Vol I No. 7

The Curious Case of Admiral Byng

by sinetortus


il est bon de tuer de temps en temps un amiral pour encourager les autres”.




The month of March brings with it the anniversary of one of the stranger episodes in the history of the British Royal Navy – namely the execution in 1757,  on his own Quarterdeck, of Admiral John Byng an event which occasioned the famous remark of Voltaire in Candide that in this country, “il est bon de tuer de temps en temps un amiral pour encourager les autres”.

Looked at now, the fate of Admiral Byng seems a sad one, even if he died with great composure and having received the full consolations of the Church of England from his chaplain right up to the moment he dropped the handkerchief as his sign to the waiting squad that they should fire.  But the story behind his demise and the later significance it may have had for the Royal Navy certainly merit recollection.  Indeed,  if his surviving relatives have anything to do with it there might even yet be some formal process leading to a posthumous pardon as it  seems that there is now an ‘Admiral Byng Committee and Campaign’ that has been established by direct descendants in the Byng line together with others from the Masters family (of Byng’s mother’s side) to seek his exoneration.

There is already a Memorial to him In All Saints’ church, Southill in Bedfordshire which conveys its own message pretty clearly as it is dedicated:

To the perpetual disgrace of public justice regarding Admiral John Byng, executed on the quarterdeck of his ship over 260 years ago for failing to engage the French In battle with sufficient enthusiasm. It further describes him as a Martyr to Political Persecution…when bravery and loyalty were insufficient securities for the life and honour of a naval officer. 

So was this episode a clear and manifest case of injustice?

John Byng was one of the fifteen children of George Byng, who was a favorite of the then monarch and himself an admiral and member of the admiralty board and later First Lord of the Admiralty.  Thus it was very natural that the younger Byng should have joined the Royal Navy too,  albeit at the very young age of 13 and saw his first fleet action at Cape Passaro — his father’s finest hour– as a Captain’s Servant, aged just 14. He qualified as a lieutenant at 19 years old (although the minimum age was 21) and was Post Captain at 23. By the outbreak of the Seven Years’ War in 1756 he had risen to Admiral of the Blue.[1]

Dispatched with ten ships of the line to Gibraltar. His orders were to prevent the French from Toulon  capturing the British stronghold of Fort St Philip on the island of Minorca, and to this end he was to carry a detachment of 700 men from the Gibraltar garrison to Port Mahon. But by the time he reached Gibraltar, he discovered that the French had already landed a significant force on Minorca and were besieging the fort. The traditional account then has it that he and his council of war decided against landing more troops and that  it was in consequence of this decision that he therefore wrote what  a sadly ill judged  letter to the Admiralty. This explained that carrying out his orders would not stop the French and occasion pointless loss of life.

This letter, when it eventually arrived at the end of May in London,  caused consternation and fury, with George II reportedly protesting that, ‘This man will not fight!’ a suspicion compounded when there next came news of an inconclusive encounter in June between the British fleet under Byng and the French, from which the French had sailed away without loss,  while in late June Fort St Philip surrendered.

Byng was summoned back and put under arrest on arrival and it was at this stage that mobs took to chanting the famous line ‘Swing, swing Admiral Byng’.

At the court martial, which was finally convened at the end of December, (and reported in great detail in newspapers of the time)  Byng was charged with ‘failing to do his utmost’.

Unwisely perhaps,  he employed no advocate and conducted his own defence, and the court duly found against him and with reluctance sentenced him to death, as they were obliged to do given that the prevailing Articles of War (of 1749) made clear that:

Every Person in the Fleet, who through Cowardice, Negligence, or Disaffection, shall in Time of Action withdraw or keep, or not come into the Fight or Engagement, or shall not to 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 the Sentence of a Court-martial, shall suffer Death.

The government then seemingly ignored the unanimous recommendation to mercy of the officers serving as Judges in the court who wrote:

‘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.’”and finally George II declined to use his prerogative of mercy to spare Byng.

So it was,  in something of a gale,  in Portsmouth harbour that on the March  day appointed for his execution,  a heavy coffin was first hoisted on board the Monarch at 7am already inscribed, ‘The Hon. John Byng, Esqr. Died March 14th 1757.’ Soon to be followed by the admiral himself. Finally,  at 11am, in the words of The Newgate Calendar

the boats belonging to the squadron at Spithead being manned and armed, containing their captains and officers, with a detachment of marines, attended this solemnity in the harbour, which was also crowded with an infinite number of other boats and vessels filled with spectators. 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…Thus fell, to the astonishment of all Europe, Admiral John Byng; who, whatever his errors and indiscretions might have been, was at least rashly condemned, meanly given up, and cruelly sacrificed to vile political intrigues.

