Thursday, January 17, 2013

On Becoming an Officer and a Gentleman

by Maria Grace

In the Regency era, social status was closely related to career and wealth. An Army or Navy officer was considered a gentleman. Thus a man could gain an element of “respectability” by purchasing a commission that they might not hold by virtue of their birth or fortune. Moreover, an officer’s status was considered higher than that of other accepted gentlemanly professions: the church, the law and medicine.

Why were commissions purchased?


Though our modern sensibilities tend to be uncomfortable with the concept of buying a commission, in the Regency era, the belief was that paying for the rank meant that only men of fortune, character, and who had a real interest in the fate of the nation would be drawn to the military, thus reducing the number of unworthies serving in the officer’s ranks. Furthermore, since officers ‘owned’ their commission, they would be more responsible with their ‘property’ than someone with nothing to lose. Private ownership of rank also implied officers would be less likely to be used by the King against the people since they did not owe their rank to the crown.

The purchase of commissions also served a practical purpose. The price paid for a commission served as a sort of nest egg for the officer, returned to him when he ‘sold out’ and retired. Thus there was no need to provide pensions for retiring officers, a definite advantage to the crown. 

These nest eggs were particularly necessary because army pay was low, enough to live on but not much more, particularly if one sought to maintain the standard of living of a wealthy family. In general, officers' honorarium (as gentlemen they did not take salaries) were just less than the amount of interest that could be earned by the cost of the commission. It was widely accepted that gentlemen should not profit from their military service. (Prize money, when it could be had, was a different thing.)  Many sons of wealthy parents who joined the army also had an allowance from their families that helped them to live in the style to which they had been accustomed. 

Purchasing a commission

Reforms set in place by the Duke of York in 1796 mandated that officer candidates had to be between the ages of 16 and 21 years of age, able to read and write, and vouched for by a superior officer. Once these were fulfilled, the required sum of money would be deposited with an authorized Regimental Agent who would submit the applicant’s documentation for approval. Depending on the regiment, officers began their careers at a ‘Subaltern’ rank of Ensign, Second Lieutenant or Coronet. Little to no training was provided for the newly fledged officer, he picked up what he would need on the job.

How much did a commission cost?

Commissions were expensive. One had to be wealthy or have wealthy friends from which to borrow in order to afford a commission. Prices varied depending on the regiment and rank. (Keep in mind a very rough reference point of £50 a year as parallel to our minimum wage.) Subaltern rank ranged in price from £400 with the Infantry to £1050 with the Horse Guards. Lieutenant Colonel ranged from £3500 to £4950.

The same logic that led to the purchase of commissions discouraged promotion by merit as it could lead to an excess of patronage, something objected to on political and professional grounds. When an officer served long enough to be eligible and wished to purchase a promotion to the next level of rank, he would pay the difference between his current commission and the next rank. After 1795, a Subaltern (Lieutenant and below) had to serve at least three years before becoming a Captain; at least seven years in service (two as Captain) to become a Major; and nine years in service to be a Lieutenant-Colonel. Advancement above the rank of Colonel was by seniority only and only possible if there were vacancies in the desired ranks. Junior officers could spend several years without advancing.

Gaining a commission without purchase

If an individual could not afford a commission, there were non-purchased ways of obtaining a commission. A man could become a “Gentlemen Volunteer.” To do so, he would apply to the Commanding Officer of a regiment to serve at their own expense in the hope of filling a non-purchase vacancy when (and if) it occurred.

It was also possible for a man to be promoted from the ranks due to valor or meritorious service. The death, disability, or retirement, of another officer might create a vacancy that needed to be filled immediately. Other openings came with the establishment of new Regiments, or the expansion of existing ones. These alternatives were much more common in times of war.

References:


Boyle, Laura.(2001) Jane Austen Centre On Line Magazine.  Advancement in the British Army  

Boyle, Laura.(2001) Jane Austen Centre On Line Magazine. Entry into the OfficerCorps

Boyle, Laura.(2001) Jane Austen Centre On Line Magazine.  Prices of Officer’s Commissions

Day, Malcom. (2006) Voices from the World of Jane. Austen David & Charles .

Holmes, Richard.  (2001).   Redcoat, the British Soldier in the Age of Horse and Musket. W. W. Norton & Company 

Southam, Brian  (2005). Jane Austen in Context.  Janet M. Todd ed. Cambridge University Press



Maria Grace is the author of Darcy's Decision and The Future Mrs. Darcy. Click here to find her books on Amazon. For more on her writing and other Random Bits of Fascination, visit her website. You can also like her on Facebook or email

11 comments:

  1. Could any gentleman (eg an illegitemate son of a Duke or Marquis ) have one if their father bought it for them ?

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    1. According to the research I found, yes. If one could come up with the money, one could buy the commission. But, after the reforms, one did start at the bottom ranks.

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  2. I was esp. interested to read the reasoning behind purchasing a commission. Thank you.

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  3. Like Michele, I've wondered why the system was developed the way it was so this was helpful. My modern mind does cringe at the idea of an officer who is responsible for his men and mission 'learning on the job', but at least now I know their reasoning at the time.

    Thanks, this was good stuff.

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  4. Darcy put up the money for Wickham's commission. So what would his rank have been? Because he had served in the militia, did that affect his rank in the regular army? Thanks, Maria, this was very helpful. Mary

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  5. Wonderful historical blog. Thank you so much.

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  6. Hi Maria, that was a great post. I really enjoyed it. It tweeted.

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  7. Great information! I was wondering about when an officer could "sell out" - could he do it at any time, or was he at the mercy of the crown for a set amount of time?

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  8. Great information! I was wondering about when an officer could "sell out" - could he do it at any time, or was he at the mercy of the crown for a set amount of time?

    ReplyDelete