Quarterly by
Web Mystery Magazine Current Issue

"Oh what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive."
Sir Walter Scott

Fall 2004
Volume II
issue 2


Karen G. Whitehurst holds a history Ph.D. from the University of Virginia; her area of expertise is early modern Britain -- 15th to 18th centuries. While much of her scholarly work deals with the religious and political machinations of the early English Reformation (1520s-1550s), her current work focuses on the 18th century, the setting for her fictional character Richard Eden, earl of Avon and lord lieutenant of a West Midlands county. Two short stories starring Lord Avon presently sit before magazine editors, and Whitehurst is busily at work on Avon's third adventure. Novels will be forthcoming.

Prof. Whitehurst has not given up her day job as an adjunct English professor at Shepherd University where she teaches Written English II (Forms of Literature) and World Literature to 1600.

Direct correspondence to Karen Guest or to

A Man more Sinned against than Sinning:
The Trial and Execution of Admiral the Honourable John Byng

Part I

             Article XII of the 1749 Articles of War read as follows:

  Every Person in the Fleet, who through Cowardice, Negligence, or Disaffection, shall in Time of Action withdraw or keep, or not come into the Fight or Engagement, or shall not to do his utmost to take or destroy every Ship which it shall be his Duty to engage, and to assist and relieve all and every of his Majesty's Ships, or those of his Allies, which it shall be his Duty to assist and relieve, every such Person so offending, and being convicted thereof the Sentence of a Court-martial, shall suffer Death (Rodger, Articles 24).  


Under this provision of the Articles, Admiral the Honourable John Byng, having been convicted of failing “to do his utmost to relieve St. Philip's Castle, in the Island of Minorca , then besieged by the Forces of the French King. . . [of failing] to do his utmost to take, seize, and destroy, the Ships of the French King. . . [of failing] and to assist such of His Majesty's Ships as were engaged in Fight with French Ships. . .” (“Defence” 39), met his death on board HMS Monarch at noon on 14 March 1757 . He was, in Jeremy Black's estimation, “the most prominent of a long series of 18 th century admirals disgraced and prosecuted for failures, real and apparent. . .” (137). Admiral Byng did not help himself by being cautiously experimental at the Battle of Minorca on 20 May 1757, but other factors played a role in his disastrous end before a firing squad. These factors included a politically unstable and inept ministry, a reforming Admiralty held hostage by threats of invasion, and outright bad luck in the Mediterranean. His trial, which took place six months after his arrest, and his execution, which took place six weeks after his conviction—an extraordinary length of time for the period—encompassed all of these factors, and at no time during the legal process did the British public ever cease to clamor for Byng's blood.

I—The Ministry

             Political instability in British government was nothing new in the 18th century. There would be periods of intense competition for power among politicians followed by years of stability created by an outstanding prime minister—Sir Robert Walpole from 1721 to 1742, Henry Pelham from 1746 to 1754, William Pitt the Elder (with the Duke of Newcastle) from 1757 to 1761, Lord North from 1770 to 1782, and William Pitt the Younger from 1784 to 1801. The intervals between stability saw a general ministerial inability to accomplish governmental business and/or to promote British interests either in the colonies or in Europe . Henry Pelham's unexpected death in 1754 brought on a three-year period of competition among the Duke of Newcastle, whose jealousies had frequently driven secretaries of state to resign their posts; Henry Fox, the ambitious and opportunistic Secretary of State for War; and William Pitt the Elder, the ambitious and unstable Paymaster-General. In the period between 1754 and 1757, the unstable ministry could only respond to events; what passed for policy was, in fact, a series of half-measures taken for immediate reasons with little regard for long-term consequences.

             Henry Pelham was the politically adroit half-brother of the Duke of Newcastle, and under his administration, secured by 1746, Britain sought peace in Europe and economy at home. To this end, the government signed the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle (1748), which closed the War of the Austrian Succession. Once the war was over—something that Britons desired after a decade of far-flung campaigning—Pelham embarked upon a reduction of forces; he cut the army from 50,000 to 19,000 and the navy from 50,000 to 10,000 men (O'Gorman 91). He lowered both taxes and spending and turned then to domestic legislation. His administration brought in acts dealing with interests and issues that concerned wide swaths of British society. His death ended this domestic political tranquility.

             The duke of Newcastle took over leadership of the government on Pelham's death in March 1754. The jockeying for position began almost immediately. Fox and Pitt initially teamed up, but Newcastle was able to detach Fox, and Pitt gave the duke the opportunity to remove him from office in November 1755. Pitt attacked the ministry for excessive concern for the security of Hanover (of which King George II was Elector), for the practice of subsidizing allies, and for trying to contain the French solely in the colonies.

