The Militia-A Different Breed of Officer
In Austen’s Pride and Prejudice we encounter a military regiment temporarily stationed in Meryton. These men are members of the militia, not the regular army (discussed in the last post.) While at first blush, there may seem little difference between the regular army (the Regulars) and the militia, the differences are striking and significant.
What was the Militia?
The militia served as a peace keeping force on home soil. History had taught that a regular army could be a great threat to civil liberties, so the virtues of the militia were sometimes overstated. In theory, they suppressed riots, broke up seditious gatherings and if needed, repelled invading enemy forces. Unfortunately, the militia was a dubious peacekeeper. It was not uncommon for its members to sympathize with their rioting neighbors they were sent to subdue. Moreover, their lack of training made them amateurish compared to the regulars.
Joining the militia
Parliament controlled the size of the militia. Though considered a volunteer force, all Protestant males were required to make themselves available for militia service. The King required the Lord-Lieutenant,
usually a local nobleman, each county to gather a force of able-bodied men between 18 and 45 years of age to fill the quota for his area. Militia service required a five to seven year commitment to service on home soil with no chance of being sent overseas. Only clergymen were exempt from service. If a man did not wish to serve he could pay a substitute to serve in his stead. The going rate started at £25. (Keep in mind our comparison of a minimum wage job bringing in £50 a year.)
Most militia officers were drawn from the local gentry and were led by a colonel who was a county landowner. Officer’s commissions were not purchased as they were in the regular army. Officer ranks was directly related to the amount and value of property they or their family held. For example, to qualify for the rank of captain a man needed to either own land worth £200 per year, be heir to land worth £400 per year, or the son of a father with land worth £600 per year. A lieutenant needed land worth £50 a year.
In practice it was difficult to find officers, particularly lower grade officers, for militia service. So the property qualifications for lieutenants were often ignored. It was in this way that George Wickham could become an officer despite not having a property owner in his family. While this leniency allowed many to join the ranks of officer who would not otherwise have such an opportunity, it did bring down the perceived status of the militia officer.
Life in the militia
Service in the militia carried little threat of front line duty. Officers had a great deal of leave and often enjoyed a busy social schedule provided by the local gentry. Since all officers were supposed to be property holders of some measure, they were all considered gentlemen and afforded the according status.
In summer the militia’s regiments went into tented camps in the open countryside to engage in training exercises. Camps were located throughout the southern and eastern coasts, the largest at Brighton.
Military reviews, held on open hillside or common land, made thrilling entertainment for the local residents. They included displays of marching, drilling, firing at targets and even mock skirmishes often for the benefit of a visiting general. In the winter, the militia quartered wherever accommodation could be found for them in the nearby towns and villages. Accommodations were paid for by the soldiers themselves.
Public attitude toward the militia
All in all the militia was not popular. Inhabitants resented assessments of equipment and money to cover the needs of the militia. Men resented being drafted to serve and were apt to do everything they could to avoid their military training.
As a peacekeeping force, they militia had little to do but drill. With so much free time on their hands, they developed a reputation for a wild lifestyle of parties and frivolity. Since the militia moved often, officers had a great temptation to run up bills and leave without paying them. As a result innkeepers and tradesmen disliked them and often protested the militia quartering in or even passing through their town. Not surprisingly, parents often saw militia officers as a threat to their marriageable daughters since their families were unknown and might disappear from the neighborhood very quickly.
For more information see:
Collins, Irene. (1998) Jane Austen, The Parson’s Daughter . Hambledon Press.
Day, Malcom. (2006) Voices from the World of Jane. Austen David & Charles .
Downing, Sarah Jane. (2010). Fashion in the Time of Jane Austen. Shire Publications
Holmes, Richard. (2001). Redcoat, the British Soldier in the Age of Horse and Musket
Le Faye, Deirdre. (2002). Jane Austen: The World of Her Novels. Harry N. Abrams
Militia. Regency Collection :<http://crash.ihug.co.nz/~awoodley/regency/army.html>
Southam, Brian (2005). Jane Austen in Context. Janet M. Todd ed Cambridge University Press
Tomalin, Claire. (1999). Jane Austen, a Life. Random House
Watkins, Susan . (1990). Jane Austen’s Town and Country Style. Rizzoli
©Maria Grace, Good Principles Publishing. 2012