by Maria Grace
In many Regency era books, companies of soldiers are encountered stationed in England. These men are members of the militia, not the regular army. While at first blush, there may seem little difference between the Regulars and the militia, the differences are striking and significant.
What was the Militia?
|Lord Lieutenant Flag|
Militia men were required to have weapons and to be skilled in their use. However, their lack of training made them amateurish compared to the regulars since only small numbers were selected for more serious training, the so-called trained bands.
Joining the militia
The nation did not maintain a standing militia. The militia was embodied in wartime or in times of national emergency, to guard against invasion or rebellion and to take over various policing duties normally performed by the regular army. Popular opinion painted the citizen-soldier as a fierce defender of home and country. History had taught that a regular army could be a great threat to civil liberties, so the virtues of the militia were sometimes overstated.
Parliament controlled the size of the militia. Though considered a volunteer force, all Protestant males were required to make themselves available for service. The King required the Lord-Lieutenant, usually a local nobleman, of 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 and could go as high as £60. (For comparison, £50 a year would be a very rough equivalent of a today’s minimum wage.)
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 were 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.
Officers drew an allowance, but this was not expected to do more than cover expenses since their primary income would be from their property. Poor families of militiamen were eligible for support from the parish whereas those of the regulars were not.
In practice it was difficult to find officers, particularly lower grade officers, for militia service. So the property qualifications for lieutenants were often ignored. 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. Possibly to combat this issue, many regiments selected their recruits for their handsome appearance which would improve the look of their regiment and thus its prestige.
Life in the militia
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 excellent entertainment for the local residents. Reviews included displays of all sorts of military actions: marching, drilling, firing at targets and even mock skirmishes often for the benefit of a visiting general.
Prior to 1796 when barracks were provided, the militia quartered for the winter wherever accommodation could be found for them in the nearby towns and villages. These were supposed to be paid for by the soldiers themselves but since they would only remain a short time in any one place, it was not uncommon for them to run up bills and leave town without paying them.
|Caricature of 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. Tradesmen and innkeepers resented them leaving town without paying for services and wares.
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. Not surprisingly, parents often saw militia officers as a threat to their marriageable daughters since their families were unknown and they might disappear from the neighborhood very quickly.
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Militia. Regency Collection
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