Sunday, May 5, 2013

Regency Militia--A Different Breed of Officer

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
The militia served as a peace keeping force on home soil, embodied only in wartime to free the regulars for combat abroad. 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. For this reason, militia units served outside their own counties.

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

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 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
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. 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.  


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 W. W. Norton & Company
Le Faye, Deirdre. (2002). Jane Austen: The World of Her Novels. Harry N. Abrams  
Militia. Regency Collection
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 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, follow on Twitter or email her.


  1. Your post explained several things I've read in contemporary of the time writers.


  2. Just to say, Militia were employed in their local areas (as well as further afield).


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