             Pitt's criticisms of government focus had only limited legitimacy, for Newcastle had his hands tied by George II's position as Elector of Hanover. In 1755, France and Prussia were allied, and this arrangement seemed to make Hanover vulnerable to invasion. Furthermore, Britain's traditional allies, Austria and the United Provinces, were unwilling to underwrite the defense of the electorate. First, Newcastle tried to work alliances with Hesse-Cassel and Russia, but these arrangements required subsidies, and getting these payments through Parliament would have been difficult. Ultimately, Newcastle's administration signed an alliance with Frederick the Great's Prussia, and this, in turn, pushed Austria into the arms of France. Thus, the Diplomatic Revolution was born, thus, increasing the likelihood of war in Europe .

             Pitt's attacks on Newcastle's policy concerning North America had greater validity. Conflict in North America had begun in 1754—the French and Indian War—and the beginning had not been auspicious. In 1754, when border disputes and tension between France and the British colonies, particularly Virginia, erupted into war, George Washington and his Virginians lost the battle and surrendered to the French. Newcastle 's ministry very much wanted to confine the war to North America because of peace negotiations it was pursuing with France throughout 1754 and 1755, but, simultaneously, the ministry decided to send reinforcements to North America and to intercept French attempts to do likewise. Admiral Edward Boscawen sailed in April 1755, and while he missed most of the French fleet off of Louisbourg in June 1755, his capture of two ships pushed toward war in Europe. The British also pursued the undeclared war with France that summer by capturing French vessels returning to French ports. On land, the French and their Indian allies continued to get the better of their British opponents: in July 1755, the French routed and killed General Edward Braddock, who tried to take Fort Duquesne (modern day Pittsburgh ) with poorly trained British soldiers unused to North American tactics and with inadequate intelligence. Defeat made the ministry try harder to win, and this approach, in turn, ratcheted up tension in Europe, but Newcastle 's ministry officially continued its policy of containment.

             Even though the French had made clear preparations as early as October 1755 to take Minorca, an important and valued naval base acquired by Britain during the War of the Spanish Succession (1701-14), the ministry clung to its unofficial war policy. In March 1756, Admiral Byng was given command of a small squadron of ships and ordered to the Mediterranean to defeat the French. However, his instructions on leaving for the Mediterranean, issued from the office of Secretary of State for War Henry Fox, through the Admiralty, reveal the importance the ministry placed on North America:

  upon your arrival there [Gibraltar], you are to enquire whether and French squadron is come through the Staits; and, if there is, to inform yourself as will as possible, of their Number and Force, and if any Part of them were Transports: And as `tis probable they be designed for North America, and as his Majesty's Ships. . .are either at, or going to Halifax [Nova Scotia], and are to cruise off Louisbourg and the Mouth of the River St. Laurance [sic], you are immediately to take the Soldiers out of so many Ships of your Squadron, as, together with the Ships at and going to Halifax, will make a force superior to the said French squadron. . . and then detach them under the Command of Rear Admiral West, directing him to make the best of his Way off Louisbourg, and taking the aforementioned Ships, which he may expect to find there, under his Command, to cruise off the said Place, and the Entrance of the Gulf of St. Lawrence, and use his utmost Endeavors to intercept and seize the aforesaid French Ships, or any other Ships belonging to the French, that may be bound to, or returning from that Part of North-America (“Trial” A2-3)  

This was first among his orders. Next, he was instructed to find whether or not the French had Minorca. If they had, Byng was ordered to relieve Minorca. If the French had not attacked Minorca, he and his fleet were to head for Toulon, the base of the French Mediterranean fleet, and blockade. Byng's fleet was also supposed to attack and seize French and privateer shipping. The last part of Byng's instructions again reflect the far greater concern the ministry had for keeping the French fleet out of the North Atlantic, away from Great Britain and then Canada:

  If any French Ships of war should sail from Toulon, and escape your Squadron, and proceed out of the Mediterranean, you are forthwith to send, or repair yourself to England, with a proportionable Part of the Ships under your Command; observing that [emphasis mine] you are never to keep more ships in the Mediterranean, than shall be necessary for executing the Services recommended to you (Trial A2-3)  

Although Byng sailed on 26 April 1756 with his squadron for Minorca, Newcastle 's ministry only declared war on France in May.

