Treasures Tuesday: A 250 year old document pleading for clemency for Admiral Byng

Sometimes, here at the SoG, we open up a box of archived papers and a story comes tumbling out at us. This one opened up navy life in the 1700s. It’s just three small sheets of paper, handwritten, with the title Adml Forbes’s reasons for not signing Adml Byng’s Dead Warrant.

Who was Admiral Byng and why was he being executed? Who was Admiral Forbes, why did he refuse to sign the death warrant, and did he save Admiral Byng? 

John Byng (baptised 29 October 1704) was born in the village of Southhill, Bedfordshire. At 13, like his father, John joined the Royal Navy. He was a captain by the time he was 23, later becoming Commodore-Governor of Newfoundland, and an MP for Rochester.

But in 1756, now an Admiral, John Byng’s fortunes began to change. The French were threatening Minorca, a British owned island. Byng was ordered to relieve the British garrison of Fort St Philip, at Port Mahon. History shows, in his communications with the Admiralty, how concerned he was about the orders. There was no time, little money and not enough crew. Of course, he also had to take on extra soldiers to reinforce the British garrison.

As he is leaving for Minorca, Byng learns that 15,000 French troops have already landed on the island. The British and French navies fought off the coast of Minorca. Trying to maintain the ships and crew he had, Byng only engaged his leading ships, keeping the rest of the fleet out of firing range. The French badly damaged those leading ships. Byng stayed near Minorca for four days but failed to communicate with the British garrison. Then he set sail for Gibraltar to repair his ships. Minorca was lost to the French.

Even in the 1700s public opinion and the press could affect events and lives. When news of the loss of Minorca reached Britain, there was outrage. Byng was brought back to England. A court martial found that he was not guilty of cowardice or disaffection. But he was guilty of not having ‘done his utmost’ to protect Minorca. There was no choice of punishment: John Byng was condemned to death. 

There were many that believed that the punishment was wrong and many asked for clemency but were refused. John Byng was to be executed.

Admiral John Forbes was a successful Royal Navy officer and by 1757 he was Lord Commissioner of the Admiralty. It was his responsibility to sign the death warrant but he believed that Byng’s death sentence was illegal and refused to sign. Admiral Forbes wrote a document and attached it to the warrant, explaining why he would not sign. 

Forbes’ refusal was not enough to save John Byng. On 14 March 1757 Byng knelt on a cushion on the quarterdeck of HMS Monarch and dropped his handkerchief when he was ready. A squad of Royal Marines shot John Byng dead. He is buried in All Saints Church in Southill, Bedfordshire, an estate of the Torrington family.

Here at the SoG, we hold a document assumed to be a draft of the explanation that Forbes wrote. It is in our Herbert family’s Special Collection. The Senate House Library, University of London, holds a manuscript, with the same content, signed 'J.F.' 16 February 1757. And Forbes' 'Justification' was also printed as a broadsheet in 1757.

We have so many treasures like this in our Archives – each with their own fascinating story. Why not come in and take a look?


Geoff Swinfield has kindly transcribed this document to help us easily read it.

Adml Forbes’s reasons for not signing Adml Byng’s Dead Warrant

It may be thought great presumption in me to differ from so great Authority as that of the Twelve Judges but when a man is call’d upon to sign his name to an act, which is to give Authority for the shedding of blood, He ought to be guided by his Conscience, & not by the Opinion of other men.

In the Case before us, it is not The merit of Adml Byng that I consider whether he deserves Death or not, is not a Question for me to decide; but whether, or not, his Life can be taken away by the Sentence pronounc’d upon him by the Court Martial, and after having so clearly explain’d their motives for pronouncing such a Sentence, is the point alone has imploy’d my most serious attention.

The 12th Art. of War, upon wch Adml Byng’s Sentence is grounded, Says ___ According to my understanding of its meaning, “That every person who shall in time of action withdraw, or keep back, or not come into fight, or who shall not do his utmost & through Motive’s of Cowardice, Negligence, or Disaffection, shall suffer Death. The Court Martial does, in Express Words, acquit Adml Byng of Cowardice & Disaffection, & does not name the word negligence. ____ Adml Byng does not, as I conceive, fall under the letter, or description of the 12th Art of War _____ It my be said, that negligence is implied, the(n) word is not nam’d, otherwise the Ct Martial wou’d not have brought his offence under the 12th Art of War, having acquitted him of Cowardice, & Disaffection.

But it must be acknowledg’d, that the negligence imply’d cannot be wilfull negligence; for wilfull negligence in Adml Byng’s situation must proceed either from Cowardice, or Disaffection, & he is expressly acquited of both these crimes, besides crimes wch are imply’d only & are not nam’d may indeed justify suspicion, & private opinion, but cannot satisfy the Conscience in a case of Blood.

Adml Byng’s fate was reffer’d to a Court Martial his Life & Death was left to their opinions; The Ct Martial condemn him to Death, because as they expressly say they were under a necessity of doing so by reason of the letter of the law; the severity of wch they complain of, because it admits of no mitigation. ________ The Ct Marl expressly say, that the prisoner, they do, in the most earnest manner, recommend him to his Majts mercy; it is then evident, that in the opinion, and Consciences of the Judges, he was not deserving of Death.

The Question then is, shall the opinion, or necessities of the Ct Marl determine Adml Byng’s fate. If it shou’d be the latter, he will be Executed contrary to the intentions, & the meaning of the Judges; who, to do justice, do most earnestly recommend him for mercy; and if it shou’d be the former, his Life is not forfeited. His Judges declare he is not deserving of Death; but mistaking either the meaning of the Law, or the nature of his offence, they bring him under an Article of War, which according to their own description of his offence he does not I conceive fall under; and then they condemn him to death, because, as they say, the law admits of no mitigation. Can a Man’s life be taken away by such a Sentence. I wou’d not willingly be understood, & have it believ’d, that I Judge of Adml Byng’s deserts; that was the business of the Ct Marl; & it is my Duty only to Act according to my conscience; which, after deliberate consideration, & assisted by the best lights that a poor understanding is capable of attaining, it remains still in doubt; and therefore I cannot consent to Sign a warrant, Whereby the Sentence of the Ct Marl may be carried into execution; for I cannot help thinking, that however criminal Adml Byng may be, his life is not forfeited by that Sentence. I don’t mean to find fault in the least with the Opinion of other men; all I endeavour at, is to give reasons for my own; and all I desire, or wish is, that my meaning may not be misunderstood. I do not pretend to Judge of Adml Byng’s desert nor to give my opinion of the propriety of the Act.


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