Execution of Admiral Byng

This famous print of the execution of Admiral Byng shows him kneeling on the quarterdeck of HMS Monarch in the Solent on 14th March 1757 and facing a firing squad of soldiers who were probably fusiliers. Some sources claim that they were Royal Marines but at that time the Marines had white fronted caps and red breeches. The Fusiliers were employed as marines at this time and the uniform, although not very accurate, agrees with what we know. The court-martial found Byng guilty of not doing his utmost, since he chose not to pursue the French fleet. According to the Articles of War at that time the only sentence the court was allowed to pass down was death. There were appeals and debates on the issue and the consensus was that he should not be executed, but the final decision was left to King George II and he allowed his hatred of the Prime Minister, Pitt the Elder, to cloud his judgement so that when Pitt appealed to his Majesty for clemency the answer was no. The incident was satirized by Voltaire in his play Candide where the character says that the English, from time to time shoot an Admiral, to encourage the others.

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by Stephen Luscombe