Emergency Services => Crime, Punishment & Law Enforcement => Topic started by: kyn on August 10, 2008, 11:56:56

Title: Rochester MP shot, 1757
Post by: kyn on August 10, 2008, 11:56:56
14 Mar., 1757, Admiral John Byng, twice MP for Rochester, shot for cowardice.
Title: Re: Rochester MP shot, 1757
Post by: Bilgerat on February 18, 2013, 20:39:08
If only it were that simple.......

Admiral John Byng was the 4th son of Admiral-of-the-Fleet George Byng, 1st Viscount Torrington. George Byng was born in Wrotham in 1663. He joined the Royal Navy, aged 13 in 1676. Later in life, he was intrumental in pursuading the Royal Navy to switch its allegience away from King James II during the Glorious Revolution in 1688. That had seen James II forced to abdicate in favour of his sister Mary and her husband Prince William of Orange. In return for this service, George Byng had been showered with money and patronage. The family had moved from Wrotham to Bedfordshire, which is where John Byng was born.

John joined the Royal Navy in 1718 at the age of 13 and his father's influence did his career no harm at all. His father by then was an established flag-officer. John rose rapidly through the ranks, he was a Lieutenant at 19 and a Captain in command of the frigate HMS Gibraltar at the age of 23. While his father's influence and patronage assisted his rise through the ranks, John Byng proved himself to be a very competent commander in his own right. In 1742, he was promoted to Commodore and became Governor of Newfoundland. In 1745 he became a Rear-Admiral and was promoted Vice-Admiral two years later. By now, John Byng was doing very nicely financially. As the 4th son, he was not expected to inherit any of his fathers considerable fortune and was expected to make his own way in life. In 1751, he became MP for Rochester, a title he was to retain until his death. In 1754, he commissioned the building of Wrotham Park, in Staffordshire, which remains in the Byng family to this day.

Things went horribly wrong for John in 1756. Soon after the outbreak of the Seven Years War that year, the French were threatening to invade Minorca. Minorca was a vital British possession in the Mediterranean at the time. The capital, Port Mahon was a major British naval base and was vital to British control of the Mediterranean Sea.

At the time, the Royal Navy was in a mess. Conflict between the Navy Board and the Admiralty over the design, construction and ordering of ships, had had a detrimental effect on the maintenance of the existing fleet. News of the planned French invasion of Minorca caused a virtual panic and John Byng was ordered to take a squadron to the Mediterranean from the English Channel and relieve the garrison at Fort St Phillip, guarding the naval base.

When he finally took command of the squadron after having been made to wait for five days for his orders, he found to his dismay that the ships were in an awful state, they were undermanned, totally unprepared for action and unseaworthy. Despite this, the squadron set out anyway and reached Gibraltar. Byng ordered the squadron's marines to be landed in order to make room for the soldiers needed to relieve the garrison of the fort at Port Mahon. Whilst at Gibraltar, Byng reported to the Admiralty that, given the state of his ships, he was concerned that if they met a French squadron, there was a real possibility of defeat. Furthermore, he felt that he had insufficient soldiers for the task and the Governor of Gibraltar had refused to release any of his garrison.

On 8th May 1756, Byng's squadron left Gibraltar and shortly afterwards, the French landed 15,000 troops on Minorca, who quickly began to take possession of the island. Byng's force arrived off Minorca on 19th May and began to attempt to open communications with Fort St Phillip. His worst fears came true and the dreaded French squadron appeared. The Battle of Minorca which followed was inconclusive and the two forces separated without doing any serious damage to each other. After remaining in the area for four days and being unable to make communications with the fort, Byng decided that his best course of action was to return to Gibraltar, have his ships repaired and return with more soldiers. Once his ships had been repaired and the extra soldiers taken aboard, the squadron made preparations to leave and return to Minorca.  While his squadron was preparing to leave, a ship arrived in Gibraltar from the UK with further orders. Byng was relieved of his command and was recalled to England. On arrival, he was arrested and placed in custody. The garrison at Fort St Phillip held out until 29th June before surrendering. In the meantime, in 1st June, Byng was promoted to Admiral.

