In eighteenth-century Britain, warrants of arrest typically outlined the crime by which a suspected individual was to lose their liberty. These legal proceedings usually required the signature(s) of a judge or collection of legal overseers. In Admiral John Byng’s arrest warrant, though three signatures directed a marshal to apprehend him, something vital was missing: the charge levied at Byng.


Thomas Hudson, “Admiral John Byng” (1749)

It was the Lord Commissioners of the Admiralty that sent an arrest warrant to the acting Marshal of the Admiralty, William Brough. The said document listed no crime other than their displeasure of the battle’s outcome. Byng’s ‘proceeding therein,’ explained the Commissioners, ‘sees so little agreeable to our Instructions’… The arrest warrant further explained that Byng’s arrest was prompted by ‘His Majesty’s Name and Will’… Twelve days later, Brough received the go-ahead to remove Byng from the Antelope anchored at Portsmouth and transport him to Greenwich Hospital, London.[1]

Byng’s arrest warrant symbolized the political nature of the trial – not a trial based on maritime and naval tactics, rules, and guidelines, but a trial that would become – in the end – a testimony to the politics of mid-eighteenth-century Britain, over who wielded power and who did not.

[1] Lord Commissioners of the Admiralty to William Brough, 27 July 1756. Caird Library, National Maritime Museum, AGC/29/20.