the hard-liners at Dublin Castle.

In the course of the session of 1811 Perceval went from strength to strength. ‘The country can never be under the direction of a more honourable and virtuous man’, according to the formerly critical Lord Malmesbury. Liverpool informed Wellington, ‘His character is completely established in the House of Commons; he has acquired an authority there beyond any minister in my recollection, except Mr Pitt’. Not only the country gentlemen and the City, but the more magnanimous members of opposition admired him and the Regent neglected his Whig friends in Perceval’s favour, although it was now unlikely that the King would recover. Perceval had the additional gratification of seeing the Peninsular war, which he had never ceased to defend against despondent critics at home, begin to go well, and of reinstating the Duke of York as commander-in-chief of the army in May 1811, without any anxiety about his majority in the House. If the expiry of the Regency restrictions hung over him like a sentence, ‘as hard as iron’ he survived that too. The Regent failed to induce him to accept his grandiose schemes for the King’s household or an additional £50,000 a year to his Regency grant, but insisted, against Perceval’s advice, on inviting Lords Grey and Grenville to come to terms with government. Their refusal on 15 Feb. 1812 confirmed Perceval in office, which the King, in a lucid moment, endorsed. John William Ward had observed: ‘if the Regent changes the government, he must turn out the most popular man in England, which Perceval undoubtedly is, and break with all that party which has supported his father during the whole of his long reign. In short, he must be horribly embarrassed.’ Lord Wellesley was thwarted in his wish to displace Perceval by superior influence at Carlton House, to further which he offered his resignation on the grounds of being unable to serve under Perceval, who was to have been forced to put on ‘the big wig’. Wellesley found his exodus accepted all too readily by the cabinet and the Regent and, as Perceval had intended, Castlereagh stepped into the Foreign Office, while Sidmouth, an ally on the Catholic question, was also introduced into the cabinet with his friend Lord Buckinghamshire and with provision for more of his friends on the cards. The Regent’s favour had ensured the strengthening of Perceval’s administration and when asked why he did not dissolve Parliament in March 1812, Perceval replied ‘why make well, better?’.23

The last act of Perceval’s government was to give reluctant consent to a committee of inquiry into the orders in council. Their relaxation to prevent war with the United States was a matter for negotiation in the winter of 1811-12 when the Luddite riots broke out at home, were severely dealt with and provided opposition with a lever for agitating the question. Government at first resisted inquiry, 3 Mar. 1812, but yielded in the face of a petitioning campaign. Perceval still defended the orders, despite their unpopularity. The committee was at work when Perceval was, to quote his own last word, ‘murdered’ by the maniacal gunshot of John Bellingham as, ‘talking and laughing’, he entered the lobby of the House, 11 May 1812. A politically motivated assassination was at once suspected and the mob seemed inclined to make a hero of Bellingham, but he was not their man, being by his own confession ‘neither fit for this world nor for the next’. The ‘convulsive sob’ with which Perceval died moved the House next day to vote £2,000 p.a. for Jane Perceval and £50,000 for their children, to be known in the family as ‘the blood money’.24

Making due allowance for the ‘apotheosis’ which attended a fate unique in the annals of the British premiership, Perceval was at his death the most outstanding politician in the House: ‘a cunning lawyer and a very frank man’, he had ‘an admirable way of placing the subject which he is discussing in the best point of view’. But he suffered from a reserve as to his intentions and a tendency to ‘concession and half measures’ which was doubtless due to ‘a want of decision occasioned by his honourable anxiety never to do wrong’. That was why Lord Mulgrave thought he only wanted ‘something more of the Devil to be a very good premier’. He never confided in his colleagues (except perhaps the Ryders) and conducted his own defence; he did not readily cultivate supporters and relied on his character and eloquence—for he was prepared to speak until his subject was exhausted and to claim the force majeure of ‘Mr Pitt’s brief’ to command assent in Parliament. Still, as Lord Palmerston commented, ‘it is a great thing when even the bitterest opponents of a minister dare not to impeach his integrity and honour’. Personally incorruptible, he was not eager to reward his family or friends and had no notion of calculating support by favours. Charles Williams Wynn thought that ‘had he lived, he would have been driven out of office before the end of the session’; and Perceval himself was distinctly reported to be ready to resign if defeated on Canning’s imminent motion on behalf of the Catholics, though Canning believed he would dissolve Parliament in the face of it. Once formed, his convictions were fixed, and his differing from Pitt on this issue did not shake him, though Grattan was reported in May 1812 to have been ‘saying these three years that Perceval would in the end emancipate the Catholics’. One English Catholic observed: ‘Mr Perceval was indeed against our emancipation from private prejudice, but I believe he was otherways a very honest and able minister’.25

