John Byng (October 29, 1704 – March 14, 1757) was a British admiral who was court-martialled and executed for failing to "do his utmost" during the Battle of Minorca, at the beginning of the Seven Years' War.
Early life and career
John Byng was born in Bedfordshire
, the fourth son of George Byng, 1st Viscount Torrington
By the time John enlisted in the Royal Navy in 1718, aged 14, his father George was a well-established admiral with a rising and stellar career, who since supporting William III in his successful bid to be crowned King of Great Britain in 1689 had seen his stature and fortune grow. A highly-skilled naval commander, he won distinction in a series of battles and was held in great esteem by the reigning monarchs he served. In 1721, he was rewarded by King George I with a viscountcy, and created the 1st. Viscount Torrington.
Like most of the younger sons of British nobility, the young John Byng would have to earn his keep, since his father's titles and estates would ordinarily pass on only to the eldest. However, with such an illustrious naval father, Byng's rapid promotions through the service most likely owed something to his father's influence. As things would turn out, the careers of father and son could hardly have ended up more differently.
Early on, Byng was assigned to a series of Mediterranean postings. In 1723, at the age of 19, he was made a lieutenant, and at the age of 23, rose to become Captain of HMS Gibraltar. His Mediterranean service continued until 1739 and was without much incident or action.
In 1742, he was appointed Commodore-Governor of the British Empire colony of Newfoundland.
He was promoted to rear-admiral in 1745, and to vice-admiral in 1747. He served on the most comfortable stations, and avoided the more arduous work of the navy.
Battle of Minorca
On the approach of the Seven Years' War
, the island of Minorca
, which had been a British possession since 1708, when it was captured during the War of the Spanish Succession
, was threatened by a French
naval attack from Toulon
, and was invaded in 1756.
Byng, an admiral since 1745, was then serving in the Channel. He was ordered to the Mediterranean to relieve the British garrison of Fort St Philip (Port Mahon). Despite all his protests to the Government, he was not given enough money or time to prepare the expedition properly. Even his sailing orders were inexplicably delayed by 5 days, and this turned out to be crucial to the lack of success of the expedition. So he was forced to set out with only ten unseaworthy ships that leaked and were inadequately manned. Then Byng was in particular much aggrieved because his marines were landed to make room for the soldiers who were to reinforce the garrison, and he feared that if he met a French squadron, he would be dangerously undermanned. His correspondence shows clearly that he left prepared for failure, that he did not believe that the garrison could hold out against the French force, and that he was already resolved to come back from Minorca if he found that the task presented any great difficulty. He wrote home to that effect to the Admiralty from Gibraltar. The governor of that fortress refused to spare any of his soldiers to increase the relief force.
Byng sailed on May 8. Before he arrived the French landed 15,000 troops on the western shore of the island, from where they spread out to occupy it. On the 19th, Byng was off the east coast of Minorca and endeavoured to open communications with the fort. Before he could land any soldiers however, the French squadron appeared.
The Battle of Minorca was fought on the following day, May 20. Byng, who had gained the weather gauge (was windward), bore down on the French fleet of M. de La Galissonnière at an angle, so that his leading ships went into action while the rest, including Byng's flagship, were still out of effective firing range. The French badly damaged the leading ships and slipped away. When his flag captain pointed out to Byng that by standing out of his line, he could bring the centre of the enemy to closer action, he declined on the ground that Thomas Mathews had been condemned for so doing. The French, who were equal in number to the British, got away undamaged.
After remaining near Minorca for four days without being able to reestablish communication with the fort or sighting the French, Byng realised that there was little more he could do without effecting some badly needed repairs to his ships. As the nearest port available to him for carrying out repairs and landing wounded men was Gibraltar, Byng's plan was to sail back there, repair his ships, and try once again to get extra forces before returning to Fort St Philip. But before he could do any of this, another ship arrived from England, relieved Byng of his command and took him into custody. As for the garrison on Minorca, it held out against the overwhelming French numbers until June 29, when it was forced to capitulate. Under negotiated terms the garrison was allowed passage back to England, while the fort and island came under French control.
