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« pour  encourager  les  autres »

Biography of British Admiral John Byng

The  Judicial  Murder  of

Admiral  John  Byng

executed  as  first  British  Admiral  March  14,  1757
and  witnessed  with  disgust  by  Voltaire’s  “Candide” (1759)

as  Top  Class  Political  and  Naval  Scandal

(Byng, Reliable Biography of the British Admiral of the White Flag, John, who has been shot March 14th, 1757, after judgement and law aboard the man-of-war The Monarch, along with a short preliminary report on the current state of the British Naval Power.) In German. Frankfort and Leipsic, no printer, 1757. 10 ll. preliminary report and contents, 156 pp. Dark brown contemp. leather on 5 ribs with back-plate.

Neither in Holzmann-Bohatta, Oettinger 224 nor in the Cat. Nat. Maritime Museum. – For 1757 Weller just mentions Byng’s written defense as being translated from English though without being able to resolve the faked place of printing London. – Contemporarily published, to the market overview here

exceedingly  rare

hot  off  the  press  German  publication

of  still  the  same  year ,

for  its  highly  political  explosiveness

published  anonymously & without  printer

with  moreover  most  likely  even  faked  place  of  printing .

Cf. William Laird Clowes, The Royal Navy: a History from the Earliest Times to the Present (1897-1903), Mahan, Influence of Sea Power upon History, and Encyclopedia Britannica. Also see Hudson’s portraits (BHC2590 + BHC2591) and the representation of the execution (BHC0380) in Greenwich. – Especially pp. 79-107 with tidemark coming from top and tapering off to the binding. Fly-leaves with partly effaced traces of writing, on the title blurred ink spot. The boards negligibly warped. Totally only a little time-stained.

Placed in front of an overview of Byng’s family tree reaching back to the age of Henry VII, his parents and his siblings, a preliminary report on the structure of the British fleet and its three squadrons – from the red over the white to the blue flag – including the naval administration and the shipyard system, classification, arming, and crew of the ships and their ranking and salute obligations corresponding to the division of the squadrons. Further mentioning the two main battle orders, privateer system, and the Naval Hospital at Greenwich. Placed after the rendering of his written defense together with several letters.

John Byng, fourth son of admiral George Byng, Lord Vicomte of Torrington, first commissioner of the admiralty, and born the same year – 1704 – when during the Spanish War of Succession on the order of admiral George Rooke his father silenced the batteries of Gibraltar by a half-day bombardment and so contributed as successfully as decisively to the capture of the Rock, joined the navy at the age of 14 and in 1733/34 he got the command of a ship of 50 guns.

Appointed governor of Newfoundland in 1742 Byng got his first orders as responsible leader of a task force of five ships in 1745 to convey the French marshal Duke of Belle Isle together with his brother detained in Stade in Hanover to England. Sailing till “Cuxhaven before Hamburg” he had the captives being brought to Cuxhaven by land via Neuhaus/Oste and Otterndorf, to then return to Harwich.

For this successful operation Byng was appointed rear admiral of the blue flag as the least of the three squadrons named after the colors of the British flag. Several operations in the channel, the North Sea, and the Mediterranean were followed by further promotions culminating in the appointment to vice admiral of now the red flag – the most distinguished squadron – during the peace talks of 1748. After his return to England he retired from active duty.

Remarkable for the later events only his taking part as vice president in the court martial against the admirals Lestock and Mathews accused of having neglectfully allowed the battle line to diverge too much in a fight before Toulon in 1744. The first was acquitted, the latter dismissed for lack of unequivocal clarification.

