Admiral John Byng (baptised 29 October 1704 – 14 March 1757) was a Royal Navy officer who was court-martialled and executed by firing squad. After joining the navy at the age of thirteen, he participated at the Battle of Cape Passaro in 1718. Over the next thirty years he built up a reputation as a solid naval officer and received promotion to vice-admiral in 1747. He also served as Commodore-Governor of Newfoundland Colony in 1742, Commander-in-Chief, Leith, 1745 to 1746 and was a member of parliament from 1751 until his death.
Portrait of John Byng by Thomas Hudson, 1749
|Born||baptised 29 October 1704|
Southill, Bedfordshire, England
|Died||14 March 1757 (aged 52)|
|Years of service||1718–1757|
|Commands held||Newfoundland Station|
|Battles/wars||Seven Years' War|
Byng failed to relieve a besieged British garrison during the Battle of Minorca at the beginning of the Seven Years' War. He had sailed for Minorca at the head of a hastily assembled fleet of vessels, some of which were in poor condition. He fought an inconclusive engagement with a French fleet off the Minorca coast, and then elected to return to Gibraltar to repair his ships. Upon return to Britain, Byng was court-martialled and found guilty of failing to "do his utmost" to prevent Minorca falling to the French. He was sentenced to death and, after pleas for clemency were denied, was shot dead by a firing squad on 14 March 1757.
John Byng was born at Southill Park in the parish of Southhill in Bedfordshire, England, the fourth son of Rear-Admiral George Byng, 1st Viscount Torrington (later Admiral of the Fleet). His father George Byng had supported King William III in his successful bid to be crowned King of England in 1689 and had seen his own stature and fortune grow. He was a highly skilled naval commander, had won distinction in a series of battles, and was held in esteem by the monarchs whom he served. In 1721, he was rewarded by King George I with a viscountcy, being created Viscount Torrington.
Byng entered the Royal Navy in March 1718, aged 13, when his father was a well-established admiral at the peak of a uniformly successful career. Early in his career, Byng was assigned to a series of Mediterranean postings. In 1723, aged 19, he was promoted lieutenant, and at 23, rose to become captain of HMS Gibraltar. His Mediterranean service continued until 1739 and was without much action. In 1742 he was appointed Commodore-Governor of the British colony of Newfoundland. He was promoted to rear-admiral in 1745, and appointed Commander-in-Chief, Leith a post he held till 1746. Byng, stationed off of Scotland, thwarted the resupply of the Pretender, James Francis Edward Stuart during the 1745 Jacobite Rebellion. The admiral also assisted the Duke of Cumberland in Britain's crackdown after the Battle of Culloden. He was promoted to vice-admiral in 1747 and appointed Commander-in-Chief of the Mediterranean Fleet. He served as a Member of Parliament for Rochester from 1751 until his death.
Having purchased a large estate in Hertfordshire, in 1754 Byng commissioned the building within it of Wrotham Park, a Palladian mansion. It is doubtful that he ever lived there. Byng never married and the house was left to a brother's eldest son, a descendant of whom still owns it.
Battle of MinorcaEdit
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The island of Minorca had been a British possession since 1708, when it was captured during the War of the Spanish Succession. On the approach of the Seven Years' War, numerous British diplomats based in the Mediterranean raised the alarm, Minorca was threatened by a French naval attack from Toulon. Since 1748, British downsizing of the Royal Navy meant that only three Ships-of-the-line, or Men of War, were assigned to protect trading interests in the Mediterranean by 1755. The London Evening Post had reported as far back as April of 1755 that Toulon was outfitting twelve brand new "men of war." . Lord George Anson, head of the Admiralty, chose to focus instead on preventing a French invasion, keeping warships close to Britain.