His descendants, however, are not content to let this history stand, and so, led by the redoubtable 70 year old Mrs Thane Byng,  an artist living in Hampstead, they are currently determined to argue that a great wrong was done which they have called a shameful end for an admiral with an unblemished career.

They have even called his court martial

“a sham…with false testimonies…witness intimidation and intrigue…all to cover up the failure of the then government. And in addition they argue he had made it clear that he believed he did not have enough ships or men, but was denied reinforcements.”

The family has been assisted by the researches of one Dr Joe Krulder, who undertook his research as student at the University of Bristol and who has unearthed documents, which he believes were suppressed at the time, showing how Byng tried his best to stay in the fight. Furthermore, he argues that it was actually the French under their Admiral Galissonière who simply withdrew and that Byng, with badly damaged vessels and no hospital ship, in fact remained near Minorca hoping that they would resume combat. It was only after there being no sign of the French fleet that                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                 Byng, together with his captains and generals,  decided that the ships should head to Gibraltar for repairs before returning again to resume the fight. But he was never able to do so since by then he was ordered back to London by the Admiralty.


Dr Krulder has also suggested that there is evidence establishing that long before Byng had arrived back in England, a conspiracy was launched in which the highest levels of government – including the king, George II – decided that he would be made a scapegoat for Britain’s failure to keep the Mediterranean secure for its interests.

As a consequence, a campaign against Byng was whipped up in the press, and as Dr Krulder reportedly put it,  “There is more than one smoking gun in the archives that will aid the Byngs’ appeal. Byng was set up and wronged.”

The family has also suggested that it may have been no coincidence that Handel specially staged his oratorio Triumph of Time and Truth as a sign of support just three days before Byng was executed, though further and specific evidence for this has yet to be adduced. Nonetheless, it was with this idea in mind that the composer Piers Maxim has evidently composed a new oratorio The Musket Ball developed from material supplied by Thane Byng’s libretto. This  features an Aria  Sing, sing Admiral Byng !                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      

However, by way of an entirely contrary perspective, others have argued that the main point to note about the execution was that  “it worked”

This perspective was well articulated by  N.A.M.  Rodger, the eminent naval scholar who alsot sets out an illuminating detail  just how badly the petitions for clemency were handled, which casts yet another perspective upon their failure.

When the new First Lord of the Admiralty, Pitt’s tactless and arrogant brother-in-law, Earl Temple, presented the Board’s request for clemency to George II, he implied that the king, as a coward himself, ought to have compassion on the admiral. That sealed Byng’s fate and so it was that he ended up being shot on his own quarterdeck on 14 March 1757.

Since a surprising number of historians, seemingly unaware of the fall of the Newcastle ministry, have attributed Byng’s death to political persecution, it is worth noting that in fact he died while his political friends were in office, and that in fact he died  in spite of their efforts to save him from “the anger of the King, the fury of the public, and the disgust of his naval colleagues” as Rodger puts it.

Moreover it was the very unpopularity of these efforts that were partly responsible for the dismissal of Pitt’s ministry in April 1757.


But this still leaves the larger historical point about the execution being ‘effective’, And here the historian Rodger further claims that Byng’s execution did have a profound and indeed positive effect on the Royal Navy,  which  in the end, lent some considerable credence to Voltaire’s quip after all, since,  as he puts it:

There was more truth in the epigram than perhaps [Voltaire] knew, for the execution of Byng had a profound effect on the moral climate of the Navy, and sharply reversed the effects of the battle of Toulon. The fates of Matthews and Lestock had taught officers that misconduct with support in high places had nothing to fear; the fate of Byng taught them that even the most powerful political friends might not save an officer who failed to fight. Many things might go wrong with an attack on the enemy, but the only fatal error was not to risk it. Byng’s death revived and reinforced 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 they went into battle with an invisible disadvantage which no amount of personal courage or numerical strength could entirely make up for.

Accordingly, while it was indeed a sad and grisly episode for poor Byng himself it may not have been without positive consequence  –as Voltaire implied. Though this would not of itself entail that an unsafe (in the language of the modern day Appeal Court) conviction should necessarily be allowed to stand merely because it may have had good effects. Such would be to take the modern temptation to “consequentialism” altogether too far and illustrate just what can go wrong in such a perspective.