With rising new tensions between England and France about the American colonies

admiral  Byng  was  re-activated  in  1755

and sent into the Mediterranean with “an inadequate force” (Britannica) in September where England was worried about its predominance acquired during the Spanish War of Succession and especially its possessions Minorca and Gibraltar:

“ But this fleet, which should have been a large and powerful one, was by no means of formidable proportions. It consisted only of ten sail of the line; and even those few ships were not fitted out without the greatest difficulty and friction. At that late date the Ministry seems to have been still blind to the importance of Minorca. There were at the moment twenty-seven ships of the line cruising in the Channel and Bay of Biscay, twenty-eight ships of the line in commission at home, and many small craft, which might have been detailed for the service. But Byng was not permitted to utilize any of these, or to draw crews from them; and his mission was evidently regarded as a wholly subsidiary one. He was directed to take on board the absent officers of the Minorca garrison and a reinforcement of troops, consisting of the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers, under the command of Colonel Lord Robert Bertie. To make room for these men, all the Marines belonging to the squadron were sent on shore, with the result that, had Byng been successful in throwing troops into Port Mahon, he would, owing to the absence of Marines from his ships, have been in a condition unfit for subsequently fighting an action at sea ”

(Clowes quoted after Peter Zeist’s web page Trial and Execution of Admiral John Byng, 1757).

The whole operation, however, was ill-starred:

Already the voyage out from Spithead was delayed till April 1756, then adverse winds brought the 10 ships of his fleet first to St. Helen, then to Plymouth, so that Byng “arrived luckily at Gibraltar after a long and awkward voyage on May 2nd where the Chef d’Escadre Edgcumbe with 3 men-of-war and some frigates joined him” and reported of the already occurred landing of the French and the siege of Port Mahon to whose support he had landed his own marines.

“ When Byng informed the Lords of the Admiralty of this he also criticized the wretched condition of the ships under his command, the neglected state of the magazines and storehouses at Gibraltar, and the general lack of facilities to refit the fleet for serious action ”

(National Maritime Museum, The Execution of Admiral Byng, 2007).

Referring to the weakness of his own garrison and unclear orders the governor of Gibraltar then also refused to provide further troops which according to his orders Byng was to take over and bring to the relieve of the besieged fortress on Minorca. Dismissed still before Byng even all this had no positive influence in the later proceedings against the latter.

May 18th Byng arrived with his now 13 ships of the line before Port Mahon and was able to get in touch with the besieged, but had to interrupt this even before trying to land because the French fleet – 12 ships of the line and 5 frigates – came in sight. Under light winds both fleets tacked in the attempt to keep or – on the French side – to get the better starting position resp. This maneuvering lasted till the afternoon of May 20th when the two lines finally stood opposite to each other – though not parallel, but in an angle of about 30° – and the encounter began. First the report of the French admiral Count de La Galissionnière:

“ About half past two in the afternoon the two fleets were positioned in a line against each other and the encounter began … The encounter lasted four and a half or about four hours, but it has not been common during this whole time as the English ships which were battered by our guns the most laid themselves under the wind and in a way our guns could not reach them anymore. They kept this advantage continuously to not encounter the battle, and only after they directed their biggest force at those ships that formed our rearguard, which they nevertheless found that well closed and of which they had to stand such a great fire that they could not harm them: so they took the party to leave … Actually none of their ships stood the fire of ours for long. ”

More exhaustive, i. a. about the taking of one of two tartans with about 100 French soldiers who, just as 500 further the day before, were embarked for the enforcement of de La Galissionères, and the preparation of the frigate Phoenix reported – so Clowes – as being unfit for general service as a fireship, Byng reports on the circumstances:

“ Just at the beginning the Intrepide was shot away her foretopmast; and as that thus hang at her foresail and destroyed it, so he could not rule the ship anymore … He therefore drifted towards the ship lying nearest to him and forced that, and the ships which laid at my front, to give way. This forced me to do the same for a few minutes to prevent that not all fell aboard of me. Nevertheless we not fell back before we had driven our enemy out of the line as he then sailed away down wind … This not only caused that the center of the enemy remained unattacked, but that rather the division of the rear admiral stayed uncovered for some time … I noticed that the enemies withdrew continuously; and as they went 3 feet against our one, so they intended to never again have us coming close enough to them, but just to take the advantage to ruin and destroy our rigging … About this time it was 6 o’clock and the hostile Avant Garde and ours were too far from each other as it could have come to a meeting again. ”