Court-martial, trial and execution
The failure to hold the fort initially caused an outburst of wrath in the country. 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.
During the War of Austrian Succession in 1745, a young lieutenant called Baker Phillips was court-martialed and shot after his ship was captured by the French. His captain, who had done nothing to prepare the vessel for action, was killed almost immediately by a broadside. Taking command, the inexperienced officer was forced to surrender the ship when she could no longer be defended.
Although the negligent behaviour of Phillips' captain was noted by the subsequent court martial, his sentence was approved by higher officers in the navy (who showed great leniency to those of their own rank). He was executed in Portsmouth on a ship's forecastle 'by a platoon of musqueteers'.
This injustice angered the country and the Articles of War were amended to be one law for all; the death penalty for any officer who did not do their utmost against the enemy either in battle or pursuit.
That Byng had "failed to do his utmost" could not be denied; he had failed to pursue the larger French fleet in order to protect his own. The court martial sitting in judgment of Byng acquitted him of personal cowardice and disaffection, and convicted him only for not having done his utmost. The court martial had no discretion under the Articles of War and condemned Byng to death. However its members recommended that the Lords of the Admiralty ask King George to exercise his prerogative of clemency.
The severity of the penalty, aided by a not unjust suspicion that the Admiralty sought to cover themselves by throwing all the blame on the admiral led to a reaction in favour of Byng both in the Navy and in the country which had previously demanded retribution.
William Pitt the Elder, then Leader of the House of Commons, told the king: "the House of Commons, Sir, is inclined to mercy", to which George II responded: "You have taught me to look for the sense of my people elsewhere than in the House of Commons."
The royal prerogative was not exercised and John Byng was shot on 14 March 1757 aboard HMS Monarch in the Solent.
Byng's execution was satirized 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 wise 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 and a group at Southill in Bedfordshire where the Byng family lived continue to seek a pardon.
Byng's execution has been called "the worst legalistic crime in the nation's annals". It nevertheless may have had a salutary effect on the behaviour of later naval officers, by instilling in them "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". This in turn contributed to the success of the Royal Navy and the acquisition and defence of the British Empire, as commanders knew that while there was a chance of failure in battle, not to risk battle was certain to result in punishment. This "judicial murder" had brutally demonstrated that more was expected of naval officers than just courage and loyalty.
Such policy considerations were no comfort to the family of their victim. Admiral Byng's epitaph at the family vault in All Saints Church, in Southill, Bedfordshire, expresses their view and the view of much of the country:
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 facts of Byng's life are fairly set out in John Charnock's Biographia navalis; or, Impartial memoirs of the lives and characters of officers of the navy of Great Britain, from the year 1660 to the present time; drawn from the most authentic sources, and disposed in a chronological arrangement
, vol. iv. pp. 145 to 179. Contemporary pamphlets and publications about his case are:
- A Candid Examination of the Resolutions and Sentence of the Court-Martial on the Trial of Admiral Byng ... In a letter to the gentlemen of the Navy. By an Old Sea Officer. London, J. Cooke, 1757.
- A Collection of several Pamphlets, very little known, some suppressed letters, and sundry detached pieces ... relative to the case of Admiral Byng. London, T. Lacy, 1756.
- A Dialogue between the Ghost of A.....l B.... [i.e. Admiral John Byng], and the Substance of a G....l [i.e. Lord George Sackville]: shewing the difference between a chop and a pop. [A satire in verse on Sackville’s conduct at Minden.] London, Smith, 1759?].
- A Full and Particular Account of a most dreadful ... apparition [i.e. Admiral Byng’s Ghost] which appeared to a certain Great Man [i.e. T. P. Holles, Duke of Newcastle], etc. [London? 1757?].
- A Further Address to the Publick. Containing genuine copies of all the letters which passed between A-l B-g [i.e. the Honourable John Byng] and the S-ry of the A-ty [i.e. the Secretary of the Admiralty, John Cleveland]; from the time of his suspension, to the twenty-fifth of October last. With proper remarks and reflections on the unprecedented treatment he has met with since his confinement. London, J. Lacy, 1757.
