Notable Historical Trials II – Admiral Byng

This final chapter of the second volume of the Folio Society’s set on historical trials is of Admiral Byng, who was shot on his quarterdeck for not winning a sea battle.  Although this isn’t mentioned in the chapter, at the time the English Navy had adopted a set of rules for battle called “Fighting Instructions”.

These instructions basically were to line up one on one, and if you had extra ships they waited out the battle behind the line.  It more or less assured a drawn battle.  Apparently Byng, who was expected to relieve the English base at Minorca, did an even worse job than usual, only getting a fragment of his line into action at all.  With the French fleet still in action, Byng had to retire.

In his defense, the English were doing their usual thing of not being ready to fight at the start of a war, and when the French took advantage the popular ire was extreme.  Since Byng was a sour old guy, he seemed made to order for scapegoat.  The judges at the trial found him innocent of cowardice, but did find that he had not done his utmost.  The expectation that the King would commute the sentence to avoid death, but he let the execution proceed.

One surviving item from this trial is the quip from Voltaire that England shoots an Admiral every so often ‘to encourage the others’.  Voltaire actually sent a letter from the French Admiral asking that Byng not be exectuted for losing to him.


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