Could petition exonerate Admiral John Byng after 260 years? Appeal to be presented to government during remembrance service on anniversary of execution
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The name of Admiral John Byng – born, baptised and buried in a village between Shefford and Biggleswade – has, rightly or wrongly, gone down in history as a byword for cowardice. But could a petition to the government see him exonerated after 260 years?
Executed by firing squad on HMS Monarch’s quarterdeck in 1757 after being blamed for the loss of Minorca to the French, Byng – from Southill, just north of Shefford – holds the unfortunate distinction of being the only British admiral ever sentenced to death.
He had been acquitted of cowardice and disaffection, but convicted of ‘failing to do his utmost’ on the grounds that he had returned to Gibraltar for repairs rather than pursuing the larger French fleet.
His family have long sought his exoneration, and on March 14 MP Tulip Siddiq is set to mark the 260th anniversary of his death by handing a petition from the Admiral Byng Campaign in to the Secretary of State for Defence, Michael Fallon.
The same day, the Bishop of Bedford, Rt Rev Richard Atkinson, will lead a remembrance service in Admiral Byng’s memory at All Saints Church in Southill – where he was baptised, and buried in the family vault – with the support of Byng’s family.
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Byng’s epitaph at the church reads: “To the perpetual disgrace of public justice the Hon’ble John Byng Esqr, Admiral of the Blue, fell a martyr to political persecution March 14 in the year 1757, when bravery and loyalty were insufficient securities for the life and honour of a naval officer.”
The Ministry of Defence refused to grant Byng a posthumous pardon in 2007, but the campaign to clear his name continues. In 2013, ahead of the family’s fresh appeal, an MoD spokesman said: “A posthumous pardon for Admiral John Byng was declined as no new evidence was presented.”
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Byng – whose father Rear-Admiral Sir George Byng was ennobled as Viscount Torrington – joined the Royal Navy aged only 13 in 1718 and, during a largely peaceful career mostly in the Mediterranean, rose to the rank of rear-admiral by 1747. He was MP for Rochester from 1751 to his death.
The Minorca episode came about when the island – a British possession from 1708 – was invaded by the French during the Seven Years’ War in 1756, with Byng subsequently despatched from the English Channel to relieve the British garrison at Fort St Philip.
He made clear his belief that he lacked sufficient ships or troops, but was denied reinforcements. He briefly engaged the French at the Battle of Minorca – during which neither side lost a ship – then remained near Minorca for four days without contacting Fort St Philip. He then returned to Gibraltar for repairs and to collect more troops, writing to the Admiralty that continuing to attack would be a pointless waste of resources.
Byng’s letter to the Admiralty caused consternation, with King George II saying: “This man will not fight!”
Isolated from outside support, Fort St Philip surrendered – and, after reports reached Britain of the unconvincing skirmish between Byng and the French fleet, Byng was relieved of his command in Gibraltar and brought home.
Amid outrage among fellow officers and the country in general – crowds chanted ‘swing, swing, Admiral Byng’ – he was put under arrest, and starting in December 1756 tried by court-martial for breach of the Articles of War, which had recently been amended to mandate capital punishment for officers who failed to do their utmost against the enemy.
The court acquitted Byng of personal cowardice or disaffection, but found that by choosing not to pursue the superior French fleet he had ‘failed to do his utmost’ – and reluctantly sentenced him to death, unanimously recommending that King George II exercise the royal prerogative of mercy.
The harsh penalty, coupled with suspicion that the Admiralty was trying to shield itself from blame by making a scapegoat of Byng, led opinion in both the navy and the public to swing in his favour – but the King would not be moved.
When the Prime Minister William Pitt the Elder told him that the Commons were inclined to mercy, the King replied: “You have taught me to look for the sense of my people elsewhere than in the House of Commons.”
On March 14, 1757, Byng was brought to the quarterdeck of HMS Monarch – where he had been detained off Spithead – to be executed in front of all hands, as well as men from neighbouring ships.
A coffin had already been brought aboard, inscribed ‘The Hon John Byng, Esqr. Died March 14th 1757’. He reluctantly agreed to be blindfolded on the grounds that it would be unfair for the firing squad to have to see his face.
The 52-year-old knelt on a cushion and, at 12 noon, indicated his readiness by dropping his handkerchief, upon which six marines shot him dead.
Some have followed the line of Byng’s epitaph in Southill, arguing that the admiral was a political victim, but historian Richard Cavendish disagreed in his 2007 treatment of the affair.
He concluded: “The rights and wrongs of the matter have been disputed ever since, but Byng was not a political victim and philosopher Voltaire’s comment in Candide, that ‘in this country, it is good to kill an admiral from time to time, in order to encourage the others’ probably hit the nail on the head.”
Another historian of the Royal Navy, Warren Tute, in 1983 called Byng’s execution ‘the worst legalistic crime in the nation’s annals’, adding that ‘far from encouraging anyone at all, this judicial murder had the opposite effect’.
Ms Siddiq is due to hand over the petition at 12 noon on March 14, exactly 260 years after Admiral Byng’s execution – with the remembrance service at All Saints set to start half an hour earlier.