Monday, February 6, 2017

‘I have long been partial to the revival of feudalism’: the North Pevensey Legion, 1803-6

by Jacqueline Reiter

Pevensey, East Sussex, Showing a Soldier in the Uniform of the North Pevensey Legion Raised by Lord Sheffield in 1803, Richard Henry Nibbs, from here

Britain was often braced against the threat of invasion during the long wars with France between 1793 and 1815. Various defensive auxiliary forces were raised in anticipation, such as the militia and volunteers, particularly at the height of the invasion scares over 1803-5. Today I would like to talk about another, unique defensive force: the North Pevensey Legion.

A classic trope of the British 18th century political state was its perfection and, above all, its stability (particularly contrasted with the instability witnessed across the channel). In the eyes of the ruling class, this stability came from a property-based hierarchy linking ordinary men to the monarch via the church, gentry, and aristocracy. 

Thomas Rowlandson, ‘The Contrast’ 1793, from here

Each level of the hierarchy had a reciprocal duty to the other: the labourers owed their superiors respect and obedience, while the aristocracy owed their inferiors protection and good governance. ‘The connection which subsists between the various ranks and classes of men … and the division of property … render us less likely to be disturbed by internal commotions than other nations,’ declared William Morton Pitt, a prominent Dorset gentleman and defence theorist, in 1797.[1]

 This was a traditional way of conceiving of British society, and it lay behind the formation of several proposed auxiliary forces: the militia in particular, officered by local gentry with local labourers in the ranks, but also the volunteers (proposals for units to elect their own officers were met with horror from officials) and other privately-raised units. 

These were more likely to reflect the individual preferences of the people who raised them, and some took the idea of the interconnectedness of British society to extremes by harking back to romanticised views of medieval feudalism, when local notables were required to raise military units for the monarch out of the men who worked their estates. ‘I have long been partial to the revival as far as Circumstances would permit of something like the feudal Principle in this Country for the support of the Monarchy’, wrote one administrator.[2]   

The North Pevensey Legion was one of the best examples of this 18th century version of feudalism. It was formed in response to the great invasion scare of 1803 under the leadership of Lord Sheffield, and was the idea of soldier and former Indian Governor General Sir John Macpherson.

John Baker-Holroyd, Earl Sheffield, by John Jones [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Macpherson proposed a legion composed of four troops of cavalry, a corps of skirmishers, and ten battalion companies of infantry, including a rifle company composed of 120 men. They engaged ‘to protect the persons and property of the inhabitants, and to maintain order and regularity’: their duties were to include guarding military stores, helping the wounded, rounding up enemy deserters, furnishing escorts, and removing livestock, wagons and anything else that might assist an invader. The cavalry would be composed ‘only of those who can mount and clothe themselves.’[3]

In its practical form, the Legion was an ordinary volunteer unit consisting of men who lived on or near Lord Sheffield’s estates in East Sussex. In its theoretical form, it was described by Macpherson as a ‘Return to the feudal System of Defence against the Invasions of Renewed Barbarism’, and as ‘the Heureka [sic] for the preservation of order government & Property.’[4]

Sir John Macpherson, By American school of the 18th century (Philadelphia Museum of Art) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Macpherson saw the Legion as being the first stage in a grand plan to stop French revolutionary principles at home and abroad. It was intended as a prototype, and Macpherson wanted to raise more legions of the sort all across Europe, buttressed by the strength derived from local ties and aristocratic leadership: ‘Surrounding nations will follow the volunteering example of our State … What could a Country do? What could a Principality do? And might not Hanover have been saved on a similar system?’[5] The unit proudly refused any aid from government except for weapons and was limited to defending its local territory against the French. 

The trouble was that both these things – refusal to submit to government control and limitation of service to a particular area – had been made illegal by government legislation designed to control the proliferation of local volunteer units. They also stopped the Legion being of any practical use. The one time they were required to be placed on active service, in August 1805, the commander of the military district in which they were serving ordered them to march out of their locality. The men refused.[6]

Macpherson’s plans thus unsurprisingly failed to find any official support, which caused him to grumble that his ideas were ‘better understood at Vienna Dresden Berlin & Madrid than at London.’[7]

The truth was that the North Pevensey Legion did not fit into the government’s defence schemes at all. Had the Legion been accepted as a prototype, as Macpherson had wanted, its attempt to make the ownership of property a base qualification of defence would have limited the government’s ability to raise a strong and comprehensive defence force against an invasion. Taken to its logical extreme, the Legion’s feudal basis meant that proposals to arm the entire nation were out of the question – and this was precisely the direction in which the government was moving as shown by various defence acts passed after 1803 (particularly the Levy en Masse Act, which provided for the arming of the whole nation in an emergency). It also interfered in the raising of the militia, as Sheffield had requested his men be exempt from the militia ballot in exchange for not accepting government money.

Eventually, and ironically, the Legion fell victim to the march of political events. It was finally killed by the withdrawal of government funding under the terms of Windham’s Training Act -- despite Macpherson and Sheffield's proud insistence on the Legion's financial independence. Too expensive to maintain, the North Pevensey Legion disbanded in September 1806.[8]

[1] William Morton Pitt, Thoughts on the Defence of these Kingdoms (London, 1803), pp. 60-2.

[2] Memorandum by Sir George Shee, 16 March 1803, BL Add MSS 33120 ff. 104-9.

[3] Proposal for the North Pevensey Legion, East Sussex Record Office Sheffield MSS, Box 2.

[4] Macpherson to Lord Hobart, 24 December 1803, Buckinghamshire Record Office D/MH/H(war office)/Bundle G/I244; Macpherson to Lord Sheffield, 1804, East Sussex Record Office Sheffield MSS, Box 2.

[5] Macpherson to Lord Sheffield, 18 February 1804, East Sussex Record Office Sheffield MSS, Box 2.

[6] Charles Abbot to Lord Sheffield, 13 August 1805, East Sussex Record Office Sheffield MSS, Box 2.

[7] Macpherson to Lord Sheffield, 1804, East Sussex Record Office Sheffield MSS, Box 2; Macpherson to William Pitt, 7 May 1804, Cambridge University Library Pitt MSS Box 16 no 3037.

[8] Letter from Lord Sheffield, 22 September 1806, East Sussex Record Office Sheffield MSS, Box 2.


Jacqueline Reiter has a PhD in late 18th century political history from the University of Cambridge. A professional librarian, she lives in Cambridge with her husband and two children. She blogs at and you can follow her on Facebook ( or Twitter ( Her first book, The Late Lord: the life of John Pitt, 2nd Earl of Chatham, was published by Pen & Sword Books in January 2017.

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