Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Byng, George
BYNG, GEORGE, Viscount Torrington (1663–1733), admiral, eldest son of John Byng, of a family settled for many centuries at Wrotham in Kent, was born on 27 Jan. 1662–3. In 1666 his father, having got into pecuniary difficulties, was obliged to part with the Wrotham estate, and went over to Ireland, where he would seem to have engaged in some speculations which were so far from fortunate that he lost what money had remained to him, and in 1672 he returned to England, flying, apparently, from his creditors. In 1678, by the interest of Lord Peterborough with the Duke of York, George Byng entered the navy as a king's letter-boy on board the Swallow. On 28 Nov. he was transferred to the Reserve, and again in June 1679 to the Mary Rose. The Mary Rose was paid off in June 1680, and in the following April young Byng was entered as a volunteer on board the Phœnix, commanded by Captain Blagg. The Phœnix was immediately afterwards sent to Tangier, where Byng's maternal uncle, Colonel Johnstone, was in garrison and on friendly terms with General Kirk, who, understanding that the boy complained of his captain's ‘ill-temper,’ offered him a cadetship in the grenadiers. This he gladly accepted, and was discharged from the Phœnix on 10 May 1681. In six months' time he was appointed as ensign, and early in 1683 was promoted to a lieutenancy. As this was held to be a grievance by his seniors, over whose head he had been promoted, Kirk appointed him as lieutenant of a galley which attended on the garrison, and shortly afterwards to the acting command of the Deptford ketch. From this, however, he was superseded at the end of the year by order of Lord Dartmouth, who consented at Kirk's request to give him a commission as ‘lieutenant in the sea-service,’ and appointed him (February 1683–4) to the Oxford. On the arrival of the fleet in England the officers and men of the Oxford were turned over to the Phœnix, fitting for a voyage to the East Indies, on which she finally sailed from Plymouth, 28 Nov. 1684. Byng had had his commission in the army confirmed by the king, and was at this time lieutenant of Charles Churchill's company of grenadiers, from which he received leave of absence to attend to his duty on board the Phœnix.
The work at Bombay consisted chiefly in suppressing European ‘interlopers’ and native pirates. These last were rude enemies and fought desperately when attacked. On one occasion Byng was dangerously wounded. The service against the ‘interlopers’ required tact, energy, and moral, rather than physical, courage, and Captain Tyrrell's views of it differed much from those held by Sir Josiah Child, the representative of the Company. It was thus that during an illness of Tyrrell's, Byng, being for the time in command, had an opportunity, by entering more fully into his designs, of cultivating Child's goodwill, with, as it would seem, very profitable results. Afterwards, on their return to England, 24 July 1687, Sir Josiah offered him the command of one of the Company's ships, which Byng declined ‘as being bred up in the king's service;’ and when the Phœnix was paid off he rejoined his regiment, then quartered at Bristol.
