From The Emperor’s Desk: I find this a fascinating and sad story. Although not directly royalty related it does feature King George II of Great Britain as playing a role in the story.
Admiral John Byng (baptised 29 October 1704 – 14 March 1757) was a British Royal Navy officer who was court-martialled and executed by firing squad. John Byng was born at Southill Park in the parish of Southhill in Bedfordshire, England, the fourth son of Rear-Admiral George Byng, 1st Viscount Torrington (later Admiral of the Fleet).
His father George Byng had supported King William III in his successful bid to be crowned King of England in 1689 and had seen his own stature and fortune grow.
George Byng was a highly skilled naval commander, had won distinction in a series of battles, and was held in esteem by the monarchs whom he served. In 1721, he was rewarded by King George I of Great Britain with a viscountcy, being created Viscount Torrington.
After joining the navy at the age of thirteen, he participated at the Battle of Cape Passaro in 1718. Over the next thirty years he built up a reputation as a solid naval officer and received promotion to vice-admiral in 1747. He also served as Commodore-Governor of Newfoundland Colony in 1742, Commander-in-Chief, Leith, 1745 to 1746 and was a member of Parliament from 1751 until his death.
The island of Minorca had been a British possession since 1708, when it was captured during the War of the Spanish Succession. On the approach of the Seven Years’ War, numerous British diplomats based in the Mediterranean raised the alarm that Minorca was threatened by a French naval attack from Toulon. Since 1748, British downsizing of the Royal Navy meant that only three ships-of-the-line were assigned to protect trading interests in the Mediterranean by 1755.
Byng failed to relieve a besieged British garrison during the Battle of Minorca at the beginning of the Seven Years’ War. He had sailed for Minorca at the head of a hastily assembled fleet of vessels, some of which were in poor condition. He fought an inconclusive engagement with a French fleet off the Minorcan coast and then elected to return to Gibraltar to repair his ships.
On arrival in England, Byng was placed in custody. The garrison resisted the Siege of Fort St Philip until June 29, 1756 when it was forced to capitulate.
Byng’s court-martial was convened on December 28, 1756 aboard the elderly 96-gun vessel HMS St George, which was anchored in Portsmouth Harbour. The presiding officer was Admiral Thomas Smith, supported by rear admirals Francis Holburne, Harry Norris and Thomas Broderick, and a panel of nine captains. The verdict was delivered four weeks later on January 27, 1757, in the form of a series of resolutions describing the course of Byng’s expedition to Minorca and an interpretation of his actions.
The court acquitted Byng of personal cowardice. However, its principal findings were that Byng had failed to keep his fleet together while engaging the French; that his flagship had opened fire at too great a distance to have any effect; and that he should have proceeded to the immediate relief of Minorca rather than returning to Gibraltar. As a consequence of these actions, the court held that Byng had “not done his utmost” to engage or destroy the enemy, thereby breaching the 12th Article of War.
Once the court determined that Byng had “failed to do his utmost”, it had no discretion over punishment under the Articles of War. In accordance with those Articles the court condemned Byng to death, but unanimously recommended that the Lords of the Admiralty ask King George II to exercise his royal prerogative of mercy.
It fell to Admiral John Forbes, in his role as Lord Commissioner of the Admiralty, to sign Byng’s death warrant. This he refused to do, believing the sentence to be illegal, instead attaching to the warrant a document explaining his refusal.
First Lord of the Admiralty Richard Grenville-Temple was granted an audience with King George II, to request clemency, but this was refused in an angry exchange. Four members of the board of the court-martial petitioned Parliament, seeking to be relieved from their oath of secrecy to speak on Byng’s behalf. The Commons passed a measure allowing this, but the Lords rejected the proposal.
Prime Minister William Pitt the Elder was aware that the Admiralty was at least partly to blame for the loss at Minorca due to the poor manning and repair of the fleet. The Duke of Newcastle, the politician responsible, had by now joined the Prime Minister in an uneasy political coalition and this made it difficult for Pitt to contest the court-martial’s verdict as strongly as he would have liked.
He did, however, petition the King to commute the death sentence. The appeal was refused; Pitt and the king were political opponents, with Pitt having pressed for George II to relinquish his hereditary position of Elector of Hanover as being a conflict of interest with the government’s policies in Europe.
The severity of the penalty, combined with suspicion that the Admiralty had sought to protect themselves from public anger over the defeat by throwing all the blame on the admiral, led to a reaction in favour of Byng in both the Navy and the country, which had previously demanded retribution.
Pitt, then Leader of the House of Commons, told the King: “the House of Commons, Sir, is inclined to mercy”, to which King George II responded: “You have taught me to look for the sense of my people elsewhere than in the House of Commons.”
The King did not exercise his prerogative to grant clemency. Following the court-martial and pronouncement of sentence, Admiral Byng was detained aboard HMS Monarch in the Solent and, on 14 March 14, 1757, he was taken to the quarterdeck for execution in the presence of all hands and men from other ships of the fleet in boats surrounding Monarch. The admiral knelt on a cushion and signified his readiness by dropping his handkerchief, whereupon a squad of Royal Marines shot him dead.
He is buried in the Byng Mausoleum in All Saints’ Church in Southill, Bedfordshire, built for the burial of his father. He died unmarried, so having left no children he bequeathed his estates, including Wrotham Park, to one of his younger nephews, George Byng (c.1735–1789), the eldest son of his next elder brother Robert Byng (1703–1740), Governor of Barbados, who had died 17 years before the admiral’s death.
Byng was the last of his rank to be executed in this fashion and, 22 years after the event, the Articles of War were amended to allow “such other punishment as the nature and degree of the offence shall be found to deserve” as an alternative to capital punishment.
In 2007, some of Byng’s descendants petitioned the government for a posthumous pardon. The Ministry of Defence refused. Members of his family continue to seek a pardon, along with a group at Southill in Bedfordshire where the Byng family lived.
Byng’s execution has been called “the worst legalistic crime in the nation’s annals”.