The Unexpected Execution of Admiral Byng

Friday, February 14th, 2020

The loss of a Love Island and the unexpected execution of Admiral Byng  


Hair, make-up and looking good

Take yourself back in time to over 200 years ago to an age when the heroes of the day wore huge hair, fancy clothes and nearly all wore make-up. There was a rising star of the day, not a pop idol or wannabe celebrity from TVs Love Island, far from it. John Byng was an Admiral in the Georgian Royal Navy, and there was certainly no love lost for an island he lost in the Med.

Like many well-to-do aristocrats of the day, Byng was a smart, educated gentleman who fast-tracked his way up within His Majesty’s Royal Navy. In the 18th Century, for persons of a certain status, the Royal Navy was a career path which, if successful, could open doors of opportunity in high society, and the long corridors of power were yours to tread in.  The rising threat of war with France and continual spats with Spain meant that during these war mongering years, one could earn an envious reputation as a daring hero of the navy – a reputation which many officers of the day aspired to, not unlike today’s TV Love Island contenders who aspire to lifelong fame and fortune. But Byng had a problem – he had it all going for him, but he lost his island.

Love Island

The Mediterranean islands of Majorca and Minorca today draw Brits in their droves to soak up the sunshine and swim in the clear blue waters of the Mediterranean Sea. In the 1700s we still had a passion for the island, but for different reasons. The Med was a super highway for vessels carrying goods from the Middle and Far East and it had valuable trading ports on the under belly of Europe, North Africa and Italy. The Med was a sparring zone for nations wanting to prove their supremacy on the sea.  If the British had a foothold where they could replenish supplies, store arms and munitions and even a permanent garrison for foot soldiers, then they would have an advantage over their enemies and ultimately the prize of naval supremacy in the Med. So that is why Minorca was one of our Love Islands of the 18th Century. But in April 1755, a storm at sea was brewing. The British heard whispers of a French attack on our Mediterranean foothold at Minorca and the wind of change was on the horizon.

Hit and run

This then was a task for the nation’s greatest military asset – the Royal Navy.  The man selected for the job was Admiral John Byng, who, in the prime of his career was a more than capable officer who would be expected to make light work of the French threat and ward off the enemy in a swift sea battle as rehearsed and played out many times before.

He did not have a particularly great start. Byng set sail from Gibraltar in charge of a small fleet of 10 ships on May 8th 1756.  Barnacle crusted, unmaintained and grossly undermanned, his squadron of ships were far from battle ready. As he proceeded across the Med, he soon caught sight of the enemy and the ensuing choreography of battle line formations took place. Back home in the corridors of Greenwich (Admiralty Head Quarters), Byng’s objectives seemed plain and simple. Sail the fleet from Gibraltar to Minorca, seek out the enemy, destroy their ships, land reinforcements, chase off the remnants and sail home victorious; what could possibly go wrong?

Au revoir Anglais!

In short, in the eyes of the Admiralty, everything went wrong.  Back at Greenwich, the Lords Commissioners awaited news of their victory; alas, it was not to be.

Byng’s battle at sea was far from the outcome he or anyone else expected.  He was plagued by hindrances. His battle line was misplaced, meaning he was too far from enemy ships to engage them properly. His own ship failed to engage in any meaningful gunfire which would cast doubt on his commitment to his duty. He lost more men than the French, suffered more wounded, sustained more damage to his ships than the French, and he failed to land re-enforcements, and there was no chase to annihilate the enemy fleet on the run. He turned his ships around and returned to Gibraltar leaving Minorca to the fate of new masters. The Union Flag was torn down and the French flag hoisted in its place.

The rule of law and the game of blame

Many commentators have since questioned the point of blame.  The loss of a British possession was serious, but even Byng himself could not have foreseen the full wrath of punishment that was about to bare down upon him. He faced charges that no senior officer of his rank had ever been faced with before. In particular, he was charged of being in breach of Article 12 of the newly revised ‘Articles of War’ which stated that any person withdrawing or keeping back from the fight and not doing his utmost, would “suffer Death”.

The members of the court-martial, made up of Byng’s peers, had to decide on the facts that presented themselves at the time and they had to determine which of the numerous maritime laws had been broken and which he should be charged with. Despite his fellow captains in the battle being in agreement with him at every stage of the fight, he was criticised for practically every action he took. The men of the court-martial tore his actions apart. His battle strategy was publically shredded, and his seamanship thrown into question. The court members had carefully scrutinised every decision, action and consequence and had come to their decision. The court commented ‘the admiral acted wrong in suffering the fire on board his ship to continue before she was got to a proper distance to engage, because he not only threw away his shot, but occasioned a smoke which prevented his seeing the motions of the enemy, and the position of the ships immediately a-head of his own.’ They went on to say ‘… he ought to have returned off St. Philip’s, and have endeavoured to open a communication with the castle, and used all the means in his power to relieve it.’ Most importantly, the court found that ‘during the engagement, he did not do his utmost so take, seize, and destroy the ships of the French king, and assist such of his ships as were engaged.‘  It was clear that they felt Byng’s attack was half hearted, half delivered and half-finished and fell short of the level of duty expected of an officer in command. They felt he should have understood that if he landed the troops and allowed them to do their bit to help strengthen Port St Philip, he would be half way to winning the battle. He was then supposed to hunt down the French ships. He simply failed in his objectives. He turned back for Gibraltar where he waited of news of his next voyage. Unbeknown to him, his next voyage was to be his last.

