Militia Officers During the Regency

What were the differences between the various units of militia officers during the Regency? For example, how could George Wickham in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice serve in Hertfordshire when his home shire was Derbyshire? And how was Colonel Fitzwilliam’s service in the Regulars, from the same book, yet be another facet of the military in the Regency?

At the time of the war with Napoleon, Great Britain did not employ a standing militia. They were only recruited when the Regulars were required to engage the enemy. The militia assumed the “policing” of the country in the absence of the Regulars. They served on home land. They were dispensed to squash riots and seditious actions. They protected British soil while the Regulars engaged the enemy outside of the home land. The militia was often dispatched to shires away from their homes to avoid their sympathizing with those they were charged to dispatch. In Pride and Prejudice, the militia which Mr. Wickham joins in Hertfordshire, is supposedly peppered with Derbyshire volunteers. 

Militia officers served as long as they liked and like Wickham in Pride and Prejudice, could be from anywhere while those picked or volunteering for militia duty in the rank and file served five years, *usually* from their home county. There were substantial signing bonuses during the wars as the Militia, Regulars and Volunteers competed for the same pool of men, so anyone from outside the county would and did join the militia for the bonus and pay.

“In the novel the anonymous regiment of – shires caused a considerable stir on its arrival in the quiet country town of Meryton – and among the Bennet family of five unmarried daughters. “. . . They were well supplied both with news and happiness by the recent arrival of a militia regiment in the neighborhood; it was to remain the whole winter, and Meryton was the head quarters.” (Pride and Prejudice 28). The regiment and its officers figure prominently in the fortunes of the Bennet family for the remainder of the novel. Jane Austen’s own experience of the militia was probably not too different from that of  the Bennet sisters. From about the age of sixteen she began to attend the monthly assembly at the town of Basingstoke, about seven miles distant from her home village of Steventon. Here, during the winter of 1794-95, the assemblies would have been graced by officers of the South Devon Militia: three of their eight companies were quartered in Basingstoke. Their colonel was John Tolle, Member of Parliament for Devonshire since 1780, whose support for William Pitt, the Prime Minister, had made him the butt of the opposition Whigs in the mock-epic Rolliad. The officers of the South Devonshires would have enlivened local society just as the -shires did at Meryton. As they all came from the neighborhood of Exeter, it is likely that Jane Austen heard a great deal about that area from them, and it is probably not coincidence that when she wrote the beginnings of her first mature novel in the summer of 1795 about two girls called Elinor and Marianne, she set their new home, Barton, in South Devon “within four miles northward of Exeter” (Sense and Sensibility 25).” (Breihan and Caplan: Jane Austen and the Militia)

Few members of the militia were trained in military tactics, such as shooting, horsemanship, or use of a sword. They were required to have their own guns to be a member of the militia. Those picked or volunteering for militia duty in the rank and file served five years, while some served for seven years. Officer commissions were not available (as opposed to those in the Regulars). Those who held rank in the militia received that rank based on how much land the family held. Captain Denny in Pride and Prejudice would need either to be the heir of land worth at least £400 per year or actually own land worth at least £200 per year. Although we are given nothing of Denny’s background in Austen’s novel, we are told that George Wickham becomes a lieutenant in the Meryton militia. This is a bit confusing to many who know something of military history, for a lieutenant in the militia would be required to hold land worth £50 per year. If Wickham had nothing of his own upon which to depend, how did he receive his lieutenancy? Most experts speak of a lowering of the standards for the few who would qualify as a junior officer otherwise, meaning Wickham held a gentleman’s education, making him “qualify as a junior officer.” The wages presented to the officers was only to cover their expenses, not replace their income from their land. 

All Protestant males were required to be available for the militia. There was a quota for each area. A local nobleman (customarily referred to as the Lord Lieutenant) was charged “by the King” (or rather by the King’s spokesman) to gather a force of able-bodied men between the ages of 18 – 45 to serve as part of the country’s militia. A local landowner was appointed as the “colonel” in charge of the men of the unit. These men were “guaranteed” not to know service outside of the homeland, meaning they would not know the battlefield frequented by professional soldiers. They also experienced a steady social life provided by the local gentry. Only clergymen were exempt from this duty.

Parishes were fined if they did not raise the required numbers of militiamen, so they were happy to have anyone fill the rosters, paying a bonus that was far less than the fine. And, of course, sooner or later the parishes and regular army learned not to  pay the bonuses before the men were marched away. More than a few made a living out of getting the bonuses and then skipping out, only to ‘enlist’ again someplace else for bonuses there. A man who did not wish to serve could pay another to serve in his stead. They were offered between £25 and  £60, which was equivalent to a year’s wage for many in the Regency. 

Pride and Prejudice takes place in Regency England during the French Revolution, which began in 1789. To combat the threat of Napoleon’s conquest of Europe, militia forces were moved across the countryside to lie in wait of an attack at camps where they were involved in training sessions. Landowning aristocrats generally led the militia of their locality, although the soldiers of each regiment came from various places. Though the militia was made up of volunteers, a commission was needed to enroll. With the Militia Act of 1757, which created a more professional force with proper uniforms and better weapons, the militia became seen as a more respectable occupation, especially for younger sons who would not inherit land.” (The Militia in “Pride and Prejudice”)

In any case, When Napoleon returned, the Militia were called up and regular army volunteers were asked for from the militia, both officers and men. A number went to Belgium, but the militias were held in readiness on the coasts during and after Waterloo. After Waterloo, there was an effort to stop the surge in smugglers and ex-pats trying to escape a now monarchial France, landing along the English coasts, so it is reasonable that the Essex militia would have been in that county on duty.

Because of the militia riots of 1813, militias were more often kept in the county of origin in small groups across the countryside. Doing so also helped in watching the coasts. Most regular army units were not disbanded or reduced until the autumn of 1816, so the militia wouldn’t have been sent to their homes until about the same time depending on the mood of the county folks and the coastal activity.

Remember, when speaking of the Napoleonic Wars, one is speaking of a twenty-year period of war, 1792-1815. There were several kinds of militia during this time, besides yeomanry, fensible, and volunteer organizations. The threat of invasion and the desperate need for manpower in the regular army also affected how and where militia were used.

There were very few barracks at all at the start of the Napoleonic wars, better than 85% of the ones existing for militia and regular troops in 1815 being built during the wars. And then there are the various militia revolts which colored the way the militia was deployed in later years. 

The militia was not seen as the ‘standing army’. In fact, it was seen as a local force which negated the need for a standing army, e.g., the Regulars] …as it was argued in Parliament. It was also seen and used as a police force when more than a couple of locals were needed to enforce the law. Seeing militia ‘guarding’ important groups or individuals was not that unusual. It was only when one adds in the 1813 militia uprisings and such events as Peterloo (1819) that the militia was given a bad name. Usually, a police force made up of militia would be locals whom everyone knew.  Opinions varied, of course, but generally the militia was not viewed in the same way as a standing [regular] army, who had put Cromwell on the ’throne’ and before and during the Napoleonic wars were housed in citizens’ homes … generally strangers and a lower [armed] class than the owners of those homes.  One of the major reasons for the extensive creation of the barrack system during and after the war.

You may also find this previous piece on militia officers of use.  


About Regina Jeffers

Regina Jeffers is the award-winning author of Austenesque, Regency and historical romantic suspense.
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