The Militia in Jane Austen’s England

The Militia in Jane Austen’s England

What was the difference between the militia officers found in Regency-based novels, such as Mr. Wickham in Pride and Prejudice, and the Regulars, such as Colonel Fitzwilliam, in the same book?

Lost_in_austen_wickhamAt 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. 

“‘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.’ (P&P 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 assemblies 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’ (SAS 25).” (Breihan and Caplan: Jane Austen and the Militia)

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”)

2005PPWickhamBennetsFew 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. 

Wickham's costume com/site/ whshbljaneausten/ the-military- presence-in-pride -and-prejudice
Wickham’s costume

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.

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. 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 by receiving 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. 

Our own Collins Hemingway tells us, “Clergy were not actually “exempt” from being in the Militia. Some people, however, felt it improper for a man of the cloth to bear arms. The Lord Lieutenant of Hampshire seems to have been of that view, which is why Jane’s brother, James, did not formally serve in the Militia or the Volunteers even though he helped recruit about 100 men from four parishes to serve in the Volunteers. Likewise, his father, Mr. Austen, recruited 35 men of the Steventon parish for the Militia. The Volunteers were a separate organization, which came into being when fear of an invasion was at its peak. They would have been the last line of defense had Napoleon invaded.”

As part of the community, as well as the neighborhood, there was a certain sense of pomp and circumstance as part of the militia. They would conduct military reviews (much as we see in reenactments today). This would include close order marching, marksmanship contests, and even staged “fights” for the entertainment of the neighborhood. 

In any case, when Napoleon returned from Elba, 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-patriots trying to escape a now Monarchial France, landing along the English coasts. 

Because of the militia riots of 1813, militias were more often kept in the county of origin in small groups across the countryside. Most Regular Army units were not disbanded or reduced until the fall of 1816, so the militia would not have been sent to their homes until about the same time, depending on the mood of the county folks and the coastal activity.

We must recall that what we term as the “Napoleonic Wars” is a twenty year period, 1792-1815. There were several kinds of militia during this time, including 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 were built during the wars. And then there are the various militia revolts which colored the way militia was deployed in later years.

Robert Cordery says, “During the Napoleonic Wars the Militia became a source of recruits (both officers and men) for the Regular Army, and quite a few served with Wellington’s army in Spain. The differences between the Fencibles (hostilities-only Regulars who could only serve within the UK), the Militia (usually part-time Infantry who could be embodied (called up for full-time service in time of emergency) to served within the UK), and Yeomanry (the mounted equivalent of the Militia) are sometimes blurred. For example, some of the coastal fortifications were partially manned by Fencibles and Invalids (the latter being pensioned Regulars recalled to the Colours) with additional personnel coming from the local Militia.”

Austen began Pride and Prejudice about 1796 and did not publish it until 1813, sixteen years later, so the when of the book and the militia being stationed in her area  likely changed quite often based on training for several different reasons… and types of militia. 

“Reading Pride and Prejudice, one may notice that there is a conspicuous lack of war in the text despite the historical context of the Napoleonic Wars and the near-constant presence of the militia. The soldiers Austen depicts are more likely to play card games or dance rather than tell tales of bloodshed, partly because the militia received few chances to fight. The aristocrats that led each local militia tended to be corrupt as well, handing out promotions in exchange for money or sexual bribes. Lydia’s fantasies exemplify the moral laxity of the militia; she imagines ‘the streets of that gay bathing place covered with officers… She saw all the glories of the camp; its tents stretched forth in beauteous uniformity of lines, crowded with the young and the gay, and dazzling with scarlet; and to complete the view, she saw herself seated beneath a tent, tenderly flirting with at least six officers at once’ (262). Lydia’s description reveals the militia’s superficial attractions, one of which is novelty–the militia are still a new enough presence in England to appear young and gay and dazzling in their uniforms rather than war-weary. Undercurrents of sexuality run through Lydia’s fantasy in her image of “herself seated… tenderly flirting with at least six officers at once.” Although Lydia’s vision seems romantic enough, sexual deviance was a prominent spectacle of military life. Soldiers invited their mistresses into their tents at night and several prominent aristocrats such as the Duke of York were involved in highly publicized sex scandals. 

lydiap26p“Added to the immorality that a military life offered was the anonymity and respectable status, which allowed men to climb social ranks easily. Due to the constant movement of the militia across the country, the new regimentals a man wore, and his new title as an officer, he could escape the hold of his past. Tim Fulford explores this idea in his essay ‘Sighing for a Soldier,’ writing that ‘[a soldier’s] dress and rank might well have been earned not by experience on the battlefield or parade ground but by influence, and the shiny uniforms masked a variety of characters and origins’ (Fulford 157). The idea that ‘influence’ can earn a man status is not new to England, a country in which the aristocracy thrive off of patronage,  and in the militia ‘influence’ took the form of underhanded bribes and secret deals among officers. ‘[S]hiny uniforms and the opulence and novelty of militia camps mostly covered up this corruption from the public; however, corruption on such large a scale could never be wholly hidden.'” (The Militia in “Pride and Prejudice”)

Sources Consulted: 

“English Army in the Regency – Napoleonic War.” Jane Austen Centre. Web. 22 Nov.


Fulford, Tim. “Sighing for a Soldier: Jane Austen and Miltiary Pride and Prejudice.” Ninteenth-Century

                Literature 57.2: 153-78. JSTOR. ITHAKA. Web. 22 Nov. 2010.


Whalen, Pamela. “Understanding the Society in Which Jane Austen Sets Pride and

            Prejudice.” Jane Austen Society of Australia. 7 Sept. 2003. Web. 22 Nov. 2010.


15 Responses to The Militia in Jane Austen’s England

  1. Lord Lieutenants were very important men in a county. There was only one per county ( shire). They had many duties as representative of the crown . One of the duties was maintaining law and order. Another was raising the militia. Most of the lord Lieutenants were large landowners.
    The article was interesting. As for corruption– patronage was the way of life. Mr. Austen, James, Henry, Charles and Frank all benefited from patronage. Mr. Austen wouldn’t have been able to marry without the gift of the living from a relative.
    I much prefer a man in clothes, especially a uniform to one who has torn his shirt to pieces to appear half naked in inappropriate places.

  2. I was familiar, from lots of reading and research, with about 80% of the information you provided, but WOW – this post was full of new information, clarifications and historical insight for me. Thank you!

  3. Thank you!!!!!!!! I’ve been trying to scrape together a character with certain attributes and an uncertain history. Putting him through some of these experiences would conceivably make him into what I want him to become.

    • I am glad you found this useful, Summer. The question arises as to whom Darcy paid to serve in his stead. Would that not make a good story line if the person he paid was Wickham? “cackles deviously*

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