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The Story Of Admiral The Honourable John Byng


The honourable John Byng was the fourth son of George Viscount
Torrington, and was born at his father's seat at Southill, in
Bedfordshire, in the year 1704. Showing a strong inclination for the
navy, his father took him to sea with him when he was only thirteen
years old; and so rapid was his promotion, that at twenty-three he was
made captain of the Gibraltar frigate, then stationed in the
Mediterranean. These were, comparatively speaking, peaceable times, and
the record of the next twenty-five years was one of routine service,
honourably performed and rewarded by steady promotion.

Towards the end of the year 1755 the British Government received
intelligence that a powerful armament was equipping in Toulon, which was
intended to act against Fort St. Philip. Though the case was urgent, the
government took no notice of repeated warnings until at last, on the
strong and positive representation of General Blakeney that his garrison
must be reinforced if the ministry wished to retain it, they made a
tardy and inadequate arrangement to relieve the garrison and protect the
Island of Minorca.

To effect this purpose it was necessary to send out a fleet and a
reinforcement of troops. The command of this fleet they gave to Admiral
Byng, whom they promoted to the rank of admiral of the blue. The
ministers were blamed at the time for appointing Admiral Byng to this
command. The service was one of the greatest importance; it required
not only great personal courage and professional skill and experience,
but also a comprehensive judgment and great activity and zeal, and
Admiral Byng, whatever talents he possessed, had never had an
opportunity of displaying them; he was, in fact, without that degree of
experience which ought to have been regarded as an indispensable
requisite in the person entrusted with this command. Moreover, the force
placed under his command was inadequate to the service; it consisted
only of ten sail of the line, several of which were not in a proper
condition either for fighting or going to sea; and most of them were
either short of their complement of men, or manned by crews consisting
of young and inexperienced seamen.

On April 7th, 1756, Admiral Byng sailed from St. Helen's, and on May 2nd
he arrived at Gibraltar. From this place he wrote a letter to the
Admiralty, which is supposed, by reflecting on the conduct of ministers,
to have irritated them against him. On May 8th he sailed for Minorca,
but having contrary winds, did not make that island until the morning of
the 19th, when he saw the English flag still flying on the castle of St.
Philip, and several bomb-batteries playing upon it from the enemy's
works. Early in the morning the admiral despatched Captain Hervey, in
the Phoenix, with the Chesterfield and Dolphin, with orders to
reconnoitre the entrance into the harbour, and, if possible, to convey a
letter to General Blakeney. Captain Hervey got round the Laire, and made
signals to the garrison for a boat to come off, but without effect; and
the admiral, about this time discovering the French fleet, ordered him
to return.

At two o'clock on the following day Admiral Byng made a signal to bear
away two points from the wind and engage. Rear-admiral West was then at
too great a distance to comply with both these orders; he therefore bore
away seven points from the wind, and with his whole division attacked
the enemy with such impetuosity that several of their ships were soon
obliged to quit the line. Had Admiral Byng been equally alert, it is
most probable that the French fleet would have been defeated and Minorca
saved; but the enemy's centre keeping their station, and Byng's
division not advancing, Admiral West was prevented from pursuing his
advantage by the danger of being separated from the rest of the fleet.

After engaging about a quarter of an hour, the Intrepid, the sternmost
ship of the van, lost her foretop mast, which, according to Byng's
account of the action, obliged his whole division to back their sails to
prevent their falling foul of each other. But when this matter came to
be examined by the court martial, it appeared that immediately after the
signal for engaging, while the van were bearing down upon the enemy,
Admiral Byng, in the Ramillies, edged away some points, by which means
the Trident and Louisa got to windward of him, and that, in order to
bring them again into their stations, he backed his mizen-top sail, and
endeavoured to back his main-top sail. This manoeuvre necessarily
retarded all the ships in his division and gave the enemy time to
escape. M. Galissoniere seized the opportunity, and, his ships being
clean, he was soon out of danger.

The English had in this engagement forty-two men killed and one hundred
and sixty-eight wounded; the French one hundred and forty-five wounded
and twenty-six killed. The next morning the admiral, finding that three
of his squadron were damaged in their masts, called a council of war,
which decided to proceed to Gibraltar.

Admiral Byng wrote an account of this engagement, which he sent to the
Admiralty who, after some delay, published it with excisions which
materially affected the impression it was likely to produce.

