BYNG, Sir George (1663-1733), of Southill, Beds.
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Family and Education
b. 27 Jan. 1663, 1st s. of John Byng of Wrotham, Kent by Philadelphia Johnson of Loans, Surr. m. 5 Mar. 1691, Margaret, da. of James Master of East Langdon, Kent, 11s. (6 d.v.p.) 4da. (3 d.v.p.). suc. fa. 1683. Kntd. 22 Oct. 1704; cr. Bt. 15 Nov. 1715, Visct. Torrington 21 Sept. 1721; KB 27 May 1725.1
Ent. RN May 1678, lt. 1683, capt. 1687, r.-adm. 1703, v.-adm. 1706, adm. 1708, r.-adm. of G. Britain 1720, adm. of Eng. 1727–d.; cadet, grenadiers at Tangier May 1681; ensign 4 Ft. 1681, lt. 1683, capt. of grenadiers 1688; lt. horse gds. 1690–92; muster master of marines, 1698–9; special envoy to Dey of Algiers, 1703, plenip. to Fez of Morocco 1718, Italian states 1718–20; ld. of Admiralty Nov. 1709–Jan. 1714, Oct. 1714–Sept. 1721, 1st ld. 1727–d.; treasurer of navy Oct. 1720–Apr. 1724; PC 3 Jan. 1721–d.2
Commr. registry of seamen 1696–9, claims for coronation of Geo. II 1727, Greenwich Hosp.; er. bro. Trinity House 1698–d., master 1711–13; freeman, Portsmouth 1703, Kinsale 1705, Edinburgh 1708.3
Two of Byng’s ancestors sat in Parliament during the 15th and early 16th centuries, but his father was forced to sell the family estates at Wrotham in Kent. An attempt to settle in Ireland ended in flight to England to avoid creditors. In such penury Byng’s education was entrusted to the Countess of Middleton, a family friend (who, as Lady Martha Carey, had lived at Moor Park, near to the residence at Rickmansworth of the family of Byng’s grandmother, Katherine Hewit), although a comment recorded by Thomas Hearne in 1708 refers to Byng being her page boy. Given the family’s straitened circumstances it was decided to send Byng to sea at the earliest opportunity and in 1678, as a result of the influence of the 2nd Earl of Peterborough, he entered the navy. Subsequently he served at Tangier (where his maternal uncle was a member of the garrison), and between 1684 and 1687 was in the East Indies pursuing pirates and interlopers. Back home he played a key role during the winter of 1688 in the Orangist conspiracy to undermine Lord Dartmouth’s (George Legge†) control of the fleet. Suitably rewarded with a captaincy, a rank he had first attained in 1687, he served at Beachy Head in June 1690. An analysis of naval officers in 1691 described Byng as ‘a young man, but a very good man’, and a list of the following year ‘makes it clear that Torrington [Arthur Herbert†] was his patron’. If this was the case, Byng quickly shifted his allegiance to Edward Russell*, declining to serve as first captain to the joint admirals in the spring of 1693, but accepting the post under Russell in September. After two spells in this post in the Mediterranean, Byng returned home in 1696 and was appointed a commissioner under the Act for registering seamen, and commissary of the marine regiments. Around this time he probably moved his family into Southill, as December 1697 saw the last baptism of one of his children at St. Paul’s Covent Garden. Other honours followed, such as election as an elder brother of Trinity House, but no active command came his way until his appointment as first captain at the beginning of March 1702 under the new lord high admiral, the Earl of Pembroke (Hon. Thomas Herbert†), a promotion attributed to Whig influence. Only a week later William III died, thereby precipitating a change of personnel at the Admiralty.4
Byng’s career prospects looked bleak on the accession of Anne: Prince George became lord high admiral and Byng failed to receive a flag, the accepted promotion due to a first captain. Indeed, in May 1702 he was reduced to petitioning for a rear-admiral’s allowance (that traditionally paid to first captains), until employment could be found for him. At least one historian has attributed Byng’s difficulties to the perception that he was a Whig and protégé of Russell. However, Byng received his flag in 1703 and served with distinction in the Mediterranean, being knighted on his return in October 1704. Sailing with the Channel fleet in 1705 provided Byng with an opportunity to enter Parliament as it enabled him to travel ashore rather than be confined to a foreign station. A flavour of his activities can perhaps be gleaned from the comment of one of Arthur Charlett’s correspondents, who wrote that some people were angry at Byng for ‘appearing at so many places’. He was returned in two constituencies, but his election at Great Bedwyn was threatened from the very first by a petition, so it was not surprising that Byng opted on 1 Dec. to sit for Plymouth, a borough more susceptible to navy influence. On one list of the 1705 Parliament he was classed as a ‘High Church courtier’, but the Earl of Sunderland (Charles, Lord Spencer*) correctly assessed his return as a gain for the Whigs. On 25 Oct. 1705 he voted for the Court candidate for Speaker, and on 18 Feb. 1706 supported the Court over the ‘place clause’ of the regency bill. Unsurprisingly, his other contributions to parliamentary affairs reflected his acknowledged expertise on naval matters. On 9 Jan. 1706 he was given leave to attend the Lords’ committee investigating the manning of the fleet (actually attending on the 14th) and on 23 Jan. was appointed to the drafting committee of a bill to increase seamen. By early March, however, Luttrell reported that he was preparing to sail for Lisbon, his naval career taking precedence over duties at Westminster.5
