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‘Little P’: the Life and Times of Spencer Perceval

R.E. Foster shows that we should know more of Perceval than the manner of his untimely death.

Roughly midway through The Pickwick Papers, the eponymous hero finds himself in court before the magistrate Mr Nupkins. Mr Pickwick requests that the two meet privately together with his servant, Sam Weller. ‘Mr Nupkins turned suddenly pale. Could the man Weller, in a moment of remorse, have divulged some secret conspiracy for his assassination? It was a dreadful thought. He was a public man: and he turned paler, as he thought of Julius Caesar and Mr Perceval.’ Dickens’ readers would have been familiar enough with this allusion when Pickwick was published, in 1836-7, but modern editions of the book usually require an editor’s note to explain that in May 1812 Spencer Perceval became the only British Prime Minister ever to have been assassinated. He belongs to that rare breed, the forgotten Prime Minister. We cannot even be sure of his height but he was probably no more than 5 feet 4 inches tall, something which prompted Lord Eldon to give him the sobriquet ‘Little P’. The twenty-first-century student finds Perceval, if at all, sandwiched in AS/A2 specifications between those two exam giants, William Pitt the Younger and Lord Liverpool. This is a distortion, however. Perceval’s career does repay investigation, not least for the light it sheds on the working of politics in early nineteenth-century Britain at a time of unprecedented challenge and change for the nation.

Perceval’s Career to 1809

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