- A Key to the Trial of Admiral Byng: or, a Brief state of facts relating to the action in the Mediterranean on the 20th of May, 1756, etc. London, [1756.]
- A Late Epistle to Mr C---------d [i.e. John Cleveland]. [Signed: B-g]. A lampoon in verse on Admiral Byng. With an engraving.] [London?, 1756.]
- A Letter to a Gentleman in the Country, from his friend in London: giving an authentick and circumstantial account of the confinement, behaviour, and death of Admiral Byng, as attested by the gentlemen who were present. London, J. Lacy, 1757.
- A letter to a member of Parliament in the country, from his friend in London, relative to the case of Admiral Byng: with some original papers and letters which passed during the expedition ... London, J. Cooke, 1756.
- A Letter to Admiral Smith, President of the Court Martial, for the tryal of the hon. J. Byng, Esq.; occasioned by a late performance [entitled, British Policy and British Bravery, a tragedy]. London, 1757.
- A letter to Lord Robert Bertie, relating to his conduct in the Mediterranean, and his defence of Admiral Byng ... London, R. Griffiths, 1757.
- A Letter to Lord Robert Bertie, relating to his conduct in the Mediterranean, and his defence of Admiral Byng. The second edition, to which is added, a Postscript, to the publick, relating to the execution of the Admiral. London, R. Griffiths, 1757.
- A Letter to the Right Honourable Lord A----. London, Printed for William Bizet ..., 1757.
- A Letter to the Right Honourable the L---ds of the A------y [i.e. the Lords of the Admiralty]. [By the Hon. Sarah Osborn, petitioning for their intercession with the King in behalf of Admiral John Byng.] [London, 1757.]
- A Letter to the Rt. Hon. William Pitt; being an impartial vindication of the conduct of the Ministry, ... in answer to the aspersions cast upon them by Admiral Byng and his advocates. London, Printed for Philip Hodges ..., 1756.
- A Modest Apology for the Conduct of a certain Admiral [i.e. the Hon. John Byng] in the Mediterranean, etc. [Based on the “Serious Apology.”] London, M. Cooper; B. Dodd, 1756.
- A Narrative of the Proceedings of Admiral B---g [i.e. the Hon. John Byng] and of his Conduct off Mahon on th 20th of May. By an officer of the squadron. London, Owen, [1756.]
- A parallel (in the manner of Plutarch) between the case of the late honourable Admiral John Byng, and that of the right honourable Lord George Sackville by a Captain of a man of war. London, Printed for R. Stevens ..., 1759.
- A Ray of Truth darting thro’ the thick clouds of falshood: or, the Lion, the foxes, the monkey, and the gamecock. A fable, to which is added, a hymn to Jupiter. [A pamphlet in favour of Admiral John Byng.] Printed & sold at all the Booksellers, London, [1756.]
- A Real Defence of A-l B-’s [i.e. Admiral Byng’s] Conduct ... By a Lover of Truth, and a Friend to Society. [A satire.] London, 1756.
- A Rueful Story, or Britain in tears, being the conduct of Admiral B-g [i.e. the Hon. John Byng], in the late engagement off Mahone with a French fleet the 20. of May 1756. Printed by Boatswain Hawl-up: London, [1756.]
- A Serious Apology and Modest Remarks on the Conduct of a Certain Admiral [i.e. Admiral Byng] in the Mediterranean, etc. [With woodcuts.] London, T. Bailey, 1756.
- Admiral B----g [i.e. the Hon. John Byng] in Horrors at the Appearance of the Unhappy Souls, who was killed in the engagement crying for revenge. [In verse. With a woodcut.] [London?, 1756.]
- Admiral B--g’s [i.e. the Hon. John Byng’s] Answer to the Friendly Advice, or, the Fox out of the pit and the geese in. [London?, 1756.]
- Admiral Byng and the loss of Minorca, by Brian Tunstall. London, Philip Allan & co. ltd. London, 1928.
