Speke, Hugh (DNB00)

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SPEKE, HUGH (1656–1724?), political agitator, born in 1656, was the second son of George Speke of White Lackington, near Ilminster, a descendant of the ancient Yorkshire family of Le Espek or Espec [see Espec, Walter], a branch of which migrated from the north to Somerset during the fifteenth century. His mother was Mary, daughter of Sir Robert Pye, knt. [q. v.]

The father, George Speke (d. 1690), gave some pecuniary aid to Prince Rupert at Bridgwater, upon the surrender of which town to Fairfax in July 1645 he was seized as a hostage and his goods sequestrated. Before the end of 1645 he was transferred from the Tower to the Gatehouse, where he pleaded compulsion as his motive for joining the king's party, and poverty as a reason for the reduction of his fine. His income, he alleged, was but 540l. a year, and that was heavily encumbered. He eventually compounded for 2,390l., and was released upon payment of that sum in May 1646. He lived in retirement until, in August 1679, he was chosen M.P. for the county of Somerset, at the same time that his third son John was returned for Ilchester. Parting company with his old allies—the Courtenays, the Seymours, and the Portmans—he now threw himself into the politics of the country party, joined the Green Ribbon Club with a son (‘Mr. Speake junior’), and voted for the Exclusion Bill of 1680. He rendered himself still further obnoxious to the court by extending a brilliant reception to Monmouth at White Lackington, during his progress in November 1681, and he was alleged to have said that he would have forty thousand men to assist the cause of Monmouth should the need arise. A heavy fine was imposed upon him for having, it was alleged, created a riot in rescuing his son-in-law, (Sir) John Trenchard [q. v.], from the custody of a messenger in June 1685. In May 1689 he petitioned in vain for the remission of the fine. He died soon after the revolution. From his younger brother, William, was descended the explorer, John Hanning Speke [q. v.]

Hugh Speke matriculated at Oxford from St. John's College on 1 July 1672, but took no degree: eight years later he was entered at Lincoln's Inn. Soon afterwards he and his brother Charles joined the Green Ribbon Club. Hugh first became prominent in 1683, when he inspired and partly wrote ‘An Enquiry into and Detection of the Barbarous Murder of the Late Earl of Essex, or a Vindication of that noble Person from the Guile and Infamy of having destroy'd Himself’ [see Braddon, Laurence]. The substance of this diffuse pamphlet, which was printed at a private press controlled, if not actually owned, by Speke, he summarised in a letter to his friend, Sir Robert Atkyns [q. v.], in which it was not obscurely hinted that the Earl of Essex had been assassinated by the partisans of the Duke of York. With a view to disparaging the government and earning credit for themselves as the revealers of yet another plot, Speke and his ally, Laurence Braddon, intrigued to disperse as many copies as possible of this ‘Letter,’ and at the same time, if possible, to acquire fresh materials with which to discredit James and his adherents. In the autumn of 1683 Braddon was arrested at Bradford in Wiltshire, ‘for spreading false news,’ and a copy of Speke's ‘Letter’ was found on his person.

For his complicity in this affair Speke was placed in the custody of a messenger, Thomas Saywell, and detained eighteen weeks before he was admitted to bail. A few days after his release he was re-arrested in his barrister's gown at the gate of Westminster Hall, in an action of scandalum magnatum at the suit of the Duke of York, and imprisoned in the Gatehouse. The charge was altered to one of sedition, which was preferred by the attorney-general before Jeffreys in the king's bench on 7 Feb. 1683. Jeffreys admonished the prisoner with gentleness, in the hope that he would still be reclaimed from the ‘presbyterian party.’ He was sentenced to pay 1,000l., and to find security for his good behaviour. Declining to pay the fine, he spent upwards of three years in the king's bench prison. His imprisonment probably saved his life. His father and brother-in-law, (Sir) John Trenchard, had to take to flight in order to escape arrest upon Monmouth's landing at Lyme Regis, and his younger brother, Charles, who had joined Monmouth, was tried before Jeffreys at Wells, and executed at Ilminster, where he was hanged from a large tree in the market-place in July 1685 (cf. Western Martyrology, ed. 1873, p. 228).

During his confinement, Speke acquired a printing-press which he kept working within the rules of the king's bench. He made the acquaintance of Samuel Johnson [q. v.], the divine, and other disaffected persons; and from his press was issued Johnson's notable ‘Address to all the English Protestants in the present Army’ (1686). Ultimately, upon the payment of 5,000l. to the exchequer as a pledge of his own and his family's good behaviour, Speke was set at liberty in 1687. The sum was devoted to strengthening the fortifications of Portsmouth Harbour. Upon his release, Speke left London for Exeter, where he was chosen counsel to the municipality. When, however, towards the end of August 1688, rumours began to be circulated as to the possibility of another western invasion, Speke thought it more politic to return to London. He made his way to Whitehall, and ‘diligently observed the countenances of the courtiers.’ Some of the latter appear to have suggested to the king the important use that might be made of a west-countryman, like Speke, who had suffered injury from the government, in the event of the Prince of Orange's landing. The king actually saw Speke, who was profuse in his offers of service, at Chiffinch's lodgings. Eventually, James offered him 10,000l. if he would introduce himself as a spy into the camp of the prince. To win the king's confidence he declined the reward, set out on 7 Nov. 1688, with three passes signed by Lord Feversham ‘for all hours, times, and seasons, without interruption or denial;’ proceeded to Exeter, gave his passes to Bentinck, who made ‘no little use of them,’ obtained the confidence of the Prince of Orange, to whom he was devoted ‘from principle,’ and wrote letters at the prince's dictation to the king. These letters were adroitly calculated to work upon James's fears and excite his distrust of those around him by pretending that his chief officers only waited the opportunity to desert him. The desertion of Prince George of Denmark, and of the Duke of Ormonde at Andover, served to confirm the king in the high opinion that he formed at this juncture of Speke's discernment.