Letters to Lord Cowper (William*) in December 1706 show that the Whigs were prepared to watch over Byng’s interest at Plymouth during his extended absence. Byng returned to England in October 1707, narrowly avoiding the fate of his superior, Sir Clowdesley Shovell*, whose ship was lost off the Scilly Isles. In December 1707 he was appointed to two drafting committees: on the 8th, to prepare a bill for the better security and encouragement of the American trade; and on the 16th, to establish a workhouse in Plymouth. Finally, his expertise was used by the Lords when he was called to give evidence to a committee on the inconveniences of legislation regulating the coal trade as it related to the protections issued to seamen. On 5 Feb. 1708 he was given leave to attend the Lords regarding their investigations into the war in Spain. However, his parliamentary duties were cut short by the news of the attempted invasion by the Pretender in Scotland, which saw Byng dispatched northwards to prevent a landing. Byng accomplished his task, receiving the freedom of Edinburgh as a reward, but some people felt that he had allowed the Jacobite fleet to escape. He was unequivocal in rebutting that accusation, contending that the clean French ships were much faster than his own ‘foul ships’, and that ‘my predecessor himself had he been at the head of us could neither have counselled or contrived how to have worked foul ships better’. In such circumstances the gesture from Edinburgh was eagerly seized upon by Byng to pronounce that ‘calumny itself must now be silent, since you have given so open a proof to the world that my endeavours have not been unacceptable to you’. The state of the fleet was the pretext for a Whig attack on the Admiralty under Prince George, but the Commons voted an address of thanks on 1 Apr. to the Lord High Admiral, together with an addition from Richard Hampden II* praising Byng’s conduct.6
Following his success in Scotland, Byng was perceived as a natural addition to the Prince’s Council, but as Lord Treasurer Godolphin (Sidney†) wrote to the Duke of Marlborough (John Churchill†) on 19 Apr., ‘the vacancies . . . will not (I believe) be well filled’. Thus, when Byng arrived in London later in April, Godolphin reported that he ‘has not yet had that countenance shown him, which either his past diligence, or the hopes of his future behaviour in this summer’s service might naturally lead him to expect’. The stumbling block appeared to be George Churchill*, who encouraged the ‘natural, but very inconvenient averseness’ the Queen and Prince George felt towards ‘[the Whigs] in general, and to Sir George Byng in particular’. The Queen’s perception of Byng as a Whig was confirmed in two analyses of the post-Union Parliament in early 1708. Byng was able to achieve his re-election for Plymouth, having secured in April an invitation to stand, before naval duties intervened. While awaiting the wind at Spithead in August Byng described himself, albeit in jest, as an ‘abandoned admiral’. In October he set sail for Lisbon, returning to England a year later. However, as early as February 1709 his recall was being canvassed as a replacement for Josiah Burchett* as secretary to a revamped Admiralty board. As the summer of 1709 wore on, the need to reorganize the Admiralty became more acute and the Whigs more animated against royal resistance to the demands of office for Orford and his friends. Arthur Maynwaring* thought that Byng was one man whom ‘everybody would have . . . in this commission’, because although he was an officer raised by Orford, he had been preferred on merit. Luttrell reported Byng’s appointment as an Admiralty lord in October 1709, but it required continuous pressure well into November before the commission was settled, with Godolphin being accused of encouraging the Queen’s resistance, despite protestations to the contrary. In the event Byng was forced to renege on an agreement with fellow admiral Sir John Jennings* that ‘neither of them should come into the commission without the other’. A new writ was moved on 15 Nov. 1709 consequent upon his appointment, an office worth £1,000 p.a.7