The fact was that Perceval, ‘an enthusiast in whatever he undertakes’, was that rare bird among English premiers, a stickler for the Church of England as by law established. From 1803 until his death he sought in vain to impose residence on the clergy or adequate payment of their curates by legislation. He wished to purify and expand the national church and supported all its institutions. He submitted his cause to his God. Remarking on the confident face with which he met the world without ‘sufficient strength to carry him through’ at the outset of his ministry, Tierney added, ‘but on what it is that he relies I cannot comprehend’. He did not know of the daily prayers offered up by Perceval to sanctify his office. Chosen prime minister during a crisis, in all his insecurity he never had ‘far to fall’ and his weakness was more apparent to others than to himself. He was, moreover, fertile in expedients to maintain his position and as resilient as Punch, as Whitbread once amused the House by remarking. In fact, despite his nolo episcopari of 1809, he had no intention of resigning office to any other candidate thereafter. Wellesley Pole wrote, 28 Apr. 1810, ‘Perceval does not seem to have an idea that any change in his situation could make it more easy to form a strong administration; I do suppose no person could be found to tell him this, though certainly almost everybody thinks it’. More receptive than his colleagues to the ideas of the ‘Saints’, whose reign he was supposed to have inaugurated, he resisted their pressure to go further than his survival as a minister permitted: his motto was ‘ubi plura nitent, non ego paucis offendar maculis’. John William Ward concluded that:

there was nothing to object to in him besides his opinions. His talents were admirable, and if he had not been a lawyer he would probably have risen to the character of a great man. He wanted Mr Pitt’s splendid declamatory eloquence, but in quickness and dexterity as a debater he was (I think) hardly inferior to him. On the whole he appeared to me the most powerful man (independently of his situation) that we had in Parliament since the death of Mr Fox ... Nothing could be so gentlemanlike and fair as his management of the House of Commons. Indeed, I do not believe that in the height of his prosperity he ever showed the least mark of insolence.

The Speaker, however, complained in retrospect that ‘he was not desirous of holding high either its credit or its authority’.26

Ref Volumes: 1790-1820

Author: R. G. Thorne


Based on D. Gray, S. Perceval the Evangelical Prime Minister (1962), the Perceval (Holland) mss penes Mr David Holland and other Perceval mss in the BL. Many of Perceval’s letters were published by S. Walpole in S. Perceval (2 vols. 1874), but with alterations and omissions, so the original mss have been preferred.