In May 1688 Byng, still a lieutenant, was appointed to the Mordaunt, and in September to the Defiance. While serving in this subordinate employment, he was, on Kirk's suggestion and recommendation, appointed as an agent for the Prince of Orange, with the special work of winning over certain captains in the fleet. He was afterwards deputed by these captains to convey their assurances of goodwill and obedience to the prince. He found William at Sherborne: the prince ‘promised that he would take particular care to remember him,’ and entrusted him with a reply to the officers of the fleet, and a more confidential letter to Lord Dartmouth, which may be said to have fixed his wavering mind (Brit. Mus. Addl. MS. 31958, ff. 15–21; Dalrymple's Memoirs, appendix to pt. i., 314 et seq.) This was the turning-point of Byng's fortune; he had judiciously chosen the winning side, and on 22 Dec. 1688 was appointed captain of the Constant Warwick, from which in April 1689 he was removed to the Reserve, and on 15 May to the Dover, in which he served during the summer in the main fleet under the Earl of Torrington, and was employed during the autumn and winter in independent cruising. On 20 May 1690 he was appointed to the Hope of 70 guns, which was one of the red squadron in the unfortunate action off Beachy Head. In September he was moved into the Duchess, which, however, was paid off a few weeks afterwards. His career afloat being now well established, in November he resigned his commission in the army to his brother John, and in January 1690–1 was appointed to the Royal Oak of 70 guns, in which he continued till the autumn of 1692; but, having been at the time delayed in the river refitting, he had no share in the glories of Barfleur and La Hogue. In September Sir John Ashby hoisted his flag on board the Albemarle, to which Byng was appointed as second-captain (Admiralty Minute, 12 Sept.), and which he paid off in the following November. In the spring of 1693 he was offered the post of first-captain to the joint admirals, but refused it out of compliment to his friend Admiral Russell, then in disgrace [see Russell, Edward, Earl of Orford]; but accepted a similar offer made him in the autumn of the same year by Russell, then appointed commander-in-chief in the Mediterranean. He continued on this station for the next two years, and in 1696 was appointed one of the commissioners for the registry of seamen, which office he held till its abolition in 1699.
In 1701, when the Earl of Pembroke was appointed lord high admiral, Byng was nominated as his secretary and first-captain if, as he intended, he took the command in person. This would have made Byng virtually commander-in-chief; for Lord Pembroke was neither sailor nor soldier, and had no experience in commanding men; but before the nomination took effect the king died, and the Churchills, who came into power, visited, it was believed, on Byng, the old grudge which they bore to Admiral Russell, whose follower and partisan Byng was. He asked for a flag, which he considered due to him after having been so long first-captain to the admiral of the fleet; it was refused him. He applied to be put on the half-pay of his rank; this also was refused him; and he was told plainly that he must either go to sea as a private captain or resign his commission. As his means did not permit him to quit his profession, he, under this constraint, accepted the command of the Nassau, a 70-gun ship (29 June 1702), and in the course of July joined the fleet under Sir Clowdisley Shovell, which, after cruising off Brest for two months, looking out for the French under Chateau-Renaud, went south towards Cape Finisterre. On 10 Oct. Byng, having been separated from the fleet, fell in with Sir George Rooke, but was at once despatched in search of Sir Clowdisley, with orders to him to join the admiral at once. Knowing that the attack on Vigo was imminent, Byng tried to excuse himself from this duty, but without success; and though he made all haste to send the orders to Shovell, he rejoined the fleet only on the evening of the 12th, after the attack had been successfully made, and nothing remained but to complete the work of destruction.
On 1 March 1702–3 Byng was promoted to be rear-admiral of the red, and was sent out to the Mediterranean in the Ranelagh as second in command under Shovell. While there he was detached with a small squadron to Algiers, where he succeeded in renewing the treaty for the protection of English commerce; and towards the end of the year he returned to England, arriving in the Channel just in time to feel some of the strength of the great storm, though not in its full fury, and happily without sustaining any serious damage. In 1704, still in the Ranelagh, he commanded, as rear-admiral of the red squadron, in the fleet under Sir George Rooke in the Mediterranean; he had the immediate command of the detachment of the fleet actually engaged in the bombardment and capture of Gibraltar; and from his position in the centre of the line of battle, had a very important share in the battle of Malaga. On his return home he was (22 Oct.) knighted by the queen, ‘as a testimony of her high approbation of his behaviour in the late action.’ On 18 Jan. 1704–5 he was advanced to the rank of vice-admiral, and during the summer of that year commanded a squadron in the Channel for the protection of trade. In March 1705–6 he sailed in the Royal Anne for Lisbon and the Mediterranean, where he took part in the operations on the Spanish coast and in the siege of Toulon, under the command of Sir John Leake and Sir Clowdisley Shovell, which last he accompanied on his homeward voyage, and narrowly escaped being lost with him on 22 Oct. 1707.
