British Executions

William Gregg

Age: unknown

Sex: male

Crime: spying

Date Of Execution: 28 Apr 1708

Crime Location:

Execution Place: unknown

Method: hanging

Executioner: unknown



Spy, executed at Tyburn on the 28th of April, 1708

 High treason is by the law accounted the highest civil crime which can be committed by any member of the community. After various alterations and amendments made and repealed in subsequent reigns, the definition of this offence was settled as it originally stood, by the Act of the 25th of Edward Ill stat. 5, cap. 2, and may be divided into seven different heads:

1. Compassing, or imagining, the death of the king, queen, or heir apparent.

2. Levying war against the king in his realm.

3. Adhering to the king's enemies, and giving them aid, in the realm, or elsewhere.
[It has been thought necessary by the legislature to explain and enlarge these clauses of the Act 25 Edward III as not extending, with sufficient explicitness, to modern treasonable attempts. It is therefore provided by the Act 36 George III cap. 7, 'That if any person (during the life of his present Majesty, and until the end of the session of Parliament next after a demise of the crown) shall within the realm, or without, compass, imagine, invent, devise, or intend, death or destruction, or any bodily harm, tending to death or destruction, maim or wounding, imprisonment or restraint of the person of the king, his heirs and successors, or to deprive or depose him or them, from his style, honour, or kingly name, or to levy war against the king within this realm, in order by force to compel him to change his measures, or in order to put any force or constraint upon, or to intimidate or overawe, both houses, or either house, of Parliament: or to incite any foreigner to invade the dominions of the crown: and such compassings, etc., shall express, utter, or declare, by publishing and printing or writing, or by any other overt act or deed,' —- the offender shall be deemed a traitor, and punished accordingly.]

4. Slaying the king's chancellor or judge in the execution of their offices.

5. Violating the queen, the eldest daughter of the king, or the wife of the heir apparent, or eldest son.

6. Counterfeiting the king's great seal, or privy seal.

7. Counterfeiting the king's money, or bringing false money into the kingdom.

 This detail shows how much the dignity and security of the king's person is confounded with that of his officers, and even with his effigies impressed on his coin. To assassinate the servant, or to counterfeit the type, is held as criminal as to destroy the sovereign.

 This indiscriminate blending of crimes, so different and disproportionate in their nature, under one common head, is certainly liable to great objections, seeing that the judgment in this offence is so extremely severe and terrible, viz. 'That the offender be drawn to the gallows on the ground or pavement; that he be hanged by the neck, and then cut down alive; that his entrails be taken out and burnt, while yet alive; that his head be cut off; that his body be divided into four parts; and that his head and quarters be at the king's disposal.'

 William Gregg was born at Montrose, in Scotland, and having received the common instructions in the grammar-school of that own, finished his education in the university of Aberdeen, and was intended by his friends for the study of divinity; but his inclination leading him to seek for advancement in the state, he came to London, and soon afterwards went abroad as secretary to the ambassador to the court of Sweden.

 Gregg, during his residence abroad, debauched a Swedish lady, and was guilty of some other irregularities; in consequence of which the ambassador dismissed him from his service, and he was glad to embark for London in the first ship that sailed.

 As soon as he arrived in London, he was engaged by Mr Secretary Harley, to write dispatches; and letters of great importance were left unsealed, and perused by Gregg. As the account of this malefactor, which was given by the ordinary of Newgate, is very superficial and unsatisfactory, we shall give the following extracts respecting him, from Bishop Burnett's history:

 At this time two discoveries were made very unlucky for Mr Harley: Tallard wrote often to Chamillard, but he sent the letters open to the secretary's office, to be perused and sealed up, and so be conveyed by the way of Holland. These were opened upon some suspicion in Holland, and it appeared, that one in the secretary's office put letters in them, in which, as he offered his service to the courts of France and St Germain's, so he gave an account of all transactions here. In one of these he sent a copy of the letter that the queen was to write in her own hand to the emperor; and he marked what parts were drawn by the secretary, and what additions were made to it by the lord treasurer. This was the letter by which the queen pressed the sending prince Eugene into Spain; and this, if not intercepted, would have been at Versailles many days before it could reach Vienna.