Byng faced no opposition at Plymouth when returned at the by-election held on 2 Dec. 1709. On 16 Dec. he was nominated to the committee considering a petition for a bill for the preservation of Catwater harbour in Plymouth, and on the 20th was appointed to the committee preparing the resultant legislation. A list of Bank of England stockholders for March 1710 reveals that he then held between £500 and £2,000 worth of stock. Byng voted in the Commons in 1710 in favour of the impeachment of Dr Sacheverell, and appears to have attended regularly at the Admiralty board during the first six months of 1710. Despite his association with the Whigs, he retained his post at the Admiralty when a new commission was sealed in October 1710. Indeed, from a letter Byng wrote to Sir John Osborn of Chicksands on 28 Sept. it would seem that he had attempted to resign his post rather than serve with the 3rd Earl of Peterborough, but in the event the Earl had been employed instead on an embassy to Italy. Byng was returned again for Plymouth and was classed as a Whig on the ‘Hanover list’ of 1710. On 5 Jan. 1711 he presented to the Commons the accounts for the sick and wounded and a statement of the victualling debt, being appointed on the same day to the committee charged with investigating abuses in victualling. His only other significant action in the Commons during this session was on 28 Apr., when he acted as a teller in favour of referring the petition on the Weymouth by-election to the committee of privileges and elections, rather than hearing the cause at the bar. If anything, this was a vote on the Whig side, for the Tory House quickly unseated the Whig sitting Members. During the year Byng increased his power on the Admiralty board as Sir John Leake* stayed away, in protest at the failure to fill the place of first commissioner. Byng took the chair in Leake’s absence, and ‘being an artful designing man, and well qualified to fish in troubled waters, improved every circumstance to his own advantage’. Possibly because of his Whiggish views, he kept a low profile in Parliament, being given leave of absence for a month on 15 Apr. 1712 on health grounds. Others certainly felt his position to be anomalous, for Thomas Corbet†, Byng’s former secretary, now at Utrecht, wrote in June 1712, ‘if to mention your name with the honour I owe you, is to be a Whig, I shall so far glory in the name’.8
In May 1713 Byng again showed signs of Whiggish sympathies when he became involved in a fracas at the Blue Posts, a hostelry frequented by Scottish Members, and wounded ‘lieutenant-colonel’ Stewart’s [?Hon. John*] footman. In turn he himself was then beaten so badly by the man’s friends that he had to be carried to his lodgings. Byng also came under verbal attack in June 1713 from both Sir James Wishart* and Lord North and Grey for his treatment of a local tax collector at Portsmouth, whom Byng, in his capacity as master of Trinity House, had dismissed for failing to vote for Sir Charles Wager* and a general ‘firmness to the Church interest’. In view of this pressure, Byng did not vote in the division of 18 June 1713 on the French commerce bill. In January 1714 he was left out of the Admiralty commission, in what some historians have seen as a purge of officers inclined to support the Hanoverian succession. He was allowed half-pay as admiral of the white. Certainly, L’Hermitage still considered Byng to be a Whig. Days after his dismissal Byng declared to Osborn his wish to leave the ‘crowd of knaves and fools’ and become a j.p. at Southill. However, he did not depart from London immediately, showing his political colours when voting on 18 Mar. against the expulsion of Richard Steele. On 19 Mar. he asked and received permission from the Admiralty to follow his family into Bedfordshire.9
The Hanoverian succession saw Byng restored to favour and reappointed to the Admiralty board in October 1714, after an absence of just a few months, one commentator remarking that he ‘always fell on his feet’. On the Worsley list Byng was noted as a Whig who would often vote with the Tories (as he was obliged to do as a placeman), but on two analyses comparing the 1713 and 1715 Parliaments he was deemed a Whig without qualification. In 1715 he commanded the Channel fleet which prevented the French from succouring the Jacobite rebels, despite rumours of an ‘understanding’ between Byng and the Pretender to allow the French fleet across the channel. Letters do exist, purporting to be from Byng to Ormond, and promoting a design for a Jacobite invasion, but as Byng’s actions had been fundamental to securing the Hanoverians on the throne, this evidence may best be understood as a ruse, to which Byng was party, to entrap Ormond. Periodically, the Jacobites continued to cherish hopes that Byng would assist them, often linking his name with that of Orford. Byng continued to be active in naval administration until his death, honours being heaped upon him by George I (who found Byng a willing instrument for his foreign policy in the Baltic), including a baronetcy and a peerage. He died on 17 Jan. 1733, at his house in the Admiralty, of ‘an asthma’, part of ‘the epidemical distemper that rages in London . . . but few die except such as have bad lungs, consumptive and asthmatical persons’. He was succeeded by his eldest surviving son, Hon. Pattee†, on whom at his marriage he had already settled his Bedfordshire estate, and who also received Byng’s ‘dwelling house’ in Whitehall. The house he built at Southill was later disparaged by his grandson as in the ‘vile taste’ of a London tradesman.10
Ref Volumes: 1690-1715
Author: Stuart Handley
- 1. Navy Recs. Soc. lxvii. pp. xv–xvi; Mar. Lic. Vicar-Gen. (Harl Soc. xxxi), 175; IGI, London.
