In times of peace and of war, most promotions were achieved by purchasing a higher rank, rather than earning a field promotion, so to speak. This made it easy for a man to have a high rank without much actual experience. Therefore, in the last decade of the 1700s changes were made, with the United Kingdom at war on several fronts it became necessary to have officers with more experience. In 1795, the Duke of York insisted on several reforms. For example, regulations requiring a minimum number of years a person must be in a position before moving up was established. These minimum years were installed between each rank. No longer could a man move from lieutenant to colonel at the drop of a purse full of coins. A Subaltern (Lieutenant and below) had to serve at least three years before becoming a Captain; at least seven years in service (two as Captain) to become a Major; and nine years in service to be a Lieutenant-Colonel. However, lack of vacancies, or money, could mean that an officer (especially in the junior ranks) could spend several years without advancing.
JaneAusten.co.uk provides us this example of how Frederick Tilney, in Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey, might have reached the rank of Captain in the 12th Light Dragoons. It says, “Although it appears to have been set in 1798 (putting part of Frederick’s military career before the Duke of York’s Reforms) let’s assume he advanced in a less accelerated manner: Upon the age of 16 he (or more likely his father) would have placed the sum of £735, and Letters of Recommendation with a Regimental Agent. (Those of associates of an Officer like the senior Tilney would lend some weight.) Once he was accepted, the £735 was “paid” to a Coronet who wished to be promoted (or quit the service) and Frederick became a Coronet. However, it was very likely it would be with a Cavalry Regiment other than the 12th. He then spent a year or two learning his duties under the tutelage of his senior officers. When a Lieutenancy opened, an additional £262-10s was deposited with the Agents (to make up the £997-10s). That money would be credited to the holder of the desired Lieutenancy (which again could be in a different Regiment), while Tilney’s Coronet was sold to another civilian desiring to enter the army. Finally, after a year or two, the Captaincy in the 12th Light Dragoons opened up, and £1785 was transferred to the Agents (which, with the sums already paid, totaled £2782-10s), and Frederick gained the rank and position described in Northanger Abbey. (Meanwhile, a Coronet would buy Tilney’s Lieutenancy, whilst selling his own Coronet to another would-be hero, and so on.)”
All that being said, let us take a look as the process of becoming an officer, without out the leap frogging of purchasing a commission. First, a man needed to require the rank of Ensign or Coronet. “Ensign” was for those in the infantry, and “Coronet” was for those in the cavalry. Next, would be the promotion to lieutenant (or above). I am restating what I did in the first sentence: In peace time, rank was customarily purchased. During the Napoleonic Wars, however, progression was made based first on seniority within the regiment to fill its own vacancies, then by merit, and Purchase was the third option. “Advancement in the Ordnance Corps (Artillery and Engineers), as well as in the East India Company forces, was by Seniority only. A young Coronet or Ensign could advance to Lieutenant by paying the difference between his current and the next highest rank. [See Table of Commission Prices.] For example: a Lieutenancy cost £550, but an Ensign had already paid £400 to achieve that rank. He only needed to pay an additional £150 to make up the difference. As with the first purchase, this could only be done through the Regimental Agent. There were many regulations stating that no other moneys, or other incentives could be offered. The penalty for trying to pay more than the established price, was to immediately forfeit the Commission, and to be cashiered, while aiding and abetting constituted a Misdemeanor. Advancement above the rank of Colonel was by seniority only. In the late 1790’s it became apparent that some officers had proceeded too quickly through the ranks, and had not gained the necessary training and experience to fulfill their role on the battlefield.”
After 1795, while the wealthy still raised regiments, they were not given a colonel’s rank because under the new requirements, most did not have military experience. Thomas Graham [Thomas Graham, 1st Baron Lynedoch was a Scottish aristocrat, politician and British Army officer. After his education at Oxford, he inherited a substantial estate in Scotland, married and settled down to a quiet career as a landowning gentleman. However, with the death of his wife, when he was aged 42, he immersed himself in a military (and later political) career, during the French Revolutionary Wars and the Napoleonic Wars.] ran into this issue and remained a ‘temporary’ Lt. Colonel of the regiment he raised, having no seniority in the army for eight years until General Moore’s dying request to grant him the full army rank.
Only a third of the commissions were purchased between 1792-1815. More were purchased early in the wars, fewer later, more were Ensign and Lieutenant rank than captain, major, or Lt. Colonel. More guards and cavalry officers were purchased. The rank of colonel could not be purchased. In general, the attitudes and expectations of a Napoleonic British officer had little in common with the expectations of a modern officer, whether British or U. S.
Before 1795, men like Lord Paget could become colonels at any age through purchase. Even after the reforms of 1795, the only two requirements for anyone to become an officer was be 16 years old, and have the education of a gentleman, and the latter criterion was very flexible. After 1795, to be a captain, an officer needed 2 years experience, for major and then lt. colonel, 4 and 6 years. That the janeausten.co.uk website has 3, 7 and 9 years just goes to show you how quickly the requirements increased as the professionalism of the army became a priority. They were not the 1795 restrictions.
Training was done entirely by the regiment. What officers learned depended a great deal on the colonel and what he demanded of his officers. A major conflict in the officer corps during this time was the often rough struggle to move from a provincial, aristocratic view that all the upper class needed to do was be an example of bravery. Learning the basics of military life was seen as too much like ‘trade,” which is NOT what a true gentleman did. All that was left to the non-commissioned officers.
As more middle class men became officers and the need for more professionally knowledgeable officers advanced to compete with the French professionalism, many officers began to pride themselves on their military knowledge, but it was hardly universal.
What is quite surprising is that this method actually produced some brilliant officers like Wellington. The method was aristocratic privilege + experience + talent + tradition. Wellington had nearly 15 years experience commanding by the time he came to the Peninsula.
There were several key reasons behind the sale of commissions:
- It preserved the social exclusivity of the officer class.
- It served as a form of collateral against abuse of authority or gross negligence or incompetence. Disgraced officers could be cashiered by the Crown (that is, stripped of their commission without reimbursement).
- It ensured that the officer class was largely populated by persons having a vested interest in maintaining the status quo, thereby reducing the possibility of Army units taking part in a revolution or coup.
- It ensured that officers had private means and were unlikely to engage in looting or pillaging, or to cheat the soldiers under their command by engaging in profiteering using army supplies.
- It provided honourably retired officers with an immediate source of capital. (Military Wiki)
Purchasing Commissions During the Napoleonic War (an earlier piece from me on the subject)
Military Wiki (also has a list of prices for officer commissions)
The Purchase System in the British Army 1660-1871
Wikipedia (also has a list of prices for officer commissions)
As always, you really do your homework! I always enjoy your articles!
Thanks, Jean. I attempt to have the correct information in my historical part of the story.
It seems it was not cheap to buy a commission. I love these articles. Thanks again for your research.
Trying to find the information reminds me on hiding out for hours in the stacks in the college libraries. Those were the days . . . LOL!