This post originally appeared on the Austen Authors’ blog on 24 June 2020. Enjoy!
Last month I alluded to an upcoming work which will drive the topics I intend to talk about over the next few posts. That topic was the various levels of Regency gentlemen and how they interacted with other classes. For this post, I wanted to talk about another subject of which we hear so much, but most of us (raises hand) don’t know as much as we think we did: Regency militias.
Militias in Regency times were not part of a standing fighting force—in fact, they were raised in times of war or need, and their primary purpose was to defend the homeland, act as a policing force, and maintain order. Each shire was responsible for raising their own militia, and the companies were posted in other counties. This was to avoid any conflict within the company, for if they were required to put down unrest, it was possible they would sympathize with those to whom they were to bring order.
The men of the militia were not the caliber of those of the regulars. The militia was strictly a home force. There was not possibility of a militia company being sent overseas. As a result, their training was sparse, though the men were responsible for being familiar with their weapons and training was mandated.
Men between the ages of 18 and 45 were required to make themselves available for service, but in practice, many had no wish to dedicate 5 to 7 years of their life to the militia. If a man did not wish to serve, he had the option of paying another to serve in his place. As this would cost the man £25 or more, which was a significant portion of what a man could make in a year, few could afford it.
As for the officers, they were not commissioned as were the officers of the regulars. Instead, a man had to own land of a certain value to qualify for a certain rank, or his father had to own the land, though usually if the man’s father owned the land, the value of the land had to be double what the man owned himself. For example, if a man wished to be a lieutenant, he had to possess land worth at least £50 a year, or his father needed to own land worth £100 per year.
In practice, it was often quite difficult to find enough men to fill the officers’ ranks, especially at the lower levels. This is why George Wickham, a man who possessed nothing more than the clothes on his back, was able to become a lieutenant, as the requirements were often ignored.
Generally speaking, the Lydia and Kitty Bennets of the world aside, the militia often possessed a difficult relationship with the surrounding populace. Not only were the populace required to host them in barracks and see to the financial needs of hosting a company, but they were often resentful of the militia’s tendency to leave without paying debts, not to mention the behavior of the men in their towns. The situation George Wickham left in Meryton when the militia regiment departed for Brighton was not uncommon.
It is little wonder that the officers often found themselves involved with mischief, for they were considered gentlemen, and engaged in local society as a result. Life in the militia was not an adventure, for there was little to do but drill, and most had little interest in such activities. The officers often spent their days in frivolity and society, flirting, gambling, and other unserious pursuits. Given these circumstances, it is little wonder girls such as Lydia Bennet found themselves infatuated with these so-called gallant men, who were at leisure to project whatever image they wished.
It would also be unsurprising if the militia companies got up to even greater mischief, for as the saying goes, “an idle mind is the devil’s playground.” Perhaps I am giving a little away, but we shall see more than simple flirtation and debts.