The Royal Navy executes one of its own
Admiral Byng is shot for “failing to do his utmost”
Just after dawn on 14 March 1757, amid a howling gale, the sailors on board HMS Monarch took delivery of an extraordinary package. It was an empty coffin, already inscribed with its occupant’s name: ‘The Hon. John Byng, Esqr. Died March 14 1757.’
The unlucky man followed his coffin on board later that morning. Smartly dressed beneath his white wig, Admiral Byng took his place on the quarterdeck “with a stately pace and a composed countenance”. Kneeling on a cushion, which was now drenched by the rain, he tied on a blindfold. Six marines, resplendent in their red coats, lined up and aimed their weapons. Byng raised his right arm, holding a white handkerchief.
How Byng had come to be there that day is one of the most extraordinary stories in British naval history. A year earlier, on the eve of the Seven Years’ War, the experienced admiral had been sent to the Mediterranean with orders to relieve the beleaguered British garrison on Minorca. But when he got there, he judged that the island was already lost to the French and there was no point wasting more lives. This did not go down well at home. On his return, he was charged with failing to do “his utmost”, as required by the Articles of War. The sentence was death.
Byng dropped the handkerchief. The marines fired, and it was all over. On the admiral’s tomb in his native Southill, Bedfordshire, an inscription records that he fell a “martyr to political persecution”. The writer Voltaire saw things differently. “In this country,” says a character in his novel Candide, published two years later, “it is good to kill an admiral from time to time, to encourage the others.”
A Royal Navy firing squad executes Admiral John Byng on the quarterdeck of the HMS Monarch. An empty coffin inscribed with his name was ready and waiting