HERE we again find a hidden spark in the hotbed of rebellion, shooting out of its expiring embers. This man, like all rebels, was a mere enthusiast, plotting deep mischief, but like Colonel Despard, hereafter named, without a shadow of possibility to carry his wickedness into effect.
Mr. Layer was born of very respectable parents, and received a very liberal education, which being completed at the university, he was entered a student to the honourable society of the Inner Temple. After the customary time he was called to the bar, entered on the profession of a counsellor at law, and had so much practice, that he seemed to be in the high road of making a large fortune.
Francis Atterbury, Bishop of Rochester, had been disabled from holding his preferments in the church, by an act of parliament passed in the year 1722, and was banished from England for life, for his treasonable practices; and about this period several other persons were concerned in similar designs, among whom counsellor Layer was one of the most distinguished.
This infatuated man made a journey to Rome, where he held several conferences with the Pretender, to whom he promised that he would effect so secret a revolution in England, that no person in authority should be apprized of the scheme till it had actually taken place.
Impressed with the idea that it was possible to carry his scheme into execution, he came to England with a determination to effect it. His plan was to hire an assassin to murder the king, on his return from Kensington; and this being done, the other parties engaged in the plot, were to seize the guards; and the Prince of Wales and his children, and the great officers of state were to be seized and confined during the confusion that such an event would naturally produce.
Among others concerned in this strange scheme was Lord Grey, an ancient nobleman of the Roman Catholic religion, who died a prisoner in the Tower, before the necessary legal proceedings against him could take place.
Mr. Layer having settled a correspondence with several Roman Catholics, non-jurors, and other persons disaffected to the government, he engaged a small number of disbanded soldiers, who were to be the principal actors in the intended tragedy. The counsellor met these soldiers at a public-house at Stratford, in Essex, where he gave them the necessary instructions for seizing the king on his return from the palace, and even fixed on the day when the plan was to be carried into execution.
Some of the people of the public-house having overheard the conversation, spoke of it publicly in the neighbourhood; and some other circumstances of suspicion arising, Mr. Layer was taken into custody by one of the king's messengers, in consequence of a warrant from the secretary of state.
At this time Mr. Layer had two women in keeping, one in Southampton-buildings, and the other in Queen-street, to both of whom he had given intimations of the scheme he had in hand. The lodgings of these women were searched, such a number of treasonable papers being found, that the intentions of the counsellor appeared evident. When he was apprized that his papers were seized, and the women bound to give evidence against him, he dispatched a messenger to the secretary of state, informing him that he would make a discovery of all he knew, if he might be permitted the use of pen, ink, and paper. This requisition was instantly complied with, and it was the prevailing opinion that he would have been admitted an evidence against his accomplices, if he had made the promised discovery: but it will appear that he had no such intention.
Behind the house of the messenger in which he was confined, there was a yard, which communicated with the yard of a public-house adjoining, and Mr. Layer thought, if he could get from his confinement, it would be no difficult matter to escape through the taproom of the ale-house, where it was not probable that he should be known.
Having digested his plan, he cut the blankets of his bed into pieces, and tied them together, and in the dusk of the evening dropped from his window; but falling on a bottle-rack in the yard, he overset it; and the noise occasioned by the breaking of the bottles was such that the family was alarmed; but Layer escaped during the confusion occasioned by this incident.
Almost distracted by the loss of his prisoner, the messenger went in search of him, and finding that he had taken a boat at the Horse-ferry, Westminster, he crossed the water after him, pursued him through St: George's Fields, and caught him at Newington Butts. Having brought him back to his house, and guarded him properly for that night, he was examined by the secretary of state on the following day, and committed to Newgate.
The king and council now determined that no time should be lost in bringing Layer to trial; wherefore a writ was issued from the crown office, directed to the sheriff of Essex, commanding him to empanel a grand jury, to inquire into such bills as should be presented against the prisoner; in consequence of which the jury met at Rumford, and found a bill against him for high treason, which was returnable in the court of King's-bench.
Soon after the bill was found, the trial came on before Sit John Pratt, lord chief justice and the other judges of that court. Mr. Layer had two counsellors to plead for him, and they urged every possible argument that could be thought of in his behalf; contesting every minute circumstance with the counsel for the crown, during a trial that lasted sixteen hours; but at length the jury found the prisoner Guilty, after having been out of court about an hour.
When the prisoner was brought up to receive sentence, his counsel made another effort in his behalf, by urging the informality of some of the legal proceedings against him; but their arguments being thought insufficient, the sentence ordained by the law was passed on.
As he had some important affairs to settle, from the nature of his profession, the court did not order his execution till more than two months after he had been condemned; and the king repeatedly reprieved him, to prevent his clients being sufferers by his affairs being left in a state of confusion.
After conviction, Mr. Layer was committed to the Tower, and at length the sheriffs of London and Middlesex received a warrant to execute the sentence of the law; in consequence of which he was drawn on a sledge to Tyburn, dressed in a suit of black full trimmed, and a tie-wig.
At the place of execution, he was assisted in his devotions by a non-juring clergyman; and when these were ended, he spoke to the surrounding multitude, declaring that he deemed King James (so he called the pretender) his lawful sovereign. He said that King George was an usurper, and damnation would be the fate of those who supported his government. He insisted that the nation would never be in a state of peace till the Pretender was restored; and therefore advised the people to take up arms in his behalf: he professed himself willing to die for the cause; and expressed great hopes that Providence would effectually support the right heir to the throne on some future occasion, though himself had failed of being the happy instrument of placing him thereon.
After he was hanged, his body being quartered, his head was placed over Temple-bar.