Not only were parts of Admiral Byng's letter withheld from the public,
but the letter itself, though said to have been received on June 16th,
was not inserted in the Gazette till the 26th of that month. The hired
writers in the pay of the ministry were instantly set to work to censure
his conduct in the most violent and inflammatory language. One fact was
particularly pointed out and most strenuously insisted upon as a proof
of personal cowardice; from the returns of the killed and wounded on
board of the different ships it appeared that on board the Ramillies,
Admiral Byng's own ship, there was not one man either killed or wounded.

Sir Edward Hawke and Admiral Saunders were ordered to supersede Mr.
Byng, whom they were instructed to send home under arrest. By this time
the popular clamour and indignation were so extremely violent that
government were afraid some of it would be directed against themselves
unless they placed it beyond doubt that they were resolved to proceed
against Mr. Byng without the least delay, and in the most rigorous

The admiral landed at Portsmouth. At every place that he passed through
he was hooted by the mob. On the road to Greenwich Hospital, where he
was to remain until his trial, he was guarded as if he had been guilty
of the most heinous crime, while that part of the hospital where he was
confined was most scrupulously and carefully fortified, the government
taking care that all their precautions to prevent his escape should be
made known.

On December 27th, 1756, the court martial assembled on board the St.
George in Portsmouth Harbour, and on January 15th, 1757, the evidence
concluded. The opinion of the court was that "the admiral did not do his
utmost to relieve the garrison of St. Philip, and that during the
engagement he did not do his utmost to take, seize, and destroy the
ships of the French king, and assist such of his own ships as were
engaged." They therefore came to the following resolution:--

"That the admiral appears to fall under the following part of the
twelfth article of the articles of war, viz.--'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
which it shall be his duty to assist and relieve': and as that article
positively prescribes death, without any alternative left to the
discretion of the court, under any variation of circumstances, resolved
that he be adjudged to be shot to death at such time, and on board such
ship, as the lords commissioners of the Admiralty shall direct; but as
it appears by the evidence of Lord Robert Bertie, Lieutenant-colonel
Smith, Captain Gardiner, and other officers of the ship, who were near
the person of the admiral, that they did not perceive any backwardness
in him during the action, or any marks of fear or confusion, either from
his countenance or behaviour, but that he seemed to give his orders
coolly and distinctly and did not seem wanting in personal courage, and
from other circumstances the court do not believe that his misconduct
arose either from cowardice or disaffection, and do therefore
unanimously think it their duty most earnestly to recommend him as a
proper object of mercy."

Not only in their resolution did the court martial recommend him to
mercy, but in the letter which accompanied a copy of their proceedings
to the board of Admiralty they expressed themselves strongly to the same

Notwithstanding these repeated, strong, and earnest representations of
the opinion and wishes of the court martial, the lords of the Admiralty
contented themselves, when they laid before His Majesty a copy of the
proceedings, with transmitting the letters of the court martial;
hinting, indeed, a doubt respecting the legality of the sentence,
because the crime of negligence, for which alone Admiral Byng was
condemned, did not appear in any part of the proceedings. When the
sentence was known, George, Lord Viscount Torrington, a near relation of
the admiral's, presented two petitions to His Majesty; and his other
friends interested themselves in his behalf: but the people were so
clamorous and violent that it would scarcely have been safe to have
pardoned him; however, in consequence of the representation of the lords
of the Admiralty respecting the doubtful legality of the sentence, His
Majesty referred it to the twelve judges, who were unanimous in their
opinion that it was legal. The next step was to transmit this opinion to
the lords of the Admiralty, in order that they might sign the warrant
for the execution. All the lords signed it, except Admiral Forbes, who
entered his reasons for his refusal.

Admiral Forbes was not the only naval officer who resolutely and
honourably stood forward and protested against the sentence passed upon
Admiral Byng. Mr. West, who had been second in command under him in the
Mediterranean, and who on his return was appointed one of the lords
commissioners of the Admiralty, and soon afterwards commander-in-chief
of a squadron destined for a secret expedition, on the very day sentence
was passed on Admiral Byng wrote official and private letters, declining
these appointments on account of the treatment of Admiral Byng.

When the warrant was signed, Mr. Keppel, one of the members of the court
martial, rose in his place in the House of Commons, and prayed, on
behalf of himself and some other members of the court, that they might
be released from their oath of secrecy, in order to disclose the reasons
which had induced them to pass sentence of death upon Admiral Byng; as,
probably, by this disclosure, some circumstances might come out that
would prove the sentence to be illegal. To this the Commons agreed, and
an order was sent down to Portsmouth to respite the execution of the
admiral until March 14th. The House of Lords, however, after
interrogating the members of the court martial who were responsible for
the bill, unanimously rejected it.