            The inconclusive Battle of Minorca, fought on 20 May 1756, prevented the relief of St. Philip's Castle on Minorca, and the whole island fell to the French on 29 June 1756. The loss of this important naval base was another among the failures of British arms since 1754, but when the dispatch of French Admiral Galissoniere arrived on 2 June, the ministry received a gift. Galissoniere reported that on 19 May the English “seemed unwilling to engage” and that on 20 May, “the English had the advantage of the wind, but still seemed unwilling to fight”; he expected to be attacked on 21 May, but “the English had disappeared” (Walpole 215). The French dispatch appeared in British newspapers, inciting the British populace, and when Byng's own dispatch appeared on 23 June, the ministry made the most of the three weeks' hiatus to duck any responsibility for failure. Byng's dispatch was edited—by whom remains unclear—and a newspaper, London Gazette, published this cut-down document. It made Byng appear as cowardly and indecisive as the French had suggested he was. Furthermore, the ministry had its order to arrest Byng published, thus making Byng the focus of British public hostility (Lincoln 47). The ministry transferred blame and responsibility for its failures to Byng, convicting the admiral in the court of popular opinion before having him convicted before a court martial.

             This transfer was not entirely successful, for Britain had slid into global war—in India , the Nawab of Bengal had seized the East India Company's seat of Calcutta in June 1756. Newcastle 's ministry was unable to stand the pressure, particularly after the fall of Minorca and all the clamor associated with Byng's trial. Pitt, who had continued to attack the ministry since his dismissal from office, demanded an inquiry into the fiasco of Minorca. While the inquiry came to the conclusion that no greater force could have been spared at the time (Middleton, Bells 16), Byng's case turned into general attack on the ineptitude of the ministry since 1754. Henry Fox resigned first in October, and Newcastle himself resigned in November 1756. William Pitt came in with the duke of Devonshire, and they remained in office until early 1757 when the ministry reshuffled yet again. In its new incarnation, Pitt was teamed with Newcastle, and this ministry directed the war through 1761 when Pitt was sacked by the new king, George III. The global war did turn around for the British by 1758, and North America was, for all intents and purposes, British by 1760. In Europe, the war was more dependent upon the actions of others, namely Frederick the Great of Prussia and Peter III of Russia , and thus peace took longer to achieve, but the Peace of Paris of 1763 brought the Seven Years' War to a conclusion.

II—The Admiralty

             Below the great offices of the ministry came the Board of Admiralty, and like the government in general, it suffered the vicissitudes of politics and patronage. The Admiralty controlled naval patronage—who got what ship, what promotion, what assignment—and advised the government on naval policy, but it was subordinate to the ministry. Everybody agreed that the navy was important, particularly to British trade and to British foreign policy, but different ministries had different emphases. Faction and distrust between Admiralty and ministry existed, particularly during periods of political instability, and reduction in funding, like that requested and required by Henry Pelham, simply exacerbated relations between ministers and the Board of Admiralty.

             During the Pelham-Newcastle period, there were three important men at the Admiralty, all of whom pushed a reform agenda of stronger discipline, particularly among the officers, better manning of the navy, and better management of the dockyards. These three men were the duke of Bedford, his protégé the earl of Sandwich, and Admiral Lord Anson, all of whom were, in turn, First Lords of the Admiralty. Bedford moved up to a secretary of state in 1748 despite his clashes with the duke of Newcastle. Sandwich took over as First Lord, and Anson came to sit on the Board of Admiralty in 1749, becoming First Lord in 1751.

             On Sandwich's watch, the Admiralty pushed through a thorough revision of the Articles of War, the basis of naval discipline. The charges listed therein provided the only grounds for a court martial. The previous Articles of War had been promulgated upon the restoration of Charles II, and this first set of Articles did little or nothing to curb indiscipline and insubordination among the navy's officers. Officers frequently showed a tendency to refuse to engage the enemy despite direct orders from superiors to do so, and under the Articles of 1661, courts martial frequently refused to inflict severe punishment on such officers. The clause “or such other punishment as the Court Martial shall see fit” allowed the boards of the courts martial to hand out minimal or no punishment (Rodger, Articles 9). Furthermore, officers could resign their active commissions and go on half-pay; they would not, then, be subject to the discipline of the service. The new Articles of War, pushed through Parliament in 1749, sought to close these loopholes. In general, the new Articles tightened up discipline, but Admiral Byng ran afoul of Article XII, for which, the only penalty the court martial board could assign was death. This lack of maneuvering room was not amended until 1778.

