Royal Naval Museum




Biography: John Byng


Admiral the Hon. John Byng. The inscription under the portrait reads: Vain in the portrait, friendship seeks relief, Where semblance serves but to perpetuate grief. The pencil'd phantom yet thy foes shall awe Whose blood proclaims their Martyrdom of Law

Born in Southill, Bedfordshire in 1704, the fifth son of George Byng, Viscount Torrington, a prominent figure in both the "Glorious Revolution" of 1688 and the fighting against the Jacobite risings that followed. Byng entered the navy in 1718 and on 31 July of that year, he served in HMS Superb at his father's victory over the Spanish in a battle off Cape Passaro, in which he helped to capture the enemy Commander-in-Chief's flagship. In 1722, Byng passed his Lieutenant's examination at the age of 18 but he continued as an able seaman on HMS Dover and HMS Solebay until 1724, when he was appointed as a Second Lieutenant to HMS Superb, the first ship he had served on.

On 23 April 1727, Byng was appointed as a Fourth Lieutenant to HMS Burford, later being promoted to Third and Second Lieutenant. He was then appointed as a Captain to command HMS Gibraltar in the Mediterranean Fleet and then to HMS Falmouth in 1731. In October 1739, he was appointed to command HMS Sunderland and to join Vice-Admiral Haddock off Cadiz. Much of Byng's career at this time was generally uneventful. Though the War of the Austrian Succession began the following year, Byng did not have a part in it until 1742, when he was sent to inspect the fisheries in Newfoundland.

In 1744, Byng would then receive his largest command so far as the Flag Captain on HMS St George as part of the Channel Fleet under Admiral John Norris. On 8 August 1745, Byng was promoted to Rear-Admiral of the Blue. This was unusual as he had never commanded a squadron or fleet in a naval battle nor had he particularly distinguished himself and it is likely that it was his kinship to Lord Torrington that gave him the advantage in progressing up the ranks. In the autumn of that year, Byng hoisted his flag on HMS Kinsale and led a patrol of the eastern Scottish coast against the threat of a Jacobite invasion by Charles Edward Stuart, the Young Pretender.

In 1746, Byng was ordered to serve on a court-martial concerning the aborted actions of a British squadron at the Battle of Toulon in May 1744. Admiral Mathews and Vice-Admiral Lestock were both tried for failing to act by the Fighting Instructions, (i.e. the official directives on how to fight a naval battle). Byng concurred with the court's verdict that although Mathews had engaged with the enemy, he had violated the Instructions by breaking away from the line of battle to do so. Lestock had refused to join up the rear of the line with Mathew's van and centre divisions but he was acquitted. The irony of Byng advocating this verdict was that it would affect him later in his career.

In 1747, Byng joined Vice-Admiral Medley in the Mediterranean. He was promoted to Vice-Admiral of the Blue on 15 July and then became Commander-in-Chief of the Mediterranean Fleet, after Medley's demise. In 1755, tensions increased between Britain and France mainly over the ownership of dividends in North America. The prospects of a possible French invasion of the British Isles caused much alarm throughout the country. By the beginning of 1756, the Whig Government had been warned by intelligence of ships being prepared at Toulon for an attempt to seize the British-held island of Minorca. On March 17, Byng was promoted to Admiral of the Blue and then ordered to leave for Portsmouth to prepare his squadron and to wait for further instructions.

Hoisting his flag on HMS Ramillies, Byng was surprised to find that nine of his thirteen ships were desperately short of men but the Admiralty refused to allow him to enlist men from the other ships in the harbour. Some of the ships, such as HMS Intrepid and HMS Captain were old and leaky and when Byng had received the instructions from the Admiralty on April 1, he found them to be rather vague. He could not understand why one of his orders was to replace the Marines in his squadron with soldiers. After a voyage marred by north-westerly gales in the Channel, Byng reached Gibraltar on 2 May. He was informed that the French army had already landed in Minorca and were laying siege to St. Philip's Fort, the last position held by the British garrison under General Blakeney. Byng met Lieutenant-General Fowke, the Governor of Gibraltar with orders to receive a battalion to transport to the island. Fowke refused, as he was fearful of a possible French assault on Gibraltar. Surprised and angry, Byng turned his attention to the refitting of his ships but he was appalled by the poor conditions of Gibraltar's dockyards.