- 2. Cal. Treas. Bks. xiv. 287.
- 3. W. R. Chaplin, Trinity House, 16, 188; R. East, Portsmouth Recs. 373; Kinsale Corp. Council Bk. ed. Caulfield, 208; Boyer, Anne Annals, vii. 41.
- 4. Navy Recs. Soc. lxvii. pp. xvi–xviii, xx, xxiii, xxv, xxix, lii. 77; Hasted, Kent, v. 12; D. Pope, At Twelve Mr Byng was Shot, 8–9; Hearne Colls. ii. 107; Torrington Mems. (Cam. Soc. n.s. xlvi.), 27–36, 80–81; J. D. Davies, Gents. and Tarpaulins, 209, 212; Folger Shakespeare Lib. Rich mss X d. 451 (98), list of capts. 1691; Mariner’s Mirror, lxxiii. 188; IGI, London.
- 5. CSP Dom. 1702–3, pp. 129–30; G. M. Trevelyan, Eng. under Q. Anne, i. 271; Bodl. Ballard 21, f. 222; Wilts. RO, Ailesbury mss 1300/1317, 1327, 1324, 1326, Charles Becher to Ld. Bruce (Charles*), 13 Sept. 1705, ‘Sat. night’, same to Hon. Robert Bruce*, 29 Oct. 1705, info. 3 Nov. 1705; Nicolson Diaries, ed. Jones and Holmes, 352; Luttrell, Brief Relation, vi. 23.
- 6. Herts. RO, Panshanger mss D/EP/F54, ff. 69, 71, Sir Francis Drake, 3rd Bt.*, to Ld. Cowper, 13, 30 Dec. 1706; Boyer, vi. 241; Luttrell, vi. 228; HMC Lords, n.s. vii. 522; Navy Recs. Soc. lxviii. pp. xi–xii, 149; Camb. Univ. Lib. Cholmondeley (Houghton) mss 587a, Byng to Horatio Walpole II*, 21 Mar. 1708; 7th Duke of Manchester, Court and Soc. Eliz. to Anne, ii. 331.
- 7. Marlborough–Godolphin Corresp. 957, 963, 1028, 1405; Navy Recs. Soc. lxviii. 150; Cholmondeley (Houghton) mss 589, Byng to Walpole, 31 Aug. 1708; Add. 70420, newsletter 24 Feb. 1708–9; 61460, ff. 101–4; HMC Downshire, i. 871, 881; Duchess of Marlborough Corresp. i. 205, 278–9; Luttrell, vi. 501; Cal. Treas. Bks. xxiii. 462.
- 8. Egerton 3359; Add. 61580, ff. 192–220; Navy Recs. Soc. liii. 370, lxx. 45; NRA, Rep. 23370, Osborn of Chicksands mss O/185/5, Byng to Osborn, 28 Sept. 1710
- 9. HMC Laing, ii. 171; SRO Dalhousie mss GD45/14/352/17, [Ld. Balmerino] to [–], 26 May ; NLS, Advocates’ mss, Wodrow pprs. letters Quarto 7, f. 158; Add. 31138, f. 211; 22222, f. 135; 17677 HHH, f. 41; Boyer, Pol. State, vii. 56; G. M. Trevelyan, Eng. under Q. Anne, iii. 315; Navy Recs. Soc. lxx. 71–72; NRA, Rep. 23370, O/185/7, Byng to Osborn, 16 Jan. 1714
- 10. Navy Recs, Soc. liii. 409, lxx. 72–73; HMC Stuart, ii. 454, iv. 198, 388–9, 401, v. 556, vi. 302, 398; Stowe 742, f. 199; VCH Beds. iii. 253, 258, 261; Boyer, Pol. State, xlv. 98; London Mag. 1733, p. 45; HMC Egmont Diary, i. 309; PCC 188 Price; Torrington Diaries, ed. Andrews, iii. 318.