An Officer and a Gentleman

In Jane Austen’s writing we encounter many military men: Colonel Brandon, Colonel Fitzwilliam, Captain and General Tilney, Lieutenants Wickham and Denny. In her tales we often read of how these men purchased their commissions, but what was the motivation for doing so and how did the process work?

Period reinactors is uniform Being an officer made you a gentleman

 In the Regency era, social status was closely related to career and wealth. An Army officer or Navy officer was considered a gentleman. Thus a man could gain an element of “respectability” that they might not hold by virtue of their birth. Moreover an officer’s status was considered higher than that of other gentlemanly professions: the church, the law and medicine.

Why were commissions purchased?

 Our modern sensibilities tend to be uncomfortable with the concept of buying a commission. In the Regency era, the system was viewed differently.  They believed that since men had to pay for their rank, men of fortune and character that had a real interest in the fate of the nation would be drawn to the military. Moreover, since they ‘owned’ their commission, they would be more responsible with their ‘property’ than someone with nothing to lose. Private ownership of rank also led to perception that since officers did not owe their rank to the King, they would be less likely to be used by the King against the people.

Purchase of commissions also served a practical purpose. The price paid for a commission served as a sort of nest egg for the officer, returned to him when he ‘sold out’ and retired. Thus there was no need to provide pensions for retiring officers.

Purchasing a commission

Reforms set in place by the Duke of York in 1796 set in place certain requirements for potential officers. Candidates had to be between the ages of 16 and 21 years of age, able to read and write and vouched for by a superior officer. Once these were fulfilled, the required sum of money would be deposited with an authorized Regimental Agent who would submit the applicant’s documentation for approval. Depending on the regiment, officers began their careers at a ‘Subaltern’ rank of Ensign, Second Lieutenant or Coronet.20th regiment soldier, 1742

How much did a commission cost?

Commissions were expensive, full stop. One had to be wealthy or have wealthy friends from which to borrow in order to afford a commission. Prices varied depending on the regiment and rank. (Keep in mind the reference point of £50 a year as minimum wage.) Subaltern rank ranged in price from £400 with the Infantry to £1050 with the Horse Guards. Lieutenant Colonel ranged from £3500 to £4950.

When an officer served long enough to be eligible and wished to purchase a promotion to the next level of rank, he would pay the difference between his current commission and the next rank. After 1795, 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. Advancement above the rank of Colonel was by seniority only. Advancement was only possible if there were vacancies in the desired ranks and junior officers could spend several years without advancing.

Gaining a commission without purchase

If an individual could not afford a commission, there were non-purchase ways of obtaining a commission. A man could become a “Gentlemen Volunteer.” To do so, he would apply to the Commanding Officer of a regiment to serve at their own expense in the hope of filling a non-purchase vacancy when (and if) it occurred.

It was also possible for a man to be promoted from the ranks due to valor or meritorious service. The death, disability, or retirement, of another officer might create a vacancy that needed to be filled immediately. Other openings came with the establishment of new Regiments, or the expansion of existing ones. These alternatives were much more common in times of war.

For more information see:

A Background on War.  Regency Collection:

Boyle, Laura.(2001) Jane Austen Centre On Line Magazine.  Advancement in the British Army 

Boyle, Laura.(2001) Jane Austen Centre On Line Magazine. Entry into the Officer Corps

Boyle, Laura.(2001) Jane Austen Centre On Line Magazine.  Prices of Officer’s Commissions

Day, Malcom. (2006) Voices from the World of Jane. Austen David & Charles .

Holmes, Richard.  (2001).   Redcoat, the British Soldier in the Age of Horse and Musket . W. Norton & Company

Southam, Brian  (2005). Jane Austen in Context  Janet M. Todd ed Cambridge University Press

by Maria Grace Copyright 2013, all rights reserved

Nook files problems

It has just come to my attention that the Nook file from BN has problems with it.  I have pulled it off sale at BN until the problem can be resolved.  If you purchased the BN Nook file and have problems with it, please use the contact page and get in touch with me so I can get you a properly working file.