On 8 May, Byng led his fleet towards Minorca. He sent out Captain Hervey with three frigates to establish contact with Blakeney and to observe the situation of the siege. Hervey found St. Philip's Fort still in British hands but its garrison failed to respond to his signals. On 19 May, the French fleet led by the Marquis de la Galissonniere, was sighted and Byng gave the signal to chase the enemy. The wind became light and the two fleets did not engage until the following morning. Byng set up his line for battle with himself leading the rear and his second in command, Rear-Admiral West, leading the van. Byng's intention was to attack the French line on a diagonal course. The problem was that none of Byng's captains were aware of his plan and the signaling system was too ineffective for him to be able to explain it.

As his fleet approached the French, Byng was horrified to find that his van division were breaking the diagonal line and steering on a parallel course. His signals for them to head towards the enemy were not enough so he gave the order to attack. Many of his older ships were wrecked by the powerful cannons of the French vessels, which stood on the defensive throughout. Whilst Galissonniere sent many of his lead ships out of his line, the British ships kept to the Fighting Instructions and did not break the line of battle to pursue them. As HMS Ramillies was shot at, many of her men grew impatient and fired without Byng's orders. Although he did not stop them as the smoke concealed them from the French gunners, it also confused the British in telling their ships apart from the enemy. Two of Byng's ships both held up his division but to prevent them colliding with the Ramillies, he had to signal his whole squadron to stop.

Unwilling to break through a gap in the British line, Galissonniere signaled his fleet to retreat. Many of the British ships were severely damaged. Byng was unhappy with the behaviour of the ships in his division. On May 24, he called for a council of war with his captains and the senior army officers. They came to the agreement that it would be better to leave Minorca and return to Gibraltar to defend it against a possible attack. Byng sent his dispatch to London before arriving back in Gibraltar on 20 June. However on 2 July, HMS Antelope arrived there with Vice-Admiral Hawke to replace Byng and to send him back to England. Byng was disgusted to learn that the Government had received and had accepted Galissonniere's report of the battle, before his own had arrived but he handed over his command and prepared to return with dignity.

When he arrived at Spithead on 26 July 1756, Byng was placed under arrest to be brought to trial for his actions. The Government were embarrassed both by St. Philip's Fort's surrender to the French on June 29, and by Byng's dispatch of the naval battle. They became determined to ensure that he would become a scapegoat for their own mistakes in the affair. Parts of Byng’s dispatch were censored for publication and he soon became the subject of pamphlets, newspaper articles and ballads, which either condemned him or defended him against allegations of cowardice and incompetence. There was a nationwide call for an explanation for Minorca's loss and rioting erupted. Byng was moved from confinement on HMS Antelope to HMS Royal Anne in Portsmouth Harbour and then on to the Royal Hospital at Greenwich.

On 27 December 1756, the court-martial of Byng began on HMS St. George in Portsmouth Harbour. When questioned by the prosecution, many of Byng's captains and the other witnesses to the battle attempted to shift the blame onto him, but his own questioning of their actions revealed their own share of mistakes. Byng was confident of being acquitted. He claimed that he had done his utmost for Minorca and that he had been prevented to do more, due to the superiority of the French fleet and to the poor conditions of many of the ships given to him by the Admiralty.

On 27 January 1757, after hearing the evidence, the court-martial agreed on the verdict of guilty but their final resolutions were confused and contradictory. It was agreed that Byng fell under the Twelfth Article for cowardice and negligence of engaging with the enemy, which meant a sentence of death but the court wanted to plea to the Government and the Admiralty for mercy. King George II received a petition from the supporters of Byng and his date of execution was delayed from 28 February to 14 March. However, despite the continued campaigning and parliamentary debates, the king and the Admiralty were adamant in allowing Byng's execution to proceed. They wanted to make an example of him "pour encourager les autres". The City of London were also demanding that the guilty had to be punished and it is said that because of their funding for his military interests in Hanover, the king was anxious not to upset them.

On 14 March 1757, Admiral Byng was shot dead by a firing squad on HMS Monarch in Portsmouth Harbour. He was buried in the family vault at Southill.

A reading list for further information is available

"The English Lion Dismembered" a caricature mocking the inefficiency of the Government at the loss of Minorca represented by the lion's severed paw.

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© Royal Naval Museum Library, 2004
The information contained in this INFORMATION SHEET is correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the library for a bibliography of further reading materials, if available.