A remarkable, and may I add “restricted,” document discovered deep within the archives of the British Library revealed much of the politics that surrounded Admiral John Byng’s court martial as well as the subsequent government inquiry into how the island of Minorca fell to the French in April of 1756. Those two went together. But prior to both, the Newcastle government collapsed: too many losses early on in the lead up to the Seven Years’ War. A scramble to reform a new wartime government began in earnest. Eventually the Duke of Devonshire and William Pitt took the reins beginning in December of 1756. But in the intervening chaos, schemes of how to form a government in addition how best to move upon Byng’s trial and Minorca’s inquiry, consumed many a politicos thoughts. The restricted document I located is exhibit “A” of such thinking. It’s a letter between two brothers, Charles writing to George Townshend. Below is my first draft in reaction to the letter:


Charles Townshend outlined to his brother the prevailing demand put forth by William Pitt in forming a new government, that in the main, a “free, perfect & impartial enquiry into the causes … of our late dishonor & public calamities” should be “made in firm” otherwise Pitt and his followers “would be universaly & deservedly as blamed & as odious as those they should skreen…”

George_Townshend

George Townshend

But Charles expanded his thoughts upon “how” the enquiry was to be conducted. He did so by alerting his brother of those past ministers who appeared to yet hold their offices included “Ld Anson responsible for Mahon” and “Ld Holderness, who by one dust of his pen has suspended the whole constitution of G Britain…” Charles thought this odd, that the arrangements seemed to “convey a design of proof that those who are going out of power think themselves safe from any danger of punishment from those coming in… why are the most culpable of all the ministry left unremoved…?” he asked. Townshend then told his brother of a rumor, that the promised enquiry was not to be “vindictive. Who can pretell what will be the judgment of the enquiry before the evidence is seen…?” Further, Townshend pointed out that king only reluctantly dismissed his ministers and would hardly allow Pitt “to punish” those he “loves”.

For Townshend, this created a bit of a contradiction: Pitt demanded a full enquiry, the king sought protections. Further, it appeared to Townshend that Pitt was acquiescing, that “he had resolved not to interfere” with the king’s business of who was to be protected and who was not.

CharlesTownshend

Charles Townshend

Charles then supplied a solution to the conundrum, a way to navigate Pitt “through the hoop” of parliament where the backers of both Newcastle and Fox held clear majorities in both houses. The position of the Townshends was equally precarious: they were Tories, and the quest for power and favor under the Hanoverians had long been denied. But, Charles stated the obvious, that “the heart of the king” belonged to his past ministers and that for the foreseeable future the halls of government will remain “a Pelham parliament…” Charles told his brother, “I wish for office with rank as much as any man,” and then offered a way forward. To have Pitt propose to the king a satisfactory enquiry, one that was convenient to those who caused Minorca to fall, yet appear punishable enough to appease the “public mood.” Additionally, such a designed enquiry should be coupled to the Militia Bill assuring its guidance through parliament (which happened), and demanded the removal of Hessian troops (which also happened), paid through subsidies, that were then protecting England’s southern shores from a possible French invasion.

Simply put, the Townshends (at least) were willing to play politics to gain posts in the next government. Charles wanted the Secretary of War’s office (he accepted the Treasurer of the Chamber) and George received generalship and fought in Canada and on the continent, elevated to Viscount and Lord Lieutenant of Ireland after the war.

No Tory, or Patriot (aside from Pitt), asked for a full and impartial enquiry into Minorca’s loss prior to Admiral Byng’s trial or his execution. It appears that the admiral was used as a mere bargaining chip in the game of politics. Passage of the Militia Bill coupled to the removal of foreign troops – Patriot and Tory concerns, all – were offered up to protect the true culprits responsible for Minorca’s loss: Newcastle and Anson. Byng’s life hung in the protection of previous ministers but also in the rise of some Tories to gain ‘indoor’ political power under a Hanoverian king.

Not too long after Byng’s death, even before the enquiry could run its full course, George II dismissed Pitt and Devonshire.

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