On his way to receive sentence on board the St. George Admiral Byng
told some of his friends that he expected to be reprimanded, and
possibly he might be cashiered; "because," added he, "there must have
been several controverted points: the court martial has been shut up a
long time, and almost all the questions proposed by the court have
tended much more to pick out faults in my conduct than to get a true
state of the circumstances; but I profess I cannot conceive what they
will fix upon."

When he arrived on board the St. George, and as he was walking on the
quarter-deck, a member of the court martial came out and told one of his
relations that they had found the admiral capitally guilty, and
requested him to prepare him for his sentence. The gentleman to whom
this communication was made went up to him immediately, but was unable
to address him for some time; his countenance, however, and the
embarrassment of his manner, led the admiral to suspect that he had some
unpleasant intelligence to communicate; and he said to him, "What is the
matter? have they broke me?" The gentleman, perceiving from this
question that he was totally unprepared for his sentence, hesitated
still more: upon which the countenance of the admiral changed a little,
and he added, "Well, I understand--if nothing but my blood will satisfy,
let them take it."

A few minutes afterwards one of his friends endeavoured to support and
reconcile him to his fate by observing that a sentence without guilt
could be no stain; and adding that it was extremely unlikely that the
sentence would be carried into execution, begged him to indulge the hope
of obtaining a pardon; he replied, "What will that signify to me? What
satisfaction can I receive from the liberty to crawl a few years longer
on the earth with the infamous load of a pardon at my back? I despise
life upon such terms, and would rather have them take it."

When the respite for fourteen days came down to Portsmouth, his friends
endeavoured to encourage the expectation that he would be honourably
pardoned, and dwelt upon every circumstance which gave countenance and
probability to this idea; to them he replied, in a calm and
unembarrassed manner, "I am glad you think so, because it makes you
easy and happy; but I think it has now become an affair merely
political, without any relation to right or wrong, justice or injustice;
and therefore I differ in opinion from you."

Immediately after he received his sentence he was put on board the
Monarque, a third-rate man-of-war, lying at anchor in the harbour of
Portsmouth, under a strong guard, in the custody of the marshal of the
Admiralty. On Sunday morning, March 13th, Captain Montague, who had
received the warrant from Admiral Boscawen for his execution next day,
gave it to the admiral for him to read; he read it over without the
slightest sign of perturbation, and then remarked with some warmth that
"the place named in the warrant for his execution was upon the
forecastle." A circumstance which evidently filled his mind with

His friends endeavoured to turn his thoughts from this idea; they could
not indeed hold out to him the expectation that the place would be
changed, because the warrant expressly named it: they coincided with him
in the opinion that it ought not to have been so; but they trusted, at
this awful and important moment, he would deem such a circumstance
beneath his notice, and not suffer it to break in upon the tranquillity
of his mind. On this he composed his thoughts and feelings, and replied,
"It is very true, the place or manner is of no great importance to me;
but I think living admirals should consult the dignity of the rank for
their own sakes. I cannot plead a precedent; there is no precedent of an
admiral, or a general officer in the army, being shot. They make a
precedent of me, such as admirals hereafter may feel the effects of."

During the time he was at dinner no alteration in his manner was
observable; he was cheerful and polite, helping his friends and drinking
their healths; but he did not continue long at table. After dinner he
conversed a good deal respecting his approaching execution; and the
indignation and uneasiness he had before felt about the place appointed
for it recurred with considerable force in his thoughts. His friends
were extremely desirous of conversing on other subjects; and at length,
perceiving this, he remarked, "I like to talk upon the subject; it is
not to be supposed I do not think of it; why then should it be more
improper to talk of it?" He frequently noticed how the wind was; and on
his friends inquiring the reason of his anxiety on this subject, he said
he hoped it might continue westerly long enough for the members of the
court martial (who were just about to sail) to be present when his
sentence was put in execution.