- Admiral Byng’s Complaint. [A ballad, beginning: “Come all you true Britons and listen to me.”] [London, 1756?]
- Admiral Byng’s Defence, as presented by him, and read in the Court January 18, 1757 ... containing a very particular account of the action on the 20th of May, 1756, off Cape Mola, etc. [With an appendix of letters.] London, J. Lacy, 1757.
- Admiral Byng’s Defence, as presented by him ... in the Court January 18, 1757, etc. Dublin, J. Hoey, etc., 1757.
- Admiral Forbes’s Reasons for not signing Admiral Byng’s Dead Warrant. London, 1757.
- An account of the expedition of the British fleet to Sicily, in the years 1718, 1719 and 1720, under the Command of Sir George Byng (Collected from the Admiral's manuscripts and other original papers). London : J. and R. Tonson, 1739.
- An Address to the Public, in answer to two pamphlets, intitled, An Appeal to the People of England, and A Letter to a Member of Parliament, relative to the case of A-l B-g [Admiral Byng] ... By an Ante Italianite. London, A. Type, 1756.
- An Appeal to the People: containing, the genuine and entire letter of Admiral Byng to the Secr. of the Ad-y ... Part the first. (Part the second. On the different deserts and fate of Admiral Byng and his enemies, etc.). London, J. Morgan, 1756, 1757.
- An appeal to the people: part the second. On the different deserts and fate of Admiral Byng and his enemies: the changes in the last administration: the year of liberty or thraldom ..., London, J. Morgan, 1757.
- An Appeal to the People: containing, the genuine and entire letter of Admiral Byng to the Secr. of the Ad-y: observations on those parts of it which were omitted by the writers of the Gazette: and what might be the reasons for such omissions ... To this edition are added, some original papers and letters, etc. Dublin, L. Flin, 1756.
- An Exact Copy of a Remarkable Letter from Admiral Byng to the Right Hon. W- P-, Esq; dated March 12, 1757, two days before his execution. London, J. Reason, 1757.
- At 12 Mr. Byng was shot. [by Dudley Pope, with plates, including portraits.] London, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, [1962.]
- At twelve Mr. Byng was shot. Philadelphia, Lippincott .
- Boh Peep-Peep Boh, or A-l Bing’s apology to the Fribbles. A new ballad. [London, 1756?]
- Bungiana, or an Assemblage of What-d’ye-call-em’s, etc. London printed; re-printed and sold by the Booksellers: Dublin, 1756.
- Bungiana, or an Assemblage of What-d’ye-call-em’s, in prose and verse, that have ... appeared relative to the conduct of a certain naval commander [i.e. Admiral Byng], now first collected in order to perpetuate the memory of his wonderful atchievements. London, J. Doughty, 1756.
- Byng return’d; or, the Council of expedients. [A satirical print, with verses.] [London?, 1756?].
- Byng's tours: the journals of the Hon. John Byng 1781-1792 edited by David Souden. London, Century in association with The National Trust, 1991, Series National Trust classics. General note: Full edition originally published in 4 vols. London, Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1934-38.
- Charles premier, roi d’Angleterre, condamné à mort par la nation Angloise. Et Bing, amiral anglois, fusillé par ordre de la même nation. Entretiens de leurs ombres aux Champs Élisées. Amsterdam, 1757.
- Essential Queries relating to the Condemnation and Execution of Admiral Byng. [London? 1757.]
- Histoire de l'expedition de l'Almiral Byng dans la Sicile, en 1718, 1719 et 1720, trad. del'angl. par M. Paris, Ballard, fils, 1744.
- If Justice is begun? Let it continue. [Being an attack upon the Newcastle Administration, after the execution of Admiral Byng.] [London? 1757?].
- Impartial Reflections on the Case of Mr. Byng, as stated in an Appeal to the People, etc. and a Letter to a Member of Parliament, etc. London, S. Hooper, 1756.
- Letter to the Lords of the Admiralty [from the Hon. Sarah Osborn? imploring their intercession with the King for mercy to her brother, Admiral Byng, under sentence of death for breach of the Twelfth Article of War]. [London, 1757.]