             The Fighting Instructions ran alongside the Articles of War in guiding the behavior of officers at sea. These instructions had been issued in 1691, in 1703, and again in 1744 when they became permanent. They dealt in increasing detail with the manner in which captains were to engage the enemy. The permanent Fighting Instructions dictated line to line engagement—the passage of two lines of ships firing at each other—as the preferred method of combat. Developed because of the difficulty of seeing signals during battle, the Instructions' virtue lay in the fact they could be prearranged and enforced by naval disciplines, namely the Articles of War (Keegan 48). They also developed in recognition of the unwieldy nature of square-rigged ships, which contributed to inconclusive engagements. To gain clear-cut victories, according to John Keegan, “several British admirals of the 18 th century, of whom Byng was one, experimented at the risk of professional—even personal—extinction with tactics more likely to yield a decisive outcome” (48). Breaking, or the crossing a line of battle with a ship or group of ships, was not discovered until Admiral Rodney, by serendipity, crossed the French line of battle in the Caribbean in 1782 at the Battle of the Saints. It gave the decisive victory, but breaking did not alter the permanent Fighting Instructions until after Horatio Nelson used it to such great effect at the Battle of Cape St. Vincent in 1797 and again at Trafalgar in 1805.

             Also while First Lord of the Admiralty, Sandwich attempted to take on the related issues of manning the navy and producing greater efficiency at the Navy Board, which supplied the navy and which was only nominally under Admiralty supervision. Sandwich actually investigated the royal dockyards for the purpose of reducing corruption and inefficiency. Given the drastic reduction in funding for all the armed services under Henry Pelham, this drive for efficiency was well placed, but entrenched interests at the Navy Board meant it went nowhere. Furthermore, Sandwich crossed swords with Pelham over retaining skilled seamen in the navy and maintaining the strength of the navy. He failed; moreover, he was removed from office in 1751. Pelham and his brother Newcastle, who had had falling out, reconciled that year, and the renewed fraternal alliance allowed for the dismissal of Sandwich, who had not helped matters by earning George II's enmity. The sacking of Sandwich, in turn, provoked the resignation of the duke of Bedford, who was no longer necessary to Newcastle.

             Sandwich's removal was not a disaster for the Admiralty. The new First Lord, Admiral Lord Anson, agreed with and fought for Sandwich's objectives, but he had better political connections. His father-in-law, Lord Hardwick, the Lord Chancellor, was tightly connected to the duke of Newcastle. These connections allowed Anson to promote sound discipline in the navy through the promotion of best officers without regard to their political connections and to continue to pursue the Navy Board—the latter with minimal success. Anson did press home standardization of equipment on board ship, but he could not make the Navy Board produce more sound ships. By 1753, there were 97 ships of the line in service, but there were complaints about many of the ships being unfit for sea. Many had not seen maintenance since 1748, and the Navy Board was noncompliant with demands to redress these issues. In 1756, the Navy Board could only produce two new ships of ninety guns, and this inability forced contract building on the Admiralty. While Anson still had to fight for manpower, he did succeed in getting the numbers of seamen raised over the threshold set by Pelham—13,000 sailors and 5,000 marines (Middleton “Administration”; Pack 189). That said, manpower problems still existed in 1756: due to the need for men for the undeclared war in North America; due to the perceived threat of a French invasion of Britain itself; and due to the means of procuring these seamen—impressment. These problems contributed to Anson's inability to scrape together a fleet to send to the Mediterranean until April 1756.

             The most immediate issue in Lord Anson's mind, and therefore affecting any Mediterranean fleet, was the invasion scare. Over the course of the fall and winter of 1755-56, Britain wondered if the French would invade Great Britain. The Diplomatic Revolution pushed the French toward that move, but they also made moves toward Minorca and Gibraltar , with the idea of turning them back to Spain, a French ally, and from whom the British had taken the islands during the War of the Spanish Succession. It seemed as if the French intended to force Britain to try and cover two theaters of war or to weaken one in favor of the other (Pack 192-3).

             Lord Anson's own assessment of the situation stressed the Channel Fleet, the one that would repel the French invasion—if it came. Anson believed an invasion of Britain far more likely than one of Minorca, and he would not move to strengthen the Mediterranean fleet until French intentions were clear. (Middleton, Bells 5). Furthermore, he focused his attentions on blockading French ports, and to this end, in the autumn of 1755, he sent eighteen ships of the line under his protégé Sir Edward Hawke to form a powerful squadron. Hawke was under orders to take French war and merchant ships and bring them to Britain —without an actual declaration of war. In January 1756, Admiral Osborn went to sea with a large squadron to convoy outward-bound merchantmen and then to reconnoiter the Channel; upon Osborn's return, Hawke went to sea to cruise the Channel, and he received reinforcements in April 1756.

             Lord Anson considered the Channel of far greater import, and regarded the threat to Minorca as an attempt to divide British defenses or merely as a feint. In light of this belief, why send any fleet to the Mediterranean, particularly with less than seaworthy ships? Neither the ministry nor the Admiralty could willingly let so valuable possession simply be taken without a shot fired in anger. To do so would have been political suicide, especially in light of the near misses and outright defeats since 1754.