About six o'clock, according to his usual custom, he ordered tea; and
while he and his friends were at it his conversation was easy and
cheerful. Perceiving that his friends were astonished at this
circumstance, "I have observed," said he, "that persons condemned to
die have generally had something to be sorry for that they have
expressed concern for having committed; and though I do not pretend to
be exempt from human frailties, yet it is my consolation to have no
remorse for any transaction in my public character during the whole
series of my long services." On one of his friends observing that no man
was exempt from human frailties, and that what came under that
denomination were not crimes cognisable here, or supposed to be so
hereafter, he replied, "I am conscious of no crimes, and am particularly
happy in not dying the mean, despicable, ignominious wretch my enemies
would have the world to believe me. I hope I am not supposed so now; the
court martial has acquitted me of everything criminal or ignominious."
One of his friends assured him that none called or thought him so but
persons who were obstinately prejudiced against him, and his enemies,
whose interest and design it was to deceive the nation; and it was vain
to expect that they would be induced to change their opinion or do him
justice by any reasoning or statement. This observation seemed to please
him much.

In the evening he ordered a small bowl of punch to be made; and as all
his friends were seated round the table, taking his own glass with a
little punch in it, after having helped his friends, he said, "My
friends, here is all your healths, and God bless you; I am pleased to
find I have some friends still, notwithstanding my misfortunes." After
drinking his glass, he added, "I am to die to-morrow, and as my country
requires my life, I am ready to resign it, though I do not as yet know
what my crime is. I think my judges, in justice to posterity, to
officers who come after us, should have explained my crime a little more
and pointed out the way to avoid falling into the same errors I did. As
the sentence and resolutions stand now, I am persuaded no admiral will
be wiser hereafter by them, or know better how to conduct himself on the
like occasion." Observing one or his friends with his eyes attentively
fixed upon him while he was speaking: "My friend," said he, "I
understand reproof in that grave look. It is a long time since I have
spoken so much upon the subject, and you now think I say too much;
perhaps I do so." "Far from presuming to mean any reproof," replied his
friend, "I am all attention to what you say, sir; and though all of us
here are satisfied of these truths, yet we must be pleased to hear you
make them plainer."

The admiral was always watched in the great cabin during the night by
officers who relieved one another at twelve at night and at four o'clock
in the morning. At these hours he was seldom found awake; but the night
before his execution at both hours he was found in a tranquil and
profound sleep.

He had always been in the habit of rising very early; and while he was
on board the Monarque he used to banter the marshal for not being up
so soon as he was. On Monday morning, the day of his execution, he was
up by five o'clock: the marshal did not make his appearance till six;
and when he saw him, "Well," said he, "I think I have beat you at rising
this morning." Soon afterwards, when he was shifting, as he regularly
did every morning, "Here," said he to his valet, "take these
sleeve-buttons and wear them for my sake; yours will do to be buried

As soon as he was dressed he returned to the state-room by himself,
where he spent some time; on coming out he sat down to breakfast with
the marshal as composedly as usual. He was dressed in a light grey coat,
white waistcoat and white stockings, and a large white wig. These
clothes he had regularly worn since he received the intelligence of his
suspension at Gibraltar; for after having read the order he stripped off
his uniform and threw it into the sea.

About nine o'clock his friends came on board the Monarque; he received
them in an easy, familiar manner, took each of them by the hand and
inquired after their health. They informed him that the place of his
execution was changed; that it was not to take place on the forecastle,
but on the quarter-deck. This intelligence seemed to give him great
satisfaction. He had constantly declared his resolution to die with his
face uncovered, and to give the word of command to the platoon of
marines himself; saying, "As it is my fate I can look at it and receive
it." His friends were grieved at this determination and endeavoured to
dissuade him from it; sometimes he seemed disposed to comply with their
wishes, but at other times he replied, "No, it cannot be; I cannot bear
it; I must look and receive my fate." His friends, however, persevered
in representing to him that, considering his rank, it was impossible the
marines could receive the word of command from him, or look in his face
and see him looking at them without being intimidated and awed; they
hinted, also, at the consequences which might result; that he might be
wounded only and mangled. By arguments and entreaties they at length
prevailed upon him to have a bandage over his eyes, and to make a signal
by dropping a handkerchief.

He then requested to be made acquainted with all the particulars of the
form, in order that he might conduct himself strictly according to them,
remarking that he had never been present at an execution.