Byng was given orders to raise a fleet on 11 March 1756, with only six of ten assigned ships present in Portsmouth, and all of them severely undermanned. Byng's orders were multiplex, his first target being the alleged new French fleet at Toulon, the British garrison of Fort St Philip, at Port Mahon was a secondary concern. Despite his protests, he was not given enough money or time to prepare the expedition properly. His fleet was delayed in Portsmouth for over a month, and Byng was ordered by the Admiralty Office to outfit other channel ships ahead of his own fleet. Additionally, half of his assigned ships were in disrepair or missing. When the Defiance pulled into Portsmouth, for example, the warship was missing its fore and main topmast.  By 6 April, still short of over 800 men, Byng set sail from Portsmouth using Colonel Robert Bertie's Fuziliers in place of sailors. While en route, The French Toulon fleet, on 17 April 1756, escorted over 1,000 tartans and transport ships landing 15,000 troops under the command of General Richelieu at Cuitadella, on the far west end of Minorca.
Byng arrived at Gibraltar and told of the French landing. Remarkably, General Thomas Fowke, then in command at Gibraltar, held a war council and refused to supply Byng with a regiment of marines as ordered by the War Office. Further, naval facilities at Gibraltar were dilapidated. Byng wrote a letter to the Admiralty Office explaining the situation as dire, many military historians have interpreted that dispatch as Byng preparing for failure. Byng did not believe that the garrison could hold out against the French force. Without marines to land, and with only fuziliers to lend the garrison (which would render his fleet - once again - severely undermanned), Byng nonetheless steered his fleet toward Minorca to assess the situation for himself. Byng sailed on 8 May 1756. On 19 May, Byng's fleet appeared off of Port Mahon and he endeavoured to open communications with the fort. The French squadron, however, appeared before he could open up a line of communication with any fort officer.
The Battle of Minorca was fought on the following day. Byng had gained the weather gage which both forces had attempted to gain. However, the two fleets were not parallel with one another. Byng called for a lasking manoeuvre, meaning that all his ships would turn in unison and, with the wind behind them, sail straight toward the enemy bow first. But Captain Thomas Andrews of the Defiance, the lead ship due to the angled approach, did not steer directly for the first French ship in the enemy's line but, instead, steered a parallel course. The Portland, Buckingham, Lancaster and Portland followed the example set by the Defiance. It took two cannon shots from Byng's flagship, the Ramillies, and some ten to fifteen minutes for the admiral to redirect the lasking. But by this time, the French Admiral ordered his ships to pull more sail and lead away from Byng's attempted lasking. This delay cost Byng the element of surprise, but it also allowed the French to make the rest of the battle a "running fight", as Captain Augustus Hervey later called it. Because of the angle, the leading van took the brunt of the damage. The last ship in that squadron, the Intrepid, was heavily damaged, losing three of its masts including the main. The next three ships, the Revenge, Princess Louisa, and Trident did not pass the now listing Intrepid to keep the sanctity of the battle line. Instead, those ships nearly collided with one another, with Captain Frederick Cornwall of the Revenge eventually navigating his ship between the Intrepid and the enemy. Byng's battle line was broken. It costs Byng twenty to thirty minutes to reform the line and once the line was reformed, the French pulled full sail and expediently pulled away. Byng was told by Captain Arthur Gardiner, his flag captain that he could set full sail for the enemy thus provide an example to the three bottled-up ships on what to do. Byng declined recalling that Admiral Thomas Mathews had been dismissed for doing so at the Battle of Toulon in 1744. After four to four and a half hours, neither side lost a ship in the engagement, and casualties were roughly even, with 43 British sailors killed and 168 wounded, against French losses of 38 killed and 175 wounded.
Byng remained near Minorca for four days without establishing communication with the fort or sighting the French. On 24 May, he called a War Council of his own where, by unanimous voting, Byng's fleet would return to Gibraltar for repairs, succours, sailors, and more marines for the garrison. The fleet arrived at Gibraltar on 19 June, where they were reinforced with four more ships of the line and a 50-gun frigate. Repairs were effected to the damaged vessels and additional water and provisions were loaded aboard. But, before his fleet could return to sea, another ship arrived from England with further instructions, relieving Byng, Fowke, and several others of their command and ordering a return to home. On arrival in England, Byng was placed in custody. The garrison resisted the Siege of Fort St Philip until 29 June, when it was forced to capitulate.