             Minorca, however, remained a secondary theater, something to be seen in both the smallness of the squadron assigned—ten ships of the line, equipped and manned with difficulty—and the commander appointed to overall command by the Admiralty—Vice-Admiral the Honourable John Byng. Several factors went into his appointment. He had held senior command in there during the War of the Austrian Succession, so he had extensive knowledge of waters and conditions. Furthermore, he had family connection to the Mediterranean: his father, George Byng, viscount Torrington, had fought and won a notable engagement against the Spaniards in the Mediterranean in 1718. The younger Byng requested the command and apparently used both his prior service in the Mediterranean and his family connections to secure the command, to which he was formally appointed on March 11, 1756.

             Did Byng have Anson's full support? This appointment occurred in apparent defiance of the First Lord's usual practice of appointing only the best officers. Apparently Anson regarded Byng as lacking leadership, initiative, and popularity (Pack 193). Thinking Byng (among other senior officers) overcautious, he complained, “I don't know how it comes to pass that unless our commanders-in-chief have a very great superiority of the enemy, they never think themselves safe” (qtd. in Gardiner 159). Byng did protest, before he sailed in April 1756, the inadequacy of his squadron before the enemy. But at the same time, Anson proclaimed “that Byng's squadron could beat anything the French had” (qtd in Gardiner 159). Either way, Byng sailed from St. Helen's on 6 April 1756 and reached Gibraltar on 2 May 1756 , and while he was in the Mediterranean, he was promoted from Vice-Admiral to Admiral of the Blue.

To Be Continued

Works Cited

Primary Sources:

"Admiral Byng's Defence. . ." London and Boston: Green and Russell, 1757. Readex Microprint, 1985. EarlyAmerican Imprints, 1 st Series, #7865.

Ferne, Charles. "The Trial of the Honourable Admiral John Byng. . ." London and New New York: J. Parker and W. Weyman, 1757. Readex Microprint, 1985. Early American Imprints, 1st Series, #7890.

Lewis, W. S. et al. Horace Walpole's Correspondence with Sir Horace Mann. Yale Edition of Horace Walpole's Correspondence. Vols. 20-21. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1960.

“Proceedings of the Court-Martial on the Trial of Admiral Byng. . .” London and Boston: Green and Russell, 1757. Readex Microprint, 1985. Early American Imprints, 1st Series, #7892.

Rodger, N.A.M., ed. The Articles of War. Homewell, Hampshire: Kenneth Mason, 1983.

Walpole, Horace. Memoirs of the Reign of George the Second. Ed. Lord Holland. Vol. II. London: Henry Colburn, 1846.

Secondary Works:

Black, Jeremy. Pitt the Elder. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992.

Clowes, Wm. Laird with Sir Clements Markham el al. The Royal Navy: A History from the Earliest Times to 1900. Vol. 3. London: Chatham Publishing, 1996.

Gardiner, Leslie. The British Admiralty. Edinburgh and London: Wm. Blackwood & Sons, 1968.

Frost, Alan. The Global Reach of Empire. Melbourne: Miegunyah Press, 2003.

Howard, David. Sovereign of the Seas. London: Collins, 1974.

Keegan, John. The Price of Admiralty. New York: Viking, 1989.

Lincoln, Margarette. Representing the Navy. Aldershot: Ashgate, 2002.

Middleton, Richard. The Bells of Victory. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985.

---"Naval Administration in the Age of Pitt and Anson 1755-1763." The British Navy and the Use of Naval Power in the 18th Century. Ed. Jeremy Black and Philip Woodfine. Trowbridge: Leicester University Press, 1988.

O'Gorman, Frank. The Long Eighteenth Century. London: Arnold, 1997.

Pack, S. W. C., Admiral Lord Anson. London: Cassell & Co, 1960.

Rodger, N. A. M., The Admiralty. Lavenham, Suffolk: Terence Dalton, 1979.

--- The Insatiable Earl. London: HarperCollins, 1993.

--- The Wooden World. New York: W. W. Norton, 1996.

Copyright 2004 by Karen Guest Whitehurst


Quarterly by
ISSN: 1547-9609

"Oh what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive."
Sir Walter Scott

Winter 2005
Volume II
issue 3



W M M New Issue W M M Archives


The Web Mystery Magazine is an on-line quarterly journal dedicated to investigating the mysterious genre in print, in film, and in real-life. The Web welcomes well-researched, well-written articles and reviews. Writers are invited to send letters and inquiries to Copyright 2004