Rare Find: Admiral Forbes explanation for refusing to sign Admiral Byng’s death warrant.
Royal Navy Officer Admiral John Byng was born on 29th October 1704 and was controversially executed by gun fire on 14th March 1757 on the quarterdeck of his former flagship, ‘Monarch’ for failing to "do his utmost" to prevent Minorca falling to the French following the Battle of Minorca.
Admiral Byng’s harsh sentence was opposed by many, including Admiral Forbes who refused to sign his death warrant.
The Society is pleased to have a written explanation by Admiral Forbes explaining his reasons for not signing the death warrant of Admiral Byng. This document can be found in the ‘Herbert’ Special Collection.
Professional genealogists Geoff Swinfield has kindly transcribed this 253 year old document for ease of understanding.
Adml Forbes’s reasons for not signing Adml Byng’s
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
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
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.
Admiral Byng Admiral Forbes
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