Fallout after MinorcaEdit
News of the Battle of Minorca's outcome was wanting. The Newcastle ministry had suffered military setbacks elsewhere in the British Empire; George Washington's loss at Fort Necessity, Edward Braddock's army was decimated in Pennsylvania, Fort Oswego was under siege, and the Carnatic Wars in India restarted with Calcutta falling. Domestically, conditions were also horrid: food riots had broken out beginning in the Midlands, spreading to Wales to the south and as far north as Glasgow. Another failure would challenge Newcastle's hold on power. Indeed, in the wake of publication of the battle, George II was flooded with petitions and addresses to investigate the government's poor handling on a whole host of issues.
When news of the Battle of Minorca did arrive, it was via a Spanish Diplomat who carried a dispatch from the French admiral, Byng's counterpart, Roland-Michel Barrin de La Galissonière. Without any word from Byng, or any other naval or army officer attached to his fleet, ministers chose to recall several officers, Byng included. It would be another 20-days before Byng's version of the battle arrived in London. By then, however, ministers had chosen a course of action detrimental to Byng.
On 26 June 1756, the government newspaper, the London Gazette, printed an edited version of Byng's report removing passages and rewording others to make the admiral appear a coward. Protest against Byng began with effigy burnings mostly in port cities throughout England, and one as far away as Boston, Massachusetts. Newcastle also received his share of odium. In a letter to Robert Craggs-Nugent,, the First Minister wrote,
"I have touched upon a Ticklish Point... I thought it not fair, to lay the Loss expressly upon Byng, Tho’ there it will, & must be laid, & there only."
Even prior to the battle, George 'Bubb' Dodington informed Henry Fox that ministers had already chosen a scapegoat in case events in the Mediterranean went astray. Clearly the government had chosen for Byng to take the fall for their neglect of the Mediterranean theatre.
Byng's perceived failure to relieve the garrison at Minorca caused public outrage among fellow officers and the country at large. Byng was brought home to be tried by court-martial for breach of the Articles of War, which had recently been revised to mandate capital punishment for officers who did not do their utmost against the enemy, either in battle or pursuit. The revision followed an event in 1745 during the War of the Austrian Succession, when a young lieutenant named Baker Phillips was court-martialled and shot after his ship was captured by the French. His captain had done nothing to prepare the vessel for action and was killed almost immediately by a broadside. Taking command, the inexperienced junior officer was forced to surrender the ship when she could no longer be defended. The negligent behaviour of Phillips's captain was noted by the subsequent court martial and a recommendation for mercy was entered, but Phillips's sentence was approved by the Lords Justices of Appeal. This sentence angered some of parliament, who felt that an officer of higher rank would likely have been spared or else given a light punishment, and that Phillips had been executed because he was a powerless junior officer and thus a useful scapegoat. The Articles of War were amended to become one law for all: the death penalty for any officer of any rank who did not do his utmost against the enemy in battle or pursuit.
Byng's court martial was convened on 28 December 1756 aboard the elderly 96-gun vessel HMS St George, which was anchored in Portsmouth Harbour. The presiding officer was Admiral Thomas Smith, supported by rear admirals Francis Holburne, Harry Norris and Thomas Broderick, and a panel of nine captains. The verdict was delivered four weeks later on 27 January 1757, in the form of a series of resolutions describing the course of Byng's expedition to Minorca and an interpretation of his actions. The court acquitted Byng of personal cowardice. However its principal findings were that Byng had failed to keep his fleet together while engaging the French; that his flagship had opened fire at too great a distance to have any effect; and that he should have proceeded to the immediate relief of Minorca rather than returning to Gibraltar. As a consequence of these actions, the court held that Byng had "not done his utmost" to engage or destroy the enemy, thereby breaching the 12th Article of War.[a]
Once the court determined that Byng had "failed to do his utmost", it had no discretion over punishment under the Articles of War. In accordance with those Articles the court condemned Byng to death, but unanimously recommended that the Lords of the Admiralty ask King George II to exercise his royal prerogative of mercy.
