Admiral John Byng (baptised 29 October 1704 – 14 March 1757) was a Royal Navy officer. 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. Byng is best known for failing to relieve a besieged British garrison during the Battle of Minorca at the beginning of the Seven Years’ War. Byng 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 Minorca coast, and then elected to return to Gibraltar to repair his ships. Byng was subsequently court-martialled and found guilty of failing to “do his utmost” to prevent Minorca falling to the French. He was sentenced to death and shot by firing squad on 14 March 1757.
Byng’s failure to relieve the garrison at Minorca caused public outrage among fellow officers and the country at large. Byng was brought home to be tried by court-martial for breach of the Articles of War, which had recently been revised to mandate capital punishment for officers who did not do their utmost against the enemy, either in battle or pursuit.
The revision to the Articles followed an event in 1745 during the War of the Austrian Succession, when a young lieutenant named Baker Phillips was court-martialed and shot after his ship was captured by the French. His captain had done nothing to prepare the vessel for action and was killed almost immediately by a broadside. Taking command, the inexperienced junior officer was forced to surrender the ship when she could no longer be defended. The negligent behaviour of Phillips’s captain was noted by the subsequent court martial and a recommendation for mercy was entered, but Phillips’ sentence was approved by the Lords Justices of Appeal. This sentence angered some of parliament, who felt that an officer of higher rank would likely have been spared or else given a light punishment, and that Phillips had been executed because he was a powerless junior officer and thus a useful scapegoat. The Articles of War were amended to become one law for all: the death penalty for any officer of any rank who did not do his utmost against the enemy in battle or pursuit.
The court martial sitting in judgement on Byng acquitted him of personal cowardice and disaffection, and convicted him only for not having done his utmost, since he chose not to pursue the superior French fleet, deciding instead to protect his own. Once the court determined that Byng had “failed to do his utmost”, it had no discretion over punishment under the Articles of War, and therefore condemned Byng to death. However, its members recommended that the Lords of the Admiralty ask King George II to exercise his royal prerogative of mercy.
First Lord of the Admiralty Richard Grenville-Temple was granted an audience with the King 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. Lord 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 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 King George II were political opponents, with Pitt having pressed for George 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 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 George 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 had been detained aboard HMS Monarch in the Solent and, on 14 March 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 platoon of Royal Marines shot John Byng dead.
Byng’s execution was satirized by Voltaire in his novel Candide. In Portsmouth, Candide witnesses the execution of an officer by firing squad and is told that “in this country, it is good to kill an admiral from time to time, in order to encourage the others”.
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 (arseholes Ed.). Members of his family continue to seek a pardon, along with a group at Southill in Bedfordshire where the Byng family lived.