As soon as the admiral had agreed upon the signal he was to make, it was
communicated to the commanding officer of the marines, in order that he
might instruct his men accordingly; and he was also desired to tell them
that they should have ten guineas if they conducted themselves properly.
The marines were drawn up, under arms, upon the poop, along the
gangways, in the waist, and on one side of the quarter-deck. A heap of
sawdust was thrown on the other side of the quarter-deck, and a cushion
placed upon it; in the middle, upon the gratings, a platoon of nine
marines were drawn up in three lines, three in each: the two foremost
lines, which were intended to fire, had their bayonets fixed, as is
customary on such occasions.

Orders had been given for all the men-of-war at Spithead to send their
boats, with the captains and all the officers of each ship, accompanied
by a party of marines under arms, to attend the execution. In compliance
with these orders they rowed from Spithead and made the harbour a little
after eleven o'clock; but with great difficulty and danger, as it blew
a dreadful gale at west-north-west and the tide was ebbing.
Notwithstanding the state of the weather, there was a prodigious number
of other boats present.

About eleven o'clock Admiral Byng, walking across his cabin, and
observing the crowd of boats out of one of the cabin windows, took up a
glass to view them more distinctly. The decks, shrouds, and yards of all
the ships that lay near were crowded with men; upon which he remarked,
"Curiosity is strong; it draws a great number of people together; but
their curiosity will be disappointed: where they are, they may hear, but
they cannot see." A gentleman said to him, "To see you so easy and
composed, sir, gives me as much pleasure as I can have on this occasion;
but I expected no less from the whole of your conduct heretofore; and
the last actions of a man mark his character more than all the actions
of his life." "I am sensible they do, sir," replied he, "and am obliged
to you for putting me in mind. I find innocence is the best foundation
for firmness of mind."

He continued to walk about in the cabin for some time; inquired what
time it would be high water; observed that the tide would not suit to
carry his body ashore after dark; expressed some apprehensions that his
body might be insulted if it were carried ashore in the daytime, on
account of the prejudices of the people against him: but his friends
assuring him that there was no such disposition among the inhabitants of
Portsmouth, he appeared very well satisfied.

He walked out of the great cabin to the quarter-deck, accompanied by a
clergyman, who had attended him during his confinement, and two
gentlemen, his relations. One of these went with him to the cushion and
offered to tie the bandage over his eyes; but he, having a white
handkerchief ready folded in his hand, replied, with a smile on his
countenance, "I am obliged to you, sir; I thank God I can do it myself;
I think I can; I am sure I can;" and tied it behind his head himself.

He continued upon his knees rather more than a minute, much composed,
and apparently recommending himself to the Almighty, and then dropped
his handkerchief, the signal agreed upon, a few minutes before twelve
o'clock. On this a volley was fired from the six marines, five of whose
bullets went through him, and he was in an instant no more: the sixth
bullet went over his head. The spectators were amazed at the intrepidity
of his behaviour, and scarcely could refrain from tears. One of the
common seamen, who had stood all the time full of attention, with his
arms across, cried out with enthusiasm, when he saw him fall, "There
lies the bravest and best officer of the navy."

A few minutes before his execution he delivered to the marshal of the
Admiralty the following paper, addressing himself to him in these

"Sir, these are my thoughts on this occasion. I give them to you
that you may authenticate them and prevent anything spurious
being published that might tend to defame me. I have given a
copy to one of my relations.

"A few moments will now deliver me from the virulent
persecutions and frustrate the farther malice of my enemies: nor
need I envy them a life subject to the sensations my injuries
and the injustice done me must create. Persuaded, I am, 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. I heartily wish the shedding my blood may
contribute to the happiness and service of my country; but
cannot resign my just claim to a faithful discharge of my duty
according to the best of my judgment and the utmost exertion of
my ability for His Majesty's honour and my country's service. I
am sorry that my endeavours were not attended with more success,
and that the armament under my command proved too weak to
succeed in an expedition of such moment.

"Truth has prevailed over calumny and falsehood; and justice has
wiped off the ignominious stain of my supposed want of personal
courage or disaffection. My heart acquits me of these crimes.
But who can be presumptuously sure of his own judgment? If my
crime is an error of judgment, or differing in opinion from my
judges, and if yet the error in judgment should be on their
side, God forgive them, as I do; and may the distress of their
minds and uneasiness of their consciences, which in justice to
me they have represented, be believed and subside, as my
resentment has done.

"The supreme Judge sees all hearts and motives, and to Him I
must submit the justice of my cause.


"On board His Majesty's ship 'Monarque,' in Portsmouth Harbour,
March 14th, 1757."

In his parish church, at Southill, is the following inscription to the
memory of this unfortunate officer:--


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