The losses were about equal with 43 dead and 168 wounded on the English, and 38 and 175 resp. on the French side, but Byng lost two of his captains while the French had no higher officers among their casualties. Equally the English ships took significantly higher damages at their rigging in this encounter Mahan describes – quoted by Clowes – as being difficult:

“ The two fleets … both on the port tack, with an easterly wind, heading southerly, the French to leeward … Byng ran down in line ahead off the wind, the French remaining by it, so that when the former made the signal to engage, the fleets were not parallel, but formed an angle of from 30 to 40. The attack which Byng by his own account meant to make, each ship against its opposite in the enemy’s line,

difficult  to  carry  out  under  any  circumstances ,

was here further impeded by the distance between the two rears being much greater than that between the vans; so that his whole line could not come into action at the same moment. When the signal was made, the van ships kept away in obedience to it, and ran down for the French so nearly head on as to sacrifice their artillery fire in great measure. They received three raking broadsides and were seriously dismantled aloft. The sixth English ship (Intrepid) counting from the van, had her foretopmast shot away, flew up, into the wind, and came aback, stopping and doubling up the rear of the line. ”

The day after the encounter Byng hold a council of war “in which (so Byng in his own report) not the least dispute or doubt arose” and to which he also called in the leaders of the embarked land forces. Unanimously it was realized that Port Mahon could not be relieved neither by a new attack on the French fleet nor by the English task force at all, on the other hand though any loss, especially by an attack in the current state, would endanger Gibraltar and therefore the fleet should retreat there.

It is remarkable that this part as Byng’s observations before Port Mahon and the report about four further French ships of the line which laid ready to sail in Toulon as also the considerations on the options of the enemy to both enforce himself by troops from Menorca as to hand over the wounded

was  not  published

and therefore is also missing in the translation here. See on this Byng’s complete report quoted by Clowes under rendering prominently the omissions (a print is included). Besides

two  weeks  after  the  battle

and  thus  even  before  his  return  to  Gibraltar

Byng  was  appointed  admiral  of  the  blue  flag

(the report here speaks both in the title as in the text of the white flag, Clowes and Meyers Konversationslexikon, 4th ed., unanimously, however, of the blue, as the epigraph, too).

At his arrival in Gibraltar on June 19th Byng found a reinforcement of five ships and immediately began with the preparations for setting sails once more and a landing attempt. The taking over of fresh water was especially protracting as Gibraltar’s wells gave little water only. As a matter of fact Minorca surrendered already June 29th.

Meanwhile on July 3rd the Antelope with the admirals Hawke and Saunders as relief for Byng and rear admiral West arrived. At the same time the governor of Gibraltar was exchanged. With the relieved and numerous further officers who should be called into the witness-box on board the Antelope returned to Spithead where she arrived July 25th and

Byng  was  arrested  immediately  after  putting  in .

Even before speculations had been spread

“ that the friends of admiral Byng, who had concluded from the general shout and discontent of the mob on an impending investigation of his behavior, had warned him to return not to his fatherland under any circumstances, alone either this warning not got into his hands or he was, counting on the righteousness of his cause,

not  afraid  of  the  judge , but  face  him  confidently ”

That public discontent culminating in numerous demonstrations – “that big that one finds few similar examples of this in history” – was, so it must be assumed, staged or furthered by the government taking advantage of the general rage about the bad news from the different war theatres to distract from the numerous neglects both in regard of opportune and determined measures:

“ By initiating legal proceedings against Byng, the administration of Prime Minister Thomas Pelham-Holles, 1st Duke of Newcastle, hoped to divert public attention from its own failings; nevertheless, Newcastle resigned in November 1756 … (Byng’s) failure (to relieve Minorca) aroused a storm of indignation in England, motivating Newcastle to promise that

‘he  shall  be  tried  immediately; he  shall  be  hanged  directly’ ”


On the first plate of Hogarth’s Election set of 1754 Newcastle’s party in power leads with themselves the effigy of a Jew with the legend “no Jews” and “Nichols identified in this figure resemblance to the Duke of Newcastle, who would deal in parliamentary seats like a Jew” (Lichtenberg).

