On March 14, 1757, the crew of the HMS Monarch gathered on the quarterdeck to witness the execution of Admiral John Byng. As they watched, Byng knelt on a cushion, signified his readiness by dropping a handkerchief, and was shot dead by a platoon of marines.
Poor Byng. The son of highly distinguished Rear-Admiral Sir George Byng, John was expected to enter the Royal Navy, and he did at the age of 13, rising quickly through the ranks (in part because of his father’s fame and influence). He became a lieutenant at the age of 19 and was named captain of the HMS Gibralter at the age of 23. By 1747, he was a Vice-Admiral and was wealthy enough to start building a grand mansion in Hertfordshire.
In 1756, during the Seven Years’ War, the island of Minorca—a British possession off the Spanish coast—was invaded by the French. Byng was ordered to the Mediterranean to relieve the British garrison at Port Mahon. Byng protested that he didn’t have enough time or resources to prepare the expedition properly, but he was ignored and forced to set out with ten unseaworthy ships that leaked and were inadequately manned. Byng knew the expedition would be a failure from the get-go and informed the Admiralty that he’d turn around and come right back if the situation in Minorca seemed to present any difficulty.
Before he arrived, the French managed to land 15,000 troops, which spread out and occupied the island. Byng arrived on May 19 and his fleet and the French went into battle the following day. Unsurprisingly, the French were able to badly damage Byng’s ships before sailing away themselves, not at all the worse for wear. Byng tried to establish communication with the fort but was unsuccessful, so he sailed to Gibralter to repair his ships and offload his wounded, intending to return to Minorca as soon as he was able. Before he could do so, he was relieved of his command and taken back to England, where he was placed into custody.
Byng was court-martialed for breaching the Articles of War, which had been revised to require capital punishment for officers who did not do their utmost against the enemy. Byng was acquitted of personal cowardice and disaffection but convicted of not having done his utmost, as he had failed to pursue the French fleet. He was condemned to death, but the members of the court martial recommended that the Lords of the Admiralty ask King George II for mercy.
It seemed everyone except for the king wanted to let Byng off. The First Lord of the Admiralty personally requested clemency from the king, but was angrily denied. Four members of the board of the court martial asked Parliament to relieve them of their oath of secrecy in order to speak on the Admiral’s behalf, and although the Commons was fine with it, the Lords refused. Even the Prime Minister, William Pitt the Elder, spoke up on Byng’s behalf, but George would have none of it (it didn’t help that he didn’t care for Pitt). So, Byng was taken to the deck of the Monarch, which was bobbing in the Solent, and his sentence was carried out.
He was the last of his rank to be executed in this way, and 22 years later the Articles of War were amended to allow other punishments as an alternative to execution, depending on the crime. In 2007, some of Byng’s descendents petitioned the government for a posthumous pardon, but for some reason the Ministry of Defense refused. Talk about holding a grudge. The execution has been referred to as “the worst legalistic crime in the nation’s annals” and it was satirized in Voltaire’s novel Candide, in which the main character is told “in this country, it is good to kill, from time to time, an admiral to encourage the others.” And encourage them it apparently did—some contribute the success of the Royal Navy to commanders’ fear of punishment should they not risk battle.