 He who sent this wrote, that by this they might see what service he could do them, if well encouraged. All this was sent over to the duke of Marlborough; and upon search it was found to have been written by Gregg, whom Harley had not only entertained, but taken into a particular confidence, without inquiring into the former parts of his life; for he was a vicious and a necessitous person, who had been secretary to the queen's envoy in Denmark, but was dismissed by him for his ill qualities. Harley had made use of him to get him intelligence, and he came to trust him with the perusal and sealing up of the letters, which the French prisoners, here in England, sent over to France, and by that means he got into the method of sending intelligence thither. He, when seized on, either upon remorse or hopes of pardon, confessed all, and signed his confession; upon that he was tried, and, pleading guilty, was condemned as a traitor, for corresponding with the queen's enemies.

 At the same time Valiere and Bara, whom Harley had employed as his spies to go often over to Calais, under the pretence of bringing him intelligence, were informed against, as spies employed by France to get intelligence from England, who carried over many letters to Calais and Boulogne, and, as was believed, gave such information of our trade and convoys, that by their means we had made our great losses at sea. They were often complained of upon suspicion, but they were always protected by Harley; yet the presumptions against them were so violent, that they were at last seized on, and brought up prisoners.

 The Whigs took such advantage of this circumstance, that Mr Harley was obliged to resign, and his enemies were inclined to carry matters still further, and were resolved, if possible, to find out evidence enough to affect his life. With this view, the House Lords ordered a committee to examine Gregg, and the other prisoners, who were very assiduous in the discharge of their commission, as will appear by the following account written by same author:

 The lords who were appointed to examine Gregg, could not find out much by him: he had but newly begun his designs of betraying secrets, and he had no associates with him in it. He told them, that all the papers of state lay so carelessly about the office, that every one belonging to it, even the door-keepers might have read them all. Harley's custom was to come to the office late on post-nights, and after he had given his orders, and written his letters, he usually went away, and left all to be copied out when he was gone. By that means he came to see every thing, in particular the queen's letter to the emperor. He said, he knew the design on Toulon in May last, but he did not discover it; for he had not entered on his ill practices till October. This was all he could say.

 By the examination of Valiere and Bara, and of many others who lived about Dover, and were employed by them, a discovery was made of a constant intercourse they were in with Calais, under Harley's protection. They often went over with boats full of wool, and brought back brandy, though both the import and export were severely prohibited. They, and those who belonged to the boats carried over by them, were well treated on the French side at the governor's house or at the commissary's: they were kept there till their letters were sent to Paris, and till returns could be brought back, and were all the while upon free cost. The order that was constantly given them was, that if an English or Dutch vessel came up with them, they should cast their letters into the sea, but that they should not do it when French ships came up with them: so they were looked on by all on that coast as the spies of France. They used to get what information they could, both of merchant-ships, and of the ships of war that lay in the Downs, and upon that they usually went over; and it happened that soon after some of those ships were taken. These men, as they were papists, so they behaved themselves insolently, and boasted much of their power and credit.

 Complaints had been often made of them, but they were always protected; nor did it appear that they ever brought any information of importance to Harley but once, when, according to what they swore, they told him that Fourbin was gone from Dunkirk, to lie in wait for the Russian fleet; which proved to be true; he both went to watch for them, and he took a great part of the fleet. Yet though this was the single piece of intelligence that they ever brought, Harley took so little notice of it, that he gave no advertisement to the admiralty concerning it. This particular excepted they only brought over common news, and the Paris gazetteer. These examinations lasted for some weeks. When they were ended, a full report was made of them to the house of lords, and they ordered the whole report, with all the examinations, to be laid before the queen.

 Gregg was convicted on the statute of Edward III, which declares it high treason 'to adhere to the king's enemies, or to give them aid either within or without the realm.'

 Immediately after his conviction, both houses of Parliament petitioned the queen that he might be executed; and he accordingly hanged at Tyburn, with Morgridge, on the 28th April, 1708.

 Gregg, at the place of execution, delivered a paper to the sheriff of London and Middlesex, in which he acknowledged the justice of his sentence, declared his sincere repentance of all his sins, particularly that lately committed against the queen, whose forgiveness he devoutly implored.

 He likewise expressed his wish to make all possible reparation for the injuries he had done; begged pardon in a particular manner of Mr Secretary Harley, and testified the perfect innocence of that gentleman, declaring that he was no way privy, directly or indirectly, to his writing to France. He professed that he died an unworthy member of the Protestant church, and that the want of money to supply his extravagances had tempted him to commit the fatal crime which cost him his life.