Immediately that Fort St Phillip fell, the blame game started back in the UK and as the senior officer in the field, the fingers soon started to point at John Byng. Back in 1745, the Articles of War (the Naval Laws) had been amended to make the death sentence mandatory for the offence of 'Officers failing to do their utmost against an enemy, either in battle or in pursuit', The Court Martial which Byng faced acquitted him of any personal cowardice, but found him guilty of 'failing to do his utmost etc.'. They had no choice under the Articles of War but to pass a sentence of death. They did however, ask the Admiralty to petition King George II to exercise his Royal Perogative of Mercy. The First Lord of the Admiralty, Lord Temple used an audience with the king to ask just that, but the king refused to do so.

Four members of the Court Martial Board also petitioned Parliament to be relieved from their Oaths of Secrecy to be able to speak on Byng's behalf. The House of Commons passed the motion, but the House of Lords rejected it. The Prime Minister of the day, William Pitt the Elder, personally petitioned the king for clemency, but again, the king rejected the appeal. By now, public opinion in the country at large had swung behind Byng. There was a suspicion that Byng's execution would be all too convenient as it would hide the fact that it was the disarray in the organisation of the Royal Navy which had led to the situation in the first place.

By 14th March 1757, all avenues of appeal had been exhaused. Byng, who had been detained aboard HMS Monarch since his arrest, was led out onto the ship's quarterdeck and was shot to death by firing squad.

Admiral John Byng was buried in the family vault in All Saints Church at Southill, Bedfordshire and the epitaph on his grave reads, unsurprisingly bitterly:

To the perpetual Disgrace
The Honble. JOHN BYNG Esqr
Admiral of the Blue
Fell a MARTYR to
March 14th in the year 1757 when
were Insufficient Securities
For the
Life and Honour
of a

In 2007, John Byng's descendents petitioned the Government for a posthumous pardon. It was refused.
Title: Re: Rochester MP shot, 1757
Post by: smiler on February 19, 2013, 08:05:45
Thank you Bilgerat, very good, appreciated.
Title: Re: Rochester MP shot, 1757
Post by: chasg on February 19, 2013, 08:31:44
"In this country [England] it is good to kill an admiral from time to time to encourage the others." (Voltaire)
Title: Re: Rochester MP shot, 1757
Post by: Bilgerat on February 26, 2013, 19:44:43
"In this country [England] it is good to kill an admiral from time to time to encourage the others." (Voltaire)

Although Voltaire's words were meant to be satire, the execution of Admiral John Byng certainly had that effect. It is no coincidence that the Royal Navy's tactics became steadily more aggressive over the course of the rest of the Seven Years War.

The junior flag officers and senior captains of the Seven Years War were, by and large, the generation of flag-officers which came to the fore in the American War of Independence, the French Revolutionary Wars and the Napoleonic War which followed. It included giants such as John Jervis (later Earl St Vincent), George Rodney, Samuel Hood (later Lord Hood), his brother Alexander (later Viscount Bridport) and Lord Howe. These men went on to inspire and mentor the next generation, which included people like James Saumarez, Cuthbert Collingwood, Edward Pellew (later Lord Exmouth), Adam Duncan and most famous of all, Horatio Nelson.

All these men would have been painfully aware of the fate of John Byng as an example of the price of failure, or at least of not being seen to be trying hard enough. Byng was the last senior officer to be executed for any reason. The part of the Articles of War which made the death sentence mandatory on being convicted of 'failing to do his utmost' was rescinded about 20 years later, when Naval Courts Martial were given a degree of discretion in how to deal with these cases.
Title: Re: Rochester MP shot, 1757
Post by: Bilgerat on July 08, 2013, 18:41:38
Just caught the end of an article on Meridian News about a new round in the Byng Family's campaign to have their ancestor's name cleared. All triggered, so it seems by an exhibition at Greenwich which labelled Byng as a traitor.

Not only did the museum concerned commit a real, proper howler in describing him thus, the Byng family led by his several times Great Grand-daughter Thane Byng campaigned for this to be corrected, something the museum has now agreed to do.

As for getting John Byng posthumously pardoned? My opinion is that this won't happen. It is widely seen that John Byng did fail to do his utmost, an offence which at the time carried a mandatory death sentence. What was controversial now and at the time was that his execution was carried out despite appeals for clemency from the great and powerful of the day.
Title: Re: Rochester MP shot, 1757
Post by: kyn on October 16, 2017, 18:11:54
Title: Re: Rochester MP shot, 1757
Post by: kyn on October 16, 2017, 18:12:26