Execution of Byng

Essential information

Opening times: 
National Maritime Museum, Second floor, Nelson Navy Nation gallery

Can you explain why the British would be shooting their own admiral?

Byng had been ordered to sail from England to Gibraltar with ten ships to land reinforcements for the garrison there. He was then to pursue the French fleet, which he learnt had sailed from Toulon under the command of the Duc de Richelieu and had captured Minorca, an important British-held island at the time. The French had taken the whole island with the exception of the fortress and castle of St. Philip where the British commandant, General Blakeney, and a small force were besieged.

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. Byng's subsequent engagement with Richelieu was inconclusive. 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. This left the French to secure the surrender of Blakeney's force and their hold on the island.

The result was Byng's arrest and imprisonment at Greenwich Hospital prior to a month-long trial at Portsmouth in which he was made a scapegoat for government failure to send out a force adequate to the task. Contemporary accounts reveal that he bore the trial and sentence with great fortitude.

The episode provoked the French writer Voltaire's famous remark, in his novel Candide, that in England 'it is thought good to kill an admiral from time to time to encourage the others'.

Admiral Byng is shown in full-dress uniform, blindfolded and kneeling on a cushion. The date is 14 March, 1757. He had wanted to have his face uncovered but his friends felt eye contact might intimidate the marines and prevent them from taking aim properly. He allegedly threw his hat on the deck, knelt on a cushion, tied one white handkerchief over his eyes and dropped the other as a signal for his executioners, who fired a volley.