On 26 Jan. 1707–8 Sir George Byng was raised to the rank of admiral of the blue, and appointed to command the squadron in the North Sea for the protection of the coast of England or Scotland, then threatened with invasion from France in the cause of the Pretender. But jealousy and disputes between the French officers frittered away much valuable time; and when just ready to sail the titular king of England was incapacitated by a sharp attack of measles. All these delays were in Byng's favour, and when the expedition put to sea in the midst of a gale of wind on 10 March the English fleet was collected and intercepted it off the entrance of the Firth on 13 March, captured one ship, the Salisbury, and scattered the rest, which eventually got back to Dunkirk some three weeks afterwards (Mémoires du Comte de Forbin, 1729, ii. 289 et seq.) In England the question was at once raised whether Byng had done all that he might. A parliamentary inquiry was demanded. It was said that he could have captured the whole French fleet as easily as he had captured the one ship, by some that his ships were foul, and by others the fault lay with the lord high admiral. Finally the discontent subsided, and the house passed a vote of thanks to Prince George for his promptitude; Edinburgh presented Byng with the freedom of the city; and the queen offered to appoint him as one of the prince's council, which, however, he declined. In October he carried the Queen of Portugal to Lisbon, and during the following year, 1709, commanded in chief in the Mediterranean. In November he was appointed one of the lords commissioners of the admiralty under his old chief Russell, now Earl of Orford. Orford's term of office at that time was short, but Byng continued at the admiralty till early in 1714, and returned to it in the following October, after the accession of George I. In 1715 he was appointed to command the fleet for the defence of the coast, and succeeded so well in stopping and preventing all supplies to the adherents of the Pretender, that the collapse of the insurrection was considered to be mainly due to his efforts, in acknowledgment of which the king created him a baronet, and gave him a diamond ring of considerable value. In 1717, on information that a new movement in support of the exiled Stuarts was meditated by Charles XII of Sweden, Sir George Byng was sent into the Baltic with a strong squadron.
On 14 March 1717–18 he was advanced to the rank of admiral of the fleet, and was, in pursuance of the objects of the pending Quadruple Alliance, sent to the Mediterranean in command of a fleet to prevent a Spanish invasion of Italy or Sicily. He sailed from Spithead 15 June 1718, and 21 July anchored before Naples. He conferred with the viceroy, and received more exact intelligence of the movements of the Spaniards, at that time besieging the citadel of Messina by sea and land, and sailed from Naples on the 26th, and on the 29th arrived off the entrance of the Straits. From this position he wrote to the Spanish general, proposing ‘a cessation of arms in Sicily for two months, in order to give time to the several courts to conclude on such resolutions as might restore a lasting peace,’ adding that if he failed in this desirable work ‘he should then hope to merit his excellency's esteem in the execution of the other part of his orders, which were to use all his force to prevent farther attempts to disturb the dominions his master stood engaged to defend,’ to which the general replied that ‘he could not agree to any suspension of arms,’ and ‘should follow his orders, which directed him to seize on Sicily for his master the king of Spain.’ Historically, this correspondence is important, for it was afterwards asserted ‘that the English fleet surprised that of Spain without any warning, and even contrary to declarations in which Spain confided with security’ (Corbett, 5).