Trial and error

Word quickly got back to Britain that Minorca was lost and that the French fleet remained largely unscathed. For the Royal Navy, this was a humiliating loss. What happened next, was somewhat unexpected, for the full might of Admiralty discipline was about to be released. Byng was arrested and brought back to Greenwich. Rumours spread of treachery and cowardice. His reputation was in tatters even before his hearing had begun. After confinement at Greenwich, Byng was taken to Portsmouth for a formal ccourt-martial on board HMS St. George on December 27, 1756. The trial lasted four weeks.

It was clear that the court did not believe that his misconduct arose either from cowardice or disaffection. They found that his fellow officers observed that he ‘did not seem wanting in personal courage’. Many senior Admirals were shocked and surprised at the judgment and outcome of death penalty for Byng. So much so, one of the Lords Commissioners, Admiral Forbes, refused to sign his death warrant on the basis that he felt the severity of sentence did not equate to that of what he was accused of. In highlighting his personal conflict on the judgment, Forbes stated “The 12th article of war, on which admiral Byng’s sentence is grounded, says, (according to my understanding of its meaning), “that every person, who, in time of action, shall withdraw, keep back, or not come into fight, or do his utmost, etc. through motives of cowardice, negligence, or disaffection, shall suffer death.” The court martial does, in express words, acquit Admiral Byng of cowardice and disaffection, and does not name the word negligence. Admiral Byng does not, as I conceive, fall under the letter or description of the 12th article of war.”

The members of the court martial, whilst bound by the sentence laid out within the 12th Article of the Articles of War, did recommend Byng as ‘a proper Object of Mercy’. Several petitions, and letters, were also drawn up in support of Byng, which led the King to respite the execution until March 14 in order to enquire whether the sentence was improper. During this period the court members were called to the House of Lords and questioned. However, all but three of the thirteen were satisfied that the verdict they pronounced was the only one they could give.

The falling handkerchief

The Admiral being abandoned to his fate, prepared himself for death with resignation and sombreness. Despite his impending end, he maintained a surprising cheer and showed no sign of distress.

On the day fixed for his execution, ships of the Royal Navy manned and armed, containing their captains and officers massed in the harbour. Many other boats and vessels, filled with spectators jostled to glean the best view point. On board HMS St. George, a detachment of marines was assembled and ready to deliver the sentence.  About noon, the admiral having taken leave of a clergyman, and two friends who accompanied him, walked out of the great cabin to the quarter deck. Here, two files of Marines awaited him. He advanced with a firm deliberate step, a composed and resolute countenance. He resolved to suffer his penalty with his face proudly uncovered, until his friends whispered to him that his looks would, possibly, intimidate the soldiers and prevent them from taking aim properly. Submitted to their request, he threw his hat on the deck, knelt on a cushion, and tied one handkerchief over his eyes, and with his hand raised, held the other handkerchief between his fingers. Upon his last breath, he dropped the handkerchief, letting it fall gently downwards. Upon hitting the deck, this was the signal for his executioners, who fired their volley, five of which hit their mark, and he dropped down dead in an instant.

Having the last word

Byng was permitted to say a few last words, a copy of which was delivered to the Marshal of the High Court of Admiralty. His words carry a significant undercurrent for future commentators and historians and in particular the Byng family and his descendants.

“…persuaded as I am that justice will be done to my reputation hereafter; the manner and cause of raising and keeping up the popular clamour and prejudice against me will be seen through; I shall be considered (as I now perceive myself) a victim destined to divert the indignation and resentment of an injured and deluded people from the proper objects; my enemies themselves must now think me innocent. Happy for me, at this my last moment, that I know my own innocence, and am conscious that no part of my country’s misfortunes can be owing to me.”

Here ends the sad tale of Britain’s first and last executed Admiral. Descendants to this day continue to stand up for John in trying to right the wrongs of the past and remain hopeful for a Royal Pardon.  It may be a long voyage for the family to sail, but for my part, I don’t think we’ve heard the last of Admiral John Byng.

12th Article of War, as it is written in Byng’s defence, pg. 10 of CM

“Every Person in the Fleet, who thro’ Cowardice, Negligence or Disaffection, shall in Time of Action withdraw, or keep back, or not come into the Fight or Engagement, or shall not do his utmost to take or destroy every Ship which it shall be his Duty to engage; and to assist and relieve all and every of his Majesty’s Ships, or those of his 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.”

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By Jeffrey Nicholls

Quotation source: 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. John Charnock, 1797. Volume iv p145-179

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