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:--