A Postscript:

the Byng-King affair in Canada

There is one further detail of history that is of special note for Canadians, in that Admiral Byng had a successor who played his own controversial role in history. This was Field Marshall Julian Byng who was appointed the 12thGovernor General of Canada in 1921.

He shortly afterwards came to be at the centre of the constitutional crisis that came to be known as the Byng-King affair. (This was probably the most notable in Commonwealth history till that of the Australian constitutional crisis in1975, when the Governor-General of Australia, Sir John Kerr, dismissed Prime Minister Gough Whitlam).

While the circumstances are somewhat complex they do have some potential resonance now in the UK,  since the saga turned upon when an election should be called and by whom.

In September 1925, William Lyon Mackenzie King, the Prime Minister of Canada,requested and obtained a dissolution of the Canadian Parliament and in the subsequent election on 29thOctober, Arthur Meighen’s Conservative Party won 116 seats in the House of Commons to 101 for King’s Liberals.

Counting on the support of the Progressive Party, with its 28 seats, to overcome the Conservative plurality, King (who had lost his seat in the election, and didn’t regain a seat formally until February 1926 thanks to Charles McDonald) did not resign and remained in office as head of a minority government..

On 30 October, King visited Byng after consulting with the rest of Cabinet and informed the Governor General that his government would continue until parliament decided otherwise. Byng, who had suggested to King that he ought to resign with such a tenuous mandate, later stated he told the Prime Minister: “Well, in any event you must not at any time ask for a dissolution unless Mr Meighen is first given a chance to show whether or not he is able to govern”, to which King acquiesced.  The point being that whoever enjoyed the support of the Parliament had by rights to be given the opportunity to form a government after the election, something not to be undermined by a minority party seeking another election. Subsequently, King did make this request and Byng refused and instead invited Meighen to form a government, which in the end itself lost a vote of confidence by one vote and fell with the result that King’s liberals won a majority and returned to power whereupon they sought an imperial conference to redefine the role of the governor general as a personal representative of the sovereign in his Canadian council and not of the British government (the king in his British council). The change was agreed to at the Imperial Conference of 1926 and came to be official as a result of the Balfour Declarationof 1926 and Statute of Westminsterof 1931.


Julian and Evelyn, Viscount and Viscountess Byng


The link between the Governor General and the Admiral who was executed:

But to set out the link to Admiral John Byng one needs to know that the Canadian Governor General, Field Marshal Julian Hedworth George Byng, the 1st Viscount Byng of Vimy, GCB, GCMG, MVO (otherwise known as “Bungo” to distinguish him from his brothers respectively known as Byngo and Bango — which last is a name that pops up incidentally  in the Knox family in regard to their childhood as –when not committing the railway timetable to memory– Ronald (the later Monsignor) and his siblings would on holiday create a newspaper they called Bolliday Bango but I must not digress)  was the 7th son of George Stevens Byng, 2nd Earl of Strafford,  who was the son of Field Marshal John Byng, 1st Earl of Strafford (1772-1860) by his first wife, Mary Mackenzie.

And that the said first Earl,  was  the third son of George Byng (1735–1789) of Wrotham Park  who was the eldest son of Robert Byng, 1703-1740, (MP and Governor of Barbados, and also before that cashier and Commissioner of the Royal Navy)   who was the third son of Admiral of the Fleet George Byng, 1st Viscount Torrington (1663-1733) of Southill Park in Bedfordshire  who was the father of the unfortunate Admiral John Byng who got executed (and who married Margaret Master —to whose current descendants I made reference earlier above) at St Paul’s Church,  Covent Garden, on 6 March 1691).

And merely by way of one last point of added interest in regard to the role of the Byngs in history via the Navy:

It was this Admiral Byng, who while still a Lieutenant  delivered a letter from various captains to Prince William of Orange, just after he had landed at Torbay, assuring the Prince of the captains’ support; and the response of the Prince to Byng ultimately led to the Royal Navy to switch allegiance to the Prince with all that entailed for the “Glorious Revolution” of November 1688. Which just goes to show how important the Navy has been to the monarchs as indeed why the role of Naval Lieutenants should not be overlooked in history…..


Alistair M-R

March, 2019

[1]The Royal Navy was divided into three Squadrons each with a different colour during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I (1558-1603) and in order of precedence were respectively of  the Red, White or Blue each squadron having an Admiral, a Vice-Admiral and a Rear Admiral and eventually from 1688 onwards  an Admiral of the Fleet above them all.

[2]See,  ‘Family hope pardon for shamed Admiral Byng will finally arrive’ by Jasper Copping, in the Daily Telegraph of 23rd June 2013