- Mémoire pour les ministres d'Angleterre, contre l'amiral Byng et contre l'auteur du ″Peuple instruit″. Ouvrage traduit de l'anglois. [by Edme-Jacques Genet.] 1757.
- More Birds for the Tower, or, who’ll confess first. [A ballad, on the conduct of the Duke of Newcastle in relation to Admiral J. Byng.] [London? 1756?].
- Noticia verdadeira da grande batalha naval que no canal de Malta houve entre hum navio inglez, e outro francez ... e se dá noticia da morte de grande almirante Jorze Bing [i.e. John Byng], etc. Lisboa, 1757.
- Observations on the Twelfth Article of War: wherein the nature of negligence, cowardice, and disaffection, is discussed ... and the difference between error of judgment and negligence clearly stated ... and exemplified in the case of the late Admiral Byng ... In a letter to the President of the late Court Martial. By a Plain Man [i.e. David Mallet]. London, W. Owen, 1757.
- Oh! Tempora. Oh! Mores ... Dedicated to the Captains Kirby, Constable, Wade, &c. in the regions below. [A lampoon in verse on Admiral Byng. With an engraving.] [London,] 1756.
- Papers relating to the loss of Minorca in 1756 / Edited by Captain H. W. Richmond.[London], Navy Records Society, 1913.
- Past twelve o’clock, or Byng’s ghost, an ode, inscribed to the Triumvirate; more particularly his Grace of N******** [Newcastle] ... The second edition. London, J. Scott, 1757.
- Queries addressed to Capt. C-ll [Cornwall] late of His M.'s ship Revenge. [In reference to his conduct in the action off Cape Mola, and to his evidence before the court martial for the trial of Admiral Byng.] [London, 1757.]
- Some Friendly and Seasonable Advice to Mr. Admiral Byng. [On his approaching trial by court-martial.] [London, 1756.]
- Some Further Particulars in relation to the Case of Admiral Byng. From original papers, &c. ... By a Gentleman of Oxford. London, J. Lacy, 1756.
- Some queries on the minutes of the council of war held at Gibraltar ... May 4 [1756.]; from which good reason may be drawn, for a noble colonel's [Lord Robert Bertie] having taken so large a part in the defence of Admiral B[yn]g. Edition Second edition. London, 1757.
- Some reasons for believing sundry Letters and Papers ascribed to Admiral Byng, not only spurious, but also an insidious attempt to prejudice the Admiral’s character. By a By-stander (C- W-e). London, [1756.]
- Testament politique de l’amiral Byng, traduit de l’anglois. Portsmouth [Paris?] 1759.
- Testamento politico del almirante Bing: en el que se manifiestan las maxîmas del partido realista para sojuzgar al pueblo inglés, y quitarle la libertad que se ha adquirido; y asi mismo la senda que éste debe seguir para conservarla. Tr. del francés por Don Antonio Rato ... Valencia, Por. J. y T. de Orga, 1780.
- The Block and Yard Arm. A new ballad, on the loss of Minorca and the danger of our American rights and possessions. [Against T. P. Holles, Duke of Newcastle and Admiral J. Byng.] [London, 1756.]
- The Byng papers selected from the letters and papers of admiral Sir George Byng, 1st viscount Torrington, and of his son admiral the Hon. John Byng, and edited by Brian Tunstall. Vol. I -III). [London] the Mary Records Society, 1930-1932. 3 vol.
- The Case of the Hon. Admiral Byng, ingenuously represented ... Likewise his letter to the Secretary of the Admiralty ... also two letters from M. Voltaire & the Marshal Duke de Richlieu to Mr. Byng. With an account of his execution ... Also an elegy on his death, etc. London, H. Owen, 1757.
- The Chronicle of B----g [i.e. Hon. J. Byng], the son of the great B---g [Byng] that lived in the reign of Queen Felicia [i.e. Queen Anne]. Containing an account of his mighty transactions against Gallisoniere, his flight and happy arrival at G-r, [Gibraltar] and from thence to Sp-th-d. [Spithead]. By Israel Ben Ader of the tribe of Levi. The second edition. London, 1756.