  • 1. Romilly, Mems. i. 91; Windham Diary, 71; A review of the arguments in favour of the continuance of impeachments notwithstanding a dissolution (Apr. 1791) and The duties and powers of public officers with respect to violations of the public peace (1792), both in the BL; W. Cobbett, Regency and Reign of Geo. IV, 124; cf. Brydges, Autobiog. i. 297; ii. 178; Walpole, Perceval, i. 18; Add 49188, ff. 1, 16.
  • 2. Geo. III Corresp. ii. 1347, 1349; Camden mss C123/7; PRO 30/8/166, f. 72; 180, f. 235; 326, f. 50; Add. 33101, f. 368; 49184, ff. 22, 36; Walpole, i. 20-25.
  • 3. Perceval (Holland) mss 11, f. 11; Northampton Mercury, 28 Apr. 1807; PRO 30/8/166, f. 74; Gent. Mag. (1812), i. 589; Colchester, i. 86; Croker Pprs. ed. Jennings, ii. 373; Leveson Gower, i. 193; Rosebery, Pitt. 205; Walpole, 51.
  • 4. Add. 49188, f. 16; Walpole, i. 54 states that Perceval was appointed solicitor-general to the Queen. Cf. Sidmouth mss, Pitt to Addington, 27 July 1798 and Geo. III Corresp. iii. 1793, 2174.
  • 5. Sidmouth mss, Bankes to Addington, 20 June 1800; Observations intended to point out the application of a prophecy in the 11th chapter of the book of Daniel to the French power (1800). See Gray, 46.
  • 6. Harrowby mss, Perceval to Ryder, 25 Oct. 1801; Creevey mss, Creevey to Currie, 11 Mar. 1803; Farington, ii. 182; Brougham, Hist. Sketches, i. 248; Horner Mems. i. 249; Sidmouth mss, J. H. Addington to his sister, 24 Apr.; Malmesbury mss, FitzHarris to Malmesbury, 26 Apr. [1804].
  • 7. Add. 49188, f. 109; Colchester, i. 502, 511; Perceval (Holland) mss 11, f. 5; Life of Wilberforce (1838), iii. 154, 216, 231.
  • 8. Life of Wilberforce, iv. 26; Rose Diaries, ii. 262-4; HMC Lonsdale, 164.
  • 9. Perceval (Holland) mss 11, f. 10a; Harrowby mss, Ryder to Harrowby, 30 June, 5 July; Camden mss C226/10, 11; Harewood mss, Canning to his wife, 5 July 1806; HMC Bathurst, 53; Add. 42773, f. 121; HMC Lonsdale, 200, 209, 210.
  • 10. Add. 41851, ff. 262, 268; 49188, f. 17; NLW, Coedymaen mss 20, Buckingham to Williams Wynn, 10, 17 Aug., 2 Oct. Fri., Sun.; Fremantle mss, Temple to Fremantle, n.d.; St. Germans mss, Perceval to Eliot, 20 Nov.; Harrowby mss, Perceval to Ryder, 20 Nov. 1806, Ryder to Harrowby, 3 Jan., 14 Feb. 1807; SRO GD51/1/112/1, 114/2; Leveson Gower, ii. 242; Colchester, ii. 69; Brougham, iii. 63; Romilly, ii. 171; Ward, Letters to ‘Ivy’, 195, 201.
  • 11. Grey mss, Howick to Bedford, 6 Mar. 1807; Add. 49184, ff. 93, 99; 49188, ff. 29, 33, 35; Malmesbury Diaries, iv. 368; Colchester, ii. 104-5; Harewood mss, Canning to his wife, 20 Mar.; Harrowby mss, Perceval to Harrowby, 21 Mar.; NLW mss 10804, Williams Wynn to Saxton, 26 Mar. 1807; Geo. III Corresp. iv. 3408; Buckingham, Court and Cabinets, iv. 144; Yonge, Liverpool, ii. 414; Farington, iv. 103.
  • 12. Teignmouth, Reminiscences, ii. 124; Northampton Mercury, 28 Mar.; Blair Adam mss, Adam to Howick, 3 Apr. 1807; Buckingham, iv. 167, 250.
  • 13. Glenbervie Diaries, ii. 11; Life of Wilberforce, ii. 17-19; NLW mss 10804, Williams Wynn to Saxton, 21 July 1807, 20 Apr. 1808; Grey mss, Tierney to Grey, 14 Dec. 1807, 16, 24 May; Fortescue mss, Fremantle to Grenville, 24 June 1808.
