Admiral John Byng lives an immortal life. Executed by his government for the crime of “not doing one’s utmost”, time and history have worked to mythologize events.

The latest in memory-making belongs to The Telegraph of London. The newspaper printed one of those ‘On this day’ articles: in this case, a commemoration outlining Byng’s execution by firing squad aboard HMS Monarch (14 March 1757).

Yet The Telegraph’s brief article contained many egregious errors, regurgitating myth while eschewing evidence. As a historian whose dissertation bears John Byng’s name, I felt compelled to do what The Telegraph did not: provide actual historical evidence to Byng’s story rather than an utter reliance upon cultural lore.


Thomas Hudson’s 1749 portrait of Admiral John Byng

Space limits me: but journalist Dominic Selwood made thirteen points concerning the Admiral’s execution. I’ll keep my comments to the most egregious of his errors.

According to Selwood, “Byng … engaged in a skirmish with the French fleet… but disengaged when he believed he had insufficient forces to relieve the siege or attack the French fleet properly.” Primary evidence? Byng’s trial, as recorded by JP Charles Fearn in 1757, clearly demonstrated a French fleet that pulled full sail, fleeing the scene when Byng reformed his battle line. The so-called “skirmish” was a four-and-half-hour battle by which a total of eighty men from both sides died. Let’s call it what it was: the “Battle of Minorca”, not the “Skirmish of Minorca”. Additionally, Byng, to the consternation of Captains Arthur Gardiner and Augustus Hervey, and Rear Admiral Temple West, remained on station for four days off the coast of Minorca and within sight of the garrison waiting for Galissonnière’s fleet to return. It did not. Again, this comes from trial records as well as Augustus Hervey’s journal. But with the groans of many wounded and battle weary ships in need of repair, Byng left for the nearest friendly port, Gibraltar.

Selwood mentions that “on arrival at Minorca,” Byng “found that the French had already landed in great numbers.” Two corrections are required: first Byng learned of Minorca’s occupation by 15,000 French troops when he first arrived in the Mediterranean on 4 May, not 19 May when he later reached the garrison of Port Mahon. It was at Gibraltar that Commodore George Edgcumb personally informed Byng of intelligence surrounding the French landing. Selwood’s conversion of 15,000 to “great numbers” seems a purposeful omission. That Admiral Byng left Gibraltar for Port Mahon nonetheless, showed his resolve to engage the enemy.

Further, Selwood deceives readers stating Byng “decided not to deliver” troops that could help lift the siege: woefully inaccurate. Admiral John Byng carried with him orders from the War Office to Gibraltar mandating a regiment of marines to board upon his ships. However, General Thomas Fowke, General James Stuart, and Major James Mace held a war council – without Byng present – deciding not to comply with said orders. How do we know? An inner committee meeting held at the Duke of Cumberland’s London apartment 3 June 1756 chose to sack Fowke, Stuart, and Mace for their refusal. Byng, it was then argued, could have landed Lord Robert Bertie’s fusiliers after the Battle of Minorca to help those under siege. But Bertie’s regiment was given to Byng by the Admiralty Office back in March to replace a shortage of nearly 800 able-bodied seamen. Had Byng landed Bertie’s regiment to Fort St. Philip post-battle, the fleet’s ability to sail would have been severely hampered, not to mention its ability to conduct battle had a French fleet reengaged. Byng was stuck between a rock and a hard place.

Selwood delivers another untruth claiming Byng “did not make contact with the British forces at St. Philip’s Castle” to learn of their situation. He most decidedly did. You can view the letter that Byng delivered to General William Blakeney in Herbert Richmond’s 1913 Papers Relating to the Loss of Minorca in 1756. As events reveal, Byng’s dispatch was never answered. Though Blakeney held Byng’s letter for approximately three hours a response was denied. Why? Galissonnière’s fleet appeared on the horizon. Byng recalled the dispatchers to prepare for battle.

byng execution

Admiral John Byng’s execution 

Nor am I quibbling when I point out that Admiral Byng was not brought out on the quarterdeck of the Monarch “blindfolded” as Selwood claims. The blindfold was placed on Byng only after the firing squad complained. Looking into Byng’s eyes when asked to pull the trigger upset them. Byng acquiesced to the firing squad’s squad request and by some eyewitness accounts, tied the blindfold himself.

Last, I do congratulate Selwood for the observation that Byng was killed because of politics. Byng certainly was made a scapegoat for the Newcastle/Fox ministry’s shortcomings which were many. The question that remains for this historian is not whether or not Byng did his utmost, but how complicit was George II’s court in ensuring Byng’s bitter end.