Dictionary of National Biography, 1901 supplement/Gregg, William

GREGG, WILLIAM (d. 1708), conspirator, of Scottish origin, was in all probability the son of William Gregg, British envoy to Denmark, who died towards the close of 1701, and was succeeded at Copenhagen by James Vernon (d. 1756), eldest son of Secretary James Vernon [q. v.] Vernon appears to have taken the young Gregg into his service as secretary, but had to dismiss him, according to Burnet, 'for his ill qualities.' Nevertheless, when Robert Harley became secretary of state in 1706, he not only appointed Gregg to an underclerkship in his office, but extended to him an exceptional amount of confidence. That at any rate was one explanation; another was that Harley's office was always in a state of the most complete disorder, and that papers of the gravest import were open to the inspection of every clerk, doorkeeper, or laundress in the establishment. When, at the close of 1707, the antagonism between Godolphin and Harley was at its height, and the whigs were intriguing to exclude the latter from the council, intelligence came from the postmaster at Brussels that a packet of letters from the secretary's office, addressed to the French minister, Chamillart, had been opened upon advice received, and had been found to contain copies of important state papers; a covering note indicated that the copies were sent by Gregg. Gregg was arrested on 1 Jan. 1708, was examined by Sunderland on 3 Jan., and forthwith committed to Newgate. He was tried at the Old Bailey on 9 Jan. for correspondence with France, pleaded guilty, and was sentenced to death. The culprit pleaded in extenuation poverty and debt, but swore positively that he had no participator in his crime. The whig leaders, however, eager to obtain matter against Harley, were in great hopes that the unfortunate man would say something to convict his chief of complicity. The House of Lords formed a committee of seven to examine Gregg, and placed upon it Somerset and two other dukes, besides Wharton, Townsend, Halifax, and Somers. The committee went to Newgate on 7 Feb., and informed Gregg that if he would make a full confession he might rely upon the intercession of the house.

In spite of the temptation thus dangled before him the poor fellow adhered manfully to the truth of his first statement. The committee had the cruelty to keep the condemned man in suspense for three months. At length, in bitter disappointment at making no other discovery than that the business of the secretary's office was conducted in a strangely lax manner, they sent the queen a recommendation that the execution should take place. Gregg was hanged at Tyburn on 28 April 1708, and, having been quartered, his head was placed on Westminster Hall. Before he met his fate he delivered a paper to the ordinary, in which he solemnly exculpated Harley from all participation in his offence. He also left a letter, the contrite tenor of which was warmly commended by Hearne. Harley, though he found it necessary during the second week in February 1708 to resign his secretaryship, had the generosity to allow the widow a pension of fifty pounds annually out of his private purse.

[The Address of the Lords concerning W. Gregg, 1708, fol.; P. Lorrain, Ordinary of Newgate, his account of the Life and Death of W. Gregg, 1708, 8vo; A Copy of W. Gregg's Paper delivered to the Sheriffs, s. sh. fol. 1708; A Letter to the Seven Lords appointed to examine Gregg, 1711; Some Remarks upon 'A Letter to the Seven Lords ' by the Author of the Examiner (written or at least supervised by Swift), 1711; Hoffman's Secret Transactions during the Hundred Days Mr. W. Gregg lay in Newgate, 1711, and More Secret Transactions, 1711, 8vo; Boyer's Queen Anne, 1735, pp. 317-18, 333, 368; Hearne's Collections, ed. Doble, ii. 89, 104, 107; Luttrell's Brief Hist. Relation, v. 130, vi. 252-297; Burnet's Own Time, 1857, pp. 821-2; The Examiner, Nos. 32, 3 3, and 40 (by Swift); Ralph's Answer to the Duchess of Marlborough; Oldmixon's History, 1735, iii. 397; Wyon's Queen Anne, 1876, ii. 10-12; Alison's Marlborough, i. 362-3; Swift's Works, ed. Scott, ii. 388 sq., iii. 422, 481, iv. 34 sq.; Somers's Tracts, 1815, xiii. 96-117 (containing the Letter to the Lords, Swift's Answer, and Hoffman's Secret Transactions).]

T. S.