William Gregg was hanged and quartered on this date in 1708 as a French spy.
Given a recent near-miss prosecution for counterfeiting — his pregnant wife saved Gregg’s bacon by taking the blame, and had her hand branded for the trouble — Gregg wasn’t the type who would get a security waiver in the diplomatic corps nowadays.
But the job market is all about who you know, and Gregg’s father knew the previous Home Secretary.* The young man therefore pulled an impecunious appointment to an underclerkship for that same office under the management of Robert Harley.
Harley was a powerful minister who among other things consummated the tricky union of England and Scotland. He was also — according to the writer Daniel Defoe, whose able quill Harley had obtained by relieving the writer’s debts when they were so heavy as to land him in prison — an inveterate slob. Defoe claims that he reprimanded his boss for the “most complete disorder” in his office, in which strewn everywhere “papers of the gravest import were open to the inspection of every clerk, doorkeeper, or laundress in the establishment.”
Gregg was the man who would succumb to the temptation.
Getting by on Bob Cratchit wages, Gregg realized that he was essentially working in a gold mine … and he started selling the bullion to France, by copying interesting documents and sending them abroad.
The treason was detected by a Brussels postmaster late in 1707: evidently Gregg sent his copies to the French ministry with a helpful cover letter identifying himself by name.
This crime had deep political ramifications; Whigs who had within living memory suffered the indignity of seeing their greatest leaders sent to the block by the Tories after the Monmouth rebellion entertained some vivid plans for the Tory Harley once Gregg was arrested.
But the man who would sell his country for gold would not sell his boss for his life. Condemned to die a traitor’s death on January 9, Gregg languished more than three months while Whig lords inveigled him with promises of mercy if he should condescend to expose a wider Tory plot. Gregg staunchly stuck to his story: that it was he alone who committed espionage, and the means was nothing but Harley’s untidiness. The scandal was sufficient to force Harley’s resignation, but Gregg’s failure to cooperate denied Harley’s enemies a wider and bloodier purge.
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.
* The Home Office technically only dates to 1782. Its predecessor post as it existed in the first years of the eighteenth century was actually Secretary of State for the Northern Department.