It fell to Admiral John Forbes, in his role as Lord Commissioner of the Admiralty, to sign Byng's death warrant. This he refused to do, believing the sentence to be illegal, instead attaching to the warrant a document explaining his refusal. A copy of the document, believed to be Forbes' draft, on three sheets of paper, is in the archives of the Society of Genealogists. Another copy, signed "J.F. 16 February 1757", is in the Senate House Library at the University of London. It was also published as a broadside.
Clemency denied and executionEdit
First Lord of the Admiralty Richard Grenville-Temple was granted an audience with the king, George II, to request clemency, but this was refused in an angry exchange. Four members of the board of the court martial petitioned Parliament, seeking to be relieved from their oath of secrecy to speak on Byng's behalf. The Commons passed a measure allowing this, but the Lords rejected the proposal.
Prime Minister William Pitt the Elder was aware that the Admiralty was at least partly to blame for the loss at Minorca due to the poor manning and repair of the fleet. The Duke of Newcastle, the politician responsible, had by now joined the Prime Minister in an uneasy political coalition and this made it difficult for Pitt to contest the court martial verdict as strongly as he would have liked. He did, however, petition the King to commute the death sentence. The appeal was refused; Pitt and the king were political opponents, with Pitt having pressed for George to relinquish his hereditary position of Elector of Hanover as being a conflict of interest with the government's policies in Europe.
The severity of the penalty, combined with suspicion that the Admiralty had sought to protect themselves from public anger over the defeat by throwing all the blame on the admiral, led to a reaction in favour of Byng in both the Navy and the country, which had previously demanded retribution. Pitt, then Leader of the House of Commons, told the King: "the House of Commons, Sir, is inclined to mercy", to which George responded: "You have taught me to look for the sense of my people elsewhere than in the House of Commons."
The King did not exercise his prerogative to grant clemency. Following the court martial and pronouncement of sentence, Admiral Byng had been detained aboard HMS Monarch in the Solent and, on 14 March 1757, he was taken to the quarterdeck for execution in the presence of all hands and men from other ships of the fleet in boats surrounding Monarch. The admiral knelt on a cushion and signified his readiness by dropping his handkerchief, whereupon a squad of Royal Marines shot him dead.
Burial and successionEdit
He is buried in the Byng Mausoleum in All Saints Church in Southill, Bedfordshire, built for the burial of his father. He died unmarried, so having left no children he bequeathed his estates, including Wrotham Park, to one of his younger nephews, George Byng (c.1735–1789), the eldest son of his next elder brother Robert Byng (1703–1740), Governor of Barbados, who had died 17 years before the admiral's death. (His eldest surviving nephew, George Byng, 4th Viscount Torrington, had already inherited the grand paternal mansion and estate at Southill Park). In 2018 the estate and house, largely unchanged, remained the home and property of George Byng's descendant (via a female line) Robert Michael Julian Wentworth Byng (born 1962), the grandson of Lady Elizabeth Alice Byng (born 1897), briefly the wife of Michael Lafone, eldest daughter and co-heiress of Edmund Henry Byng, 6th Earl of Strafford (1861–1951).
Byng's execution was satirised by Voltaire in his novel Candide. In Portsmouth, Candide witnesses the execution of an officer by firing squad and is told that "in this country, it is good to kill an admiral from time to time to encourage the others" (Dans ce pays-ci, il est bon de tuer de temps en temps un amiral pour encourager les autres).
