John Byng was born on 29 October 1704 in Bedfordshire, England. One of fifteen children, John, like his father, Rear-Admiral Sir George Byng, joined the Royal Navy and by the age of 23 had reached the rank of captain.
Until 1739, Byng was stationed around an uneventful Mediterranean. Then, perhaps due to his father’s influence, John experienced a rapid rise up the promotional ladder. In 1742, he was given the governorship of the colony of Newfoundland. In 1745 he was appointed Rear Admiral, followed by Vice-Admiral in 1747, all of which he obtained without having seen any military action. His father, George, had been victorious in a number of naval battles, but when his son was finally to be tested it resulted in disaster.
Admiral John Byng is mostly famous for his notorious execution by the British authorities in 1757 following the loss of the Mediterranean island of Minorca to the French at the start of the Seven Years War. Hostilities began in Europe only two days after the declaration of war in 1756 with a French attack on Minorca on 20 May. After a fierce yet inconclusive naval battle with the French fleet, the cautious Admiral Byng, charged with relieving the garrison at Minorca, decided to move his fleet to the safety of Gibraltar and from there recoup. But by 28 June, the French had captured the island.
A combination of factors had hampered Byng, factors that he brought to the attention of his superiors: lack of men, unrepaired ships, failed communications, delays of orders, and problems with reinforcements, which, together with Byng’s overly cautious and pessimistic assessment, all led to the British failure at Minorca.
“Not Doing His Utmost”
Nevertheless, the outrage focused on Byng, who was court-marshalled and accused of ‘not doing his utmost’ and sentenced to execution. Politicians and public, whom at first demanded Byng’s head, realised that Byng had become a mere scapegoat for the inadequacies of the Admiralty. Now they called for leniency: ‘for our own consciences’ sake, as well as in justice to the prisoner, we pray your lordships, in the most earnest manner, to recommend him to his majesty’s clemency.’
Prime Minister, William Pitt (the Elder), pressed King George II to use his royal prerogative of mercy and overturn the verdict. The king declined.
On 14 March 1757, Admiral Byng was taken on board the HMS Monarch, shipped near Portsmouth, and executed by firing-squad. An eyewitness describes the scene:
‘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, where two files of marines were ready to execute the sentence. He advanced with a firm deliberate step, a composed and resolute countenance, and resolved to suffer with his face uncovered, until his friends, representing that his looks would possibly intimidate the soldiers, and prevent their taking aim properly, he submitted to their request, threw his hat on the deck, kneeled on a cushion, tied one white handkerchief over his eyes, and dropped the other as a signal for his executioners, who fired a volley so decisive, that five balls passed through his body, and he dropped down dead in an instant. The time in which this tragedy was acted, from his walking out of the cabin to his being deposited in the coffin, did not exceed three minutes.’
He was the first and last British admiral to be executed.
“To encourage the others”
Byng’s execution became a cause célèbre in Britain, and philosopher Voltaire would later jeer in his Candid, ‘Dans ce pays-ci, il est bon de tuer de temps en temps un amiral pour encourager les autres’ (‘In this country, it is good to kill an admiral from time to time to encourage the others’). It certainly did. Naval historian, N A M Roger, wrote, ‘The execution of Byng … taught officers that even the most powerful friends might not save an officer who failed to fight … Byng’s death revived a culture of determination which set British officers apart from their foreign contemporaries’.
To this day, Admiral Byng’s family continues to petition for a posthumous pardon, which so far, has been denied them. On the 250th anniversary of Byng’s execution, in 2007, members of the current-day Byng family were interviewed by The Guardian, in which they said, “The Byngs won’t take the refusal of a pardon lying down. We’re going to take this further.”
Rupert Colley’s gripping new novel, set during World War Two, The Unforgiving Sea, is now available.
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