John Byng : biography
Such policy considerations were no comfort to the family of their victim. Admiral Byng’s epitaph at the family vault in All Saints Church, in Southill, Bedfordshire, expresses their view and the view of much of the country: To the perpetual Disgrace of PUBLICK JUSTICE The Honble. JOHN BYNG Esqr Admiral of the Blue Fell a MARTYR to POLITICAL PERSECUTION March 14th in the year 1757 when BRAVERY and LOYALTY were Insufficient Securities For the Life and Honour of a NAVAL OFFICER
Clemency denied and execution
The new First Lord of the Admiralty, Lord 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.
The 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. Following the court martial and pronouncement of sentence, Admiral Byng had been detained aboard 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 marines shot John Byng dead.
Battle of Minorca
On the approach of the Seven Years’ War, the island of Minorca, which had been a British possession since 1708, when it was captured during the War of the Spanish Succession, was threatened by a French naval attack from Toulon, and was invaded in 1756.
Byng, then serving in the Channel, was ordered to the Mediterranean to relieve the British garrison of Fort St Philip, at Port Mahon. Despite his protests, he was not given enough money or time to prepare the expedition properly. His sailing orders were inexplicably delayed by five days, and this turned out to be crucial to the lack of success of the expedition. He set out with ten unseaworthy ships that leaked and were inadequately manned. Byng’s marines were landed to make room for the soldiers who were to reinforce the garrison, and he feared that if he met a French squadron, he would be dangerously undermanned. His correspondence shows that he left prepared for failure, that he did not believe that the garrison could hold out against the French force, and that he was already resolved to come back from Minorca if he found that the task presented any great difficulty. He wrote home to that effect to the Admiralty from Gibraltar, whose governor refused to provide soldiers to increase the relief force.
Byng sailed on 8 May 1756. Before he arrived, the French landed 15,000 troops on the western shore of Minorca, spreading out to occupy the island. On 19 May, Byng was off the east coast of Minorca and endeavoured to open communications with the fort. Before he could land any soldiers, the French squadron appeared.