Byng was the last of his rank to be executed in this fashion and, 22 years after the event, the Articles of War were amended to allow "such other punishment as the nature and degree of the offence shall be found to deserve" as an alternative to capital punishment.
In 2007, some of Byng's descendants petitioned the government for a posthumous pardon. The Ministry of Defence refused. Members of his family continue to seek a pardon, along with a group at Southill in Bedfordshire where the Byng family lived.
Byng's execution has been called "the worst legalistic crime in the nation's annals". But naval historian N. A. M. Rodger believes it may have influenced the behaviour of later naval officers by helping inculcate:
"a culture of aggressive determination which set British officers apart from their foreign contemporaries, and which in time gave them a steadily mounting psychological ascendancy. More and more in the course of the century, and for long afterwards, British officers encountered opponents who expected to be attacked, and more than half expected to be beaten, so that [the latter] went into action with an invisible disadvantage which no amount of personal courage or numerical strength could entirely make up for."
Such policy considerations were no comfort to the family of their victim. Warren Tute said "far from encouraging anyone at all, this judicial murder had the opposite effect". Admiral Byng was buried in the Byng vault at the Church of All Saints in Southill, Bedfordshire. His epitaph there expresses their view:
To the perpetual Disgrace
of PUBLICK JUSTICE
The Honble. JOHN BYNG Esqr
Admiral of the Blue
Fell a MARTYR to
March 14th in the year 1757 when
BRAVERY and LOYALTY
were Insufficient Securities
Life and Honour
- The 12th Article of War read as follows: "Every person in the fleet who, through cowardice, negligence or disaffection, shall in time of action withdraw, or keep back, or not come to the fight or engagement, or shall not do his utmost to take or destroy every ship ... [or to] assist all and every of His Majesty's ships, or those of allies, which it shall be his duty to assist and relieve; every such person so offending and being convicted thereof by the sentence of a court martial shall suffer death
or such other punishment as the circumstances of the offence shall deserve and the court martial shall judge fit." The final clause was struck from the Article in 1745, eleven years before Byng's trial.
- Baugh, Daniel A. "Byng, John (bap. 1704, d. 1757)". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.). Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/4263. (Subscription or UK public library membership required.)
- "Information sheet no 099 John Byng" (PDF). National Museum of the Royal Navy. Retrieved 18 April 2017.
- Hattendorf, John B. "Byng, George, first Viscount Torrington (1663–1733)". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.). Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/4262. (Subscription or UK public library membership required.)
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- London Evening Post, 19 April 1755
- Admiral Henry Osborn to Admiralty Office, 11 March 1756, The National Archives, ADM 1/921.
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- Pope, Dudley (1962) At 12 Mr Byng Was Shot, 95.
- Richard Glover, Memoirs of a Celebrated Literary and Political Character, from the Resignation of Sir Robert Walpole in 1742, to the Establishment of Lord Chatam's Second Adminisration in 1757; containing Stricture on some of the most Distinguished Men of that Time, New Edition (London: 1814), 79.
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- Debrett's, 1968, p.1060
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- Bates, Stephen; Norton-Taylor, Richard (15 March 2007). "No pardon for Admiral Byng. The MoD don't want to encourage any others". The Guardian. Retrieved 15 March 2007.
Mrs Saunders-Davies said: 'Admiral Byng did not deserve to be shot. He may not have been a brilliant sailor but he had an unblemished career and he had never lost a ship or drowned a sailor. The Byngs won't take the refusal of a pardon lying down. We're going to take this further.'
- Copping, Jason (23 June 2013). "Family hope pardon for shamed Admiral Byng will finally arrive". The Daily Telegraph.
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|Wikisource has original works written by or about:|
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- Admiral Byng, from The Newgate Calendar.
- Laughton, John Knox, "Byng, John (1704-1757)" Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 08.
| Commodore-Governor of Newfoundland
|Parliament of Great Britain|
| Member of Parliament for Rochester
With: David Polhill 1751–1754
Nicholas Haddock 1754–1757