About the middle of December, when the London mob were beginning to rifle the houses of the catholics in a pretended search for arms, and when the secret presses were working day and night, a remarkable document was found one morning by a whig bookseller under his shop door. The document professed to be a supplemental declaration under the hand and seal of the Prince of Orange. In it good protestants were adjured, as they valued all that was dear to them, and commanded under pain of the prince's highest displeasure, to seize, disarm, and imprison their catholic neighbours. Injunctions so congenial to the populace were soon printed and widely circulated, and had no little effect in inflaming the rabble against the objects of their dislike. Some of the results were seen on the night of 21 Dec., when the Spanish ambassador's house and most of the Roman catholic chapels in London were looted. William of course disclaimed all responsibility for the spurious proclamation. Ferguson and others were suspected; but it was not until 1709, in his ‘Memoirs of the most Remarkable Passages and Transactions of the Revolution’ (Dublin, 16mo, and 8vo abbreviated), that, in answer to a libel called ‘A Diary of Several Reports’ (1704), Speke proudly avowed that he was responsible not only for the ‘Third Declaration,’ as it was called, but also for the circulation of the alarming rumours which brought about the shameful panic known as the ‘Irish night.’ The declaration, dated ‘Sherburn Castle, 28 Nov. 1688’ (O.S.), is printed in full in Speke's pamphlet, which he dedicated to Thomas, earl of Wharton. He subsequently modified his narrative, and called it ‘The Secret History of the Happy Revolution in 1688 … humbly dedicated to his most Gracious Majesty King George by the principal Transactor in it [i.e. Hugh Speke],’ London, 1715, 8vo. In this pamphlet the spurious ‘declaration,’ the ‘Irish conspiracy,’ and James's flight are ‘all unfolded and set in the clearest light by the only person who was the author and manager of them.’ The dedication was equivalent to an appeal to the new king to reward his eminent services.

He had made a similar appeal to Anne upon her accession, claiming as a basis of a suitable recognition that the fine of 5,000l. which he had paid in 1687 should be refunded. Godolphin reported on his petition to the privy council in May 1703, and Speke, as ‘an object of compassion,’ was allowed 100l. He then went to Ireland, and seems to have been promised some employment by Harley. He wrote several letters to Ormonde from Dublin during 1710–11 (Hist. MSS. Comm. 7th Rep. App. pp. 782, 813).

Though an egregious liar (as where he states that his father had paid 10,000l. for his composition), there is no valid reason for disputing Speke's admission that, out of hatred for James II, he had deceived him by false reports, or that he forged the criminal ‘Declaration.’ The probability is that he told only half the truth, and that, with that passion for intrigue which the popish plot had engendered among men of his stamp, he was guilty of other manœuvres even more treacherous and ambiguous in character than any he revealed. It is tolerably clear that in some way he became quite discredited during the reign of William, from whom, in response to the most extravagant claims, it appears that Speke never received more than a few doles of money amounting in all to no more than 500l. (see his begging letter to Thomas Pelham, dated 17 Oct. 1698, in Addit. MS. 33084, f. 131); and it is highly significant that his pamphlets were not put forth until death had removed a number of chief actors in the revolution from the scene. George I seems to have paid no regard to his appeal, though the writer had it translated into French for the king's benefit. In March 1719 Speke was residing at High Wycombe with a Dr. Lluellyn, on whose behalf he wrote a letter to Sir Hans Sloane. He probably died between that date and 1725.

[Foster's Alumni Oxon. 1500–1714; Burke's Landed Gentry; Roberts's Life of Monmouth, passim; Burnet's Own Time; Eachard's Hist. of England, p. 1131; Mackintosh's Hist. of the Revolution; Lingard's Hist. vol. x.; Macaulay's Hist.; Luttrell's Brief Hist. Relation, vol. i. Ellis Correspondence, i. 194, ii. 356; Sir George Sitwell's The First Whig, pp. 197, 199, 200; Notes and Queries, 1st ser. xii. 403; Secret Consults, 137, 140; Speke's Works in Brit. Mus. Library, and a copy of his ‘Secret History’ in the London Library, containing a manuscript note in Speke's own hand.]

T. S.