My deepest apologies for the problems with this. I will do everything I can to get properly functioning files to everyone who has made a purchase from BN.

Taking Orders

Taking orders

 In Jane Austen’s writing we encounter a number of characters like Edward Ferrars and Edmund Bertram who are planning to take orders. Her readers understood what that meant, but the concept is a little foreign to us, so here’s a quick rundown on what ‘taking orders’ meant.

 The English laws or primogenitor, intended to preserve the integrity of large landed estates, made it a challenge for younger sons of the landed gentry to establish themselves in life. If their family did not possess an additional estate for them to inherit or there was not some other relative to provide an inheritance, they had little choice but to make their way in the world. The question was, of course, how.

By the second half of the 1700’s traditional ‘learned’ professions: the church, the law and medicine, took on a respectable character as ‘liberal professions’ befitting gentlemen. So these, together with the armed forces formed the primary options for gentlemen’s sons.

Requirements for taking orders

 To be considered for ordination, a candidate needed a  degree from Cambridge or Oxford. No theological colleges or courses of study existed so a standard honors degree satisfied the requirement. Afterwards, the candidate needed a testimonial from his college vouching for his fitness for ordination. Finally, he needed to locate a bishop and make arrangements for an examination that would satisfy the bishop of his competency in Latin, knowledge of the Scripture, and familiarity with the liturgy and church doctrine as written in the 39 Articles. Some bishops made only a cursory examination in these areas, only a few took their responsibilities more seriously.

After Japanning (slang for ordination referring to putting on black cloth, from the color of black japan ware) a man was qualified to administer the sacraments of the Church. His career would begin at age 23, as a deacon, assisting an ordained priest. At 24 he could be fully ordained and eligible to be in charge of a parish.

After ordination, a priest (curate, vicar or rector) would still be referred as Mr. Surname as was Mr. Collins in Pride and Prejudice. He would never be referred to as Reverend in speech although he might receive letters as ‘The Reverend W. Collins’. Only if he attained higher standing in the church would his form of address change.

What did the clergy do once ordained?

 The clergyman’s basic duties were to hold church service on Sundays and  hold Holy Communion at least three times a year. The service, which might last as long as three hours, began with the clergyman declaring a the general confession of sins.  The congregation repeated this after him and then he pronounced God’s forgiveness. Following this a psalm of praise and thanksgiving and passages from the Old and New Testaments were read. Then everybody stood and repeated the Apostles’ Creed. After all this, a sermon might be read.

Most priests took their sermons from books published for the purpose. Some would read extracts from the printed text. In other cases, adaptations might be written to suit particular circumstances. In general congregations enjoyed the use of familiar texts. Few clergymen wrote original sermons.

Midweek duties included baptisms, marriages and funerals and visiting the sick. In addition, parish meetings, at which the clergyman officiated, discussed local affairs including charity, parish employment, care of the poor, repair and maintenance of the church and election of the churchwardens. The parish was responsible for the administration of the poor laws and elected Supervisors of the Poor who collected the Poor Rate taxes from the wealthier parishioners. Road maintenance was also a responsibility of the parish and two Surveyors of Highways were appointed to supervise the maintenance and repair of the roads. Thus, the clergyman played a major role in the life of his parish community.


 For more information see:

Collins, Irene. (1998)  Jane Austen, The Parson’s Daughter . Hambledon Press.

Collins, Irene. (2002)  Jane Austen & the Clergy. Hambledon Press.

Day, Malcom. (2006) Voices from the World of Jane. Austen David & Charles .

Grose, Captain (Francis). (2004)  Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, 1811 ed. Ikon Classics

Le Faye, Deirdre.  (2002).   Jane Austen: The World of Her Novels. Harry N. Abrams

MacDonagh, Oliver . (1991) Jane Austen, Real and Imagined Worlds.  Yale University Press.

Mayer, Nancy. Nancy Mayer-Regency Researcher

by Maria Grace Copyright 2013, all rights reserved