After months of preparations December 27th, thus only after Newcastle’s resignation, the trial against Byng began with 37 charges that in total accused him not to have done his best to relieve Port Mahon, and lasted till January 27, 1757:

“ The admiral Byng himself constantly kept cool during this investigation, January 18th one began to hear him on his responsibility, he defended himself in a sedate manner, he answered all questions put to him by the war council with a presence of mind and an intrepid calmness, and found admirers even among his enemies. ”

All in all the proceedings seemed to take a good turn. So

“ … all English news then reported

that  the  admiral  would  come  out  of  the  case  with  honor

and would be acquitted by the judges … as suddenly the scene changed and showed a pitiful tragedy, namely

the  forthcoming  execution  of  the  first  admiral  of  Great  Britain . ”

For contrary to the apparent impression after the ending of the examination January 22nd five of the judges voted for the death penalty peremptorily prescribed by chapter 12 of martial law for cowardice at the enemy and negligence of duties, four voted for dismissal because of incompetence, the remaining four judges pleaded for a verdict of not guilty. This stalemate lasted till the 27th when the four judges voting for dismissal turned to the side of the five.

This change of mind was triggered by a letter of Duke Richelieu, conqueror of Minorca, Voltaire conveyed to William Pitt, the new prime minister, together with a cover note:

“ If two commanders contend for a victory: so nevertheless one, regardless that both are equally brave men, has to come off a loser, and one can say nothing against Mr. Byng but he came off as a loser. His whole behavior has been the conduct of an excellent seaman, and such deserves … admiration … I am sure … that in case the English had stubbornly continued the encounter their complete fleet would have been destroyed. ”

In the course of this change of mind it came to a typical compromise:

At the end of the sentence and especially in an appended letter Byng was recommended for pardon. Of course this was of no obligation and predominantly served as comfort for the conscience of the judges. So the recommendation received no consideration during the review of the sentence by the Privy Council and the 12 judges. Quite on the contrary the latter even argued that by the then

stiffening  of  chapter  12  with  mandatory  death  penalty

Byng, as a member of the parliament, had “judged himself by that”.

Meanwhile Byng’s friends, with the new prime minister William Pitt at the head, effected a suspension:

“ … that one should suspend the execution of the admiral for so long until one has investigated the conduct of those by whom he got his orders as perhaps the conduct of these latter is connected to his behavior. ”

This, however, was not supported by the House of Commons, but two days later Pitt obtained a suspension by the King himself:

“ The commander, August Keppel, … who is not just a parliamentary member of the House of Commons, but also took part in the council of war … proceeded to the prime minister Pitt and declared for himself and in the name of some other members of the mentioned council of war

that  the  sentence  against  the  admiral  Byng

were  inequitable ,

and that a special cause had moved them to speak so … and a secret that, if they would allow

that  an  innocent  man  would  be  executed ,

would become a horrible crime, they could discover. ”

Purpose of this call was the suspension of the oath banning the judges from both talking about the single votes and the reasons or the accomplishment of the sentence by a corresponding act that surprisingly enough was approved by the House of Commons by a great majority.

In the following very passionate debate in the House of Lords finally the 13 judges of the council of war were questioned by four members of the House of Lords – two supporters, among these the First Commissioner of the Admiralty, and two opponents of the proposal – by which it became clear that all in all five of the judges including the president, vice admiral Smith,

“ had not been completely convinced of the legality of the sentence, but insisted expressly ‘that they had great reason to recommend the captive to the King’s mercy which they nevertheless could not reveal before they were dismissed from the oath of discretion.’”

