The Pope in the mid-eighteenth century had nothing on Empress Maria Theresa.[1] The outcome of the War of Austrian Succession (1740-1748) ensured that she would rule the Holy Roman Empire for the next three decades. Britain helped, but that alliance meant little to the queen when the next war came around. Catholicism began to drive the empress’ foreign policies forward. When tensions renewed between Great Britain and France, Empress Maria Theresa began to rework alliances using canonic-based Catholicism as prefatory statesmanship. Stung by the loss of Silesia to Prussia during the war that made her queen, Empress Maria sought to retake the province by invoking the formation of a Catholic League.

Empress Maria Theresa

The Holy Roman Empress, Maria Theresa. A war was fought to gain her throne. She reigned from 1748 to 1780. Portrait painted by Martin van Meytens II.

I provide this big-picture history to argue that London’s inability to counter Austria’s alliance shift played a significant role in Admiral John Byng’s recall, arrest, trial, and execution. To put it bluntly, John Byng’s demise was a byproduct of shifting European alliances along religious grounds.

From the beginning, the Pelham-Holles/Fox ministry found the international game of politics rougher than anticipated. At the same time Britain appeared to push towards war, the glaring deficiencies of conducting war began to appear, none more so than the lack of allies. The Duke of Newcastle strongly objected to two suggested military strategies put forth by Cumberland and other war hawks: Admiral Boscawen’s attempt to prevent France from resupplying Canada, and the planned preemptive strike against French maritime, not because it would lead to war but that it ‘might justly alarm all other powers, & particularly Spain’…[2]

Thus, when England’s Spanish diplomat, Sir Benjamin Keene, confirmed that France not only had eyes on Minorca but would gladly offer the Balearic island to Spain as an inducement to joining the war, a sense of panic arose in London. Admiral John Byng’s squadron had only left Portsmouth for the Mediterranean when France openly made the offer in the Spanish court. Keene’s concern was keeping the ‘Catholick King’ neutral, to prevent Spain from entering the Seven Years’ War as part of any Catholic alliance. Diplomats from both Vienna and Paris, however, worked the courtiers of King Ferdinand VI in their attempts to influence his decision.[3] Confirmation of a ‘Catholick League’ also came from Lord Hardwicke’s third son, Joseph Yorke (later Baron Dover) then in his fifth year of a diplomatic career. According to Yorke, Russia and France talked openly of an alliance which would occasion ‘a general Confusion & Alteration in the whole System of Europe’. Yorke expressed alarm to Newcastle that talks concerning the ‘Formation of a Roman Catholick League’ clearly denoted ‘some deep intrigue’.[4] To make matters worse, Henry Fox informed Keene on the 20th of May (the day the Battle of Minorca took place) that the ‘Northern Courts’ of Europe also acted in ‘Mischief of a very dangerous Nature brewing against us’.[5] The lack of European allies, the loss of Denmark-Norway and Austria weighing heavy, conjoined by the diplomatic chatter of a rising Catholic League, made British ministers overtly aware of the necessity of keeping Minorca but also aware of their own culpabilities if Byng failed to gain anything less than an outright victory.

Thus the timing of the arrival of news concerning the fight to hold on to Minorca worked against Byng. Not only did the French version of the battle arrive in London ahead of Byng’s (by way of a Spanish diplomat nonetheless), but that the French telling was tremendously skewed. Benjamin Keene sent a communiqué on June 8th explaining his assessments over various reports of the battle and its outcome. Keene wrote that the French, post-battle, ‘were far from being Masters of those Seas’. Additionally, Keen told Fox that other French intercepts placed Galissonièr’s dispatch ‘in it’s true light’, that the dispatch was written with an intended audience: the ‘Catholick Majesties’ of Europe. According to Keene, Galissonier’s dispatch was nothing more than ‘severe Reflections upon the want of Veracity on the part of our enemies’. Keene indicated that others, especially Spain, took note of competing versions of the battle but clearly acceded to Admiral Byng’s version of events.[6]

But Galissonièr’s dispatch arrived on June 3rd. The next day an ‘Inner Committee Meeting’ was held at the Duke of Cumberland’s London apartment. In attendance were Hardwicke, Newcastle, Anson, Fox, Granville, Holderness, Robinson, and Cumberland. Here it was decided to sack Admiral John Byng and other officers of his fleet without Byng’s telling or any version of the battle written by any English naval officer.[7]

Clues to this apparent overreaction arise from letters. From his Claremont home in London, Newcastle wrote to Hardwicke:

If we cannot form a Counter Alliance, to this most Extraordinary, & unnatural one between France, & the House of Austria, France must soon become Masters of All Europe; We in the Mean Time, must be carrying on a War singly with France, from whence, Experience shews That we can expect no Success, I am afraid, Every where.[8]

Alliance shifts, led by Austria and France, had Newcastle boxed into a corner. Minorca, if taken, would become a bargaining chip by which a Catholic League could form. In fact, spy reports flooded the ministry with added gloom. Lord Hardwick received an intelligence on June 25th from Versailles indicating that

the Empress Queen is on the point of sending a Minister to all the Catholick Courts of the Empire, to represent this as the properest time to unite together to sustain their Religion, and to humble the Evangelick Body… the Court of Rome have been consulted, have approved the measures and will certainly contribute whatever lies in their power to render them agreeable to the Catholick Electors, and Princes, which must distress the Protestants in general, and the King of Prussia in particular…[9]

The following day the government printed an edited version of Byng’s dispatch. The admiral’s version of events were, as Keene had indicated, vastly different from Galissonièr’s. But on the 26th of June, the London Gazette printed a reworded and heavily redacted version of what Byng had actually sent. The attack on Byng’s character began in full, fired by ministers who were culpable for Minorca, the Mediterranean trade, and lost alliances.

In a July 14th letter, Keene wrote to Fox that Russia could be swayed to ‘by the Artifices of the Queen of Hungary’. Further, that the junction of France, Austria, and Russia will likely tempt Spain ‘to give Law to all the Rest’. But worse, ‘The Oppression of Great Britain must soon be followed by that of Spain, and her King reduced to the State of a Vice Roy’.[10]

On the 26th of July, Byng returned to England and was promptly arrested. From these primary documents referenced as evidence, fear of a Catholic League coupled to Minorca’s potential to sway Spain to turn against England heavily contributed to John Byng’s demise.

[1] Some historians have demonstrated Catholic Austria’s centrality in ecclesiastical dominance over Rome but attributing such to Emperor Joseph II. The Seven Years’ War, however, places Austria’s religious-based leadership clearly under Empress Maria Theresa, Joseph II’s mother. See, Dale K. Van Kley, ‘Religion and the Age of “Patriot” Reform’, The Journal of Modern History, vol. 80, no. 2 (June 2008), 291-2

[2] 06 June 1755, Newcastle to Hardwicke, ADD MS 35414, ff. 272-3.

[3] 19 April 1756, Keene to Fox, ADD MS 43437, ff. 10, 15.

[4] 23 May 1756, Yorke to Newcastle, ADD MS 32865, f. 94.

[5] Fox referred to Denmark-Norway and Sweden. See 20 May 1756, Fox to Keene, ADD MS 43437, ff. 113-4.

[6] 8 June 1756, Keene to Fox, ADD MS 43437, ff. 172-4.

[7] Dudley Pope, At 12 Mr Byng was Shot (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1962), 144.

[8] 12 June 1756, Newcastle to Hardwicke, ADD MS 32865, f. 278.

[9] 25 June 1756, ADD MS 35594, f. 75.

[10] 14 July 1756, Keene to Fox, ADD MS 43438,  ff. 49-50.