- The Counterpoise: or, B---g [Byng] and the M-----y [Ministry] fairly stated. By a By-stander, etc. Dublin, J. Murphy, 1756.
- The Hon. Mrs. Osborn's Letter to the Lords of the Admiralty [dated, February 17, 1757; petitioning for their intercession with the King in behalf of Admiral J. Byng]. [London, 1757.]
- The martyrdom of Admiral Byng. Glasgow, William Maclellan, 1961.
- The New Art of War at Sea, now first practis’d by the English ships, under the command of the prudent Admiral Bung. [An engraving representing the English and French fleets, being a satire against Admiral Byng.] [London, 1756.]
- The Original Paper delivered by Admiral Byng to the Marshal just before his execution, etc. [London? 1757.]
- The Portsmouth Grand Humbug: or, a Merry dialogue between a Boatwain and his mate on board the Monarch, relating to Admiral Byng, etc. [London? 1757.]
- The Proceedings of the ... Lords ... [1, 2 March, 1757] upon the Bill, intituled, An Act to relieve from the obligation of the Oath of Secrecy, the Members of the Court-Martial appointed for the tryal of Admiral J. Byng ... Together with the examinations of the several members of the said Court-Martial; taken ... at their Lordships’ Bar. London, T. Baskett, 1757.
- The Proceedings of the ... Lords ... upon the Bill intituled, An Act to release from the obligation of the oath of secrecy, the members of the court-martial appointed for the tryal of Admiral John Byng ... Together with the examinations of the several members of the said court-martial ... To which is prefixed, an abstract of the proceedings of the Hon. House of Commons, upon the said Bill, etc. Dublin, G. Faulkner, etc., 1757.
- The Resignation: or, the Fox out of the pit, and the geese in, with B----G [i.e. the Hon. John Byng] at the bottom. London, 1756.
- The Sham Fight; or Political Humbug. A state farce in two acts [and in prose] as it was acted by some persons of distinction in the M[e]d[iterranea]n and elsewhere. London, printed and sold [by J. Ryall], 1756.
- The Shooting of Admiral Byng, on board the Monarque, March 14, 1757. [An engraved plate, with descriptive letterpress and “a copy of a paper delivered by the Hon. Admiral Byng, to W. Brough, Esq., Marshal ... before his death,”] [London? 1757.]
- The Sorrowful Lamentation and Last Farewell to the World of Admiral Byng. [A ballad.] [London, 1757.]
- The Speech of the Honble Admiral Byng, intended to have been spoken on board the Monarque at the time of his execution, etc. London, T. Lindsey, [1757.]
- The State of Minorca, and its Lost Condition when A-----l B--g [i.e. the Hon. John Byng] appeared off that island. London, S. Baker & G. Woodfall, [1757.]
- The Trial of the honorable admiral Byng, at a court-martial held on board His Majesty's ship the St. George, in Portsmouth harbour, Tuesday, Dec. 28, 1756, for an enquiry into his conduct, while he commanded in the Mediterranean. Together with his defense... London, printed for and sold by J. Lacy, 1757.
- The Trial of the Honourable John Byng, at a Court Martial, as taken by Mr. Charles Fearne ... To which are added, a copy of their Lordships memorial to the King, in relation to the sentence passed upon Admiral Byng [and other documents], etc. Dublin, J. Hoey, etc., 1757.
- The Trial of Vice-Admiral Byng ... Together with the Admirals defence, taken down in short-hand. [An abridgment.] London, J. Reason, 1757.
- To the People of England. [An address, signed Triton, in behalf of Admiral J. Byng.] [London, 1757.]
- To the worthy Merchants and Citizens of London. [Urging the execution of sentence on Admiral Byng.] [London, 1757.]
- Zuverlässige Lebens-Geschichte des grosbritannischen Admirals ... Johan Byng, etc. Frankfurt & Leipzig, 1757.