After this strange questioning that had no substantial results the House of Lords quashed the proposal to free the judges of their oath with a great majority and the sentence was executed on board of The Monarch March 14th, after admiral Byng was even refused to face the firing squad not blindfolded:

“ I near myself to that moment that will free me of the bloodthirsty pursuit of my enemies which latters I do not envy a longer life as it will be full of anxiety because of the gnawing conscience.

“ I am convinced that in due course my honor will be done justice … I foresee that one will see me as a victim that was slaughtered to avert the indignation of an insulted and betrayed people off those who deserved it only. ”

Already the anonymous author of the

contemporary  publication  of  the  same  year  here

despite all emphasized neutrality finally left no doubt about the political motivation of the whole proceeding:

“ … and it seems (the House of Lords) wanted to make itself popular with the people, though others have the opinion that the many adherents the previous prime minister, Duke Thomas of Newcastle, has in the House of Lords contributed much to this, and that by rejecting the bill one cancelled the intention of the new prime minister to uncover the mistakes and negligences committed by the former prime ministers by saving the admiral. ”

This critical attitude should also be the reason for the anonymous publication and the printing place being faked with great probability. As obviously just the publication of Byng’s written defense was not without danger and also effected anonymously and faked (see above, Weller). Anyhow one of the Lords of the Admiralty refused to sign the sentence, and rear admiral West who as commander of the vanguard had borne the principal burden in the encounter refused a command with the argument, he could certainly guarantee for his loyalty and good intentions, but not warrant the correctness of all his decisions with his head.

Byng’s hope that later times will acknowledge the injustice has proven right. So Meyers Konversations-Lexikon writes in 1888 (4th ed.):

“ Later it became clear that even with greater vigor he could not have saved Menorca. ”

And Clowes judges:

“ Byng, both during his trial and after his sentence, behaved like a brave man … The tragedy, viewed from nearly every aspect, is to be most heartily regretted. Byng was neither traitor nor coward; but he was not an original genius, and, having seen Mathews punished for doing a certain thing, he believed that under no circumstances was it his duty to do anything even remotely of the same kind. His chief fault was that he was not independent enough, where a great object was to be gained, to shake himself loose from formulae and precedents, and to dash in when occasion allowed him. Yet, in one way, the sentence may have been productive of good. It may have taught the admirals who followed the unfortunate Byng, that they must pay more attention to victory than to red tape, and that not even the most honest devotion to conventional methods is so great a merit in a naval officer as success against the enemies of his country. ”

More recently this view has also been adopted by the Maritime Museum in Greenwich. While the previous accompanying texts on its website to the mentioned and further pictures unalteredly questioned the sentence in no way, the extensive description to the Execution already referred to assesses the circumstances more appropriately:

“ Byng’s subsequent engagement with Richelieu was inconclusive, as many such events of the time were for various unexceptional reasons. However, he compounded initial failure by accepting the subsequent opinion of a council of war of his commanders, that nothing further could be attempted given the state of the fleet …

in  effect , he  was  made  a  scapegoat  for  government  failure

to send out a force adequate to the task, and under a more experienced fighting commander. ”

And the biographic abridgment to Hudson’s portrait of 1749 here now like the Britannica, already quoted above with an unequivocal conviction of the government of the Duke of Newcastle, closing with

Voltaire’s  remark  in  “Candide” (1759)

who arrives in Portsmouth just the moment Byng is shot and learns on inquiry:

“ … in this country it is thought good to shoot an admiral from time to time, to encourage the others. ”

Candide was that shocked and appalled by this, that he not entered England and immediately travelled on to Venice, while the French phrase pour encourager les autres became common English use ever since.

Byng’s tomb in Southill, Bedfordshire, finally bears the epigraph:

“ To the Perpetual Disgrace of Public Justice, the Hon. John Byng, Esq., Admiral of the Blue, fell

a  Martyr  to  Political  Persecution ,

March 14th, in the year MDCCLVII;

when  Bravery  and  Loyalty  were  insufficient  Securities

for  the  Life  and  Honour  of  a  Naval  Officer. ”

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