Blockade of Dunkirk 27 Feb 1708, central detail; 36 x 53, unsigned, inscribed Dunkirk, low left
After a short blockade of Dunkirk, from 27th February to 1st March 1708, Byng retired to the Downs, allowing Fourbin to emerge from Dunkirk and sail for Scotland in an attempt to land the Pretender, James III, at Edinburgh. Byng pursued the French fleet, however, and by March 15th the attempt had failed. These comments are based on notes believed to be either by Brian Tunstall, or closely following his account in The Byng Papers, Vol II, pp 3-11. The naval, political, tactical and logistical situation was extremely complex, and cannot adequately be summarised here.
According to the notes, the vessel at left is Byng's ship, the Swallow, 50 guns. On February 17th Byng, Admiral of the Blue, received orders from Prince George of Denmark, consort of Queen Anne, to go to Portsmouth and prepare to prevent a French scheme to land the Old Pretender, James III, in Scotland. Fourbin was to sail from Dunkirk with a picked fleet of fast ships, and carry the Pretender to Edinburgh, where a rebellion would be raised in his favour. When it was clear that this plan was a certainty, Byng and the other commanders acted with great alacrity. On 25th February Byng was already in the Downs, joined by Rear-Admiral Baker with 12 ships. A Council of War with Vice-Admirals Jennings and Lord Dursley decided to approach Dunkirk, and the fleet anchored in Graveline Pits on 27th Feb.
That is the situation recorded here, although the notes say Byng had ten ships more than the fifteen represented in the painting.
Having inspected this work for some several years I feel obliged to remark that it is a very strange, memorable and peculiar performance. The foreground ships are seen at near sea level; the town, with its spectacular defences, has been tilted forward and up, and is seen somewhat from above. Or, at least, the moles are. It's as though Monamy had been experimenting with some kind of three-dimensional diorama. Let's concentrate first on the ships and the action.
red squadron to the left, white to the right: the red flags look pale in the black & white photograph
Byng made a personal reconnaissance from the Ludlow Castle. Satisfied that the French were making preparations, he remained off Dunkirk until March 1st, then returned to the Downs, as a secure base for his defence operations. Fourbin left Dunkirk about a week later. The French had the advantage of the weather and their ships were in better shape than the English, which were mostly in need of an overhaul, and they reached Scotland without interference from Byng. However, they were delayed by having overshot their landing objective, and Byng caught them before they could disembark their forces. This compelled them to sail further North, and all serious danger of invasion was gone. Byng remained off the Scottish coast for some time.
The above should be the ship of Rear-Admiral John Baker. The notes make the point that "it is an error of the painter to have put a Vice-Admiral's flag" on this vessel, "which must be Baker's ship. Of the two Vice-Admirals concerned in the operations, Jennings was Vice-Admiral of the Red, and Dursley Vice-Admiral of the Blue. Baker was Rear-Admiral of the White, and was certainly with Byng at this time." This is a very odd mistake for Monamy to have made, particularly as he must have produced this painting with the aid of many, not excluding Byng himself, who could have put him right, or required him to make the simple correction.
Having missed their objective, the French fleet were forced to make their way round the North of Scotland, as the Spanish Armada had done 120 years earlier, and finally returned to Dunkirk in a miserable condition.