Master tactician or a defeatist? - remembering the life of Admiral John Byng

The Execution of Admiral John Byng

The Execution of Admiral John Byng on March 14, 1757. - Credit: Royal Museums Greenwich

Ever wondered why landlocked Potters Bar has a pub named after an admiral? Here’s the story of John Byng, his links to the town and the events that cost him his life. 

Born in Southill, Bedfordshire, in October 1704, Byng came from a Royal Navy family and quickly rose through the ranks. 

His father was an admiral when John decided to join the service in 1718, aged just 13. By 19 he had been promoted to lieutenant and, at 23, he became the captain of HMS Gibraltar. 

Byng’s postings saw him venture across the world to the Mediterranean, the colony of Newfoundland off the coast of modern-day Canada, where he acted as Commodore-Governor, and Scotland, where he scuppered the supply routes of James Francis Edward Stuart during the 1745 Jacobite Rebellion.

Admiral John Byng

Admiral John Byng. - Credit: National Maritime Museum

In 1747, he was promoted to Vice-Admiral and appointed Commander-in-Chief of the Royal Navy’s Mediterranean Fleet. 

His connect to Potters Bar came in 1754, when Byng purchased an estate and commissioned the building Palladian mansion Wrotham Park. He would never live there though, as three years later he made a decision that would define his legacy and cost him his life.

In 1756, John, now an admiral, sailed with a force of 10 ships to Gibraltar, tasked with defending Minorca’s Fort St Philip. 

Most Read

The island had been captured by the British during 1708’s War of the Spanish Succession, but with the Seven Years’ War now underway, a French attack from Toulon to capture the fort was expected.

Wrotham Park. Picture: Submitted.

Wrotham Park, commissioned by John Byng in 1754 - Credit: Archant

Byng’s mission seemed doomed before it even set off though, with a month-long delay at Portsmouth caused by poor funding and damaged ships. 

The delay cost the admiral and the garrison at Fort St Philip dearly, as when he arrived off the coast of Minorca at Port Mahon on May 8 – just over a month after leaving England – he found the French, under the command of Duke de Richelieu, had already landed. 

They had begun to besieged the fort, and although Byng carried a force of 700 marines, it was not enough to fight off the French. 

The Battle of Minorca followed on May 9, and things got off to a promising start for the admiral and his fleet as they gained the advantageous weather gage. He called for a lasking manoeuvre, in which all his ships would turn in unison and, with the wind behind them, sail straight for the enemy. 

But, a mistake from Captain Thomas Andrews saw his ship, the Defiance, steer a parallel course. Other ships followed suit, leading to damage from cannon fire and crashes as the French sailed to safety. 

Captain Arthur Gardiner, Byng’s flag captain, asked to set full sail in pursuit, but the admiral declined, remembering Admiral Thomas Mathews had been dismissed for doing so at the Battle of Toulon in 1744. 

It was a decision that would cost him more than a dismissal.

Admiral John Byng

A painting by John Cleveley the Elder depicting a fleet under the command of Admiral Byng. - Credit: Bonhams London

43 British sailors were killed and 168 wounded during the battle, while the French recorded losses of 38 killed and 175 wounded. Despite this, Byng and his fleet sat off the coast of Minorca for the next four days, failing to contact Fort St Philip, still under attack from the French. 

Following a War Council on May 24, it was unanimously decided the ships would return to Gibraltar, with a letter written to the admiralty explaining the decision not to land troops and waste manpower. 

The letter, which arrived at the end of May, and the actions of Byng enraged King George II who said flatly: “This man will not fight!” 

Then the news of the failed naval engagement arrived, and when the admiral reached Gibraltar, he was relieved of his duties and sent back to England. 

Byng was arrested and tried by court martial in December 1756 – by which time Fort St Philip had fallen to the French – under the provisions of the 12th Article of War, which accused him of cowardice, negligence or disaffection. 

As mobs went about chanting ‘Swing, swing Admiral Byng’, he was charged with ‘failing to do his utmost’ and sentenced to death. 

The government ignored the court’s unanimous recommendation of mercy and George II declined to use a royal pardon to spare Byng, so on March 14, 1757, he was executed. 

Wearing a light grey coat, white breeches and wig, he walked onto the deck of his flagship, the Monarch, in the howling winds of Portsmouth harbour and was killed by firing squad. He would be the last Royal Navy Admiral to be shot by firing squad. 

Although clearly a talented seaman, Admiral John Byng’s legacy is one defined by his decisions, supposed cowardice and execution.

Become a Supporter

This newspaper has been a central part of community life for many years. Our industry faces testing times, which is why we're asking for your support. Every contribution will help us continue to produce local journalism that makes a measurable difference to our community.

Become a Supporter