Early on the morning of 30 July the English fleet entered the Straits; before noon their advanced ships had made out the Spaniards far to the southward; the English followed; the chase continued through the night, the Spaniards retiring in long, straggling line, the English in no order, but according to their rates of sailing. About ten o'clock the next morning (31 July 1718), being then some three leagues to the east of Cape Passaro, the leading English ships came up with the sternmost of the Spaniards. They would have passed, for Byng's orders were to push on to the van; but the Spaniards opening fire, they were compelled to engage, and the action thus took the form necessarily most disastrous to the Spaniards; for, as successive ships came up, the Spaniards were one by one overpowered by an enormous superiority of force, and almost the whole fleet was captured without a possibility of making any effective resistance. So little doubt was there of the result from beginning to end, that—in the words of Corbett, the historian of the campaign—‘the English might be rather said to have made a seizure than to have gotten a victory.’ The English had indeed a considerable superiority of numbers, but not to an extent commensurate with the decisive nature of their success; this was solely due to the measures adopted by the Spaniards, which rendered their defeat inevitable. There was little room for any display of genius on the part of Byng, though he was deservedly commended for the advantage he had taken of the enemy's incapacity; and to the world at large the issue appeared, as broadly stated, that the English fleet of twenty-one sail had utterly destroyed a Spanish fleet of eighteen ships of the line beside a number of smaller vessels. The king wrote his congratulations to the admiral with his own hand; so also did the emperor; and the Queen of Denmark, who claimed a personal acquaintance with him, sent friendly messages through the master of her household.
With the destruction of the Spanish fleet the purely naval work of the expedition was accomplished, but for the next two years Byng continued in Sicilian and Neapolitan waters, keeping the command of the sea and co-operating with the German forces so far as possible. In August 1720 the Spaniards evacuated Sicily and embarked for Barcelona; and Byng, having convoyed the Piedmontese troops to Cagliari, acted as the English plenipotentiary at the conferences held there for settling the surrender of Sardinia to the Duke of Savoy, who, in acknowledgment of his services, presented him with his picture set in diamonds. On his return home immediately after he was appointed rear-admiral of Great Britain and treasurer of the navy; in the following Jan. was sworn a privy councillor; and on 9 Sept. 1721 was raised to the peerage with the titles of Baron Southill and Viscount Torrington. He had been M.P. for Plymouth since 1705. In 1724 he resigned the treasurership of the navy in favour of his eldest son; in 1725 he was installed knight of the Bath; and on the accession of George II was appointed first lord of the admiralty, 2 Aug. 1727. He held this office till his death on 17 Jan. 1732–3. He was buried at Southill in Bedfordshire.
The victory which Byng won off Cape Passaro, by its extraordinary completeness, gave him a perhaps exaggerated reputation as a naval commander; but independently of this, his uniform success in all his undertakings sufficiently bears out Corbett's eulogium of him as a man who devoted his whole time and application to any service entrusted to him; who ‘left nothing to fortune that could be accomplished by foresight and application.’ He describes him also as a man firm and straightforward in his dealings, impartial and punctual in the performance of whatever he engaged in. He was accused by his enemies of meanness, greediness, and avarice, and several of his letters show that he was in the habit of looking closely after his pecuniary interests; but to one brought up as he had been, the value of money may well have been unduly magnified, and lessons of parsimony must have been inculcated till it became almost a second nature.
He married on 5 March 1691 Margaret, daughter of James Master of East Langden in Kent, who survived him by many years, dying at the age of eighty-seven in 1756. He had a numerous family, consisting of eleven sons and four daughters.
His portrait by Sir Godfrey Kneller is in the Painted Hall at Greenwich, to which it was presented by George IV. There is also another portrait by J. Davidson, a bequest of Mr. Corbett in 1751; and a picture of the action off Cape Passaro, by Richard Paton, presented by William IV, but of no historical value.
[Brit. Mus. Addl. MS. 31958 (this is the manuscript Life of Lord Torrington which has been quoted or referred to by Collins, Dalrymple, and others as in the Hardwicke Collection, and being undoubtedly what it claims to be, written from Byng's own journals and papers, is of the very highest authority, though of course its views are very partial; it ends abruptly in 1705); Charnock's Biog. Nav. ii. 194; Collins's Peerage (1779), vi. 100; An Account of the Expedition of the British Fleet to Sicily in the years 1718, 1719, and 1720, under the command of Sir George Byng, Bart., &c. (published anonymously, dedication signed T. C.), by Thomas Corbett, secretary of the admiralty; Letters and other documents in the Public Record Office, more especially Home Office Records (Admiralty), No. 48.]