  • 14. Fortescue mss, Fremantle to Grenville, ½ past 3 [9 Mar. 1809]; Geo. III Corresp. v. 3799-3841.
  • 15. Colchester, ii. 183-4, 188; Malmesbury Diaries, iv. 411.
  • 16. Perceval (Holland) mss 2, ff. 4, 7, 15; 4, ff. 1, 2, 3, 7, 8, 11-14, 18; 14, f. 10; Ward, 196; Add. 49188, f. 43.
  • 17. Walpole, ii. 27-30; Croker Pprs. i. 15-16, 22; Colchester, ii. 228; Rose Diaries, ii. 379, 382; Phipps, Plumer Ward Mems. i. 280; Life of Wilberforce, iii. 432; Lonsdale mss, Mulgrave to Lonsdale, 30 Sept. 1809; Geo. III Corresp. v. 3985; Perceval (Holland) mss 2, ff. 33, 35; 4, ff. 30, 31; A. Aspinall, Politics and the Press 1780-1850, p. 207.
  • 18. Sidmouth mss, Sidmouth to Bragge Bathurst, 12 Oct. 1809; Whitbread mss W1/913; Perceval (Holland) mss 5, f. 2; 9, ff. 4, 5, 16; Add. 49188, ff. 51, 55; NLW mss 4814, f. 88; Malmesbury Letters, ii. 146; Grey mss, Tierney to Grey, 23 Nov., 21 Dec.; Malmesbury mss, Malmesbury to FitzHarris, 5 Dec. 1809.
  • 19. Malmesbury mss, Malmesbury to FitzHarris, 4 Mar.; Harewood mss, Canning to his wife, 1 Apr. 1810; Ward, 91.
  • 20. Gray, 320, 386; Perceval (Holland) mss 14, f. 9; Add. 34458, f. 41.
  • 21. Lonsdale mss, Ward to Lonsdale, 8 Feb.; NLI, Richmond mss 66/874, 886; Add. 37295, f. 413; 45036, f. 74; Harewood mss, Canning to his wife, 28 Aug. 1810.
  • 22. Beds. RO, Lee Antonie mss UN452, Whitbread to Lee Antonie, 3 Dec.; Lonsdale mss, Ward to Lonsdale, 22 Dec. 1810, 18 Jan. [1811], Long to same, 25 Dec. 1810, Wharton to same, 1 Feb.; Richmond mss 64/723, 728, 736; Malmesbury mss, Palmerston to Malmesbury, 21 Jan., FitzHarris to same, 22 Jan. 1811; Phipps, i. 380-1; Grey mss, Whitbread to Grey, 23 Dec. 1810, 15 Feb. 1811.
  • 23. Perceval mss, Malmesbury to Perceval, 2 Jan.; Lonsdale mss, Long to Lonsdale, 9 Jan. 1811, Ward to same, 12 Mar., Perceval to same, 31 Mar. 1812; Yonge, i. 372; Phipps, i. 329, 335; Add. 52180, Allen to Horner [c. Aug. 1811]; Creevey Pprs. ed. Maxwell, i. 145; Farington, v. 188; Geo. IV Letters, i. 1; Richmond mss 363; 67/977, 990; 70/1310; Rose Diaries, ii. 477; Ward, 148; Blair Adam mss, Adam’s memo, 23 Jan.; Harewood mss, Canning to his wife, 14 Jan., 17 Feb.; Londonderry mss, Castlereagh to Stewart, 29 Jan. 1812.
  • 24. Fitzgerald, Lives of the Sheridans, ii. 90, 159; Jernyngham Letters, ii. 21; Bath Archives ed. Lady Jackson, 374; Malmesbury Letters, ii. 274.
  • 25. Sidmouth mss, Buckinghamshire to Sidmouth, 14 Oct.; Haddington mss, Binning to Saunders Dundas, 3 Nov. 1809; Add. 41853, f. 254; 51549, Lady Holland to Grey, Mon. [6 June 1808]; Lonsdale mss, Ward to Lonsdale, 19 Mar. 1810, 18 Jan. [1811]; Malmesbury mss, Palmerston to Malmesbury, 18 May; NLW mss 4814, Williams Wynn to Southey, 28 May; Richmond mss 60/277, 67/967, 73/1702, 74/1899; Harewood mss, Canning to his wife, 30 Mar. 1812; Horner mss 5, f. 176; Jernyngham Letters, ii. 21.
  • 26. Gray, 22; Grey mss, Tierney to Grey, 6 Oct., 9 Dec.; Malmesbury mss, FitzHarris to Malmesbury, 6 Dec. 1809, 29 Mar. 1810; Add. 48228, f. 26; Richmond mss 73/1685, 1687; Glos. RO, Redesdale mss C25, Perceval to Redesdale, 7 Jan. 1804; Ward, 157; Colchester, ii. 381.